NOTE: This is a longer piece, that will open the book of stories I’m currently working on. Usually, I would have “broken” it into smaller fragments and posted each fragment separately, but as this piece has a rather unusual structure, I thought it would have been a bit confusing to do so. To everyone who will read it despite its length – thank you!
Tell me about the time you searched for your own death, and I’ll tell you about the time I did mine. I see you sitting in a high back chair, with a book in your hands. The pages are blank. There’s a deep crease between your eyebrows and your mouth is set in a tight line. You’re sitting so still. If I could, I would kneel by your side and put my hand over yours and my head in your lap. Your forehead would become smooth again and your lips would part to let out the tongue that would slash through my belly like a honeyed blade and thus give me life.
Until then −
I picture mine as a woman.
You see, there is a corridor that leads right into the heart of the mountain.
What do you mean what mountain? Honestly, the kind of questions you ask! Does it even matter?
Now, where was I?
Right, the corridor. The one that leads right into the heart of the mountain.
Step inside. It’s dark in there. I won’t tell you not to be afraid. You will be afraid. The trick is to be more afraid of turning back than you are of moving forward. Just when you think you’ll never see light again, the way ahead will clear up and you will step into a giant domed hall.
It’s a throne room.
She is there.
You won’t see her at first, though. The first thing you will do is shield your eyes, because the light will be blinding after you’ve walked in the dark for so long. Then, you will slowly get used to it. Advancing inside the hall, you will find yourself standing at the edge of a wide underground lake. The water will be so still. You’ll find that the stalactites hanging from the cave ceiling look very much like giant, sinister candelabra. See how the drops of water are trickling down them? When they fall into the lake, they do so with a sound that seems immense as it reverberates from the cave walls. It will make you wince. Then you will think how strange it is that you should be there to hear it. When no one is inside the cave to hear the dripping of the water, why, that’s almost as if there was no water dripping at all, isn’t it?
Yet it’s so loud.
Never mind. You’re lowering your eyes from the ceiling now. You’re looking around yourself. You see the bulbous pillars that surround the lake. If you look closely, you’ll see a bat trapped inside one of them, near the tip. Its wings are extended, reaching out from its mineral prison. It’s not difficult to realise what happened to this bat. It landed on a side of the stalagmite and folded its wings. It slept. The next thing it knew was the ice-cold water dripping down its back. It stirred and extended its wings. But the bat was already trapped in the ever-growing pillar that had already closed around its legs. How long do you think it took for this creature to die? What you do know for sure is that it struggled until the very end, until the last weak and frightened breath of life left its body. You know this because of the extended wings.
You’ve stared at it long enough. Now, go around the lake. As you get closer to the other side, you’re expecting to see a second corridor, that mirrors the one you came through, and leads to the other side of the mountain and out into the daylight.
There is no such corridor, as you will soon realise. What looked like the entrance to a tunnel turns out to be a dead end – nothing but a hollow in the cave wall.
But is it empty?
Of course it’s not.
You can make out the shape now.
Notice the eyes on you. They’re round and grey and covered by a thin film. This is how you know that they’re not really seeing you, so you don’t have to say anything. Just keep very still.
And now, observe her skin. It looks moist and protean, and, beneath this pinkish-white tegument you can make out the delicate netting of veins, like a bruise-coloured spider web. Her body is wrapped in discoloured animal pelts and as your eyes move over it, as they would over a statue, you notice the long strands of matted white hair that give no hint of their original colour. Then, your eyes find her face again. Do you think she’s beautiful? Even with those eyes? And those pale, closed lips?
But what do you make of the horns? Yes, the ones jutting from the sides of her head. If she was real, her neck would break from their weight. See how large and thick they are, and how they coil round and round and round?
Do you want to try and count the coils? Suit yourself.
You know, at first, I thought they were ram’s horns, but they aren’t. They don’t belong to any living animal. She does not live. Nor do they belong to any dead animal. Only that which lives may die.
I call her the Mountain Queen.
When she’s dreaming, she always meets the man in the blue sunglasses. What they may or may not do together is none of your concern.
‘You look like her,’ she says. ‘You look like my death.’
The room where they meet has no walls. The floor is covered in sea water. Small waves are foaming all over its surface and rolling over the edge when they reach it because there’s nowhere else for them to go. She bends and scoops up some foam in her hands. She pours it in her mouth. It’s just a dream, but she can taste it. It’s salty. A bit sweet, too, but mostly salty. She uses her tongue to roll it around in her mouth until she can’t feel the taste anymore, then swallows with a sigh.
