The stone arc had guarded the valley for centuries without giving up its secret, but I knew. It was a symbol of triumph erected by a gloating, murderous bigot.
Ghosts whisper the tales of days gone by, and those days were unpleasant. The time would come when they would rise up and take their revenge–this, my father taught me since I was very young.
A white man had built the arc, he said. It was there to mark his land holdings on the western side of the valley and to proclaim his victory over my people.
“Such a victory it was,” Papa said. “He and his people brought a plague among the human beings, and we died by the hundreds. Weakened and starved, we were easy enough to defeat and drive away from our home. But still, he was so proud of his great accomplishment that he erected a monument to himself. Coward!” He spat on the ground.
“When will the Spirits rise, Papa?” I asked.
“No one knows this, my son. But there will be a great battle, and few will remain here. I believe even the human beings will be gone from the earth–most of them. Those who remain will have to learn a new way to survive.”
My father picked me up and sat me on the wall that had been built at some point in time, behind the arc overlooking the valley where our clansmen had once lived, free and healthy. “Look, my son,” he said. “There are people living down there, as our ancestors did long ago. But perhaps that will not be true for much longer.”
“It’s a town, Papa. What could happen to it?” I was ten years old, and therefore knew everything. “I don’t believe in ghosts!”
My father laughed, a whooping sound that came from deep in his belly. “Oh, my son!” he cried. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe the Spirits will never come, and all the world will live in peace.”
My blood ran cold; you’d think a father’s laughter would be a cheerful thing, but in this case, you’d be wrong. I knew in that moment that my father was right–there were ghosts, and there would be repercussions that I could never imagine.
My daughter Penny and her friend Sid sat where I once sat, looking down at the town in the valley below. Morty sat leaning against the wall, facing the other way and sipping from a canteen. We had taken Dale’s old Volkswagen Bug from the underground parking early this morning, and had driven for hours to get here.
We could have made it sooner, but Morty insisted we stay off the old Interstates and take back roads. He’s right, of course. There aren’t many people around these days, but it’s best to avoid the ones who are left. As far as the children know, we’re the last people on Earth.
Penny turned and glared up at me. “What are we doing here, Dad?” she asked. “Grandpa won’t like it.”
I would love to say that Penny has just reached that pre-adolescent stage where it’s cool not to like her parents, but the truth is she hates me.
Okay, that’s harsh. She loves me, you know. But she kind of hates me, too. I don’t blame her; she can’t help it. She tries not to; I can see the struggle in her every day. But she can’t forget that on the day she needed me to be the hero and save her mother’s life, I failed. And she can’t forget that on the day when her mother was first taken from her, I wasn’t there at all.
She’s only twelve. That’s too young, I think, to tell her about watching her mother die, helpless to stop the man who bludgeoned her and threw her out the door before I could shoot him dead. It’s too young to explain that I knew perfectly well that the satisfaction of seeing his head explode seconds later would never make up for the loss of losing the woman I loved. She already knows I failed to save her mother; she doesn’t need to hear about the pain it causes me, when she has so much of her own pain to deal with.
I offer this as a slight explanation of her tendency to get snarky with me. She mentions her grandfather’s displeasure as a way of reminding me that she, at least, answers to a higher power.
Sid, bless him, was having none of it. He gave her an impatient nudge and asked me, “Do you think there’s anyone down there, Mr. Vance?”
I can’t break him of that “Mr. Vance” thing. He and his brother were brought up by southern women before this all went down, and the manners are deeply ingrained. I don’t know why I’m complaining, except it makes me feel kind of old.
“I don’t know, Sid,” I answered. “I’m leaning toward ‘no’, though. What do you think?”
Morty had binoculars raised to his eyes, and he was studying the town carefully. He lowered them for a moment to regard his foster-son, interested in his answer.
Sid frowned and looked back into the valley, taking his time. “Well,” he said, “I can’t see as good as Da, but I don’t think anything is moving down there…”
“As well,” Penny interjected.
“You can’t see as well.” Penny gave him one of her patented exasperated sighs.
“Okay, teacher,” Sid agreed amiably. “I don’t see anything moving, is what I want to say.”
“Neither do I,” Morty agreed. “Place looks deserted. I can’t find a single vehicle.”
I nodded. That was about what I’d expected.
Morty handed the binoculars to Penny. She raised them eagerly and started fiddling with knobs to adjust them. “Why are we here, Vance?” he asked. “Your kid’s right; Dale wouldn’t like it if he knew we’d gone so far.”
