by Henry Giardina
There once lived a boy and his grandfather on a mountain. There were other villagers who lived near them in the town below, but for the most part they were alone. The boy’s parents had died when he was very young and his grandfather didn’t speak of them often, thinking it would confuse the child to hear of his lineage. Instead, he told him stories of great heroes, folk songs that he himself had learned as a child. The grandfather and the boy did everything together. They grew vegetables and raised dogs to hunt. They ate rabbit stew in the winter and wore pelts to climb the mountain’s snowy peaks and find roots for tea. In the spring, they climbed to the very summit to find the wild herb that grew there, and the grandfather would put it in his tea and drink it, telling them boy it was a promise of long life. Though the concept of a life, long or short, was still foreign to the boy who knew nothing of death, except that it had befallen his parents and apparently made no sense whatsoever. The boy loved his grandfather and only had to sit in silence across from the old man day after day to know he was loved too.
One day, when the boy was eight or nine, the grandfather sat across from him at the breakfast table as always, eating his porridge. He looked over at the boy and his eyes glazed over with an icy coldness. He said ‘the time has come for you to leave here. You must never come back. You must go into the mountain and never return.’
The boy was so stunned to hear this that he didn’t respond or even blink. And when he sat there, still like that, his grandfather only became angrier and, slamming his bowl down on the table, shouted: ‘I said what I have to say to you. Leave this place and never return. Go into the mountain. I must never see your face again.’
The boy did not know where he was or who he was or whether it was night or day, so deeply shaken was he by this change in his grandfather. But he knew by the look in the man’s eyes that it was useless to argue. So he packed his sack and left.
It was winter. He went into the snowy mountains, climbing higher until the air was still and clear. He left at night and climbed until the morning, following the same winding roads he’d gone through many times. When he saw something to eat, a plant or root growing wild, he picked it and stored it for later. He knew little else but that he intended to survive. He did not know why this was important to him, having lost the one person he cared about on this earth. It just was, even though the sun had quite gone out of his world.
The next few days passed in much the same way. He climbed up and through the winding path that led to the mountain’s peak, collecting things that were not poisonous to eat. He ate little and paid little attention to his body, only sleeping when he could not walk any longer, only eating when he was near fainting. There was nothing ahead and nothing behind, and as he gained higher in altitude, the ripping winds and snow made it harder to see where he went. But he knew the path by heart and made no missteps.
Somewhere in his journey, he found signs of life he had not noticed before. There was a collection of mushroom caps by a stream, and a man was there, stomping on them one by one, even though they were perfectly edible. The man saw him stop and stare and said, ‘if you’re not careful, boy, I’ll stomp you, too.’ The boy ran until he was out of the man’s sight.
Next, he came upon a group of women who formed a circle. They looked at him as he passed as if he had interrupted them.
‘Boy,’ they said, ‘would you care to hear your future?’
‘No,’ said the boy, and kept going.
‘We can offer it,” they said, “at a pretty price.”
“No thank you,” the boy said, and kept going.
That night when his legs were no longer capable of carrying him any further his knees buckled, and he found himself slumped on the ground in between two rocks. One was smooth and served as his pillow. Exhausted as he was, however, he could not fall asleep for the moon was round and bright and shining directly into his eyes. He turned to face the other way on his makeshift bed, but the moon found him. The moon spun around to face him whenever he turned to a different side, and laughed at the ridiculous spectacle of him sleeping between the two rocks.
“How absurd.” Said the moon. “You must be the boy cast out of the old man’s cabin. He couldn’t stand the sight of you any longer.”
The boy tried to ignore the moon’s taunting but could not. It echoed around him everywhere like a message sent from God. But he was so tired that it was not long before sleep, that merciful host, visited him and smoothed the harsh words of the moon away like so many wrinkles in silk.
In the morning when he awoke, the stones had moved and he found himself lying flat on his back, which was now aching. The two stones he now saw a few steps ahead of him, talking to themselves.
“He’ll never last once he climbs through the pass.” Said the smaller stone. “The winds will get him.”
“Pity.” Said the other. “They never do make it.”
