The long procession of travelers continued straight through the center of the valley, alongside the river towards the palace, which stood dark and solitary against the morning sky. The wide red clay road ushered us through flat straight fields towards the city, like one giant red carpet. Through the fog, I could make out the shadow of the giant wall that enclosed the city.
After a time, the fields turned into vast orchards: neat, endless lines of trees and bushes bursting with colorful fruit. There were small sagging trees not much larger than shrubs, speckled with bright juicy oranges, as well as much taller apple trees, better at concealing their fruit in dense green foliage. Fallen apples littered the ground around each thick trunk, waiting to be collected.
Scores of farmers tended the orchards, stopping only to shoot the occasional accusatory glance at the endless stream of travelers, as if to warn them not to steal the literal fruits of their labor.
Our detour began when we were only a few miles from the gate, and a large pine forest rose up from the plains that bordered the opposite bank of the river. Ko’sa took me by the arm and led me over a small wooden bridge to the other side of the bank, breaking away from the crowds and towards the edge of trees. “This is the National Forest,” she informed me, as she pushed aside the needles of a pine sentinel and motioned for me to enter.
As we walked deeper into the underbrush, the sound of horses, wagon wheels, and voices faded into nothing. In my experience, forests were noisy places, filled with the sound of crickets, woodpeckers, cicadas, birds and other various forms of wildlife. In the National Forest, I heard none of these things. I could see crows sitting atop branches turn their heads as we walked by, and squirrels peering out from hiding spots to observe us, but they all did so with an unnatural silence.
The quiet made everything we did seem loud and disruptive. I could hear the rhythm of our breath, and cringed at each snap of twigs under our shoes. It felt like we were walking through a still-life painting, trampling over scenery as fragile as cobwebs, one that had taken an artist hours of painstaking detail to create.
Ko’sa must have been unnerved by the stillness too, because she began to hum as we walked. The tune was sad and slow, yet comforting. It reminded me of childhood, as nostalgic and wistful as slipping into an old pair of shoes.
I waited until she finished, then said, “That was beautiful. What song was that?”
“That’s the ‘Lament of the First Priest’. First song they taught us in church. A hymn almost as old as the country itself.”
“Yeah? Does it have words too?”
“We learned ’em, but I don’t pay much attention in classes and they never make much sense to me anyway. It’s the story behind it that’s important, they say.”
We passed into a dark canopy of branches and shadow fell over us. Leaves were fluttering down slowly from the branches like large green snowflakes. “Well? You going to tell it to me?”
“What is this, some kind of test?” She caught a leaf dancing in front of her face and began to shred it with her fingers. “Supposedly it was the song of the First Priest, he’s the Patron Saint of our church. Represents everything that we’re to strive to be. Legend goes that he lived during a time of corruption in the church, enough to anger the Gods. He rallied up support from within to drive out a pair of evil pontiffs. They had been corrupted by greed and were defiling the religion.”
“Sounds a lot like Jesus.”
“Jesus?” She looked confused. “Don’t know nuthin’ about him.”
“He’s kind of like my church’s version of the First Priest. Savior of man and all.” I stopped and looked at the girl, curious. “Do you believe it all Ko’sa? I mean, are you religious?”
She kicked at the ground. “Aww, I don’t know. Some of it seems a bit daft to me. Pa makes us go to church every week but says to be careful of gettin’ carried away. Keep looking at the big picture, he says, don’t get caught up in the little details or you might go mad. Next thing you know, you’re in a horde cheering for some ageless nutter like King Malstrom to save us all.”
My ears perked up. “So that’s where the King’s support came from? Religious fanatics?”
“Mostly. King Malstrom claimed he was the First Priest, reborn. I mean, tons of people claim that every year, but Malstrom was the only one whose claim was backed by the church. He had the Holy Relic as his proof, yeah?”
“And what was this Holy Relic?”
“Not really sure. Some kind of book I think, one that told the future. Nobody ever seen it though except himself and the church, but some high priest said it was legitimate. He used to read from it a lot, tell everyone about the prophecies in the book during his speeches. People ate that up.” She grabbed another leaf and began to tear it to ribbons more vigorously than the first. “Gotta hand it to the man. He’s either really manipulative, or really bat-shit crazy.”
I looked away to hide a smirk. “I’m going to take a wild guess and say manipulative.” To say Malcolm was not a fan of religion would be the understatement of the year. When I left to attend church on Sundays with my family, he used to poke fun at me and call me a sheep. Was this his way at getting back at organized religion: by pulling some elaborate prank on a church’s followers to prove it was all a sham?
Ko’sa pointed at an old decaying tree ahead of us. “Look,” she said. “We’re here.”
I took a step closer to the tree and realized that there was an old rope ladder shooting up towards the branches. I followed the rungs up to the top and gasped.
Fifty feet above my head was a wooden network of catwalks connecting the tops of trees like a web. The larger trees had brown tree houses built into their branches, sprouting the trunk from their roofs like twisted gnarled chimneys.
“Welcome to Cacamilla,” she said. “The town where I was born.”
I sat at the top of the wooden catwalk, trying not to look down. I hated heights.
“You’re sure this is safe, right?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Ko’sa said. “At least… I think so. This town has been abandoned for about ten years now. Maybe watch your step up here.” She began to walk carefully across the catwalk, deeper into the village.
“Thanks for the reassurance.” My hands clenched into fists as I took small ginger steps after her. She stopped at one tree-house and produced a small key from her pack. She clicked the lock open, then disappeared inside.
I paused to look around and admire the scene one more time before stepping in behind her. I waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. The roof was starting to cave in the corner, and a layer of dust as thick as my thumb lined everything. “Your old house, I assume?”
“Yup.” She walked over to a chest in the corner and opened it. “Everyone evacuated the city when we thought there might be a civil war. The rebels talked about burning the forest to the ground as soon as war was declared. None of us wanted to be caught in the center of that, so we all moved to the coast.” She began to rummage through the chest, looking for something. “I was only five when it happened.”
“I remember that a man used to live here that was friends with my Pa. Never found out what happened to him after we moved. He was from the Outside, like you.”
She appeared to have found what she was looking for. She stood up, holding something the size of her palm in her hand. She held it out for me. I reached out and realized it was a small leather bi-fold wallet.
“This was his. He left it for me before he evacuated the village.”
I opened the wallet and a roll of pictures fell to the ground. The same man was smiling in every photograph: he was in his early forties, with thinning hair and a kind, full smile accented by deep laugh lines. Each one had him standing in front of a different landmark- the Capitol Building in Washington D.C., the Vatican in Rome, the Sydney Opera House, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Petronas Towers- the pictures of landmarks went on and on.
“He promised he would take us back with him- Pa and Jae and me- but then he disappeared.”
I closed the wallet and handed it back to Ko’sa. The small girl was looking at me, unblinking. Her gaze held a serious intensity and her words were slow and practiced, like she had played this speech over in her mind many times beforehand.
“I don’t want to stay here. Can’t stand this place anymore. So when you leave, I want you to take us back with you to see all those things. I want to see it all. The Outside.”