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The Giant by Joe Shlichta

 

Joe Shlichta is from San Pedro, California. He is a painter, illustrator, writer, and bartender. He lives in Seattle with his wife and son.

Editor's Choice (Matthew) - 2015 Raymond Carver Contest

 

Reina was six years old when her father took her up the long winding mountain road to see the dying Giant. She remembered there was a soft knock on the door while it was still dark outside. Her father rose, and in her half sleep, she heard her uncle’s voice in hushed, urgent tones. When she climbed down from the loft in the morning and came to the kitchen where the family had already gathered, she was the last to find out what everyone already knew: the Giant was sick, perhaps dying. He was, after all, very old, even for a giant.

Her father announced that Reina, and only Reina, would come with him that morning. This caused an outburst from her brothers, who had assumed they would go up to the Giant’s home in the mountain pass with him. After all, he would need help carrying the blankets and food, and what good was a baby girl, Gustavo cried. Her father silenced him with a cold look from under his dark brows. He was a tall, dark, and silent man, who commanded a quiet respect in the village. Reina had never known him to raise his voice, especially to her, and her brothers were quickly silenced by his statement. “Only Reina will come with me. She has never seen the giant, and this may be her last chance. Besides, there is too much work today to spare any of you.” It was early autumn, and the harvest was just beginning. 

So it was that the boys went off to the fields while she and her mother stayed and loaded the wagon with food and blankets. She watched the three of them walk away from the house toward the fields: Gustavo, the eldest, stiff and upright in his indignation; Conrad, the dreamer, already having forgotten the morning’s quarrel, eyes off on the horizon. Only Stefan, her favorite brother, always with an irrepressible humor, gave Reina a quick kiss before leaving and whispered in her ear, “Give the Giant a kiss for me.” She climbed in the wagon beside her father, and her mother stood in the doorway waving goodbye. Her father flicked the reins, and the horse started moving. They pulled out of the yardand headed up the road through the village and into the mountains.

Everyone knew about the Giant, how he had lived in his cave in the mountain pass for at least seven generations of villagers, how he had come down during that terrible flood when the bridge washed out and stood in the river and patiently carried each person and wagon across. “There are good giants and there are bad giants, just as there are good people and bad people.” her father told her as they followed the procession of carts winding up the mountain road. “Luckily for us, this one is a good giant.” He had come to live up in the mountain pass a long time ago, and giants live for a very long time. The early founders of the village maintained a good relationship with him, providing him with an ample share of the crops and livestock in exchange for manual labor. It was said that many of the huge stones that made up the foundations of the church had been carried from the mountain by the Giant. And now the Giant was sick, very sick. A hunter had discovered him lying outside his cave breathing heavily and raced down to the village to bring help.

After several hours of climbing the steep mountain road, they reached the pass and saw that most of the villagers who could be spared from the harvest were already there. The road snaked between two sheer outcroppings of boulders and arrived at a wide expanse that overlooked the entire world she knew. She understood why the Giant had chosen to live in this place. Behind her, the mountains raised their stony backs into the clouds, but in front of her, the entire valley lay below her in a rich carpet of green and gold that stretched as far as she could see. There, that tiny twig of stone rising out of the carpet, that must be the church steeple of her village. And there, that bright silver ribbon that someone had carelessly thrown on the rug, that must be the river. She had never seen the universe she knew reduced to miniature and could have stayed looking at it all day, but the activity behind her pulled her away.

These are the moments that Reina, as an old woman, strains to remember. She now comes to see the tragedy of such a sight thrust upon a girl of six, the age at which everything is a marvel and all things assume equal importance, whether it be the sun darkened in an eclipse or a spider crawling across a leaf. 

It was autumn, and a bright, clear day. She remembers that vividly. She turned and the first thing that caught her gaze was the sheer side of the mountain that faced her, lit by the morning sun, pink veins running through the immense boulders. There was a huge gaping fissure that she assumed must be the Giant’s cave. And then she saw the ground before the cave. Most of the women from her village were there and many men. First she saw them, and then she saw that what they were gathered around; it was so large that she had not seen it at first, as if it were part of the mountain. The Giant lay, in all his immensity, on his back, unmoving. Most of the village was around him, fussing, talking, but next to him, they seemed as insubstantial as dandelion seeds blown up against a boulder. Had he chosen to, the Giant could have swept them all away with one hand.

