There once was a village, and the village was built on the eastern side of a hill. The people of the village had never been to the western side, for the hill was cut from north to south by a huge chain of rock, like the protruding spine of a bent giant. The village was surrounded by fields of oats and barley and the villagers were mostly farmers. They lived from the fruit of their labour and kept to themselves as much as possible. They did not care for the world beyond the fields and the farms.
There was a girl, who lived in the village. The girl had never known her mother and father for they both had died when she was just an infant. From the beginning of her young memory, she had been living at her grandmother’s house. The girl’s grandmother was the oldest person in the village, so that she was considered the wisest one, one whose speech was always truth.
One day, the grandmother was sitting on the rocking chair in front of the fireplace, sewing a skirt for her granddaughter, and the girl came and sat next to her.
“Grandmother,” asked the girl, “what is there on the other side of the hill?”
The grandmother let out a long wheezing sigh. She had known the day would come when her little girl would grow and start wondering. She had watched the questions form on the child’s face for several days now and she had known that, soon, the questions would find their way to her lips. But curiosity is never a permanent trait. It comes with adolescence and goes with adulthood. If only the grandmother could stall long enough, the questions would vanish from the girl’s face and their quiet life would go on quietly as it always had.
“Grandmother,” asked the girl, “what is there on the other side of the hill?”
“My child, there is nothing on the other side,” said the grandmother.
The questions on the girl’s face grew stronger. Her young eyes sparkled brighter.
“But there must be something! Please, grandmother, tell me what is on the other side of the hill.”
“My child, on the other side there is a dark and deep forest.”
“Grandmother,” asked the child, “what is there in the forest?”
“My child, in the forest there are poisonous creeping weeds and savage beasts with claws and fangs, and their eyes gleaming red in the darkness.”
The girl’s eyes grew wider, but nonetheless she kept asking.
“Grandmother,” the girl asked, “what is there beyond the forest?”
“My child, beyond the forest there is a swamp that sucks all living things into its depths.”
The girl’s face turned pale, but still she asked again.
“Grandmother,” the girl asked, “what is there beyond the swamp?”
The grandmother was very old and getting weary of the questioning.
“My child,” said the grandmother, “the swamp spreads out forever. There is nothing beyond the swamp.”
“Grandmother,” said the child, “how do you know all this about the other side of the hill?”
“My mother told me about it, my child,” said the grandmother. “Just as I am now telling you.”
“But how did your mother know all this about the other side?”
“Well, my child, her mother had told her about it. Just as my mother told me about it. Just as I am now telling you.”
As another question was about to escape the girl’s lips, the old woman raised a warning finger.
“I told you all there is to know about the other side, my child. You must never try to cross the chain of rock, do you understand? There is nothing for you but danger on the other side.”
The girl fell silent and stared into the fire for a very long time, so long in fact, that when she finally tore her eyes from its fading glow, she found that it was night, and that her grandmother was sleeping in the rocking chair.
Presently the girl got up and went to the shed, and she came back with a log large enough to keep the house warm until morning, which she put in the fire. She tiptoed to the front door. There she paused with her small hand upon the handle and looked over her shoulder at the sleeping shape of her grandmother. For a moment, something caught in her throat and she thought that she would not leave. But then she was outside, closing the door behind her and looking out at the village quiet and dark.
She passed the baker’s shop, and the butcher’s, and the barber’s, and she walked in the fields for what felt like days although the sun did not come up until she was reaching the foot of the big rock chain, on the very top of the hill. There she stopped and looked up at the massive obstacle before her. She looked up until her frail neck hurt. The rocks stood tall and impenetrable, stretching a long shadow over the girl. Beyond, the sky was yellow and pink with morning light.
I have been a fool, thought the girl. I will never be able to climb over the rocks. I am neither big nor strong enough. Maybe a grownup could do it, but I certainly can’t. I have been a fool. So the girl leant against the rock and cried, for it was a long way back to the village and she missed her grandmother very much. As she wept, clouds covered the sky above the hill and it started to rain. It was one of the cold rains of wintertime and soon the girl was drenched to the bone and shivering. I must find shelter somewhere, the girl thought, or I will freeze to death. With that thought, she forgot to cry and looked for a place to hide from the rain. She noticed a tear in the rock, like the entrance of a cave, some small distance away. It was almost hidden behind a curtain of thick weeds, but there it was, and the girl walked up to it. She pushed the weeds aside. They were heavy and pushed back against the girl, as if warning her to stay away. But the girl was cold and determined, so that eventually, the weeds gave way. The crack behind the weeds was quite narrow, and the ceiling low, so that a child could just fit in.
