by Ada Ludenow
They whispered in the doorways and they held their voices low so the words could move along the ground like smoke. The words flowed quickly over the small town’s square. Even the voice of the forest carried the news in the creaking speech of beech and oak. The ravens considered and remarked upon the news in scathing polyphonies. But it was the teamsters in the square who Mina heard:
“The Lord of the Mountain has been caught!”
Mina paused and listened. The words tip-toed like clumsy children and these children of the mind first gathered in supposition, then in declaration, and finally waited on the open window sill. As the bringers of gifts, gossip and hearsay, they enjoyed their borrowed magnanimity, and in that moment, a transubstantiation occurred and flesh and rumor became a captured god.
He was not just any Lord. There were plenty of lords in the world, but they were men. The town had never seen the Lord of the Mountain, but they were all certain of his effects upon them and this indefinite power authorized the use of the definite article. The Lord of the Mountain was said to be fond of children and often took them in sickness and in health. Those that passed away beneath his fever were said to haunt the forest. Other children simply disappeared. The town left gifts of food for him in the old grove of oaks, oaks so old and thick, torched and twisted from the hand of Thunder that they were holy and no axe touched them. Few would venture beyond them, for they were the silent sentinels of the greater forest that crept down the slopes of the mountain and the realm of its Lord.
Mina cocked her head and turned away from the distaff. The winding wool and linen stopped their itching dance and seemed to listen with her. As one who had very little magic in her life, Mina supposed the man they held in jail was nothing more than some traveler whose luck and ride had turned and flung him to the ground. She knew the town was often quick and cruel in its judgments.
Mina then turned the distaff again. Her father was the stablemaster of the town’s chief inn, though he was not the landlord, and since the inn lay across the small square from the town hall and its jail, her father was the janitor and jailor of both; she often took meals to prisoners there and so figured she could decide for herself who this person was. Until her older brother had married and started his family, and her younger sister Freda had disappeared into the forest, Mina had been overlooked and left alone. Chores were done, but seldom did anyone think of who did them. Left alone, she found her own pleasures. She liked it when the year began to turn and fires burned brighter, their smoke upon the air. Mina could feel the nuance of the fall; she marked the cant of light that carved memories from leaves, conjured long shadows on the timbers of the town and made the sky a vaster shade of blue. Mina liked the days of the equinox best, for the warmth of days allowed bare feet, yet in the night there were woolen shawls and apples bathed in honey on the hearth: honey from a year ago—hard and brown. How much can change within a year she wondered. In the year her sister had disappeared and Mina’s time for womanhood had come instead, the honey had changed and she wondered: how many threads had passed through her hands and how many eggs had she gathered, cracked and cooked?
Much later, as evening came, her mother crashed in through the door, and with great excitement ran to Mina, shaking the distaff from her hands. Its wooden end clattered on the floor just as her mother’s speech clattered in Mina’s ears.
“They have caught the Lord of the Mountain!”
“The teamsters were saying as much outside. What does he look like?”
“Oh he is very handsome: a tall dark man, with strong and hard cheeks. How like a wolf he seems, if wolves had black hair and walked around on two feet.”
“It seems strange, Mother. Who caught him?”
“The Korder sons. They were on their way to the wars, you know, and cut through the south arm of the forest on the old Roman road. They found him standing next to his great black horse.”
“If he is so powerful, as you have often told me, how could the Korder sons have caught him? You said he can come in the night upon the wind, or that he sometimes appears as a black butterfly that lures the children into the wood beyond the oaks.”
“Why must you question everything I say? I have seen him in his cell, with bars of iron ‘round him and you know his kind cannot pass iron.”
“Nor can ordinary men.”
“What would you know of ordinary men? The way you shrink from them or turn away that big nose of yours. You’ll die with an empty womb, like an old puffball or a leather bag left along the road.”
How many times? Mina thought. Her mother had never been a happy person, and she was set in her ways so that her remonstrations always took the same form. Listening to her harangue was like milking cows or spinning threads. Just as chores placed Mina in the world, so too did her mother’s regard. She did not need her mother to remind her of her scrawny body, or her nose, for she could always see it in front of her own face. In fact, her nose looked like her mother’s, and Mina often had the shivering fear, common to most young women, that she would someday become her mother.
“You shall take him his evening meal later.”
“We are feeding him?”
“Of course we are. He shall stand trial. The godmen from the City have been summoned and the Emperor’s judge shall accompany them.”
Later, after the sun had set, Mina fried two sausages and cut slices of bread for the prisoner. It was the best thing she could think of; she suspected the exaggerations of those around her for they were often given to exaggeration if not outright fabrication. She placed the meal upon a simple board and moved to the door. Her mother walked into the kitchen and up to Mina. She opened the door and then leaned close:
“Oh, you must find out what he did to Freda. How he raped her. He probably made a child upon her and then ripped it from her body and ate it in front of her.” Her mother clutched at her breasts and stomach.
“The lurid way you say that, Mother, makes me not wish to ask him. If you are so certain…” but Mina could say no more for her mother slapped Mina hard across the cheek, leaving the five red prints of fingers and thumb. “I’ll leave that as a warning to that rapist killer. He will know how we deal with his kind and you will keep your mouth shut in respect to your mother.”
The sausage was still warm and Mina could smell the mustard on the bread as it sat upon the board. It remained a warm and curious burden to bear across the square to the jail. The jail was nothing more than a large cabin without windows, made of strong timbers. Walking in, Mina saw only a large beeswax candle burning on a table which suffered to collect the spoils of prisoners, writs and other detritus. The timbered walls retreated into the night as though they were not there. The bars of the two cells seemed like thin bones of the night descending from a starless sky and sinking to the dark beaten earth. One of the cells contained a man in a private booth of shadows. Mina cleared her throat.
