The Mountain of Joy and Grief

Submitted into Contest #92 in response to: End your story with a truth coming to light.... view prompt

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Fiction

A long time ago, in a faraway land lived a woman named Anushah. Her simple abode in the mountainous area had sheltered her for years. Caring for the goats, sheep, and chickens filled her days. On that delightful summer day, the breathtaking view of the snow-capped mountain seemed especially grand.

The slope of the mountain had the company of animals grazing on it. The red poppies had covered the area. It was an invitation to the butterflies with their uninhabited and mesmerizing dances. Anusha sat under the nectarine tree, absorbed in the relentless agility of those colorful symbols of hope and life.

The bones in her body talked to her in the language of pain. Should she move to a warmer climate? Maybe, to move with her aunt who lived close to the Caspian Sea? Her thoughts took her to those years when her parents were alive, and her older brother became a soldier in the King's army. The time when she had comfort, even suitors from other villages. The stillness was in the air. ‘Why does she remember with such vividness the days of the past on this day?' she thought to herself.

A burst of memories occupied her being. Her mind took her to the ever-presence of joy and gloom about the mountain in their home. Its presence had captured their daily life after her brother left to serve the King. She remembered her father's face when he looked at the mountain; hope and grief coexisted together. Every day he would walk to the mountain slope. Sometimes standing at its foot, and gaze at its top. Later the visits became weekly as he aged. Then the day arrived when her father could not walk anymore and would only turn his face towards the mountain.

The teenager Anusha had witnessed the intimate relationship between her father and the mountain. But at the time, she did not consider it of any import or mysterious. She did not think anything of it indeed.

As far as she remembered, her mother never made an issue of her husband's pilgrimage to the mountain. A few years into the new routine of her father, he became ill and soon after, passed away. It did not take long that her mother joined her husband. The foot of the mountain became their grave.

Alone and still young, Anusha had to take over her life and the livestock. She had to make cheese and yogurt and take it to the village to sell and buy flour, vegetable, and spices. She missed her parents more than she could imagine. She was lonely and tired. Where is her brother to help her? Why didn’t he come to visit the family? The benevolent King had allowed the young soldiers to go to their villages during the new year. And her brother had not done that.

On that day of remembering, it was as if the mountain was beckoning her to itself. She had taken care of the animals and took the small bucket of nectarine in the house. Then, although tired, she found herself walking towards the mountain. It was mid-afternoon when she reached the gravesite and sat there for a while. A chill came over her. She pulled up the shawl on her shoulder and caressed herself in it. Not knowing why? she loudly asked her parents where her brother is? As soon she uttered those words, remorse came over her. She had broken the family pledge.

The silent ritual among the villagers, including her family, was not to ask about the loved ones who are far from you. They believed, as long as you don't ask about their loved ones, they remain alive. But asking about their whereabouts would assail doom on them. And this, Anusha just did on that day by asking her dead parents. Why did she not control herself to keep her thoughts to herself? She was sure now that she has brought an ill omen to her brother. Fear of losing her brother came over her. She had asked the forbidden question. She had betrayed the unspoken vow of her people.

Later that afternoon, Anusha is still walking and climbing the steep base of the mountain. She had followed her father one day and had seen that he would go up to a particular place where there was a stone ridge with a pink color hue.

When Anusha reached that place, the sun retracting its ray had set. The twilight set the scene for the moon to glow, and suddenly, she thought she spotted an object. She looked deliberately to that point this time. But whatever she had seen, it was gone.

Meanwhile, the cold of the mountain penetrating her body caused her to tremble. Or maybe the secrets of the night and towering mountain were daunting to her. A mysterious force kept her up there. She felt impelled not to return to her abode. With no strength left in her, she continued climbing towards the place where her eyes had seen an object. She reached a small cave where she could hear dripping water from its walls. The cave's warmer air gave her a bit of comfort. She sat on a stone to catch her breath. Tired, hungry, and still cold, she leaned back and closed her eyes.

She had passed out for a while. Her eyes still closed, she felt to her horror the presence of another living thing in the dark cave. She barely could breathe. Without any move, she opened her eyes. A tall figure with long beards and hair was standing in front of her. Frozen in her place, she barely could open her mouth. The towering figure had frightened her to her core. She could not see the face. But for an indescribable hopeful second, she thought the figure was her brother. Could it be true?

