When did Len first see how far the path would take her son? No Far Walker had been born in her Home Village for many years. Len's own range was a modest seven villages, but she had some notion of the life of a Far Walker; everyone knew Shreve, from Third Village Down, who often passed through as she carried loads between high and low. When nightfall caught her near Len's Home Village, Shreve would stay over, taking dinner and giving back news. Shreve Far Walker wasn't by nature a talkative person, but she understood the duties of a guest. Len would crowd in with the others to listen to Shreve's account of the Far Villages.
So when Cam began to show an unusual penchant for going very high and very low on the path, his mother wondered. Like all parents, Len had observed Cam closely from his earliest tottering steps as he followed her to First Village Up.
Len was a maker of rope and twine. She prospered on the fiber of a certain nettle that grew all along the path near Home Village, thinning out above Second Village Up and abruptly disappearing in the shade of the trees around First Village Down. She was a fine crafter, with powerful, knowing hands that measured out the fiber's strength smoothly and evenly. She did a good business from First Village Down to Fifth Village Up, selling her rope and cordage and the intricate knots she created as ornaments and symbols.
Len's ropes were much valued in the lower villages because they resisted rot so well, but she did not care to take them there herself. She would have been glad to find her son's range ran a little lower than her own. But it would be selfish for a mother to push or wish a thing on a child for her own convenience. So Len Rope-Maker held her heart open, and waited to see what would emerge from the clouds.
When little Cam let go of her hand and ran off to explore the world without her, she watched after him and waited. And Cam ran back to her with sparkling eyes, crying out, "As far as the big rock! I went that far, Len!" And she set aside the fibers she was plaiting and swept him up and made much of him ("As far as the rock!") and solemnly asked him for news.
Len shared discreet smiles with the other parents as their young ones tried on the new costume of adulthood to see how it would fit them, daring each other to range ever farther from Home Village on spurious errands.
There would be a jaunt proposed, a clamor of assent, and a rush like a group of startled goats when Cam and his friends hurried off. No packing or planning was needed as they carried no real loads and it was understood that they would stay in whatever village they were closest to when night fell. Families who housed a youth from another village tonight knew that their own children would find food and a pallet where they needed it tomorrow, and the balance would be kept.
It was bittersweet for Len when Cam and his friends got older and began to be away more. Len's little house was too silent at night without his breathing, so she got herself a cat. She named it Goose because she enjoyed standing at her door at dinnertime and calling, "Goose! Goose! Oh, Goose!" and having the little gray cat run home to her.
Like other parents—maybe more than other parents—Len worried, as the jaunts got longer and Cam was away for days at a time. Days and nights with no word, only her trust in him to rely on. Sometimes there were dreams of a foot slipping on rolling gravel, and then a wailing fall. The world was steep, and it could happen.
But there was no need for her to say, "Be careful." Every child had been a part of the sad gift-giving when some son or daughter of Home Village did not return. Many youngsters wore shirts or coats or hats they had received on these occasions. Some had already shared the work of piling up stones, building the cairns that marked where someone had fallen off the path. The slopes of the world were sheer and soaring; a fall was usually equal to a disappearance. So cairns were raised in memory and warning.
The young people of the villages placed their feet carefully and took the dangers of the world in stride.
As the months and years of youthful questing passed, limits began to emerge, a dim map of how far each person was willing to go.
One of Cam's friends might decline to join an expedition to a certain far Up village, because they could never stay warm that high, or because the thin air made them breathless.
And then someone might refuse to go along on a jaunt to a party far below, saying that it got too hot down there at this time of year, and who could sleep properly with the heat and the racket of the insects?
How to feel about these limits was a great riddle to Len. On the one hand, a person with many villages had more choices in every way. Such a person might gather feathers near a low village, and white ore up high, and still enjoy the apples and the good potter's clay near Home Village. A person with many villages could choose their work based on what brought them delight, instead of on what was close at hand. That person could live where they wanted to, and travel up and down trading their wares without bleeding away the profits in carriers' fees. And, just as important, that person would have many villages to visit to look for a partner if they wanted one.
On the other hand, there was a lot to be said for finding that your son would have few villages, for he would be much more likely to settle in Home Village or nearby. With family close at hand, there could be visiting and working together and sharing grandchildren—all good things. And, as the years went by and her legs would carry her to fewer villages, they wouldn't lose each other—or not so fast, anyway.
