If the undead creature could have shed tears, she would have. Instead, she opened her unblinking eyes as much as she could under the midday brilliance, and carefully observed the vista from above.
She was looking from atop one of the eastern mountain chain’s highest peaks. The freezing wind which raged against her would have killed anyone, be it by blowing them off the mountain or by freezing them beyond the point where all life ceased to exist. Luckily for her, the humanoid shape she called her “body”—entirely made from corpses’ fingernails—felt no cold and had the strength of a dozen people. She was sure this husk she now inhabited could withstand these inhuman conditions for as long as it needed to.
Because of this she could ignore the gale and, instead, she contemplated the panorama, paying special attention to the details. On the other side of the peak where she now stood there lay an evergreen valley. One which remained undisturbed by the biting wind and that human footsteps had never soiled. In the middle of that glen there was a knoll, not too high or too broad. Still, it was the most distinctive landmark on an otherwise plain lowland.
It fit the description perfectly. This was the place. It had to be.
“At… last,” she said with her voice that offended people’s ears—even her own.
An unconscious sigh of relief, both unnecessary and totally fitting for the occasion, followed that unpleasant sound. Her unfeeling physique didn’t need to inhale or exhale air, but she had to express her satisfaction somehow. She had been looking for this place for many years. Too many, in her opinion.
This was her chance to realize her greatest dream: to be alive. She longed to have a body that could feel the warmth and cold, which could see the beauty of the world. One that could enjoy the taste of food and water—that could breathe!
Her deepest desire, so long denied, was now within her grasp… And yet, she hesitated. She doubted whether or not to move forward. Even trying to be in the presence of Those who could grant her wish would cost her. And dearly.
You’ll have to lose your unlife, she remembered the sagacious girl’s words. Your existence is an insult to Them.
If she wanted to have a life—a true life, the opposite of this condemnation—she would have to sacrifice the one she now had, even without knowing if she’d be successful. She’d have to offer her unholy life force in exchange for the approval, guidance and, she hoped, final restoration of her self. She had to convince Ngenmongen, Master and Owner of Life, to give life to the corpse she inhabited.
She looked behind her. On the other side of the mountain chain lay a panorama she was intimately familiar with. The rocky, deep blue slopes extended to the north and south as far as her dry, unmoving eyes could see. And to the west, green upon green, endless rolling hills, soft dales, and lush forests were crisscrossed by sparkling courses of water. Antü, the Sun pillañ, illuminated everything with His golden brightness.
And yet to her lifeless sight all of that beauty appeared gray and dead—as dead as her own self. She had traversed that Land for a many a year and, in all that time, Her beauty and wonders had remained prohibited for her.
She couldn’t turn back. There was no point in coming back to the Land if she could not enjoy it.
She turned around once again, her face towards the knoll and, without any out loud words or mental declarations, she crossed the invisible threshold that separated one side of the mountain chain from the other. Thus she entered into the hidden valley, the renüpülli—the abode—of Ngenmongen.
She didn’t notice it but, as soon as she took her first step, she lost her first memory.
That memory had been one of darkness and dread.
It was a warm place. It reminded her of a mother’s womb, although she wasn’t sure why she knew it resembled one. She was also sure that it was different, because this place was dry when it should have been wet.
She immediately realized there was something wrong. Terribly wrong.
Her eyes felt stuck and unmoving, and she couldn’t feel the rest of her body. She tried to move, but there was nothing to move. She opened her mouth to ask for help, but a guttural shriek was all that came out of it.
Then a light appeared. It was dark red and dense, like blood that shone, and it illuminated the side of a shriveled face framed by gray, tangled strands of long, unkempt hair. The eyes that stared at her were black and inquiring, and the features around them did not look friendlier.
“Why are you making any sounds, Aylen?” Croaked the old woman as she got closer.
