It was here that Dad told me the story. I didn’t know where the story had come from, or how long he’d carried it inside him.
At the bottom of the lake, there lay a giant. The villagers had tried to kill him, but giants aren’t like men. You can’t just put a bullet in the head and be done with it.
When the giant still roamed the hills, he’d cast shadows into the valley where the villagers made their homes. When they heard him snapping trees as he moved through the forest, they froze in their huts. The children, lying together on beds of fern fronds, shut their eyes and gripped each other’s hands.
The villagers longed to kill the giant. For years, they’d discussed possible plans. But they lacked the right sort of weapon.
One night, the giant descended on the village, smashing several of the huts into splinters and killing two men. But that was not, in the end, what upset the villagers so much. They had become, over the years, resigned to the occasional losses of their warriors.
This time, the giant had taken with him a young girl—a princess. And they could have accepted her death. Had he devoured her, they would have known what to do, how to mourn. There would have been a funeral feast and the singing of songs. But the giant hadn’t eaten her. A young warrior had seen the princess, still alive.
In the days after she’d been taken, this warrior had trailed the giant through the forest. It was not, after all, hard to track the giant; it was only hard to look at his gnarled face through the canopy of the trees. When finally he reached the giant’s lair on the side of the mountain, the warrior crouched in the bushes, peering through the leaves. There was the princess, sitting in the mouth of the cavern, bedraggled but otherwise unharmed. As the warrior held his breath, the giant picked up the princess and set her down in the center of his palm.
Days later, when the warrior returned to the lair, he saw the giant squatting at the entrance to his cave, holding his hands in front of him. The giant was speaking: a terrible sound, like rocks breaking against each other. It took the warrior a moment to realize that the giant wasn’t talking to himself. He was talking to the princess. She was seated inside the giant’s hand. The warrior could see the outline of her body between the giant’s thick fingers. The young man reached for his knife, knowing as he did so that there was nothing he could do.
Then he heard another noise, something fine and high-pitched that raised the hairs on the back of his neck. It was the princess. She was speaking, but not in any words that the warrior could understand. Her words had become sharp and jagged. She was learning the giant’s language.
The warrior gathered the villagers together to tell them of his plan. Each night, the giant slept stretched out on an enormous bed of bracken—bracken that would go up like tinder in this dry spell. The warrior held up a flickering torch in his right hand.
The villagers looked at each other. Why hadn’t they thought of it before? The fire that kept them warm at nights, the fire in which they cooked their food—they’d had the weapon all along.
In the blackest part of the night, the warrior led a small group of men up the side of the mountain to where the giant slept. As he climbed, the warrior’s breath dragged in his throat. The torch flames gleamed on his pale face. An idea was alright until you put it in motion.
When he caught sight of the giant’s body, solid as a mountain range beyond the cover of the trees, the warrior dropped down on his hands and knees. Inching forward, bowels trembling, he realized that the others had stopped following him. He would have to be the one to do it. There was no one else who would go. As he crawled closer, the warrior saw the princess nestled against the giant’s neck. She blinked, bewildered, at the sudden light. Quickly, the warrior waved for her to run past him, to the safety of trees. Once she had slipped away, he reached out a trembling hand and touched his torch to the bracken.
The fire caught so easily that the warrior had to scramble backwards to keep from being burned. Sparks caught at his hair as he fled. The warriors huddled in the shadow of a large boulder, watching the fire catch hold, as the flames shot higher than the tops of the trees. There wasn’t a man there who didn’t remember, as a child, lying awake at night and feeling the giant’s footsteps shaking the ground underneath his skull.
After all those years—it was as simple as this.
It took the giant a while, that night, to feel the fire eating away at his flesh. The giant’s cracked, leathery skin could repel spears. He walked barefoot in summer and winter alike and felt no pain in the soles of his feet. The only places in his body that still retained any feeling at all were the palms of his hands, which he ran along the top of the treetops as he strode through the forest. That night, he’d been dreaming that it was summertime; he’d been lying on a sandy beach by the lake, letting the sun burn his shoulders. By the time he awoke, he was dressed in flames. He flung his arms out, and the fire spread to the forest, lighting up the mountainside.
