A hint of light from empty skies mirrored stark nothingness down below. The once hidden valley lay exposed—grey and barren. The faint light waxed and waned, feeble and weak. This wavering luminosity revealed a silhouette of wide rippling lowlands running through and across lonely hills and empty river beds. A little burst of colour conspicuously stood out against the darkened landscape. It was a fire. And this spirited fire blazed brave fiery red against the rough grained raspy wind, the only thing that seemed alive in this vast nothingness. One could well see that this fire wasn’t alone, if one bothered to look closer. There were figures gathered around the fire. They were man and spirits—the two beings huddled close, those with and without shadows. The humans all looked the same—small and slight, with insipid bloodless flesh and dark eyes. Come a little closer and listen—there was a conversation in progress. There’s always a conversation around the hearth.
“That was a long time ago, but I remember it all like it was yesterday,” said the most ancient-looking of them all. The speaker was so incredibly feeble and frail that she cast only half a shadow. Everyone called her “Atsa”, which means grandmother. She was just short of three hundred winters and was everyone’s Atsa. Looking intently into the fire, the old woman pensively continued: “There was a time when the earth teemed with life and the sky above was filled with fire and warmth. This great fire in the sky went down by the time we grew sleepy and weary but it faithfully returned each time we woke. I still remember how during childhood, the sky would turn bright blue whenever we woke. It was glorious. Our parents called it morning. Time to wake now, it’s morning, they would urge.”
Except for the wide-eyed little ones, unseen until now, peeking from underneath the warmth of an elder’s cloth, everyone had heard the story about this great fire in the sky and how the earth was once blue-green and lush. But of course, that was a long long time ago, as Atsa said. The once-hidden valley was now all that remained of the earth. It was called so because although rumours of its existence long abounded, it had remained hidden from humankind until the aftermath of the great plague. After the devastation, the few human survivors had gathered whatever they could from their ravished villages and left. As they crossed the village gate with heavy hearts, they saw the valley rise before them, shining like an oasis in the middle of endless wasteland. The spirits had been kind in letting their human brothers enter the valley. But it came at a price. The day the first human set foot, the valley had begun its slow decay. Thus began the prophecy foretold. And they had been waiting for its fulfilment ever since.
“Atsa, tell us about the great seer and his prophecy again,” implored little Tsuki, echoing all the other children’s wishes. The elders grunted and smiled indulgently, not displeased. It was always good to listen to the prophecy. It gave them hope, something to live for. The spirits restlessly flitted back and forth as Atsa took a deep thoughtful breath and began.
“In the days of life before the hidden valley, a young boy had a dream. He was actually a great seer. But no one knew then that he was a great seer. So disturbed was this boy over this dream that he went out to the streets proclaiming that the earth was slowly dying as the human race had gone too far in pillaging its resources. This young boy then prophesied that hope would come in the form of a cleansing plague and that the fire in the sky would be snuffed out the day it happens. The boy ended his prophecy by proclaiming that the earth would renew itself when the sky lights up again.
“And this is why to this day, we wait for the return of the fire in the sky. This seer was mocked and ridiculed—but when all he said came to pass, the jeering quickly turned into hatred. The people blamed him and accused him of sorcery. He would have been crucified had not the plague claimed him first. As is the nature of plagues, the cleansing came at great cost, taking innumerable lives, including the young seer who foresaw it.”
Atsa’s voice trembled with memory and she grew quiet as she looked into the fire, flickering flames creating shadows upon her face. Tsuki imagined Atsa was looking into the past through the fire. The elders, too, grew sombre, with long faces. Except for Atsa, most of them had been children when they had stumbled on to the valley. Just as the seer had foretold, the bright skies gradually and increasingly retreated as the plague swept over their lands. When the earth’s sky remained in perpetual darkness and there was no longer space for the living as everywhere had become burial ground, the few human survivors began the exodus from their village to begin afresh, daring to hope for kinder skies. They still remembered their wide-eyed astonishment when they saw a valley form itself just around the village, as if it had always been there. It was the fabled hidden valley. And they had been living there ever since. The children grew into youths and youths into old people and old people remained old forever. No one died.
