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 of you will probably have heard stories of. A mountain of such 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; eternal smoke and flame 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 time of stories.
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 that 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 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. The sea she had never seen but only heard talk of. 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 when 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 flies,” he said,
“But only birds can fly…” she said,
“Until 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 mountains. She watched with a tear in her eye until there was nothing to see but endless desert, endless sky and endless grey rock of the mountains.
And so, dear reader, the days passed, as they inevitably do.
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 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 as the days passed 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.
Immediately he 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 waistcoat 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 she 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 an 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