The Mountain and the Mirror

There is a mountain, dear reader, at the very edge of the world. A mountain with a shining beacon on its towering summit. A mountain that some you will have probably heard stories of. A mountain of indescribable size, the mightiest mountain in a parade of giants; part of a colossal range that stretches as far as the eye can see, over the shimmering horizon and beyond. These impossible cathedrals of stone act as a barrier, some say; a ring around creation. A barrier constructed by the gods to prevent people falling off the edge of the world. Legend has it that if you were to follow the line of peaks for many moons you would always return to this same spot; this same mountain at the beginning and end of all things. It stands biggest and proudest of all mountains and at its frozen summit the beacon fires burn; its eternal smoke kissing the clouds of heaven.

There is but one uneven road through the scrubby desert that reaches out to this mountain and any passing travellers would be wary to walk this path or stray from its fringes, for the sun is unforgiving in this region and many a bleached bone caresses the edge of the highway. A road built by hands unknown many centuries before.

The stories tell that the journey to the mountain is a hazardous one and to cross the desert one needs to carry enough water. Enough water, some say, for at least sixty days and sixty nights. Enough water for each foolhardy traveller and for the pack mules and guard dogs, horses and goats, cooks and bottle-washers. And that is if one is travelling light. Or so the legends say.

So it is no surprise that travellers to the mountain are extremely few and far between and, it is said, those who do venture too far into the desert never return.

Occasionally the odd curious tourist or pilgrim arrives at the simple stone that marks the start of the highway to gaze at the distant mountain. They wait for sunset and squint through a spyglass to see if the far off flames of the beacon are real or merely myth. Once satisfied they leave and head quickly back to the Last Inn before the cold of desert night begins to bite at their bare ankles. They leave without ever setting foot on the desolate highway, for it is only the bravest of the brave or the most idiotically
foolhardy who would attempt such a journey. For, as it is said in these parts, the line between bravery and foolishness is thin as parchment. So, for most travellers, the nearest they will ever venture toward the mountain is the Last Inn.

The Last Inn, where the hearth is always welcoming and the ale hearty. The Last Inn where stories of the mountain keep passing travellers entertained before they sleep soundly in straw filled beds. The Last Inn was the place where, for most people, the world finished.

The stories that filled the smoky evening air were fantastical and well known to all. The stories told of the secret clan, whose job, it is said, is to provide hardy men to keep the beacon fires burning. Men who think nothing of sleeping in snow and fighting bears. Men who can survive the desert for weeks on end with no water or sustenance. Giants of men with grizzly beards and chests like ale barrels. Men born in mountain caves to stout and hardy mothers. Men who pull up trees with their bare hands and carry the trunks on their backs up through the snows and crags to the summit, in order to fuel the everlasting flames.

Of course no one had ever seen such men but Matryoshka, the Innkeeper, like to spin her tales like a drawn out web to entice her guests to stay up late and spend their silver on ale and biscuits.

Every few months the caravans came; camels and carts, pack mules and donkeys and wagons. Filled to the gills with spices and jewels, silks and grain; all the wonders of the interior. Caravans that circled the world supplying the outer settlements and bringing news from the cities by the sea. Caravans that kept safely to the the edge of the desert; always within striking distance of an oasis, inn or well.

Matryoshka never failed to haggle a good bargain with the traders and for a few days the Last Inn would be packed to the rafters with revellers from whom she made a pretty penny. She would watch wistfully as each caravan packed up and left. One day she too would travel. Leave the Last Inn and travel to see the sparkling castles and cities, forests and fields of plenty that it was said filled the interior. Most of all she longed to feel the warmth of the sea on her toes. One day she told herself, one day when she had saved enough silver.

During the in-between times she relied on the odd itinerant worker travelling to and fro from the spice fields or silk farms, depending on the season, or the occasional rich tourist passing through. Pilgrims and holy men would cross her threshold too, for to see the mountain at least once in a lifetime was considered a lucky omen. A talisman to keep families safe while they slept in their village beds.

Some days though, the Last Inn lay empty and Matryoshka busied herself with cleaning and fixing and reading. One eye always wary to spot the tell-tale rising dust on the three roads that snaked their way East, West and South from the interior.

