The Mountain

The Mountain

the mountain

What would you do if they told you you could be cured, really cured of the ailment that plagued you throughout your whole life? I expect you would do anything you had to do, to take that opportunity. And so did I. I did fear the scorn of others when I first declared that I wanted to make my way up the Mountain. I knew some would say I had no right to go there, that it was wrong of me to steal even one moment of the hermit’s miraculous attention, to divert it from the predicament of so many supplicants whose pains and troubles were so much greater than mine. I knew that mothers would brave the treacherous path with their sick infants strapped to their backs, that many a decent man had struggled his way up, despite missing limbs or raging fevers, to the top of the snowy peak. The Mountain towered over our petty lives, supremely unimpressed, shielding the valley on the east, casting its shadow over our villages and cities, so that our sky stayed sunless for longer than it did in the rest of the region. The desperately sick and the terminally insane dragged themselves or were carried by their loved ones all the way up to the top and waited, sometimes for weeks, to be given audience by the hermit. Many died, before they ever met him. Some died of sheer fatigue or fell to their doom on their way to the hermit’s abode. Some died of cold and hunger, while camping on the frozen and inhospitable peak, or finally succumbed to the illness that had brought them there in the first place. They all had serious reasons to visit the hermit, real diseases for him to cure. What right had I to want our holiest man to cure me of a broken heart?

My mother smiled sadly on the day I set out on my quest. She said I should do “Whatever you think is right, son” and I thought I caught a glimpse of genuine hope in her sunken eyes. My sufferings had taken their toll on her too, for no mother can bear to witness her son’s undoing at the hands of another woman. In my case, three other women. What she hoped the hermit could do to cure me, I was not sure. Hell, I was not even sure what I hoped he could accomplish, in a case as unusual and seemingly impossible as mine. On the darkest nights and the bleakest days of my torment, as I screamed and wailed in blind desperation, thrashing like a wounded animal after a new gash had been opened in my already lacerated heart by a casual act of cruelty, my mother would try and calm me down. She almost always managed it, eventually, and then she would sit down on the bed and I would lay my head in her lap, like I used to do when I was a child. And she would stroke my head and murmur “you are too fragile for this world, my love, you feel too much.” And I would fall into merciful sleep and enjoyed the only respite I would ever get from the incessant torture of love thwarted, of abused trust and of relentless humiliation.

I left the house on a dark morning, as the long shadow of the Mountain had only just started receding in the west. My mother kissed me on the forehead and I walked away without looking back, because I did not want to see the tears welling up in her eyes. I knew that, deep down, in a secret corner of her mind, she nursed the unspoken hope that the hermit would cure me of my weakness. She hoped that her son would return to her a real man, like the other sons and husbands in the village: tough and valiant, capable of doing a man’s work, instead of pining for lost love, sighing at the moonlight and sitting by the creek for hours on end, writing poems and chasing impossible daydreams. I did not know if that was the way my cure lay, but I no longer cared. If cutting off the softer parts of my heart meant that they could no longer be pierced by the poisonous blades of unfaithful love and outrageous slander, then so be it.

I felt elated. I had yet to set foot on the Mountain, but the idea of the journey ahead did not scare me. The very fact that I had finally made my decision to visit the hermit, in spite of the derision that I knew was directed at me behind my back, filled me to the brim with joyful confidence. Let them laugh, I thought to myself, let them sneer: it is not for them to decide whether I deserve relief from my affliction. Perhaps this was how my heart would be toughened into not aching anymore. Perhaps, by making my decision and putting it into action, I was finally shedding the first layer of my cursed boyhood to turn, at last, into the man I was destined to be. As I made my way eastwards, approaching the outskirts of the deserted village, I saw Tobias Hawthorne, the butcher’s son. As soon as he caught side of me, he started whistling with affected indifference, but there was no mistaking the sardonic grin that twisted his freckled face as he turned the corner heading for his father’s shop. That was always my problem, I thought. How could I have been anything other than profoundly unhappy, growing up to be a poet in a remote little village, in which a young man my age was expected to look and behave like Tobias Hawthorne? Almost two hundred pounds of solid, uncouth male youth, with the intellectual depth of a garden pond and no experience of being in the same room as a book other than in church. How ridiculous I must have looked to him on that morning, after the word had spread that I was going to visit the hermit over a broken heart. How preposterous that must have sounded to someone like Tobias, for whom a heart was just another muscle to be cut from the carcass of a cow and sold, to be stewed or baked in a pie.

I had not covered a hundred yards after meeting him, when I saw Amos Lockwood, the owner of the local lumber mill and father of Jacob, who had been my nemesis since early childhood. It was plain in old Amos’ disgusted expression that he was inordinately proud of the fact that his son had not turned out like me. Jacob Lockwood had always been the quintessential lad: brawny enough to make a useful lumberjack, thick enough to never aspire to be anything higher than that. Contented with alternating his days at the mill with nights in the pub, he had never been in a brawl – partly because he was so enormous that no man in his right mind would have picked a fight with him, and partly because he was too stupid to have a discussion that could eventually escalate into one. In short, he was the husband every plain village girl dreamed of and the son every father hoped to raise. It could not have been clearer that, upon seeing me on that chilly April morning and knowing what I was up to, Amos Lockwood breathed a sigh of relief at the thought that no son of his had grown up to be bleeding-hearted pansy.

