Amos was twelve when it happened, and it happened because he loved his mother. His father always said he was named after his mother Amy, and only his father could call him Amos. Everyone else called him by his last name, Hamilton; that is, they called him ‘Hammy’.
His hair and eyes were dark, his movements slow, and he liked things to be clean; he liked to clean things like his mother, and inside him he was hard and cool and hidden and strong and old as the inside of a young hill.
It was dark when it happened, because it was night when it happened, and it meant so many things.
He was in his bed, as safe as anyone would be, and he began to hear the sound. It was dark and low, and came from far away, yet did not come from any one place, but from all places around from horizon to horizon. It was the sound of a flood, the sound of a coming earthquake, so that he waited to feel the bed and his room begin to shake.
But nothing moved. Not even the air, which should have tangibly shivered with the violence of the sound, but was still.
It was after he had lain in the dark in that sound and waited for a long hour and longer, he heard that someone else was awake in the house. Though the long sound was great, it was so wide and distant that other sounds seemed yet as if they broke a stillness.
He could tell that it was his mother who was awake, and that she was coming into his room. In dark times in the past there had been between them a pleasant mixture, a mixture of mother and son finding comfort together without shame of needing comfort, and of a man and woman, or boy and girl, coming to ask each other what might be happening, and what should be done.
But this night as she opened his door and set foot inside he could tell that she was moving like one who is the first bearer of bad news expected by no one, and he prepared his heart, though he could not think what it could be, not in all the meaning that thrilled throughout the rolling sound that filled his ears.
She stood by his bed, and seemed to find it hard to speak, but slowly began making words.
“You are awake aren’t you Hammy? You… They took my… heart. Hammy, they took my heart!”
Without moving, without opening or closing his eyes, he felt in a moment that he was asleep when he had been awake, or awake when he had been asleep; either way, his state of reality had changed. He was looking across his room as if he had not been looking at his mother, and listening to silence as if he had been all night.
He could not tell sleep from waking; his confusion on this point was itself dreamlike. It was like he had passed through a door in the dark, and, not knowing whether he had been inside or outside, could not tell whether he had gone in through the door or gone out through the door.
He got from his bed, still feeling what he had felt when he saw his mother come in. He went out his door, thinking of what a strange way his mother had touched the same door. His joints felt warm with renewed movement, and his ears felt wet when they were not.
He went and stood by the bed where his father and mother lay sleeping, and carefully whispered to his mother. Soon she sat up with a drowsy but light and friendly sounding grunt.
After a few failed attempts, because they were trying to be so quiet, he managed to ask her if she knew where her heart was, and she bent forward where she sat, and thought.
He heard her scream loud and long in sudden and doleful loss. A rush of weakness went through him, almost bringing him to his knees, and he wondered why his father did not come help them. He could not see in the dark that his mother’s face did not move or change, so he did not know that the sound of her cry had reached no ears but his own.
His mother spoke quietly, and he remembered that she was answering the question he had asked.
“No Hammy, I don’t know where my heart is, I can’t find it.”
He was trembling, but he was dressing himself and putting on his shoes and leaving the house, saying to himself that they could not have gone far.
It had not come suddenly, but the gray of a clouded morning was all around him now, as his feet kicked the dew from the sleeping grass. He found he could find his way and press on in it with certainty, as someone who has seen something vanish around a corner makes for the corner urgently, though they do not see what they follow.
All at once he remembered the happenings of the previous night, the long, thunderous sound, and his mother screaming. He broke into a dangerous run down a loose slope and across a waste patch of scattered, leafless trees and fallen limbs in old mud.
He heard the rustle of some creature in the brush, and was filled with a dread as of an onrushing flood, and he staggered, looking behind him. But ahead of him in a ditch he heard a girl crying. She was also afraid, but she was afraid of that which felt fear, that whose fear Ham had suddenly felt.
He got into the ditch with difficulty, scratching his arm on a broken branch. She was apparently four years old, and was curled into a tiny fetal position, shaking with her sobbing. He asked if he could help her, and she rose on her knees, not wiping her eyes, and said she didn’t know.
He asked her name, and her face filled with distress, her lip trembled.
