By Eric Kiefer
It was autumn — the time of the Weeping Moon — and the harvest was finally done.
The boy’s fingernails were dark crescents after a day in the fields, and he was tired. He was in bed and on the verge of dream when Grandmother finally came to his bedroom and asked if he remembered to follow the tradition.
“Tonight,” Grandmother said, her voice always and forever a wistful rainbow, “is the full moon before the equinox. You had better put your seed out now, child.”
Slowly, the boy rose from his bed and did what he was told. He went straight to the kitchen, where he took a single pumpkin seed from its place in the jar and placed it on the windowsill. It joined two other seeds, his father’s and Grandmother’s. The boy’s sister had recently become a young woman, and instead, according to the custom, had eaten her seed that year for good luck. The trio of amber pumpkin seeds shone in the moonlight … little daggers … little gems … but the boy was tired and barely noticed. He returned to bed, and was almost asleep before Grandmother returned.
As she entered the room, the flame from her candle cast a brittle glow on hands that had seen seventy-seven harvests, and which were now little more than gloves of skin over bone.
“Did you put out your seed, child?” Grandmother asked.
He nodded, and she patted him on the shoulder and turned to leave. But suddenly, the boy called out with the request that they both knew was coming.
“Grandmother … will you tell me a story?”
Grandmother turned back to him, letting the kind light of her smile nestle on the boy’s face. She paused in thought, wondering if the moment had come for the story she had in mind. It was the time of the Weeping Moon, after all, and the boy would be a man in barely six more autumns.
“Perhaps I can, child,” she said at last in a teasing voice. “I can tell you about the Face in the Moon if you like. But it is an old story, from the days of Machines. You wouldn’t be interested in such things.”
The boy shifted in bed and flexed his hands, revived by her taunt.
“Pleeeeaaase,” he implored, until Grandmother acquiesced and sat on the side of the bed, brushing aside a small spider that had settled beside them. They sat for a moment silently, like two birds in a nest, until the boy got the sense that she was trying to tell him something important.
“The best stories are always lies,” Grandmother said, looking down at him. “You understand this, right?”
The boy nodded, his eyes wide.
Grandmother smiled and nodded. “We’ll see, my child … we’ll see.”
And she began her tale.
“It all happened many ages ago in the days of Machine, when our kind controlled the elements and had forgotten the gods. In those days, our ancestors mastered the ability to create iron from raw ore, just as we do. But unlike us, they could breathe life into their creations, just like gods. With this powerful magic, they manufactured minions to serve their every whim. They smith’d iron horses that could travel for days without slowing. They wrought steel veins through their homes that could siphon water from the rivers and lakes. They replaced their eyes with Machines, their ears with Machines, their arms and legs and hearts with Machines. And slowly, our ancestors began to surrender their lives to the might of their iron children.
“But all great civilizations have their liabilities, and their biggest was power. You see, the world that our ancestors created needed immeasurable energy to exist. The Machines were hungry — forever hungry — and our ancestors had placed their lives in the hands of Machines. The mother of them all was a great, ever-hewing creature — the Queen Spider — which exhaled smoke and weaved webs in the spines of all human creation. The Queen Spider’s legs stretched o’er the world, connecting every Machine to her will, feeding them all and drawing from their strength.
“And she felt each of their hungers a million-fold.
“The Queen Spider’s hunger was so consuming, our ancestors sacrificed all the riches of the Earth for her. They burnt the forests, corked the rivers, and caught the winds in colossal flowers. They dug enormous pits in Mother Earth herself, and tapped her fiery breath as easily as we leech sap from a maple tree. But most of all, our ancestors craved a secret elixir, distilled from the bones and blood of the huge, dead beasts of our world’s past. The elixir was black as midnight and just as powerful, tho’, thankfully, it was not as powerful as Dream.
“All of these treasures our ancestors sacrificed to the Queen Spider, and yet she was always ravenous, and her Machine children were always multiplying.”
The boy looked out at Grandmother from under his wool blankets, awed and puzzled by her tale.
“But why did they need so many Machines?” he asked.
“They needed Machines to make themselves happy back then, or perhaps they desired to be Machines themselves. Who knows? The Machines simply were. Do we ask why there are birds, or fish, or frogs, or grain? Perhaps it was the same way for them… now back to the story, child, and try not to interrupt.