“Yes?” the voice called from the dark. She could see his form in the faint yellow light. He did not seem monstrous, and not even very tall.
“I have brought you supper.”
“A kindness I did not expect, and one carried by one so fair.”
“Sir, whatever you are, your flattery will not work on me.”
“I can tell by your tone that is true. Come closer.” The man’s voice was rich as crimson and stronger than the blacksmith’s work that separated him from Mina. The voice passed easily through the bars and blanketed the room.
“What have you brought me? It smells like sausage: pepper and mace from the other side of the world, and there is also familiar caraway. That is also in the rye bread, and there is some friendly mustard, though I do not need so sharp a condiment in this prison.”
Mina said nothing but set the board upon the ground within reaching distance of the bars.
“Bring us some light. Both the candle and your conversation,” he asked and Mina thought this was fair enough. She set one of the candles on the floor near the cell and then she sat upon a wooden stool at a prudent distance. The man huddled closer but Mina could not see his face. His clothes were black, but richly made, although almost too big for him. In the faint light she caught a glimpse of a fancy collar, perhaps silk. There was a glint of silver in his hair, and the hands that reached for the food were deeply knotted, spotted, and possessed of thick horny nails.
“You do not look like the Lord of the Mountain,” she said.
“My mother said you were a tall, dark haired man and handsome, of middle age perhaps.”
He looked up at her then. He was old, with strong cheekbones and clefting wrinkles lining his face as though he were an aged tree. His long silver beard was well-trimmed and his nose was somewhat large from age but neither hooked with sinister experience, nor blossomed from alcoholic habit. Yet he summoned enough light from the candle to set a twinkle in his eyes and he smiled. He is a handsome old man, she thought.
“You are wondering why I am here?” he asked. She nodded. “That makes two of us then. I was having a fine ride upon my horse through the forest when I was surprised by those two soldiers-to-be. And now I am manacled and imprisoned.” He held up the thick cuffs and chains Mina had seen before, but the jailor rarely placed them on prisoners.
“They said you are the Lord of the Mountain. You look like an old traveler. I mean no disrespect.”
“I hear no disrespect in your voice, child, and remember that even Our Father often traveled in this guise, so you can never be too sure. What is your name?”
“I fear to tell it to you.”
“Why? Because I would put a spell on you?”
“Perhaps, but also you will either be set free when the Emperor’s judge comes or they will put you to death.” There was more she could say, but she felt it was best to keep quiet around the man.
“And so a connection of names would be unnecessary, perhaps even a dare to the Gods who would so quickly sunder us? I do not care. I am old and I will tell you my name is Friduric.”
“That sounds like my brother’s name, Friedrich.”
“Then he is a good and trusty brother, and friend for you, which is even more important,” the man said and then he ate in silence for a while. Though he ate with his hands, he did so with an elegance that Mina could only guess came from courtly life. She thought the Lord of the Mountain, if he existed, would eat more like a ravening wolfman whom her mother often glamorized. He simply seemed like a hungry old man, but one who retained his manners no matter what life threw upon him. This conclusion brought a certain bravery to her.
“My name is Mina,” she said.
“And that is a pleasant name. This is good sausage and bread. Did you make them?” She nodded and he continued: “then you will make someone quite happy one day, for I can tell that you are an attentive and intelligent young woman. Somewhere in you is a whole secret world.”
“You are flattering me again.”
“Perhaps. You are pretty, though I doubt many here can see it. They would not choose to leave such marks upon your face if they did.”
Mina had forgotten her mother’s slap and the mark it left. “I am not beautiful. My sister Freda was beautiful.”
“Oh but you must learn that treasures hard-won change people, and what is beautiful on the inside may rise and mingle with the outside and make the whole more beautiful. A hundred knights of the Emperor would clamor and fight to kiss that nose of yours if it can smell the way to future and peace. At least it is a wonderful nose for cooking and this is very good.”
Mina smiled at him, but then straightened herself on her stool. “I am not going to let you out.”
“I should hope not. Inconstancy would mar your inner treasures. My only advice to you is that change is often a welcome visitor, though many curse and spit upon it.”
“I will not let you out, but somehow I do not think you will come to ruin, sir.”
“And why is that? Legal counsel is woefully underrepresented in these parts, I fear.”
“I think I know who you are now. You are a traveler, a wise old man, but from your speech and your clothes I can see that you are rich. This whole nonsense about the Lord of the Mountain is some sort of ruse for the Korders, the innkeeper, and my father to make money off a ransom. I doubt very much that neither godmen, nor the Emperor’s judge are coming. More likely they sent a summons to your estate beyond the Roman road. When your messengers arrive with some gold, you will be freed.”
He sat silently and considered this. “As I said, you are intelligent and know your people well.” He laughed a little and then sat away from the remains of his meal.
“I will say nothing of this,” Mina said.
“And what is the price of your silence?”
“I do not wish for gold. They would just take it away from me. Be kind to me if our paths ever cross again.”
“That I shall do, Mina. But let me add a story. Old men are full of them you know and it would cheer me to tell an old tale, and maybe you can then pass it along as well. It is about two brothers. One was rich and the other, as you can guess, is poor…” He continued on and as such tales usually go, the poor brother made out well in the end.
“The important part is the last part. The rich brother, whose mind was so cloaked with gold and jewels, forgot the rest of the verse to get in and out of the mountain. When the trolls came back, they ate him. Mina, are you falling asleep?”
