The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains
Written and narrated by Neil Gaiman

 

You ask me if I can forgive myself? I can forgive myself for many things. For where I left him. For what I did. But I will not forgive myself for the year that I hated my daughter, when I believed her to have run away, perhaps to the city. During that year I forbade her name to be mentioned, and if her name entered my prayers when I prayed, it was to ask that she would one day learn the meaning of what she had done, of the dishonour that she had brought to my family, of the red that ringed her mother’s eyes.

I hate myself for that, and nothing will ease that, not even what happened that night, on the side of the mountain.

I had searched for nearly ten years, although the trail was cold. I would say that I found him by accident, but I do not believe in accidents. If you walk the path, eventually you must arrive at the cave.

But that was later. First, there was the valley on the mainland, the whitewashed house in the gentle meadow with the burn splashing through it, a house that sat like a square of white sky against the green of the grass and the heather just beginning to purple.

And there was a boy outside the house, picking wool from off a thornbush. He did not see me approaching, and he did not look up until I said, “I used to do that. Gather the wool from the thorn-bushes and twigs. My mother would wash it, then she would make me things with it. A ball, and a doll.”

He turned. He looked shocked, as if I had appeared out of nowhere. And I had not. I had walked many a mile, and had many more miles to go. I said, “I walk quietly. Is this the house of Calum MacInnes?”

The boy nodded, drew himself up to his full height, which was perhaps two fingers bigger than mine, and he said, “I am Calum MacInnes.”

“Is there another of that name? For the Calum MacInnes that I seek is a grown man.”

The boy said nothing, just unknotted a thick clump of sheep’s wool from the clutching fingers of the thorn-bush. I said, “Your father, perhaps? Would he be Calum MacInnes as well?”

The boy was peering at me. “What are you?” he asked.

“I am a small man,” I told him. “But I am a man, nonetheless, and I am here to see Calum MacInnes.”

“Why?” The boy hesitated. Then, “And why are you so small?”

I said, “Because I have something to ask your father. Man’s business.” And I saw a smile start at the tips of his lips. “It’s not a bad thing to be small, young Calum. There was a night when the Campbells came knocking on my door, a whole troop of them, twelve men with knives and sticks, and they demanded of my wife, Morag, that she produce me, as they were there to kill me, in revenge for some imagined slight. And she said, ‘Young Johnnie, run down to the far meadow, and tell your father to come back to the house, that I sent for him.’ And the Campbells watched as the boy ran out the door. They knew that I was a most dangerous person. But nobody had told them that I was a wee man, or if that had been told them, it had not been believed.”

“Did the boy call you?” said the lad.

“It was no boy,” I told him, “but me myself, it was. And they’d had me, and still I walked out the door and through their fingers.”

The boy laughed. Then he said, “Why were the Campbells after you?”

“It was a disagreement about the ownership of cattle. They thought the cows were theirs. I maintained the Campbells’ ownership of them had ended the first night the cows had come with me over the hills.”

“Wait here,” said young Calum MacInnes.

I sat by the burn and looked up at the house. It was a good-sized house: I would have taken it for the house of a doctor or a man of law, not of a border reaver. There were pebbles on the ground and I made a pile of them, and I tossed the pebbles, one by one, into the burn. I have a good eye, and I enjoyed rattling the pebbles over the meadow and into the water. I had thrown a hundred stones when the boy returned, accompanied by a tall, loping man. His hair was streaked with grey, his face was long and wolfish. There are no wolves in those hills, not any longer, and the bears have gone too.

“Good day to you,” I said.

He said nothing in return, only stared; I am used to stares. I said, “I am seeking Calum MacInnes. If you are he, say so, I will greet you. If you are not he, tell me now, and I will be on my way.”

“What business would you have with Calum MacInnes?”

“I wish to hire him, as a guide.”

“And where is it you would wish to be taken?”

I stared at him. “That is hard to say,” I told him. “For there are some who say it does not exist. There is a certain cave on the Misty Isle.”

He said nothing. Then he said, “Calum, go back to the house.”

“But da—”

“Tell your mother I said she was to give you some tablet. You like that. Go on.”

Expressions crossed the boy’s face—puzzlement, hunger, happiness—and then he turned and ran back to the white house.

Calum MacInnes said, “Who sent you here?”

I pointed to the burn as it splashed its way between us on its journey down the hill. “What’s that?” I asked.

“Water,” he replied.

“And they say there is a king across it,” I told him.

I did not know him then at all, and never knew him well, but his eyes became guarded, and his head cocked to one side. “How do I know you are who you say you are?”

“I have claimed nothing,” I said. “Just that there are those who have heard that there is a cave on the Misty Isle, and that you might know the way.”

He said, “I will not tell you where the cave is.”

“I am not here asking for directions. I seek a guide. And two travel more safely than one.”

He looked me up and down, and I waited for the joke about my size, but he did not make it, and for that I was grateful. He just said, “When we reach the cave, I will not go inside. You must bring out the gold yourself.”

I said, “It is all one to me.”

He said, “You can take only what you carry. I will not touch it. But yes, I will take you.”

I said, “You will be paid well for your trouble.” I reached into my jerkin, handed him the pouch I had in there. “This for taking me. Another, twice the size, when we return.”

He poured the coins from the pouch into his huge hand, and he nodded. “Silver,” he said. “Good.” Then, “I will say good-bye to my wife and son.”

“Is there nothing you need to bring?”

He said, “I was a reaver in my youth, and reavers travel light. I’ll bring a rope, for the mountains.” He patted his dirk, which hung from his belt, and went back into the whitewashed house. I never saw his wife, not then, nor at any other time. I do not know what colour her hair was.

