She did not cross the river again until she was old enough to be the mother of the girl she was at last crossing. She left once night became gray morning and heaved a boulder before her threshold, for she meant to live where she worked, and carried only what she wore and the tools on her hip and the sack that hissed and clinked against it. The material would be there underfoot and all around when she arrived.
She waded through the river; at its channel, icy water lapped at her navel. Last time, she had shouldered through the current. She emerged and was covered by the comfort of a forest so ancient its trees were tall enough to cast their shadows on her. Looking about her feet as she walked revealed no footpaths or people on them. When the trees parted their dappled curtain to show her the valley, she was not surprised to see it still empty.
She would stay until the valley could be full again.
A stone valley, more quarry than verdant cradle of hills, still pitted with mortal industry even generations after its sudden flight. The lime pit she had dug into anew just a month before could be seen close by. She sat beneath the nearest rocky overhang to the forest, deciding it would be her bed, her hearth, her only home and workshop until the work was complete. That would not be soon; better to start at once, so she left her tools beneath the rock shelter and took only her handax back to the edge of the forest to lay low the first tree thin enough to wrap her arms around. She pushed against the trunk with her left hand and swung the sharp-edged stone of her handax into it with her right, and though the tree was no sapling—the bark was thick and the trunk steadfast—neither was she anymore, and the strength of her arm was enough to wrench groans from its roots before her swings brought it to the ground. Cut me, she thought, and I would have almost as many rings inside.
She dragged the tree down to the stone bed and destroyed it, segmenting and splitting, scattering splinters she would need to sweep before she slept there. No sleep yet, though; the sun was not even at its peak. She left the mess of fresh wood behind to inspect the far side of the valley, where the rock wall rose just above her head, not looking down at where she knew the outlines of building foundations and wide streets would be visible albeit eroded by wind, water, and time, long since she had shattered them with youthful strength.
Strange phrase. She snorted at the rocks and shook her head. Big and Little, all speak of youth spilling away as if one were a dam crumbling with years. I am a mountain: Time flows over me and cuts into me, sands my hair to gray and etches my knuckles like bark, yet I grow ever taller and deeper. Stronger.
She wielded her strength against the rock wall with swings of her handax that crashed into the wall’s thin fissures with the strength of centuries, each swing a generation of miners’ efforts. The valley echoed her handmade thunder for a distance. Every three swings she stopped to listen for Big or Little footsteps—Big could have obliged the handax to swing against something more yielding than rock.
But she was alone. The work continued. For hours, unbothered, she hewed.
She brought the stone back to where the wood chunks were, an armful of small boulders at a time. She had moved all of them by the hour of the sinking, pinkening sun. She left her raw materials to find food, almost hungry enough to reach up and pull down a tree bough and strip it with her teeth like certain forest megafauna near her size, but resisted the urge and went to the river to guddle a leviathan eel she could eat raw.
She slept where she would work, unblanketed on the stone.
She woke where she would work, roused by the sun.
Her hands knew the shape of the craft so well that she could have left them there and lived handless at home and come back a few months later to find the work all done but for a few matters of assemblage—But stay I must, she thought.
She knew from practice that these months would strain her fingers and cramp her eyes.
First, the pile of pebbles, pounded by her little iron hammer. Then a pile of slabs, one of middle-sized rocks… She shaped them once they were the proper size, with the thin edge of her chisel. They would fit together nicely once they met mortar.
Days of little stones.
In the sack that had hissed against her hip was a bowl and a brush buried within innumerable iron fasteners. She took out the bowl and brush and left all the tiny iron pieces within. Then she walked home—a quicker trip than when she had found the valley as a girl, before she thought a permanent home fit for Big people—to retrieve another larger sack from outside, filled with quicklime made in her kiln from the lime she had dug from the pit in the valley, needing only to be slaked by the river water.
There was someone Little on the valley side of the river. Local to the region, tawny (but less dark than she), and longhaired, getting redressed after a swim. She put down her sack and got on her knees before she spoke, which stopped him preparing to sprint away.
“Do you know who I am?”
“Do you live nearby? I will not hurt you, but I must know.”
“I am working in the valley. When I am finished, I must find you for your help.”
He pointed far down to the riverbend to where he had built a lean-to.