So what should a mother wish for? And did it matter? Children and wishes went their own ways.
So Len waited and watched her son avidly. He was her only; his father had fallen off the world when Cam was four and Len had never found another partner, although she liked to dance with Fane Soap-Maker when dancing was afoot.
Of course, Cam still came home between journeys. Len would set aside the knot she was weaving and Cam would wash under the pump and they would cook dinner together and she would ask him for news. This was no longer just a courtesy. For Cam had grown tall and strong and he was walking to villages that she had never visited, even in the vigor of her youth.
Sometimes, now, Len met Cam coming or going on the path itself, as she carried her ropes and twines and knots around the villages. It always startled and delighted her to see his stride, unmistakable among all others, winding along the path at the head of a line of walkers. She would greet him sedately, because he was with friends, and they might walk together for a while, if they were going in the same direction. But she would be slower, carrying a load, and soon she would step off the path to let him go ahead with his friends. He would kiss her, and the youths would file politely around and leave her behind to continue on her laden way.
It came to her that whenever she saw Cam on the path, he was always at the front of the group. She could not remember that it had been that way among her own age-mates, that one person was always in the lead. But Cam was.
As Cam's friends found their ranges, many of them settled on their livelihoods as well, and began to carry real loads up and down the world.
There was some excitement at shouldering the first adult loads, especially when this involved something fragile. (Much teasing would be visited upon a carrier who slipped or tripped under a load of crockery or eggs.)
When a young person began to carry real loads, the challenge of walking changed, becoming more a matter of weight than of distance. And with the question of distance settled, they became less inclined to walk for the sake of walking. But Cam still took to the path, Cam and a handful of his friends still reaching for their limits. Sometimes the old group still walked together to the nearer villages, for friendship's sake. But Len Rope-Maker became aware that Cam's companions for the expeditions to the Far Villages dwindled over time to just a few: Karri and Fox and Hull and Gret. And it might be only Fox and Hull, if they were going high.
As Rope-Maker, it was to Len that young couples came when they were ready to be partners. And Len would put on her stern face and talk to them about the knot called the Never-Ending Braid: how difficult it was to learn to tie correctly so that it lay flat and neat on the arm, how it must be tight enough so that it would not come off, but not so tight that it would constrict when it swelled in a rain. She told them that the Never-Ending Braid chafes sometimes, no matter how well-tied, especially when it is new.
"But," she admitted, "it does get softer as time goes by." She showed them the one on her own wrist, tied there by Cam's father.
"Don't squander my time and twine on the Never-Ending Braid unless you are sure and certain," she would say severely. "Once tied, it's like two rat's-nests to undo, unless you use a blade, which would be a wicked murder of fine cordage." But if the young people seemed sincere and their ranges overlapped enough for a reasonable life together, Len Rope-Maker taught them the secret of the Never-Ending Braid, and checked their work, and helped them until they got it right, finished with the ends hidden in the weave. And the couple would be seen to wear the knot, and it would be known that there was a new partnership on the world.
So Len Rope-Maker knew when Cam's age-mates began to partner, and she wondered who Cam might choose. She thought sometimes it might be Fox, because they still walked far together even after many of their friends settled down. But then Fox would share a meal with them, and they would laugh hard, and Len would think, "No, it is friendship." And then the two would stride off together side by side, where the path was wide through Home Village, and one of them might take the other's arm, and Len would think, "Yes, it is love." And then they would be out of sight, and gone for many days, leaving her to wonder.
In this way, work and walking and waiting braided together the life of Len Rope-Maker as her son came near to being twenty years old. Hull found her limits, and Karri too, and now it was only Cam and Fox that pushed higher and lower on the path.
One afternoon, Cam returned after being away for many days. Fox was not with him, which was a little unusual. The two had the habit of eating together at Len Rope-Maker's house on their first night back in Home Village. But on this day, Cam came alone.
He leaned his walking stick against the side of the house and threw down his pack, and then himself, onto the steps of the little porch where Len was washing nettle-fibers. She rose and dried her hands, and sat down beside him, giving him a quick one-armed hug in greeting.
"What's the news, traveler?"
Cam looked at his feet. He looked at his hands. His fingernails were grimy from the trail. He didn't look at Len, but spoke to the wood of the bottom step.
