The people who live in its shadow have no relation to the mountain itself other than one of use, though you could say that the mountain also uses them, uses them up, exhausts not only their energies, their work, but also their imaginations. The vastness of their world oppresses them; their servitude to the elements kills them.
A girl from a small village on the lower slope of the mountain married a man who lived by himself on the far side of a certain river. She was from a fairly well-off family, he was dirt poor, he had an acre or two of stones, that was his farm, lonely beyond belief. He got her in the family way and she went off with him one early summer. They thought, when her time was near, she’d go to her widowed mother in the village for her confinement but the equinoctial storms came, thunder, lightning, and she went into labour. Since she could not go to her mother, her man went to fetch her mother to her. If the river had not swollen twice its size, due to the rain, and been washing down earth and boulders, he’d have crossed it easily but he drowned, somebody hooked his corpse out miles down, weeks later, he’d travelled further in death than he’d ever done living.
The old woman knew her daughter couldn’t cross the river in her condition, in such weather. When the storm was over, the river calmed down, the old woman and her son went over to the farm themselves. The young woman lay on the straw mattress, she had bled to death. The roof of the building had caved in during the storm. By the traces of wolf dung, they knew wolves had got in. There was no sign of the baby, except those that showed it had been born.
The old woman’s son carried his sister home on his back. Absolute quiet followed the tempest; there is something mutilating about the silence of the mountain. Then the wolves began to howl. After that, it was winter. When the snow melted, it was spring. The old woman’s son married the blacksmith’s daughter, she moved in with them. By Christmas, there was a bouncing grandson but the old woman still crossed herself when she heard the wolves on the mountain. Time passed. Then came a granddaughter; then a stillbirth; compensated for by twins, a boy and a girl. And so on.
The summer the eldest grandson was seven, he went up with his father and their goats to the high pastures, as was the village custom, to lodge in a shelter up the mountainside while the goats gorged themselves on young grass. The boy was sitting in the sun, plaiting straws and watching the kids butt one another when he saw the shadow of what he had been told to fear most, a wolf, advancing silently along the lea of an outcrop of rock. Then another wolf, and another, while his charges frisked and nibbled on.
If they had not been the first wolves he ever saw, the boy would not have looked at them so closely; the russet-grey pelts, the lovely, plumey tails; the sharp, inquiring masks. Because he looked at them so intently, he saw, or thought he saw, a bald one, a naked one, going on all fours, as they did, but furless, though with a kind of brown mane.
He was so awestruck and fascinated by this bald wolf that he would have lost his flock, maybe himself been eaten and certainly been beaten to the bone, had not the goats themselves sniffed danger, their hooves drumming off down the slope, their terrified whinnying, so the men came, firing off guns, making hullabaloo, scaring the wolves away.
The boy was cuffed round the head and sent home in disgrace. His mother was feeding the baby and his grandmother sat at the table shelling peas into a pot.
‘Grandmother, there was a little girl with the wolves,’ he said. He wasn’t sure why he thought it was a little girl. He just had a feeling. His grandmother went on shelling peas.
‘About my age,’ he said. His grandmother threw away a flat pod. ‘I saw her,’ he said. His grandmother tipped water into the pot and put it on the fire. There wasn’t time, that night, but, next morning, she herself took the boy up to the high pastures, again, and said:
‘Tell your father what you told me.’
They went to examine the wolves’ tracks. On a bit of dampish ground, they found a print, not like that of a dog’s paw, but even less like that of a child’s footprint – yet curiously like that one of the great cats. Only, here we are high in the cool North; all the cats, here, are small, sit by the fire, and purr. But this print was like that of the five-toed paw of a great cat; or, more, like the beautiful and mysterious prints on the suave pelts of certain great cats, that carry markings like the glyphs of a script we cannot read.
‘She was running on all fours with her arse stuck up in the air,’ said the boy. ‘Therefore, she’d put all her weight on the ball of her foot, wouldn’t she. And splay out her toes, see . . . just like that.’
