Not long before second landfall Leah saw the boy running, down from the holiest place. She’d been working, just straightened her back and wiped away sweat. Further down the rocky slope was her mother, also picking ruddy vegetables and mushrooms from the crags. And behind her, the vast openness, where the grey world and open skies passed them by.
For as long as recorded history, there was just the wide expanse of the dead dry stretching to all horizons. The air was hazy with dust and heat and the suggestion of distant smoke-pluming fissures. The landscape was featureless – the few gullies and hills not enough to guide by and ignored by all. Ignored most of all by the great behemoth, walking ever on, step by lumberous step.
Young as she was, Leah was only allowed to work a few hours before second landfall, the mark of the middle of the day. Any more and she would suffer the heat of a sun that never fully set. Each minute she worked she wanted only to return to the humid underbelly, where it was shaded at least, if not cool.
As the boy got nearer, she recognised him. Vin. Only a year or two older, the new Whisperer apprentice. He was running from the beast’s great head, from where the Whisperers gathered to commune with the behemoth in their secret words. None others were permitted. Leah gathered her pickings and headed down to her mother, where Vin would soon pass. Second landfall was close; like all her people she intuitively knew the movement of the behemoth.
By the time Leah was close enough to hear, Vin had already stopped nearby, bent forward to catch his breath. She envied him his secret knowledge. A year earlier she had been told not to bother seeking apprenticeship. ‘She’s too clumsy,’ one of them had told her father, ignoring her. ‘All legs, no balance.’ They thought she would slip and fall to the still earth if she ever tried to croos the behemoth’s neck to the sacred head.
‘Slow down’ Leah’s mother warned Vin. ‘You’ll pass out in this heat.’
‘Direct to Whisperers,’ Vin shook his head, panting. He heaved words out. ‘Big, big news.’.
‘What is it, boy?’ Others were gathering.
‘Whisperer Isa keeps the watch. I was learning from her. And today she saw the end. The end of land. She saw a coastline.’
He could barely get a word out, but Vin’s gasped breaths stunned everyone to silence. Coastline was a word of stories, like the lands above the clouds. A no-place, known from myths with unknown origins and meanings, the stories told to children.
‘Ridiculous,’ proclaimed Leah’s mother. But it sounded hollow.
Having caught his breath, Vin gave them a serious nod and continued on with his news.
‘What does it mean?’ Leah asked. ‘If the behemoth is marching to a coastline.’
Her mother scowled. ‘The land continues onward,’ she said the common saying like a mantra, ‘sure as the four landfalls.’ And as if to underscore the point, a moment later came second landfall.
Leah took the steps carved into the side of the ivory-stone back of the beast down to the underbelly. Since she was a young girl she learnt to un-see the heights, to walk sure-footed across the underslung rope-roads the crumbling steps. None had ever returned from a fall to the sun-bleached earth.
From the bottom of the steps she walked the rope-roads strung along the underbelly. Some people lived in caves burrowed into the body of the behemoth, others tied up bulbous woven pods, tilting with the sway.
At home, Nan Frieda was minding Leah’s younger brother, Yan. Frieda was sitting and smiling, eyes milky white. Yan sat cross-legged in front of her while Nan told one of her stories, of how their people had once ran through fields of grass. Leah only caught parts of it as she took the food she’d gathered into the kitchen.
‘One day there was a great war, and the clouds were all scorched away. And in the dryness, the great behemoth arose from there dust.’ Leah set water to boil on the small stove and used a little of what she collected that morning to make a soup. Were these just children’s stories, she wondered. Frieda had once been a Whisperer – perhaps the beast had told her its secrets.
‘Our people made a home of the behemoth, where the few clouds left would catch on the peak of its mountainous back and grant us a little rain.’
As Leah served the soup she repeated what Vin had said earlier. Frieda’s milky eyes were listless. ‘No. Isa is mistaken. There is no such place as a coastline anymore.’
‘But Vin was so sure,’ Leah pressed.
Little Yan was standing, looking from one to the other. ‘But everyone knows the land is forever and ever,’ he said, like they were playing a game.
Other Whisperers took Isa’s news more gravely. With looking glasses they made their way across the neck to the great head. People said they saw the legendary grey shimmer different from the far-off haze of the blazing desert. The foam of the sea.
Great minds assembled. At the constant rate of landfalls it was estimated that the behemoth would reach the coastline in as little as two weeks.
They tried all they knew, gathering at the behemoth’s head and holding counsel, urging it to change course. They speculated that once it touched such a vast ocean, the entire creature might turn to mud or sand and wash away. Or it might plummet into the depths, dragging down their entire community.
‘It’s all nonsense,’ declared Frieda over dinner that night. ‘We must hold faith.’ Many in the community agreed, though some—like Leah’s parents—were not convinced.
