Oz is holding a knife to his wrist when they knock on the door.
For a moment he hesitates, weighing his options. His eyes dart between the door and the knife—eeny, meeny, meiny, mo—and land on the door.
“Might as well,” he mutters, and gets to his feet. The dull sound of the knife as he sets it aside on the kitchen table seems to fill the room. It’s a terrible thing, he muses, how loud a house is when there’s no one else in it.
“I’m sorry,” the augur says the moment the door swings open. No preamble, nothing. She really does look sorry, at least. So do the three councilmen standing behind her. “But… your name came up in the hearth.”
Oz wonders dimly which name it was.
“That’s fine,” Oz says, and it is. It doesn’t matter, really. It might even be better this way. “Just give me a few minutes to get my things together.”
Their brows furrow. Clearly, judging by the number of people they brought to drag him out of his house, they weren’t expecting him to come as easily as this. Oz knows exactly what they’re thinking—what’s wrong with him? Is he up to something? He’s become fluent in dirty glances and sidelong looks over the years.
“What things?” asks one of the councilmen.
“My things,” Oz says, and shuts the door again. To his surprise, they don’t force it open. Even they wouldn’t deny a dead man his last request, it seems.
• • • •
They escort him out to the edge of town, where the fields turn to marshland and scrub. One of the councilmen points out the mountain, as if it’s not at least twice as tall as any of the other peaks in the range. As if Oz hasn’t spent his whole life staring at the damn thing. As if it’s not a mountain.
“Just there, halfway up the slope,” the man says. “Go all the way in.”
They will not watch the mountain take him—for who likes to be watched while they eat?—but they do not need to. The string will make well enough sure he goes in. One end is tied to a post, the other is around his finger in a neat little bow. The knot will not come loose until the deed is done; it’s charmed that way, a holy relic, drawn from the same fire that spits out the names. Tomorrow morning, they will fish it from the cave and roll it back up, ready for the next unfortunate soul.
After the augur and the councilmen leave, Oz looks at the string and looks at the mountain—and he laughs. He laughs. Because of course it would be him, of course it would be today, the day he’d already decided would be his last. It’s poetic, really.
He starts to walk.
• • • •
Not many go in for blood sacrifices nowadays. Off to the South, they’re considered old-fashioned and superstitious. Really? the young women will say as they lean over their neighbors’ market stalls, one eyebrow raised. Still? We stopped sending ours ages ago. In the North, meanwhile, they’re redundant. The people do a good enough job killing each other on their own. Their God can take His pick of bodies.
But the North and the South have different mountains; and, evidently, very different gods. Once, Oz’s town refused to send a sacrifice—the girl whose name had risen from the fire that day had been four, her father’s only child—and the next day, they woke drowning. Oz still remembers the feeling of his lungs filling with water, each breath an agony as he retched onto the floor. Compassion only goes so far in the face of numbers, and the numbers said, clear as day: it’s us or the girl.
So they tied her up like all the rest and sent her on her way.
Most of the time, it isn’t so bad. An old man here, a widow there. About once a year, mostly, though sometimes there are as many as three in a month, and sometimes years pass without a peep. The mountain seems to prefer the lonely ones. The ones no one will miss. The ones like Oz.
Of course, there are always exceptions. His mother, for one. The day she left, the whole family had come to visit, weeping and wailing and clutching at her clothes and her hands as if they could tear her to bits and each take a piece of her home with them.
Oz shakes his head. Hard, like a horse shaking off a fly. He spends most days not thinking about his mother, and the rest trying not to think about her. It’s been just over three months since she left—three months and one day. She always said he’d never last a season without her. So he’d gotten through the winter, just to prove the old hag wrong.
There is a girl sitting by the side of the path.
Oz shakes his head again, but in a different sort of way—an “I’m seeing things” sort of way. The girl is dressed in red, too bright against the gray of the grass, the gray of the mountain, the gray of the sky. She looks, Oz realizes with a jolt, very much like someone else he once knew.
“Hallo,” she says cheerfully, her legs swinging. Her boots hit the rock she is sitting on again and again, dislodging dust each time.
“What are you doing here?” Oz asks. It’s a stupid sort of question, but the only one that comes to mind.
“I live here.”
“No one lives here.”
“I do,” she says indignantly. “How would you know, anyway? No one ever comes out here to look, unless they’re going to the mountain.”
Oz shrugs. Fair.
“Are you?” the girl asks.
“Am I what?”
“Going to the mountain?”
He would have thought, with the string, that would be obvious. “Yes.”
She hops off her rock. “Can I come with you?”
She walks alongside him anyway. Oz gets the feeling this is the type of girl who isn’t used to rules. Or at least, if she is, she’s used to breaking them. Every time he looks at her he starts, his heart skipping a beat. It feels like looking in a mirror, a sideways glance through time.
“Can I carry your string?”
