The View From the Mountain
Manley burrowed into the soil, striking a layer of rock just below the surface. There were no grubs, and the few worms he found were stringy and tough. Although he was hungry, he was more anxious about the whereabouts of the eagles. He resurfaced carefully, only to be attacked by more insects. He ingested a small swarm but they stuck to the roof of his mouth. Nearby, he could hear Malcolm browsing berry bushes while trying to swat back the insects, and thought he could hear Rollo trying to eat some. Theobald was resting in the stream. Miranda was lying in shade, waving the insects from her wound. “Has anyone seen the eagles?” he asked.
“No,” said Miranda, “but they’re nearby.”
He spent a fruitless day, combing the rocky soil for something to eat and as the light began to fade, burrowed into the soil near Malcolm as deeply as he could, barely covering himself, and Rollo lay down beside him, falling asleep immediately.
At first light, he woke to a dark, drizzling day. He scented Murray Marmot beyond the dead tree, and heard Malcolm and Rollo conversing
“In point of fact, we have forage and water. We should rest until Miranda’s healed.”
“And the rats?”
“They’re not going to climb that hill just for us.”
Manley felt hopeful for a breath. Could they have given up? Then he remembered that the rats had crossed the Bog. It was unlikedly a hill would stop them.
“I don’t likes to pry in your business,” said Murray, “but whatchya mean, rats?”
“Rats,” said Rollo.
“I’m a rodent.”
“I know,” said Rollo. “I’m a rat.”
“I don’t understand.”
“They are some rats who hate us,” said Manley.
Manley could hear the puzzlement in the Marmot’s voice “Because we objected to what they were doing.”
“What were they doing?”
“Sniffing bums,” said Theobald.
“They went around sniffing anuses. And they killed a beaver, a friend of ours.”
Manley couldn’t see Murray’s expression.
“And they’re comin’ here?” Murray’s tone radiated alarm.
“We think so.” Manley could hear Malcolm and Miranda browsing berries.
“So now I gots to deal with beakheads and rats?”
“We’re sorry, Murray,” said Manley, “we didn’t have any choice, and we didn’t know you were here.”
“Seeing as I’m about to face a bunch of rats, I’d be a big help if yous’d kill those last beakheads for me.”
“Where are they?” Manley asked loudly.
“I haven’t seen’em since yesterday. Maybe,” said Rollo, “they’ve been frightened off.”
“They’re still about,” said Murray.
“How do yous know?” asked Rollo.
“I know beakheads,” said Murray.
“Where do they live when they’re not here, Murray?” asked Malcolm.
“In the mountains.”
“Who else lives in the mountains?”
“Whyda you wanna know about the mountains?”
“That’s where we’re headed.”
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to pry.”
“So where are the eagles now, is the question,” said Malcolm.
Manley was startled to hear something on the tree beside them.
“Where is she going?” Rollo asked.
“Where are you going?” Malcolm called.
“To see what’s about.”
“What about your wound?”
“Be careful,” shouted Murray.
Manley could hear Rollo moving about. “What are you doing?”
“Trying to see…”
“Where is she?”
“The other side… no, she’s coming down now.”
Manley waited, listening, then heard her descending.
“They haven’t gone, right?” said Murray.
“Two are circling the plain.”
“I told you. What’re they circlin’?”
“There’s a mist so I can’t be sure, but it appears to be a long, grey-brown line.”
Manley closed his eyes and tried to breathe easy.
“Murray,” said Malcolm kindly, “I would advise you to stay well hidden for the next few days. They can be vicious.”
Manley heard Malcolm and the others start for the stream and hurried behind.
“Why’re they vicious?” asked Murray, anxiously, running beside Manley.
“Probably for the same reason the beakheads are,” said Manley.
“Remember, stay well hidden, Murray,” said Malcolm.
“They kill,” said Theobald.
Manley could hear Malcolm and the others drink from the stream, then Malcolm’s large silhouette dipping itself into the pool, obviously to collect Theobald, then rising and setting off. Manley followed.
“How many are there?” asked Murray hurriedly, running behind him.
“Many,” said Manley. Malcolm had stopped abruptly in front of him. Sensing that they’d reached the edge of the treeline, and feeling a large space open up before him, Manley raised his head and squinted. Everything beyond was a massive grey blur. “Can you see eagles?” he asked.
“No,” said Miranda.
”We should follow the water up the mountain,” said Malcolm. “Can you see where it’s coming down?”
“No,” said Miranda, “it looks like it’s coming from a crevice in the rock. There doesn’t seem to be any water above that.”
Manley ambled forward, feeling the rocky ground beneath his feet. When his snout touched rock and he could go no further, he stopped. He tried to find a way around, but the rock mass was so large and solid it blocked his path. A fearful giddiness overtook him. “We can’t do it.”
“Murray,” asked Malcolm, stopping at the rockface beside Manley, “have you climbed here?”
“Is up there where the eagles nest?”
“Oh yeah. I sees’em lift off up there all the time.”