As I walked towards the mountains, the houses became smaller and sparse, until the only constructions were the little sheds and cottages dotting the fields. I followed the straight path between the neat rows of young wheat and I felt my cares and pains receding with every step. It felt good to leave the village behind and to be away from the prying eyes of the old women and the scornful disdain of the young ones, from the spite of the grown men and the crudely-worded taunts of their sons. I gloried in the coolness of the breeze and the rich and pungent smell from the nearby farms, a heady combination of horse manure and wet grass. I thought – not for the first time – that I only felt entirely at peace when I took myself out of human congress altogether. Communing with nature, allowing my thoughts to leave my body without the need to express them in words, I felt powerfully free and uniquely myself. I might not come back, I thought. Once the hermit had relieved me of that dull and persistent ache in my heart, I might not make my way back to the village and to my father’s house. I might climb down the eastern side of the Mountain and make my fortune in the neighbouring region of which we, in our secluded little valley, hardly ever spoke or thought. I dwelled on that happy plan. I imagined myself striding down a path, not unlike the one I was presently walking, leaving the mountain behind me in the west, and entering a village or perhaps a town or even a real city. A light-hearted young poet without a care in the world, ready to prove his worth to the world. And then, of course, I thought of the women. If there were cities in the east, then there must be women. Not the soulless, obtuse village maidens after which I had so fruitlessly hankered for years. Different women, better women, sophisticated and elegant, capable of appreciating poetry and of cherishing the love of a sensitive man with a vivacious intellect, over the graceless lust of an oaf.

Lost in blissful thoughts of my near future, I hardly noticed the surroundings changing from pleasant fields and quaint farmhouses to barren rocks, rough-hewn and murky brown, the green wheat replaced by angry weeds and gnarled trees. As the path became steeper and less neat, the weight of my shoulder bag called me back to my senses. I had packed enough food for three weeks, as I am not much of a hunter and I don’t fancy myself a gatherer. I had hard cheese, oats, dried ham, and three skins of sweet wine. I had also packed books, parchment, quills and ink, which I was sure most pilgrims would laugh at. Physical labour and exhaustion counted for very little, when balanced against my need to keep my soul as well fed and watered as my body.

As I started up the path, other pilgrims began to appear, like oddly-shaped flowers clinging to the unforgiving rocks, converging to the Mountain from the nearby villages and, some said, from beyond the hills in the west. I saw a few vaguely familiar faces. Old women crawling laboriously upwards, hindered by their brittle bones rather than their travelling bags. An unnaturally pale and thin child ran happily ahead of his mother, who carried a bundle on her back that might have been an infant. Two tall men, with identical faces that looked like they had been hammered from a bronze shield, ascended slowly, carrying a hand-made stretcher, on which a small bundle of rags stirred feebly. Their strong hands gripped the wooden handles as they strained and twisted to negotiate the steeper tracts, barking directions at each other in a harsh and obscure dialect that sounded like the repeated snapping of twigs and the croak of bullfrogs.

The sun had been high for a few hours and it was approaching noon, when I heard the reassuring noise of running water somewhere off the path. I strayed in the direction of a thicket of bushes, hoping to find water for my oats and a handful of berries. The stream of pilgrims had been growing steadily thicker for a few hours, but I had kept to myself, contented with observing the motley caravan of pained humanity from a distance. I welcomed the opportunity of leaving them behind for a while, as I went to look for a creek or a spring: I craved the solitude that had made the first part of my journey so enjoyable. The sound, it soon transpired, came from a thin waterfall springing from the side of the Mountain into a small lake, from which it trickled eastward into a meagre creek. I held my canteen under the waterfall until it was full and then sat for a while on the mossy bank, staring at my own reflection in the rippled water of the lake, allowing the quiet of the place to wrap around me me like a thick veil. I took out my parchment, quill and ink and I set them down on a flat rock, feeling the urge to capture the simple and intense poetry of nature, its perfect, immaculate beauty, unsullied by human presence.

“There are gooseberries over there, if you are hungry” said a voice behind me, shattering my vision of an uncontaminated, natural heaven.