She walked up to the crowd, stood next to the Giant, and looked up at him. She reached out and touched one of his hands. He was warm. Exactly how big was he, she wondered later. She was a child then, and a small one. But her father would have fit comfortably in the palm of the Giant’s hand. Some of the younger men were busy laying sticks alongside him to measure his complete length, a subject that was argued about for years later in the village. When Reina was much older and saw a whale surfacing alongside the ship that carried her to the New World, drifting with the ship for a moment before sinking back down into the depths, and she thought, That’s how big the Giant was. As big as a whale.

He was obviously sick. His breathing came in great wheezing gasps, the sound of winter wind racing through the pines. He took no notice of anyone around him. As the day was bright and warm; they had made a tent out of horse blankets and set it over his head to shield him from the sun. And as the nights were already cold, they had a fire burning close by and were busy draping his torso with various blankets. She watched her father struggle with some other men to fling the horse blanket over the giant, it seeming no larger than a handkerchief on him. The women had a large pot over the fire in which they were making a broth. Periodically, they would fill buckets with it, and several men would climb up to the Giant’s mouth, try to pry it open and pour the broth in. This was usually unsuccessful, as the Giant did not seem inclined to drink, merely letting out a sigh and turning his head, and the broth would run down his cheek and to the ground. Only once did they get him to swallow, which was a cause of great excitement.

Reina had no recollection of ever feeling frightened. As a child, she took her cues from adults around her, and no one there seemed to be at all concerned about being in close proximity to a creature so immense. At one point, she remembered the Giant stirred while several women were climbing up near his mouth with a bucket of broth. The bucket was almost spilled, and the women had to scramble to keep from falling off the ladder. But there was no panic, no outcry of danger, only a clucking and chattering of annoyance, as if a child overturned a glass of milk. No one seemed threatened at all. 

He was an old giant, she realized, as she walked around him, staring. His hair and beard were white, and it felt like a horse’s mane when she reached out to touch it. He was clothed, but barefoot. She touched the sole of his bare foot, and it felt like warm wood. She walked around the entire bulk of him, staring, touching. No one paid her any attention. No one bothered to answer the numerous questions she had: Where did he get his clothes? What does he eat? Where does he go to the bathroom? Questions that would remain unanswered all her life and come back to her in her old age. 

She wandered around the Giant for most of that autumn afternoon. One of the old women from the village took her aside and fed her some soup and bread, fussing over her, as she was used to adults doing. She remembers wandering over to the entrance to the Giant’s cave, staring into that black gap in the face of the mountain but not having the courage to go in. But the memory that stands out the clearest is later in the afternoon, just before they left and her father told her to get her things. It was getting late and they wanted to be back home by dark. She remembered Stefan telling her to give the Giant a kiss for him, and she ran back to him and stood next to the great head, not quite knowing where one kisses something so big. She thought of her father’s kisses on her forehead and stood on her tiptoes and kissed the side of the Giant’s head. The Giant then moved. She jumped back quickly as his head rolled slowly toward her, and suddenly she found herself looking directly into one of the Giant’s eyes. The eye was the cool grayish blue of winter sky, and she saw herself reflected in that eye as big as her head. For a long moment, Giant and girl regarded each other. Then the Giant let out a long, weary sigh, closed his eye, and turned away.

Her father was very quiet all the way down the mountain road. She asked him if the Giant was going to get better. “It doesn’t look like it,” he said. And then she curled up in the blankets in the wagon and went to sleep.