“I heard you. I remember: ‘Simeli, Simeli, let me in, and when I’m done, let me out again.’”
“Good. Treasure and magic words are no use if you cannot keep your wits about you when you enter. Now tomorrow will be a very busy day for both of us, I think, so you should go to your bed and sleep well. Thank you for your kindness and attention.”
Although he was a prisoner, Mina still curtsied to him, for he did seem noble. She returned to her house and was soon asleep on her thin straw mattress.
Harlot!” Her mother screamed. Mina awoke under fists, scratchings, and shrieking words. “How could you!? That man had raped and killed your sister and you sure as much bend over for him. How much you hated Freda, and me!”
“Quiet!” Her father roared in the darkness. “Mina, get out of bed now and get dressed.” He pulled her from the bed by her hair and threw her to the floor. “How could you?” was all she heard for minutes upon years as she pulled her old brown dress over her threadbare shift.
Outside some men and women were gathered in a circle before the jail.
“Out of the way, she’s coming through.”
“We do not know she did it.”
“What else can you expect?”
Mina moved through this gauntlet of curses. She stumbled under their pushing, the gobbings of their spit lit upon her face and hair and she cried, “why why, why!?? I did nothing. Why?”
Through the early light and past the blurry angry faces she fell into the old jail. In the prisoner’s cell was the town’s chief guardsman waiting for her.
“That is enough!” he yelled. “That won’t do any good. Where is he, Mina?” Pushing the spit-upon hair out of her face, Mina realized the cell was empty save for the guardsman. A mass of clothes lay upon the floor. “You were the last to see him. What did he do to you child? Speak.”
Mina looked at the fine clothes in their heap along with the unopened irons. The old man was gone. “Your mother said you were late in returning. What did he do to you? Tell me. You may escape no worse than branding if you tell me what happened here. The door of this cell was shut, so if you let him out, he shut the door behind him like a gentleman. Or you did. Tell me.”
Mina was unaware she was speechless. The blows of her mother stung, and the smell of the town around her was strong and fetid with anger. But what really took her tongue and hid it very far away was the empty cell. Finally, after she felt the dig of a fingernail in her back, so hard it drew blood, she spoke.
“He was here when I left last night. He was only an old man.”
Mina’s mother was given permission to cuff and beat her while the men decided what to do. In the end, Mina was shoved out of the town past the oaks and onto an old path the charcoal burners had used.
“Go and find him,” the guardsman said. “If you wish to redeem yourself, you will lead him back here with whatever charms you used in league with him. If not, you will die or he will kill you and justice will be served on you at the very least.” Mina’s tears and sobs were so loud she barely heard him, but she put one foot before the other, slowly, and touched the swelling of the eye her mother had blackened. A hank of hair was missing and her scalp was bloody. She was bruised and exiled unto death and she would have given nothing more to return to cracking eggs and spinning her boring wool for the rest of her life. She walked slowly for an hour or so, and then stepped off the path to sit in a clearing. She washed her face in the brook that ran through the clearing and tried to smooth down the hurts. Her name hissed out from the woods.
“Who is there? Can’t you see? I’m already gone. Please.”
“It’s me. Stop it,” her brother said. He stepped from behind a tree and looked around. She wept again in the mingled strains of hope and joy.
“Here, I brought you this. You’ll die otherwise. There is some cheese and water. Here is a blanket, a knife and a flint. And a Thaler. I don’t have much else. What happened? Did you really sleep with the Lord of the Mountain and let him go?”
“No! Don’t you even believe me?”
“I don’t know what to believe, but I find it hard to believe Mother, of course.” He smiled at her and while she did not return the smile, her frown grew less stern, her eyes less red.
“I suppose that is wise. You must not be seen. What will I do?”
“You could go find the man.”
“But he is gone. I have no idea what happened to him or why his clothes were there. I took him his supper and he was simply an old man. He couldn’t have done any of those things. He seemed so wise and sweet.”
“An old man?” Her brother looked askance at her. “Perhaps he did put some sort of spell on you. You did not aid him?”
“No, he seemed very tired and resigned to whatever would happen.”
“Well, if you go up this pathway a little more, I think there is another pathway that leads to the left. Go on that and you’ll reach the Roman road. Maybe you’ll meet your old man or maybe not, but you can maybe start life over again. I don’t know any other way.”
They sat in silence for a while longer. The birds were singing and the fall sun seemed fresh and bright for Mina, but this contrast only made her more bitter and sad.
“I must go. No one must know you helped me. Thank you, Friedrich.”
“You’re my only sister now. I cannot let you just die out here. Go the way I said, and if things turn out well, have a scrivener write a letter to me, from wherever you are.”
Friedrich stole back into the forest. And having nothing else to do, Mina walked upon the path until she found another leading to the left, and did not notice it climbed up a gentle slope.
Unlike the threads upon her loom, there were no straight lines to follow in the forest. Even her hair, which was usually straight and unremarkable, seemed to bend and curl like the creek. It did not take long to know she was lost. The path had run out and seemed to turn right whenever she wished to go left. The trees had grown thicker and darker so that she could not see the sun and did not know where it was in the sky. She found another path and followed it for a while but the forest grew darker. Just as the sun was setting, the large trees gave way into a glade and Mina could mark the sky and early stars. There were trees though. They were gangly and small, but she could smell sweet russet fruits. Apples! Beneath a particularly welcoming apple tree, Mina sat down and drew Friedrich’s blanket around her and ate some apples and cheese.
