The Mountain’s Wife’, Jennifer R. Donohue

Illustrations © 2021 Katharine A. Viola

 [ My cabin © 2021, Katharine A. Viola ] I am wed to the mountain. That is the only marriage I’ll ever know, the only lasting relationship I’ve ever had, for though I surround myself with dogs, eagles, they all die, one by one, too soon.

My cabin, more than halfway up the highest peak in the world, is a constant stopping place for climbers who demand my hospitality in their bid for immortality. Often, I am called upon to try and find them alive after they’ve left my threshold. More often, I am called upon to find their bodies, so their families know their final resting place.

The mountain tells them to turn back, but they don’t know how to listen. The ones who heed the wind survive. The mountain begs me to climb further, sings or rages at turns. I’ve never reached the summit. Those who stop to see me, drink my tea, summit, and many die when they try to leave. Men mostly. Some women. The mountain tries to pick them to my taste, keep them here, their voices threaded through the wind, their bodies gruesome puppets that knock on my door and are driven off more by my silence than my protests. I’ve learned, by now, how loud my silence can be.

The woman who lived here before me was named Mary. She told me before she left and walked in a straight line from the front door to the edge then off the edge without hesitation. She was tired of being the mountain’s bride. Tired of the voice like thunder, the endless cold, the procession of the doomed. She had climbed to the summit and what she saw there changed her. If she was to be believed. Mary told me that if the mountain’s wife summits, she grows eagle’s wings.

If that’s true, I wonder why she fell, instead of using those wings to fly away.

But I was younger then. I was not yet the mountain’s wife. I was not yet tired of the endless faces of people who sketched themselves as adventurers. I was not yet tired of feeding those people their last meals, meat caught by eagle, of giving those people their last tea, the finest I’m able to get here. It would shame me to give people who may well die cheap tea. While I never leave the mountain, I can move about on it freely, and far below my home, where the slope is still gentle and the air still fat, there is a trading post that suits my needs. I’ve watched three generations of the family be born, trade there, and rest under cairns.

The mountain’s bride is blessed with a long life. Or cursed.

In the way of things, some of the bodies have become landmarks. The oldest are faded shadows who mark distance, measure depth of snow. There is a man whose coat was dyed a bright red, and when one comes upon him in the snow, it at first looks like a fresh kill by wolves. Of course, wolves don’t venture so far up, where the air is so thin. There is a woman, and her coat was yellow, like a spring flower or a scrap of sunshine.

There is an increasing number of guides, men and women who survived to summit, and who survived to leave, and they are paid to aid others in their climbs. It was strange at first, to have so much company at once, not just pairs of strangers, but four or five. Without fail, they bring me small gifts, tea and salt, and sometimes nonessentials, pleasurable surprises like wind chimes. The mountain is jealous of the windchimes, which mask and change its voice, and they rarely stay fixed for long on my eaves. But word spread in the way it does, and more and more people bring them to me. Perhaps they think it’s lucky.

Sometimes men ask me why, and I’m unable to answer. Not because of any spirit bann, but because they’re asking why to the wrong question. Why won’t I summit. Why won’t I bed them. Why won’t I let anybody stay. Women, most of them know not to ask. They know ‘why’ is too big, too complicated, but also as simple as can be.

Not often, but sometimes there are others who come see me, who aren’t climbers or guides, but just people who have lost their way, or people hunting. One is a girl who hunts with an eagle, as I do, and who would be the right age to be my grandchild, if I’d had children before I climbed. Though the girl’s parents have arranged her marriage, and I likely won’t be seeing her any longer after that. She doesn’t ask, but she wants to ask, if she can stay with me. I don’t say the words, and she leaves, despondent, her eagle unsettled. I’ll miss her, the stories she tells me of the world, the candies she brought me once she realized my sweet tooth. But it isn’t my place, to take away somebody’s daughter. Her eyes haven’t gained even one ghost yet, though the way she talks, that ghost may be herself.

And so the days pass, and my life moves on, or doesn’t. I don’t know how long the mountain’s wife will live. No white has threaded my dark hair, my skin hasn’t gained the fissures of age, my breasts haven’t sagged. The mountain still takes men and women, and still comes to my door of a night, the wind of all their dead voices shattering my chimes, the dogs huddled about me in bed white eyed, ears pinned flat to their skulls. I’ve never opened the door to the mountain.

But all things change, of course, just as all things stay the same.

The sky is pewter the day a guide and his charge, a woman, stop at my cabin. A storm is piling up, the sort that stretches the anticipation too tight, like a poorly made drum, and alters the landscape with its release. The already thin air is thinner, and I know the guide, and recognize his worry. He’s white eyed like my dogs, and his charge has never done this sort of a climb before.

They wrap their hands around the mugs of tea I set before them, frost bleeding from their eyelashes and the edges of their clothes. “Why?” I ask them, ask her. I don’t ask this often. I’ve never seen this guide with this look. He is always careful, and kind, and has brought me skeins of wool, and antlers for the dogs. They gnaw under the table, tails thumping on the floor.