The Giant died during the night. The news was all over the village the next morning; the church bells chiming somberly for most of the morning. The men assembled in the square, talking quietly. Her father left with the wagon for the mountain pass the next day, carrying tools and loads of wood with him, but this time it was Gustavo who went, and Reina stayed behind to help her brothers and bring food and water to them in the fields. Then, the cat that lived in the barn had kittens, and she was preoccupied with the kittens for the next several weeks. Had she not been so fixated on the little creatures, stumbling and mewing on the barn floor, she might have thought to ask her father or brothers the questions that now nag at her. What happened to the dead Giant? Did they bury him, or did they just let him sit out there in the open for the crows to pick at? And if they did bury him, how on earth did they do it? But by the time she thought to ask, there was no one who could answer.

Two years later, her father followed the Giant in his exit from this world, dying during his sleep. She remembers standing at the bedside staring at the still form, thinking it a copy of the man she knew, a wax model, but not the real man. She kept waiting for him to reappear, as if he would just walk in from the fields again, sit down at the table, and take her on his lap, but he never did, and eventually she stopped expecting it. Within a year, the family moved, leaving the village that was the entire world she had known for a larger town west, a long journey of six days through mountain roads by wagon and then down to the plains, wheat country. There the family moved in with an uncle, and Reina remembers the next nine years only vaguely, the dawn chores on the big rambling farm, walking through the wet grass to the barn, the soft snorts from the cows waiting to be fed as the snow blew outside. 

She learned quickly that the Giant was not discussed outside their home village. Whenever she brought up the topic, as she often did, she was quickly silenced by her family. Gustavo was particularly indignant at any mention of the topic, and her mother would sigh and look away. Only Stefan talked about it with her when they were alone, and she clearly remembers a conversation they had about the Giant while they were out in the field trying to find a cow that had strayed. 

“We don’t talk about that out here, Reina.” But he said this softly, gently, as if it were something she didn’t know and he was only now telling her.

“Why? Why do none of you want to talk about him?”

“Because some people, especially people out here, don’t believe in such things.”

“Why not?”

Stefan was silent for a moment, perhaps trying to explain what he had never had to put into words. “Maybe some things are just too incredible for anyone to believe. I’m not sure I would believe it, had I not seen it myself. Best not to say anything, then.”

Then, Conrad was gone. He had been racing the stallion around the fields with some of the other boys and had been thrown from the horse. When they carried him in and lay him on the bed, Reina knew something was not right. His eyes were open, but he did not respond to any sound or touch. He laid there for two days, not moving, only breathing. And then one morning he was cold. Her mother did not stir from her bedroom for weeks after that. Reina began cooking soup for her mother, taking it in to her, and convincing her to eat. Her brothers sat at the table and talked in low voices. 

Gustavo convinced the family to move again—this time to a big city in another neighboring country. “There’s nothing for us here but hard work and poverty. At least we can have a chance at making a better life for ourselves there.” He craved opportunity and insisted they all come along. And so it was that the four of them packed up their scant belongings and bid farewell to the uncle and cousins one spring morning and set out once again.

Reina had never seen such a place before and spent her first month in awe of all around her. The crowds of people filling the tree-lined boulevards, the smartly dressed men and beautiful women lingering in the cafes late at night. It was difficult, yet thrilling. The language was unintelligible at first, but she slowly began to make sense of it, and within a year, she was speaking fluently, much better than her mother or brothers. A distant cousin had found them a small flat across the river, and there, they shared one room, rising early in the freezing morning to make it to the filthy bathroom down the hall. But Reina was constantly enchanted. There was so much to see in this city. Museums full of beautiful paintings, palaces with immaculately trimmed gardens. The streets were full of automobiles, and here, horses were rarely seen, pulling the rag pickers carts in the the dawn hours. She found work in a factory and went to school in the evenings. There, she was introduced to the world of books and discovered the rapture of being transported to another time and place within neat white pages. 

She made a friend in her school, who came from her home country. Her name was Leti. She was small and lively, and Reina liked her at once. They were together in all their free time, exploring the endless tapestry of the city streets. They discovered that men paid attention to them, flirting on the sidewalks and calling from cafes to come and join them. At the same time, Gustavo became more controlling of her, demanding to know where she was going, insisting she be back by certain times. Luckily, his job as a druggist’s assistant kept him occupied too much for him to have any real control over her. Stefan took to the city as eagerly as she, staying out in cafes to play music with his new friends. He had always played guitar at home and had fallen in love with the exciting new music he heard in the city. She and Leti stopped by the cafes where he played guitar with a small quartet, winking at them across the room while young men asked them to dance. 

