by Meghashri Dalvi
About a hundred miles into the journey, Prama's two companions wanted to turn back.
They had walked for about four days, their first time so far away from the village, and they wanted to go back.
“Fine,” he said. “Take your two mules and load the supplies evenly on the remaining two.”
“Will you manage alone?” they asked.
“Of course.” He smiled. “Remember, I was to be alone from the start?”
That had been his original plan. To travel all alone to the Mountain. But his two friends had insisted that they accompany him as far as possible. They had kept the promise and had ventured further than expected.
Before beginning the return journey, they looked at the landscape one last time.
“It is huge, but no different from our own village,” they commented.
“Yes,” he agreed. “But I still have to travel a lot northwards. Then it might be different.”
“Today is the 184th day of the year. We will be home in another four days. How soon will you return?”
“Well, I guess it may take at least 15 more days to reach the Mountain, and then a return journey of about 20 days -- so perhaps 35 days from now.”
They nodded and bid goodbye. For a long time he waved to them as they retraced their steps southward.
Then he was left all alone. To pursue his dream. To go see the Mountain.
Prama continued his journey for days. Each day at sunset, he rested, ate some food, and dreamed about the Mountain.
He had been about four years old when he first heard about the Mountain. His old grandfather habitually told him big tales of giant fish in the water and ogres under the ground. In one such devilishly long story, the grandfather had casually mentioned the Mountain.
He had shot up. “Mountain? What is it grandpa? How does it look? It scares you?”
The grandfather had laughed. “No, dear. It is not an ogre. It is a tall structure of soil and pebbles.”
“And it devours children and cattle?”
“No. It doesn’t move at all.”
“Oh. It is like a tree then?”
“Well, it is not a living thing like a tree, dear. It is like putting pieces of land on top of each other for a long long time.”
“And then what does it do?”
“The Mountain does nothing, my child. It just stands there.”
”For what grandpa?”
His grandfather had thought about it for a long time. Then he shook his head.
No one knew what the Mountain was for.
For no one had seen it.
As he started hearing more legends about the Mountain, he realized that he wanted to be the first one from his village to see the Mountain. Whatever it took.
Looking at the vast open land, he wondered what the Mountain would look like. Some people had said that the Mountain was as tall as four men on top of each other. Some claimed that it was more like ten men on top of each other. Others said that it was as wide as twenty people standing with their outstretched hands joined.
As he grew older, he seriously collected more and more information about the Mountain. It was of course hearsay -- still small bits of information went on adding details to his dreams.
When he was old enough to demand, he told his father casually.
“I want to go and see the Mountain.”
“What? And what for?”
“I don’t know. I have heard so much about it, now I want to go see it.”
“Ever thought why no one has gone there before?”
”Yes. It is very far in the north. Like 20 days of walking. And no one from our land ever goes more than two days' walk from home.”
“Still, father, I want to see it. It has become such a legend just by word of mouth. If I actually see it, Ill come back and tell what a real Mountain is.”
”Because you won’t come back. The place is evil and no one comes back.”
“How do you know? No one has ever ventured there.”
“They have not even tried to go there because they were afraid. I am not afraid. I want to go. I must go.”
It had taken time to convince his father and then the other villagers. But finally they had supported his wild dream.
They had given him a huge supply of food, a crude compass, two mules and some medicines. His two friends had wanted to accompany him as far as possible -- probably because they feared not seeing him again.
He shuddered at the thought.
The days were hot and clammy. The nights were cool. The landscape was always the same. Vast flat terrain, small shrubs, some birds, a few trees. The trees were roughly twice his height. Prama tried to imagine a taller structure -- but couldn’t. All his life he had not seen a single structure taller than a tree. Conditions on his planet never allowed for that.
It was the 10th day when he first saw something on the horizon. A tip of something -- projecting from the plain ground.
He instinctively knew it was the Mountain.
He walked briskly towards it. After a while little more of it was visible. Surprisingly, the shape was not at all what he had expected.
All along his quest for the Mountain, he had imagined it to be like a giant tree. A tall, linear structure going up -- and then maybe a dome top, like the branches of a tree.
But this was radically different. To begin with, it looked like a triangle. An upright triangle that seemed to be taper from a broad base to a narrow peak. He remembered the rotus they made during their play days. Three stones in a line, then two on top of them, and then one on top. A small triangle of stones. Then they would hit it with a rag ball and scramble to build the rotu again.
And this looked like a giant rotu!
From the distance he could not gauge its height or width,for he had never ever seen or imagined something like this in his whole life.
A sense of excitement gripped him. The Mountain that no one in his village had ever seen now rose before him.
I’ll visit the Mountain -- and come back to tell the tale. He remembered what he had promised his father.
