I have my father’s copper skin and obsidian eyes. They are the signs that betray me as a child of this land, chiseled from its wind-carved mountains. They bind me to this place, even though the caverns now lie empty.
Our country’s people were miners, who spent their lives hollowing out the earth, in a chthonic realm where air faltered and sunlight was forgotten. They left their vitality interred deep underground, because choices were so few and human labor so cheap in this landlocked scrap of the world.
My father came from a family of traders, who knew the miners well. For generations, they collected precious minerals unearthed from this region and trekked northward across a long sandstone bridge with sixteen arches, into a country of rivers and lakes, where they bartered for plant and animal goods. The people of these mountains could not have survived without those goods. We each played our part, knowing no other way of life—miner, trader, farmer. Father and son.
My mother became very sick after I was born. She died when I was three years old, and with no other family left, I joined my father on his expeditions. I was a quiet and obedient child, as he had been before me, as his father had been before him. I didn’t ask many questions, and it wasn’t my father’s custom to offer many words. Even his praise took the shape of silence.
I remember being six years old and asking my father about the man who guarded the bridge that joined the two countries. I remember the man’s fingers, hungering for the coins that the travelers handed to him, his face, joyless. My father said that the man was the bridge’s tollkeeper and explained the role that he played. Yet something about it didn’t make sense to me. I was perplexed about why he had to turn people away. I found it curious that when he did, he appeared so empty of emotion, a foil to their distress. But I trusted my father, so I didn’t ask more questions.
Over the years of my childhood, the minerals pulled from the bellies of the mines diminished in size and radiance. Each time, it took my father longer to count out payment for the tollkeeper. Still, we never missed a trading cycle. Every season, we procured goods from the farms to the north, hauling back dried meats, berries, roots, and herbs, in a hand-drawn cart that followed the deep ruts marking our path.
When I was twelve years old, I noticed during one of our crossings that only travelers going to the lake region were required to pay the toll. Those seeking to enter the mountains were not stopped. I asked my father about that, as we waited to cross the bridge.
“The lands are different,” he said. “More people are headed north these days.”
“Why are so few people returning?” I probed.
My father was silent.
“The mines cursed this land,” he finally said.
I heard the passion in his voice, but did not understand it. There are things that you bury away when you are a child—foreign ideas and strange conversations—in the hopes that you can decipher them if you dig them up later and reexamine them as an adult. So I simply kept quiet and followed his gaze. We watched the travelers migrating slowly across the sixteen arches of the sandstone bridge, disappearing into the amaranth horizon.
The years of my childhood treaded on. Fewer rocks were excavated from the mountains, and many of the mines were sealed. The coins paid to the tollkeeper seemed to increase exponentially with each passage. Still, I learned the business of trading from my father. It was all he had known, and everything he knew, he taught me. Some things unknown to him, we were both learning for the first time—like how to turn away with our heads high, when the farms our family had traded with for generations no longer welcomed us:
“You have nothing of value to offer,” they said in the language of the north, before my father had a chance to unpack our cart.
Or how to remember that our worth was not measured by what we could bargain for:
“These are junk,” another farmer remarked, scarcely letting us inside when we interrupted his family’s repast. The gems my father held out glowed humbly beneath the man’s detached stare.
“You cannot eat rocks, you cannot drink rocks. We will not trade you anything for them,” he declared. The man turned back to the feast of fragrant breads, meats, and vegetables, victuals nourished to perfection by rich earth and harvested rainwater, served on platters of bronze and silver. His daughter, in a silk dress and flaxen braids, swept us out. Her verdant eyes would not meet mine, but I knew that girl. She had always worn braids.
My father’s last crossing occurred soon after my eighteenth birthday. On that trip, I asked him what would happen when there was nothing left of worth in the mountains. I asked whether we would make the country of lakes and rivers our home, whether we would be able to do that when the time came.
“The people of the north have harnessed the power of the sun, the wind, the waters. They have become proud,” he replied. “We may not be welcome there.”
I yearned to ask my father why nothing had been done to prevent this from happening. Perhaps it is a question he would have wanted to ask his father. But I had only just passed the threshold into adulthood. I was still gaining the courage to ask the right questions of those who had crossed long ago.
And then my father was not there anymore.
And I was embarking on my first expedition alone.
I knew my part—to follow in the footsteps traced by my ancestors. I began the journey across the mountains, my path whittling a jagged line from one mine to the next, as I sought out the ones that were not yet completely barren. I counted the money I still had left, guessing it would be just enough to pay the tollkeeper, and started down the trail to the sandstone bridge. No cart was needed. Everything fit—everything I possessed—in my father’s pack. My pace was slower this time. I didn’t think I would be coming back.
In my solitude, I thought of my mother. Once, I asked my father how she had died. I had little memory of her, and I wanted to know more about my past, about she who was my creator and source of life.
“It doesn’t matter now,” he had said. The response angered me. It was the only time I had felt anger toward him—this man of few words, who was the last person in the world to whom I remained connected.
“Was she sick?” I asked.
“In a way.”
“Was it unexpected?”
“No. The women of our country always die before the men.”
I was ten years old then, and I buried that conversation. I fumbled for it now, unraveling its threads, thickened by time, as I made my way northward.
My father and I were accustomed to reaching the border at dusk. Now, it was much later in the evening when I finally arrived at the sandstone bridge. A deep navy blanket had chased away the gloaming, and tenebrous clouds shadowed the harvest moon.
But enough light remained. In the moon’s spectral glow, I could see that I was standing alone, like a displaced statue, at the foot of an abandoned bridge that had been severed from the other side. Without warning, all of the questions that needed answering flooded my mind, and suddenly they seemed to mean both everything and nothing at once.
Yukyan Lam enjoys all forms of creative writing. This is her first published short story. Her non-fiction appeared recently in the second annual issue of Reckoning, and she currently serves as a prose editor for Typehouse Literary Magazine. She grew up on the East Coast, but spent several years in Latin America and South Asia, working on human rights, environmental health, and social justice. For the time being, she is fortunate to call New York City home. Follow her @yukyan_etc.