A ship passes between them. No, not a ship, but a toy. It’s too small to be a real ship, although it has everything a ship should have. Sails and oars and a figurehead. At first, the figurehead is a beautiful woman with a fish tail and impossibly round breasts covered only by a few strands of her smoothly flowing hair. As the ship moves on, her hair falls off, her peaceful smile turns into a twisted grin revealing pointed teeth and her soft body melts, leaving the skin to dangle from the bones like an ominous flag.
My name is Nobody and Nobody shall come when you call.
The ship tumbles and vanishes over the edge.
The man in the blue sunglasses says, ‘I don’t belong to myself, but –’
‘ – to the world,’ she murmurs.
‘Why do you finish my sentence?’ he asks.
He sounds annoyed.
She says, ‘It’s my sentence, too.’
Hey, I’m still talking to you!
I guess I want to tell you a story. But first, I need to know what kind of story you would like.
Some people dislike some stories because they’re not realistic enough. I know you’re not one of those people. Just like me, you wish to know what’s realistic enough for them. Is it the dog shit on the pavement? The soreness in your stomach when you haven’t eaten for a whole day? The caged people who don’t even know that they’re caged? This is why they don’t scream. They don’t scream because they don’t see the bars. So you scream for them. You scream until you can’t scream anymore and your face feels like it will burst apart. They don’t hear you. If they do, they simply brush it off and go about their business – their supermarkets, their romantic comedies, their decaying faces and empty bodies.
But, anyway, what kind of stories do you like? I like fairy tales. Yes, fairy tales are my favourite. Would you like to know why?
Well, you see, in a fairy tale, there comes a moment when the hero or heroine stands in front of a fork in the road and has to decide which path to take. They might go by their own sense of right and wrong or they might flip a coin. They might follow a small animal that jumps in front of them as if by complete accident.
I can hear you chuckling. You know very well that there is no such thing as an accident.
Anyway, my point is that the hero or heroine has to make a choice. So they take the first step along one of the two paths.
And that, right there, is where the story fractures. You may think that what you see is what you get, that the hero or heroine simply goes along the path of their choice, completes a seemingly impossible task, or three, or seven, and thus gains the right to live happily ever after.
But, what happens is that the moment the hero or heroine steps on their chosen path, a new, parallel story world is generated.
In that world, the hero or heroine takes the other path, the one of betrayal and lies, and this means that they are not a hero or heroine after all. They might end up in the exact same place, on the throne of a far-away land, but they lose themselves along the way.
In another world, they never get to the fork in the road at all. They are reduced to servants in their own house or cut into small pieces by a wicked stepmother, but there is choice even there, and each choice taken generates several choices not taken and thus creates the possibility of many other stories.
There is also a world where the stepmother is kind and everyone is content. Too content to do anything remarkable. This is why there can never be a story about such a world.
I’m still talking to you. I watch you staring at the blank pages. The pages are blank because you haven’t written the story yet. I’ll tell you a secret. Simply writing the story is not enough. First, you have to be the story.
But you’ve known that for a long time.
She lives in a small flat, inside a grey building. The parquet floor is peeling off. There’s your realism. Once every month, she opens her kitchen window to stare at the full moon. She stares at it for hours. She waits for the moment when she will drop to all fours and coarse black hair will erupt from her skin, all over her body. Then, she will throw her large wolf’s head back and howl. Any second now.
But the only thing that howls is the heart inside her chest. Outside, nothing happens.
Whenever she sees storm clouds through the window, she stills and holds her breath. She keeps the air inside her lungs like in a prison and just when she thinks she will suffocate, she sees the first flash of lightning. She pushes all the air out. Her chest heaves as the thunder booms on the other side of the window, where the world is.
She runs out the door and into the pouring rain.
She wants to feel it. She wants to really feel it. She’s soaking wet. She feels nothing.
If you listen to the mountain for long enough. If you keep your head under water for long enough. If you take a stone from the river bed, an oblong, perfectly polished (as if by a craftsman) stone, and you open your legs and find the spot and it’s wet and slick and you push the stone inside, as deep as you can, and your body swallows the stone and with it swallows your whole hand and you find it doesn’t hurt. Then –
You did it.
The mountain, the water, the stone.
You want what they want.
It finally happened.
You’re done with mortality.
Hail, Mountain Queen, you who are always waiting.
When you meet a spirit in a fairy tale, they present you with a riddle that you’re supposed to answer. If you get it wrong, you disappear. If you get it right, they disappear and you have no choice but to take their place. It’s not like that with the Mountain Queen. She has no riddles for you. She doesn’t speak at all. She merely waits.