Two days later, he saw some more astonishing things -- the Mountain was growing rapidly in front of his eyes, and he could actually see some small houses nearby.
So people lived near the Mountain! He could not imagine how they can live so close to such a huge thing. What if it falls? What if the gusts of wind hurl its stones across a long distance? And what about the evil nature of it? How did these people survive it?
Or maybe it was not evil at all?
He decided to find out.
By the 200th day of the year, he could tell that he was very close. He had a clear view of the base of the Mountain and the scattering of houses that surrounded it. About two hours walk could have taken him to the boundary where almost-flat ground gave way to a vast upward slope.
But before that, he met a man.
The man appeared almost suddenly in front of him and stood just gazing at him.
“I -- I have come to see the Mountain,” Prama managed to say. It was an effort to speak after fifteen days’ solitude.
“Of course!" the man replied, giving out a silent laugh. “They all come to see it. What else! You are from the south, I guess.”
“Yes -- yes.”
“Hmm. Maybe you should meet the old man from the south -- Stara. Come, I’ll take you there.”
He was led to an assortment of houses. Some were more squat than the others, some were almost circular. Many of them were exact replicas of his own house back in the village.
The man bent near the door of a house and shouted, “Someone to meet you, Stara -- come out.”
An old man walked through the door and stood near him. His head was almost bald but his long white silken beard gave him a strong character.
“Who are you? And why you want to meet me?” he asked suspiciously.
“I am Prama. I have come from the south.”
“Oh. You have come to see the Mountain, then?” The old man’s eyes crinkled. “Aha! After such a long time!”
“Yes, sir. I want to see the Mountain and tell everyone about it back home,” Prama replied politely.
“Back home? They won’t believe. Do they still consider it evil?”
“Yes. I am afraid so.”
“Hmm. Then how come you managed to come so far away?”
“I was determined.”
”Good. In my time, I was determined, too.”
“You came from the south? How nobody knows about it?” Prama was astonished. His grandfather had said nothing of anyone from their little cluster of villages who had gone to seek the Mountain.
“Of course they know. But they think I was lost to them, and do not speak of it. They think all who walked north must have perished. But no -- we survived and flourished.” His smile was now very genuine.
Stara took him inside the house, a well-built, luxurious abode like he had never seen before. It had plush seats and rich polished wooden tables. Wicker baskets were filled with fruits and berries. Long silken drapes hung over the windows. The bright daylight gave them a unique rich glow.
“Share a meal with me and we’ll talk," Stara said, smiling as he saw that Prama found his home beautiful.
“There is no one else in the house?” Prama asked hesitantly.
“Well, all are at work. And now I am too old to work so I stay at home. They will return at dusk.”
That explained the unnatural calm in the colony, Prama thought. So these people work away from home, while we toil in the small land nearby.
The food was rich and tasty. Lots of milk, he noticed, butter, cream and curds. Aromatic herbs and brightly colored salad leaves.
After the long journey, Prama ate well and promptly dozed off.
He woke up to a sudden rush of noise -- all the residents of the home were back. There were four big strong muscled men, and four beautiful ladies following them. There were two younger girls giggling and carrying fruit baskets.
It took him quite some time to understand what they were saying. They spoke the same language but their accent was little odd. They all were talking at once and they all wanted to know about him.
Stara then took charge and the evening really came to life. There were chatting, eating, laughing, singing, drinking and merrymaking in the dreamy light of oil lamps. They asked so much about the south and their lifestyle while sharing their own with him.
It was after two days that he again opened the subject to Stara.
“I actually want to go the base of the Mountain, touch it, feel it and then I’ll go back.”
“You want to go back?” Stara was astonished. “What for? They all stay here. People from the east, people from the west, and everyone before me from the south. This is a rich fertile land, great comfortable settlement. Stay here, marry one of my daughters, and enjoy life.”
It was an obvious temptation. He had already started liking Stara’s youngest daughter. A big farm, nice happy family, it would be a great life, he thought.
But he had his duty towards his father, his native village, his mates, and of course his late grandfather. He had to keep his promise like a gentleman -- the way they did in the south.
So he declined the lovely offer.
Stara was sad, naturally. He had really liked this brave southerner and would have welcomed him as his youngest son-in-law.
But instead he agreed to take Prama to the Mountain the next morning.
Although it was only five miles from the settlement, the road to the base of the mountain took them a good half-day. It was a rough road, and the soil was coarse and cluttered with loose rocks that made walking difficult.
As they neared the Mountain, Prama noticed something peculiar.
The Mountain was made of compact rectangular stones arranged neatly on top of each other. Truly like a giant rotu.