Then the war came, and all the light and liveliness she had found in the city blew away with the chill of autumn in the air. People read the newspapers in grim silence, huddled around the radio in the evening. Her brothers both were called into the military, and she and her mother saw them off at the train station, crying and hugging amid crowds of other mothers and sisters and wives doing the same. Gustavo was grim and serious, but Stefan could not even take this too seriously, assuring them he would be back before long, as there were too many pretty girls waiting on him. Reina cried as he waved to her from the train window, crowded in among so many young men in matching uniforms.

Soon the planes were flying over the city, and explosions could be heard in the distance. She became a nurse and worked in a great cavernous hospital, often having to rush down to the basement when the bombs were falling, waiting through the night and listening to the thunder in the city overhead. Soon they began to see wounded and dying soldiers coming back from the front. 

One night, a dark-haired young man with shrapnel in his shoulder asked her name. “Reina.” He said her name and rolled it around in his mouth, tasting the flavors of it. “My name is Karel. Reina, they will send me back to the front as soon as I am well. If I get back, will you let me come see you again?” 

He was handsome and polite, so she told him yes, but did not expect to see him again. The war was dragging on, and half the city was already destroyed. That was another long bitter winter, never enough to eat, the city quiet and gloomy with all the young men gone. And when they thought it would never end, it finally did. The few surviving men began to trickle back to the ruined city, and one spring day, Reina came home from shopping to find her mother weeping in the bedroom and a gaunt soldier leaning on a crutch standing in the living room. It took her a moment to recognize Gustavo. He brought the news that Stefan had been killed on the front. 

She felt as wounded inside as so many of the soldiers she treated were on the outside, but there was little time for mourning. She was needed at work, and the stream of terribly wounded soldiers returning kept her constantly occupied in the hospital. One beautiful spring morning, she was helping a soldier learn to walk with his crutches in a corridor of the hospital. The sun was streaming in through the open windows, and the birds were chirping in the trees outside. She heard her name spoken, looked up, and saw the young dark-haired soldier, Karel, thin as a snake, standing in the doorway, looking at her.

“Reina, I’ve come back. Will you have dinner with me?”

They were married seven months later. It was a small service in the registrar’s office. A few surviving members of Karel’s regiment were there, as was her mother and Leti, who both cried and held her. Gustavo was drunk and fell asleep in the restaurant, but Reina didn’t care, and she danced with Karel while the patrons of the restaurant stepped back from the dance floor and clapped. Several women she did not know were weeping, and only later did she understand the potent symbol of a young couple pledging a life together as a city sat in ruins around them. They rented a flat in one of the buildings still standing and began their life together as husband and wife. People had begun to come back to the city, and everywhere new buildings were rising out of the old. There was activity everywhere. But Karel had different opinions about the future. He began to bring up the idea of leaving, moving far away, across the ocean, to a completely different continent. Reina was hesitant to leave the only family she had, but then her mother was struck by a motorcar while crossing the street laden with bags of food. Tomatoes and carrots went flying all over the sidewalk. She died in the same hospital Reina had worked in as a nurse during the war. Reina sat by her bed and held her hand as her mother slipped away from her during the night, following her father and brothers into that quiet country. Two months later, she said goodbye to Gustavo, the last of her family, and left with Karel to board a transcontinental ship. She turned in the taxi to wave goodbye, the both of them crying, his lonely figure standing on the curb and growing smaller until they turned the corner. 

Reina at seventy years old is a widow with three grandchildren. Karel died two years ago, when his heart finally gave out on him after several ignored warnings. He was stubborn until the end, and when the heart attack that finally took him came, he was out in back of the house cutting firewood. He felt the pain coming, put down the axe, and quietly sat down on a bench, where he died. Reina came home that evening and saw his quiet form sitting out in the twilight. She had dinner ready and went out to call him and tell him to come inside, saying, “You will catch your death of cold out there.” 