“Now, our ancestors were good diggers, just like our people. They were even better, in fact. Their Machines could tear down an entire mountain in a day and carve a lake before two suns could set. With the help of their Machines, our ancestors dug into the caves, under the ocean, and even into the ice of the cold, forgotten lands. But eventually, they dug too deep, just as all the great people through time have done. The black elixir they needed so desperately began to disappear. The Queen Spider began to gnaw her own insides with hunger, and the ancestors’ Machines began to fail.
“And their world began to fall apart.
“Now, I’ve told you about how our ancestors had conquered the Earth, muzzled her oceans, and subjugated her elements. But what you don’t know is that they had also started to plunder the heavens as well. With the help of the Queen Spider, they created Machines that could withstand the tremendous cold and loneliness of the outer realms, and launched these scouts into the heavens with a giant sling. ‘Find us food for the queen!’ they commanded.
“And the Machines obeyed.
“They soared through the black of the heavens, blacker and colder than any human could ever survive, traveling for years, searching, waiting. And then one day, just as our ancestors had given up hope, the Machines finally found what they were seeking.
“They reported back to their masters in the secret language of insects — clicks and whistles — informing their lords and ladies that they had discovered rare gemstones — incredibly powerful — more powerful than all the black elixir that ever was or would ever be. The gemstones lay buried at the core of a distant land, deep within its heart, hidden away under miles of rock and dirt. They were enough to feed the Queen Spider for centuries — lifetimes — and all our ancestors had to do was claim them for their own.
“And so our ancestors decided to build a mighty ship, the likes of which had never been seen — the Leviathan. The ship’s hull could not be burnt by fire, yet it was lighter than air and blessed with the ability of flight. Aboard this ship, they loaded their biggest digging Machine, the one they called the Mountain Killer. And then the crew of the Leviathan set off, through the million unknown dangers and beauties of the heavens, through time and thought itself.”
The boy scratched a lice-bug from his head. “What did they do then, Grandmother?”
Grandmother glanced out through the wooden shutters of the boy’s window, setting her eyes on the night, focusing on something faraway that the boy could not see. There was no going back in the tale now. He must know everything.
“The Moon, child …” she said at last. “They tried to steal the power of the Moon.”
“But Grandmother!” objected the boy. “Weren’t they afraid of the Moon Goddess?”
The Grandmother held up her finger for silence. “To our ancestors, the Moon was only an orb made of rock and dirt, the same as the earth that we dig in each day. They did not hold her sacred in the same way that we do. And they knew not the terrible wrath of which she was capable.
“When our ancestors landed on the shores of the Moon, the Goddess appeared to them in all of her glory. Her silvery gown hung immaculate in the still winds; her alabaster skin gleamed like raw porcelain; her phosphorescence lit the heavens themselves.
WHO ARE YOU? the Goddess demanded to know. WHAT DO YOU WANT?
“But since our ancestors didn’t believe in the Goddess, her questions fell on deaf ears. To them, she had no more substance than a ghost. They couldn’t see her, hear her, heed her warnings. And so they unloaded the Mountain Killer — the Machine that could tunnel a hole through to Hell itself — and started to dig.
“Our ancestors dug deep, grinding away at the Moon’s alabaster skin like potters at the wheel. Deep their Machine clawed, exploring the Moon’s innards unmercifully, like a clumsy surgeon’s finger probing an arrow wound. And before long, they had exposed the core of the Moon where the precious gemstones lay — the source of all her power.
“A god’s life is not free from pain, my child. But this new agony was different from anything that the Moon Goddess had ever felt. Until that point, the Moon had never had a living creature grace her surface, had never felt a plant root in her soil or an animal leave tracks in her dust. She had never known rivers or lakes, or even air. The Moon had known what it was to exist, but not what it meant to be alive, and those things aren’t the same at all. For the first time in her aged existence, the Moon experienced fear … and it drove her mad. Because with the knowledge of life, comes the knowledge of death.”
“Gods can die?” the boy asked, incredulous.
“Of course,” Grandmother replied, clicking her tongue twice as her people do when a child asks a silly question. “Everything that exists can also be taken out of existence. Even gods. And not even the Moon can live forever.
“The Moon tried to frighten our ancestors away with deep, monstrous murmurs, such as the fluttering a heart makes during the body’s death spasms. She tried to shake the diggers off her surface with terrifying quakes, as a dog attempts to flick away fleas. She tried to open yawning chasms to swallow them whole.