The dusk grew deeper and deer came and passed through the little apple meadow. Their grace and silence comforted Mina as did her simple meal. She lay down and tried to count the stars shine within the profound sky.
“Thank you, apple trees and deer, for welcoming me. I think this is the most pleasant place I’ve seen in all the forest.” Mina closed her eyes to listen to the wind in the trees and they lulled her deeper into a dream in which she had become an apple tree. She sent down her feet and her veins into the ground. Near the surface, she could yet hear the careful steps of deer, rabbits and bears, and below them the deep groan of stone.
In the morning, something on her face tickled her awake. Mina opened her eyes and saw a single white petal on her nose. In surprise she sat upright, bespeckled and dazzled with apple blossoms.
How had they blossomed all at once, and in the night? And on the doorstep of fall? Mina quickly rose and left the strange glade although she took pockets full of apples with her. She followed a path back into the forest, but the ground continued to rise with a subtle grade.
“A mischievous place,” Mina said to no one, she thought. Yet there was a croak and popping sound. Then another. She turned and looked at her new companion in the forest.
“Hello and good morning, father raven,” she said. Mina knew that is was never a good idea to ignore a raven in the woods, and a worse idea not to greet him.
“Tell me, father raven, this is your land, which way shall I go?”
The raven bobbed his head. Mina smiled, for she had not really expected an answer but her jaw fell open and her eyes grew wide and fearful for she would never have dreamed he would speak.
“This is not my land. I am flying through. You may follow me and seek what you’re looking for. Why are you looking at me like that? Have you never heard one of my brothers or sisters speak? We do it all the time. Oh, I see, never in your own mushy language. It’s true, your terrible grammars and worse euphony are somewhat limiting in expression. To be honest, we don’t speak to you much anymore because none of you has anything interesting to say in return. It wasn’t always so, and there are virtually none of you who understand our tongue any more. Caw-haw! At times you even confuse us with those low-born criminals the crows. But I put no truck by that. You all look alike to us as well. Follow me!”
With two great beats of his wings, he flew forward and Mina, who was very understandably shaken, found herself stumbling along after him along a wide pathway. The raven stopped and alit upon a branch.
“This is the road, yes this is the road. Follow this and you will leave the forest,” the raven said. He seemed correct, for Mina could see the lines of ruts of what was once a road, although now grass grew thickly in it.
“But it has no stones. Does this lead to the Roman road?” she asked.
“You wished to find a way out of the forest, a road, and insofar as this being a Roman road, of course it is, for all roads lead to Rome!”
The joke was lost on Mina, who had never heard the proverb in her isolated town, but the raven found it most hilarious and laughed as he disappeared upon his black wings into the canopy of the forest. Mina walked over to the tree where he had perched and found it strange. She looked around her and noticed that the oaks and beeches no longer surrounded her: in their place stood tall fir trees. A single feather from the raven had fallen to the ground and Mina picked it up. She thought it would be good to keep the feather of such a wise bird, and she wove it into her now very tangled hair still flecked with apple blossoms.
But where could she be? She followed the road as the raven had advised, but again it seemed to gently climb the slopes of the mountain.
“Perhaps it goes over the shoulder of the mountain and then down to the Roman road,” she said to give herself confidence and she continued on.
As before, the sun was hidden behind the tops of the trees, and so in addition to not knowing where she was, she had no idea when she was. The forest sighed in different measures for these trees and their needles had different concerns and there seemed to be other voices among the trees, like to her own, but highly pitched and soft, as though they were singing from very far away. She listened as she walked and heard one voice grow clearer and louder, although it giggled and babbled in words beyond her understanding. It sounded as though it came from the trees, and as she gazed upwards, Mina walked straight into a small ford and so found the voice all around her bare feet.
A stream, she thought, and unless this was truly an enchanted forest, which it probably was, Mina knew that streams ran downhill.Then she said aloud,“but for all of that, I am very thirsty and very thankful to whomever set it here.” Mina knelt and scooped up the clear cold water, drinking until her thirst had disappeared. It was certainly not wine, but it did not taste like any water she had drunk before and she felt very sleepy.
“What was it? What is it? Oh yes, this is probably enchanted too, and I’ll forget everything, but I do not really care,” she said, sitting down on a soft mossy bank near the stream. Mina thought that perhaps forgetfulness would be a boon and closed her eyes. The water flowed into every vein of her body and she waited to sleep and forget. However, as in many turns of Mina’s life, she was somewhat disappointed.
The stream did not speak of forgetfulness, but rather filled her soul with memories. There was the first spring day she could remember, and then she saw her grandmother’s hands sending the shuttle back and forth. Even further back, she looked and saw her grandmother as a beautiful girl dancing around a fire and she danced with all Mina’s mothers. The circle of women widened further until their count was beyond Mina’s sight, and the fire burned higher. In the evening of this everywhen, Mina heard the voices above her again. They sang of pick-up-sticks and the corn-doll parade song. They sang of wicker baskets full of eggs and cherry-stone throwing, and Mina fell asleep. She passed into the dark purple realms of sleep below the ocean of dreams, but eventually Mina heard a voice singing. She didn’t like what the voice said; she was certain she had heard this before. It sounded like something her mother would sing.
“The turner turns his lathe,
The miller turns her stone,
And Mina in her father’s house
Turns her distaff all alone.”
Mina awoke to only the sound of the brook, yet she was aware that she was not alone. Someone was watching her carefully, and she could hear breaths along with laughter so like the giggling of the stream she first thought she had not left her dreams. When she opened her eyes, the voice said very clearly and politely, “I am sorry to wake you. Are you lost?”