He inserted the ball of his own foot in the print, to show his father and the others how it would go, if he, too, ran habitually on all fours. His foot fitted the print perfectly.
‘And, see, no use for a heel, if you run that way . . . Stands to reason. That’s why there’s no heel-print, see?’
They searched a long way before they found her asleep in a sandy hollow not far from the ruins of the house in which she had been born. Her head lay on the flank of a grey, grizzled, old bitch. The men banged cans and rattled sticks to keep the other wolves away; when the sleepers woke, the girl’s uncle blasted the bitch to pieces with his gun. The grandmother tried to put her arms round the girl but she bit the old woman’s hand. Then the other men caught hold of the girl.
She scratched, fought and bit so much they tied her wrists and ankles together with twine, then slung her from a pole and carried her, like game, back to the village. She neither screamed nor cried out, she didn’t seem able to. She made only a few dull, guttural, choking sounds. Her eyes watered all the time but not as though she were crying. She was skinny, all her ribs stuck out, there was no flesh on her, not like the plump, potato-fed boy. She was burned almost black, and filthy, and she was scored and scabbed all over with dozens of the scars of sharp abrasions of rock and thorn. Her matted hair was so long it hung down to the ground as they carried her. It was stuck with burrs. She was dreadfully verminous. She stank riotously.
Solemn with wonder, her little cousin trotted behind her. Granny kept her bitten hand wrapped up in her apron. When they dumped the girl on the earth floor of her grandmother’s house, the boy secretly stretched out and touched her upper arm. Her flesh felt warm but hard as wood. She had given up struggling, now; she lay on the floor, trussed up, and pretended to be dead.
Granny’s house had the one big room, half byre, half home, the beasts who lived with them in winter segregated by a wood partition from where the family lived. There was a ladder up to the hayloft. There was soup on the fire and the table laid, it was now about supper time but still light; night comes late on the summer mountain.
‘Untie her,’ said Grandmother.
Her son wasn’t willing but she would not be denied. He got the bread knife and cut the rope round the girl’s ankles. All she did was kick out a bit. But when he cut the rope round her wrists, it was as if he had let a fiend loose. The onlookers ran out of the door, the family ran for the ladder to the hayloft and roosted there, out of her way, all of them but Gran and the eldest boy, who both made for the door to pull it to and shoot the bolt, to keep her in.
The trapped one knocked round the room, bang, over went the table, crash, dishes shattering, bang, crash, the dresser fell on its face. Over went the meal barrel; she coughed, she sneezed just like a human being sneezes, she bounded around, bewildered, in a white cloud until the flour settled. She made little rushes here and there, all her movements were jagged, violent, illogical. She was mad with terror.
She never rose up on two legs; she crouched, all the time, on her hands and the tips of her feet, yet it was not quite like crouching, you could see how all fours, now, came naturally to her, as though she had made a different pact with gravity than we have. You could see how strong the muscles in her thighs had grown, how taut and twanging the arches of her feet were, how she used her heels only when she sat back on her haunches. She growled; now and then, she hiccuped out those thick grunts of distress. All you could see of her rolling eyes were the whites. Several times, her bowels opened, apparently involuntarily.
She careered into the hearth, yelped with burned pain, and knocked over the pan hanging on the hook. The spilled contents of the pan put out the fire; hot soup spilled over her forelegs. When the soup scalded her, she was shocked rigid. Then, squatting on her hindquarters, holding up her hurt paw before her, dangling piteously from its wrist, she howled, she howled, she howled. It sounded like the birth of tragedy.
Even the old woman, who had contracted with herself to love the child of her dead, beloved daughter, was afraid when she heard that. But the grandson was not afraid; he hardly heard it, he could not take his eyes off the crevice of her child’s sex, that was perfectly visible to him as she sat square on the base of her spine. Her purple inner lips opened up as she howled; she offered him a view of a set of Chinese boxes of whorled flesh that opened one upon the other into herself, perpetually receding, his first, devastating intimation of infinity.
