(Author’s note: This story first appeared in New Myths #1, which I noticed had been lost to the aether completely when the host crashed. John never did get it back up on-line. Thus, shall I post the story here, for your reading pleasure.)
“Man in the Mountain”
A man in a mountain tells me these stories. I am sitting cross-legged below him, and I don’t know how much longer I can pretend that my legs haven’t fallen asleep.
“A king liked his vassals to be loyal as if to God. He brought them into his palace, fed them a feast laced with drugs, and woke them in a paradise on top of a mountain. Beautiful women roamed the hills with wine on their backs. Strong, young men held up the roof. Songbirds from all over the known world flew freely in the rafters, no predators in sight. Exotic beasts lounged on the stairs, unafraid of the touch of men.
“At night, the young vassal ingested more drugs hidden in a fine feast. He woke to his king’s mortal smile. The vassal was told that the king himself commanded the gates of heaven. The vassal believed.
“Another king, upon hearing this, had a better idea. He drugged his vassals, and when they awoke they were rowing on a battleship, whips cracking into their backs, and the terrible groan of sea battles overhead. When the vassal regained consciousness, torturers dumped him broken before the throne. This king claimed to be the devil himself, capable of throwing the disobedient into hell on a whim. The vassal trembled in fear before his king.”
The man in the mountain notices my discomfort. He gestures gracefully with his palm. I stand. I stomp the earth to get feeling back in my legs. I stand there, and feel like an idiot with my knees bent to let the blood flow back into my legs. I thank him.
He lights a stick of incense. The room smells like sandalwood. He asks me why I came to his mountain.
I tell him I’m looking for peace.
Doctors down in the valley told me that I was going to die soon. I had tried everything under the sun. My hair fell out, grew back, and fell out again. My body dwindled into a wreck.
One of the nurses told me I had two choices. One was to die in a hospital bed slowly with no pain. The other, was to die at home in agony. I told the nurse there was a third choice.
I had heard about the man in the mountain. I left the city for the mountains. I couldn’t get far on my own. I hitched a ride with a trucker, and asked him if he was going near the top. He said that he was, and gave me a lift most of the way until his own path turned down the other side of the mountain. I couldn’t really have gotten to the top without him. He told me he knew where I was going, and that he’d taken people there before.
I asked him how he knew.
He told me it was because I looked like I was dying.
We didn’t talk much after that.
He dropped me off at the highest point. He pointed to the path to the cave. I got to the cave just fine.
I told all this to the man in the mountain. The man had no response. He sat in a lotus on this big mat of Alpaca-hair. He had all these little hand-carved statues of different kinds of Buddha around him, whittled out of mountain cedar, with every body-shape and every race written in the curve and color of the knots.
I complement the man in the mountain for his skill with a knife. He has no reply.
I pull my jacket off my back, and my flannel shirt. I wad them up together to fashion a cushion. I put them down next to the man in the mountain, and I force my legs into an uncomfortable lotus. I close my eyes.
I wait for the man to say something.
We stay that way for two days. I ignore my hunger pangs, which — in all honesty — hurt less than my disease.
Outside of our little cave storms roll in off the ocean, and then they roll out again. Some birds swoop into the cave, and their chirping bugs me.
Eventually, I pass out.
When I wake up, I’m in a soft hammock, outside, staring at the stars. There are so many stars, I don’t know what to think. I look up at all of them, and I imagine what it would be like to die and be reborn a star.
I try to stand, but I am still very weak from hunger and thirst. I fall out of the hammock in a heap. I look up, and I see a big thermos, with a long straw, so I can lie right there and drink. There’s some protein shake stuff in there. I knew the flavor because when I was sick, sometimes, that’s the only way I could eat anything to keep it down. It tastes like wet peanut butter.
I drink it slow so I won’t throw up. I feel better. I stand up. I stagger back into the cave. My legs don’t feel right after all that sitting. The man’s there, still sitting on his mat with his carved Buddhas all over the place.
I sit down again on my makeshift cushion.
He tells me about another king.