She rose and turned to see a young boy above her on the rocks. He was as naked as a baby and sat kicking at the air. He could have been no more than seven years old and no younger than five. He had a healthy shock of golden brown hair and a tough wiry body with sun-browned skin. He smiled at her and leaned forward with obvious anticipation of her answer.
“Yes, I am lost. I have tried to find my way, but all I seem to do is get further lost.”
“I was lost for a while. But I’ve found my way.”
“Who are you?”
“I live here.”
“That is not a name, but perhaps I will call you that. Do your parents live nearby, I Live Here?”
“They are everywhere, but not here right now. I am alone. But my home is not too far. Are you hungry?”
“Well, come along then. I have not met a pretty lady with flowers and a raven feather in her hair before. Come. It isn’t far,” he said.
Before Mina could question him further, he bolted up and began to run. Mina sighed, for he ran up the mountain and it was not a direction she wished to travel any further. But she was hungry and wanted something more than apples and the rind of cheese.
He moved quickly through the fir trees and bracken, but Mina found it easier to follow him for the trees thinned as they went up the mountain. The sun was easier to see as well, and the air was fresh and clear. In time, they came to where the trees stopped and wide meadows stretched out and up the mountain. There was still no snow upon it; it was not yet winter, but the thought of fall upon the mountain unnerved her. The boy ran ahead until he descended into what appeared a small dale at the end of which was an old stone edifice and some sheep milling about. The boy disappeared into a wide open door and Mina stopped. She realized he was only an orphaned shepherd boy and how strange it would be if he was the Lord of the Mountain. How stupid her people could be!
“Are you coming?” The boy had put on a ragged tunic and stood on the threshold of his cave. “There are berries and milk!”
Mina shrugged and walked down the dale, past the ordinary looking sheep and crossed the threshold. She saw a sheepskin and a crook on the wall by the door. She expected to see the rest of the low and primitive cave that the boy’s parents had scraped out of the hill. They were probably dead and left him alone,she thought. The sun had begun to set in the west, and she turned again to see the vast slopes go down away from her. She could mark the fir forest and where the green beneath the setting sun changed into the vague browns of distant oaks and beech. It was hazy, but she was sure she made out the flat lands where her home was. To the north, she could see a distant line lead out from an arm of the forest into vague fields: the Roman road she had sought. Her stomach, unimpressed with the view, growled wanting berries and milk. She turned to look into the darkness and felt his small hand.
“Simeli, Simeli, let me in, and when I’m done, shut yourself again,” she whispered. The boy did not seem to notice.
“Come, it’s this way, and it’s still far, but we can see the moon rise from there.” They walked into a vaster darkness than Mina could imagine. This was no small cave, but a deep tunnel, and Mina gasped as its length stretched before her. Yet as her eyes wrestled with the darkness and they walked deeper into the mountain, she saw a faint light grew stronger. Eventually they came to the first of the silver lamps shining along the walls. She and the boy ventured on past glittering lodes of quartz filled with ore so rich Mina could only guess it contained gold, silver and perhaps metals undiscovered. A window cut high above them poured down the sapphire color of the early evening and it mixed with the silver lamplight. The songs of birds filled her ears though she could not see them. They sang in rich modes and the notes made light in Mina’s mind: like blue silk and yellow daffodils, sweet pine air and smooth glass upon her cheek and breast. It was then, still holding the boy’s hand tightly, that Mina gave herself up to the wonder and delight of the mountain.
After a time, though Mina had no idea if it was a moment or a year, they walked out into the clear air. The rising moon scattered the purpling light of the coming night and Mina looked to the east. They were on a terrace, and upon a simple stone table was a bowl full of dark berries and a ewer of milk. They sat upon some logs near the table, but they could have been the richest chairs in the Emperor’s palace, for all Mina cared. The berries and milk were sweet and she soon felt something she could not identify, such an odd feeling, like a ball of gold amongst others of dirt or stone. The boy ate and spoke of the adventures of his sheep and how the bears were growing sleepy. They watched the moon rise further and it cast the shadows of enterprise for those who lived at night within the forest. It was then Mina recognized the feeling: she was very happy.
“Why are you here?” he asked.
“I was sent to look for someone,” Mina said. She then paused and thought about whom it was she had been sent to find. Perhaps it was not the old man after all.
“Tell me, I Live Here, have you seen my sister?”
“Does she look like you?”
“No, she is pretty, with golden brown hair and blue eyes. She is a little younger than I am, but I suppose that could be a lot of girls.”
“I have seen some girls down below, like you say. But I can’t remember. I am feeling sleepy like the bears. Will you tell me a story? We can then go to sleep.”
Mina cautiously followed him back into the wondrous mountain, but this time they walked up spiraling courses of stairs until they reached a very great room. Bronze sconces glowed as though iron fires burned behind their thick forms. The walls were hung with tapestries of many colors and fabrics, with strange people and animals rendered in different forms and styles. The bedroom, more of a bed-hall, looked to the West and in the middle was a great wide bed spread with more fine fabrics.
“Where did all of this come from? You cannot live alone here.”
“Yes it’s strange. It was long ago I came here and it is as it is. The bed is very soft, but it is lonely sometimes. Can you tell me a story? What is your name? I forgot to ask. I’m sorry.”
“Mina, my name is Mina,” she said, looking out the wide window cut into the stone of the mountain. She wondered why it was not cold, and then turned to look at him. “I should think you can tell me a story.”
“Well, I’m storied out, Mina. I’m young. You know more.”
“Hardly. But very well, I Live Here.”