I sighed. “I don’t answer to Dale,” I replied testily.
“Never mind that,” I added. “I grew up on the reservation near here. My people–”
“You’re an Indian?” Sid exclaimed.
“Native American,” Penny corrected impatiently. “Jeez, Sidney!”
“Whatever,” I said. “It hardly matters at this point, does it?” I shook my head at Penny, who was ready to argue her point. We didn’t have time for it. “I just wanted to tell you about the curse my people claimed had been put on this valley.”
Penny was immediately silent and attentive. I have to hand it to her—she loves to learn. She’s a bit of a pain in passing her knowledge on to others, but she’s not always going to be this obnoxious. I hope.
“What curse?” Morty asked. “I didn’t know you were from around here, Vance.”
“About an hour that-a-way.” I gestured with my head. “Reservation kids were bussed here for high school. Until then, I went to school on the rez.”
“So you graduated from here?”
“How’d you meet mom, then?” Penny demanded. “She lived in the city with Gramps and Gran. That’s far!”
“I finished high school here and got a football scholarship to college in the city, where I met your mother,” I replied.
“She was a cheerleader,” Penny told Sid. “I saw pictures…before.” She looked back at me. “Why’d you curse them, Dad?”
“I didn’t do it,” I said. “It was done long before I was born.”
“What was the curse?” Morty repeated.
“There was a rich man who came from the East,” I said. “He wanted this valley. It had rich soil for planting, plenty of grass for cattle, plenty of water.” I swept an arm from left to right, indicating the land below. “Even now, you can see the promise of the land.”
Everything was green. I could see that even now, there were flowers and trees and other plants prospering without interference from people.
“This man paid to have smallpox infested blankets and clothing delivered to the tribes in the valley and in other areas. It nearly wiped the Native People from the planet. Those who were left were so weakened that it was easy to cart them off to the reservations.”
“That’s horrible!” Sid cried.
“The People prayed and cried to the Ancestors to help them. They put a curse on the valley and all the stolen lands. One day, it was said, the Great Spirits would rise up, bringing a great battle that would drive the thieves away.”
“I think it worked,” Penny said. “There’s no one down there, is there, Dad?”
“I don’t know, Penny,” I admitted. “But I mean to find out.”
“Vance,” Morty cried, “no!”
“We can’t take the kids down there.”
“We? Oh, no,” I said. “You and the kids are staying here. I’m going in alone.”
“Daddy, you can’t do that!” Penny grabbed my arm, and the binoculars she’d been holding dropped to the ground.”
I pulled away from her as gently as I could. “I’m not afraid of ghosts,” I told her.
“Neither am I!” she insisted. “But there might be…be people down there.”
I nodded. This was true, after all. “And?” I asked.
Her jaw tightened and her chin lifted in defiance. I braced myself for her answer. “Maybe you think I’m stupid,” she began.
“Never,” I said.
“I’m not afraid of ghosts; but Daddy? I am afraid of people.” Her eyes met mine, unwavering. “Please don’t go down there. Please.”
I hesitated. I looked from her, to Morty and then to Sid. They shook their heads at me.
I considered it. I looked at Penny, whose eyes were pleading with me to see reason. To see that she could never bear it if she had to lose me, too, after losing her mother.
If there were people down there, would they be friendly to a man they might see as an enemy because of the color of his skin? If spirits had visited here, would they have seen them and now recognize me as one of the same bloodline?
I conceded that Penny had every right to be frightened of people. Even in a world where few remained, there were still those things to be considered.
What a pity!
I looked down into the valley below, where I could see no sign of human life. But I knew—they were all gone, fled to other locations or long dead. Did I really need to go down there to verify what I knew in my very soul to be true?
At last, I said, “There’s no one down there. I don’t have to go and look to know it—I can feel it in my heart.”
There were audible exhales of relief from all of them.
Penny took my hand. You can’t know how good that felt—she’s generally standoffish. I smiled down at her and said, “Let’s go home.”
“Yes, Dad. Let’s go home.”
I didn’t expect this to mend everything between us. Penny has always been her own person, and a difficult one at times. But I love my daughter with all my heart; I will never see a need to make things harder on her than they have to be.
She held my hand all the way back to the car and let me buckle her in. I took it as a small victory and cherished it.
Mort took the wheel and we went home to face the music with Dale.
This image was a prompt from Writers Unite! Penny’s world called out to me again. This story is told from the perspective of her father, Vance.