Thinking about what to do to protect herself, she heard a voice asking her, 'What are you doing here?

Oh, at last, there were words in the air. To answer the question, Anusha had to think of something fast. She had no reason to be there. 'I am looking for somebody,' she blurted out in a low voice.

Silence embraced the darkness. 'What would be the reaction of the beast?' She thought to herself.

The man who had not moved so far started to come closer. Now she could hear heartbeats. Anusha saw the face under the light of the moon slanting through the opening of the cave. He was almost as tall as her brother, but he was not him. She had a good reason to be afraid now. Fearing of her life, she closed her eyes to escape in her mind. But she heard the voice again, 'where do you live?' That was a good sign, she thought. At least he is not rushing

to harm her. Anusha opened her eyes. 'In the village below,' she said with a weak voice.

Those few minutes seemed like a lifetime to trembling Anusha.

'Are you Anusha?' The man asked suddenly. The question stunned her, and yet it relaxed her. Her throat untightened, she could breathe again. Who was this man? She gathered her thoughts and asked the man with trepidation how did he know her name?

'You don't remember me?' The man asked.

There was something in his voice that sounded familiar. But Anusha could not recall anything else. She still did not trust the stranger and tried to converse with him.

If you tell me about yourself, maybe I can remember, she said.

By now, the man in the cave had been sitting on another stone near her. Hesitant at first, he asked Anusha to promise not to reveal his whereabouts to anyone in the village. It seemed that he was as frightened as Anusha. What was it that he was hiding? But first, she wanted to know how did he know her?

So, she reassured him of keeping his secret. Then the man told Anusha that he was one of her suitors from the next village many years ago.

A sudden rush of the memories flooded Anusha's heart. She looked at his eyes, the only visible part in his face. He was as tall as she remembered but had become a skeleton with badly worn clothes. She could not believe her eyes to see him again. He, like her brother, was among those whom villagers talk about for fear of bad omen falling upon them. She recognized him and knew well who he was, her brother's friend. They both had left for the King's army. But what was he doing in the cave? And what did he know about her brother? The man willing to talk offered some dry fruits and hot water, which both Anusha was happy to accept. Not knowing what would be the reaction of the beast, silene embraced the darkness.

The gentle voice of the man seemed pleasant and calming to Anusha. Drinking hot water and having dried nectarines had given her strength back. She heard a strange tale of life from the mountain man. He told her how brave her brother was. She heard how he died with courage. But there was a twist in his bravery. Anusha's brother did not die fighting for the King. He fought for the people. So he had rebelled against the army of the King. He did not commit the cruelties and pillaging which other soldiers did.

The lingering questions in Anusha’s mind were many. How could her brother rebel against the great King? How could he bring himself to rise against the Kingdom? 'But that is not the case,' the man said. 'The new King has killed many. He is a tyrant and a cruel ruler.' he continued, 'People are feared and terrorized by his soldiers.'

Tears filled her eyes. In her quiet grief on the dreadful news of her brother's death, she realized that her worst fears came to reality. She would never see her brother again. The mountain man went on to say that her brother was killed, trying to prevent pillaging a village by the army men. He emphasized that it is not rebellion! 'That is an honorable act. You have to be proud of him.' He said.

They were both quiet. The story had halted. Anusha thought if her brother was not a rebellion, why did the army not inform them of his death with honor? And why was his friend sitting next to her and being quite alive? She was exhausted. It was near dawn. The whole night she had been climbing the mountain and in the cave. Deep in her thoughts and to her amazement, she heard the man asking her, 'Don't you want to know what happened to me?'

Oh, yes, she thought to herself. Anusha was angry. At that moment, she wanted to know why was he not killed? And how did he survive?

She felt remorse for wishing another man to be killed, only because she had lost her brother. 'I left the army, or precisely I escaped when I realized the new King has no mercy on his people,' he started to say. Death is the punishment of any soldier who breaks his oath to the King. I cannot go back to my village as I do not wish to endanger my people for sheltering me.' 'Your courageous father helped me a lot without the knowledge of anyone else.'

That is why her father would go to the mountain which had kept a secret at its heart. She remembered her father’s face, which betrayed emotions of grief and joy. He had lost his son, but he was helping her son's friend. And he could not share this with anyone. He would endanger everybody's life in the village. What a burden he carried. What a responsibility he assumed. What about her mother? Anusha questioned herself? Did she know and did not say anything, or was she kept away from this secret?