“I don’t remember her, I tried and tried.”
Almost as if in self-defense she asked him his name. When she heard it her eyes became wide with wonder.
“Your name is Ham?”
As he held her hand and led her to an easier way out of the ditch she seemed to be still astonished that someone could be called ‘Ham’.
He wondered whether it would make her cry to ask her where her home was, but as soon as she had got her little skirt free from the twigs that poked from the ditch, she began to pull him in a certain direction with great determination.
When they reached a line of dark cedars she seemed to have arrived where she wanted to be. She sat at the base of one of the largest, and he sat next to her. The smell seemed to overshadow them. She screwed up her face and shook her hands as if she was pretending to be in a rocket launch, but she made no sound
She made no sound with her mouth, but the same dark, disastrous thundering he had heard before began again, and again he expected to feel everything shake, but even the feathery silhouettes of the tips of branches were motionless against the leaden sky.
Ham began to look about him curiously, and wherever he moved his eyes the place was for an instant made of polished and sparkling brass. The scaly cedar fronds and the bark and withered grass at their feet and whatever else that was near that he laid his eyes on in a fleeting moment displayed itself fashioned with crisp detail in spotless metal, so that every grain of the most powdery dust had a shimmering sheen. After the barest modicum of time it was as before, until he looked in another direction, when all appeared again in brazen forms. But the metallic forms were so sharp with their hard-edged highlights and fierce, coppery color in every shadow that their image hung in the air after the sight was gone like a slow fading afterglow.
These appearances were like an echo of the sound that was all around them, and he wondered if the thunder seemed to come from everywhere because it was in fact coming from where they were.
Whenever he looked down at his companion beside him he would briefly see her as a pale, messy outline, soft in reflected gleams and in complete contrast with with a hard, glittering background, like a gentle doll rolling in a heap of shining Christmas ornaments. And then she would be a girl sitting and playing under a tree, with the memory of a glorious frame vanishing around her waving arms and curly head.
After looking on the metalwork forms whenever his eyes moved, he began to see them appearing in the periphery of his sight, and grow clearer there until he could see them without looking at them as plainly as shiny figures seen through a shop window, every saffron point, curve, or texture as if tipped or dipped in sleek and razor glass. He now had to look directly at something to see it return to its rightful form, and to return his clear vision to a single point of focus rather than a field of vivid sight confronting his mind all at once.
The child was getting up. He realised that he had as he sat again changed states as of sleeping and waking, and again it was as if the thunderous sound was a memory of some other day, and the thoughts of the metal imagework had changed as if it was on another day he had seen them.
He went with the girl, and, once they straightened themselves after coming from under the shadow of the branches, she cheered:
“We’re back again! We’ve come back!” and took his hand.
Looking around he did not see what was different, unless it was that all the distances were greater. If that was so then all things in the distance were larger, to approach the apparent size they had before. Or perhaps he and the child were now smaller.
The girl still seemed to know where she wanted to go, and he waited to see where that could be. She watched carefully all around them, though she did not seem afraid anymore, unless it was from fear that her small feet trembled as she stepped over logs and ruined boughs.
But some way from the trees she made a shaken sound between a cry and moan, and shrank back half behind him. He could feel her whole body trembling now, and her voice was choked.
“Here? It followed us! It followed us here!”
She had seen something, at which she stared and now pointed.
“There it is! Oh it’s watching us!”
He could not see anything except a short, crooked tree, and she seemed to point below and beside it. She desperately buried her face in his coat.
“I hate it! I hate it! It followed us!”
She glanced up suddenly, and ran, hanging on his arm. It made him sad: she could run little faster than he could walk, especially in that place where every other step had to be a jump for her, and it was all he could do (she clung so close to him) to keep her from catching on something and falling. Once she seemed to say something to him about her friends, and that she could smell them. At times he saw a red glimmer as of a small fire ahead of them in the hoary grass. At times he thought he should be able to see it, but could not.
When they reached the fire it was smaller than it had seemed as they neared it, and several small men were gathered around it. Both the fire and these people, or parts of their bodies, would lapse from visibility unless he looked at them continuously and carefully. The largest of them was not even as high as his shoulder, and one was as small as the girl. She danced with happiness, and pulled down hard on his sleeve to jump higher.