The guide drinks his tea, his eyes not leaving my face. Either he knows or he doesn’t.

The woman looks at me, her lips still blue tinted from the climb. Her cold weather clothing seems sufficient, well padded, fur edged, but once she’s shed her coat and mittens, spent some time in front of my fire, her skin is milk pale, translucent, wrist bones knobbly, collar bones fragile arcing wings. “The mountain took my husband,” she says. “I’ve heard he’s one of the bodies up here, one of the landmarks.”

“The red coat?” I ask.

She nods. The guide’s eyes, full of ghosts, haven’t left my face.

The wind howls, whistling through the small chinks in my walls, at my door. My youngest dog can’t help himself, throws his head back and howls as well. The others raise their heads and look at him until he turns his head from them with an ashamed grin. Hooded, my eagle dozes in her cozy corner, twitching occasionally with her dreams of the sky.

Mary said she summited and grew wings. If I summited, whatever of me I’ve kept back, clung to, would slip through my fingers like running water. Or, I would regain myself fully, and fly away from here. Was one better than the other? I think I have begun to mistake stasis for safety. The mountain will not harm its wife, but what a mountain thinks is harm and what a person knows to be harmful are not the same.

“Will nothing stop you?” I ask the woman sometime later, as they prepare to bed down for the night. No snow has fallen, and the air grows thinner still.

“I can’t bear to think of him just lying there,” she said, her voice as thin as the air, as her skin. “Have you seen him? Is he face up or face down?”

“I haven’t gone so close as that,” I say, the truth but not an answer. He’s face up, and I’m certain his eyes, his tongue, are long gone. Under the sun, the red of his coat is at long last fading to something less visceral.

The guide speaks up for the first time in hours. I’ve always known him to be a man of few words, but these have been too few. “I’ve told her that we won’t be able to carry him down. We’ll have to try and cairn him, or roll him down a crevasse.”

“If the weather breaks tomorrow, you won’t be able to find him for either,” I say. I’ve tipped my share of bodies into a crevasse, happening upon them while hunting. There is something vulgar about leaving a human to become a waypoint on the way to the summit, but it can’t always be helped. The man in the red coat is too far from any edges, though, and it will take many trips and much determination to cairn him.

“We’ll find him,” the woman says, with the most strength I’ve seen in her, conviction warming her cheeks more than the fire and tea had.

I nod. “As you say.”

We pass the night quietly, while the winds rage up and down the mountain. Sometimes, nights are pleasant and clear, the stars a gauzy firmament above my cabin. Sometimes the breeze is gentle, carrying the perfume of snow flowers, the scent of fresh grass from the tiny meadows which form on certain juts of the mountain’s shoulders. I sleep lightly, waking when the woman mutters in her sleep, when the guide stirs at one point and tends to the fire. Surrounded by my dogs, I have never feared those who stop the night with me. And the mountain would never let somebody with ill intentions draw so close.

In the morning, the dawn barely brings light. We built the fire up and heat some already roasted meat for breakfast. I unhood the eagle to feed her raw strips of goat, which she tears at with proud ferocity, head cocked this way and that. She watches the guide in particular, the woman too pale a shadow for her attention.

“Will you still go?” I ask.

“Yes,” the woman says before the guide can answer.

“We will try,” he amends. “We will not risk our lives for the dead.”

“We already have,” she says simply. She isn’t wrong. There are some who never make it so far as my cabin.

They leave not long after, bundling layer upon light layer of clothing, fastening coats and furred mittens over everything, stomping down into tall boots. The wind flows down in a torrent from the sky, and they bend into it as they continue to climb.

 [ To summit alone © 2021, Katharine A. Viola ] I think about Mary as they leave, as I retreat inside. Did she come here because of a husband or wife? Did she come here alone, as I did, to summit alone or fail alone? I live in her house, amongst many of her things, and many of the ghosts in the wind were perhaps selected for her, men of an age even more bygone than the one I left when I climbed. But I know nothing of her. She left no writings. She never asked my name, and now nobody does. I am simply the mountain’s wife.

The day passes in the usual ways. No other climbers come, not with what the weather promises, and I exercise the dogs, and as the snow begins to fall wet and heavy we retreat inside. I consider the yarn the guide brought me, green like spring grass. Enough for gloves or socks, a cowl or scarf. I don’t rush to decide. I can’t settle myself though, and the dogs pace about, anxious. The wind screams and the eagle screams back, starts bating as thunder cracks and rolls the bones. I manage to distract her with meat, hood her and gentle her down before she hurts herself.

I know where the man in the red coat is, nearly to the summit, and it should not have taken them more than a day to reach him and do what they had to. Not even with a woman who had never climbed before, accommodating her slowness, her weakness, her shortness of breath.