You could see a white thread of moon in the blond sky through the chimney hole. It was neither dark nor light in the room but the boy could see her genitals clearly.
She howled. From the bald mountain, first singly, then in complex polyphony, answered at last voices in the same language. She howled for a long time. Soon it was impossible for the occupants of the house to deny to themselves that the answering howling was coming closer and closer to them.
When all the air outside was full of the sound of wolves, she seemed consoled, sank down, laid her head on her paws so that her hair trailed in the cooling soup, and waited. The household gun hung on a nail over the fireplace, where the man of the house had put it when he came in. When he put his foot on the top of the ladder in order to come down and retrieve it, the girl jumped up, yapping, snarling and showing long, yellow canines; he stayed where he was. Now the howling outside was mixed with the shrieks of terrified domestic beasts. All the other villagers had locked themselves up fast in these houses that could convert to fortresses. It was a siege, but their enemy was bolted inside with this family.
The girl began to howl, again, but in a different way. She squatted in the middle of the floor, pointed her nose to the roof and howled with a kind of wild triumph. An answering howling now came from directly outside the door. The stout door shuddered; a sharp snout poked underneath. Her son leant out of the hayloft and said to his mother: ‘Come up.’
She took hold of her grandson’s hand with the one of hers that had not been bitten, that was not throbbing. The howling girl allowed them to pass by. The boy pushed his grandmother up the ladder in front of him and drew it up behind them.
The door shook with the impact of many furry shoulders throwing themselves against it. It was secured on the inside by an iron bar that rocked in its socket. The ambiguous light, not night nor day, filled the room like transparent milk, but the boy could not see his cousin’s cunt any more, he was at the wrong angle. He looked, instead, at her nakedness, that was, unlike human nakedness, beyond innocence or display. He was filled with a terrified excitement.
Now she stopped howling, leapt at this side of the door, and began to worry and rattle the iron bar with her muzzle and forepaws. The carnivorous wind-band of the mountain encouraged her. It was only a matter of a few moments before she worried the bar out of its socket and the door flew open.
The family in the hayloft, staring as if tranced down through the trap, felt themselves to be on a precarious cloud floating above a sudden whirlpool. The whirlpool had eyes and teeth and red mouths and ululated like all the winds of winter caught in a bag. The fur and wild swirled round the house. A gaunt, brindled dog, four feet through his shoulders, reared on his haunches; in the loft, the baby started whimpering and its mother stuffed her nipple in its mouth to hush it. Below, the girl threw her leg over the dog’s back and hugged his thick neck.
The last glimpse the grandson had of her was of her clotted hair shifting with speed as the tide of wolves swept outdoors.
Leaving behind wrecked furniture, smashed crocks, a stench of urine, irremediable silence.
The grandson thought the old woman would cry, now, but she seemed unmoved. When all was safe, they came down the ladder one by one. Although it was well past midnight, the old woman and her daughter-in-law went to the river for water to scrub the house out, they did not want to sleep in a place that smelled of wolves. They threw away the broken things; the man nailed the table and the dresser back together. While they worked, the neighbours came out into the frail moonlight and chattered about the strangeness of the night. The wolves had not taken so much as a single chicken from any village coop. No goat, nor ox, nor cow, nor donkey was a mite harmed.
People brought out beer, and the schnapps they made from potatoes, and snacks, because the excitement made everybody hungry. Soon there was a grand, impromptu party going on but Granny said nothing, although you could see her injured hand was hurting her.
Next day, she went to the graveyard and sat for a while by the wooden cross over the place where her daughter was buried, but she did not pray. Then she went home and started chopping cabbage for the evening meal but had to leave off because her right hand was festering.