Tsuki was the youngest of them all, born in the hidden valley and this place was all she knew. And like each fellow human here, she longed for the day the great fire in the sky would return so that she could return to the land of her ancestors. Each time she awoke, she searched the gloomy skyline for hint of a fire. But it was always the pale flickering moonshine which greeted her instead. In all the entirety of her young life, dark murky skies were all Tsuki knew. She did not know and had never seen death in this valley; but she had not experienced life either. Life in the hidden valley was simply an existence of infinite waiting; waiting for something better. And it all hung upon the prophecy. And like each human in the hidden valley, waiting had been enough for Tsuki—until she had a dream and a series of similar dreams, sleep after sleep. The first dream was a faint lingering memory upon waking. Tsuki awoke, remembering the comforting intimacy of being warm. This delicious after-dream sensation would gradually fade and wear off in the course of waking hours but faithfully resurface in the next dream and then the next which followed. The memories of warmth did not cease but slowly became stronger and lasted longer with each dream. Her early dreams were felt rather than seen. She’d wake, remembering nothing visually but just feel warm all over, from the tips of perpetually frozen toes to her head. Even her hair felt like a warm halo around her head. It was a feeling so new and alien, in the most marvellous way. She wondered if Atsa and the elders had inadvertently transferred their shared community memories of another life on to her.
Tsuki excitedly struggled to describe her dream to Atsa. It was all so inexplicable and wonderfully strange to her.
“Atsa, I can’t explain it. But I could feel and wiggle my toes. And I didn’t even have to turn my backside against the fire to warm the back of my body in turn. It was like an enormous and gentle fire had enveloped me.”
Atsa nodded thoughtfully but said nothing.
Very soon, Tsuki began dreaming the source of this warmth. It came from behind the mist- shrouded mountains beyond the hidden valley. She dreamt of blue skies and a dazzling light behind the hills, so brilliant it could not be contained, threatening to spill over the entire countryside. Although Tsuki could not see behind the mountain, she sensed it was an incredible energy source. And this mysterious light seemed to beckon her, creating an incandescent aureole over the mountains. Tsuki’s dreams relentlessly persisted, absorbing all her waking hours. Lights behind the mountains were all she could think of. She became increasingly restless until finally she found herself abruptly interrupting a conversation around the hearth. The words tumbled out instinctively.
“I want to go out beyond the valley,” Tsuki blurted.
“You will find nothing but death and darkness,” an elder dully responded.
“No, I won’t.”
“How do you know? You’ve never been beyond the valley. You will only find parched wasteland.”
But Tsuki stubbornly persisted.
Everyone except Atsa tried to dissuade her. In fact, Atsa was unusually quiet as she closed her eyes in deep thought. You may never be able to return, they all warned. But Tsuki was determined. It was no longer enough to simply sit and wait like she once did. She had to seek it. On the eve of Tsuki’s departure, the small company of humans and spirits accompanied her till the valley’s edge, bordered by utter darkness. As much as they had tried to deter her, each hoped that she would prove them wrong. When they reached the boundary line, marked by three stones stacked on top of each other, they were surprised to find Atsa already waiting. It was odd to see the old woman standing tall, not hunched beside the common hearth.
“I will go with Tsuki,” Atsa informed calmly. This intent was met with protestations. Who would tell them stories now? Who would preserve their memories? And also, Atsa was three hundred years old. Who knows what might become of her body the moment she exited the safety of the valley. But Atsa was as determined as Tsuki. And Tsuki understood. Perhaps they were meant to bring the prophecy to its fulfilment. Or perhaps they could dare to be greater than a prophecy. Maybe they would die trying. The possibilities were endless. But each seemed better than a life of endless helpless waiting. Inaction seemed a far worse death.
Together Tsuki and Atsa, the youngest and oldest human, set out beyond the valley, seeking the return of fire in the sky.
Avinuo Kire is a teacher, poet and writer from Nagaland, with two short story collections and one poetry collection to her credit. Her first novel, Where The Cobbled Path Leads, was published in 2022.