Walking through the girl stopped and marvelled, for what she had first thought to be a cave was in fact a tunnel, digging deep into the rock. This could lead to the other side, thought the girl. So she advanced with her arms outstretched towards the obscurity in front of her. Five minutes passed, and still the girl walked on. The tunnel was pitch black and nothing seemed to indicate that it would end. Five more minutes passed. More than once, the girl thought she should turn back, but every time the thought entered her mind, it was pushed right back by another. What if the other side was close? What a shame it would be to give up just before success. So the girl walked on. Five more minutes passed, and suddenly, the girl saw the tiniest hint of light, far away in the darkness. The girl laughed with relief and the pride of having come all this way on her own. She pressed on with a smile on her face. But soon, the smile faded, for as the light was getting closer, it seemed that the tunnel was shrinking and narrowing. I will suffocate before I can get to the other side, thought the girl. With every step she took, the light grew stronger, yet more inaccessible. From the other side, a breeze brushed the girl’s face and whispered in her ears. Go back, the breeze whispered. Go back. But it’s close, thought the girl. I can’t go back now. I’m almost there. I won’t go back.
And all at once, the breeze and the tunnel were gone as the girl emerged into a forest deep and so dark that she wondered for a while if night had come back already. One could barely see two feet ahead and the air between the trees was still and quiet, so that every little sound rang out like a bell toll in the silence.
In the strangeness of the forest, fear came over the girl. She thought about her grandmother’s words, about the poisonous creeping weeds and the savage beasts with claws and fangs, and their eyes glowing red in the darkness. She daren’t pick up a branch to defend herself, for fear that it would sting her and spit venom into her body.
The stillness soon became oppressing, and the little sounds of the forest shaped themselves into unseen dangers. It was a long way back to the village, and the girl missed her grandmother very much, and wished that she had never left home. So she sat down in the fallen leaves and covered her face with both her hands, for children’s monsters become less real once the eyes are shielded from them. Some time elapsed like this. Five minutes. Ten, maybe. Then a voice rang out in the silence of the forest.
“Good morning,” said the voice.
The girl looked up and standing in front of her was a boy. The boy was peering down at her with his head slightly tilted sideways and his eyes round and quizzical, much like an owl’s. At first, she was afraid of the boy, for she remembered her grandmother’s warning. But as she studied the boy, she could see neither claws nor fangs, and his eyes were bright blue, and round and quizzical like an owl’s.
“Good morning,” said the boy again, and the girl thought that he had nice manners.
“Good morning,” said the girl.
The boy grinned a toothy grin, but his teeth were normal as far as the girl could see, and his grin was friendly.
“Where do you come from?” asked the boy.
“I come from the other side of the hill,” said the girl.
The questions on the boy’s face grew stronger. He stared at the girl with suspicion in his bright blue eyes.
“That is not possible,” he said. “There is nothing on the other side of the hill.”
“But there is,” said the girl. “My village is on the other side.”
The boy was silent for a while. Then he took the girl by the hand and pulled so she would follow him.
“Come to my house,” he said.
She pulled the other way.
“But what about the swamp that sucks all living things into its depths?”
“What swamp?” said the boy.
“My grandmother told me about the swamp.”
“There is no swamp,” said the boy.
He seems to be telling the truth, thought the girl. So she followed the boy out of the forest and onto a moor that stretched all the way to the horizon. There was no sign of a swamp anywhere.
“Where is your house?” asked the girl as they walked through the moor.
“It is in a village, by the sea,” said the boy.
“The sea?” asked the girl.
“Yes,” said the boy.
The girl smiled. She had read about the sea in books, but had never seen it for real. The sea was a place of exciting adventures and she found herself walking faster, and pulling the boy behind her.
There was a village by the sea, and the village was built on the western side of a hill. The people of the village had never been to the eastern side, for the hill was cut from north to south by a huge chain of rock, like the protruding spine of a bent giant. The villagers were mostly fishermen, and they lived from the fish they caught, keeping to themselves as much as possible. They had no care for the world beyond the moor or over the sea. But now a girl was running towards the village, hand in hand with a boy, who lived in the village, and the boy was growing curious about the world on the other side of the hill.
The boy had never known his mother and father, for they had died both during his early childhood. From the beginning of his young memory, he had been raised by his older brother. The boy’s brother was not much older than the boy, but already the questions were starting to fade from his face. Now the boy and his brother lived and worked in a lighthouse on the coast, some little distance from the centre of the village, and that is where the boy was taking the girl. He wanted the girl to tell his older brother about the other side of the hill, for he valued his brother’s opinion above all else and was curious to know what he would think of all this.
The brother was preparing lunch when the boy knocked on the door of the lighthouse.
“My brother, I found a girl in the forest, and she comes from the other side of the hill,” said the boy.
“That is impossible,” said the brother. “There is nothing on the other side of the hill.”
“But there is! Come, she is waiting for us on the beach.”
So the brother followed the boy to the beach. And the girl was there, looking out at the sea, for she had never seen it, and it was huge and beautiful under the winter sun. Seagulls were crying over the waves, sometimes diving for fish, and then coming back up, shaking beads of water from their feathers.