"Fox turned back! People told us there was a hot spring just up the path, and I wanted to see it, but Fox wouldn't go on. It was snowing a little, and she said it was too late in the day and . . . Oh, it doesn't matter. Fox never turns down a chance for a wallow. But she did, Len. Fox turned back. And I came with her, and didn't get to see the hot spring. Just think of it, Len, hot water that bubbles up in the snow—imagine!"
Len studied her son's profile. She was startled to see the tension in his face, the real adult misery.
"Fox is dear to you," she observed.
"No," he snapped. "Or, yes. Maybe. But that's not the real point, is it?"
"Of course not," she agreed. "But, remind me again what the real point is."
He jumped up and began to pace. "I told you: Fox turned back. She's beginning to find her limits, Len. I'm not. Children younger than me are finding theirs every day, children not even in my age group. But not me. Never me. I walk and walk, but I can't find any end to it. The world is a string of villages, one after another, and I'll go to all of them, one after another. I'll do the business of a Far Walker and carry the news and arrange things between villages and broker trade and, and, and . . ." He stopped in front of her, his hands hanging slack and empty. "Where are my limits, Len? Why can't I find them?"
Len pulled him down to sit beside her. "And what's made this all seem so terrible? What's changed? Just a little while ago, the prospect of visiting a new village would make you grab your pack, forget to shut the door behind you, and rush off with Fox."
"With Fox," Cam echoed softly, leaning into her. "When Fox finds her limits, who will I walk with, Len? Will I walk alone?"
Len was silent. She thought about the many miles she'd walked in her lifetime, and the long hours on the path. She thought about how those hours had flown by when she'd had somebody to walk with, and how they could drag when she was alone. What would it have been like if those hours had been days, the long days of a Far Walker among the distant villages, where people spoke strangely and there would be no easy relaxed conversation at the end of the day. Unless you walked with a companion. . . .
"Do you want to travel with Shreve Far Walker? Have you talked to her about this, Cam? She must have . . ."
"Len, Shreve doesn't even believe there are villages beyond Seventeenth Up." His voice went a little shrill at this. "That's just silly; anyone with eyes can see that the path goes on."
Seventeenth Village Up. As high as that. Len felt a kick in her heart, like when Cam had been inside her belly. Even then, his legs had kicked out, striding, reaching into the distance.
"And Shreve has never seen the ocean! What can she tell me—what can anyone tell me—about the life of a Far Walker, if they've never even seen the ocean?"
"But I thought it was only a—"
"No, it's real and I've seen it. Fox and I saw it below us once, a long way down, when we scrambled out onto a rock overhang to take a nap in the sun away from the ants. It's real, just very far down, flat, like the bottom of a pan. It's blue-green and shiny like that jade that Tel Jewelry-Maker got from Seventh Village Down. You could see it if you wanted to, Len. It's easy. I could take you. I could show it to you."
"Not me, Cam!" she laughed. "I get heat rash if I go below Fourth Village Down. But I'm glad to know the old stories are true. It pleases me that the world has a bottom. I wonder if you will go there someday and walk on the jade ocean."
"And if I'll do it alone," Cam added somberly.
"Fox turned back one time, Cam. One time doesn't mean she's found her limit for life."
"But she will, Len. Everyone does. And, Len—I don't want to walk alone."
They sat on the step together, mother and son, and the nettle-fibers soaked in pots of cloudy water.
"Maybe," Len said carefully, "that's your limit, Cam."
He was silent for a long moment, looking off into the distance. "No," he said, "it's not."
And he got up and went to wash himself at the pump.
Cam stayed near Home Village for a while, helping Len gather nettle stems, for it was autumn and the plants had done their growing and were dry and gray. He walked with Fox to villages where they had been before, carrying news and rope. Len wondered if, in spite of what he'd said, Cam was finding his limits.
He was in Len's house a good bit during the wicked weather of winter, sleeping and eating a lot. He was taking on more substance, Len saw, filling out the frame of a man. He had no great talent for rope-making, she admitted to herself; his hands were impatient. But he was much help with breaking the fibers out of the stems, and teasing them free from bits of bark and old dry pulp.
Fox was often in the house too, the tightness between them seemingly relaxed. Fox also took a hand at the work and loved the way the thin dense cords emerged from the soft hanks of fiber. Like blond hair, she said. Just like braiding a child's blond hair. It warmed Len to see that Fox, too, took delight in how the twisting and twining multiplied the strength of the fibers.
