BY ELLE TURPITT
Copyright is held by the author.
HE’D SEEN the mountain only once as a boy, yet as an adult with a wife and child of his own it still plagued him. A constant presence in his dreams. Waiting at the end of the long, winding path he found himself on. Promising so much. A sweet soft song filling the air as he tried to move closer.
It was important. He knew that much. It would be a new life for them all, the one place they could truly be happy and escape the conflicts and monsters sweeping through Sharn and Tarka.
It eclipsed everything. Cast its shadow across the land and through time, reaching out for him and drawing him ever closer.
He would wake from his dreams with her hand on him. Warmth on his shoulder or back. He would roll over. Wrap her in his arms. Kiss where he could reach and fall back to sleep, full of love for his wife and their daughter, so much like her mother, even in the way she looked at him.
For a time he would forget the mountain.
But with sleep came the dreams, and eventually he realized they would never leave him.
Not until he went back.
“Where are we going, Papa?”
Emilia stared at him with the pure love that only children could bestow. She smiled as he leant into the cart and kissed her cheek. “On an adventure,” he promised. He turned to see Helen standing in the doorway, looking back into the house with one hand on the doorframe. He headed up the path. Enveloped his wife in his arms. “It’s a new beginning for us,” he said, kissing her forehead.
“I didn’t know we needed one.”
“You’ve heard the stories. How long before it all spreads from Sharn and finds us here?”
She sighed. Placed her palm against his cheek. “I will follow you to the ends of the earth,” she said. “Until I die.”
“I wouldn’t take you if I didn’t think it best.”
“I know.” She kissed his cheek and walked towards the cart.
He took first watch every night. Delighted in the small comfort of seeing Helen and Emilia sleeping, his wife’s arms wrapped around their daughter. Sitting by the fire he poured over the map, determined to memorize every inch.
She slept so peacefully he hated having to wake her. But there were dangers once they had left the village, and when his eyes grew so weary he couldn’t stand it any longer he would lean over his wife and wake her with a soft kiss.
When they first set out she woke with a smile just for him. As the distances between the villages they visited grew, the smiles disappeared.
It was Emilia’s reaction to leaving the villages that tugged his heart. She would sit backwards in the cart, pouting but never crying, understanding all too well that none of them knew when they would next sleep in a bed.
After a few weeks, they finally reached the northern mountains. Emilia, bundled in furs in the cart, cried out in delight on seeing them.
“Papa! We’re here!”
“Not yet, darling,” Helen said, reaching across and tucking hair behind her daughter’s ear.
Her eyes grew wide and wet. He looked briefly at her before returning his focus to the path ahead, unable to stand the sight of her lower lip quivering.
If only he’d had a son.
A strong boy who would have at least been useful.
With a boy he wouldn’t have had to listen to the whimpering that meant she was trying not to cry.
The wind howled. Snow began to fall and ahead, between the mountains, he could see where the ground was covered in thick patches of white.
The sobbing started and Emilia wailed, “I’m hungry.”
His wife tried to calm her with soothing words and he was forgetting the last time she had used a similar tone with him.
They passed through the mountains. The cluster of villages on the other side was the last they would see for a while. Every piece of food they had left would need to be carefully rationed, and the horse looked like it would drop any day.
Helen’s face was narrow and gaunt, pale with dark circles under her eyes.
When he crawled under the blanket at night and reached for his daughter she shifted away at his touch.
During the day when he caught them glaring he returned their heated looks, tempted to tell them to go home and let him be happy without them.
Yet they needed to see it. Needed to know why he had dragged them away from their home and wanted them to realize what he was doing was for the best.
Everything he had done had been for them.
He focused on the horse. Whispered encouragement and ignored his daughter’s sniffling.
I’m cold. I’m hungry. I’m tired.
He wanted to strangle her whenever the words came out her mouth.
At first it had been, “Papa, I’m cold.” Shortened to “I’m hungry” and finally just one word at a time. “Tired.”
Cold. Hungry. Tired.
His wife — walking ahead wrapped in furs — didn’t seem to notice.
The horse was thinner than ever.
Dragged the cart on without complaint, pulling the ungrateful brat.
The child who did not have to walk. Who lay huddled under the blankets with no numbing cold in her feet.
The numbness was a relief. Before it had set in his feet had been burning with pain.
“Will you shut up?” He rounded on her.
The horse stopped.
His wife went to her. Kissed her. Touched her. Glared at him.
They were nothing more than harpy and demon, sent to torture.
They resumed walking and Emilia said nothing but instead whimpered. A constant buzzing that was almost worse.
