He fancied himself a collector. His favourites were found in a dark place, deep and forgotten. He liked hard things. Shiny things. It was an unwelcome habit. The Leaders always said, “we don’t touch what we don’t make. Especially not lost-things from the Lost Land.” But he watched his people glance sidelong at these lost-things, saw the fleeting glint of curiosity there. Something in them, something in everyone, seemed to stir when they saw them. The small objects taunted them as they called to him. In truth, he was not sure which he liked more, the things or the envy. But that changed when he found the greatest lost-thing of all.
They lived in the Tall Lands, The Great Heights, The Last Lands—the people had many names for their home. Whatever occurred during the Great Dying had spared the Last Lands. What they could see from their home, and they saw much, was a confused world occupied by unfamiliar things and shapes. That people had once lived grander in The Lost Lands, The Bottom, The Underneath—that was clear. What caused their decline less so. A code of lessons surrounded each unknown. Teachers spoke to younglings during lessons, pointing each out in turn. Large structures taught not to challenge the sky. Flatlands stretching long and empty taught that rock grew slowly. The Great Sickness that plagued the Lost Lands taught we should not seek what we cannot touch. The biggest lesson of all was that these unknowns must remain unknowns. Whatever ignorance of that prolific madness his people possessed seemed to have kept them alive. He did not doubt it.
But why should he not keep his things? Everyone kept some trinket tucked away. Many carried things in pockets and bags. His people did not lack decoration. The Stoneshapers made rock flow like water. There were great celebrations when a beautiful stone was found. These stones dotted the village, glittering in the daylight. They were woven onto goatshair quilts, hammered into lodge doors. Some lodge houses have had a set of stones for generations. Some families sported a stone of one colour. The Leaders’ Lodge was the only lodge that had the right to bear black stones, and it bore them beautifully.
The Leaders made him promise nothing of what he found had been gathered in the Lost Lands for fear of the Great Sickness. This was sensible. He knew the tales of melting skin at a lost-thing’s touch, of people succumbing to the Sickness in hours. He was told to return or destroy most of what he found. He was the Seeker. As the town’s Seeker, he was not to seek things but places, resources. His Role was to track goat migration or find new herds. He was tasked to find forests with large trees that might offer themselves to the people if a lodge wall was rotting. Last spring, soon after the snowmelt, he found a large fertile valley—a New Place. He also sought ways between the places. There were other Roles, each burdened with a Secret. The Stoneshapers kept a Secret. The Hunters kept a Secret. The Seeker’s Secret was given by the Leaders very young: you also seek others. This was, in truth, a known Secret. But no one spoke of it. Each time he returned from a Seeking there was some hope in many eyes. Each time it transformed to disappointment. The other open secret was his collecting, for which he was frequently scorned. Not candidly, of course. Quietly—in empty smiles in the Dining Lodge or a sudden hush around The Fire.
He did not care. He had his own secret. He was not looking for others. He did not find his things in The Great Heights. He did not find them in The Bottom either. He found them under The Bottom. Underneath The Underneath. The Bottom was not the bottom. He had found The Depths.
He had stumbled on them some months ago on a Seeking. It is not uncommon for a Seeker to spend two or even three moon cycles away from The Heights. Some cycles ago, on such a Seeking, he ventured below the Heights, yielding to curiosity. There were no paths. He knew. He was the Seeker, the finder and maker of paths. He trudged downward wherever he could, across ridges and through forests. The path twisted and turned, as was proper. All things proper moved as The Peaks grew, in cones, in circles. The Eagle flying in wide circles knew it. The Goat clinging to the cones knew it. The River bending out like peaks that cut The Peaks knew it. He knew it too. Only The Lost People had moved and built in straight lines. Look where it took them. Straight lines were forbidden and for good reason. He did not doubt it.
He had reached the Underhills, as far as any of the Last People were permitted. He searched to no avail for a patch of The Bottom untainted by the Sickness. Crumbling stone and unfamiliar imprints stretched outwards in a dizzying straightness. Sticks of something brown and hard poked from everything. What was straight was now bent. He could feel the heat of The Bottom. He could see the dust-filled wind—dust that carried the Sickness. He was ready to turn back when he spotted a great shadow where there should be none on the sunned side of a gorge. It was an opening, the darkness spilling into some deep. He never fathomed a hole in the Underhills, a space within The Heights. It called to him, he who only knew the high lands. The gorge protected the entrance from the wind. He descended.
