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Up the Mountain

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“Are you ready, papa?” His beautiful little girl asked, her warm hand on his cheek. He was wizened now, her fingertips dragged along papery skin where her touch comforted him. He was weathered and gnarled and broken in many places, but she was still tender, precious beyond measure.

“Not to leave you, but, in general, yes.” He wanted to look into her chestnut eyes forever, eyes like his own, like those of his father’s when he too, went through the same ritual he was about to undergo now.

“Okay,” She tied the brown cloth around his eyes; now, the world was dark and peaceful, giving him respite from the years of the harsh sun beating down on his back, making his brow furrow and his lips crack. She had to be the one to do it, his closest blood. She had to send him off with grace, with dignity. The others would take him up the mountain soon after, they would place him closer to his ancestors, who would welcome him home with open arms.

He half wanted to sneak a peek out of the blindfold, wanted to turn his head around to see the archer. No one knew except the priestess who had dressed him up in the end, had gripped his hands in hers. He had to bow and mumble an apology through purple lips for staining her slender fingers with the yellow pus of infection. He worked hard to conceal it these past few days.

“Pardon me, dear madam, I was in an altercation.”

That was the politest way to put it, to put the cut so deep; the woman behind the bow— she was much more skilled behind its taut string than with a gaudy, callous blade— her dagger had cut into him, but it did not recognize him; she was just desperate. She knew he would be going soon, and wagered a chance against his possessions, against his fertile patch of land and loyal lambs.

“Don’t, my child. Don’t give yourself up to gain something lesser.” He held her sobbing, rearranged the messy locks of raven hair around her sharp face with his left hand, the right tucked into his side. Yes, she had potential yet. That evening, he invited her back to his house and divided his possessions. She had nothing left but her bow; she was being pushed out of her work by thieves and had fallen to thievery herself, sneaking into the home of an old, sick man and his young daughter.

He wanted to peek. He wondered so much, whether she still had her head on her shoulders or if it had rolled off, whether the youth was doing alright. How does she feel, to have him on the end of her arrow?

“I love you, papa.” His daughter’s voice grounded him. Was he afraid? Maybe. But bearing the finest craft of his village, he couldn’t bring himself to feel sad. He was dressed well, decorated even. They put embers on his belt so that he could bring the warmth of fire up the mountain for the entire village. They put his best weapons in his trusty belt, draped his shoulders in the most beautiful woven cape. He had a warm, full meal of plum and deer in his belly. He bore the labors of love.

The small footsteps of his daughter padded away from him. He straightened his back, feeling all the aches and pains that had accumulated. And though he was getting on in his years, his ear was still sharp.

“Ready, draw.” The priestess had a voice like clear bells, ringing across the distance.

“Fire!”

The drawing back of the bow and the whistle of the homing arrow reached him at the barrier between life and death. Oh, how beautiful it sounded.