They curled up in the bed together as the sconces somehow dimmed, though Mina did not notice it, so natural was the fading of their light. She could think of no other story save the one the old man told her and so she began.
“Oh, I like that story. The mountain in it is like this one, but don’t worry. I’d like to hear you tell it. You can make it different.”
Mina breathed deeply the next morning. She was very comfortable but still dreamy and half-asleep. The songs of the birds gradually became stronger, one voice at a time and she knew that the whole of her being was not in some dream but in the mysterious bed-hall. She sat up and looked around, but the boy was gone. A very fine shift lay on the foot of the bed and Mina realized she was still in her old brown dress. The smell of rain suffused the room. Mina arose from the fine bed and wandered to the window. Rain indeed came from the west and the mountain seemed to sleep beneath it. She then heard a cataract of water nearby. It grew louder, from a trickle to a splashing as the rain increased. She sought out the sound and found in a clever folding of the stone walls, a chamber. It was open to the sky, but it sloped away from the central hole like a great funnel. The water came down in streams, played upon the stone floor and ran away into dark channels. Holding her hand in the water, she found it neither warm nor cold. She looked back into the bed chamber. Still alone and feeling somewhat soiled and bedraggled from her strange adventure through the forest, she shyly removed her dress and shift and stood under the water.
It flowed like all the rains of the world and spoke the secrets of oceans and lands upon her naked body and she remembered the apple tree and how she had sent her own dream roots into the earth. She imagined herself a tree in the rain until the rain ceased and the sun returned, but she spun and danced like a girl-top. Time moved either very quickly, or perhaps not at all, for she suddenly found herself dry once more in the rain and sun chamber.
Time is moving, for she was very hungry. “Thank you, I Live Here, or Whoever Lives Here,” she called out loud, but only the chorus of birds resounded in the mountain.
The shift was dark green, or perhaps a light green like lily pads. Mina could not tell because in putting it on, it seemed to reflect all the shades of green she had ever known. Smooth on her skin, like curds on her tongue or lamb’s ears on her fingertips, the shift clung to her and she noticed it bore no seams. Perhaps it is silk, she thought. Except for the collar of the rich man in the jail, Mina had never seen silk, much less felt it. Silk had only been a fabric of stories. Only empresses and hierophants wore it, and they were always so far away.
But she was hungry. Of that she was sure.
Mina wandered back down the stairs. There seemed to be hundreds of passages, some smooth-cut and level as snow on windless nights, and others rough-hewn with gleaming crystals and fountains of rock caught like water in somersaults and dives. Everywhere she found gold and silver cages containing the warblers, finches, thrushes and nightingales that filled the mountain with song. Peahens and peacocks even followed her in an iridescent parade. At last she came to a room carved from stone but filled with books. Mina frowned. She could not read but surely such a place held all the books she would ever read, if she only could. A small doorway stood between two great pillars made of gilded folios, and light from outside spread across the floor. She peeped outside into a small garden. There was another table made of stone and the handsome old traveler sat at it, eating ewe’s cheese and apples and drinking milk.
“Oh, you are awake, my child. Good morning, or perhaps afternoon by this time.”
Mina curtsied and looked down, “Good morning my lord, I, um…” and she stood on one leg and could think of nothing to say. Fortunately for their conversation, this did not seem to be a problem for the old man.
“Come sit, child. Your name is Mina and you are welcome in my home. I hope that this humble food can return the favor of your sausage.” Mina did as he asked and sat down. “You may eat. Please do, but before you do, ask your first question.”
“Do I only get three?”
“Three? No, you can ask as many as you wish, only not with your mouth full. So ask, and then eat and listen.”
“Where is the young boy?”
“Oh, him. I don’t know. I suppose he is off wandering somewhere upon the mountain with the sheep. He is a wild spirit of the hills. You may find this strange, but I never see him. I see his footprints around here but he is always gone in the morning as you have discovered.”
The old man told her of the mountain and its history, of how the Eldest Miners cut tunnels through it, and how the sun could find her way down distant shafts to the bottom galleries and the moon would follow with his own light.
“That is the best light for thinking,” he said. “When I read too much and my eyes grow tired, I sometimes come here and watch him carry out his wandering course over the sky. We have many good talks, although I am the one who seems to do most of the talking.”
“And who are you?”
“I am the Lord of the Mountain, Mina. You blanch at that, yet you must have some idea why you were watched. And you were always so polite: to my apple trees and deer, and you were polite about the water as well. However, the greatest kindness you showed to me was not asking for gold, but only kindness itself. Yes, the cheese is very good. I think the young boy makes it. You must stay awhile. You have nowhere else to go at the moment, do you?”
He leaned forward and Mina shrank back from him. He was right, of course, but somehow staying on the mountain had not entered her thoughts. She assumed that the fairy-feast would disappear at any time and she would be left upon a bare and windswept hill.
“And so it is for many who venture here,” he said, as though he heard her thoughts. “But they don’t know the magic words, do they?”
They went inside once Mina was finished eating, and she listened to him as he pointed at books and told her stories: of how the Romans came and cut roads across the lands, and then further back to when the Northern people came across the wide lands from the mountains in the east. As the evening deepened, he led her to an old disused kitchen. Sacks of flour and mushrooms, a keg of butter, dry cakes, and all manner of spices and herbs were there, but left in an abandoned mess.
“The boy brings them. Your people have been giving me these gifts for quite a long time, although I don’t have much of a hand for cooking.”
“I would very much like to return the favor of your hospitality, sir.”