And so it is only now that she thinks of the Giant. He had come into her thoughts before, but there was always laundry to be done and someone to be fed. Now her time is uninterrupted, and she suddenly finds her mind returning again and again to revisit that afternoon more than half a century ago. She combs her memory for fragments of that day, the minute details that, after all this time, have become vague and hazy. What color was his coat? What did it smell like? What was the name of the old woman who served her lunch? She thinks for hours on end, and her children often find her alone in a room with a cold cup of tea in her hand, staring off at some distant vision. She discovers that memories are fragile things, and one must tread carefully when hunting them. Better to put out the bait and sit patiently like the hunter in his blind, waiting for that snap of a twig in the twilight. Fragments come back to her that have been long buried, such as that the thread used to make the Giant’s clothing was a rope that was common in the village for tying the fishing nets. She remembers reaching out and touching it, but this only came back to her after a whole afternoon spent staring out the window. She does not know why these memories have become so important to her, but she does not question it much; she only regrets not having thought of these things sooner, when there were others alive who could have corroborated them. The impulse to return to the old country and see her home village begins to grow in her, firmly roots itself, and eventually becomes a decision. She announces to her children she wishes to go back and visit the country of her birth, not even being fully aware of her own motivation for going at this point in her life, not even thinking that the Giant had any part of this decision.

Her children are surprised. Her daughters are against the idea because Reina wants to travel alone, and they only relent when her son Michael announces that he thinks it a fine idea and he would be happy to accompany her. She is secretly pleased at this, as he is the only one she can imagine traveling with. She had never given much thought before to the eastern notions of souls being born again into different times, but when she looks at her son now, she clearly sees the same wry smile, easy grace, and sly humor as her beloved brother Stefan, as if temperament is passed down as easily as hair color. And so in late summer, Reina boards a plane for the first time with her son and crosses the same ocean she crossed some fifty years ago in only eight hours, gazing out the window at the world below. It takes her days to recover from the trip, and there is still a great distance to cover. They must go in stages, as there are no direct flights to the city she lived in with Karel. But after they land in on the continent, they take a train over land, which Reina finds much easier. They arrive in the city and spend several days there. Michael only speaks English, and she must translate for them everywhere. She finds this a comforting reversal of their roles, as Michael had been so protective of his elderly mother when they left, carrying all their bags, dealing with all the ticket agents and waiters. But now he is dependent on her for every transaction and sits back while she orders his dinner and negotiates with the taxi driver. However, he takes this well and is amused by his incompetence in this environment—more than a little in awe of the numerous languages his mother speaks.

The city has changed. The streets are full of fast modern cars, the sidewalks crammed with young people on cell phones. She is often lost until she finds a landmark, some building she remembers. To her surprise, the hospital she worked in is still there. She takes Michael inside, and as they stroll through the cavernous interior, which has not changed at all since she was last here fifty years ago, she says, “This was where I met your father, when he came in wounded from the front. This is where I sat and held your grandmother’s hand when she died.” 

He is moved by this, she can tell, and he gazes around, the walls and floor having more significance, as if somehow contributing to his being here today.

They travel for days to reach her village. They cross several borders and have to get passports out repeatedly and show visas. After the war, her home country ceased to exist and the borders were redrawn, towns renamed, the map from her childhood now obsolete. She hears her native language spoken for the first time in decades, surprised at the memories that arise when the simplest words are spoken in her mother tongue. Sky. Grass. Bird. They stop for a day in the town she lived in with her uncle’s family, but there is little there she recognizes. The town had become an industrial center after the war, and the farm she remembers replaced by a now abandoned factory, rusting in the sun. Two days later, they reach her village, now with a new name and train station. And so it is that Reina walks down the main street of the village she was born in, after a lifetime away.

She is surprised by how little has changed. Unlike the cities, where all is progress and change, out here much stays the same. Roads have been paved and added, phones and electrical lines installed, modern cars parked where horses stood before. But the same buildings stand, the town square exactly the same as when she last saw it, the old men gathered there seem to be the same ones she remembers from her childhood. Days later, when she ventures across the square to talk to them, she discovers they are younger than she is. The town is still far from wealthy, as industrialization never reached it. There is still no hotel in town, and they stay at the largest house in the village, which she remembers as the miller’s house, but which is now a tavern with some rooms above to rent. 

