"Why, then, why," I asked, "were valleys places of darkness, the valley of the shadow of death, when it was valleys that were fed by rivers, and mountains that were cold and barren?" My teacher ignored my question, for it was inconvenient, and returned to her lesson. When I returned home, I asked my mother why valleys meant death, and she said it was because from way up in the mountains, valleys look like freshly dug graves. I had never seen a grave of any type, much less one freshly dug, for we in those days sent the souls of the dead into the afterlife on funeral pyres, the smoke ascending to heaven.
I asked my mother: who used graves, and why, but she was making dinner and pushed me aside, saying, "Ask Grandmother. She will answer your questions."
I was afraid of Grandmother, afraid of the woman covered in black shawls, who sat in shadowed corners of our house working her prayer beads. I had never seen her leave the house, except on the day of her brother's funeral, and I was struck by how ancient she seemed, how frail. Her tiny hands were swollen into claws, and she almost disappeared in the crowded room. Her face was worn and wrinkled, and even though I did not think she could see, I also did not really think she was blind. Maybe I thought she was god, or she was turning into god or absorbing god as she became older and older. Even mother didn't know how old Grandmother was, and told me not to worry about things that didn't matter.
My mother's advice to ask Grandmother about valleys and graves made sense, but I was too afraid of Grandmother to ask her, and then she was too old to talk, and then, when I had moved away and forgotten my questions and forgotten my fear of her, she died. She was burnt on a pyre, the smoke of her soul ascending to heaven, weeks before I found out about her death. It had been many years since I had been back to our village, and I did not visit now, but the death affected my memories more than I expected.
She visited me in my dreams, night after night, and all she did was sit, quietly in the corner, working her prayer beads. She never spoke in these dreams, although, awake, I can recall her voice, the texture of autumn leaves, the sound of the rustle of the wind. In my dreams, she was silent, but she watched me with her eyes, dark and intense. Their intensity would awaken me out of the dream, and in the silence of my room, I would watch the curtains billow in the night breeze and feel that my Grandmother was there, with me, although this was a land she had never visited.
No one else in my family had ever appeared in my dreams, not my father, lost to a stampede of oxen in a drought summer, nor any of my other relatives, not even in those early years when I would wake up disoriented after a restless night's sleep, expecting to smell the acrid boiled bark tea, confused at the tidiness all around, the pulverized leaves that I poured kettle-boiled water over every morning, their insipid flavor. Even in those long days of never quite understanding what to say or who to say it to, I never dreamed of my family. But now my Grandmother had actually died, and I wondered how old she must have been, how many lives she must have lived. She haunted my dreams, and I felt I must do something to honor her spirit.
In those days, I spent my free hours high in the hills, following old bridle trails and paths through forests and along fields, because as much as I did not understand the world around me, I knew there must be some sense to it, and I found the woods less unsettling than the city streets. As I was following one path around the edge of a smaller mountain, suddenly there was a clearing, and although I was not at the summit, the valley stretched away from me, following the network of rivers. It was breathtaking, and I stopped for a moment, to orient myself in relation to the layout below.
It was autumn, and the leaves rustled in the wind, and in the leaves I heard my grandmother's voice, and then, suddenly, I looked again at the valley before me. I remembered, from so very long ago, that valleys form the fingerprints of god. I continued up to the summit point, curious and eager, feeling both fearful of it not looking at all like a fingerprint and embarrassed that I cared so much. Adults are expected to be well past these diversions, especially in this land where science and mythology are so very far apart, but as I climbed higher and higher, I felt the years slipping away until even the urgency of the question returned: why do valleys mean death? Except now i understood what graves looked like, now I had seen the end of life in earth as well as in fire. Yet still: the deep curiosity was there. I had to know, and my thoughts slipped more and more into my earlier language, and as my language shifted and the leaves around me rustled, I heard my Grandmother speaking, heard her prayers as they were repeated throughout the day.
I had never learned the older language that she has spoken as a girl, for the land that she and my grandfather came from was not the land of my birth; we are many generations of statelessness, finding and shedding countries as a snake sheds its skin. The earliest prayers my Grandmother was taught were in a language I did not understand, that I never learned. When I was young my mother taught me the simplest prayers in my own language, and, when my grandmother realized I would never translate between them, she also spoke to me in the adopted tongue of our new country. Yet now, as I climbed higher and higher and heard my Grandmother in the leaves, I realized what I heard was my Grandmother in her original language.
I paused, listened, realized I could understand this tongue that had always been so foreign to me. There was something specific that my Grandmother was saying; it was the folktales, the stories from her own childhood, the stories I had never learned, because I had been allowed to go away for school, where we studied erosion and plate tectonics and giant volcanoes under the ocean and long division and geometry. In the story my Grandmother told through the wind in the leaves, rivers were snakes that had been caught and tethered to the earth.
Snakes had once been water spirits that flew through the air, swimming in their natural home, the clouds. The snakes were curious, mysterious tricksters, full of mischief, but not ill-intentioned. They followed the dragons, playing games of tag through the smoke of volcanoes and the dark cymbals of thunderstorm clouds, until, one by one, they were captured by the tails by humans, who would scale mountains in hunting parties formed for just this purpose.
The humans were driven by drought, by a desperation for water to nourish their crops, for the gods had grown angry, and withheld rain. The years of snake-hunting began, and bands of men would scale mountains, cling to the tails of snakes passing overhead, until the snake, grown too heavy for flight by the weight of men on its tail, fell to earth and became sinuous, land-bound rivers.
I had reached the summit of the mountain, and, in all directions, lay the network of hills and valleys that make up this land. The afternoon sun caught the river moving between the hills, the water glistened, like scales, I realized. I looked more closely. The curvature of a snake's spine followed the shape of the valley, and I felt the life of the river and the death of the snake coexisting together. It is not that the snakes had died, so much as they had been caught and ensnared. Not the ridges of the handprint of god, but the handprint of man, as we tethered the life of the flying beasts to the earth, so that we could survive the drought.
Clouds passed overhead, their shadows falling over the landscape. There were fewer trees here, almost none with leaves to rattle in the wind. I wondered what other stories my Grandmother wanted to tell me. I wondered what else I had forgotten to ask, and hoped she would stay behind, just a little bit longer, so I could listen.