The girl must have been no older than nineteen and yet her voice had an aged, weary quality. It was not raspy or unpleasant to the ear, but it dragged the words out one by one, as if she had spoken too many in her lifetime and each one required a special effort. She was dressed in male attire and was holding a dirk in one hand and a small basket full of berries in the other. When I looked up from my parchment, she was already turning her back to me and walking to the opposite side of the lake, where she sat down, cross-legged, and started eating her berries and a piece of cheese she had produced from a small pouch.
I looked down at my writing supplies, laid out neatly before me, and felt the hot tide of shame raising up my neck and setting my cheeks ablaze. Here I was, a silly boy writing poetry by a mountain lake, less manly than a passing girl. I put my tools away quickly, stood up and walked towards the gooseberry bushes. I looked back over my shoulder twice. The second time, I caught her looking at me and I felt my ears burn red again. She was oddly beautiful and the familiar unease stirred in the pit of my stomach. Like a beaten dog, that cowers and wails at the sound of the boots from which he has learnt to expect pain, I had been trained to anticipate misery, as soon as a girl took my fancy. The girl by the lake looked vaguely familiar. Stealing glances undercover of the shrubs, it came upon me where I had seen green, almond-shaped eyes like hers and an equally straight and angular nose, and I felt a stabbing pain as a fresh surge of memories engulfed me. I remembered Ianthe’s eyes and nose. I had never fallen for Ianthe, but I had fallen for her cousin Heather, and I had waited to walk her home from church or to steal a few moments with her as she went about her chores at her mother’s inn. It had taken me weeks to persuade her to come walking with me by the edge of the forest, so that I could recite the verses I had composed for her. Our love had been not so much a sudden thunderstorm as a steadily increasing wind. It had started as a breeze and then picked up in sudden gusts, each stronger than the last one, building up to a gale that had overwhelmed us both. She loved me, just as I loved her, with the complete devotion and blind trust of a child. Until Ianthe came and unleashed her nefarious influence upon the both of us. I was never able to fathom the reason for the unrelenting hatred she seemed to harbour towards me. My best guess would be that she was jealous, for her cousin was happy with a man who adored her, while she, Ianthe, was approaching five and twenty and yet no man of decent stock had come forward to claim her as his bride. Her venom, alas, sipped slowly into my Heahter’s heart and turned it cold. I don’t know what lies Ianthe must have fed her, to turn her against me so completely, but one day, upon entering the inn, I was met by Heather’s three brothers, who told me I was no longer welcome and I was never to disgrace their establishment or to seek any contact with their sister again. They went so far as to tell me that they were refraining from killing me out of respect for my mother, who was much loved in the village. I never saw Heather again. I heard rumours that she had been married off to a merchant from the north.

I walked back towards the lake, but I did not stop. I felt a rush of unmitigated loathing towards the girl with the dirk. I did not look back as I passed her, for I feared I would be seized by the urge to plunge her face first into the icy water and hold her head down until she stopped struggling. And I knew she was guilty of nothing more than being born with almond-shaped green eyes and a straight nose. Such is the madness that can possess a wounded heart. I made my way back to the path, where the pilgrims I had previously observed were considerably ahead of me and a new procession of assorted miseries was struggling up the rocky slope.

As I arrived to the first camp, the valley below was ablaze with the red glow of the setting sun and the darkness was starting to creep in. Most pilgrims were camping around one large fire and a number of small tents had been set up. At a quick glance, I was able to establish that the shelters were reserved to the sick and the women and children. A dozen young males were huddled in their cloaks around the camp, sleeping, while others stood guard by the tents or fed the fire and spit-roasted what looked like four large rabbits on it.
A burly man with a thick northern accent asked me if I had food. I nodded, defensively, and tightened the grip on my pouch. He offered to share the rabbit stew in his bowl with me and I declined. He asked me if I had already eaten and I said that I hadn’t.
“Can you stand guard on the east-hand side of the camp for the first part of the night?” he asked roughly.
“Why?” In the dancing light of the fire, I recognised him as one of the twins that had carried the stretcher.
“Because that’s the side the animals are more likely to come from” I must have paled at his words, because he added, with a clumsy attempt at kindness “there are four men guarding that side already, but another pair of young eyes never goes amiss in these woods. My brother and I have been carrying our father all day and will do so again tomorrow. And you will be awake for a while to consume your food: you might as well do that sitting on a rock facing east.”
I hesitated “What kind of animals?”
He smiled gruffly “Reliable ones. The kind of beasts you can count on to steal your food and take a chunk off your leg if they catch you in your sleep.”
“I carry no weapons to defend myself” I objected.
“Here, grab one of these.” he handed me a torch “You will hardly need to arm yourself. Animals are easily scared.”
Not as easily as I am, I thought, but I kept quiet and watched him retreat into his father’s tent.

I sat down on a log, a few feet away from the other men standing guard, planted the torch in the mossy ground and started eating my cheese and drinking my wine, suddenly regretting my refusal to partake of the bronze-faced man’s stewed rabbit. I was never good at hunting. As a child, my poor father did try to take me with him. He would shoot down rabbits, hares and pheasants with bow and arrows, or ensnare them in traps and then he would hand me the wounded animals, expecting me to cut their throats or twist their necks. And even though I knew those would have been mercy killings, and that my hesitation only prolonged the poor creatures’ suffering, I was always seized by a painful sense of compassion for those helpless little things, throbbing in my hands and looking up imploringly, or with eyes closed in agony and resignation. If I couldn’t kill rabbits, there was little hope of me successfully battling a wolf or a bear.

