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Stories: Up on the mountain

He didn’t ask for this. Why must they be so cruel?

The boy looked at the scene before him. The sheep quietly grazing with the gentle breeze as company. Birds singing, leaves rustling. How deceptively peaceful.

He was always the scaredy one. From the time he was a little baby, he was easily startled and shocked. They had thought it was cute. Oh how his little round eyes widened and how his little chubby hands grabbed at you when he was frightened. Look how his little mouth formed the little ‘O’. Cute little bubba. 

But soon he wasn’t little anymore, and it wasn’t cute anymore.

His parents began to sigh when they saw his knees wobble. They closed their eyes when they heard his voice tremble. They shook their heads when he huddled himself under the table during a thunderstorm.

One night, when the parents thought the children were sound asleep in their rooms, the boy heard his father’s voice from across the hallway.

“He has to man up! How will he protect our family? How will he lead the village?”

“Give him some time,” his mother said quietly. She was always the gentle pillar in the family. The woman of strength and grace. He knew she was fighting her own growing disappointment towards him. When she brushed his hair that morning, he was telling her about how spiders should be feared because some of them could instantly kill a person. He saw her eyes cloud over for a second before she quickly masked it. She then looked at him with love and faith. To her, he would always be her little boy who just needed some time to find his courage.

“He needs to go to the mountain. That’s the only way he can conquer his fear.”

The boy’s heart turned to ice when he heard his father’s words. No, not the mountain. Please not the mountain. He would not stand a chance at the mountain. He covered himself with his blanket and hoped to God that his parents would forget about that insane idea.

They did forget, because soon after, his mother caught the mountain illness. It was an excruciating two weeks. And then, like a dandelion blown into the wind, she was gone.

His sister, Jenna, had to step up immediately. The oldest of the three children, her duties at the farm increased by tenfold. She had to become the ‘mother’ to the boy and their littlest brother. She had to run the household. She had to put her own dreams on hold. And through it all, she had to bear the worry that they might lose their father too.

Overwhelmed by grief, their father would spend most of his time at their mother’s grave. Nothing in the world mattered anymore. Not the farm, not the livestock, not the business. Sometimes, not even the children.

Every night, after tucking her two younger brothers to bed, Jenna would look out of the window, hoping to see the sight of their father walking home. Every night, she prayed to God that their father would return. Only when she saw his shadows appearing over the fence, would she dare to go to bed. What a heavy burden for a 16-year-old to bear.

As harvest time came about, Jenna was beyond overworked. She looked ten times older than she was, with a frown always on her tender face.

She looked at the boy one morning, took a deep breath and, without quite looking at him, said, “I think you should start tending the sheep.”

He stopped eating his breakfast and felt his heart race. “At… At the mountain?”

She did not look at him as she continued eating. “Yes.”

He started to protest, but stopped immediately when his father banged his fist on the table.

“Stop being scared! It’s time for you to man up. How long more are you going to cower there? You will go to the mountain and you will go today!” His father glared at him red-faced, but it was unclear if he was upset at the boy or at himself for exploding.

And so, here he was, at the mountain.

His fear was so loud he could hardly hear what Jenna was telling him.

“So if you need any help, just press this button and the alarm will be sounded at the town. Help will be dispatched immediately,” she was saying.

He could only stare at her, unwilling to believe that his beloved sister would leave him here.

“All you have to do is make sure that the sheep do not run off, and help them if they get tangled with the bushes. Use this stick to guide them to their place, and to chase foxes away,” she said, handing him the shepherd stick that has been passed down from generation to generation.

She looked at him. “You’ll be fine.” She adjusted his robes and dusted his hair. “You’re a big boy now, you are more than capable for this.”

He whimpered. “But what if It comes?”

She smiled gently and patiently, like a nurse explaining to a child. “You know there is no It. That is only a story told to children to stop them from running up to the mountain by themselves.”

“No it’s true! I know it’s true! I can feel it!”

She gave him a reassuring pat. “You’ll be alright. You can always sound the alarm if there’s any trouble. But remember, only sound it if there is trouble.”

She gave him his lunch and a hug, and then, he was all alone on the mountain. With the sheep.

His senses were heightened. He was alert to every sound, every breeze. He could hear his heart racing in his ears. He kept telling himself that there was nothing to be scared of, look at the sheep, they are all grazing peacefully. If there was any danger, they would sense it too right?

He felt his hands ache and realised he had been holding on to the shepherd stick too tightly. Forcing himself to relax his grip, he made his way to the giant tree and sat right next to the alarm button.

What if it doesn’t work? he wondered. Nobody had pressed the button for years. How would they know if it still worked? What if, it failed when it mattered most?

That thought made his hand rush up even before he knew what he was doing. And suddenly, there was a loud emergency siren wailing.

Within minutes, the villagers’ help teams arrived. Armed with all sorts of weapons, they charged up the mountain with worried looks on their faces.

“Where’s the boy!” “What happened?” “Are you OK?”

As everybody surrounded him with faces that expected answers, he forced himself to swallow down his embarrassment.

“There’s nothing. I’m so sorry. I just wanted to make sure that the button still worked.”

Worried faces turned to disbelief.

Jenna appeared, pulling him away by the arm. “I told you not to press the button unless there was real trouble!”

He wanted to cry. “I’m sorry I’m sorry!”

She took a deep breath and turned to face the villagers. “I’m so sorry everyone. It’s his first day up here and I think he was just overcome by nerves.”

As the villagers left, grumbling, Jenna looked at him in the eyes. “Remember, don’t press the button unless it’s absolutely life and death OK? This is an emergency button and everyone takes it very seriously. It’s not a play thing.”