The Last Inn had lain empty for a couple of weeks she spotted the newest traveller to visit her isolated oasis. A single camel at the head of a small caravan. A single rider leading a line of camels and mules pulling several unusually high carts of all shapes and sizes.

This, she was to find out, was the inventor with his unexpected cargo. He was a tall man, thin and dusty, with darkened goggles and a strange air about him. He smiled at her and sat with her on the porch.
“I am Kirov,” he said, “and I wish to stay here for a week or two while I make preparations,”

Matryoshka quickly agreed a generous price but held back her curiosity, for business always comes first.

She fed him biscuits and cake and salted beef and they sat together of an evening drinking ale and talking of the mountain and the curious wonders of the world. She liked the sparkle in his eye, his curving smile and his curiosity and he liked her beauty, red hair and wit. They could have been two friends from childhood.

“You have no ring on your betrothal finger,” he observed one evening, and blushing at his boldness she covered her right hand, for in this region of the world the fourth finger of the right hand was the customary finger to signify engagement or marriage. He observed and respected her disquiet but smiled to himself because, as is the way with love, words can obscure but the physical is not so coy. Her blushes had revealed her feelings to him.

In the daytime she went about her innkeeper business and he with his preparations. With her permission he unloaded his carts in the scrubland at the back of the inn. Metal cogs and braces of all sizes, wooden frames and struts, canvas stitched like sails and leather straps, ties and buckles; all of these he laid with care in secret arrangements on the ground. She observed him carefully from the corner of her eye as she swept the yard and he began his odd construction.

The days passed, one or two travellers came and went, curious as to what Kirov was building, but he remained tight lipped and Matryoshka knew better than to spoil his smiles with too much prying.

And then one day, as they sat ale in hand on the porch he announced it was done.

“What, pray tell, is it that you have constructed dear Mr Kirov?” she said,

“A machine that flys,” he said,

“But only birds can fly…” she said,

“Now,” he said, “with providence and luck I shall be the first man to fly. And, on the morrow, it is my intention to fly to the very summit of the mountain,”

“Can that be possible? Truly?” she said,

“It is my intention,” he said, “and once I have ascertained the secrets of the mountain and conversed with those who keep the beacon burning I shall return to tell my tale. And you, my dear Matryoshka, shall hear my story first,”

He got down on one knee and she could feel the rosy warmth in her cheeks.
“Matryoshka my love, if I am successful would you be my bride? Be my bride and we shall travel together to the cities by the sea,”

“Return safely Mr Kirov, and then we shall see…we shall see,” she said.

The next morning she kissed a shy kiss upon his cheek and wished him well. He pulled on his leather cap and goggles and clambered into his ungainly machine.

She watched as its engines and cogs whirred and clanked and canvas wings stretched to catch the air. She watched as he pulled levers and turned valves inside the machine. She watched as it climbed slowly into the blue desert sky with an uneven grace. She watched as it slowly faded to a dot against the wall of high mountain. She watched with a tear in her eye until there was nothing to see but endless desert, endless sky and endless grey rock of mountains.

And so the days passed.

Matryoshka served her customers, traded with caravans and told her stories. Occasionally she would stand by the stone that marked the start of the mountain highway and wonder about the inventor; watching the sky for his improbable machine.

It must have been a two months or more before she saw him at last, and she felt a swell of happiness in her heart at the sight of his thin frame trudging slowly along the mountain highway. A swell in her heart because, if she were honest with herself, she hadn’t expected him to ever return. After all, no one ever returned from the mountain.

He was emaciated and weak from dehydration; almost on his last legs. So she carried him to her finest room, the only one with feathers in its mattress. She nursed him and fed him broth and fruit from the latest caravan.

He slept and coughed and gradually regained his strength until they once more sat sipping ale on the porch as the sun went down.

“What happened to your flying machine Mr Kirov?” she asked.

He told of how the machine had flown to the coldest reaches of the sky, where the air is thin and he struggled to breath; his goggles filled with frost. How the mountain loomed so large it was a world unto itself and still he struggled to go higher, to reach the top where he could see flames as big as castles licking the sky.