Dwarfed by the rock, Manley felt the downdraft of chilly air from the mountain, and wished that he could burrow into warm, protective earth.. How would they climb? What would he eat? How would they escape the eagles?
“Are there other animals?” asked Malcolm.
“Just an idiot.”
“I dunno, he’s got a white beard.”
“The goat,” said Rollo.
“No mice, no rodents?”
“Dunno. I never seen any. There’s probably no forage.”
“What’re we going to eat?” asked Rollo, his voice radiating panic.
“Is it all rock?” asked Manley, feeling queasy.
“I never been there.”
Manley could hear Rollo’s heavy breathing, sucking in as many insects as he could, and Theobald sighing, and Miranda behind him browsing on berry bushes.
“What’s on the other side, Murray?” asked Malcolm.
“Other side of what?”
“Heard of anyone crossing them?”
“Them rats really wants to kill yous?”
“You’d be safer coming with us,” said Miranda.
“If I can hide from beakheads, I can hide from rats. I just won’t eat. Besides, the beakheads might kill a few.”
Imagining the eagles picking the rats off one by one, Manley felt more hopeful.
“Murray, thank you for the forage,” said Malcolm, setting out slowly, climbing, prodding each rock for purchase with his hoof.
Frightened, Manley hesitated.
“Manley?” said Miranda.
“We would move faster if you were to ride on my back.”
“What about your wound?”
“What about the eagles?”
“They won’t attack if you’re on my back. Slide on. I’m just below you.”
“Goodbye,” said Murray sadly. “Yous be careful.”
“Goodbye Murray. Good luck.” Manley slid onto her back and held tight. As she set off, he could hear Rollo running from the trees calling out plaintively, “wait for me.”
Sweating, his knees were burning, Malcolm stopped to peer down the mountain. Even though the view was blurry, he felt dizzy. How would he climb without falling? Each step brought his heart closer to his mouth. Why didn’t he stop? Wasn’t this dull-witted? It must be. He could just see Melwin smirking. Melwin, ha. If he were here, what would he say about his brother standing on the side of a mountain? “You must use your reasoning, Malc,” is what he’d say. Wasn’t balancing on a rock on the side of a mountain, avoiding being attacked by rats, and eagles using his reasoning?
In spite of everything—fear and hunger—Malcolm knew that part of him was exhilarated. It wasn’t likely that Melwin would understand that. Melwin never allowed himself to be exhilarated. Why was he thinking about Melwin? Oh, right. He’d had an insight about his brother. If Melwin never went anywhere, how did get his wisdom? Malcolm knew that this journey—this remarkably peculiar journey—had taught him—well, what? Well, it taught him to keep moving, not to stop or give up, and to look out for others; and how strange the behaviour of some animals is—many animals actually; and it had brought him to the beginning of… what? An understanding? Of? The fragility of life. Yes, the fragility of life, as silly as that would sound to Melwin, that’s what it was. To be reminded of the delicate balance of breathing. He tried to imagine Melwin on a journey like this. Had Melwin ever been stalked by death? Undoubtedly not. Melwin would never let the situation arise. Nor would he ever display fear.
Was he, Malcolm, afraid? Of course he was. He would be foolish not to be. In fact, he was exhilarated by his fear. Was he afraid because he was smarter than Melwin? Of course, that must be it. Only the dumb feel no fear—Macy, he suspected, felt no fear—but fear was good. It kept you alert. And so far he’d overcome his fear when he’d needed to. But what would he do if the rats caught up with them—when faced with so much hatred? If only they could turn it around, and direct it back at the rats. If. If only they could climb this stupidly huge mountain.
“Malcolm!” Theobald’s voice was loud, close to his ear.
“Are you alright?”
“What? Yes, why do you ask?”
“You were muttering something.”
“I was? Oh, yes, I was thinking.”
“I was thinking about how much fun we’re having.”
“Wouldn’t you say we’re having fun? Theobald?”
“Fun?” said Theobald somberly after a moment’s silence. “No. I don’t think it’s fun.”
By midovernoon, Malcolm noted that their ascension up the mountain was slow. He could make out the others standing on the tip of a ridge, looking out.
“What do you see?” he asked, reaching them.
Neither Rollo nor Miranda answered.
“What?” asked Manley.
“There’s a line of grey-brown stretching back across the plain,” said Rollo, numbly.
Malcolm broke wind. He didn’t know why. He should have expected Rollo’s answer, but he didn’t. He tried to visualize the line. “How will they cope with climbing the mountains?” he asked, hopefully.
“You’re right,” said Rollo, quickly. “In point of fact, they will not want to start up the side of this mountain.”
Good old Rollo. Always optimistic, even in the face of experience.
“They’ve come this far, it’s hardly likely they’ll stop now,” said Theobald, morosely. “Even with the eagles.”
Theobald, be quiet.
“What about the eagles?” asked Rollo.
“I don’t think the Corporation will mind losing a few rats in a good cause.”
“They don’t have to worry about the eagles,” said Miranda.”
“Why not?” asked Theobald.
“Because the eagles are travelling with us.”
