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

 

The rope held, and the rock beside me held. Calum MacInnes dangled from the end of the rope. He looked up at me, and I sighed, anchored myself by a slab of crag, and I wound and pulled him up and up. I hauled him back onto the path, dripping and cursing.

He said, “You’re stronger than you look,” and I cursed myself for a fool. He must have seen it on my face for, after he shook himself (like a dog, sending droplets flying), he said, “My boy Calum told me the tale you told him about the Campbells coming for you, and you being sent into the fields by your wife, with them thinking she was your ma, and you a boy.”

“It was just a tale,” I said. “Something to pass the time.”

“Indeed?” he said. “For I heard tell of a raiding party of Campbells sent out a few years ago, seeking revenge on someone who had taken their cattle. They went, and they never came back. If a small fellow like you can kill a dozen Campbells . . . well, you must be strong, and you must be fast.”

I must be stupid, I thought ruefully, telling that child that tale.

I had picked them off one by one, like rabbits, as they came out to piss or to see what had happened to their friends: I had killed seven of them before my wife killed her first. We buried them in the glen, built a small cairn of stacking stones above them, to weigh them down so their ghosts would not walk, and we were sad: that Campbells had come so far to kill me, that we had been forced to kill them in return.

I take no joy in killing: no man should, and no woman. Sometimes death is necessary, but it is always an evil thing. That is something I am in no doubt of, even after the events I speak of here.

I took the rope from Calum MacInnes, and I clambered up and up, over the rocks, to where the waterfall came out of the side of the hill, and it was narrow enough for me to cross. It was slippery there, but I made it over without incident, tied the rope in place, came down it, threw the end of it to my companion, walked him across.

He did not thank me, neither for rescuing him, nor for getting us across; and I did not expect thanks. I also did not expect what he actually said, though, which was: “You are not a whole man, and you are ugly. Your wife: is she also small and ugly, like yourself?”

I decided to take no offence, whether offence had been intended or no. I simply said, “She is not. She is a tall woman, almost as tall as you, and when she was young—when we were both younger—she was reckoned by some to be the most beautiful girl in the lowlands. The bards wrote songs praising her green eyes and her long red-golden hair.”

I thought I saw him flinch at this, but it is possible that I imagined it, or more likely, wished to imagine I had seen it.

“How did you win her, then?”

I spoke the truth: “I wanted her, and I get what I want. I did not give up. She said I was wise and I was kind, and I would always provide for her. And I have.”

The clouds began to lower, once more, and the world blurred at the edges, became softer.

“She said I would be a good father. And I have done my best to raise my children. Who are also, if you are wondering, normal-sized.”

“I beat sense into young Calum,” said older Calum. “He is not a bad child.”

“You can only do that as long as they are there with you,” I said. And then I stopped talking, and I remembered that long year, and also I remembered Flora when she was small, sitting on the floor with jam on her face, looking up at me as if I were the wisest man in the world.

“Ran away, eh? I ran away when I was a lad. I was twelve. I went as far as the court of the King over the Water. The father of the current king.”

“That’s not something you hear spoken aloud.”

“I am not afraid,” he said. “Not here. Who’s to hear us? Eagles? I saw him. He was a fat man, who spoke the language of the foreigners well, and our own tongue only with difficulty. But he was still our king.” He paused. “And if he is to come to us again, he will need gold, for vessels and weapons and to feed the troops that he raises.”

I said, “So I believe. That is why we go in search of the cave.”

He said, “This is bad gold. It does not come free. It has its cost.”

“Everything has its cost.”

I was remembering every landmark—climb at the sheep skull, cross the first three streams, then walk along the fourth until the five heaped stones and find where the rock looks like a seagull and walk on between two sharply jutting walls of black rock, and let the slope bring you with it . . .

I could remember it, I knew. Well enough to find my way down again. But the mists confused me, and I could not be certain.