“Good morning,” said the brother.
The girl turned towards the pathway that led to the lighthouse.
“Good morning,” said the girl.
“My brother says that you come from the other side of the hill,” said the brother. “Is that the truth?”
“It is,” said the girl. “I live in a village with my grandmother, beyond the chain of rock.”
And she pointed a finger in the direction of the hilltop. The brother considered this for a while, and then spoke very slowly, for he still was not sure whether it was wise to believe the girl’s words.
“How did you cross the chain of rock?” he asked.
“I went through a tunnel in the rock,” said the girl.
Questions flickered back into life on the brother’s face, and he smiled.
“Come have lunch with us,” said he. “Tell us more about the other side.”
So the girl followed the boy and his brother up the pathway that led to the lighthouse. The brother laid one more plate on the table and they ate together. The girl tasted fish for the first time. She had read about fish in the same books that told stories of the sea, but she had never seen them, for there was no sea on the other side of the hill. The boy and his brother listened as she spoke of her village, of the fields and the farms, and her grandmother’s house.
In the afternoon, the boy took the girl to the town centre, and the girl thought that this was not so different from her village on the other side. There was a baker and a barber, and the villagers looked almost the same. But the air was different. It was damper and there was salt in it. Instead of meat, people sold fish on the marketplace, and the houses were of grey stones instead of red bricks and wood. The boy and the girl roamed the village and the coast until the sun was setting over the western side of the hill. With night, a shadow descended on the girl and she stopped laughing.
On the way back to the lighthouse, the boy tried to make her laugh again, or to make her speak, but she was lost in a pensive mood. The boy did not understand, and he asked his brother about it when they got back.
“Well,” said the brother. “It is quite simple. She is homesick.”
“Homesick?” asked the boy.
“She misses her village on the other side of the hill,” said the brother.
So it was decided that, the next day, the boy and his brother would accompany the girl back to the fissure in the chain of rock. With this decision, the shadow lifted from the girl and she laughed and spoke again. The boy and the girl exchanged stories of their villages for a good part of the night, and when the sun came up over the eastern side of the hill, the boy, the girl and the boy’s brother left the lighthouse.
They walked through the town centre. They passed the baker’s shop, and the fisherman’s, and the barber’s. They crossed the moor and entered the forest. The boy noticed that another shadow seemed to weigh on the girl, for she was silent again, and her face was set.
“I thought she was homesick,” said the boy to his brother. “I thought she wanted to go home.”
“She does,” said the brother. “But in order to go home, she has to leave here. That is what makes her sad.”
The boy thought about this for a while, and he was still thinking when they reached the fissure in the rock. Then the boy and his brother, and the girl, bade each other farewell. And just as the girl was about to disappear in the darkness of the tunnel, the boy had an idea.
“Wait,” said he. “What if my brother and I came to the eastern side with you? Then we could see your village and meet your grandmother.”
The girl’s face lit up, not with questions this time, but with joy. But the brother shook his head.
“I cannot get through the fissure,” said he. “I am too big. But you, little brother, you go with her. Go and see the other side of the hill before it is too late.”
The boy felt sad, for he loved his brother very much and did not want to leave him behind. But he did want to go and see the other side of the hill. The girl watched as the boy wrapped his arms around the brother’s neck, and she thought of her grandmother.
“Go, little brother,” said the boy’s brother.
The girl saw that he was crying. She wondered if her grandmother had cried when she had noticed that she was gone. She wanted to go back and hug her grandmother and tell her of all the wonderful things she had seen on the other side of the hill.
The boy bid his brother farewell and followed the girl into the tunnel. They walked with their hands extended towards the darkness in front of them. Long minutes passed, and finally, a dot of light appeared far away. Then the tunnel seemed to shrink and narrow once more around them. The boy was scared. He thought he would run back to his brother, but the girl said not to be afraid. Then the breeze whispered into the boy’s ears. Go back, the breeze whispered. Go back. But the girl said not to listen to the breeze. So the boy did not listen.
And all at once, the breeze and the tunnel were gone. And the boy saw the farms and the fields. The girl led him through the country and, soon, he saw the village. They passed the barber’s shop, and the butcher’s, and the baker’s, and walked all the way to the grandmother’s house. The girl wrapped her arms around her grandmother’s neck. She told her about the tunnel and the other side and the boy and his brother.
“Come and have dinner with us,” said the grandmother to the boy. “Tell me all about your village on the other side.”
So the boy stayed, and he tasted meat, which he had read about in books but never seen in reality. Then, the next day, the girl took him around the village and showed him everything.
And when he went back home, he told the villagers on the western side stories of the eastern side. And the girl told the villagers on the eastern side stories of the western side. And soon, it became tradition that young people should cross the chain of rock to see the world on the other side of the hill before they grew.