In the ten lost years he spends off of Shay Mountain, down “there” with the devils, Asa Farrell gets well-used to people telling him how bad he stinks. Never can seem to get the trick of it, how clean you have to be in order to pass, to not stand out. One softish boy he runs with a spell gifts him a cologne-bottle for what Asa claims as his birthday, but the reek of it makes his eyes and nose sting like a fire-blinded dog's; has to splash it on with a handful of water just to bear the smell long enough to make his friend think he likes it. Eventually, of course, that ain't much of a consideration anymore—he and the boy fall out, like he always does with them below, and Asa start in to wandering again. The boy's name slips from him, blown away forever, making room for yet more names.
“Where the hell you from, anyhow?” one gal he sells weed to asks him, out California way. She's heavy-set and heartsick with it, wide-hipped, generous from her head to her toes; her curly hair fans out every which-way, impossible to control. Asa wants to tell her how happy it makes him just to see her every day, let alone get close enough to handle her—that there are people out there starving, body and soul both, all of whom would envy every extra inch. That she makes for justabout the loveliest pillow he could think on, moss and small flowerbeds included.
But he don't say none of that, since he knows now not to. Just answers: “Oh, Kentucky, I guess—Blackburg township, up Shay Mountain way. Minin' country.”
“Uh huh. Where's that?”
“Just someplace y'all never heard of, gal. World's full'a those, I reckon.”
“So...you are a hillbilly, like Bob and Clyde say. Like, an actual one.”
By some standards, sure, he wants to reply, as if it's nothing special, no real insult or offense. But finds himself crossing his arms and standing there frowning, instead, like he ain't got nothin' better to do, 'til he stumbles on the exact right words to break himself out of it. “Mountain ain't no hill,” he says, at last, squinting at her so hard it almost seems to scare her, before she starts to laugh.
Experience's already shown him how there's no real harm in the down-belows, though some danger if you don't pay attention, like with any strange animal. They're all of 'em grown-size children by Farrell clan standards—know a lot about a lot, but nothin' that really matters. And they're none of 'em marked, either, at least not that Asa can cipher; can't read their parentage or consanguinity on their skins, the plotted-out Ruthark sigil and symbol chain of their learning, their loves, their deeds or their losses. All of 'em forever kept kids at every age, slaves to their own endless wanderings, just like him.
For a while, he worked in one of their tattoo shops, swapping chores for ink. Drew up sigils of his own devizing, scribing them wherever he could reach aside from his hands, which still bear the Farrell mark doubled, one for each of his sires: this for reading and this for mathematics, law-lore, Computers 101. This for fixation, for engineering, for comparative religions and philosophery. All of 'em with meaning save for the shoulder, which he chose up blind, off the wall—it was beautiful, is all; spoke to him, half a flame, half a flower. This ancient writing in a tongue no man could tell, least not that he'd found between Blackburg and Los Angeles.
Down there, everything costs: food, water, shelter, company. He takes up off-cast and repairs it, like at home, but don't nobody want to sell nor trade his labor's result, for they're all too spoiled for choice; if it don't come store-wrapped, plastic-sealed and with a price stamped on, these fools got no damn use for nothin'. For a while he shrugs off all but the worst hurts, doctoring himself, 'till at last he lands in hospital with a staph infection left too long untreated, and loses almost six months to it. It puts his false I.D. in the system, which he can't think'll go well, so he makes sure to steal his records as he's leaving and burn them in a nearby garbage tip, foul smoke of it blowing back into his face like a slap. Never again, he thinks.
Farrells, Shays and McClintocks—they're all like rats in this downward country's walls, Asa eventually gets to realize, livin' off what the rest of these soft bastards throw away. “Free,” sure, and welcome to it; up on the Mountain, everything's free...just as free to live as they are free to die, and with as much random likelihood of such. Step but one yard off it, though, and suddenly you're a slave to paper, to the corporations that push it, just like everyone else.
Most of what he makes goes to school, always at night, on his own time. He works harder than anybody else he meets and barely recognizes it, but some of it's to master what he doesn't understand, what they've all been raised with the knowin' of down set deep in their bones, their blood: how best to walk, to talk, how to seem, to be. How to live 'round prey without looking predatory, 'round game without givin' no sign how he's always been a hunter.
A cop tases him for going too slow when he's told to give his papers over; a brawler breaks his arm in two places, so's it'll ache before rain the whole rest of his life. He grows watchful, silent, sullen. He trains himself not to trust. He puts poison in his body and pays the price for it; lets people in cars buy his time, then steals what he can from 'em before movin' on. More often than he can count he finds himself passed between clutches of what old Lady Ray might call bad men, loose women, unrepentant heathens—but they're not any of that in the end, not really. They're just lost, like him.
Down in the towns, off of the Mountain, everybody's equal-lost. Only difference is--
--only difference is, ain't none of 'em know it. 'Cause ain't none of 'em know there's any other way to live.
Ciphering and scribulation, the in-workings of a thousand different plastic toys, how best to talk to cops and doctors, to search out a man's name, address and other relevant information from the careless spoor of him thrown out all across that bright, invisible ether-highway any fool with a smartphone can pick the lock to—what to do when and why, or not. There's a hundred things Asa Farrell knows now that none of the rest of his cousins do, or ever will, but one's purely the worst, out of all of 'em: what it is to be alone, and truly so. All alone in a crowd, a wandering, kinless world.
The longer he stays away, the more he forgets and punishes himself for forgetting, not knowing himself quite how it comes to happen; new things fill his aching head up like firework blooms, lighting his skull within, pushing the old ones out. Ideas are a poison too, he eventually decides, almost late enough he can't hope to dry himself out from 'em—to call halt, go cold turkey. Shut his eyes and ears on this fractious, glory-full world and retreat, feeling around half-blind, 'till he finally finds the trail he needs to follow back to where he came from.
So: One day it's just gone spring, wet and wild, and finds himself comin' back up the Mountain sideways and stumbling, no longer sure where to put his feet. Loud and brash and clumsy, just like one of them. A trap snaps at his boot, but he skips forward, just missing it. And at the tree line Big Foster grabs him by the hair, hauls him up like he's a rabbit, hollering: "See what we got 'chere? Lostie for sure, that's what it is! What-all name we got to call you by, Lostie?"
And Asa can barely swallow, in the moment of it—just stares up at his Lady's son's face, heir to all heirs, with near fifty other Farrells steppin' out to stand attendance on him, waitin' to see what he'll do. One even taller and far darker, but with the self-same face writ gentle: Li'l Foster Farrell the Eighth, as he lives and breathes. And next to him, in the very shadow of that creature's arm, a woman, fair as Mountain dawn-fire—small, spare and strong, her arms bristling with tattooed root-bunches and arrow-marks, red hair hung down like a skinned fox's hide.
“...G'Winnveer?” Asa names her at last, hesitant. To which she only nods, proud nose held high, like she's servin' sentence on him for his many crimes—all those she don't know about too, along with that time he left her weeping behind to walk downwards, swearing never to return.
“Cousin Asa Farrell,” she names him back, while the others swear and spit. And that's it, that's when it happens: don't matter none what they do to him now. Don't matter a lick, not then, not ever.