We reached a small loch, high in the mountains, and drank fresh water, caught huge white creatures that were not shrimps or lobsters or crayfish, and ate them raw like sausages, for we could not find any dry wood to make our fire, that high.

We slept on a wide ledge beside the icy water and woke into clouds before sunrise, when the world was grey and blue.

“You were sobbing in your sleep,” said Calum.

“I had a dream,” I told him.

“I do not have bad dreams,” Calum said.

“It was a good dream,” I said. It was true. I had dreamed that Flora still lived. She was grumbling about the village boys, and telling me of her time in the hills with the cattle, and of things of no consequence, smiling her great smile and tossing her hair the while, red-golden like her mother’s, although her mother’s hair is now streaked with white.

“Good dreams should not make a man cry out like that,” said Calum. A pause, then, “I have no dreams, not good, not bad.”

“No?”

“Not since I was a young man.”

We rose. A thought struck me: “Did you stop dreaming after you came to the cave?”

He said nothing. We walked along the mountainside, into the mist, as the sun came up.

The mist seemed to thicken and fill with light, in the sunshine, but did not fade away and I realized that it must be a cloud. The world glowed. And then it seemed to me that I was staring at a man of my size, a small, humpty man, his shadow, standing in the air in front of me, like a ghost or an angel, and it moved as I moved. It was haloed by the light, and shimmered, and I could not have told you how near it was or how far away. I have seen miracles and I have seen evil things, but never have I seen anything like that.

“Is it magic?” I asked, although I smelled no magic on the air.

Calum said, “It is nothing. A property of the light. A shadow. A reflection. No more. I see a man beside me, as well. He moves as I move.” I glanced back, but I saw nobody beside him.

And then the little glowing man in the air faded, and the cloud, and it was day, and we were alone.

We climbed all that morning, ascending. Calum’s ankle had twisted the day before, when he had slipped at the waterfall. Now it swelled in front of me, swelled and went red, but his pace did not ever slow, and if he was in discomfort or in pain, it did not show upon his face.

I said, “How long?” as the dusk began to blur the edges of the world.

“An hour, less, perhaps. We will reach the cave, and then we will sleep for the night. In the morning you will go inside. You can bring out as much gold as you can carry, and we will make our way back off the island.”

I looked at him, then: grey-streaked hair, grey eyes, so huge and wolfish a man, and I said, “You would sleep outside the cave?”

“I would. There are no monsters in the cave. Nothing that will come out and take you in the night. Nothing that will eat us. But you should not go in until daylight.”

And then we rounded a rockfall, all black rocks and grey half-blocking our path, and we saw the cave mouth. I said, “Is that all?”

“You expected marble pillars? Or a giant’s cave from a gossip’s fireside tales?”

“Perhaps. It looks like nothing. A hole in the rock face. A shadow. And there are no guards?”

“No guards. Only the place, and what it is.”

“A cave filled with treasure. And you are the only one who can find it?”

Calum laughed then, like a fox’s bark. “The islanders know how to find it. But they are too wise to come here, to take its gold. They say that the cave makes you evil: that each time you visit it, each time you enter to take gold, it eats the good in your soul, so they do not enter.”

“And is that true? Does it make you evil?”

“ . . . No. The cave feeds on something else. Not good and evil. Not really. You can take your gold, but afterwards, things are,” he paused, “things are flat. There is less beauty in a rainbow, less meaning in a sermon, less joy in a kiss . . .” He looked at the cave mouth and I thought I saw fear in his eyes. “Less.”

I said, “There are many for whom the lure of gold outweighs the beauty of a rainbow.”

“Me, when young, for one. You, now, for another.”

“So we go in at dawn.”

“You will go in. I will wait for you out here. Do not be afraid. No monster guards the cave. No spells to make the gold vanish, if you do not know some cantrip or rhyme.”

We made our camp, then; or rather we sat in the darkness, against the cold rock wall. There would be no sleep there.