“But our ancestors were ready. They had Machines to plug their ears, and Machines to steady the ground beneath their feet. And always — always — the gnawing hunger of the Queen Spider lay in the hidden spaces of their minds.
“And so the Moon Goddess realized what she must do. Conjuring all her power, she waited until our ancestors had fallen asleep and entered their dreams. Searching their minds for nightmares, she made them imagine that their worst terrors had come to life. And then it was our ancestors’ turn to go mad. In the end they slew each other to the last sailor, insane and demented, killing themselves with the very Machines that they had brought to steal the heart of the Moon.
“And through it all, the Moon smiled.
“As the Moon entered the mind of the last man, a digger named Goel, she decided to be cruel. She searched the man’s mind — delved deep, as they had done to her — looking to find his worst fear and bring it to life in his waking dreams. And of course, my child, she found it.
“But it was then that the Moon learned her second lesson of the day, one that she could never have guessed from her infinite perch in the loneliness of the heavens. There are few things more powerful than life and death in this world. But there is one force that is stronger than even death, a sole invention of humanity, our greatest contribution to the universe. It is a force that even the Moon must bow to, even the Moon Goddess must obey and respect.
“And upon making this discovery, she gasped, and released Goel from her grasp.”
The boy clenched his hand, and realized that he had unconsciously wrapped it around Grandmother’s. “What did the Moon see?” he asked.
She squeezed his hand back. “Pumpkins … she saw pumpkins, my child. You see, Goel’s worst fear was that he might never get to see his wife again. His dream was of their first night of sexual congress, when they had lain together in the soft earth of a pumpkin patch under an infinite sky. Goel had made her a promise that night, a pledge that everything would be all right as long as their love endured. He dreamt of her, and he dreamt of the only force more powerful than life or death.
“He dreamt of pumpkins.
“And it was then that the Moon knew that she had made a mistake. But it was too late, because in the waking world — in a fit of madness — Goel had pierced his own throat with a sharp tool and was dying on the deck of the Leviathan.
“As death took him, the Moon Goddess appeared to Goel in his dream.
“‘I AM SORRY TO HAVE CAUSED YOUR END,’ she said. ‘PLEASE ALLOW ME THE HONOR OF GRANTING YOUR LAST DESIRE.’
“Desire can be cruel herself at times, twisted and self-serving, and many a mortal man has been granted a vain dying wish by a god. But Goel’s last whispered plea was simply to look upon his wife’s face one more time and tell her that he loved her.
“‘Just let her see my eyes,’ was all he asked.
“‘Just let her see my eyes …’
“And so the Moon Goddess, humbled by such a request, took a knife and carved off her own face, replacing it with Goel’s image. She displays this fully every thirty days, hiding her face in shame for the rest of the month. We in turn, assure the moon that our terrible transgression will never happen again by placing a pumpkin seed on our windowsill every year. And now, my child, you know why.”
Grandmother stopped speaking, and for a moment the boy thought that she had fallen asleep. After a long while, she turned her creaky body towards the half-shuttered window and stretched a finger skyward, where a silvery light was warming the autumn horizon.
“Look,” she said, her voice evaporating in the air like steam off chicken broth. “The Face in the Moon. It is the face of Goel, smiling at his love from across the universe, telling her that everything will be alright … in all places … forever and ever. He reminds his wife of their night in the pumpkin patch and the promise that he made. He reminds us all that there is something stronger than life, stronger than death, stronger than gods.
“And that is why we Diggers tell this story.”
Grandmother then kissed the boy on his forehead, and tucked him back into bed.
“Dream well, child,” she told him. “Dream well and free. Dream of love, and of Machines, and of all the things in between. Because the day may come when you too, get to make such a wish.”
After Grandmother left, the boy peered out the window for hours, staring at the stars and picking the dirt from under his fingernails. He thought about the sorrow of gods, until the night wrapped its willowy arms around him, and the warmth of his blanket made him begin to float inside of himself.
And that night, he dreamed of the Moon
Eric Kiefer is a writer/journalist, a modern-day troubadour, and a 15-year factotum. In addition to his debut novel, The Soft Exile (a story about suicide, Mongolia, and the U.S. Peace Corps), he is fresh on the heels of his debut CD, The Spectre and the Dozer. Learn more at TheKiefer.com.