As a boy Wade did not know any dancing or singing. His people on the slopes of Black Mountain did not dance or sing. They could live without these foolish excesses. If they were trading goods with a strange tribe, and those people began to dance or sing, his people would turn away. The boy wondered at this shyness, but then he forgot until day-to-day life was broken by someone’s death. They always burned the body on the western plateau of the mountain, and Wade could hear mixed in with the roar of the funeral fire the people humming. Their singing grew and then faded away with the fire.
At no other time did he hear singing. As he grew older, it was as if he took in with his food a bitter sadness everyone felt, a sadness borne on the face of each mother seeing her baby for the first time—as if a longstanding promise were broken again—and in the faces of the father and the elders huddling together to come up with a name for the child. And yet for all of this burden no one could remember the source of their bitterness.
But along with the cold wind of those black basalt slopes Wade also felt brief breaks of warmth. His older sister Moira gave him a smile whenever she saw him. And Wade took this in with his food as well. Seeing one of her smiles he sometimes felt a great urge to jump high over the sharp black stones.
And then one day she was not there. Not anywhere. He looked and looked over the cold slopes. He whined and bawled for his parents to tell him what happened. They tightened their lips. And no one in the whole tribe said a word. It was as if Moira had joined that long-forgotten source of bitter sadness. But Wade could not forget.
His father cut firewood from the forest and hauled it up the slope on a donkey each day for the people. Wade had always helped, and as he grew into his broad shoulders he took on more of the work.
But this day he refused. He took an ax and killed the donkey. The animal laughed and lay down, shivered and went stiff. The old man stared at the blood pouring from the donkey’s head. Then he turned to his son.
“Your blow may be the death of us all.”
He took the ax and led his son to the chief. As punishment the chief’s men lashed a large stone onto Wade’s back. He was to carry that stone on his back all through the winter.
Yet he still must help his father bring firewood up from the forest. As his father cut, Wade hauled loads of wood on a drag uphill several times a day. By itself this was grueling work, and the stone made it worse. His anger seethed under the stone. He thought of running away, but where could he go?
The horsemen around the chief cut up the donkey’s carcass for their hunting dogs. They hunted roe deer, meat to be roasted or dried, and the skins tanned for leather. Sometimes the men brought in a bear. Then everyone feasted. Wade longed to ride a horse, to roam the hills and mountains. On rare days the horsemen brought back things of beauty, crafted in ivory or gold. What could they trade for such things? Or did they steal them?
His mother wore a silver bracelet handed down from her grandmother. Men and women around the chief wore gold, silver, copper and precious stones. Wade did not want any of these. He wanted a horse. With a horse he could roam away from here. His eyes were greedy for what lay beyond Black Mountain. But each day he woke up with a stone on his back. He braved the wind to haul firewood up the trail that he tracked again and again. But moon after moon through the winter, the stone felt less heavy.
And yet winter was hard on his parents. Even with extra wood on the fire at night they shivered in the cold. At last when the stone was taken off his back Wade found he could easily haul large stacks of wood from the forest. But now his father could only carry the ax and wedges. One evening as he climbed, the old man began shaking in his knees. The next day he stayed close by the fire.
Wade worked hard to bring wood for the people, but his mother whined that his father would not even go out on the slope to gather roots and leaves for their soup. Wade heard bitter words back and forth between them. He began to laugh at them, but he heard in his own voice the laughter of that donkey he’d killed.
Not long afterward his father died in his sleep. The body was burned in a funeral fire on the western plateau, and Wade heard again the people’s humming mixed in with the fire’s roar. He looked up toward the high ridge of Black Mountain where there was a gap. To him the humming also seemed to flow from the wind over the gap. In the evening he sat with his mother and asked her again what had happened to Moira.
The old woman stared at him in the firelight. “You liked her instead of me.”
He winced. “Moira always had a smile for me. Did you ever in your life smile?”
“I lost three babies before Moira. Then I lost her as well—to you. When you two were happy together I just had to make her work. She lost her smile, and then she left us.”
“Anyone who wants to die goes up to the high ridge. She jumped into the gap.”
Just now his hands were ready to choke this woman, but what would that do?
With sad eyes his mother fingered her silver bracelet. “I wanted to give her this.”
“Did she want it?”
His mother left him and went to live with the other widows. Wade kept hauling firewood. Young men of the tribe with their horses and dogs went out hunting for days and days. He was stronger than any of them, but what did he have to trade for a horse? He was poor and kept his own fire. Finding a bride was far out of reach. Seasons came and went, but no one could forget that he had once carried a stone on his back. Nor could they forget that his sister had jumped into the gap.
