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.

Midnight’s Children
Southern Birds