“Is it not natural then?” Prama could barely express his surprise.
Stara laughed. “Of course not. That is the best-kept secret about the Mountain. It is not natural. Nothing can grow or stay that tall on this planet -- you know that. What was the tallest thing in the south?”
“A tree?” Prama said tentatively.
“Yes. And that was barely two men on top of each other, right?”
“And have you ever seen stones or mounds of soil taller than your fingers?”
“Then how could only one thing stand so tall? How could it ever develop on its own?
”So who made this then?”
“That nobody knows. One man from the east just stumbled across the Mountain many many years ago. He then went back, brought more people with him. Some stayed, some went back. The legend grew -- and spread. But nobody knows who made it and how it was made.”
“Why you didn’t tell me this back in the town?”
”You have to see it with your own eyes, touch it with your own hands and only then you will believe. Besides, we now no longer talk about its structure or construction. We are now used to it.”
By the time they actually touched the Mountain, Prama, too, was getting used to it.
It felt cool to his hands -- the stones were just stones, it seemed. Mesmerized, Prama wanted to touch it, hug it, and try to squeeze it. He wanted to sense it closely -- from inside, deep within - and understand it as much as he could.
“Shall we go round it?” He was very eager.
Stara readily agreed. He had done it before -- a few times.
The Mountain was triangular from each view. But its base was rectangular. A rather regular rectangle with all sides almost equal. It was very wide at the base and narrowed as it grew higher.
Its surface was not very smooth. In between some stones had fallen creating small gaps. As Prama looked towards the tip, he also noticed such gaps higher up.
“Has anyone ever scaled it?” he asked suddenly.
“Scaled? What do you mean?”
“I mean gone up?”
“Gone up the Mountain? Like how we climb a tree?”
“Yes. Has anyone?”
“Of course not! Who can go up so much? Without support? Wouldn’t anyone who tried fall down? And there will be no air up there -- what would he breathe? “
“But, I mean has anyone ever attempted it?”
“Who would attempt such a foolish thing?” Stara was visibly upset.
“I think if we go up, we will know what it is, who made it, and what for.”
“Agreed.” Stara could see the point. “But how can we? And really how does it matter?”
Prama was unusually calm. “You know, sir -- I think some other people must have built it, people with their own techniques for shaping stones. And they would know how to put them so tall on top of the other. And fix them there so that this giant structure wouldn’t fall. And if they can build one such thing -- they must have made more.”
“Well, so many people from the east, the west and the south have come here. Nobody has ever seen anything like this in their own region and on their way here. In fact their ancestors also had not seen anything like this ever. There must exist only one thing like this on the entire planet. This -- the Mountain.”
“True. And that is the reason I want to find out. I want to go up the Mountain.”
Prama’s eyes were twinkling.
“I’ll take bags and bags of air. I’ll put a tube from these bags to my nose. I’ll walk with sticks for support. I can see small gaps where I’ll first put my feet. And then I’ll maybe use a hammer to catch hold of upper stones and I’ll haul myself up. I won’t carry much. I’ll eat and drink only a little. But I want to do it.”
“What for?” Stara could not understand.
“For the same reason that I came here. Because it sits here -- the oddity of our planet. And I want to know much more about it. I’ll go up, find it and come back to tell you.”
He realized that he had made a similar promise to his father.
“So at last they have one truly curious soul.”
“Is one enough?”
“Definitely not. Remember, early on they had only one person aspiring even to go near the Mountain?”
“Then they grew in numbers. They were the prospectors. They were willing to take risks; they were not afraid of the unknown; they took chances. They survived and prospered.”
“Right. And now comes the next level of intelligence.”
”Yes. The next level of realization, the next level of brilliance, the next level of courage.”
“This young man -- he not only wants to see the mountain, he now wants to climb it.”
“He is the explorer. He wants to unravel the mystery of who made it, why and how. He has clearly moved to the next level.”
“He is just the beginning. Then there will be more and more joining him at this stage.”
“Yes. The followers will soon come.”
“Still many more stages for these creatures and their planet to actually come any closer to ours.”
“Absolutely. And only then we will reveal ourselves to them.”
“Sure. And till then we just study this developing race from here, hmm?”
“Exactly. From here -- from the top of the Mountain!”
© 2007 Meghashri Dalvi
Bio: Meghashri Dalvi is a well-established science fiction writer in India. Her stories are published in a number of Indian regional languages, and included in several anthologies. Her short stories have won numerous prizes. She is technical communication specialist by profession and enjoys popular science writing, too. Her first book about machines and their history has won her accolades. Ms. Dalvi's work has appeared twice before in Aphelion, most recently Survival (November, 2006).
E-mail: Meghashri Dalvi
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