He told of how the lack of oxygen had played tricks with his mind, and as he finally flew above the summit he could have sworn he had seen another flying machine, just like his one, coming from the other side of the mountain. Another flying machine with another pilot who was looking straight at him as they passed each other through a watery wisp of cloud. A mirage, he had told himself, it must have been a mirage in the desert of the sky.

He told of how he had lost control and his machine miraculously crashed; snow drifts tempering the fall and he survived, but the machine was damaged beyond repair.

He told of how he struggled through freezing winds to stand beside the imperious beacon. A fire he described as being so large it was a moving mountain in itself, its flames so intense that the snow was melted for at least a league around the summit, waterfalls cascading from the melt in every direction. A fire, he claimed, fuelled from gases spouting from huge cracks in the rock itself. Gases, he surmised, that came from the very bowels of the earth. Flames that burned in eternity lit by lightning from an ancient sky.

There were no impossible giants of men keeping the flames alive and he was all alone at the roof of the world.

He told of how he rested for a while warmed by the flames. He drank the freshest melt water and dined on lichens and mosses that grow in the warm shallow pools around the flames.

Presently he determined to climb down the mountain as there was nothing else for it, so he struck out following the waterfall with the least steep incline. For many days and nights he struggled through the snow and ice and rocks; down and down he went and still the lack of oxygen and food played with his senses. Even on the clearest of days he could not see the desert below. It must have been a trick of altitude, he had told himself, for all he could see was sky in all directions. At night he felt as if the world was filled only with an endless sea of stars and rocks.

His mind became confused through lack of sustenance, and presently he realised that he was climbing ever upwards not down, which would have been the natural order of things, and though this state of affairs was most alarming he decided to continue, as he was convinced that the direction he had taken was the right one.

He told of how he strangely arrived at another mountain summit and as the mists cleared he could see the beacon above him on the next mountain and below him, for the first time, he could see the desert stretching out like a comforting yellow blanket upon the land.

He immediately set out to climb down once again, always trying to keep an eye on the land below. Days followed days and he managed to keep going, feeding his weak body on grass and moss once below the snow line, eventually encountering berries and goats and streams where he rested and fed and built up his strength.

He told of the trek through the unforgiving desert where he pulled a string of mountain goats on a tether he had fashioned. Pulled them through the harsh heat of day and dead chill of night. Pulled them to sustain him with their milk and meat and warmth, till not one of them survived.

He told of how all through his adventure, from mountain top to desert floor he had dreamt of her eyes, her curly shining hair and her smile and of how the hope of seeing her again had kept him alive.

She smiled as he knelt once more at her feet and pulled the silver ring from his pocket.

“I have saved this ring all my life,” he said, “it was my mother’s and I have saved it for one such as you Matryoshka. I ask again, will you marry me?”

“Yes,” she said, “a thousand times yes,” for she could not contain her joy at his return.

She held out the fourth finger of her left hand for him. He paused.

“Why do you give me your left hand if we are truly to be betrothed?” he said,

“The left is the custom,” she said,

He stood; a look of shock upon his face.

“Why didn’t I see it before?” he cried,

“What do you mean?” she said,

“This world is not my world,” he said, “and I am not your Kirov,”

“I don’t understand,” she said,

“This world is not my world…don’t you see? Look here, the writing on the sign above your Inn, it is backwards, your hair is parted on the wrong side and you give me your left hand when the custom is the right…I…I must go back…back to my Matryoshka, I’m sorry…”

“Kirov, my love, please explain,” she said,

“Don’t you see? When I first climbed down the mountain I was on the far side at the very end of the world, no wonder I could not see the desert below me. I climbed so far that I reached a world below, where down is up and up is down. Two sides of a mirror my dear. Your ’Kirov’ is there right now, somewhere deep below us…I…I must have passed him flying over the mountain. He must be talking as I am talking now, to my Matryoshka somewhere deep below us on the far side of the mirror that is the world,”

And so it was that the inventor trekked once more out into the desert towards the beacon, a line of goats and camels following.

