Of all the places I might have considered being on my thirtieth birthday, locked in a cage with my grandmother in giant country would not have been one of them. Yet here I am, alternating between cleaning my useless sword for the umpteenth time and pacing back and forth on my aching prosthetic, while my grandmother knits with enormous needles she got from the giant.
“OLD HUMANS REQUIRE KNITTING SUPPLIES,” she had shouted up at the giant, and after some haranguing back and forth, my heart stuttering with the volume of the giant’s voice, my seventy-two-year-old grandmother now sits cross-legged on one of the rocks thrown into our cage for “habitat”, her wiry brown arms moving with seemingly tireless energy as she makes something gigantic and grey from the person-sized ball of yarn at her side.
“What are you making?” I ask her again, but with little hope for an answer. It is the fifth time I’ve asked since we were caught the evening before last.
“You’ll see,” she says again. “Enjoy the view.” But I only start pacing anew, tears of frustration and helplessness burning in my eyes.
We are here for Shaila, my best friend since we were five, who has picked up the wasting sickness. Everyone who catches it eventually dies from it, but I couldn’t accept that. In my grief, I ranted to anyone who would listen about a legend I’d once heard of a cure on the other side of giant country. And while the others argued, sympathized, or simply left me to my grief, it was my grandmother who shocked me out of it.
“It’s true, you know,” she said as I sat on a bench and watched her pluck weeds from her garden. “When I was just a child, my Ma got the wasting sickness, and so my Mom got a group together and went there and back again to try to save her. Mom returned with the seeds, tough and large as a fist, and it worked—mostly. My Ma lived another 10 years, which was nine more than she would’ve gotten, at least.”
“True?” I choked out, nearly falling off the bench. “There’s a cure?”
My grandmother shrugged. “It’s a long way though, and through more than just giant country. You have to cross marshes and mountains. The seeds weren’t so hard to find, my Mom said, compared to all that.”
“I have to try,” I said immediately, wringing my hands as I watched her calmly shake dirt from a weed. “If there’s even the slightest chance…” Shaila is the one I’ve always turned to in times of trouble. The one whose arms I cried into when my only child was stillborn. The one who sat beside me one summer day when we were just girls, weeks after I’d lost my foot, and offered a flower to cheer me up. I am aromantic and only love people platonically, but I have loved her since that day.
"I have to go," I said, leaping to my feet, my mind racing. But I paused at the pitying look on my grandmother’s face and her small, amused smile.
“Of course you have to go,” she agreed gently. “I know how much Shaila means to you.” She straightened and wiped the dirt from her hands, giving me a cheeky grin. “And I’m coming with you.”
Nearly two months, a broken arm, and several scars later, I have those seeds now safely in my bag. We got lucky on the way here: the worst was the fire apes in the marshes, who, it seemed, didn’t like my grandmother’s singing. It was only on our second pass through giant country that the giants caught us.
“LLUUNNNCCHHH,” announces the giant in a voice so loud it shakes the ground and sky like an earthquake. I face-plant onto cold stone while my grandmother gracefully lowers herself from her perch to stop herself from doing the same. In seconds, the giant Valaya looms above us like a rocky cliff, fifteen metres tall. Her breathing alone is as loud as a mountain gale.
I cover my head with my hands and scrunch my eyes tight as fruit and seeds plummet from her pinched fingers and into our cage, which sits on a flat-topped boulder outside of Valaya’s home. The food strikes the earth like boulders. “THEERE YOUU GOO!!” Valaya croons affectionately, crouching down to peer at us through the bars, hoping to see us eat. Her eyes are purple, green, and gold, and the pupils alone are wider than I am tall.
We got lucky in a way—giants tend to react to humans much like humans react to spiders: most of them scream and stomp on you, but occasionally you find one who might lift you to safety or keep you as a pet.
I force myself to move, my metal foot clanking against the stone with each step, collecting the food and putting it into a pile to give the giant something to watch. I can’t help but think how easy it would be for her to simply eat us.
“THANK YOU, VALAYA!” my grandmother shouts in her creaky old voice as we begin to eat, and the giant smiles with teeth so large and shiny that my breath catches. Then she stands and ambles away, disappearing between the giant houses of her village, each step shivering through my body like terror.
“We need to get out of here,” I murmur, looking past the enormous dark red fruit in my hands to the view beyond. By giant standards, we are probably on a small hill, but misty forest cascades out as far as the eye can see, vanishing into the thin sparkling line of the northern ocean—a place I have scarcely even heard stories about. When we get out—if we get out—we will be going the other way: over the mountains and back through the marshes and forest and the plains to home. Back to Shaila.
“We will,” my grandmother assures me with simple faith.
“How,” I asked, “oh wise one?” My mouth tweaks into half a smile, but I am truly worried, truly afraid. It is one thing to accept that I can’t save Shaila, that she will fall to the wasting sickness and I will lose my best friend in all the world. It is another to accept that I won’t even be there beside her when it happens. I feel like a fool, like a teenager who has done something stupid and reckless for the romantic love I have never been cursed with. I bite into the strange meaty fruit to stop from pacing again.
“You’ll see,” my grandmother replies again maddeningly from the boulder beside me, but perhaps seeing the despair on my face, she adds more gently, “Trust me. Where would you be without me?”
I let the huge fruit in my hands drop with a plop that matches my despondency, but my grandmother leans over and takes one of my hands in hers—the same chocolate brown but lined and mottled and just a tad unsteady. “I think you’ll see her again,” she says gently.
I have to look away, out at that stunningly beautiful, hopeless view. “She’s young for the wasting sickness,” I say quietly, as if she doesn’t know that. “I wanted more time.”
“We all do,” my grandmother murmurs after a moment, her eyes as warm as the late afternoon sun. “But we’ve come this far. You’ve come this far. Look at you with that sword—you’d put a soldier to shame.”
