Behind the neighbourhood houses, the toy wood hid a wide cut in the ground that really couldn’t be called a ravine. It was too shallow. The wood itself was no bigger than a dozen or so suburban backyards. But there was enough of it to stoke our kid phantaginations from the time we came together as a trio. The trench gutting up its floor helped. There we ducked our heads from roving authority more often than we can count, nipped off horizons of sunlight, and sank under layers of bush, twigs and leaves. That was the best smell in the world.
When really young, one of our mothers (whose?) told us sprites dwelt around the bases of trees, cozy under moss houses. That started it. Our earliest toy wood memory has us scrubbing through roots of oak, maple and ash, kid-expectant, only a matter of time before we uncovered the shimmering wings of miniature, thriving beings. We held firm to the conviction that their wings would be indistinguishable from those of the dragon-flies which bottled around our asphalt driveways rather than the shallow wilderness out back.
When we matured a bit, we moved on to trick hallucinogens, chewing just about every form of leaf we could find, challenging our stomachs, sniffing out visions. We discovered the force of mind over body and lay on our backs, travelling. Between us we saw earth imps, belly-dancers on stumps, mystical red fruits, breathing trees. We can still taste the gummy green flavours of those funny salads—sometimes it would take us hours, even overnight, to get our tongues back to zero.
The wood was just a harmless fraction of the larger forest about a mile from the lip of our neighbourhood; the larger forest had swarms, bogs, even bears. Ours was too small to attract anything bigger than rabbits and nothing tinier than a shrew. One benefit of such cropped artificiality was the lack of bugs. We could sit in the trench for hours on a June day, sun-dappled, and never know the nee of a mosquito. The flattening proximity of new-built houses and the shorn lawns more or less took care of that. Apart from the realities of rain and wind (which only ever cuffed us gently), we might have been playing in a knit-up biosphere.
Our recollection goes this way: we found the Mouth in the ravine’s bowl some August day, the ground still oozy from wet weather. We were still separates, scrabbling down into the gully with individual minds, each thinking our unshared thoughts. One of us wanted to work on our sticks-and-stones rampart, one of us wanted to tell ghost stories. One of us had a notion to clear a little fire pit, encircle it with rocks, make charcoal out of twigs, and draw on birch-bark scrolls. Not one of the three of us foresaw an agenda of archeological bingo.
It was a trip—a foot latched onto something, followed by a sprawl into leaves. We were bouncing around the stomach of the ravine, just out of sight of family, when it happened. Rainstorms the day before had smoothed back the earth, allowing a nudge of the Mouth’s face to spurt upwards. The one who stumbled concentrated on being breathless for a moment. It had hurt a little. We grouped low and examined the new thing.
At first it was just a portion of another large stone. Woods have them. They bulge up from mulch and let kids creep through undergrowth mostly soundless, if you make sure your weight is always on a rock, never soil, where leaves rush and twigs snap underfoot. They were useful this way. We put six hands on the stone and worked to uncover it, then tandem-gasped when we found an eye.
We call it the Mouth but in aspect it was really a face. As it came to light (we used pine boughs to brush dirt from crannies), we found a round, moony countenance in the forest floor that confronted us with one open eye and one closed, and a mouth three times too large for them, out of ratio. The face spanked of the ancient. Its lids were hooded; it winked at us, no pupil in the gray stone sclera of the open right eye. The nose was two dainty points. There were lumps at either side of the moon that suggested ears. We dug, but didn’t find neck or shoulders in the ravine’s floor. We dealt with the disembodied.
We breathed over the find and dabbed at the mouth itself with our fingers. The lips were closed, but they were thick and round, three-dimensional and strange. The environment had pocked the face almost uniformly, but the mouth had been spared. It was hard to stop putting our hands on the marbleized lips. They were indescribably smooth. Because of this—not even because of what came later—we immediately began calling the stone the Mouth.
Like compass points minus one, we knelt around the Mouth and retracted our hands for a while. Our eyes studied instead. What was it? What purpose could such a thing have? Was it really as old as it looked? Had one of our parents placed it here—another teachable-moment ambush? Was this homework skulking in the leaves? Parents had a way of transmitting their canons in what they thought amounted to discreet ploys, smuggling their histories and their classics and their paradigms past our low attention spans.
We played around the Mouth that afternoon and cleaned down its edges, framing it with earthy sweepings, our fingernails grimed to the quicks. When we left the ravine at the beck of mothers’ calls, we sheltered (hid) the stone face under those helpful pine boughs and scraped up the side of the gully and ran home for chicken suppers. Without forming a word, we agreed not to tell about the find in the trench in the middle of the toy wood. It wasn’t the first time we acted as a unit, but it was one of the last occasions when the unified thoughts of three beings didn’t snuff out autonomous minds altogether.