Her steps were slow and careful, and she looked as frail as a withered twig, and yet the so-called Aylen felt the desperate need to move away from her, to escape the old woman’s reach at any cost. She made an effort with all the strength and will she could muster, but she wasn’t able to move one inch. She couldn’t even look away.
“What are you trying to do, idiot?” The old woman’s expression was now less welcoming, if such thing was possible.
Aylen feared for her existence and open her mouth to challenge her when the old woman stood still. Her features soften and Aylen saw a new warmth in those fierce eyes.
“Tsk, tsk: be quiet, my boy,” the old woman said, caressing Aylen’s face. “You’re not ready yet. It’s not easy to make you whole, see?” She added while moving the dark red flames around Aylen to shed some light on the ground.
For the first time she could see anything besides darkness and the old woman, and she immediately wished she couldn’t. Surrounding her there were mounds of fingernails of all shapes and sizes, covering the floor on all sides as far as she could see, from bare rock wall to bare rock wall. Among the mounds there were corpses in various stages of decomposition, all of them with their fingernails pulled out.
To her dismay, the old woman grabbed a handful of fingernails from the floor and shove it into the zone where Aylen’s belly should have been. As the woman did so the blood-like light pulsated. At the same time Aylen felt an intense, sharp pain. She let out a desperate, pleading scream.
“Easy, my son,” the old woman said absentmindedly, ignoring Aylen’s shrills. “Soon you’ll be complete once again and the evil that whore of Aylen did to us will be over. And then…” She looked into her eyes with a determination born out of deep and prolonged pain, and the madness caused by it.
“Then we’ll be together forever,” she sentenced and she kept on torturing her.
That was one memory Aylen wouldn’t have missed if she knew she had lost it.
Instead, she took a step and had the sensation of forgetting something. She stopped, looked around, and tried to remember what it had been, but nothing came to mind. She shook her head, took another step and, unbeknownst to her, another one of her memories vanished—forever.
So it was that little by little Aylen moved closer to Ngenmongen’s abode. And for every step she took, a piece of her history as an undead disappeared as if it had never occurred.
After that first, powerful memory, Aylen lost all recollection of the painful days and nights the crazy old woman spent completing the horrifying carcass in which her spirit was housed. Then the memories vanished seemingly at random. The remembrance of the first person she killed, against her will, following her creator’s orders. The day before she discovered the hidden valley, when she awaited under the shadow of a mighty pewen tree for Antü’s brilliance to illuminate the world. The darkness when her monstrous “mother” died and Aylen’s tortured existence endured, even when the old woman’s other creations became dust in front of her eyes.
Thus, one reminiscence after another, the long years of her unlife were lost. Although now she couldn’t remember why, she kept on walking towards the knoll whose figure loomed ever taller with each of her strides.
At last, she took one final step and, together with the vanishing of a memory, she was right in front of the hillock. From where she stood the rock massif looked impenetrable. She could distinguish no entrance or opening. She walked around the mound’s girdle and, although she didn’t lose any more fragments of her existence, she also couldn’t find any sign on how to enter into the home of the Master and Owner.
She gleaned around her scarce memories in search of a clue on what to do. Her mind was now made of disjointed fragments without rhyme or reason. Among them only one contained information that could prove useful at this juncture.
It was the memory of her time together with the sagacious girl.
“I may be young,” said the sagacious girl, holding onto the staff’s shaft tightly, “but I won’t be an easy prey. I shall die fighting, not begging for mercy, wekufe.”
Aylen stared at the young woman with her unblinking eyes. The undead had encountered other living people before, but on every other occasion they had ran away, either screaming in terror or shouting ancient curses at her. Never before had anyone confronted her, not to mention daring to speak to her directly.
They were in the entrance to Aylen’s dwelling, a long cave at the foothill of the eastern mountain chain. This was the hall before the place, buried deep into the earth, where Aylen had been created. Although she had abandoned it numerous occasions, she always came back. Perhaps it was the people’s rejection, the lack of purpose of her existence, or the unattractive world under the sun, but the undeniable fact was that she felt drawn to retrace her steps back to her origin.
