The Town That Moved (a short story)

Up on the plateau over the Silver Valley, there’s a wooded ridge of hills that runs from the southwest to the north in a wide arc. During the autumn and winter, the sun only shines on the northern side of those hills in the evening, just before sunset, and the trees that live there grow slow and old. There used to be a little stream that ran down from that place long ago, winding its way across the plateau floor before finally diving down into the valley in it’s slow approach to the sea. The stream, they say, was clear as crystal, so clean and unspoiled that looking at the streambed on a calm day, sometimes it was impossible to tell whether there was water flowing through it. It was said that if you scooped up a handful of this water to take a drink, it would appear as though you held nothing in your hands but air, and upon swallowing there was no taste of earth or salt or mineral, only pure refreshment and a general revival of the senses that came with good rest.

The people that lived in the valley drank of the water every day, and it was said that many of the folk there experienced unnatural long life and good health. It was also said that as the years went by, the townsfolk gradually moved their way upstream and away from the sea. Their houses were torn down and rebuilt over and over throughout the years, until a point where it seemed that the whole community moved as a single, driven organism. They worked and moved with a purpose, drinking of the water from that perfect little stream and building and rebuilding their houses and working their way, slowly but with determination, up through the valley toward the plateau.

A few years after the movement began, travelers would come to the town in the valley but would stand in confusion when they found no people, no houses, no town, at the end of the lonely highway. They found only the little stream as it slid patiently between the stones of the streambed toward its eventual destination at the coast. These travelers would remark and shout upon hearing that, having made their way through the length of the valley and starting the climb into the highlands, the townsfolk had given up building houses altogether and now kept themselves in little huts that lent themselves more readily to the constant tearing down and rebuilding if those people and their habits. There came a time, as well, where the people found it more appropriate to give up their huts for the warmth and comfort of tents, as the stony plains of the plateau did not lend themselves to the building of foundations and wooden frames. They took up spears and arrows and dedicated themselves to the chasing and killing of the noble caribou, and fashioned their hides into coverings for those little tents that had become their homes. They ate of the caribou and became masters of harvesting their milk for the making of many fine cheeses and dishes, and there came a moment where the people thought to follow the caribou away to the south in their great migration. However, the people decided against it, for they could not bear to leave the little stream for long.

They continued upstream, raising their young and teaching them in the ways of building strong tents and hunting the caribou when they were near. Travelers came few and far between along that cracked and dusty road now, and when they did they brought with them great spyglasses and binoculars to glimpse the people from the roadside. They watched as though watching film, passively, never thinking to interact or interject; not knowing that they could ever reach those townsfolk who once lived so near to the sea. The travelers watched and read magazines and talked among themselves about what pretty, colorful houses the people used to live in back when this was a real town, and eventually they would pack up their cars and return home, leaving their names written on the road sign in permanent marker and leaving little bags of garbage along the roadside to be inspected by the birds and rats once they drove away. Eventually the travelers stopped coming to the Silver Valley altogether, writing it off as a waste of time after reading the poor reviews from previous visitors and choosing other, more interesting venues to explore.

It is only natural, then, that nobody was watching when the people stopped building their tents and began to sleep under the stars in the open air. No outsiders witnessed when they stopped eating the flesh of the caribou and started eating among the caribou, grazing slowly on their hands and knees over the ancient plateau, holding their noses high in anticipation when a whisper of wolves came whistling through the crowd. As with all things, the interest in those people returned, and the new generation of travelers found their way to the old sign post at the end of the broken road, signing their own names and leaving their own garbage and watching through high-powered telescopes as the townsfolk loped naked over the plains, chasing and playing and laughing in their learned language. Many of the travelers wrote stories about the townsfolk and their ways, using them as allegory in great, sweeping tales of fiction, but sales were poor and those authors eventually took up more fruitful careers in finance and advertising, but they continued watching with renewed interest because by that time everybody knew of the people that had once lived in the valley.

It is an unlikely turn of events, then, that nobody was watching at the moment the townsfolk reached the ridge of hills and disappeared into the woods, kicking off the last of their shoes and garments and they followed the stream into the perpetual shade of those hills to drink and sleep and play. Outcry came at the loss of the townsfolk, and the travelers slept by the roadside and wept, holding up candles throughout the night and calling their loved ones to say that it was all, finally, over. A few curious outsiders did eventually return to the old, rusted sign at the end of the dirt road, and wandered the valley in search of artifacts and trinkets to be kept in museums. Their efforts did eventually turn up little bags of petrified and ancient garbage, which were carefully tagged and organized and placed in glass cases to be photographed and studied for centuries to come in universities and colleges and internet forums.

Once the excavations were done and the crews returned home over the old path, the obscure few who returned to the valley sometimes searched out the little stream in hopes of drinking that clear, clean water that used to flow down from the hills, but with the passage of time it was hard to tell the streambed from the tracks of animals and excavating machines, and all of the water they could find was stagnant and muddy. The stream could no longer be found among the bushes and stones of the ancient valley, and as the patience of adventurous individuals waned, people stopped looking for it altogether, and instead turned to watch the rolling of waves along the coast with their backs turned to the memory of the little stream. Sometimes, they talk about the stream and the town and the people that lived there, and sometimes they still tell stories inspired by those poorly sold books of ages ago, but for the most part now, everybody is in agreement that it’s unlikely the stream was ever there in the first place.

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