That winter, when there was more leisure, her grandson went to the priest to learn to read and write because his parents decided it was high time somebody in the family could do so. It was as though the incident with the wolves had somehow precipitated them all forwards; as though they realised the key to its inexplicability lay elsewhere than on the mountain. The boy learned his letters so quickly and with such enthusiasm that he continued to visit the priest for lessons in mathematics, Latin, and then Greek as his duties with the herd permitted. The summer he was fourteen, the priest told his father and mother their eldest son had exhausted his own store of knowledge and now should go to the seminary in the town and, perhaps, one day become a priest himself. Gran was dead, by then.
The boy’s parents were now prosperous and had five strong young sons, altogether, besides three daughters. They could easily spare the eldest, indeed, perhaps had hopes of him. Although he did not want to be a priest, he knew the seminary was the only way off the mountain. It was decided the priest should take the boy the twenty-mile walk to the seminary and make the arrangements for his schooling there after the goats came down from the high pasture for the winter.
The journey would take a day and a half; the priest was old. The nights were already chilly. The priest and the boy lit a fire, ate bread and cheese they brought with them, and talked for a while about some problems in Greek grammar the boy was encountering. The fire would keep wild beasts away. They slept, but the boy was agitated by nervous dreams. He wanted to leave the mountain but was afraid of doing so. In the first light that no more than clarifies the dark, they woke and went to the river for water.
On the other side, a wolf crouched, lapping water that contained mauve cloud; her mouth seemed to liquify the sky. Two cubs played on the bank near her, rolling and cuffing one another. All silent as a dream. At first, in the weird dawn, you did not see how her pelt was the wrong colour for a wolf; that she was tailless; and had no ears. Then she lifted her round head towards them.
Indeed, she had become abundantly hairy. Her forearms were thick with hair, so were her loins and legs, and the hair on her head hung over her face in such a way you could hardly make out her features and these had suffered a feral change, a girl who lived without mirrors, who did not acknowledge the reflection in the river as that of herself, a face the mirror of a different consciousness than ours. Her eyes, the fruit of night on the mountain, were extraordinarily luminous. The priest involuntarily mumbled something in Latin. She cocked her head at the vague, river-washed sound. The scared cubs left off playing and ran to her, to burrow their heads in her sides.
The boy started to tremble violently. She soon decided there was no danger and lowered her muzzle, again, to the surface of the water that took hold of her hair and spread it round her head in a wide circle. When she had finished her drink, she retreated a few paces, shaking her wet head; the boy saw how the little cubs now fastened their mouths on her dangling breasts.
He could not help it, he broke out crying. Tears rolled down his face and splashed on the grass. He took a few steps forward, into the river, with his arms held open, intending to cross over to her, perhaps to embrace her, perhaps to exorcise the vertiginous memory of the depths within depths he had once glimpsed within her.
But his cousin took fright at the sudden movement, wrenched the teats away from the cubs, and ran off. The cubs scampered, squeaking after. She ran on hands and feet as if it were the only way to run, towards the higher ground, into the pale maze of the unfinished dawn.
The boy scrubbed his face with his sleeve, sat down, took off his boots, and dried his feet and legs on the tail of his shirt. Then he and his companion ate something and continued on towards the seminary in silence. There was no language in which they could speak of what they had seen. The boy walked barefoot, carrying his soaked boots slung on his back by the laces. It was the last time he would ever walk barefoot.
The birds woke up and began singing. The sun came up and the mountain, which now lay behind them, began to acquire a two-dimensional look, to recede to manageable proportions, to seem more and more like a piece of mise en scène, a backdrop for the emblematic display of fabulous events.
The boy shot one glance over his shoulder, saw how the mountain shrank and thought: ‘If I look back again, I shall turn into a pillar of salt.’
As if his life depended on it, he began to babble away about Greek irregular verbs.
‘Cousins’, by Angela Carter. © Angela Carter, 1980. Reproduced by permission of the author’s estate c/o Rogers, Coleridge & White Ltd.
Feature photograph © Special Collections Toronto Public Library
Illustration © Golbanou Moghaddas