He’d lost track of time, and wasn’t sure if it was only a few hours or a few days later when the cart stuck behind a ridge. The horse pulled and whinnied but the thing wouldn’t move.
“No use,” his wife muttered, scooping Emilia out of the cart.
He tried to smile at his daughter and realized he’d forgotten how.
She put the child on the horse’s back while he unhooked it from the cart.
“Ride, Emilia,” she said. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
Since she could talk she had begged them to let her ride, her pleading brushed aside by not yet, not yet, not yet, when you’re older.
Her first ride should have been something to celebrate.
She sat without a smile. Stared ahead with half closed eyes. His wife checked she was holding the reigns before nodding at him that they could continue. She kept her hand on Emilia’s back as they walked.
The girl was asleep by the time they made camp. Helen lifted her off the horse and laid her on the ground, throwing a blanket over her while she glared at him.
“We have no food.”
“There’s a village near.”
He could feel her anger even as she slept. They were close. He could feel it; it would not be much longer before he could stand before the mountain again.
She said nothing when he woke her. Just sat at the fire as he crawled under the blanket, for once not reaching out for his daughter.
His dreams took him to the mountain. He found himself at the end of the familiar path, trying to move towards it only to find chains around his ankles and wrists. His wife and daughter held the ends, tugging him back.
He pulled and eventually broke free. The girl stumbled and fell. His wife screamed Emilia’s name and he woke, sitting up to see Helen kneeling in the snow with the girl pulled to her lap. The tears froze as they fell down her face.
Emilia’s face was white. Lips blue. Eyes closed.
He whispered her name. Crawled towards them and put his palm against her cheek. She felt colder than the air around them.
Could he have done something if he had reached out for her before he slept?
Helen looked at him. Said nothing but the blame was clear in her eyes.
It wasn’t long after when the horse collapsed in the snow. Not that they needed it. They wore the furs they slept in and no longer had food or a child to carry.
He cut the flesh from the animal and cooked it over a fire.
They walked side by side. He could feel the cold even in his bones and began to wonder if the mountain was worth it.
He didn’t remember so much snow. Had no recollection of freezing nights and no food.
Was unable to recall anything from the first journey except the mountain itself.
He pushed on. Began to walk ahead of his wife, barely even looking over his shoulder to check she was near except for when he decided to set up camp.
It was hard to tell exactly how long she had been lying in the snow when he realized she wasn’t following. He made his way back to her and wrapped his arms around her, trying to warm her.
“Should have sent you back,” he said.
Emilia’s warm and happy face filled his mind. He had torn the joy away from her and done to the same to his wife.
“To the ends of the earth,” she said. “Until I die.” She reached up and placed her palm against his cheek. “I’ll look after her. I’ll tell her Papa loved her very much.”
“I love you, Helen.”
Her gaze fixed on the sky, before focusing on him. “Show me the map.”
The sun dipped below the horizon. He held it up for her and she studied it, tears filling her eyes.
“Oh, my darling,” she said. “My poor darling.”
“What? What is it?”
“You were ill, weren’t you? As a child.”
“Almost died.” She lifted her head and kissed his cheek. “Delirious.”
He looked at the map his father had drawn. The one he had helped create. Describing the mountain he had seen. They’d seen. The peace that had enveloped him even in its shadow.
“You’ll see it again,” his father had said once he’d recovered. “A long time from now.”
“You need to see it,” he said, pressing her head against his chest as if his beating heart could warm her. “Darling, you need to see it.”
“I will. Soon, my love. With Emilia.”
“And with me.”
He held her until she grew stiff. Wept over her. Buried her — dug the grave with his bare hands. Made camp nearby and slept under furs that smelt of his wife and child.
The tears dried. The weak sun rose. He gathered what he could and continued, knowing the mountain waited for him.
He would see it soon.
The only place he could truly be happy.
The mountain where, he now knew, his wife and daughter waited for him.
I quite like this. It made me sad and it made me think about how we pursue success and happiness and riches, without realizing we may already have success, happiness and riches — if only we stopped and looked around.
This made me think of what it must be like to be a refugee (not that refugees are going to the mountain, though undoubtedly many of them did anyway) — the journey, the bitter hardship, the erosion of family feeling, the suffering — a well-painted portrait of flight. Very sad to see the creeping estrangement.
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I agree wholeheartedly with Mary and Georgia.
Was this a portrait of obsession or madness…maybe it doesn’t matter. But who are Sharn and Tarka and what’s the map all about? No need to be quite so oblique.
such an allegory of how we obsess over what we cannot have instead of embracing all we do have. This is tragedy — this is the the very stuff that causes so much harm in these times when we have lost track of what is most important — love of family not foolish unattainable dreams of MORE.