When spring had settled on them and the sun grew stronger every day, Cam asked Fox if she would walk with him to Seventeenth Village Up and beyond, to see the hot spring they had missed in the fall, because of the snow.
Fox looked up into the branches of the apple tree that shaded Len's porch, as if she were listening for something far away, some sound she could only hear if she didn't look at him.
"Let's not, Cam. Let's go down to that pool below Twelfth Village Down, where the water breaks out in a waterfall. Let's walk hard, and get hot and dirty, and then jump into the cold water. I'd like to do that."
And Cam agreed.
They stuffed their packs with dried apples for eating and rope for trading, and started down the path, side by side, sticks in hand. Len watched them until they got to the bend, and wondered how far they would go.
They left their heavy Home Village overshirts and trousers at the house where they guested in Seventh Village Down and walked on gaily in clothing that would be thought barely decent in Home Village. They offered rope and news at every village, and greeted old friends, exclaiming over the babies that had come since they had last passed through.
They got flatbread and new fruit at Twelfth Village Down, and carried it with them to the pool, which wasn't so far below as they remembered.
They shrieked and splashed in the cold water, ducking under the small powerful waterfall that gushed out of the rocks above and letting it pound them hard on the shoulders and back. Then they feasted by the pool while the late afternoon sun dried their skin.
They could have gone back to Twelfth Village Down to spend the night, but the downhill path pulled them along like rolling pebbles. They left the pool and went further down. Down, down, to the rock overhang that jutted out from the vertical green forest. And they scrambled out onto the rock and peeped over the edge to see, far, far below, the place where the world ended in the great jade flatness. And because they had come so far, and twilight was on their heels, they stayed on the rock and watched the great marvel of the sun sinking into the ocean. The rock held the day's warmth for a long time into the night.
So Cam and Fox saw the bottom of the world together one last time before Cam left.
Len did not tell Cam to be careful, but she did give him his father's warmest shirt. She had taken it for Cam at the sad gift-giving, though it had been far too large for him to use. But it fit him now, and she asked him to wear it in memory of Yarrow, his father, and in warning, because Yarrow had fallen off the world on a steep talus slope where the stones were small and rounded, and rolled beneath his feet. They had not been able to build a cairn where he fell, because the rocks were too loose. But they raised one as near as possible, where the path came again onto solid rock.
Len also tried to give Cam a load of rope to carry, to trade for warmer clothes when he got to the high villages. But Cam told her that up where people needed wool and fur to stay warm even in the summer, nettle-fiber became stiff and brittle. Len Rope-Maker had not known this.
So she gave him instead a bag of her most intricate knots, which she hoped would be of some use to him in trade. (And Reny Leather-Worker at Thirteenth Village Up took some of these knots from Cam for a pair of sturdy boots lined with fur. Reny studied Len's knots and worried out their secrets and learned to work them in narrow strips of goatskin. And that is the way Len Rope-Maker's knots became known in the high villages where she never walked.)
So Cam went away, not like a startled goat, but like a thoughtful man, taking what he needed and saying goodbye to his mother and his friends. He said goodbye to Fox, who was distressed and undecided and didn't want him to go alone and didn't want to go with him. But when all that was done, Cam set out to find either his limit or the top of the world. And he was happy on the path.
Len Rope-Maker's life continues to braid together work and walking and waiting, because she does not believe that Cam is dead. Surely he will pass through Home Village again some day, if only on his way to walk on the ocean.
Len does not know that high above the tree line, high above the snow line, high above Twenty-First Village Up, the world becomes less steep. The incline eases, until suddenly a walker is on flat ground.
Cam pushes back his fur hood and squints against the ice-sharp wind and the sun that glares off the white, white world. It is flat, as flat as a village terrace. He begins to laugh. He has come to the top of the world.
But the path goes on, a clear groove in the icy snow in front of him, showing the way, showing where other feet have traveled.
He pulls out a handful of dried meat from his pack and chews it thoughtfully. But there is never really any question. Cam Far Walker pulls up his hood again and gathers it tightly to protect his ears and cheeks. His world narrows to a little window, framed in fur. Cam walks on, along the path as it begins to slope downhill again, and still Cam walks on, down, onto the other side of the world.
And what Cam does not know is that Fox walks far also, with a pack full of rope and knots from Home Village, down and down, all the way to the ocean. And Fox finds the ocean is not jade and cannot be walked upon. There are no paths. It is restless living water, though salty, like tears.