He had found the lost-things there, including the greatest thing, but not without difficulty. He had entered as he always did, during a long Seeking. He prepared torches. Many torches. He had good flint and firestone. Each time he entered he broke into a sweat. The first time he vomited. Not for the heat nor the Sickness. Neither taint seemed to reach there. It was the terror. It was darker than the night. The darkness seemed to reach for his face from the edge of the torchlight. And the pathway—it was straighter than anything he had seen. The tall walls seemed to push on him. The ceiling and floor seemed like they might crumble at any moment. But they did not. The patter of his feet echoed too tightly, but the ground was solid. Walking this straight path felt wrong, improper. It was. But he could not help it.
The Depths were cool. Never cold. The air was clear. He did not know why. He plodded onward, one step at a time. He dragged his torch along the wall to mark the path to the exit. He soon found a large emptiness. Mustering his courage, he circled it. The circling calmed him. Along this room he found more pathways. Nothing hinted at what lay in the black. He chose the pathway closest to the exit and found steps, flat and strong. They took him down and down. Each trip he went further until, descending for what felt like a day, he reached more openings, rooms. He was underneath the Underneath. It was here he found the lost-things.
Many rooms had crumbled. He had to move rock. Much of what he found was hard as the rock but shiny as a star. He knew they were made by the Lost People, but they did not burn him. He could see himself in them as you would calm water, but his eyes were hidden in shadow. He did not look long. Many of the lost-things were large. Many seemed like containers. What he brought back with him were often pieces of these things scattered across the floor.
He was in a new room when he found it, the lost-thing like no other. It was at the edge of a pile of rocks blocking the path further inward. That’s how he spotted it, glittering in the dark. It startled him at first. He moved closer and cleared away the dust. It caught in his hand. He pulled, but some part of it was stuck in the rubble. Freeing it, he brought it to his eyes.
It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. He held a thin yellow cord made from tiny links, one after the other. This cord would have taken all his attention if not for what hung from it—something hard and shiny. It was intricately carved and molded into a peculiar shape. It was a twinkling yellow, like the cord, but bore a gleaming gray that followed the carvings. It came to a point at the bottom and expanded out into two round humps in perfect balance. The humps met in the middle overtop a rounded body. He would have thought it a Peak of The Heights extending from two billowing clouds, but it hung the wrong way around, attaching to the cord from a loop protruding from the crevasse. The carvings were vine-like, weaving about the surface. Here and there, set into the weave, were tiny, clear, carved stones that danced with colour. They made the precious stones of his home look like river rock.
When he left The Depths, on his way back to The Heights, he noticed small protrusions on the sides of the thing. He pulled at them. The thing opened. He cursed, fearful it was broken, but it held secure. Dust fell from a secret cavity. It closed as cleanly as it opened. Perhaps not all was lost on The Lost People. He told no one. He was sure The Leaders did not know of The Depths. It was a necklace; he knew that much. He wore his prize from that moment on, removed only to be pondered in secret.
He returned to The Depths many times. He needed to know what this shape meant. He ventured further and further downward, searching for some clue. He searched room after room. Examined pile after pile. Nothing. The other lost-things become commonplace.
He was rummaging in a room in the deep. It had been days since he saw the sun. He had almost forgotten about the dark when something cut the silence. He froze. It was a tiny sound. Perhaps he had imagined it. The dark loomed. It taunted him now. He got up, sought the exit, and found his trail mark. He followed. He heard the sound again. He was sure of it. Something out of rhythm with his feet, that cut the trailing of his finger on the wall. His stomach nearly leaped through his throat. His heart began pounding. His vision swam. He could feel his prize against his chest. He held it to his heart. Perhaps it would calm him, somehow.
He went faster. He nearly broke into a run. A wrong turn. He looked around in panic. It was this way. Another wrong turn. He was lost! The sound again, closer this time. Again. Closer. He turned another corner and saw something he expected less than the sound. A faint light coming from far along the long path. The sudden clarity of the straightness made him dizzy again. He turned away from the glow. Clutching the lost-thing. What had he found?
He turned another corner and encountered blackness. This was the way. He was sure of it. One more corner and—. A light spilled from a room. He turned. Another light. He stopped, turned, tumbled, and screamed.
He heard his scream call back at him. No, not his scream. He realized his eyes were closed. He peeled them open. Eyes stared back at him as wide as his own. A face. Many faces. Torches lit The Depths.
He was the Seeker. The lost-thing had guided him. He had fulfilled his Role. He had found others.
About the author
I am a graduate student in cultural studies writing a dissertation on sound and disaster in Japan. I am also part-time translator. My hobby is bouldering. This is a space for short fiction and accounts of my dreams.