I looked over at the other men. They were sitting together, speaking in low voices and occasionally erupting in raucous laughter, as they shared a pot of stew between them. They looked like the kind of proper lads that could tackle a wolf. They must have hunted no end of hares in their time. Men like that always made me nervous. I felt the familiar pang I used to feel whenever I passed a group of them in the street, Helena walking by my side. I could feel her pulse quicken, as she stole a glance at their glorious display of masculinity. They were all that I was not and I ached inside, knowing that, at that very moment, she was regretting ever accepting my courtship, when she could have had Hawthorne, Lockwood or Oakridge. After those brief occurrences, when Helena looked longingly at all the better men that could have claimed her – if only she weren’t burdened by my love – I would always try to win back her affection. I would sit for hours and recite her poems, to remind her that any other girl in the village could date the butcher’s son, but she alone was worthy of a poet. But when I saw her eyes wandering about the room, I could tell I was going to lose her one day, poetry or no poetry. And I did, of course. Surprisingly enough though, she didn’t get married to any of the other lads either. The last time I heard someone mention her name, it was to say that she had gone to a convent in the South. I thought it an odd choice for a young woman who so evidently lusted after boisterous men. Maybe she did see the error of her ways and wanted to atone. Maybe there was hope, after all.

I was awoken by the firm touch of a hand on my shoulder.
“You might want to carry on sleeping closer to the fires” came a husky voice “we are taking over for the second shift” he nodded in the direction of a group of older men, now sitting on the rocks were the younger ones had been sitting before. As the man’s face came into focus, I realised that my torch had fallen and gone out. I had gone to sleep with a piece of hard cheese in my hand, thinking of Helena. I must have painted a pretty picture. The man smiled. Life has a cruel habit of repeating itself and therefore, wherever I happened to come across other men my age, they were more likely than not to laugh at my ineptitude in all things manly: the mountain was no different from my village, in that respect.

I walked back to the camp and lay down by the fire, wrapped in my cloak, waiting for sleep.

The following days were mostly uneventful. I rationed my food and wine, while making generous use of my ink and parchment. As the peak drew closer, the night air grew colder and the spirits rose higher. The other pilgrims, reserved and diffident at first, had visibly warmed to each other and the initial groups were no longer distinguishable. The bronze-faced twins would often help carry the women’s provisions and were not infrequently seen with a child on their shoulders, while the older men I had seen on the first night helped carry their father’s stretcher. I kept myself pretty much to myself. I never accepted offerings to share in others’ food or drink, because I knew that would have meant allowing them to partake of my already limited provisions. I walked either behind or ahead of the group by day and slept in any reasonably safe and isolated corner I could find by night. The elation I had felt as I had left my home had vanished. That sense of purpose and of perfect harmony, I realised, had been dissolved as soon as I had met other human beings, replaced by the familiar feeling of having been thrusted in their midst by mistake. I did not belong there. I was as much an outcast among the pilgrims as I ever had been in the village. Writing was my only consolation: poems seemed to gush out of me like blood out of a fresh wound. For such was I, in the presence of humanity: an ever-bleeding wound.

On the seventh day, I woke up to an unusual commotion. I had settled down for the night in the clear patch between a tall rock and a gooseberry bush and I could not directly see the camp without standing up. There was muffled crying, then wailing, followed by the sound of dozens of feet shuffling together, converging around the same spot. I took a few tentative steps in the direction of the tent that seemed to be the centre of the collective attention. An unnatural silence had fallen on the camp: the only human voices were those of children, that kept on chasing each other around the meadow and giggling, with the splendid superiority that their age grants them over the afflictions of adulthood. As I was approaching the edge of the group that had gathered outside the largest tent, the crowd started to shift and part as the twins emerged. Arm in arm, they seemed to be supporting each other, their tear-stricken faces had lost their bronze-like glow. I noticed then that they were not the only ones crying. Most of the bystanders had swollen, red eyes, the men were sniffling and a few of the women were openly sobbing into their hands. I didn’t have to enquire after the cause of the sombre atmosphere that hang over the whole community. My deductions were confirmed when one of the brothers climbed up on top of the very rock against which I had found shelter that night. As he began to speak, the hushed whispering that had been coursing through the crowd died down at once.
“My dear brothers and sisters” he began, his large body raked by barely suppressed sobs “our dear father has died tonight. It was not the gods’ will that he should reach the hermit and be healed. At this time of profound sorrow, however, my brother and I do feel blessed, for as we accompanied our father on his last journey, the fortune was bestowed upon us to travel with you all. Although we may come from different regions and were raised on different customs, worshipping to different altars, we were united by our quest. Hope made us stronger, and our stride lighter as we ascended towards the summit of this sacred mountain. It united us. For the hope you gave us and for the love we bring you, we ask of you one thing only. That our journey be halted for a day and a night, as we bury our father and pray to our gods, according to the custom of our people. After that, although we have nothing left to ask the hermit, we wish to continue our journey with you, to help you carry your provisions, tend to the frail and the sick, gather food and protect your sleep from the dangers that lurk in these woods. Let it be known that, whether you decide to grant our request or not, we will forever regard it as the highest of blessings to have broken bread with you.”
As his words were still ringing in the crispy morning air, I considered the vexing possibility of loitering in that place, holding back my journey for a day and a night. I had never seen the old man, except as a bundle of barely moving rags being carried on a stretcher, and I felt no desire to sit around for a whole day. I dreaded inaction, as it extended the probability of one of the pilgrims trying to engage me in conversation. As we walked, the sheer physical exertion prevented most of them from talking, which made the journey, for the most part, a quiet one – with the occasional burst of braying laughter from the gaggle of youths that always kept first watch and that clearly thought themselves a cut above everyone else. Before I’d had time to voice any of my concerns, however, a clear, female voice rose from the crowd. It was the woman with the small child and the sick infant.
“I will wait with you” she proclaimed in a shaking voice “and I will pray for your father’s soul”.
Another voice, male, followed closely “I will wait with you, and I will help you bury your father, if you’ll allow me”.
“I will wait for you, and I will gather food for us all to have a feast in honour of your father, who was as wise as he was kind” said the girl who looked like Ianthe.