Except for this wind. Except for the mountain.

The dogs watch me with their shining firelit eyes as I put on my layers. I regularly go out to rescue, but it is the first time I’ve done so with so much unsettled. Never in thunder snow, screaming wind.

I stomp into my boots and the largest dog waits at the door, maned like a lion. She watches my face gravely as I pocket a flask of hot tea and a flask of coals, as I pull on mittens.

“Seek,” I tell her, and open the door to the mouth of night.

Her belled collar peals ahead of me, and she forges a feathered path through the deepening snow. I follow, pacing myself, leaning forward into the wind and the climb. The mountain may as well be its own world, surrounded by snow and clouds. Even the sky seems to have disappeared.

I’ve known the mountain for many years, maybe too many years, and the mountain is what keeps me from walking off treacherous edges, slipping into chasm. I could try to summit blindfolded and it would guide me. But it does not like having prey snatched from its influence, and I call my dog back frequently, wrapping my arms around her big warm neck, putting my face against hers. Because of the snow and the wind, she eventually tracks from just a few steps in front of me, and I can grasp the end of her tail if I extend my hand.

My breath is a plumed bird’s tail in the air, twining about my neck and shoulders in a mockery of added warmth. The air is thick with voices, and we are past where the man in the red jacket lies, almost to the summit, and I stop. Was this the mountain’s trick? Was there a woman after all, or were both she and the guide driven by ghosts, having died before even reaching my cabin? But no. If nothing else, my dogs all track live quarry far differently than dead. They simply became lost in the storm.

Despite my clothing, the embers in my pocket, the wind is piercing and I am becoming too cold. I’ve stopped to turn back when I see red ahead of me. The man in the red coat, a grotesquery of what he was in life, stands nearly to the summit. I take steps forward, slow, leaden, and I can see his wife, held back by the guide. She stares at his face in shock, the scarf pulled from her neck, her hood cast back from her hair. I wonder if any of what she loved remains in the man’s face.

My dog knows this is unnatural and surges ahead through the snow. I can feel her growl rather than hear it, my sternum vibrating as hers must be, and she hits the man in red bodily from behind, her outraged bark cutting the wind, hushing the voices for a moment.

The man in red falls, and the woman looks at me, bare faced, emotional, and I see the ghosts in her eyes now, that she carried with her all this way. She had to do this trip, yes, but she had no idea she would see her husband walk again, some vestige of his spirit speaking to her heart. Perhaps she caught the mountain’s fancy, and the mountain thought to woo her with its best tool. But the man in red has been here too long, and the guide, ashen from the struggle and the thin air, releases her and she stumbles down to me, gasping, perhaps weeping but the tears freezing instantly to her skin, crystalline hurts.

I catch her in my arms, and the snow and my leaning dog keep us on our feet. “Are you alright?” I ask, the question we always ask, though there is no real answer.

“He was…” she stammered, her jaw out of her control with the cold, and I pull her hood up, rewind her scarf, the guide coming down to us, weighted with exhaustion.

“I know,” I say. I don’t mean to be unkind, but there is nothing else. The man in red may rise to his feet again. He may simply be caught in the snow, the mountain may be gathering its ghosts again to make another bid.

“Does the mountain…?” What is it that she wants?

“I don’t know,” I say. The voices in the wind build again, but perhaps only for my ears. The summit is there, closer than I’ve been in years, and for the first time in many years, I feel drawn to it again. Is it the worst choice or the best choice? I don’t have that answer. “My dog will take you back to the cabin,” I say.

“What will you…?” I can’t hear the rest of what she says, for the voices in the wind, for the guide’s arm around her shoulders.

My dog shoulders against me, and I shake off my mittens, grip her fur in both hands. “Go home,” I say, releasing her. Releasing her.

I don’t look to see if they’ve listened to me. If they haven’t, they will die here, in the wind and cold. The thunder rolls again and I feel it in my heart, my bones, my soul. Step by step, I make my way, at long last, to the summit, shedding my hood, my scarf, my coat. I was too cold and now I’m too hot, as though every summer I’ve missed is now visiting me in the midst of this storm, at the summit of the highest peak in the world

There’s too much snow to worry about my boots and pants, and as I summit, I spread my arms, and I spread my wings, and I hear “Wait!”

I turn. The woman struggles after me, with an energy the guide cannot match. He’s torn between his safety and his duty. My dog decides for him, takes his sleeve in her mouth and gives him a yank that nearly takes him off his feet. He looks down at her, follows with her down the slope, past the struggling upright man in red. Maybe he’ll wed the mountain next. It is no longer my concern.

The woman reaches me, staggers, and I wrap my arms around her, my hot skin against her icy clothing. We take two steps, almost dancing, and then we’re over the edge, spiraling in the sky, and I laugh at the sudden freedom of it and embrace the world with my wings.

© 2021 Jennifer R. Donohue

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