Malcolm looked up. The sky was a grey blur. “Where?” he asked Miranda.
“To your right, circling.”
Malcolm thought he could discern two blurry black specs flying high above him.
“I thought they were circling the rats.” said Manley.
“Then why are they here?”
“They want to be near me,” muttered Theobald.
Malcolm wondered if the eagles were in collusion with the rats, but thought it might be better not to mention it.
“If we can reach that rock, jutting out,” said Miranda, pointing to a large outcrop of rock two tree lengths or so above them, “we might find protection from the eagles and be able to rest.”
Malcolm squinted up at the rock, trying to muster his aching, tired leg muscles forward. He was only able to keep moving by thinking, ‘Could Melwin do this? No.’ By dusk, he had reached the outcropping, his hooves shreaded by the jagged rock edges. The outcropping was ample shelter for the others but he wouldn’t fit underneath. “Don’t worry,” Malcolm said, lowering himself to free Theobald, “I’ll just rest here. I don’t have to worry about the eagles.”
Miranda’s eyes surveyed the outcropping. “You could rest on top.”
Malcolm peered up. It did seem flat. Achingly, he climbed up until he was standing on top of the outcropping, surveying the blurry view below him. On its edge, he felt giddy at first, then queasy, although he began to luxuriate in the sensation. He thought it wondrous that he, who had spent most of his life living in ponds and forest, was suddenly on a rock high above everything, even trees. He wondered if Melwin had ever been on the side of a mountain. “Some view, wouldn’t you say?” Malcolm shouted down. “Let’s rest here.”
“I wish we had something to eat,” said Rollo.
“What?” Malcolm sighed. Rollo should know better.
After a moment, he heard Rollo mutter. “Nothing.”
At first light, Malcolm opened his eyes. Light balanced on the horizon in the distance. A strong wind tugged at his bell. Just for a breath, seeing nothing about him, he panicked, not moving. He was high in the air. Where?
“Malc?” came Rollo’s voice, tentatively floating up.
He remembered. “Yes?”
Then Malcolm remembered the rats, and the eagles, and that he was perched on a flat outcropping of rock. He rose. His legs ached and his hooves radiated jabs of pain. He climbed back down to the others, his eyes focusing on his footing. He could sense the others watching him anxiously. Reaching them, they didn’t appear rested or terribly hopeful.
“They’re still circling,” said Theobald, morosely.
“I’m sure they are. Come, we’ve got another day’s climb ahead of us.” He wasn’t about to let them give in to despair. He glanced at Rollo, “maybe we’ll even find something to eat.” He lowered himself into postion and Theobald struggled onto his back.
“Here we go.” Malcolm rose and started climbing again. “Keep close behind me,” he shouted, realizing a breath later that Rollo and Miranda with Manley were already scrambling ahead him.
By the time the sun had risen high enough to light the vista below them, Malcolm had climbed up into the long mountain shadows. In spite of his pain, he felt elated. He was moving. The sun rose higher, the shadows on the rocks shortened and, with the wind tearing at the clouds, a bright egg blue sky blossomed. They were high enough for the tree line below to seem remote.
“What can you see?” he asked Miranda.
“They’re at the foot of the mountain,” she noted, her voice not betraying any anxiety.
“Have they started up?” asked Malcolm, trying not to sound concerned.
Malcolm peered up. “Any beakheads?”
“I can’t see any,” said Miranda, searching the clearing sky.
“Maybe they’ve given up.” murmurred Theobald.
“I doubt it,” said Malcolm.
“They’re still with us,” said Miranda.
Malcolm looked at her and then down the mountainside to where her eyes were focussed.
Something was soaring up the side of the mountain straight for them. As they swooped immediately overhead, Malcolm understood they were the two eagles. “Let’s keep moving,” he said.
He made a point of watching out for Rollo, and Manley on Miranda’s back, as they plodded upward. Tired, hungry, they had almost forgotten to be afraid. She was still limping, he noted.
He stumbled upward on the slopes of small, loose, sharp rocks, which cut painfully into the sides of his hooves then, abruptly, fell onto his front knees. Theobald was thrown off, landing upside down in front of him.
“Miranda,” shouted Malcolm, wincing with pain. “Help Theobald.”
“Go on without meee,” wheezed Theobald.
Miranda stepped forward, pushed upward on the edge of his shell with her paws, flipping him right side up.
“Are you all right?” she asked Malcolm who was slowly getting to his feet.
“I’m fine,” said Malcolm, clenching his teeth, not wanting to panic the others.
“Are you in pain?” Manley asked.
“I’ll be in more pain if we don’t keep moving.”
“But where?” asked Rollo, staring up at the sheer rock face in front of them. Malcolm stared at the rock face, then looked right and left. As far as his vision permitted, there appeared no gap, no pass, the mountain rising straight up, ending at a sky filled with hot sun.
The others gauped hopelessly, looking anxiously for some sign of a passage. “Can anyone see a way through?” Malcolm asked.
“We’re trapped.” stated Rollo.