One morning he heard that his mother had suddenly died. When they burned the body, he looked down at all the old charred bones among the black basalt rocks on the plateau. That evening the husband of his mother’s cousin brought him her silver bracelet.
“She wanted you to have this.”
Wade began to sob. He could not stop. Later, still weeping, he saw the filigree design on the bracelet. As cold and hard as she had been, she had sent him her prized gift.
Not long after this, men rode back to the mountain, all their horses in a lather, leading other horses that carried big sacks of grain, spilling, they were so full.
“This grain will last through winter.”
The horsemen were heroes. After the feasting and all their boasting had played out, Wade began to talk with one of the older horsemen.
“You might want something precious now that you have so many horses.”
“What’s this? Your mother’s bracelet? My wife has bracelets and rings.”
“But your daughter?”
“Ah, but it’s hardly worth a horse.”
“Not your own, but one of those half-wild pack horses you brought in?”
The man hesitated. Wade took the bracelet and began to seek out another horseman. Then the man called him back.
“You better not have eyes for my daughter, if you know what’s good for you.”
“No, just for your wild fillie there.”
The man fingered the bright piece. “Best to get on her and ride till he knows you.”
“That I will.”
Wade leaped on, and the horse trembled. All at once she galloped across the slope past the western plateau and down through rolling lowlands, away from Black Mountain. He was gasping, clinging to the horse’s mane, holding the thin leather halter. The horse ran up a set of rising hills and down the other side, on and on.
At last the animal stopped by a stream. Wade got off, the halter tight in his grasp, and the two of them drank from the stream. But the horse was not shy of him now. She grazed on bunch grass nearby. Wade mounted and rode in the way of a horseman, pressing with his knees to guide the animal into the evening. Then they rested under the stars.
At dawn Wade turned her toward Black Mountain. As he drew near he saw smoke rising in the distance, and on the breeze he heard thin cries. He rode steadily, yet he knew he was too late. When he arrived all the people had been killed and everything scattered or destroyed. So he began to pile the bodies on a drag and with his horse haul them up to the western plateau. But one he found still alive, a little girl, her head swollen and bleeding and both her legs broken. He tucked deer robes around her and gave her sips of water. Then he finished hauling the bodies away.
But when he came back to her the hunting dogs were circling in. He drove them off and kept a fire by her side. On the plateau dogs were quarreling well into night. Beside him the little girl grew hot with fever. He tried to feed her drops of water, but her arms fluttered outward and she kept calling for her mother. Later he heard the dogs just beyond the fire, scratching themselves. And then his horse ran away.
The girl moaned and her breaths began to labor. Near dawn they stopped. He felt her warmth drain away. Half numb, he carried her little body out to the western plateau. Dogs lay around. He placed the girl with the other bodies, all of them in disarray. He threw rocks at the dogs to send them off.
When he had piled the bodies together again he found dry wood to start a fire. He fed that fire with wood from the forest through the day and night. And in the middle of night he heard a humming from the fire’s roar, but he had no strength to lift his voice.
With the rising sun he wanted to bathe. He knew of a pool in the forest, but each step downward made him dizzy. He found himself climbing, stumbling toward the high ridge and the gap, where Moira had jumped. Maybe it was time to follow her. As he climbed he heard voices on the wind. Their humming grew clearer.
Had his sister heard them and been drawn to them? Was it simply wind coming over the gap? But the breeze was behind him, as if it too were urging him on toward the ridge.
Wade stood above the gap and stared down into the shadows. Far below something moved—and laughed in a donkey laugh. He nearly fell off in dismay. But the donkey climbed up from ledge to ledge. Just below him it halted and laughed again—he-haw! It waited there and looked up with patience.
He crept down and slipped onto its back. Now the donkey descended by narrow switchbacks into that night. When they were in pitch dark the donkey laughed again—he-haw—and bucked Wade right off her.
Down, down through empty space he tumbled—and was caught, upside-down in a tangle of tree branches. For a moment he tried to get free, but they broke and gave way so quickly that he was afraid of falling farther. He stayed upside-down in those brittle branches, sleeping and waking in pain. How long? It was endless.
But the donkey came clopping up from below, laughing, and broke the branches until Wade tumbled into the dirt, so dizzy and weak that he had to lean on the animal to stand up. Holding onto the donkey’s stiff mane, he stumbled along wherever the animal led him. And light came, not from above or afar, but a dim luster from the donkey itself.