“What’s your name?”
“That’s a nice name.”
“Thank you.” He swallows, his throat dry. “I picked it myself.”
It’s not something he would usually say out loud, but he feels like she’d appreciate the joke. And she does. She laughs, loud and unselfconscious, and skips ahead to pick a dandelion.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
She ignores him. “What’s in your bag?”
There are many things in his bag. Water, in case he gets thirsty. A little cake stuffed with raisins. Extra socks. (No point in dying uncomfortably.) His mother’s ring. (He doesn’t know why he brought this.) His journal. (He doesn’t want anyone reading it.) Matches. (For burning it.)
“Things,” he says. “I’ll tell you if you tell me your name.”
The girl pouts, holding the dandelion under her chin so it shines yellow against her skin. She skips ahead again.
Gradually, the path grows steeper. The string itches as it slips through his fingers, the ball growing smaller and smaller. Bright yellow gorse covers most of the slope, turning the mountain gold as the sun starts to sink in the sky. It’s certainly a pretty day to die. Much prettier than the day his mother died—it was the edge of winter then, the land bare and hard with frost, the sky milky gray. He stops a moment on an outcropping of rock to sniff the air. It smells so fresh here, clean and wild. Already, the town below looks tiny, no more than a palm’s width edge to edge.
He wonders how such a small thing could ever have made him so miserable.
He and the girl share the raisin cake.
“Look at the clouds!” she cries, crumbs flying from her mouth. “They’re on fire!”
Oz looks where she’s pointing, at the horizon on the other side of the valley where the sun is setting. It’s so bright it’s almost hard to look at, a tapestry of reds and pinks shot through with ember orange. If he were sad, he thinks, this sight might cheer him up. But he’s not sad, not in the way most people know it. This feeling—no, it’s not even a feeling at all. It’s a fog, a mist, a lack thereof. A watercolor with too little color on the brush.
He finishes chewing his bit of raisin cake and stands up. He shakes his head once more. The view is beautiful, that’s for certain. It’s beautiful, and he still wants to die.
He turns on his heel to continue up the slope. And right there behind him, so close it’s a wonder (an impossibility) that he didn’t notice it before, is the entrance to the cave.
Well, he thinks, staring into the dark. This is it.
Something cold and wet drips down the back of his neck as he steps in. It smells like must and rot, like things gone to die. There’s a crunch under his boot, and he looks down to find the crumbling skeleton of a mouse. He turns back to face the girl. She’s teetering on the entrance, biting her lip—though not from fear. Oz doesn’t know what that look on her face is.
“Don’t follow me,” says Oz.
She gives him a look, a look like a girl who hates rules, and Oz realizes his mistake. She hops over the threshold, both feet, and grins.
Oz groans and pinches the bridge of his nose. “But you can’t just—”
“It’s only the people whose names come out of the fire that die in here,” she says. She skips further ahead. “I’ll be fine. Did you bring matches?”
They continue on, down this time, into the heart of the mountain. He has no idea how long they walk, only that it’s longer than he would have expected. In some places, the tunnel is bright and cavernous, lit by skylights above; in most it’s narrow, pitch black, half a foot deep in murky water. He feels oddly vindicated, thinking of his spare socks, though the thought of actually stopping to change them is exhausting.
Farther on, it gets colder and darker and colder still, the walls and the floor and the tunnel ahead bleeding into one single, all-consuming void. The match is so small, a grain of sand against the dark. He can’t see the girl either, though he knows by her footsteps that she’s still there. He’s not actually sure at which point he’s supposed to die. For all he knows, he could be dead already.
And then, all at once, the bow comes undone. The end of it slips through his fingers, falling away into nothingness.
The match goes out.
Ah, he thinks. So this is it, then.
“Are you afraid?” says a voice in the dark, from no particular direction.
He takes a breath in, out. He considers.
“No,” he says. Not of this. Not of dying.
In front of him, a light flares to life. Not just a light, but a fire; nothing one second, a bonfire the next. On the other side of it stands the girl. Of course it’s the girl—he knew it would be the girl. He’d known it ever since she appeared on the path. When you’re expecting death, you learn look out for it.
“And therein,” she says, the word odd in her child-like voice, “lies the problem.”
“You… .” Oz swallows. “You want me to be afraid?”
“No.” Her eyes flicker in the light—he thinks of what she said back on the mountain. They’re on fire. “I want a sacrifice. Do you know what a sacrifice is?”
Oz is silent.
“It means something you give up. Something you want. Something you’re afraid to lose.”
Deep in his chest, his heart begins to sink. Oz watches her face across the fire—sunken cheeks, eyes like coals. It feels as if he’s slipping, slipping, his feet skittering on rocks as the ground falls away.
“You’re not afraid to lose your life,” says the girl. The final, inevitable blow: “And so, your death would not be a sacrifice.”
