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.’