After her last experience in the outside world, however, she had decided she was returning to stay.
She was in the middle of her journey back when she encountered the young girl, sleeping besides the embers of a recent fire. Aylen was surprised for an instant and then decided that the best course of action was to avoid her and get out. She had just turned to do so when the girl woke up and declared her intentions, staff in hand.
“I… not… fight,” Aylen responded, lifting her hands up in the air and opening them to show that they were empty. She had spied people doing so they wanted to communicate that their intentions were peaceful.
The girl squirmed when she heard her voice… And then open her eyes and mouth in surprise.
“You… You talk?”
Aylen nodded slowly.
“Fascinating!” said the girl. “I mean: that’s unusual,” she added tapping her temple. “Oh, I’m sorry! Where are my manners? My name’s Kintu.” She bowed slightly. “What’s yours?”
The animated corpse ransacked her memory in search of an answer. No one had called her anything but wekufe… Except for her creator. She had used a name, but not a good one, no. It was a name she had mentioned together with “whore” and “evil” words that, as she discovered later, had no positive implications. She had always wanted to ask the old woman who was that Aylen and why she called her by that name, but she couldn’t do it before she died. In spite of that, it was the only name she had ever had.
“I… Aylen,” she finally said and clumsily imitated the girl’s bow.
“Well, Aylen: this will be a story worthy of songs, that’s for sure,” declared Kintu.
From that moment on the girl and the undead became inseparable. They spent years traversing the Wallmapu—the “Surrounding Land”—helping people and learning things from them. Aylen learned much during that time, including the key piece of information that had brought her back to that memory. The existence of the ngen, the Masters and Owners of Things, and of one in particular: Ngenmongen, Whose Domain Is Life.
Aylen had expected that the young woman would accompany in her quest, but around that time she fell in love and decided to settle down with her new wife in a community. Kintu had tried to explain to her what “love” was but, no matter how hard she tried, the moving carcass couldn’t understand the concept.
The day she saw her for the last time, Kintu got close to her and whispered in her ear.
“Ngenmongen will ask many sacrifices of you. They may ask you to surrender that which you lo… Appreciate the most. Do you know that that is?”
Aylen thought about their first encounter, so long ago, and everything they had accomplished together. All the people they had helped. All the things she had learnt.
She looked at her partner, now a fully-grown woman, right into her shining eyes, filled with life, and nodded.
“Then you’re ready, my friend,” said Kintu smiling. “Fare you well!” she added, with tears welling in her eyes.
The undead creature turned around and directed her steps towards the distant eastern mountain chain.
“What will you do when you succeed?!”
Aylen stopped, looked back, and said, “I… return.”
“Good!” said her friend and companion of so many adventures. “Come back soon!”
Many years had passed since then, and Aylen wasn’t sure Kintu was still alive. In spite of that she clung to the memory of the time they had spent together. It was the only memory out of her long existence that she treasured.
But the knoll in front of her was closed.
The undead touched the hillock’s side with both palms and, lowering her head, she whispered, “Kintu.”
The sound of rock moving startled her and she took a step back. In front of her, in the eastern side of the hill, there was now an opening. Nothing could be seen inside it except darkness, as Antü’s brilliance was quickly vanishing from the Land.
Aylen took a step forward and crossed the threshold to enter Ngenmongen’s renüpülli. When she found herself inside, surrounded by a suffocating darkness, she had no longer any recollection of Kintu or their time together.
Aylen felt that she was floating in a vast, deep dark sea. There was no light here, so she had no notion of up and down. She tried to move, but her surroundings resisted her.
She stopped moving and, in response, something rubbed against her. She suspected that They were inspecting her, obtaining information about who she was and what she was doing here.
“Ngenmongen?” asked Aylen out loud. Her offensive voice propagated like the waves a stone produced when thrown into a still lake.
Immediately the darkness and the thick substance dissipated.