Memories come back to her at every corner. Smells that she had forgotten gently drift on the summer air. The mountains looming overhead, catching the early morning sun before it reaches the village, the church bells softly ringing in the evening, the fields stretching away to the forest. Everywhere she turns, she is confronted by her childhood. She walks the town for several days with Michael, pointing things out to him. “This used to be my uncle’s house. “This was where we went to school.” She searches for the house she grew up in and finds it inhabited by a young family, who welcome her and serve her tea. Yet she finds no one she knows. All the young people of her generation are long dead or moved on. 

One early morning, Reina sits in a café off the town square. The old men are gathering, collecting on benches, discussing things that have probably been talked over many times before. She watches from her table and sips her tea. Michael has left her for the day, choosing to take an afternoon trip to a cathedral of some reknown in the next town. And it is only now that she thinks of going to that mountain pass where she saw the Giant some sixty years ago. Why not? she asks herself. The man who works the desk at her hotel finds her a car that will take her there, although it takes some time to describe the location to them. A young man picks her up at the hotel and she directs him up the mountain road, now paved with two lanes of asphalt. It takes less than half an hour for them to wind up the curving road that it took her and her father most of the morning by horse and cart so long ago.

They arrive at the pass. The driver pulls over to the side of the road and tells her this is the place she told him about. At first she does not recognize it, about to tell him to drive on, they are not there yet. But then she looks out the window and sees the valley spread below her in that green carpet she saw as a child, and knows this must be it. She gets out of the car and walks over to the edge of the cliff. There is the whole world she knew as a child reduced to miniature, the village clearly visible rising through the forest. But now a highway winds through the valley. The forest has been cleared away in many places, so what once resembled an endless green carpet is now a threadbare patchwork quilt. The whole scene laid before her seems smaller and tamer than she remembered. She turns and looks behind her, to the very spot she once saw the Giant lying and sees that the side of the mountain that contained the Giant’s cave has collapsed, completely covering the gaping hole in the side of the mountain, as if it had never existed. There is nothing to indicate there was ever anything there, just a turnoff in a mountain road with a good view over the valley. As she sits gazing at the empty plateau in front of her, a couple cars slide by on the road. The driver of her car dozes in the front seat, waiting for her. The radio from his car softly plays some pop song that drifts over to her on the breeze. He does not bother to get out of the car.

Reina walks around the turnoff by the side of the road. She looks for something, some sign to indicate what had happened here that played such a significant role in her life, but there is nothing. The modern world has swept it all away, all the borders have been redrawn, all the cities renamed, even the country she was born in no longer exists. She sits on a ledge overlooking the valley and gazes out below her. Even the view has been carved up and paved, highways running through it, electrical lines laid down—everything and everyone she remembers gone. She wonders why she ever came, for one can never return to a place, no more than one can step in the same river twice, as the proverb goes. She had not realized until now that she had hoped for something coming back here, perhaps a sign, some proof of these memories that had risen to such importance in her old age. But there is nothing. It is as if she had never existed. Despair and fatigue begin to settle upon her as she sits on the mountain ledge, the driver waiting for her in the car.

Only now does this come back to her. Perhaps it is the breeze that blows up from the valley below, softly drifting through what is left of the forests she knew as a child, hunted for mushrooms in. It stirs the branches of the pines and rises from the valley floor, drifts up the mountains and arrives at Reina’s feet. It brings to her nose a scent of something long forgotten, and it is perhaps this faint smell of the forest on the breeze that brings this long buried memory to Reina, as soft and clear and undeniable as a kiss on her forehead, and the memory is this:

Her father picks her up in his strong arms and hoists her onto his shoulders so she can get a good view of the Giant. The breeze is in her hair and the sun shines on the immense figure lying there.

“Take a good look, Reina,” he says. “You’ll never see anything like this again in all your life.”