“Would you? That is kind of you, and I cannot help but admit I hoped you would say that. It has been many years since a pretty girl cooked for me. It was in Russia. She was a skinny, pretty thing like you with black hair and she lived in a house that sat on giant eagle legs…” Mina cast her eyes about her, and then held up her hair. The raven feather was gone, but now her hair was as black as it had been.
She made him an omelet from peacock eggs with cheese and mushrooms and they drank elderberry wine that tickled her nose and feet. He never made a move to eat her, and yet she peered at the birds who had softly, quietly nested themselves, save for the nightingales. Later they returned to the bed-hall and Mina sat on the bed near him as he reclined and continued telling stories. She then lay down as the night came and the bronze scones dimmed again until at last, she felt her eyelids grow heavy. I will close them for a moment so he thinks I’m asleep and then I’ll leave when he snores,she thought.
The next day she awoke alone again and events occurred much the same. The old man was nowhere, and so she took her bath beneath the rain that came again. The only difference was a black shift had been left on the bed, yet with her eyes closed, it felt the same as the other. She even retraced her steps to the bookroom porch, but he was not there. She found only a pitcher of milk and some blushing pears. She had eaten enough of this weird food to bind her there, she realized, and so she decided to eat some more. The boy never appeared, and so she wandered out to the bed-chamber looking over the west. Perhaps she should go, she though, but she looked down into the dark forest that separated her from her old home. It filled her with fear and dismay. How would she ever know the way?
As she watched, she saw that mare’s tails began to stream over the sky and a dark cowl of clouds gathered over the horizon, shutting out the sun. The grass stirred in the wind and Mina watched the storm come, raining perhaps over her town. The forest moved under the great heave of the storm and then a rhythm could be heard, pulsing up from the firs. She then saw a horse and rider break out upon the meadows and they thundered up the mountain toward her. Someone to save her,she first thought? But her doubts seemed to freeze her on the porch. Mina could hear their breaths, distant at first, then louder as they came toward her, horse and man. They plunged into the dale and the horse’s hooves struck fire and sparks as they careened to a stop on the stones before the entrance below her. At that moment, the storm struck the summit of the mountain. The man dismounted and went inside, but it was not his presence that frightened her. Her fear came with uncanny, certainty, and it fluttered upon her hand: a single snowflake. It did not melt upon her hand, but remained, and she wondered if it was a tear of glass or a strange, six-sided feather. No, it was a snowflake. But what plunged Mina’s heart, what sunk her insides after it was not the first snowflake, but the second, then third, and fourth and flurry of identical snowflakes that swiftly caked the ground and her arms. She turned and ran back into the mountain.
She ran straight into him.
He stood tall and strong, with a great mane of black hair. His skin as brown as the earth of the forest: his beard was black and long. The cold fire of his green eyes perceived her, studied her and the black shift she wore felt oppressive as though it bound her breasts and clung too tightly between her legs. He came to her, and with delicacy and anticipation, removed his gloves. He ran his long muscled hands up her body. He said nothing but put his hand on her forehead and then ran his fingers down over her face, taking special care to caress her long nose. He paused and traced her lips, then her chin.
“You are yet here, Mina. In the Hall of the Lord of the Mountain. Why did you remain?”
“I am afraid, I…” but her words were caught in her mind.
“Good, Fear is but the first quickening of power, but power is made of other things beyond that. Come. I shall show you. Do not look for the others. They are not here. Not now. Come.”
And he led her swiftly down the twisting stairwells, tumbling in the darkness until her legs felt scrambled and separate from her body, like flailing mistakes upon the stones until they passed out into the dale. The horse stood by, its mane fluttering in the uncold snow. In moments faster than the night or death, the man pulled her upon the horse.
“Who are you?”
“Do you not know by now? I am the Lord of the Mountain.” He spurred the great horse and they thundered down over the meadows and crashed into the forest. The branches tore at her skin and shift until it was nothing but pennants streaming after them and the pain of the piercing branches gripped her, like iron nails in her flesh. They rode through the snow and into a clearing, but as she held him tightly and looked down, Mina saw that it was a lake they rode across. But then she saw it was not a lake but a mirror of the clouds and they were up above them suddenly, to where the moon touched them. They crossed over a beach of onyx and over mountains and Mina felt a building pressure, like the ocean swimming within her, and she saw the Great Serpent in the darkest of the waters, turning and coiling in his scales. She wept and gasped at the thin air, so thin it never could seem to fill her lungs. Her legs were weak from the holding the horse, whose sweat was thick upon her legs and belly like honey, but she felt comfort and surety in the strong course of the Lord of the Mountain and in her own arms around his body. She closed her eyes tightly and became the movement of the ride.
Mina did not know when the moonlight returned and lit the tunnels around her, but she felt him carrying her through the mountain and into the chamber of rain. It fell upon them both, neither cold nor hot as always, but she felt his skin close against her and the gentle caress of his hands upon her hair. She did not feel the bed so much as she became a dream-sand woman upon the beach of onyx. The ocean came drawn by the moon and washed her beneath blankets of waves until she and the sand became one.
Mina awoke, but this time it was still dark. Her body hurt in strange ways, but stranger still was the arm draped over her body. She did not notice that this was the first time she awoke with someone. She was only happy for a long time until the dim dawn came and awoke the first bird. She then shifted in the bed and looked beside her. Curled against her and as naked as she was, lay the beautiful boy. His hair glowed, even in the faint rose-light of the dawn and his eyes searched through thick forests of dreams beneath his lids.
And then Mina understood.