She was now in front of the tallest pewen tree she had seen in her long-standing existence. Aside from the pewen there was nothing else here. The tree’s roots disappeared beneath a white surface, the same one Aylen was standing on. Apart from the impossibly tall tree—which she couldn’t see the top of—and herself, the only other things present were the white surface, which extended in all directions, and the light, which the undead creature couldn’t distinguish the source of.
She looked around with her ever watchful eyes in search of any clue on how to proceed. She tried to remember anything that could be useful in this situation, but all the extensive knowledge she had accumulated over the years about the ngen was gone. It had disappeared together with all her memories of Kintu and their time together.
Since she didn’t know what she was supposed to do, she followed her instincts. She bowed before the tree and, extending one hand, touched its bark with her palm.
She perceived a shiver traversing the pewen from its deep roots—beneath the white surface—all along its thin but strong trunk, right up until the lower parts of its leafy crown. She removed the hand from the tree, fearful of having offended Them without realizing it.
The shiver became a tremor, and the tremor became an earthquake. Suddenly the pewen collapsed and, as soon as it disappeared, all light vanished.
Then the light of Küyen, the Moon pillañ, illuminated the night.
Aylen was standing on a slab overlooking a great valley populated with trees of many shapes and sizes, crossed by a loud and mighty river, hundreds of feet below her. The sky was clear and dotted with blinking stars.
She was fascinated observing everything when she heard the sniffing.
She turned around slowly and saw the great puma circling her, their eyes staring up with lethal determination. Aylen knew for sure that, if the puma found her wanting, They would destroy her right then and there.
“I… search… Ngenmongen,” she said, and immediately regretted it.
The puma stopped moving and let out a loud growl. Aylen took a step backwards, but there was nowhere to run. The animal was in front of her; behind her, the sheer cliff. She raised his arms and opened her hands, half-remembering an occasion when that gesture had saved her carcass.
The puma growled again. This time the sound was not monotonous, but it contained variations of length and pitch. The undead creature was certain they were trying to communicate with her.
“I… understand… not,” Aylen said.
The moonlight disappeared and she felt the familiar warmth of the earth’s womb.
There was a little fire in front of her, out of which only the embers remained. Across from her there was an old woman with a long, unkempt gray hair. Aylen didn’t know why, but she wanted to get away from the woman.
“It would appear that you are not comfortable in the presence of this form,” said the old woman with neuter voice that didn’t match Their physique. “Is this one better, creature?”
The old woman was now a young girl holding a long, serpentine staff with both hands.
Aylen let out an unnecessary but fitting sigh of relief.
“Excellent,” said the girl with the same voice as before. “Now that I am in a form that is agreeable with you—and one in which we can communicate with one another—let me ask you something: why are you here?”
“I…” began Aylen, but discovered that she didn’t know how to express her intentions. She knew many words, but didn’t know to convey her desire with them.
“I mean,” the girl intervened. “I know why you are here—after all, I have almost all the memories of your life—but what I am pointing at is this: why have you come here? Are you not aware of your condition as an aberration? Your mere existence offends me and my own.
“You should not exist. You are the produce of desperate greed and disproportionate ambition, and your cursed existence should have ended along with your mistress’, long ago. What makes you think that I would help you instead of destroy you?
“I… want… life,” the undead creature said and, for the second time in a short while, she wished she had been able to shed tears. The emotions she felt were too much to express only in words. “I… help… people. I… am… people,” she declared, pointing with her withered finger to her own chest.
She surprised herself with these words. She had never thought of herself as a person. She had always considered herself as someone with the potential to be a person—once They had restored her— but, as soon as she heard those words, she knew them to be true for her. Even in her current condition she was already a person.
The girl observed her with intent and Aylen didn’t know whether the ngen was angry, bored, considering her declaration or a combination of all three. The crackling at the hearth and the appearance of a stray spark brought the girl’s attention back to the present.
