“Be brave, and don’t hunt the goats…”
The campfire roared and crackled as the three kids huddled around. They stared with wide, excited eyes, wondering at the magic of the dancing flames.
“Alright, listen up, runtmuffins,” Uncle Eli clapped his hands together and sat down on a large stump. The old, burly mountain man commanded the kids’ full and immediate attention. Uncle Eli always sounded tough, but they adored him and knew that, deep down, he was just like them.
“What is it, Uncle?” Macie asked. At seven and three quarters years old, she was the oldest of the little group and assumed the responsibilities that came with it.
The old man put on a serious face, looked deep into the fire, then at each of them one by one as he spoke, “This is the third year we’ve come out to these woods together. The third year,” he held up three fingers, “…and there are three of you. Which means it’s time.” His voice got quieter with every word so that the kids had to pay extra close attention. The word time was barely audible.
The kids subconsciously leaned in closer, both to hear him and to stave off the chill in the cold mountain air. They were in the high North, after all, and it was nearing the end of Fall.
“It’s time,” he continued, “to tell you three the secret of these mountains, the curse of this forest, and the story…” another pause as he stared straight above, “…of the stars.” Uncle Eli was nothing if not a showman, Macie thought.
Macie looked at her cousin Henri, the second oldest, and saw that he was already hooked onto Uncle Eli’s every last syllable. Henri was also seven, but he was only seven and a half plus he was a boy and Macie learned in school that a boy’s brain didn’t grow as fast as a girl’s brain so, even though they were almost the same age, Macie was still the leader. Henri was a good backup, though, a trusty sidekick whenever they played cops and robbers (Lizzie, her sister and the youngest at six, was always the robber, obviously).
Macie felt the need to speak up, “But Uncle, there’s no such thing as curses!”
“Maciiee, don’t! You can’t talk about curses like that! That’s how you get cursed!” Lizzie cried.
“It’s ok, Lizzie,” Uncle Eli sighed, took a sip from his thermos (“this one is for the adults,” he’d told Macie earlier when she said it smelled like rotten hot chocolate. She didn’t know hot chocolate could even go bad…), “I was a doubter, too, you know. Way back when you mom, dad, and I were your ages. We sat at this exact same fire together while your grandpa told us the exact same story I’m about to tell you. I told him curses weren’t real. But, you know what?” He leaned deep toward them from the other side of the fire. So far forward that Henri thought his beard would catch flame. Again, he went down to the whispers,
“I. Was. So. Wrong.”
He leaned back again, took another sip from his big, green thermos and squinted at them, “But, maybe you guys aren’t ready to hear it after all…it is pretty scary. And you’re only seven.”
“And three quarters!” Macie blurted without even thinking, “You have to tell us!” She didn’t believe in curses, but she wasn’t about to miss out on this sacred family tradition.
Uncle Eli sat quiet for a little bit, picked up a twig and tossed it into the fire.
The kids waited patiently. Little souls on the precipice of this age old initiation ritual. Would Uncle Eli deem them worthy?
He took a longer, deeper draw from his thermos, looked up at the night sky and said, “Ok, scruffians, here it goes. Promise you won’t pee your pants or cry.”
“We promise!” Henri squealed.
Uncle Eli cleared his throat, “Ok, look up at the stars. What do you see? Do you guys know what constellations are?”
Macie’s turn to shine, “Uh huh! We learned about them on our field trip to the planetarium! They’re connect-the-dots but with stars. And they all have stories.”
“That’s right, Macie. You’re pretty clever. How could I have ever forgotten that you were seven and three-quarters?”
“Yeah, like Orion, the hunter!” Henri jumped in.
“Yes, like Orion, the hunter, and all these constellations have stories of magic and adventure all year around. Except for tonight. Tonight, and only this night, their stories change from those of heroes…to monsters. Monsters who curse these very mountains.”
The kids looked away from the campfire into the darkness around them. They were camping high up on a ridgeline. So high up that, during the daytime, they could look below and see other smaller mountains filled with trees and ponds. At night, though, it was all still and quiet blackness.
Was it really still and quiet, though? The longer the silence, the more it seemed they could hear. The sounds of the dark wilderness picked up in pitch — the soft scream of the wind through the trees, the crinkling tip toe of the leaves as they swept across the earth.
“If you look up right now, you’ll see a few of these cursed constellations. See the big one over there? That’s Sagittarius, the Centaur archer.