In a matter of seconds, the whole camp was pledging to halt our pilgrimage for a day and a night. For the briefest moment, I considered going off on my own, as I knew nobody was going to remark upon my absence. The idea was short-lived, as I didn’t fancy my prospects, sleeping on my own, with no camp-fire and no watch to ward off the wild and dangerous beasts that prowled the woods at night. I stayed, grudgingly, but did not join in the mourning, only helping carry a few logs for the fire.

That evening, as the camp sat down to eat the two boars someone had unexpectedly killed, I figured I might as well join the feast. It was not my fault, I reasoned, that my carefully calculated supplies were being made to stretch over a longer course than I had planned. If I was to hold back my progress because of them, I might as well partake of their overabundant food.

As I sat cross-legged by the fire, tucking into a piece of roasted boar and gulping down mead from a skin that was being passed round, my eyes met one of the twins’, across the crackling campfire. He seemed older than I remembered and his face was streaked with sweat and mud from digging his father’s grave, making him look even more like an engraving on an ancient shield. As his eyes met mine, I felt a sudden cold wash over me, despite the warm glow of the flames. I stood up and walked to the edge of the camp, settling down for the night. The last feeling that bubbled up in my chest, before falling asleep, was relief: the old man, being so frail and so revered, would surely have taken precedence over everyone else, with the possible exception of the baby, when it came to entering the hermit’s cave. Not anymore.

During the second week of our ascent, loneliness began to take its toll on my soul. It was not an unusual predicament for me to be in, of course: my village had made me an outcast for as long as I could remember and I had come to accept that, like the great poets and heroes of the past, I was set on a quest for greatness that demanded sacrifices. Eagles, after all, don’t fly in flocks. And yet I had hoped that this journey might be the start of a new life, one no longer stifled by the narrow confines of my village and its inhabitants’ minds, one in which I could share my gifts with fellow humans who would cherish them and repay them in kind. But I was to have no such luck. Once again I found myself surrounded by ignorant peasants, who would judge a man by his ability to chop wood and kill animals. Callous beings, little more than beasts of burden, that had no other appetites or aspirations beyond the satisfaction of their basest physical necessities. This caravan of desperate brutes, just like my old village, was no place for a poet. But maybe the East would be different. Maybe in the East I was to find the recognition and companionship I had been longing for.

These musings occupied my mind for days, as I walked a few paces away from the rest of the crowd, usually alongside of behind them, and their muffled voices reached my ears like noise heard in a dream.

Three more pilgrims died during that week. A child of ten, that had been shivering with violent fevers. His father had been carrying him in a sling over his back, as it is the custom with babies – for the boy was not much heavier than a baby, on account of the illness consuming his body. Then a young woman, who had been horribly disfigured in a fire and wore a dark veil to hide the hideous scars distorting her features. She lost her footing as we were negotiating a particularly steep passage on the side of the mountain, and fell to her death on the sharp rocks hundreds of feet below. The last to die was the girl who looked like Ianthe: she was bitten by a venomous snake while picking gooseberries. I never knew what she was going to ask of the hermit: she seemed healthy enough. I was standing on the edge of the woods when she came running back to the camp for help, her face already turning blue, as she choked hopelessly for breath. It took her the best part of four hours to die. After every death, the whole caravan did not move for a night and a day, even for the woman who had fallen, which I thought unreasonable as there was no body to bury and no family to mourn her. Those were the only occasions in which I partook of the others’ food, otherwise limiting myself to my own provisions. I had no wine left and was reduced to filling my skins with water from wells and creeks. I had been picking berries and wild mushrooms too, but I stopped after the girl got bitten.

As our ascent entered its third week, I started to despair of ever seeing the end of that journey. My supplies were running dangerously low and already I fancied myself as the next victim to be claimed by the treacherous mountain. Would my travel companions stop for a day and a night to bury and mourn me? I doubted it. I doubted they would even notice it if I disappeared into the woods, never to return. I was, once again, to be shunned and forgotten, as in life, so in death.

And then I saw it. At dawn, as the sky above us turned slowly paler, a pinkish glow seeping into the perfect blackness of the night, we climbed what looked like a natural step-ladder made out of flat rocks, and there it was: the sun. Its light, no longer blocked by the bulk of the Mountain, seemed to engulf me in one mighty wave. I drank it in, as I took a few tentative steps on the clearing, and then I noticed the mouth of the cave. I glanced around me: the other pilgrims were still blinking in the milky light, so I made a dash for it.