‘This is different,’ her father said. ‘This could really be the end.’
‘Every generation says the end will come.’ Frieda looked sour. ‘The behemoth will turn aside and continue on. On goes the sway, sure as the sun will stay.’ Leah’s parents could not argue this common Whisperer wisdom. They shared a quiet look, and sent the children to bed.
That night in her hammock, Yan tugged on Leah’s sleeve. ‘I can’t sleep.’
She let him climb and held him tightly, whispering Nan Frieda’s words over and over again to comfort the both of them. Why she wept, she couldn’t say.
The day came when the coastline was upon them. By the fourth landfall, the behemoth would be so far out into the ocean it would not even be a peninsula of bony earth protruding from the greyness. Still none knew what would happen when it touched sea.
After first landfall, the people gathered on the back of the beast and listened to the proclamations of their Whisperers.
‘Before this day is done,’ the Speaker pronounced, ‘Behemoth will sink below the depths. Our time here has ended. We must leave our home and take what little hope we can with us.’ People were angry at the Whisperers’ failure to change the beast’s mind but there was no time to argue. Many still wanted to remain at their home so younger Whisperers took up arms to enforce the proclamation. All would flee, there was no alternative.
Leah’s family returned to their rope-strung home and shared the news with Frieda. Her parents had already packed simple provisions, and now they loaded up everything they could carry into bundles on their backs. Even Frieda had a bundle over her shoulder. She wept as they prepared to go, ‘There’s no hope for us. We have failed our people.’
Lea’s father and mother helped Frieda out of the house and onto the rope-roads. Far below, the ocean roared and there was a strong smell of salt. Only Frieda wailed at the sound, but they were all afraid.
The clouds was the same grey as the far-beyond—thick and dark and strangely still. Below them, the roiling ocean, and the dark smudge of foam. The ocean continued on beyond the horizon, just like the plains of dust. Here clashed two forevers.
‘Why is the behemoth doing this to us?’ Leah demanded as she walked the ropes. She was holding Yan’s hand and following behind.
‘We must have done something terrible,’ Frieda shook her head.
‘The Whisperers should tell it to stop. Why won’t it?’
‘It does not always listen.’
Leah noticed her parents sharing a look they had shared many times while arguing with Nan Frieda. A look she recognised as doubt.
Hundreds of people were heading to one of the last legs still upon the earth, the hind-left, where an ancient spiral of steps carved into the ivory-stone untold years ago now led them to safety. The second leg was about to fall, and once the third rose up there would be way down. Leah could see a gathering of those who had already made it off far below, standing and watching their life disappear before them.
With Frieda slipping and crying out in frustration Leah’s family were among the last to make the descent. Behind them were the last of the Whisperers and the Speaker. With each step down they came closer to the dead earth and the vastness of the ocean. With violence one world clashed with the other.
How quickly they had abandoned all they believed in. At the first test, Leah’s entire community abandoned that which gave them life. And forever after she would only have a blind hope that somehow, they might find another way to live. She saw what none of her elders were willing to see. Like her parents, everyone had lost faith. They were not fit to lead the community down into the dirt and dust.
Leah turned. She was last in her family’s line, with her brother in front of her, and her mother, then Frieda and her father in the lead. None noticed when she began the climb back up. The descending Whisperers were not expecting her to run past them; she easily slipped past while they grabbed for her. She heard them chasing behind, calling her name. And the Speaker was no challenge, either, for he was old and near blind himself. But the Whisperers were not prepared to chase her far, their fear too strong.
The sky flashed, followed by tremendous thunder, as she ran alone across craggy stone and moss of the behemoth’s back. Hot rain fell against her face—not the gentle patter she knew, but thick and heavy.
Leah could not be afraid. Third landfall was close. Her lungs hurt as she ran, but she couldn’t think about that. Today, possibly the last day ever, she would do something she knew she had failed before. She meant to climb down make her way across to the head of the behemoth. And she’d do it in a storm.
Beyond the head was a world of clouds and water and horrible darkness, with lightning flashes warding her away. ‘I will be heard,’ she panted, swearing an oath as she came to the cusp of the stony back, ‘you will listen.’
Beneath the crust, the behemoth’s neck was affixed to some earthen body. At its top, the neck was narrow and treacherous. Stones slipped underfoot and the sway of the beast was an entirely different motion. It had been described to her as like falling; the mind could not make much sense of the movement.
Leah tried to focus only on the path, not the surging waters far below. She took a deep breath and dropped.
Slipping and toppling forward, her entire body slammed hard against the craggy flesh. She grazed her face, and her arms flailed for something to make the world stop moving. It was her legs that saved her; long, gangly, but strong. They slid outward, and pressed down against the bone.