“This king was determined to conquer the whole world. He sent all his vassals through a brutal boot camp. The ones that survived formed a powerful regiment that was the cornerstone of an unstoppable army. When he returned home from conquering the world, the regiment each turned upon each other and the world fell apart. The soldiers imprisoned the king in his own mountain, and publicly worshipped him to maintain power. The king was a peasant’s puppet god.
“One of these veterans had his own mountain. He had his own vassals, and he would take his vassals to the mountain and win their loyalty with reason. They spent days exploring the kingdoms of ants, and the order of lion prides. Each vassal returned from the mountain convinced that service to their king was the most important thing in the world, and the only natural thing to do.”
Then, the man in the mountain asks me if I’m ready for death.
I say that I am.
When I learned about my disease, I divorced my wife. I hired an incompetent lawyer that lost me everything. She has already married again to a banker with a kind face, and my children are in the best schools. They live in a huge house on a hill. I took what remained of my savings and invested in stocks and bonds, all to be left in trust to my children.
My wife didn’t even know I was sick. It was cruel to keep her in the dark, but I wanted her to move on. Her happiness now was the result of my cruelty.
I say that I’m ready to die.
The man in the mountain says that he’s dying, too. He shows me a terrible infection just under his arm where the skin’s purple and oozing blood like through a sieve.
I ask the man in the mountain why he doesn’t go to the hospital.
He tells me the final story of the kings.
“There was a king in a mountain whose vassals wrapped themselves in luxury and decadence. The vassals said that they loved their king. Their love ended the moment the king was not present in the room.
“The king stripped all his vassals of their wealth and sent them down from the mountain in search of an impossible object out of myth. They could not return to the mountain until they found the fountain of youth.
“These vassals grumbled at their king. They descended into the world of despair and suffering. They staved off illnesses and bandits. They had children in the world, who were charged with the quest to return to the mountain. Eventually, no one knew exactly what they were looking for, only that their families had always been searching for something.
“Sometimes, these searchers wandered to a mysterious mountain, where an ancient wizard was said to hold many mysteries in his luxurious palaces. The wanderers asked the mighty wizard for help on their quest. The wizard revealed himself. He told them that they had found what they had always sought. He shared the water of the fountain of youth. The king had always owned this mythic fountain in his mountain caverns.
“These bedraggled wanderers were grateful for the luxury of the mountain, and they loved their king with all their heart for sparing them from the world of suffering and death. They feasted in his honor each night.
“Eventually, they forgot why they were feasting after the passing of the years. Then, they forgot why they loved their king.”
The man in the mountain asks me why I came to his mountain.
I tell him that I’m unafraid of death, but I wish to die in peace, here on the man’s mountain, searching for God.
The man in the mountain says nothing. He closes his eyes again.
I imitate him. Storms come, and leave. My hunger subsides. My thirst dies away into a vague longing. My body stops hurting. My skin feels no winds. The sounds of the mountain mark the passage of day and night outside our cave.
I awake from the reverie when I realize a traveler has entered the cave. I stand up slowly. I stretch my neck. I say nothing to the new traveler. I look around for the man in the mountain on his mat. In his place, I see a small cedar carving of a new gaunt Buddha on the man’s small rug. I motion to the new traveler to wait.
I search around the cave for the man in the mountain. In the back of the cave, a little fresh water trickles in from somewhere deep below the mountain. It tastes vaguely like peanut butter. I drink deep. I clutch at my sides while I drank, feeling the blood there. The disease has reached the edge of my skin. I don’t have long.
I take my place in the cave as the man in the mountain. I tell the traveler the first story of the kings.
I understand now. The mountain was never meant to be a birthright.
After I lead the traveler through the final story of the kings, I leave the cave. I carve my foolish image out of a block of cedar with this old knife I find near the well.
I wander into the wilds of the mountain, tears streaming down my face. My stomach hurts so much. I have to stop every few steps and crawl a little, because I can’t stand up when my stomach hurts too much. I leave a trail of blood behind me, dribbling out from the legs of my pants. I’m bleeding more and more like I’m about to die.
I take a stick. I scratch my story into these huge stones, written with the blood of my own disease.
When it rains, I know the blood will run to nothing.
And that’s fine.