As I stumbled in, I found my way blocked by an old man of unusual height. He looked down at me, an eyebrow raised in silent enquiry.

“Are you the hermit?” I panted.
“No, I am the keeper”
“The keeper of what?”
“The keeper of the cave. I guard the entrance. You are standing at the entrance of the hermit’s cave. And I am guarding it.”
“I demand to see the hermit” I declared, with as much authority as I could muster, which was not a great deal.
“Is it not true that you have been travelling with many other pilgrims, who are at this very moment gathering on the clearing before the cave?”
I shrugged “So?”
“So their need might be greater than yours, in which case they will enter the cave first.”
“But this is unfair” I protested “I was the first to spot the cave and to get here, while they are still standing over there, aimlessly, looking at the sun. I deserve to enter first.”
“No” he said simply, and I found that I could not walk any further. As I tried to run past him, the air seemed to solidify, so that I could no more have passed through it than I could have penetrated the solid rock walls around it.
“Even after you have heard all the other pilgrims’ predicaments, I have no doubt you will agree that I deserve to be the first to visit the hermit, as my ailment is the most grievous a man could endure.”
“And what ailment would that be? I see no broken bones in your body, you move swiftly and your complexion is as healthy as any young man’s. And yet it took me but one cursory glance at the clearing to see a sick child and three men who are missing limbs and others who are so consumed by disease that they need to be carried. What hidden illness afflicts you that is more unbearable than any of these?”
“My heart has been broken” I heard my own voice resonating off the walls of the cave, quivering with an embarrassment I was not feeling “and the pain of it is worse than breaking bones of losing limbs. My heart has been broken and my life is as miserable as that of a man that has no mouth with which to eat and drink and no eyes to see. My heart has been broken and the injustice of it burns like a thousand fires, even though you can’t see its traces on my skin”
The keeper gazed at me, unseeing. The seconds stretched into minutes, that stretched into hours and then days. And yet, when he spoke, I was aware that only the briefest moment had passed.
“Very well then” he said, stepping aside.
I reached out: the air in front of me was just air. No invisible wall obstructed my way. My heart leaping, I walked into the darkness in long strides.

The cave was warm and dry and it smelled like a tavern. It was a meaty, comforting smell of gravy and wine, of apple cider and pipe smoke. It did not seem to take in the light streaming through the entrance, and yet it was not pitch dark. A faint glow seemed to be coming from sparse nooks in the walls, as if small candles had been placed in narrow carved niches. I could see no flames or sparks. The light seemed to be coming from nothing but itself. I called out tentatively, but there was no answer, so I kept walking down the passage, towards the intermittent sound of dripping water. As I looked back, I could no longer see the entrance or the silhouette of the keeper. A dense, formless blackness stretched behind me.

The passage ended in a second, larger cave, domed and lit by the same eerie, disembodied lights. Ancient-looking rugs and cushions in various shades of dark red were strewn casually across the stone floor. A deer carcass was strung up by its hind legs, blood trickling from its neck into a large basin with a loud and faintly obscene sound. The deer’s head sat on a flat rock against the wall of the cave, its eyes dull and wide, its majestic antlers wet and looking strangely forlorn.

“Sit.” said a voice like crackling fire.
I had not noticed the old woman. She was sitting by the wall, on the opposite end of the cave, by a small coal fire. Her gnarled hands were nursing a steaming cup. A pot was resting on the coals.
“I came to see the hermit” I said, as commandingly as I could.
“Sit.” she croaked again, pointing at the large cushion in front of her. I sat.
“Where is the hermit?” I asked again, the commanding tone disappearing from my voice in spite of my attempts to keep it there.
She did not answer, but busied herself with the pot, from which she poured hot, dark liquid into a second mug.
“Drink.” she ordered.
I drank. She watched me, unblinking. The liquid was thicker than wine and it tasted like berries and leaves, with a pungent note, like rotting fruit.
“Are you the hermit?” I asked, as the possibility dawned on me. I took another sip of her strange beverage. Now I could taste cinnamon and pepper, with a faint trace of something old and damp. I felt it flowing through my body, warming parts of it of which I was not fully aware.
“We are the hermit.”
The fumes rising from the pot seemed to penetrate the fabric of the darkness behind her, coalescing into forms and then dissolving again, so that I could barely guess the real depth, breadth or shape of the cave.
“Can you help me?” I asked, although my mouth did not feel like it was moving and the sound of my own voice was strangely hollow, like I was sitting in a small room, rather than in a large cave.
“What manner of help do you require?” her voice, unlike mine, rang off the walls of the cave, resonating like the tolling of a brass bell.
“My heart has been broken” I said, for the fourth time that day.
“Who broke it?” the hermit asked, and then brought her own cup to her lips. I did the same, then I answered.
“Three women. Two of them I loved, while the third hated me.” Then, because the hermit did not seem inclined to enquire further, I carried on.
“Heather was the first woman I ever fell in love with. Well, I say woman… in truth, she was little more than a girl when I first met her, but I could see the woman she would become. She was as fair as any maiden in the village, but she had a spark in her eye that no other girl had. I resolved to help her natural wit and her vivacious spirit blossom into proper character and intelligence. We loved one another dearly. We sat for hours in the field behind her house, reading poems and talking about things great and small. I guided her and moulded her: under my loving care, she became more than herself, better than herself. I had taken the humble daughter of an innkeeper and turned her into a creature of superb intellect, for that was what I most wanted my future wife to be. A brilliant, intelligent companion, that would rise with me above the petty concerns that fill the lives of our fellow countrymen. But the gods always seem to thwart the plans of honest men, and they did so by means of my Heather’s wicked cousin, Ianthe. She was the simplest of village girls, utterly incapable of grasping the complex beauty of poetry and the delights of deep conversation. She was fit to be nothing more than a fishwife or a beer maid, and she knew it. Consumed by envy – for her cousin was engaged to be married to a poet, while the best she could hope for was a peasant – she planted venomous gossip into my Heather’s heart. Her slander drove my beloved from me and turned her family against me. Heather was sent away, up north, to marry another man, or so I hear. Ianthe left the village too, shortly afterwards. Those were the first two women who broke my heart.”