The boy had only heard of this pass they spoke of. When he’d gone climbing with his grandfather in the years before, they always avoided this part of the mountain, opting instead to take a longer route to the summit. But the path was the quickest way to water, and he knew he didn’t have the strength not to take the shortcut. If he died before reaching the stream, at least it would be quick.
He gathered what few roots and herbs he could find and set off for the day. As he walked he kept hearing the things around him whispering like the wind, saying things about him. How he would never last, how the pass would wipe him out long before he reached water. He tried his best to ignore the sounds of nature taunting him, spurring him on to fail, but they were quite loud.
Once more he passed three witches as evening fell. Once more they asked him if he would like to hear his future.
“I have no currency.” He said.
“That is nothing to us.” They said. “Do you want to hear what happens to you or not.”
The boy pondered this. Perhaps if he knew it was his fate to die he could lay down here and let it happen rather than making the fruitless journey through the pass. Then again, if it was his fate to survive, he would not want to know the future. He would not want to know when and how he would die and what would happen to him as he grew old, and whether or not his grandfather would take him back. He didn’t want to know. The best he could do now was to survive and try to forget the old man, who he was trying his best to hate with no success.
“How much of the future will you sell me?” He asked.
“As much as you want.” Said the witches. “We sell it by the yard.”
He took a minute to think it over, feeling his body getting weak and ready for sleep. He knew he needed to give the witches their answer for they gazed at him impatiently.
He didn’t remember anything after that.
The next morning he stood at the edge of the pass. He could see nothing ahead of him but white. He didn’t remember a thing from the night before, only entering the makeshift tent they had set up for him. He didn’t recall what they had told him, if anything, about his future. He was glad of it– knowing would have only made it worse. If he was going to die, it would be on this high peak, and it would all be over. He wouldn’t have to think about his grandfather anymore. He wouldn’t have to think about surviving another day. He wouldn’t have to rack his brain to try to find evidence of something he’d done to make his only friend in the world hate him so much. As it was, it seemed that the entire world hated him and was rooting for him to fail. Should he die at the top of the mountain, he was certain, the wind would laugh at him. The moon would sneer at his corpse. The two rocks he’d slept between not long ago would look at each other knowingly and say, “I told you so.” It should have been enough to spite them all by surviving. But the truth was he didn’t want to go any further. He didn’t want to brave the peak, feel his body whipped all around by the harsh winds until he could feel his bones compressing with cold. All for what, so he could make it out the other side? It didn’t matter.
He approached the peak. In the beginning, the winds weren’t so bad. They were almost warm against his cheek, though he knew this couldn’t be so. After a while, he put his hand against his face to see if the feeling of warmth was truly all in his imagination, and what he felt there surprised him. Not snow, but hair. Almost a furry down covered his chin and mouth. He didn’t know when this had happened, but it must have been happening for some time, since he could feel how the hair pricked him with its sharp, firm sprouting. He removed part of his scarf and let his new-grown beard do the work of protecting his face from the wind. Higher up on the mountain, he found the promised stream. Reaching into his pack to find something to store the water, he reached to the bottom and found a single card with a picture of a moon on it. He didn’t recall being given it, but he did remember the witches and assumed it must have been from them. Perhaps this was the part of the future he had paid for. He tucked it into his chest, near his heart, and felt a sudden warmth radiating from it. No sooner had he done this than he could feel himself growing in an inappropriate area. He looked down at the spectacle of himself, wondering if this was normal, or if he just needed to make water. He stripped down to take a better look at himself, though the winds were still howling. He saw his body as it had never before appeared to him, tan, muscular, covered with a robust coat of hair. He thought at first that he must be turning into some sort of animal, but he knew this wasn’t the case. A single glimpse into the stream revealed his own face to him, and though it was covered in down he could see that nothing had really changed. He had no snout, no tail. He was simply different.
He left his clothes behind at the stream, and continued through the pass. He marveled at the new ability of his body to adapt to the outer cold. He barely felt a chill, even as he passed through the snowy path wearing nothing but his sack. As he walked, he began to notice flowers springing up straight through the snow, even in the places he’d just walked over. They sprung up, full of life, though there could have been no climate more barren, more opposed to life than this. He began to collect them as they sprung up, and after a time the flowers themselves precipitated his arrival, and as he came upon them on the path they would leap up to greet him, placing themselves in his hair, tucked against his ears, on his shoulders and around the crown of his head. They tickled him as they laughed, but he did not try to swat them away, even when their chatter started to become tedious.