Matryoshka watched him leave, until see could see him no more and all she could see was endless desert, endless sky and the endless grey of mountain. Of course she was unable to contain the sweet tears from wetting her rosy cheeks, but she was made of strong stuff and resolved to wait. And so she waited with a ever-present hope in her heart, for she wasn’t one to allow misfortune to weigh her down.

And in the days that followed she always kept an eye for any dust trail deep in the desert. She went about her business like before and of course the travellers and pilgrims loved her story of the handsome inventor and his impossible flying machine, and of how the world was, in fact, two sides of a mirror.

Now, you are probably wondering dear reader, if the inventor, with his strange goggles and dashing smile, ever returned to the Last Inn at the edge of the foreboding desert. Did he ever return to his flame-haired love? Well that, as they are fond of saying in these parts dear reader, is a story for another supper of ale and biscuits…

© 2014 Simon Poore

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Light is a Funny Thing

Light is a funny thing. I’d never thought about it before. I don’t suppose anyone did. Ellen tells me to forget it and be happy for what I’ve got. We are the lucky ones she says. I find that hard to believe, as I struggle to live like she does. To learn and think and survive like she does. It’s hard to learn when you can’t see.

Yes, light is a funny thing. A precious thing. Light, the giver of life. It enveloped us and nurtured us as we went about our little lives. Even in the night it was lurking slowly; a pressing comfort against our sleeping eyelids, creeping up on us through cracks in the curtains from the street lamps outside. Starlight and moonlight smiled on us and in daytime the sun swathed us with its shining cloak of gold. Electricity sped and twisted through every tiny corner of the planet; its sparks fuelling light bulbs and strip lights, neon and spots. Fake daylight in every city and town and village. Fake daylight to fool our nature in every situation. Light of every colour and hue seeping from TVs and screens of every shape and size. Such an ever present phenonmena that we became immune to its presence. Immune to its importance.

Yes, light is a funny thing, because we were so used to it we forgot it was there and I, for one, never questioned what things might be like if it were to ever disappear.

Of course, a few of us knew. A few souls in the world who had lost light, or never knew it in the first place.

The blind.

We used to think of the blind as people with an affliction. Some kind of disability we would perhaps secretly pity, for we were the lucky ones. Or so we thought. The ones who could experience colour and beauty and know the wonder of the world for what it truly was.

How naive we were. Naive to miss their talents.

It happened slowly. At first most just carried on with their lives. Or tried to. Where I lived it happened in the dead of night, so the surprise was to wake up without the certainty of the dawn. I hadn’t met Ellen then. I had a wife and a job and I thought my life would be happy and ordinary, like lives were supposed to be. Perhaps we would have kids soon. Perhaps a nice holiday in the Caribbean. Maybe next year, maybe the year after, if we saved enough pennies. A life of maybes. Now it’s a life of ’if onlys’. Now I’m not so good at looking forward, though Ellen says I should try.

It was back in the days of power that the sun went out. We endeavoured to continue with our pointless lives and pointless jobs in the harsh fake light of electricity, and governments foolishly claimed that life would go on as normal. That there would be a solution if we just trusted them.

Endless scientists appeared on the news and chat shows explaining their latest theory. The sun, they said, was still generating heat, but some strange chemical reaction, perhaps within its core, had switched off the light. The moon, they said, couldn’t be seen because its light was merely reflected sunlight. It must still be there even if they couldn’t detect it.

But that couldn’t explain why there were no stars. Yet more scientists talked of some strange ’Coriolis barrier’ between the Earth and the rest of the universe, blocking out the light, but there was no proof of this. No shimmer of the velvet curtain in space that had come to damn us could be seen with any telescope, let alone the naked eye. Fruitless arguments about the cause with no real explanation and no solution. All those centuries of science and thought came down to empty ideas lost in the void.

People scratching on in the dark, as if to pretend that it couldn’t really be happening; surely someone would turn the lights back on soon? People struggling foolishly on while all around them fell apart.