I threw another fifty stones into the burn as I waited, until he returned, with a coil of rope thrown over one shoulder, and then we walked together away from a house too grand for any reaver, and we headed west.

*

The mountains between the rest of the world and the coast are gradual hills, visible from a distance as gentle, purple, hazy things, like clouds. They seem inviting. They are slow mountains, the kind you can walk up easily, like walking up a hill, but they are hills that take a full day and more to climb. We walked up the hill, and by the end of the first day we were cold.

I saw snow on the peaks above us, although it was high summer.

We said nothing to each other that first day. There was nothing to be said. We knew where we were going.

We made a fire, from dried sheep dung and a dead thorn-bush: we boiled water and made our porridge, each of us throwing a handful of oats and a fingerpinch of salt into the little pan I carried. His handful was huge, and my handful was small, like my hands, which made him smile and say, “I hope you will not be eating half of the porridge.”

I said I would not and indeed, I did not, for my appetite is smaller than that of a full-grown man. But this is a good thing, I believe, for I can keep going in the wild on nuts and berries that would not keep a bigger person from starving.

A path of sorts ran across the high hills, and we followed it and encountered almost nobody: a tinker and his donkey, piled high with old pots, and a girl leading the donkey, who smiled at me when she thought me to be a child, and then scowled when she perceived me to be what I am, and would have thrown a stone at me had the tinker not slapped her hand with the switch he had been using to encourage the donkey; and, later, we overtook an old woman and a man she said was her grandson, on their way back across the hills. We ate with her, and she told us that she had attended the birth of her first great-grandchild, that it was a good birth. She said she would tell our fortunes from the lines in our palms, if we had coins to cross her palm. I gave the old biddy a clipped lowland groat, and she looked at my palm.

She said, “I see death in your past and death in your future.”

“Death waits in all our futures,” I said.

She paused, there in the highest of the high lands, where the summer winds have winter on their breath, where they howl and whip and slash the air like knives. She said, “There was a woman in a tree. There will be a man in a tree.”

I said, “Will this mean anything to me?”

“One day. Perhaps.” She said, “Beware of gold. Silver is your friend.” And then she was done with me.

To Calum MacInnes she said, “Your palm has been burned.” He said that was true. She said, “Give me your other hand, your left hand.” He did so. She gazed at it, intently. Then, “You return to where you began. You will be higher than most other men. And there is no grave waiting for you, where you are going.”

He said, “You tell me that I will not die?”

“It is a left-handed fortune. I know what I have told you, and no more.”

She knew more. I saw it in her face.

That was the only thing of any importance that occurred to us on the second day.

We slept in the open that night. The night was clear and cold, and the sky was hung with stars that seemed so bright and close I felt as if I could have reached out my arm and gathered them, like berries.

We lay side by side beneath the stars, and Calum MacInnes said, “Death awaits you, she said. But death does not wait for me. I think mine was the better fortune.”

“Perhaps.”

“Ah,” he said. “It is all nonsense. Old-woman talk. It is not truth.”

I woke in the dawn mist to see a stag, watching us curiously.

The third day we crested those mountains, and we began to walk downhill.

My companion said, “When I was a boy, my father’s dirk fell into the cooking fire. I pulled it out, but the metal hilt was as hot as the flames. I did not expect this, but I would not let the dirk go. I carried it away from the fire, and plunged the sword into the water. It made steam. I remember that. My palm was burned, and my hand curled, as if it was meant to carry a sword until the end of time.”

I said, “You, with your hand. Me, only a little man. It’s fine heroes we are, who seek our fortunes on the Misty Isle.”

He barked a laugh, short and without humour. “Fine heroes,” was all he said.

The rain began to fall then, and did not stop falling. That night we passed a small croft house. There was a trickle of smoke from its chimney, and we called out for the owner, but there was no response.

I pushed open the door and called again. The place was dark, but I could smell tallow, as if a candle had been burning and had recently been snuffed.

“No one at home,” said Calum, but I shook my head and walked forward, then leaned my head down into the darkness beneath the bed.

“Would you care to come out?” I asked. “For we are travellers, seeking warmth and shelter and hospitality. We would share with you our oats and our salt and our whisky. And we will not harm you.”

At first the woman, hidden beneath the bed, said nothing, and then she said, “My husband is away in the hills. He told me to hide myself away if the strangers come, for fear of what they might do to me.”

I said, “I am but a little man, good lady, no bigger than a child, you could send me flying with a blow. My companion is a full-sized man, but I do swear that we shall do nothing to you, save partake of your hospitality, and dry ourselves. Please do come out.”

All covered with dust and spiderwebs she was when she emerged, but even with her face all begrimed, she was beautiful, and even with her hair all webbed and greyed with dust it was still long and thick, and golden red. For a heartbeat she put me in the mind of my daughter, but that my daughter would look a man in the eye, while this one glanced only at the ground fearfully, like something expecting to be beaten.

I gave her some of our oats, and Calum produced strips of dried meat from his pocket, and she went out to the field and returned with a pair of scrawny turnips, and she prepared food for the three of us.

I ate my fill. She had no appetite. I believe that Calum was still hungry when his meal was done. He poured whisky for the three of us: she took but a little, and that with water. The rain rattled on the roof of the house, and dripped in the corner, and, unwelcoming though it was, I was glad that I was inside.

It was then that a man came through the door. He said nothing, only stared at us, untrusting, angry. He pulled off his cape of oiled sacking, and his hat, and he dropped them on the earth floor. They dripped and puddled. The silence was oppressive.

Calum MacInnes said, “Your wife gave us hospitality, when we found her. Hard enough she was in the finding.”

“We asked for hospitality,” I said. “As we ask it of you.”

The man said nothing, only grunted.