“Ajax! Pilter! Friends! Hello my friends! Hello Hosck!”
After a moment one of them that was standing walked closer, tipping very far from side to side as he put one foot or the other forward. They all had ruffly or oddly erect black hair, and narrow fringes of whiskers. They were generally fattish in the exact middle like heavy bubbles, and their clothes were both a mix of light and dark and a mix of new and old.
The one who had approached said ‘Hello’ eventually, and stood still, while the others occasionally looked away from the fire at them. The fire did not seem to give any more heat than if one of them had crouched in the middle to share his body heat with the rest, and Ham could not smell the smoke at all, even when it blew in his face.
He liked these men, but he was not sure that they liked him. She told them he was called ‘Ham’, and how she had found him. One asked if he was good for them. One of them stood up, and sat down again. She was astonished, and opened her mouth wide.
“Are you afraid of him? You could not be afraid of my friend!”
The closest one bent one way and then the other. One of the sitting ones looked up and said,
“We are not.”
One of them stood up and asked,
“How do you do girl?”
Her face fell sadly, and tears welled up.
“I can’t remember. I tried and I can’t, and… it doesn’t want me to.”
The closest one got on his knees and back up again.
“Girl you are sad. Let me hug you.” he said. He went side to side like a crab. He wanted to come close to her, but not come any closer to Ham.
Then Ham felt a deep, dark rage, a covetous design that was near its desired end, though he could not understand why he would be so angry, and so angry only because the dwarf was not hugging the girl. Then he remembered how he had felt afraid before he met the girl, and how she had been afraid of what had feared the fear, but was manifestly not afraid of him. He wondered if, like that fear, this rage was not his own.
He decided he could not see clearly enough, and broke a dry stick from a nearby log, and threw it on the fire.
The fire leapt up and off its wood as if to escape the falling stick, and it ceased to shine or have colour. All the men sprang up with it, even those that were standing. They were all in the air, and Ham could see them much more clearly. They were large birds of the crow kind, birds flying away together with dull, strident cries. Where the fire had been were only a few crossed bits of broken wood.
The little girl looked up and around at the birds as they dispersed, and then at a place where something shook a clump of grass and leafless shrubs.
She grimaced and choked.
“She’s here! She followed us here. I hate it.”
She sank down, curling at his feet in the same tiny fetal position as he had found her at first.
He laid his hands on her, as the thundering began again. He hated her, she was too close to him, she was evil and he was letting her, helping her be evil.
But these things were not thoughts. His thoughts were not comforting, but one thought that helped him was the fact that he was not being physically harmed, though it might begin at any moment.
It was sickening to touch her, she was abhorrent, and the low thunder continued to roll. She had not changed in form or sight or touch, but it was as if someone who had gone to bathe his hands and feet in a pool had found himself in the liquid excrescence of a diseased elephants skin. His muscles twitched to withdraw from her, but he did not.
He thought of doing something that their enemy did not want, rather than only not doing what it wanted him to do. He was becoming more used to the idea of not doing what he desired, but he was growing tired, and it was harder to think.
The dark sound sounded more and more foul and catastrophic. He bent, and she looked up at him. He tried to keep his face from contorting. He knew he would fail if he tried to smile, so he puffed up his cheeks. Objectively, it was an intriguing experience to look into her sweet, round eyes and feel his stomach turn.
He took one of her hands, like one who puts his hand into a mouldering carcass to draw forth a damp, reeking bone. A fear as of a mountain leaning over him, ready to fall. It was the simplest attack so far, but a violent one, especially for a boy his age. He lifted her hand. The tenderness of her skin seemed the softness of decay. He relaxed his face.
He kissed her hand.
He felt extremely stiff, and wondered whether his manner was too strange, and might confuse or frighten the girl. He did not care, but he looked in her repulsive face again, and what he saw there was recognition.