Religious groups gathered in their millions across the globe, holding up flaming torches to the dead black sky. Praying to appease whichever god or alien race we had displeased. My wife, bless her, went down that path, after only a few months. She left me a note saying she was going to pray; pray for the light at Stonehenge of all places. I couldn’t believe it; thought she was mad. It was the first day I didn’t bother going to the office, just sat in my lonely armchair, clutching her note and crying. What was the point in processing insurance claims when the world was ending? I never saw her again after that. I wonder if she made it.

Slowly the chaos of the dark began to take over. Planes crashing, ships sinking, riots and suicides.

And wars. So many wars in the dark.

Food and water were running out; the most precious of our resources. Money and gold mean nothing if there is no food. People starving is always a recipe for disaster and one by one the governments fell, like dominoes flicked over by the finger of fate.

And then the times got darker still.

With no food in their bellies, soldiers abandoned their posts, police left their beats. Workers deserting their jobs to find other ways to feed their children. Power stations neglected and soon the lights began to go out. Everyone fighting for food.

I’m ashamed to say I fought too, just to fill my belly. You heard of cannibalism and saw the death in the light of a hundred flames. Fist fights, knives and gunfire. Murders over the last few tins of beans in the supermarket.

That’s when I met Ellen. I was lying in the gutter spitting blood outside the supermarket. Lying in the blackness crying, not really knowing if my eyes were open or closed. Bloody mouth and teeth gone; hit in the face with an iron bar for the torch I was carrying. Pointless really because the batteries wouldn’t last forever. Nothing lasts forever.

She heard me coughing and sensed my sobs. I’ve asked her several times since why she bothered to stop for me; to help me. She just laughs and says she liked my eyes and thought I was attractive. She likes a joke. In reality she is the attractive one, even though she’s never seen it; never seen her red hair. If anyone radiates light it is her. She is the best of humanity. She reminded me of it. And that’s why I love her.

I love her because she saved me. I love her because she has the advantage in this world of darkness. And most of all I love her because in the darkest of dark days she still had the optimism to have a plan.

Five years ago she saved me. Five years, not that time means much in an eternity of night.

She saved me. And it’s because of her I have the luxury to write this little history by candlelight. Yes, we have candles and generators and of course there is always fire. But we use these flashes of light sparingly, for the light is dangerous. Light can mean death now too.

The eyes adjust after years of dark. Any tiniest spark is like the brightest beacon attracting anyone with eyes to see, like moths to a flame. Anyone left scrabbling about in the abyss of blackness. And we don’t want to attract anyone. Not until we are sure we can truly defend our hilltop hideout.

Twenty two of us hiding up a hill in the dark.

Twenty two of us, and I am the odd one out. Now I am the afflicted one. Ellen knew the people that would cope the best; she chose them well. People like her, used to feeling their way through life. People with heightened senses; hearing, touch, taste and smell make the world now. For me that’s hard to learn.

At first she led me; baby-steps. Led me by the hand, showed me how to use a stick to gauge my steps, felt my face with her fingers and taught me to measure distance by sound. Led me until I could just about stand on my own two feet. I still constantly bump into things but she says I’m getting better.

We breed goats and cows which seem to be adjusting to the dark and we are experimenting with growing crops, though it’s risky to expose them to light, even if it is only for ten or twenty minutes a day.

We know it’s a precarious existence. We know there are still some roaming gangs, though they are becoming rare. Roaming gangs with vehicles and weapons and big searchlights. Roaming gangs intent on violence as a means of survival; their humanity stripped back by the scouring darkness.

And that’s my job. I am the eyes to spot if they are coming. I sit in my tower for hours scanning the void until it hurts and I feel the oily blackness seeping into my brain. At least I can be useful, but I can’t help but think I’ll be an anachronism soon.

Eventually, we know, they will die out. The gangs and stragglers that are left will slowly perish as the batteries, fuel and food become harder to find. They will starve or kill each other. They will become extinct because the only way to survive is to evolve. They are people like me, and people like me find it hard to evolve. We are the last of our kind.

Ellen and the others are more optimistic. They say the world is for them now. In the land of darkness the blind man is king. Ellen says it will be second nature for our children. The dark will hold no fear for them. I hope I get to see them. For them light will truly be a rare and funny thing…

© 2014 Simon Poore

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