Then he heard squabbling, and in the half-light he saw shadows moving back and forth. The donkey spoke.
“These dead don’t want to find out that they are dead.”
Wade remembered that voice. “Donkey, you sound like my sister Moira.”
“Yes, little brother, but I am here in this donkey you killed. Remember the stone you carried?”
“That I will never forget.”
“Just the same, I am in this donkey until a balance is paid. But stay close. These dead think they are still alive. They chatter back and forth, pretending things are fine. They stumble about and get their bones mixed up. And they will get you mixed up too. They forget what parts are missing, but in this dark they just go on pretending they are fine.”
“Moira, how do you know?”
“Little brother, I have been listening to their excuses a long time.”
Then the dead called out, “Come here, donkey. Come make us laugh!”
But the donkey left them, and Wade followed it down into a trembling of thunder on all sides.
“Be careful, little brother. Don’t go near these angry ones. They are trying to break open the earth. If they catch you they will tear you apart.”
“What do they want?”
“They want their horses. They want to ride out and pillage and destroy. But they cannot even stand. They lie around grumbling in the earth.”
And one of them called out. “Here’s that donkey. Ha! I got hold of it!”
But the donkey kicked away their bones.
“Aw! Aw!” A great raging swept through the ground in waves.
“Hold onto my mane,” the donkey said, and Wade followed as they descended away from the angry dead and toward soft whispers moaning. He heard no humming in their voices.
“These dead are trying to pray. They believe that if they can just make enough prayers they will come alive again, even if only for one more day. But they are dead. A breeze passes through their teeth in whispers, a breeze that you and I make as we go past.”
The donkey led on, and Wade felt a sharp chill as they went down. The footing turned icy, and the donkey slowed its pace. “We must not stop here. These ones are frozen in place. They cannot move, and so their bones have gathered ice crystals.”
Wade caught glimmers of their bones lodged in the ice.
“Whoever stops here will get stuck,” the donkey said, “frozen to the ice.”
But Wade now lost his footing, lost his grasp of the donkey, slipped and fell forward, facedown.
The donkey moved around him. “Take hold of my tail!”
But his cheek had already stuck fast to the ice. And cold invaded him draining away his life. All of him froze in place.
The donkey bit on his hair and pulled. Gobs of hair came away—nothing else. Thern the donkey, also slipping, stepped away from him. “I cannot help you.”
Wade heard his sister leaving. “Moira, you used to have a smile for me. Is there no bit of brightness you can leave me now?”
The donkey laughed in the distance. But its laughter—he-haw, he-haw—came out with such a heartbreak that Wade, stuck as he was, began to weep. His tears flowed down his face, and as he sobbed he came loose from the ice, came onto his knees.
And his tears kept flowing. Now there came more tears from those frozen dead nearby. With the donkey’s cry the cold and bitter darkness began to soften. The long pent-up tears of the dead spread over dirt and stone to form a braided stream. Wade heard it, but he stood in pitch darkness. And the donkey could not be seen anywhere.
“Moira, where are you? Have you gone again?” All of a sudden he felt her next to him.
“Little brother, your tears have healed me. I have gained my balance.”
He felt her hand grasp his own.
“Now you may return to the living, and I will lead you partway.” She pulled him along, and he staggered into a stream that dropped deeper, and then she let go. He tried to swim, but the water sucked him down. He could not breathe. He was dying—down and through and out into daylight.
He splashed onto the bank, and his body shivered, head to toe. He began rolling on the grassy bank. On his back he raised one foot, then the other, one arm, then the other.
He gasped and smiled, and his breathing settled little by little into humming. He was humming with a full heart beside this new stream, which had its own way of humming, a new stream that flowed out of the lower slope of Black Mountain, and all at once he rose up in a leap, and leaped again.
For a long time he slept there, until something nearby made a soft move that woke him. It was his horse, waiting. He stood up and leaped on her back, and she took him into the forest where he knew of roots and berries and nuts, enough to regain strength.
He hunted and roamed among the far away hills, but he always returned to the mountain. New grass was growing all over the slopes where there had been only basalt rocks. One day he climbed again to the high ridge, but he heard no voices, and never the laugh of a donkey.
Later he found a woman to love, a woman with a ready smile, who knew how to dance and sing. With her he began a family along that stream and up those green slopes.
And he told his children it was Moira’s Mountain.