When we returned the following morning, the Mouth spoke the moment we dropped into a circle around it. Are you my boys? it asked us, ignoring the female fact of one of us. The lips didn’t move in the face but the atmosphere pressed around our heads and syllables bore into our ears on a rush. We were young enough to believe, deep down and despite logic, that such things were possible. We’d always longed for something outside the applicable laws. The sudden new wonder was a gift, better than the best folktales.
That was only the meeker cousin of a larger offering. What do you know? it asked us, and one of us imagined the Mouth’s sightless eye sized us up. We looked at one another; the question needed narrowing. No it doesn’t—what do you know about everything? it asked, ambitious about the scope of its query.
The one in our trio who liked to build forts gazed across the belly of the ravine at our half-constructed keep, braced against the roots of an oak. “Just sticks and stones,” came the answer. Better than nothing.
Sticks and stones, stories and visions.
“We’re just kids,” one of us challenged. “We know there’s more.”
That’s wisdom, the Mouth reminded us. A good start. Ask a question and touch the unopened eye, it invited.
The boldest touched the stone lid and puffed out, “What’s for supper tonight, at my place?”
Supper will be away tonight. The oven lights out at three-thirty.
We laughed, amateur skeptics.
“What’s the name of my sister’s next boyfriend?” another played.
Unlikely. “Who wins the game tonight?” was the final test—the Mouth wasn’t asked which of the many games was on the table.
Clifford, game, set, match. Habitants. Long Li-Peng. Oshawa, Sept-Iles and Gatineau. There are others.
We set our mouths and flexed our brows, tamping the names into our memories.
There is more to knowledge than forecasting, the Mouth taught. Want it all? All the way back to where it begins?
“You began in a ditch!” one of us taunted. We scratched the Mouth’s surface with our pine boughs and sprayed dirt over its eye. Fear made us impudent. It made us scramble away from the bottom of the ravine, back to the bright mown yards where barbecues and swing-sets and hazardous lawn darts made the world easy to talk about again.
The Mouth’s prophecies materialized: two of them that evening, the last four days later when a sibling came around to one of our houses with a teen decked out in a strange, clerical alias. The actualization of the Mouth’s forecasts compelled us back into the toy wood, where we hadn’t returned since the day we held a dialogue with a carved stone. For some time we straddled the heights of the ravine, eyeing what we could see of the Mouth through brush upset by rodents and weather. The earth frame we’d circled around the face had lost definition and grown grubby. We wondered if the Mouth could possibly know annoyance.
It wanted us anyway. Down, it communicated from the ravine’s bottom. The summons rose up the sides of the trench, scuffed through dead leaves and sun-warmed mulch, tapped our shoes and fuddled up our bodies to rest on the brims of our minds. We wavered, then tumbled as a threesome into the isolation of the gully. This is it, it welcomed.
We landed on our knees around it and blinked it in. The left eye remained shut, the lips wide as a jelly log. From the beginning? it offered us, a little knavish about its vindication. We nodded—all right. Hands on my face, it invited. Have everything.
The wit of the world, not just from the beginning dot of time, but from Dartmouth to Kobe to Bruges, razed our minds. Like weak wicks, the solitary, most-private ideas in our heads were extinguished. Thoughts mixed, melted down and were replaced with common denominators. Our new mind-unit swelled with everything. The Mouth was right: languages and theories and words set to metre, ancient counts and post-modern experiments taking place in the nearest city. If it happened, if it was, if it once had a light in a single human mind, it was ours. Much of it (at first) could not be understood by our new consciousness. It was enough to make our self panic a little, three flapping bodies under one weight.
That’s your concentration now, said the Mouth, well-contented.
It encompassed the mind of the world but in sharing it, the knowledge now sprang from a single point. Our self couldn’t do a thing without taking the sum of the past into consideration. But the data, the acquisition shored up our confusion, and three quivering heads gathered over the Mouth, hugging, learning to function from one perspective. The stone helped us with gentle mental prods until threats of nausea and alarm crept away.
It is too heavy?
We shook our heads, we wanted it. We felt we ought to want it and bear it.
Thank me, said the Mouth, and sank with an earthy, rustling noise back into the ground.
Still weak, flexing away our vertigo, our bodies retreated from the fresh mound of dirt and pulled themselves (off-balance) through the mulch of the trench, up the sides that fell away to leafy pieces under our hands, until three godly heads popped into sight. We viewed the landscape of our world through three identical lenses. We shared homes and memories. There was a transient thrill when we understood completely the definition of life in the suit of another sex. We began the long process of adjustment in our separate skin, in our conflated awareness.
We watched the neighbourhood yards from our vantage for some time, lying on our bellies over the lip of the ravine, spotting relatives through the toy wood. We partly envied them their mental privacies and we partly lorded our omniscience over them, silently smug, cracking twigs as we looked into our faces. At the time, we didn’t quite grasp the disadvantage of our wisdom.
© 2012 by Ranylt Richildis
Artwork © 2012 by Miles Tittle, reproduced with permission
(Originally published in Postscripts to Darkness Volume 2, 2012.)