“You are… special, there is no doubt about that,” she said, and Aylen felt she had heard similar words before. “You are playing with fire, you know?” she said, pointing to the embers and smiling for the first time.
“You should have stopped existing long ago, and you should have never had conscience. Yet here you are: existing and with a full, discerning conscience of who you are and what you want.
“You are an offense against my laws and, yet… You are right. I know you have helped people. Many people. And I know that you have done so without expecting anything in return. You may have been created out of a violation of the Customs, but you have upheld them throughout your cursed unlife. And that has been quite some time!”
Aylen nodded and produced her best attempt at a smile in response.
“Can something fair come out of something so foul?” asked the ngen, staring at the embers.
A time passed. Aylen didn’t know how much, but it seemed a lot to her. Too much. The silence between them was uncomfortable. The ngen kept staring at what was left of the fire.
“Ngenmongen?” she dared to ask.
“Ah?!” the girl shouted, as if she’d been awakened forcefully from a deep sleep. She look straight into Aylen’s eyes and said, “I’ve consulted with my Kin and we have reached an agreement. Your existence, abhorrent as it may seem to us, it is worthy.
“In this case we have decided to reward your behavior by granting you your deepest desire: a new life—
“New?” the undead interrupted Them.
“Yes, of course: new. You will this abandon this nauseating corpse and you will be born again from a mother’s womb, without any recollection of this existence.
“But,” Aylen protested. “But… I… learn… much! I,” she ransacked what was left of her mind. “I… knew. Understood. Before,” she declared, and lowered her head in frustration.
She wanted life—to be alive—and to enjoy the world in all its glorious colors, sounds, odors, and tastes. But the idea of being reborn and forgetting all she had accomplished and all she had experienced—even if she didn’t remember it anymore—it seemed to her… inconceivable. She wanted to be alive, yes, but she wanted to do so while still remaining her.
Now well, what was she? Had it anything to do with the corpse she inhabited? Before she would have said no, but the facts proved otherwise. She had only come so far because of that dead body. The same that had lasted for years of training and learning. The one with the strength to help countless people. The one that had endured the cruel weather conditions at the entrance of the renüpülli.
And her limitations? Well: they were part of who she was too. Her unmoving eyes that saw everything in shades of gray. Her ears that could barely hear. Her nose that had a hard time perceiving odors. And her tongue that hardly tasted anything.
She didn’t know who she had been before—if she had been anyone before inhabiting this corpse—but, truth be told, she didn’t care either. She was now someone. And she wanted to remain being that someone.
“No,” Aylen finally said.
“No?” asked the girl in disbelief.
“No… Thanks,” she repeated. “I… want… life. But I… want more… me,” she sentenced, pointing to her finger.
“As you wish,” said Ngenmongen and quickly lifted the serpentine staff before letting it fall on her head.
Aylen tried to move, but the ngen was too fast for her. She managed to look at the weapon as it descended upon her forehead and, unable to close her eyes, let out an unnecessary sigh while she prepared to see her existence quenched like a torch that’s put out suddenly.
The staff stopped an inch from her forehead. Then, and with a soft movement, the wood touched her skin made out of corpses’ fingernails.
As soon as it did, all the memories of Aylen’s long existence came back to her. She recovered each and every one of them, from her horrifying creation until her first encounter with Kintu. In an instant she felt more herself than ever before.
“Why?” she asked and, for the third time in a short period of time, she wished she could cry so she could express what she felt.
“Because you are not part of my Dominion, so I refuse your offerings,” the girl said smiling. “And because you deserve it,” she sentenced as she withdrew the staff and let it rest upon her crossed arms.
“Thank… you,” Aylen said and she bowed deeply.
“What will you do with your existence now, creature?”
The undead thought for a moment and, standing up, walked towards the opening she knew so well. She reached the threshold enveloped in Antü’s brilliance and, turning back, she said:
“I… see… Kintu. I… am… Aylen,” she added, and turned back to resume her march.
For the first time in her long existence, her voice didn’t hurt her ears.
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