The boy was a child of the wildness that surrounded him. He was born of the mountains that ringed his lofty alpine valley, formed by the rapids that rushed from their snow capped peaks, rocked to sleep by the winds that howled through the narrow chutes, and awakened by the thunderclaps that echoed off the craggy stone. He was the vigorous, confident wildness that drove the elk from the woods each morning, their antlers glinting in the sun. He was the fresh, gentle wildness of the elderflower and columbine in spring bloom, rendering the valley floor a patchwork of rich hues. He was the unbounded, electric wildness of summer lightning, filling the sky with its fantastical power.
The old woman was also a child of the wildness, raised in much the same manner as the boy, in much the same manner as the many that had come before. Hers was no longer the proud, fleeting wildness of youth, but quiet and enduring. She was the ancient stone on the face of the mountain, rough and weathered by the elements, though stronger for it. She was the patience of the aspen grove, a singular living thing made up of the many, indifferent to the shifting of the seasons that blurred into centuries. She was the reliability of the moon, her light waxing and waning in the steady rhythm of things.
The town where they lived sat nestled high in the mountains where the air was thin and fresh. It had been there for as long as anyone living could remember, the old woman having the longest memory. She told the story of the town’s founding frequently, in reverent whispers, of a time long before herself. The boy would always sit at her feet, crowded amongst the other children, listening to the tale they all knew by heart. “They fled the places from below,” she’d always begin, “driven away by the chaotic din, by the struggle, by the loneliness that festered amongst the multitudes.”
The boy always wondered about the places from below, having not yet made the long, treacherous journey down the winding alpine road that cut its precarious, serpentine path down the mountain. He often daydreamed about the chaotic din, the crowded streets, the buildings that stretched toward the sky, tall as mountains, or so the old woman claimed. He puzzled over its alleged loneliness, wondering how such a thing could exist in a place so full of people.
“And so,” the old woman would continue, “they looked toward the jagged horizon, hoping to find a new place, a better place, a wild place.”
It always struck the boy as odd that any one place should be better than another. Though he had never left the mountain valley, he had, in his brief years, discovered a multitude of places, each as good as the next, at least as far as he was concerned. He thought of the riverbank where the water danced in the sun and the fish glittered just below the surface; of the clearing, deep in the woods, where the grass was soft and the fireflies glowed; of the rocky ledge, high up the face of the mountain, above the trees, where the entire valley fit in the palm of his young hand. He loved these places, and yet, as is natural for those who have never been someplace else, took them for granted.
The boy also loved the old woman’s stories. They were a connection to times and places beyond his own. His favorites were stories of the places below, of the people who lived there and the varied adventures they led. He longed for the day that he could take the journey down the mountain road and begin his own adventures, adventures that might, one day, be worthy of the old woman’s telling.
As the boy grew older, in the final throes of his adolescence, he thought more and more of the places below. He imagined streets that never dimmed, bathed in yellow light even after the sun had fled the sky. He dreamed of crowded places overflowing with faces he had never seen before and would never see again. He longed for a horizon not confined within a ring of jagged peaks, but one that stretched out forever to the very edge of the world. And so the boy stood, overflowing with restless youth, on the precipice of adulthood, wanting nothing more than to jump.
Winter descended early upon the valley that year, upon the quiet little town. The boy, by all accounts now a young man, woke to a chill in his bones, frost clinging to the window panes, obscuring the view beyond. He dressed in the gauzy pre-dawn light, slipping silently from his house into a world transformed. A thin blanket of snow had fallen during the night, stealing away the rich gold of autumn. He watched as the sun rose, chasing the shadows across the valley floor, the snow sparkling in celebration of a new day. But even as the sun shone brightly and the town shimmered all around him, the boy felt the whole of the earth had been cast into darkness. For when the snow came, the winding mountain road became impassable, the town’s meager connection to the world beyond severed, at least until the spring.
That night, the town gathered together, as was tradition, to commemorate the arrival of another winter. For when the snow came, they would converge and listen to the old woman whose tales would tide them over until the thaw. She sat upon the weathered armchair, the one beside the fire, her shoulders hunched against the cold. The children fanned out before her, crossed legged on the floor, their bright eyes cast upward meeting her cloudy gaze, a gaze which saw other places more clearly than the ones before her.