Oz’s insides seize like he’s been stabbed. Maybe he has, and this is all a dream of the mountain’s making, meant to amuse him while he dies. If that’s the case, it isn’t working. Tears prick at the corner of his eyes. He’d thought that his life was worth this much, at least—enough to save the lives of a few hundred people who hate him, whom he hates back.
“You don’t understand,” says the girl. “This isn’t a matter of worth. It’s a matter of want.”
And then his journal is in her hands. She holds it open for him to see, flipping through the pages. At the top of each page sits a date and, below it, as much as he could bear to write. Sometimes one line, sometimes hundreds, winding up and down and across in rows as fine as weaving. Sometimes just the date.
“Ninety three pages. That’s how many were left. And so, you decided, that was how long you had left. You ordered one bottle of milk this week, because you knew you wouldn’t have time to drink two. You fed the chickens double, because you knew it would be a while before someone thought to feed them again. You’ve been planning for this. Looking forward to it.”
All at once, Oz realizes what she’s getting at. He reels backward.
“No,” he whispers.
“It’s a relief, isn’t it? A comfort, knowing you don’t have to stock wood for next winter, or face your neighbors again. Knowing there’s no one else now you’ll be disappointing if you go, knowing you don’t have to keep trying to stop yourself. This—the comfort of giving up—this is what you need to give up.”
Oz falls to his knees. “I can’t. Please.”
“I know you. I’ve always known you. You can.” She’s on her knees too, on the other side of the fire. A mirror image yet again. “It wouldn’t be a sacrifice if it was easy.”
“I don’t—” He scrubs his eyes until black dots dance before his vision. Swipes at his nose. He’s always hated this—hated being weak. He will not cry. “Do I even get a choice?”
The fire is gone now, though the light remains. The girl is where it once was, sitting with him, face-to-face, knee-to-knee. The journal lies open in her lap.
“You always do,” she says, and her voice is softer this time—more girl than god. “That’s what makes it so hard.”
Oz swipes at his nose again, and asks the question to which he already knows the answer.
“What’s your name?”
She smiles and hands Oz the book, opening it to the first page. At the top, in perfect mother’s cursive, is a scratched-out name; below, of course, is “OZ.”
Despite everything, Oz chuckles. “Yeah… That’s what I thought.”
When he takes his hand from the page, there are five smoldering scorch marks where his fingers had been. The scorch marks deepen and grow, eating holes in the paper like moths through silk. He gasps and drops it to the floor.
“Hey,” he says weakly.
The girl—the boy—the god—shrugs. “You were going to burn it anyway.”
“I suppose so.” For a long moment, Oz sits and watches as the book turns to ash page by page. As months of poisonous memories turn to smoke and drift away.
“So?” asks the boy. “What do you think?”
Oz sighs and sighs and sighs, until he has no breath left to exhale—and then, he breathes in.
• • • •
“Is it always the same?”
“Oh, no. Every sacrifice is different. Memories that hold them back, beliefs that hurt themselves or others, attachments to people who are no longer there—” The boy gives him a sidelong look. “Such as attachments to lost daughters.”
Oz stops dead on the threshold of the cave, still clutching his empty journal to his chest.
“Then why didn’t she—come back, come and tell me?”
“Take a closer look,” the boy says, nodding to the valley below. They’re outside the mountain now, on the other side—and yet, Oz realizes abruptly, it is still the same side. Mostly the same, at least. A pair of women Oz doesn’t recognize are seated by the riverside, laughing as they rinse out pots. Just past the town gate, a girl who looks very much like the four-year-old they sent to the mountain last year—only older now, and missing the bruises that always ringed her arms—plays with an orange cat.
A reflection again, but unspeakably different. Cast in a warmer light.
“It’s hard to go back. Impossible, nearly,” says the boy. “And besides, she was afraid that you would never forgive her.”
Oz chews his lip. He thinks of his mother’s ring, stuffed in the very bottom of his bag. “Do I… have to? Forgive her, I mean?”
“Of course not,” the boy says, like it’s the stupidest idea he’s ever heard, and that comforts Oz just a little. “Your mountain is yours. Hers is hers. You can, if you want to. If you think it would help.”
That, Oz doesn’t know yet. He looks down at the valley, at the village in its center, at the sun rising on the opposite side. He has the odd feeling that this, at least, is the same—that the same sun set in one valley, and rose in the other.
“I’m not through yet, am I?” he murmurs.
“No.” Oz feels a hand in his, small and cold and clammy, like a wet cave wall. Like old stone. “Most choices aren’t made just once, you know. You don’t just choose to climb a mountain. Every step is a choice. But it does get easier, the more you do it.”
Oz sighs once more, once more.
“Alright,” he says. It’s not enthusiastic, but it will do.
He blinks, and when he opens his eyes, the boy—the girl—the god—is gone.
Oz changes his socks and starts home.