I paused for breath and looked at the crone. She did not speak. The cave was silent, except for the drip drip drip of the deer’s blood. I took another sip from my cup and thought I could taste that same blood in the dark liquid. I looked at the deer’s head. It was a majestic animal. It pained my heart to see it dismembered, his proud figure hanging limp from the ceiling, his magnificent head set aside like a discarded ornament. Still the hermit did not utter a word. I figured she wanted to hear the end of my story, so I went on, my mouth still not moving, my voice still as dry and incorporeal as if it was coming from inside a wooden box.

“It took me a year to recover from the pain of losing my beloved Heather. I spent day after day in my room, writing verses in mourning of our lost love, and night after night walking along the edge of the forest, restless and inconsolable. I barely ate or slept and I felt I was teetering on the brink of folly. But then Helena came along. Helena never had the natural intelligence and quick wit that had made me fall for Heather, but she was kind and patient and more beautiful than any other maid in the village. Our eyes first met as I was walking back from my nightly strolls and I passed by her house. She was tending her garden. She smiled at me and I was lost, enthralled and completely at her mercy. From the next day, I found that I could eat and sleep again and I resolved to see her as often as I could. Ours is a small hamlet and its inhabitants are simple creatures. It follows naturally that no father in the village would ever want his daughter to marry a poet. They look with great favour upon woodsmen and locksmiths, upon merchants and farmers, but a poet is no use to anyone in their eyes. Helena was fascinated by the brilliance of my mind, but she was not entirely above succumbing to her family’s nefarious influence. Sometimes, as we walked towards the forest and the lake, where most of our furtive encounters took place, we would pass a young shepherd, walking bare-chested behind his sheep, or a huntsman heading for the marketplace, with a couple of pheasant slung over his shoulder, and I would catch Helena casting longing, almost – if you’ll excuse me – lustful glances at them. Every time, a little wound would open in my heart, in anticipation of the inevitable time when, I knew, she would choose one of them over me. And that time unfailingly came. One day, as she failed to come to our appointment by the lake, I went to her house and spoke to her mother. She told me not to enquire after Helena again, as she had left the village forever, to get married to a distant cousin who lived beyond the western hills. And this is the story of the third woman who broke my heart.”