“I will see you some months from now, small friend.” She slowly stretched out one long sinewy arm to him and extended her index finger, palm up, so that he could press one hand against the pale pad of her finger. He did so, and they had made an agreement as the Big and the Little had done since before such things were written down.
They departed each other at sundown, so she returned to the river at early morning to check that he had not packed up and left—he had not—and to fill her bowl with fresh water. After drinking the bowl empty many times, she filled it and took the water back to the workplace. With it, she mixed a bowlful of quicklime into mortar and laid the bowl next to her and the stones she had shaped and piled. With all of these so arranged, she laid on one side and began to work.
The birds flying over the valley from one end of the sky to the other would have seen it filling up with open stone shells—square, rectangular, circular, octagonal, hexagonal, multisegmented. Their maker was working on a rock floor which redoubled the sun’s tyranny, baking her even darker, and compelled her to abandon her clothing on the worst clear days, modesty being made itchy. Her baths in the river were short, and the man at the riverbend saw her going back to work every other day and knew she was not finished.
One day her rock piles were gone and only the wood was left, and she was almost out of quicklime for mixing into mortar and layering onto the construction of her stone shells with her brush. She turned to the wood. Young eyes would have served better for such small shapings, but not young hands, untrained in the steadiness of stone, wood, and time. It was time, too, for the bag of iron. Once the smallest of her knives had shaved the last little beam for her pile, she moved from shell to shell on each side of the valley—for she had left a wide avenue between them in which to work, wide enough for the Little to walk up and down in crowds—and, with the aid of tweezers, joined her wooden beams into supports that fit into the tops of the shells.
Her project was never more onerous. Sweat stung her eyes as she manipulated these puny materials and she often had to stop and stare at a cloud until her eyes stopped aching.
Some nights the emptiness of the once-full place lowered all her years onto her at once and made it hard to breath. She would lie awake beside her tools listening for Big footsteps and wondering how bloodshot and ringed her eyes would look in a clear reflection, how much white the labor would have coaxed from her dense gray hair.
The morning she woke to footsteps might have coaxed a decade’s worth. A Big woman—lighter, younger; a girl, really—crouched before her rock shelter, swaying on the balls of her feet.
“You made this your place a long time ago, old lady,” the girl said, grinning.
“It is still my place,” the woman said, “until I am done with it.”
“You’re done.” The girl leaned forward onto her fingertips.
“With you, yes. I am bigger than you, do not be a fool.”
“Bigger, but not stronger.” The girl’s shoulders rolled, taut muscle flexed.
“I might step on some of your stuff if I leave this early,” the girl said.
The woman began to sit up creakily.
“Don’t hurt your knees, old lady.” The girl sprang forward.
The woman reached back and found the knife she used for fish and moved as if she had shed half a century the night before.
The girl was weaker than the tree had been. The woman left her body at the edge of the forest as a warning against Big mischief.
She used the leftover wood fibers for thatching, layering them carefully over the wood supports she had constructed. And after the days it took to do so, there were no more shells.
There were houses. Small, large, long, short; buildings big enough for shops or schools or large families. Ready for plaster, if the occupants chose to add it. Large openings in the sides for doors. Small holes in the sides for windows, once a glazier was prepared to go to work. Hers was done.
It had taken two Little generations for her to return and most of a year to complete once there, but she had finally left the valley the way she had found it.
She raced the sunrise to the riverbend man’s shack. He felt the tremors and came outside and looked high up at the woman, standing by the river with something cubic in her hands.
“I am finished,” she said. “Do you know where to find the children of the valley’s diaspora?”
“I am one.”
“Tell your people that they can return to the home of their grandparents. I unmade it in springtime, and I have remade it in autumn.”
“But… you started in summer.”
She smiled, and sunrise came early just for him.
“Never mind,” she said. “Bring them back. They will only be missing furniture.”
“Anything else you’d like to tell us?”
“Yes. I will have said it once they see what awaits them.”
She sank to her knees before his lean-to and warned him to step back with a sharp tilt of her head. He did so, and she swept away his empty shack, replacing it with the house she was holding.
“I made one extra.”
She left him and collected her tools from the valley and was gone before anyone returned to give its name back. Hers would be spoken there, too, in gratitude and bewilderment. But she would be far out of earshot—home, asleep.
Thanks to MonyaMonya for feedback that led to some edits for clarity.