In time, Mina learned the Lord of the Mountain was mercurial in the temporal progression of his ages. One day he was the little boy, then the old man, and then the old man again, and then the next day he was her black-haired lover. Habit was a word not suited to him, at least as human beings were wont to use it, for it suggested a certain constancy. And Mina began to change. First it was her hair, but after many nights, she could see her veins. When she looked closely, her skin was as tawny as ever, but the vessels of her blood began to stand out in clearer definition, as though blood no longer flowed through them, but rather the precious stones of the earth. “Porphyry and chalcedony, ruby and Tyrian sapphire,” were the pretty names the old man said as he ran his fingers over her arms and legs, tracing them. They would study the books and he began to teach her to read. The boy would take her over the meadows and into the forest to hunt for mushrooms and berries. The man would come and surprise her and they found other ways to spend the days and nights.
Save for the Lord of the Mountain and herself, almost everything seemed the same from day to day. The rain fell in the morning for Mina, and there were always apples and pears along with strawberries and milk. The Sun continued much as it always did in its course from east to west, but even Mina noticed it moved further south. Yet while the day seemed shorter, she could never count the passing of it or the night and the air did not grow colder upon the mountain.
But the Lord of the Mountain became sluggish and tired. The old man would often not stir from the bed. The boy no longer walked out upon the mountain. Often, she would often lie upon the man, for he could only hold onto her hips and smile.
One day she asked the boy, “Where did the birds come from? Who brought them here?”
“Yes, I hear them in the forest down below and I sing to them, and then they come to me and sit upon my hand. I bring them here because they are so pretty.”
“But birds must fly free.”
“Yes. But I have noticed there are no ravens here.”
“Oh no, Father would never let me keep ravens. They are unto themselves. But one does come by. Mostly he speaks about old times beyond the forest.”
Beyond the forest? she asked herself. She had grown used to the lack of change, save in the Lord of the Mountain and the course of the sun, but her language had changed in describing where she lived. Beyond the forest. It was a there, and therefore, no longer home.
On the shortest day, the old man lay in bed watching Mina feed the birds. He began to sing:
The turner turns his lathe,
The miller turns her stone,
And Mina in her father’s house
Turns her distaff all alone.
“I used to not care for that song, but I somehow miss that world,” Mina said.
“Tell me Mina, the why of things that change. Your pretty map of Tyrian time shows the courses of roots, the sap-blood ways of lives.”
“When I lived below, I did not notice things that changed. I did not know them. I thought I would always live in the same place. Now I miss the smoke of fires. They were different every night, but I did not see it. The birds themselves would come and go with the spring and the fall. You do not notice it, but these birds sing the same song: variations on a theme of ‘let me fly away.’” Mina then opened one cage, and the warbler flew into the room.
“No,” the old man wheezed.
“I’m going to change something here.”
“But they are so pretty”
Mina did not mind him. She opened every cage. The birds flew around and around her in gyres until the last were freed, and then they flew up through a shaft toward the waning sun.
The old man sadly fell asleep, and Mina walked past him to the open window and porch. The cloud of birds descended toward the Town, until they disappeared amongst the oaks. But there was one bird who remained upon the mountain; he came of his own free will. Mina heard a familiar croak next to her. The raven eyed her.
“That was very well done. I’m sure the old boy wasn’t expecting it. Shall you stay?”
“How can I remain here? Where nothing really changes? I cannot enjoy the smoke upon the air in fall. The strawberries are always in season. When will they lose their taste? The cold has even lost the allure and thrill of death.”
“Ah but you have changed. Look at yourself. You are barely recognizable as that silly girl I found in the forest, but now your skin is rich with veins of memory. You are always free to go, the Lord of the Mountain said as much when he gave you the verse out of the mountain. That is a great gift, for you have given him change. In you I think he has finally found a spirit that can walk out upon the world and bring its news to him, in the smallest of things. The creaking chirp of a cricket, and yes, apples and honey cooked in the turn of fall. And in winter you can hear the crunching feet of your brother’s children upon the snow. Come, do you wish to hear them?”
“But it is far, and look at me. I fear the snow will grow cold below and kill me.”
“Yes, it’s the easiest thing to do. Come, just stand here and say…” and the raven whispered to her.
“Simeli, Simeli, let me fly away, and I’ll return another day,”Mina said and her hair grew wild and spun around her as her mind swam above the high mountain. “One step,” the raven said and Mina walked out upon the air and flew.
Together, they flew down the mountain, over the snow covered firs and over the bare branches of the oak trees. They flew toward the few lights of the town. When they alit upon a window sill, they looked in at children playing with wooden toys upon the floor. Freda sat nearby with Friedrich’s wife, turning a fine ham on the spit.
“Where is Friedrich?” Mina asked.
“There, over in the corner asleep in his chair.”
Mina peered closer but struck her face sharply against the pane. “As your nose is long, so is your beak. You’ll have to learn that.” They flew through the town, and saw everyone Mina had known. There was singing and there were tears. These her mother did not shed, she simply sat alone and angry in a stiff chair, glaring into a lonely fire.
“There she will be, and there she would be glaring at me,” Mina said.
“And I imagine you had no idea you’ve been speaking to me in my own language. It sounds crackled and beautifully bent, as it should be on your tongue. Make your decision. Leave him now at the weakest point of his year, the strongest of yours, or else…”
“Or else what?”
“You’ll figure it out. You’re a smart girl.” He beat his wings and left Mina perched upon the sill. She looked at her mother for a long time. It was the darkest night of the year, and so the sun would be long in returning to the sky above the wide and secret world. Mina then made up her mind and flew away into the darkness.