I waited. Drip, drip, drip. The hermit moved slowly and she seemed to be fading into the darkness, her features shifting and trembling in the glow of the fire and the steam rising from the pot. She spoke.
“What do you ask of the hermit?”
“I ask for the pain that plagues my heart to cease.”
“It shall be so. This pain in your heart will no longer be, for we will take away the disease that is causing it. Now tell me, do you know what such disease may be?”
Glad that she was finally asking me direct questions, I readily answered “It is the excessive tenderness of my heart, that leaves me prey to the cruelty of women and the derision of men.”
She rose, slowly. She was taller than I had anticipated. She seemed to stretch like a serpent emerging from a wicker basket.
“You are wrong, child. It is not your heart that is affected by this disease, it’s your sight.”
Drip, drip, drip.
“What can you possibly mean?” I asked, puzzled “My sight is as sharp as any man’s.”
Drip, drip, drip.
“And yet, you are blind. Look. What do you see?”
I looked.
“I can see you, hermit.”
“Look again.”
I obeyed. Shapes seemed to be emerging from the darkness. Three, then five, ten, then dozens, then hundreds of shapes were forming behind the hermit. I could not make them out, but I could see that they were all women. Old and young, beautiful and hideous, some of them were little girls, some looked as old and twisted as ancient oak trees. Silent and still, they stood behind the hermit, and although I could not see their faces, I could feel thousands of eyes boring through me. It was at that moment that I tried to rise, and realised that I could not move.
“He who wears a black cloth over his eyes” the hermit was saying “cannot see the world as it is, cannot feel pain or joy for the things that are, but only for the ghosts that dance behind his eyelids. Let us pull the cloth from your eyes, so that you may see.”
As she spoke, three of the ghostly figures stepped forward, into the glowing light of the coal fire. One of them spoke.
“Hello, my beloved” Heather’s voice was pained and scornful at the same time “You took my youth from me, you took my pride. You wanted to mould me like the blacksmith moulds a slab of iron, twisting it, melting it with white-hot fire and hammering into any shape that he fancies.” I looked up at her. Her lip was bleeding. Drip, drip, drip. “The blacksmith does so by the strength of his arms and you fancied your mind strong enough that it could bend mine. But when my mind would not bend, you resolved to break it. And when my mind would not break you attempted to reach further, by breaking my body.”
As she spoke, bright purple patches started blossoming on her skin, covering her arms and her left eye. Another voice spoke, as a second figure came limping into view. She was tall and had familiar, almond-shaped green eyes and an angular nose.
“I resolved to save my cousin from you. You had twisted her will so that she would let you kill her, rather than disappoint you. I held up a mirror in front of her and made her look at what she had become. And she rose up again, and she rebelled. And the more she rebelled, the more you beat her down. And every time I picked her up again, there was less of her left. When, with her brothers’ help, we managed to get her away from the village and take her to the hermit, I stayed back. I hoped you would forget.” Drip, drip, drip.
“But you did not forget. Pleading and crying you came to my door and begged on your knees for me to carry a message to my cousin. My door stayed closed. And then one morning, as I was walking back from the fields, you pushed me into a crevasse and left, thinking me dead. I hung on to a dangling root for a day and a night, before a huntsman heard my cries and pulled me out. My leg was broken and my hands were bleeding, but I set out for the cave on that very day. And now I am the hermit.”
“Wait!” I protested “what do you mean you are the hermit?”
Drip, drip, drip.
“A blind man, who is not accustomed to seeing the world, will not recognise the shape of things.” Said a third voice, as Helena walked into the circle of light. The dark, cross-shaped scar seemed to burn red on her cheek for a moment “And yet, he will often see things that are not. He will see lovers and rivals at every corner, he will see a mark of property where others might see a pledge of love. And thus, maddened by jealousy for all the lovers you imagined I kept, you took me to your house one day, on the pretence of picking up a book of poetry that you wanted to give me. As I sat waiting for you, you sneaked behind me and took the branding iron that your father used for his cows, and that you had left in the hot coals since that morning, and planted it on my cheek, so that no other man could touch me, for I was yours alone. I fainted and woke up to your mother tending to my wound. She was crying. She begged my forgiveness for having raised you to be a monster. That very night, as you slept, she arranged for me to be transported up to the cave and in the morning she told you I had fled. And now, I am the hermit.”

“Do you see now, child?” the old woman had stepped closer to me, but I could not raise my head to look at her face. Although I was straining to move, my muscles felt as stiff as if they had been frozen solid. “Now that we have told the story, do you see? We are the hermit. For generations we have made our home in this cave, but we offer no magical or miraculous cure to the pilgrims’ ailments. We offer wisdom and such remedies as the study of nature allows us to administer. To those who cannot benefit from those, we offer other, equally precious gifts. We offer compassion and safety, we offer wisdom and the supreme power of reason. We offer courage, if fear has crumpled their spirit. We offer pride, if they are made to live in shame. But to those whose anguish is far outstripped by the suffering they have caused to others we offer the most precious gifts of all. Justice. And Sight. And you will see Justice, and you will know her.”

And it was then that they picked me up and carried me, unmoving, to the flat rock, from which they had lifted the buck’s head. And as I lay there, they proceeded to break every bone in my body. First they broke my joints, one by one, starting from the toes and working their way up to my shoulders, but leaving my spine undamaged. Then they moved on to the bones, once again working upward from my feet, my legs and my hips, fracturing every rib with precise blows, then doing the same with my arms and hands. It took them the best part of three days, in which they would give me water and food and let me rest enough to prevent me from fainting. None of my screams ever left my throat. On the evening of the fourth day the old woman, who had disappeared shortly after her acolytes had started tormenting me, came back to the inner cave. I recognised the bronze-faced twins, walking behind her. They were carrying between them the stretcher on which their father had died.

“Your wish has been granted. Let it never be said that the hermit has failed to grant a pilgrim’s wish. That pain in your soul, the pain of rejection and the burning frustration of being ill-used are gone forever. You will never again be plagued by those feelings, for the rest of your life. And it will be a long life. In their place, you will now be saddled with the constant awareness of all the pain you caused, of the injustice you brought about, of the lives you ruined. As you are carried on this stretcher down the mountain and back to your village, every step and every halting movement will cause you unendurable pain, as your shattered bones will tear at your skin from the inside. And yet you will never cry out or scream or curse, as your voice will never return to you. This is the sentence you must serve. This is the hermit’s mercy.”

As the two men laid me on the stretcher, I caught a last glimpse of Helena, Heather and Ianthe’s face. They were smiling radiantly and holding hands.

The hermit was true to her words. I live at the mercy of the village now, as my mother refused to take me back. I can move again, but my bones twisted themselves into unnatural shapes, so that it is impossible for me to walk or even hold a pen. My voice never returned to me, so I live like a caged beast, locked in my own mind, in perpetual contemplation of all the evil I accomplished in my previous life. Sometimes, at night, I dream of screaming. But as I wake up I hear nothing but silence and the faint drip, drip, drip of blood hitting a basin.
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