The boy was there, standing toward the back of the room with the other townspeople. Even the warm glow of the fire was not enough to thaw the ice that had burrowed into his soul. He looked at the face of the old woman, as he had a thousand times over the course of his young life. She seemed smaller to him now, as if the chair in which she sat might swallow her up. The light from the fire flickered, casting dramatic shadows over the peaks and valleys of her well creased features. She twirled the ring on her finger, the only adornment she ever wore, the sapphire glinting when it caught the light of the flames.
When at last she spoke, her voice was soft and low. It was thick with an ancient wisdom that held all present in rapture. For when the snow came, it was the old woman and her stories that restored the town’s connection to the outside world. She was their bridge to places beyond and times bygone, her words binding them all together into a singular living thing made up of the many.
Her story that night was one she had told countless times before. In fact, the boy felt he could likely recite it line for line himself. It was a story of grit, a story of perseverance, a story of winter. And though it was not a new story, it did lighten some of the burden that weighed heavily on the boy’s heart, and when he returned home that night, he slept easier knowing the places below were not entirely lost to him.
That winter was long and cold, longer and colder than most. The snow seemed to never stop falling as it sought to bury the town completely. The wind whipped through the valley, bitter and insistent. The air was frigid, and the boy thought he’d never be warm again. But every night, surely as the moon would rise, its ghostly light bouncing off the snow, the town would trudge to the old woman’s house to be transported.
It was on one such night, deep into that seemingly infinite winter, that the boy crossed the old woman’s threshold. He stood shivering toward the back of the room, unable to stop his teeth from chattering as the wind screamed in the distance. The room was dim and musty, overflowing with the townspeople who sought the refuge of a tale well crafted.
The old woman cleared her throat, and the room sputtered into expectant silence. Her eyes, usually hazy and unfocused, seemed to sparkle in that brief, silent moment before she began, her lips curling into an uncharacteristic smile. “There once was a girl,” the old woman said, her voice a far-off dream, “who lived in this very valley, a child of the wildness that lies just beyond this room.”
The boy couldn’t help but feel disappointed, having hoped the story would take him someplace else, someplace beyond the valley. Even so, he was surprised, having never heard this particular story before, having thought he’d heard all the woman’s stories by now. He looked around the room, recognizing the flicker of intrigue on the faces of his neighbors.
“She was lovely,” the old woman continued, twirling the sapphire ring on her finger, “overflowing with the possibilities of youth, the sun just rising on her time. And though she loved her home high in the mountains, nestled amongst the clouds, she longed for the adventures she knew lay beyond.”
The boy at once felt a kinship to the girl. He could feel the longing in her heart, could hear the same call of new horizons.
“At this same time,” the old woman said, her voice thick and scratchy, “there was a boy, just as lovely, just as young, filled with the same desire for adventure. He lived in a place far away, a great city. It was vast and bright and loud and constantly overflowing with the most interesting people from places distant and exotic.
“The boy spent his nights in restaurants and taverns and inns, places he knew travelers would be eagerly sharing thrilling tales of their adventures. These stories, told over candlelight in crowded rooms, were his connection to places beyond that city which seemed to grow more confining with each passing day. The boy collected these stories, lived on them, stashing them safely away, deep in his heart, until he could embark on an adventure all his own.
“It was one night, in a gloomy little inn off a dark alley, deep in the city’s very heart, that the boy heard of a place seemingly unlike any other. It was a far-off mountain valley, where the air was thin and fresh. It rested amongst the clouds, so high that the whole of the world stretched out below it. The boy could not shake the place from his mind. It filled him up, consumed him entirely, until he decided he couldn’t stay a single day more in his city. And so, he packed up his few possessions and left.
“The journey was long and arduous and filled with a great many dangers and thrilling tales, but this isn’t the boy’s story, at least not solely. It is also the story of the girl, the child of these very peaks we all know so well.
“It was a bright day in early spring when she rushed from the wooded fringes that surround us, flying over the valley floor as swift and light as a doe, her hair trailing behind her in a wild tangle. She’d caught word that the town had a visitor, an occurrence so rare she had to lay eyes on him herself. In her haste, she ran square into the boy as she rounded a corner into town, both of them toppling to the ground.
