“Somebody put a path across the path,” I said, stopping in surprise.
You asked what I meant as you came up by my side.
“I mean, they’ve built something you’d expect to find in town. Cobblestones, see? All neatly placed. They even poured cement in between. Or is it concrete? I can never remember.”
“Actually,” you said, looking closer, “that’s mortar.”
“But maybe farther on it’s paved,” I said. “With gutters, signposts, street lights, and—”
“You’re getting ahead of things.”
We looked up and down the narrow lane that crossed our smooth dirt trail.
“Unless the deer are getting handy with tools, it must be some local who likes to come this way.” You raised one eyebrow. “Shall we see who?”
Would they live up the path or down? Probably down, but we were headed up.
“It does seem well made.” You touched your foot to a square flat stone, placed your weight upon it, then swiveled to face uphill.
Ah. “You’re thinking: We’ll follow this invasive track, find where it leads, and seek its builder some other day.” See how well I know you?
We would judge the creator’s character on the merits of said creator’s work.
If the path met a traveler’s needs, didn’t stray or make us stumble, stayed within the known world, and led to some worthy end, then we might deign to meet the one who designed it. Maybe invite ourselves in for tea, if biscuits were provided.
So we followed it.
I had to admit, as we walked along, the handiwork suggested the touch of a master experienced with mortar and stone. No lip tripped the foot, no stone wobbled under, and we never feared that the way would vanish as deer paths often do.
Was it hours or years we journeyed that day?
All I know is I spent too much time appraising the path, trying in vain to dissect its craft, unheedful of trees and flowers that blossomed in glory around us.
All you know, as you told me later: We were not the same at the end.
We sat on a gentle slope dotted with scrub brush and jagged boulders. You kept your eyes fixed on the base of a rocky, cone-shaped peak — you called it the guardian — which stood alone in the middle of a desert plain, a few hundred yards from us. It was watching us with suspicion, I thought.
We had come to see a mountain being born.
I squinted across the plain. “You’re sure it’s due today? What’s the gestation period for a… well, a peakling?” What does one call a baby mountain?
“The rising doesn’t work that way. It has to be summoned.”
“That’s what the guardian there is for? It came all the way out here just for this?”
“Right.” So your sources had told you. Before long there would be two mountain peaks here, and the youngster would be led off to its new home.
We had been waiting two hours when we heard rumbling and felt a vibration that rippled across the plain. You gasped; I held my breath.
More tremors followed in quick succession, each stronger than the last, building to a crescendo. The ground near the mountain bulged — once, twice — then split apart and collapsed with a roar, forming a wide cavern of unfathomable depth.
The way had been prepared for the new arrival.
“See?” you said.
I saw, then thought back to the other rising we had witnessed, when an entire mountain range had come into being. “Can’t these mountains be formed without all the shaking and fuss — quietly, over a million years?”
You waved my question away. “It has been called.”
But it didn’t rise. The ground continued to quake, more violently now, as if the newborn was thrashing about below. The disturbance fractured the dry earth into cracks that radiated in all directions. Still the young mountain refused to appear.
“Something is holding it back!” you shouted, and started to run down toward the hole. I had no choice but to hurry after, leaping over gaping chasms and wondering what two tiny humans could do to help.
When we reached the opening, we could see the top of the youngster far below. Someday it would be a majestic cloud-hidden peak, respected by climbers and celebrated by poets. Right now, however, it was just the tender cap of a newborn, quivering in fear.
The guardian shuffled nervously on the opposite side of the hole. I kept an eye on it, worried it might consider us a threat and attack, like a mother bear protecting its cub.
“Look!” You pointed at a slag heap nearby.
Years ago this area had been mined for silver. Waste from the smelter had been dumped in a house-sized pile, now perched on the edge of the hole, where the ground was crumbling under it. Black glassy chunks were breaking loose and tumbling down the side, spilling into the cavern and onto the young mountain, which instinctively shied away from the shower of toxic debris.
“I guess we should do something?” I half asked. You spread your hands and gave me that of course look. “Okay,” I replied. We set to work.
The site was littered with rusting equipment, abandoned here more than a century ago — half-buried metal pipes; empty ore cars toppled over on buckled rails; a sagging wooden tower used for shaft mining, with elevator cables dangling from its pulleys; a scattering of picks and sledge hammers. We surveyed the options.
You noticed a dilapidated chain-link fence, once meant to keep trespassers out, lying on the ground. “We can use that as a net.”
It took me a second. “You mean to catch the rubble?”
“We can throw it over the pile,” you explained, “to hold down the slag and keep any more pieces from breaking off. We’d need to tie a few sections together.”
I gathered some cable that was coiled in the dirt, while you pulled up the fence. We threaded the cable through overlapping lengths of fence, stitching them together into a net big enough to cover half the slag heap. Work gloves and wire cutters would have been handy, but we had no time to think about such luxuries.
It took all our strength to move the contraption once it was finished. We lugged it up the back of the mound, swung it around to cover the crumbling side, then pounded in a few rail spikes at the top.
It didn’t work. Pieces of slag were still able to roll under our makeshift net, which was flapping under the escaping chunks.
You sighed. “It’s not heavy enough at the bottom.”
“I’ll get it,” I said, more confidently than I felt.
I climbed down the nearly-vertical side, gripping the wire mesh for support, until I reached the last section of fence, where gritty rocks continued to break free. In one motion, I sprang backward, dropped over the edge, and grabbed the pole attached to the fence — like a gymnast leaping in mid-air to catch the horizontal bar, though without the least bit of grace or control.
The side of the cavern angled away underneath, leaving me hanging in empty space, unable to find a foothold. But my added weight was enough to anchor the fence and secure the debris.
All was still. “Now what?” I wondered. Rusty metal bit into my hands, which were starting to slip.
After a moment, the young mountain realized it was safe from the irritating pieces of slag. It wiggled with relief and resumed its progress skyward. Air rushed past me as the mountain began to emerge from the embryonic darkness.
When I couldn’t hold on any longer, I simply let go and slammed into the rising slope, twisting an ankle and falling face down. I grabbed on to whatever I could, slicing my fingers on razor-sharp rocks not yet weathered smooth by exposure to the world.
I had lost sight of you but could hear your shouts, barely audible above the thundering din. “I’m all right!” I yelled back. Not quite true. But I was alive for now, pressed against an accelerating rocket that shook my bones apart.
In seconds, the tip of the peak had shot above ground level. But I could see that the lower body was bigger than the cavern’s opening — and it was coming up quickly. This was going to hurt.
The mountain’s base broke the surface in an eruption that plowed up the surrounding earth. The impact jolted me loose. I rolled over and slid down the side until I collided with a churning mass of dirt and rock where the slag heap had been. You were already running from the turmoil, so I leapt over the rubble and limped after you.
“Took you long enough!” you said over your shoulder.
“I was making a new friend,” I huffed, still out of breath.
Behind us, the newborn had risen, out of the bedrock and into the light — throwing its swaggering shadow across the land in a birth announcement that simply stated: I Am Here. No one could argue with that.
And so it joined the guardian, while we scrambled back up to our original spot, safely above the scarred and shattered plain. We sat and watched as the two peaks swayed in unison, leaned forward in readiness, and moved off together toward the distant range. A sight to behold.
“Next time,” I said, brushing dirt from my torn clothes and bleeding hands, “I’ll let you be the one who jumps down onto a rising mountain.”
“Oh. How nice of you.”
“Well, it’s only— What are you looking at?”
I followed your gaze down the hill and out across the ruptured landscape, now strewn with boulders uplifted from deep below. Everywhere we looked, veins of dull metal shone in the sun.