“I’m sorry.” He couldn’t bear to look at her.

She sighed and gave him a little pat on the arm. “It’s alright, little brother. It’s your first day after all. You’ll be alright. You’re a brave boy.”

The second time he pressed the emergency button, he had all the reasons to be alarmed. There was not one, but two dead bunnies lying on the pathway. It could be understood if one was killed, but two? It must have been something sinister. And there was the rustling at the bush, even when there was no breeze.

Again, within minutes of the siren wailing, the villagers’ help team arrived. Although, there seemed to be a smaller team than before. His sister Jenna was the first to reach him, panting and worried.

“Are you OK? What happened?”

He pointed at the bodies on the pathway. “Look! There! I told you there’s something evil in this mountain! Now you believe me?”

She followed where his finger was pointing, and stared. The rest of the people from the help team joined them.

“What happened? Is everything alright?”

She opened her mouth and closed it, and opened again, trying very hard to phrase her words properly. “The rabbits… he saw the dead bodies… the dead rabbits…”

“Yes!” he cut in. “Not just one, you see, but two! Something killed them, something evil!”

A man holding a weapon of sorts was checking out the corpses as the boy talked. “Dead rabbits eh? That’s nothing out of the ordinary.”

“But two! TWO!”

The man rubbed his face, suddenly looking very tired. “They might have been hopping around together and got killed at the same time. Looks to me they could have been knocked over by a carriage, or perhaps attacked by foxes. Either way, nothing unusual.”

Another voice from the team could be heard muttering, “Can’t believe we rushed all the way up here for some dead rabbits.”

“Yeah, all that worry for nothing.”

“Again.”

With her eyes downcast, Jenna said quietly to the team, “I’m sorry for the trouble.”

The team cast a glance at the boy before moving back down the mountain, and the murmurs could be heard until the back of their figures disappeared down the pathway.

The boy looked at his sister. “Jenna… Don’t you believe me? The rabbits, it looked… They were…  It’s not usual… The wolf -”

“Little brother,” she said, with a voice louder than what he was used to. “I’ve always believed in you, just like how mother believed in you. We knew that you have what it takes to rise up and be a leader. But this is going too far. You have to find a way to control your fears. You need to do your part. Our family needs you. I need you. I can’t do this on my -”

Jenna turned away with a choked sound.

“I’m sorry Jenna…”

The next day, he was determined to be brave. Jenna and his family depended on him. He was the eldest son. He could do it.

The morning dew was still lingering when he reached the top of the mountain. He tried to ignore the tremble in his hands. He forced his mind to only focus on his tasks ahead. Do not wander to anything else.

The sheep were calm as always. Did anything ever excite them? He did a quick count. All the sheep were accounted for. That was good.

Suddenly, the hair on his arms stood and he felt as though he was being watched. He quickly glanced behind him. Nothing.

Don’t be silly. This is exactly the kind of thing that gets you into trouble. Active imagination.

He took his basket closer to the blackberry bush and began to pick the ripe ones. And again, that eerie feeling of being watched. He ignored it this time, although his heart was beating faster.

What was that? It sounded as though someone, or something, was coming through the dense forest behind him. Wide-eyed now, he focused between the dense trees, searching and searching, but he could not see anything.

You’re just being over paranoid, he told himself. But his eyes darted to the emergency button on the giant tree.

Don’t be silly. It’s just the trees. Be brave! Don’t disappoint Jenna and father anymore.

A twig broke. Leaves were crunched.

He was holding on to his shepherd stick really tightly now, with sweat forming on his forehead despite the morning cool.

By now, he was almost convinced he was right. He could feel it. There was something here on the mountain. Why didn’t they believe him? Why did they insist on sending him up here? Alone?

He didn’t ask for this. Why must they be so cruel?

The boy looked at the scene before him. The sheep quietly grazing with the gentle breeze as company. Birds singing, leaves rustling. How deceptively peaceful.

He suddenly felt an icy cold within his chest. He must act. NOW.

He dashed to the giant tree and smashed on the emergency button.

The deafening siren roared as he turned to face whatever was coming. With his back against the tree, his eyes darting from the forest to the pathway, yearning to see the help team.

They will be arriving soon, everything will be OK, everything will be OK, he told himself, over and over.

But the sound of movement in the forest continued, coming nearer and nearer.

His face contorting in fear, he looked again at the pathway. Nobody. Not even Jenna.

He could see the shadow approaching from within the forest now.

“Help,” his voice came out as a squeak. “HELP!!!!!!! HELP!!!!!!!!!!”

Still, nobody came.

The bushes were parting. The shadow was moving closer. He shut his eyes tight, tears running down his face.

“HELP!!!! JENNA!!!!! HELP!!!!! PLEASE!!!!!”

Nobody.

He could feel it coming closer to him, until it stopped.

Amidst the sudden silence, he opened his eyes a little.

And right in front of him, a pair of icy grey eyes stared back at him.

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4 Comments

  • Reply Chek hui

    This so awesome Natalie! You’ve put in so much more details, emotions, layers, and dimension into a story that everyone is familiar with. Thumbs up!

    July 28, 2019 at 5:39 am
    • Reply Natalie Sia

      Thanks Chek Hui!! That means so much to me! So glad you enjoyed it

      July 28, 2019 at 8:54 am
  • Reply Gillian

    So good, nat!

    July 29, 2019 at 3:59 pm
    • Reply Natalie Sia

      Thanks Gillian!! Thank you for reading

      July 29, 2019 at 10:26 pm

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