Anusha wanted to leave that space and absorb all these new things. She had to be alone. Anusha left the cave and promised the man to keep the secret to herself. His eyes followed her until she disappeared at the foot of the mountain behind the trees. The sun had risen when Anusha reached home. She let out the animals to graze. She made tea. She had to remap her life. She had to grieve over the loss of her only brother. The one whom she thought would return and would help her with the hard work on the farm.

Two days passed. By now, Anusha had got over her acute sense of loss. She had some time to reflect and ponder over the last years of her parent's life. She came to turn with her brother's friend being alive. In her heart, she forgave him. The sense of betrayal had disappeared. But she was lonelier than ever. Looking at the mountain, she perceived well there was somebody there needing her help. Should she visit the man? Should she become like her father to rise and take chances? She found herself walking among the red poppies, wishing she had never gone up the mountain.

The sun was close to set. The warmth of the day had invigorated Anusha. She was not tired as she thought so. She looked at the mountain. The breeze in the air touched her face and sang the song of life. It carried her father’s voice and mother’s smile. She was responsible for another life now. And all of a sudden, she felt closer to her parents than at any other time. Back inside the house, she packed food and cloth with some warm covers. The nights in the mountain are dry cold, she thought to herself. How has he survived for such a long time up there?

When Anusha climbed halfway to the cave, she found the tall man, her old suitor waiting for her. Seeing her coming up with the packages, he helped her with them. They climbed the rest of the mountain without any word. But Anusha felt he was elated to see her. She had proved to be a confidant. Now there was a covenant between them, a bond of fidelity.

That night they had the simple dinner Anusha had brought with her. The goat cheese, bread, and vegetables. The boiled eggs and some dried meat. A feast to the man who had not much to eat for a long time. The tea purchased from the village was the best part of the meal for the mountain man.

The man reminded Anusha of his name Ardeshir. She knew him by the name of his village and a friend of her brother. She returned home with Ardeshir accompanying her down to the middle of the slope. He did not want to take any chance to be seen with Anusha for her sake. She realized why her father continued helping Ardeshir. He was a responsible and considerate man. Although he was thin out of malnutrition, he seemed strong. So much like her brother.

The chill of the Fall and bitter cold of the Winter were on the horizon. Anusha knew that Ardeshir needs warm socks and an overcoat. During the nights, she kept herself busy knitting wool socks and pullovers. Once a week, she would take food and other necessities to Ardeshir. He surprised her by shaving his beard and cutting his hair short the last time she visited him.

For two years, life went on for both of them like that. They were cautious as well as, developing trust for each other. Then it came that day when the town-crier announced the killing of the King in the villages. His army had rebelled against him. His greed had caused poverty and misery in the land. The high taxes and abusing his own people caused his soldier's revolt against him. Anyone who was considered in the court of the murdered King now was free.

Anusha left the animals to themselves in the middle of the day. She had to give this glad tiding to Ardeshir and to liberate him from his hiding. Anusha reached the cave. But she did not find Ardeshir. Indeed, it seemed that he had left some days ago. It was the first time she was alone in Ardeshir's abode. Her curiosity took her to the end of the cave.

She found a narrow wooden chest that seemed familiar. It was her father's. What was that doing here?

Now, she had to open it close to the end of the cave. Then she saw a small opening to outside on the back of the cave. First thing first, she opened the chest. She found a sword and a handkerchief, two prized possession of any soldier. The neck handkerchief was a sign of a soldier who had shown courage in the army. And the sword had carved on it the name of her brother. So these two things were his and not Ardeshir.

Her father had brought a wooden chest for keeping these relics of his son. And his friend Ardeshir was the keeper of those. But where was Ardeshir now? Her thoughts were interrupted by Ardeshir's climbing up from the back of the cave having some herbs in his hand. The rope which her father provided for him enabled him to climb down and up the mountain. He noticed that Anusha had opened the chest. He was relieved. He wanted to give those things to her but did not want to grieve her again. But it was what he heard about the King and the forgiveness of all those considered political criminals that made him so happy to kiss Anusha on her cheek for the first time. They left the mountain where had harbored joy and grief.

On that summer day, another truth came to light. And that was their love for each other.

May 03, 2021 20:20

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