I said, “You took the gold from here, as I will do tomorrow. You bought a house with it, a bride, a good name.”

His voice came from the darkness. “Aye. And they meant nothing to me, once I had them, or less than nothing. And if your gold pays for the King over the Water to come back to us and rule us and bring about a land of joy and prosperity and warmth, it will still mean nothing to you. It will be as something you heard of that happened to a man in a tale.”

“I have lived my life to bring the king back,” I told him.

He said, “You take the gold back to him. Your king will want more gold, because kings want more. It is what they do. Each time you come back, it will mean less. The rainbow means nothing. Killing a man means nothing.”

Silence then, in the darkness. I heard no birds: only the wind that called and gusted about the peaks like a mother seeking her babe.

I said, “We have both killed men. Have you ever killed a woman, Calum MacInnes?”

“I have not. I have killed no woman, no girls.”

I ran my hands over my dirk in the darkness, seeking the wood and center of the hilt, the steel of the blade. It was there in my hands. I had not intended to ever tell him, only to strike when we were out of the mountains, strike once, strike deep, but now I felt the words being pulled from me, would I or never-so. “They say there was a girl,” I told him. “And a thorn-bush.”

Silence. The whistling of the wind. “Who told you?” he asked. Then, “Never mind. I would not kill a woman. No man of honour would kill a woman . . .”

If I said a word, I knew, he would be silent on the subject, and never talk about it again. So I said nothing. Only waited.

Calum MacInnes began to speak, choosing his words with care, talking as if he was remembering a tale he had heard as a child and had almost forgotten. “They told me the kine of the lowlands were fat and bonny, and that a man could gain honour and glory by adventuring off to the southlands and returning with the fine red cattle. So I went south, and never a cow was good enough, until on a hillside in the lowlands I saw the finest, reddest, fattest cows that ever a man has seen. So I began to lead them away, back the way I had come.

“She came after me with a stick. The cattle were her father’s, she said, and I was a rogue and a knave and all manner of rough things. But she was beautiful, even when angry, and had I not already a young wife, I might have dealt more kindly to her. Instead I pulled a knife, and touched it to her throat, and bade her to stop speaking. And she did stop.

“I would not kill her—I would not kill a woman, and that is the truth—so I tied her, by her hair, to a thorn tree, and I took her knife from her waistband, to slow her as she tried to free herself, and pushed the blade of it deep into the sod. I tied her to the thorn tree by her long hair, and I thought no more of her as I made off with her cattle.

“It was another year before I was back that way. I was not after cows that day, but I walked up the side of that bank—it was a lonely spot, and if you had not been looking, you might not have seen it. Perhaps nobody searched for her.”

“I heard they searched,” I told him. “Although some believed her taken by reavers, and others believed her run away with a tinker, or gone to the city. But still, they searched.”

“Aye. I saw what I did see—perhaps you’d have to have stood where I was standing, to see what I did see. It was an evil thing I did, perhaps.”

“Perhaps?”

He said, “I have taken gold from the cave of the mists. I cannot tell any longer if there is good or there is evil. I sent a message, by a child, at an inn, telling them where she was, and where they could find her.”

I closed my eyes but the world became no darker.

“There is evil,” I told him.

I saw it in my mind’s eye: her skeleton picked clean of clothes, picked clean of flesh, as naked and white as anyone would ever be, hanging like a child’s puppet against the thorn-bush, tied to a branch above it by its red-golden hair.

“At dawn,” said Calum MacInnes, as if we had been talking of provisions or the weather, “you will leave your dirk behind, for such is the custom, and you will enter the cave, and bring out as much gold as you can carry. And you will bring it back with you, to the mainland. There’s not a soul in these parts, knowing what you carry or where it’s from, would take it from you. Then send it to the King over the Water, and he will pay his men with it, and feed them, and buy their weapons. One day, he will return. Tell me on that day that there is evil, little man.”