Dawn was still a long way off, but the sky glowed a bright, hot orange. High up on the mountain peaks, where the ice had made turrets, the glacier began to sweat, then trickle. At first, it was just a small stream that ran down into the valley. And then came more. Rivers of bone-chilling water rushed over the rocks. At the bottom of the valley, among the lacy ferns, the water began to pool and spread.
The villagers hadn’t thought about that. What a blaze big enough to eat up a giant might do.
I didn’t know why he’d gone into the water. Maybe he’d seen another animal in the water that needed rescuing. Or maybe he’d had some darker impulse. Either way, the rapids had snatched him up and pinned him against a boulder. Water rushed up and over him, turning him into any other piece of wreckage. I might not have noticed him at all, except for the movement of his leg, waving gently on the surface.
The giant’s charred body slid down the mountainside and into the lake that was now forming in the valley. The villagers, standing in silence, watched the waters close over him like a silver blanket. The surface of the lake went still, and they saw the stars reflected in it.
After many years passed, the villagers grew to love the shape of the lake, the way it curled around the mountain like a child sleeping on its side. Men built boats and began to fish in the icy waters. Children splashed each other in the blue-gray shallows. In the evenings, the princess took her canoe out onto the glassy water and watched the rose-colored mountains slide under the prow of her boat.
It was on one of those evenings, as she was pulling her canoe back up on the sand, that the princess noticed it. The lake was moving. The water crept up the shore and then slid back down again, in a slow, even rhythm.
The princess called the whole village down to the water’s edge to watch it, to make sure she wasn’t imagining things. Together, they watched the lake rise up and sigh down again.
And that’s when they knew that the giant wasn’t really dead down there. They’d underestimated the strength of his heart, which was, despite everything, still beating.
Stop breathing so loud Jesus. Do you hear yourself?
When the villagers looked out at the lake, they were happy, mostly. The fishing was good here. In the summer months, the children explored the small islands that dotted the center of the lake. But there were other times, when the wind came up and the surface of the water curled with waves, that they dreamed terrible things. They saw their bravest men climbing up the mountains under a star-filled sky. They saw the young warrior’s torch flickering in the dark. And they heard the giant roar.
When you start to hate this place, you have to remember this. This sky.
was just a person who flitted through him from time to time.
Eventually, the villagers began to forget the giant. Their children now played freely in the forest, unafraid of the shadows cast over them by the trees. And the princess—well, she grew old like any other woman. Her legs swelled and her shoulders bent forward and she stopped blinking at the news of death.
But in her later years, when she stood knee-deep in the lake, washing a pot or chewing on a piece of grass, she was sometimes taken off guard by a memory. She had stood, once, in the center of a giant’s hand. His fingers had risen up and formed a wall around her.
She remembered. And in those moments, the lake dropped away under her feet and she became a stranger in her own home.
There’s a giant out there in that lake. Sleeping right there at the bottom.
At the bottom of the hill, the path turned and meandered through a meadow, alive with insects. I reached out my hands and let the tall blades of grass brush against my palms.
When I reached the lake’s edge, I sat down in the cool, gravelly sand and pulled off my boots and socks, and then my clothes. In the lake, fish flicked through the shallows, which were as clear as bathwater. I stood and walked into the lake, shivering as the water closed over my ankles, then my calves. The lake stretched out long from east to west. I might’ve been the only person in the world.
The giant didn’t mind being at the bottom of the lake. It had been a strange kind of life for him, always being alone. In these last centuries, he’d begun to feel not so different from the rocks that slept, crusted and silent, at the edges of the lake.
Except—he still remembered the princess, those few weeks when he had kept her for himself. He remembered the patter of her feet across his palm. When he’d spoken to her, she’d replied in a voice so fragile that he thought it might break him.
She was scared, the little thing, but over time the fear became the thing that cradled her. She’d slept against his neck as she’d never slept again in her life, like death was nothing to fear.
Jaime deBlanc-Knowles holds an M.A. in creative writing from the University of Texas at Austin. Her work has been published in Post Road and Meridian, and she has been the recipient of a MacDowell Fellowship and a Lighthouse Works Fellowship. She is currently at work on her second novel, as well as a collection of short stories that engage with fairy tales and myths.
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