“I saved you from the fire apes,” I offer blandly.
“That you did,” she agrees, getting up to hand me the fruit I’d dropped. “Eat up. We’ll be back before you know it.”
It isn’t until I finish my lunch that I realize my grandmother is packing. “Now?” I ask, bolting to my feet. “How?”
Her steely, dark brown eyes meet mine, and her mouth twists up into a grin. She’s placed everything inside her bag except her knitting and the waterproof sheet that we sleep under to keep off the rain. The sheet, I notice belatedly, now has ropes knotted through the edges.
“It’s a parachute,” she explains, while I just stare at her, slack-jawed. “The wind is blowing quite strongly. It should carry us far enough that we can hide in the mountains, as long as Valaya doesn’t catch us while we’re still in the air.”
I finger the thick metal of the cage helplessly. “But how will we get out of the cage?”
My grandmother grins smugly. “Only the way we came in,” she says, and I think of how the cage is constructed: it is more of a lid, really, with no bottom but the impenetrable rock we sit on. To open it requires the whole thing to be lifted up.
My grandmother lifts up the knitting she’s been working on, now finished and tied off from the enormous ball of yarn. It is a pair of giant-sized socks. The gaps in the yarn—tiny by Valaya’s standards—are large enough for me to stick my arm through, but even then, and for all my grandmother’s prowess, I can only wonder at her completing such an accomplishment in so short a time. She explains the plan to me and my body thrums with energy, ready, but then my eyes fix on the two bare knitting needles she has strapped to the sides of her pack like dull spears.
“Maybe I’ll make more socks,” my grandmother answers before I can ask.
“For who?!” I ask incredulously, but then I feel the tremors of Valaya’s footsteps in the distance, coming with our dinner, and I get into position.
“WE HAVE A PRESENT FOR YOU, VALAYA! SOCKS!” my grandmother belts the moment Valaya appears. The giant crouches down and cups a hand around her enormous ear, but even before my grandmother finishes shouting back, Valaya spots the socks and her massive boulder face splits into a wide grin. She gasps with delight and I stumble backward from the gust of her breath.
“AA PRREESSSSENTT FOORR MEEE?” she asks, gripping the handle on the top of our cage and lifting what has been our entire world for the last four days. She snatches up the socks and sets the cage back down without a second glance. “THAANNK YOOUU, TINNY HUMMANN!!” she roars sweetly, smiling at us both before pounding off to try them on inside her home.
“Now!” orders my grandmother, slinging her backpack on as I do the same. She races over to where I’ve moved a couple of the rocks under one side of the cage, and together we wriggle through, scrambling down the slope of the table-like boulder and sprinting along the stone path skirting Valaya’s house, my amputated leg aching fiercely with each pounding step.
“THEEYY FITT MEE!! MYY HUUMMAANSS AARE SOO CUUTE!!” Valaya roars happily from inside. We reach a stony cliff on the far side of her house, and I help my grandmother as her fingers fumble with the parachute, my own heart panging with terror.
We strap ourselves together and my grandmother holds the ropes she’s tied to the tarp, telling me to take her waist. Then I take a gulp of air, and we throw ourselves from the cliff.
I regret it immediately.
My gut drops nauseatingly, and the wind whips up past us as we plummet. The parachute suddenly snaps full, the straps yanking us upward, and my grandmother starts coughing from the shock. “Pull this,” she wheezes, “to move us that way.”
“NNOOOO!! WHHEERRREE AARRE MY HUUMMANNS?” Valaya wails sorrowfully. “BETEESSAAA!!” she screams, so loudly that I instantly cup my ears against the sound to protect them, and then uncup them as our parachute lilts dangerously sideways. “DIID YOUU SEEE MYY HUUMANSS??”
We hurtle toward the cliff, and I twist helplessly in my ropes to brace against the blow. But my grandmother extends her two tough brown legs, and I quickly copy her. We kick off of the jagged wall, and suddenly the wind flings us in the opposite direction, careening us through the air, away from the giants and toward the mountains. It occurs to me then, as I swallow back vomit, that I am afraid of heights.
My grandmother takes over the steering as we fly like a dandelion wish on the wind, out from the cliff of Valaya’s home, back toward the mountains that will take us home to Shaila. Bedrock and trees and streams glitter in the sun below us, beautiful and terrifying, and hope sparks in my chest.
We might make it, I think, looking back over my shoulder at Valaya’s shrinking house. Valaya is crouched down beside another giant, poking at the cracks in the rock as she searches for us.
“WHOO KEEEPSS HUUMAANS ANNYWAYY??” the other giant says with disgust. “SOO TINNYY.”
“NOOO,” Valaya says again, slumping to the ground in devastation. “THEEYY JUUSST MAADE MEE AA PREESSENTT...” She plucks mournfully at her socks with one hand and presses the other to her heart, and I feel a pang of empathy before I remember myself.
The mountains rise up before us, and we lilt down toward nest-speckled cliffs. I notice nothing amiss at first: I am too busy grinning at our freedom and for the hard-won seeds in my pack, praying with all my heart that Shaila hasn’t suffered too much yet.
But when I wipe the tears from my eyes, I realize that those are harpy nests. “Grandma!” I screech, snatching the ropes from her, but it is too late.
"We go where the wind takes us, my dear," she replies calmly, untying a knitting needle from the side of her pack.
We are swarmed by a maelstrom of screeching harpies the moment our feet hit the ground. I slice through them with my sword, as my seventy-two-year-old grandmother, just visible through a cloud of feathers, roars a battle cry and brandishes her needle.
But through it all, I am grinning madly, because I know now that we will make it.
Hang on, Shaila, I cry across the distance between us. We’re coming.
© 2022 Frances Koziar