“When at last they managed to stand, after the girl and boy both stammered out embarrassed apologies, their eyes met and the whole of the world melted away. The girl had never seen someone so splendid, the boy never one so enchanting. She had never seen eyes sparkle so brightly, or hair that shone like gold. To him, her smile seemed warmer than the sun itself, and her laugh as light as the mountain air. They were bound to each other in that moment, for all the moments that followed.
“She showed him every corner of the town, of her valley in the sky. She brought him to the riverbank where the water danced in the sun and the fish glittered just below the surface; to the clearing, deep in the woods, where the grass was soft and the fireflies glowed; to the rocky ledge, high up the face of the mountain, above the trees, where the entire valley fit in the palms of their young hands.
“He told her stories as they wandered, his stories, the ones he had collected over the years. She stashed them safely away, deep in her heart, until they became her stories too, ones she would often tell in the decades to come.
“The spring built to summer, as it always does, and the budding affection between the boy and the girl grew and blossomed into something powerful. But just as spring gives way to summer, so too must summer fade to autumn, and so it was between the boy and the girl. He began to crave new adventures, eager to leave the valley before the snows came in, severing his connection to the vastness of the world beyond. He feared he’d grow trapped once more, just as he was in his city from before.
“The girl, who had so desperately longed to explore the places beyond the valley, felt suddenly tethered to it. After all, she was a child of the wildness that surrounded her and could no more leave it than could the mountains, or the forest, or the river.
“They clung to each other in the aspen grove during their final days as golden leaves rained down from the branches above. They whispered loving things to one another and made beautiful, naive, youthful promises. But ultimately their ending came, as it must for all things.
“They embraced each other in their final moments, snow flurries blowing all around them, the crystalline flakes catching in their eyelashes. Tears flowed freely from their eyes, freezing on their ruddy cheeks, flush with cold and emotion. The boy reached into his pocket and pulled out a small ring, one of the few things he’d brought from his life from before. The small sapphire sparkled in the sun, much the same way his eyes had done the day they met. He gave it to the girl and made her promise to remember him, always. She promised and accepted the ring, slipping it onto her finger where it would remain for years to come.
“They kissed one last time, a kiss filled with the sorrow of those not yet accustomed to endings. He turned away and left, slowly shrinking to a speck on the horizon. The snow began to fall in heavy wet flakes. Soon the road would grow impassable, severing her connection to the outside world, severing her connection to him. But that wasn’t entirely true, she came to realize, for she had his stories. She had stashed them safely away, deep in her heart, and made them hers.
“She told those stories often in the years that followed. At first, she told them to feel connected to him, to the boy who touched her soul. Eventually, however, she told them to feel connected to those who listened. She hoped the stories would satiate the calls for adventure for those like her, those who would stay. She hoped they’d inspire those like the boy, those who would someday leave. She grew old with those stories, and as the sun began to set on her time, she thanked the boy who had given them to her, promising to remember him, always.”
The room was quiet as the old woman finished her tale, a singular tear ran down her wrinkled cheek, glittering in the light of the fire. The townsfolk smiled in the warm afterglow of the story. They thanked the old woman, as they always did, gathered up their children, and headed for home. The boy lingered as his neighbors shuffled out. He paused as he crossed the threshold, looking toward the old woman, a question in his heart that he didn’t know how to say aloud. She smiled at him and nodded, it was all the answer he needed. He smiled back at her, content for the first time in years, before stepping out into the cold.
That was the last story the old woman would tell, as fate would have it. She slipped away that very night, leaving the valley at last in pursuit of her own adventures. The town discovered her the next day as they flocked to her home seeking another escape. She was perfectly still, her eyes closed, a serene smile etched into her weathered and peaceful face.
The town buried the old woman in the aspen grove when the earth was thawed, the leaves just beginning to bud on the tangled branches. The boy was there, filled with the profound sorrow of someone not yet accustomed to endings. He left soon after that, once the road was clear, inspired by the old woman’s final tale. He was off to the places below, at last in pursuit of his own adventures. He always carried the valley with him, though, for he was a child of its wildness and so could never really leave it. He stashed it safely away, deep in his heart, and wherever he went, he would tell its stories to all who would listen, stories of the place from above.