The long, rumbling sound changed. It was now coming from a very certain direction, and was coming nearer. He could not see yet what made the sound, though it was necessarily vast. But he saw the dark shapes of the towering row of cedars, where he and the girl had sat, abruptly sweep forward like a plume in the hat of a man who has stumbled, and several of them were lost to sight and did not rise. Nothing beyond them was standing, and the crooked winter trees nearer to them were falling like bristles of frost before a moving flame.
He could feel the ground shaking now, and not only shaking: he could feel the ground move as if he stood on the beginning of a landslide, though that place was flat. Soon he saw the grass and logs as they were taken away from beneath the trees, and swift, pale gleams of what was swallowing them all up. The sound now violently shook the air, and throbbed in his chest. A great swath of land beside him bent like a bow, and crumpled like snow before a sliding boot. He was thrown to the ground, and he clung tightly to the girl, his loathing for her forgotten in the fear he had felt just before he found her: the fear of an onrushing flood.
Such a flood passed them now. Not two yards from them the ground was cut off as if with an axe, and the felled cedars went by like trains in a subway. The smells, as strong in the nose as tea in the mouth, smells of churned clay, freshly torn wood, and broken and drenched stone stirred up memories and childlike feelings that were strange to him at the moment. The thundering of that violent stream echoed in his ears and seemed to pronounce his own first name: “Amos!”
Scarce inches from his face there sprang from the loosened earth a green spike slender as a quill. It shot up like a giant bodkin piercing from beneath the ground, and was a solid sapling, thick as a spear, with fine rind, and casting forth whip-like, curving branches, leafless with youth rather than by winter. Several others he could see rising here and there near the new river.
Clinging to this strangely provided staff by one hand he got to his feet, and with the other hand he helped the girl up. The soil vibrated beneath them with the violence of the passing torrent, but the wood did not shake in his hand.
Numbness is rarely a healthy state of the heart, but the numbness he felt was as good as tears. His unripe frame was not meant to be the instrument of such deathly force of feeling, and now he was free.
He lifted the small tree from the trembling ground, and the roots released it as though they were but umbilical cords for the shaping of a rod made to be taken and used. He turned toward the mass of withered twigs and grass where they had before heard a rustle. He raised that living rod high, and swept it down on that hiding place with a crash.
Out of the matted tangle, not away from them but toward them and past them with a look of terror, there darted forth a ragged creature. It might have been a white and brown rabbit, but its fear made it nearly unrecognizable. That in such fear it had run towards them showed that it was no enemy but a slave that had found a chance of freedom: their enemy was gone.
As they turned to watch the escaped creature’s tearing course, they saw something down the bank of the flood. A tree had stuck and swung up over the dry ground, and it was there on the end of it as if it had been carried there with the tree and everything else that had been caught up in the magnificent charge of the water.
It was Ham’s mother. She was sitting on the gashed and shattered trunk, bowed forward as she had sat on her bed, and only her bare feet were wet.
The little girl dropped her hand from his, looking at his mother in deep thought.
“You were right.” she said. “Now I remember.”
The flood roared and rolled tempestuously loud as the girl quietly picked her way across the littered and quivering ground, and buried her face in his mother’s bosom. His mother hugged the girl tightly, and then it was not as if his mother ceased to be there, or as if the girl ceased to be there, but they ceased to be ‘they’.
The girl looked back at Ham through his mother’s eyes, and he knew she had her heart again within her.
He then understood the desire of their enemy for the black bird to embrace his mother’s heart, and he saw the enemy in his heart’s eye: a bitter, covetous spirit lusting for a creature of her own making steals the heart of another to unite it with an empty shell: some friend or slave of her own procurement. He understood the little girl’s cry: “I hate it! I hate it!” and began to be able to feel feelings of his own: the angry love that had sent him from the house to find the little girl who had been stolen from her home, love that had lived on in choice when it could not be felt.
He knelt and closed his eyes, and the darkness behind his eyelids became the darkness of their own house at night, and the trembling was the trembling of his own knees in weariness. The staff became his father’s hand that he clung to, and the roar of the stream faded away in a single sighing breath of his father as he lay sleeping, he whom the heart had recognised. So his father had come to help them after all.
Ham lay down in his own bed again, but his sleep was troubled for a time by a distant sound, long and dark and low, until far away a door closed, and there was peace.