The world continued spinning, though. Her entire sense of balance was thrown. Queasy, Leah scrambled. Then something terrible began. Third landfall.
What ordinarily seemed nothing more than the striking of a great bell now near threw her from her perch. Even experienced Whisperers had been lost to the dust crossing the neck at landfall. Though not consciously, Leah had been expecting it. She had stopped and desperately clung. The motion and tremble were so dizzying she dared not move until her head ceased its swimming and her stomach stilled. She wanted to go back, find her mother. It was too late. Third landfall had come and the last landlocked leg would even now be rising up, too high to safely jump. Far below, the ocean raged and Leah crawled on.
She both laughed and cried as she clambered onto the behemoth’s head. Never had she imagined walking on such sacred stone. When she reached the top, what she saw took away her power to speak.
The view was both terrifying and marvellous. The clouds hunched up across the horizon, stealing from her the bright open sky she had come to love. The ocean, too, frightened her, for never had she seen so much movement. Where these two worlds met, waves broke and land was washed away. But to sit above the world and look down on everything was exhilarating; incomparable to anything Leah had known. To sit astride the head of the behemoth was beyond divine.
But she was here for a reason. Dust and dryness. Solidity, certitude. All gone. Now there was only the storming unknown.
‘Behemoth!’ shouted Leah as forcefully as she could. The wind, threatening to throw her down, also stole her words. ‘Behemoth! Be still!’ With all the strength she had, Leah brought both hands down in a single fist and pounded the head of the beast. ‘Be still!’ she repeated, again and again, each with a fist to the bone until she was reduced to tears and bloodied hands.
From the behemoth’s great maw came a long and shuddering sigh more frightening than thunder. This, she knew immediately, was no spoken word. This was something else.
She knelt there, sobbing and gasping. The behemoth made no further sound. There was only the wind and the slow rhythms of the ocean. It was some time before Leah was conscious of what her body already knew. The great behemoth was still.
There it remained for some hours, though time no longer made sense without the rhythm of the behemoth. The people stood on the black dusty sand and watched as their world came to a tumbling end, surging forward and pitching downward until it sunk. All was submerged but the arching back, which stood tall with waves crashing at its shores.
From the dark clouds came rain in torrents. At first, the people didn’t know what to do. Leah’s parents pleaded an attempt to find her, though most assumed she was dead. Instead, people found driftwood and ancient planks of timber, barely strong enough to form shelter against the weather.
After a few days, as food and water ran thin, most of the Whisperers agreed that the risk might be worth the reward. No one could be sure any longer how many days or hours would have passed, or for how much longer they might live. A vessel was tied together of rotten driftwood. Leah’s father and others ventured into the surf and paddled out past the breakers.
To come upon the behemoth in such a way mortified them all. The more superstitious made signs to avert evil as they came ashore. Leah’s father noticed almost immediately how much greener the moss of the mountain looked, how many more mushrooms grew in the crags.
They found Leah sitting atop the crest of the mountain watching the storms roll in and the waves fall on this new, still land. ‘It isn’t the same,’ she told them as they led her back to land.
She didn’t speak again until her small brother came running up to her. She lent down and gave him the biggest hug she could, kissing his head. Her mother and Nan Frieda stood behind. She was tearful and glad to see them all.
‘Leah!’ squealed Yan in his excitement. ‘You’re a true Whisperer! You stopped the behemoth.’
‘And the ground there is greener,’ her father told anyone close enough to hear. ‘We might even be able to grow food there again.’
Yan ignored him. ‘Tell us how you did it. Did you speak to the behemoth?’
Leah was quiet. During her days alone she didn’t like to think about what had happened. At first she believed the beast had listened to her. She commanded it be still, and so it was. But, long before it pitched forward and fell, Leah knew it hadn’t listened. Worse, she had a deep and dreadful sense that it had never listened, perhaps had never even noticed them, burrowing into its flesh. For all the hushed whispers, the behemoth had never been in commune with the people. It had been making a long, slow march to its end.
It had sought the ocean, for the behemoth was a creature of the land and like all who live and dwell in life, it sought a place to pass on.
This revelation came to Leah in the following days. Her own grandmother had told her that the behemoth would listen. The Whisperers were all full of falsehoods. And now all their homes were buried in the deep ocean and they’d been abandoned by the place they knew as home.
‘Leah? Did it talk back?’ Her brother stared up at her. ‘You made it stop for us?’ There was such hope in those eyes.
‘Yes, Yan. The behemoth laid down its life for us, to make us a new home. It listened.’
In time they made new lives on the island. And Yan would always find Leah on the mountaintop, even as the ever-raging storm continued, and nothing of the wide-open she had once found hope in remained.