“Oh here’s the bend,” giggled one of the yellow flowers.
“No one makes it over the bend.” Said another.
This caused the others to erupt into peals of laughter. The flowers shook themselves so hard by laughing that some of their petals began to fall off.
He crossed the bend with absolutely no problems, and he began to wonder whether everyone in this world was absolutely insane except for him. Why had everyone made such a fuss over the pass? Why had they acted like he was facing certain death? Here he was, totally fine, and it seemed to him that if he could do something without any problems, anyone could do the same. He didn’t understand why everyone had made such a big deal about it. It wasn’t just that it confused him. He found himself getting angry. Why had he been made to feel such a fool, and why had he been treated like he was absolutely nothing? Why had the man who sheltered him for all these years suddenly turned around and treated him like an enemy? It made no sense, and as he thought more about he started to angrily stomp the ground, packing the snow down firmly and melting it.
By the time he reached the town again, the townspeople were there to cheer him on. No one seemed surprised by the fact that he was naked, or that he’d made it out alive.
“We knew you could do it!” They cried joyfully. “We were rooting for you!”
But he knew different. He remembered how the people had treated him, how they’d doubted him. He remembered the two rocks gossiping about him. There they were now, in the town, happy to greet him and celebrate his accomplishments. He shook his head, forgetting the flowers that were still there, showering him with faint, petal-like kisses.
That night the town threw a banquet in honor of their hero. Everyone was invited, and everyone showed up, except his Grandfather. For this reason, the young man was in a melancholy state the whole night. They had dressed him up in a beautiful silk robe worthy of a sultan. They had crowned his head with even more beautiful flowers. He had been the center of every conversation, the subject of every speech, the object of every maiden’s affection, which he could see as he danced with them one by one, each offering up a glassy reflection of himself as their eyes gazed into his.
When the festivities had finished, he found himself alone once more, with no place to go. It had quite escaped him to ask someone if he could be their guest for a night, even though he was certain anyone in the town would have gladly taken him in. Now he walked to the edge of town, toward the house where his grandfather still lived. In every home along the way there was a bright, single light in the window. When he approached the home of his grandfather, he saw that all the windows were dark. One of the windows had been broken by a rock and not yet repaired. He entered quietly, making sure not to wake the old man up. But the old man was up, and he was not surprised, it seemed, to see his grandson return.
“Yes,” said the young man, who was still startled by the sound of his newly-deep voice.
The young man laughed.
“Haven’t you heard anything from the world outside? Have you heard the town alive with merriment? They celebrated me, they called me a hero.”
“Tonight, yes.” Said his grandfather. “Tomorrow, you will find that everything you’ve lately achieved has become nothing more than a far-off memory to them.”
“Maybe so.” Said the young man. “I don’t care. I’ve come home.”
“This is not your home.”
On hearing this, the young man could do nothing but weep. He could see no point in his exploits if they brought no pleasure to his grandfather. In his pain and confusion, he fell to the floor in a heap, unable to control himself any longer.
“Why have you done this.” He cried. “I loved you best. Why has your love disappeared for me?”
The grandfather smiled in pity for the boy.
“Then why will you not allow me to live out my days with you?”
“Because,” the grandfather said, getting up to extinguish the barely-lit candle that illuminated them both, “it is your time to be alive. And it is not proper for a young man to spend out his days caring for the health of one who is already dead.”
“You’re not dead, grandfather.” The young man said through tears.
But his grandfather smiled and said nothing more. He put out the candle, and fell in a lifeless heap to the floor.
About the Author:
Henry Giardina is a trans writer and editor living in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, The Paris Review Daily, New York Magazine, and The Believer, among other publications. He has served as a Senior Editor and Staff Writer at Fourtwonine, Bullett Magazine, and The Pride L.A., among others. He is a 2016 Macdowell fellow and a 2018 Edward F. Albee fellow.
Image: Bains de Gazost, Joseph-Bernard Abadie, 1824-1876