Now, normally, Sagittarius is a hero. You can see his bow and arrow, right there, aimed at Scorpio, the monster who is about to attack Orion. On most nights, Sagittarius saves Orion. Except for tonight, where he hunts men, instead. Men who used to wander these mountains thousands of years ago.
To understand why, look to the left of Sagittarius and you’ll find another constellation. Do you guys see that really faint upside down triangle?”
Macie had to look super hard and long but, just when she was about to give up and ask if Uncle Eli was tricking them, the triangle slowly glowed into view.
“That one there is Capricorn, the goat-fish.”
“A goat-fish?” The kids giggled, “How can it be a goat and a fish?”
“That’s a long story for another time, kids. The important part to remember is that Capricorn represents Pan, and he’s a good guy, even tonight. Pan is a helper to the heroes, getting them out of binds whenever they need him most.
Now, thousands of years ago, there were people who used to live in the valleys below the mountains that we’re in right now. They were peaceful and lived respectfully with the animals, only hunting what they needed to survive. Up here in the mountains,” he gestured, “lived the mountain goats.” Long ago, before any of the villagers could remember, there was a…promise…a sort of understanding that the goats would stay up in the mountains while the people stayed in the valleys.
Until one night. This night. The villagers grew tired of eating the same old deer and bison and fish that lived in the valley. Their numbers got bigger and bigger until they decided they needed to find a new source of food…
…They looked up toward these mountains.
The men of the village decided to sneak up here at night while the goats were sleeping and kill them for food. They saw Capricorn — Pan — up there in the sky and thought maybe the mountains were tall enough for them to hunt him, too. Could you imagine what a goat-fish would taste like, kids?”
“Salty!” Was Lizzie’s reply. The other two were enraptured by the story…and they had a sinking feeling that they knew what was coming next.
“So, on this very night, all those years ago, the men went up to the mountains to hunt Pan and the goats. Except, none of them ever came back. Not a single one. The next morning, the villagers hiked up here to find out what had happened, and all the goats seemed to have vanished. The men, however, were scattered about all over the forest. Dead. Each of them had a single arrow sticking out from their hearts.”
Macie tried to keep a brave face for her siblings, but this was too much. Arrows? From where? You couldn’t hear an arrow flying through the air, could you? Did it sound like the wind howling through the trees?
“The next night, the goats returned to the mountains and the villagers looked up to the stars to see Sagittarius, the Centaur that was normally hunting Scorpio.
On that night, however, the stars looked different — they looked wrong. Sagittarius’ bow was pointed in the wrong direction. Instead of aiming at Scorpio, it was pointed right at this mountain, hunting those who would dare to harm Pan and the goats. The following night, however, the stars went back to normal.
Every year, on that same night, Sagittarius’ bow would mysteriously change direction and point right to the area that we’re camping in. On some years, brave or foolish villagers would make an attempt to go up into the mountains to hunt the goats again — to test the stars. Those fools never returned.”
Uncle Eli sighed, finishing his story.
“Now, kids, if you look up at Sagittarius, which way is his bow pointing?”
Macie looked up. At first, everything looked normal. She saw Scorpio. She saw Sagittarius. And she saw the bow. But, as she looked longer, other, fainter stars started to appear. The cursed stars. As these new lights slowly awoke into her view, Macie couldn’t believe her eyes. She could clearly see the bow pointing in a different direction — pointing towards her.
“Do you believe me now, Macie?” Uncle Eli whispered.
Macie and Lizzie’s mom came out from her tent, “Eli, are you scaring my kids, again?”
Uncle Eli wouldn’t meet their mom’s gaze. Instead, he winked at Macie, smiled, and started poking at the fire, “Of course not, just telling them why we come up here every year…to see who’s gonna get Sagittarius’ arrow!” He threw his arms up and fake-scared the kids. Lizzie and Henri screamed and giggled, Macie just kept looking at the dying fire. Too scared to look up at the evil Centaur, too nervous to look around the mountains in fear of seeing a dead man with an arrow or, worse, a goat.
Uncle Eli put a hand on Macie’s shoulder, “Be brave, girl. You’re a leader, remember?” He nodded to the two littler ones, “Be brave, even when you’re scared.
And, whatever you do…don’t hunt the goats.” He winked again.
“Ok, you three, Uncle Eli has terrorized you enough. Off to bed!” Her mother ordered, “and take your shoes off before getting in the tents!”
When they were gone, she addressed the mountain man, “Really?” She sighed, “Do you have to turn every holiday into some scary myth or fairytale?”
Uncle Eli finished what was left in his thermos then replied,
“Oh, just wait ’til Christmas when I tell them about Krampus…”