After living a year and a day atop the glass mountain, Mariska determined that the time had come to return to the village she had left behind, and even to the people who had consigned her to a fate they unanimously—though erroneously—considered worse than death.
True, she was alone most of the time. And it was hot in the summer, when the noonday sun splintered into a thousand coruscations of light through the faceted prisms that formed the sharply sloping ceilings of the vast single room that embraced the entirety of her existence. Her clothes—gossamer fine, the best the villagers could collectively obtain to appease the mountain—would stick to her skin, becoming nearly as transparent as the walls that invisibly bound her; rendering her less a sacrificial offering, she thought, than some waterlogged bit of flotsam flung contemptuously ashore by a disdainful sea.
He had laughed delightedly when she shared this observation.
She was too beautiful, that was her trouble. Sun-kissed skin, twilit hair—she might have been born to live the rest of her days wrapped in crystal, trapped in light; like a butterfly, a moth, an exquisite thing meant to fly yet engulfed instead in sap and preserved forever—seen but not heard, held but not touched—in amber. Certainly the villagers had thought so, or thought something in that vein—the women hating her for her beauty; the men hating her for wanting more than life as a fisherman’s woman had to offer; the women hating her still more for not wanting what they wanted, not taking what she could so easily have had.
He did not understand this, no matter how many times she tried to explain it to Him.
And so, the mountain. The towering mountain that shattered sun and sharpened rain before these could fall upon the village that trembled in its absence of shadow; the treacherous mountain that claimed the lives of young men who sought to prove themselves—not a few for her sake—by daring its sly, slithery slopes; the terrible mountain that demanded tribute every score of years or so by the portentous doom of its ominous rumbling.
He had laughed again, when she told Him this last. He was much given to laughter, though He claimed He was not so out of her presence.
Oh, but it was beautiful, the mountain, made more so by the very impossibility of it; the implacability of it; the impudent defiance with which it glared radiance back at whatever sun god had created this otherwise orderly existence. It would not conform, the glass mountain; it would not compromise.
If it wanted a woman, He would have her.
Only she knew that it was as beautiful within as without, in the hollow chamber at the pinnacle—as sharp, as stark, as seductive in its utter lack of pity. There was no softness in its splendor; no bed to lie on, no chair to sit on, not even a mat upon which to eat the food that Fausto braved the slope to bring her—always breathless with exertion, despite his strapping frame—at the start of each week. She slept on glass, sat on glass, ate on glass. It was not as uncomfortable as might be expected—a silken smoothness, a shivering cold that was not precisely unwelcome, a certain strange pliancy that she had come to accept as the norm in her far from normal life. She was pitiless enough herself to own that it was contact she longed for, not furniture, not even the people she had known all her life and for the most part loved, such as her parents.
He would only come with the night; and then, always and only, in the glass.
She did not know His name, nor even His visage, truly. At first He had appeared tawny of skin and hair, like herself. Later, as He had come to understand that she was less intimidated by what she did not know than what she knew all too well, He would present Himself in a plethora of guises: skin of ivory, onyx, amber; hair of ash, soot, flame—once even an improbable sky blue that had surprised the first laugh out of her, crystalline and unpremeditated, in His presence.
He called her fearless, but she was not.
It was merely that, having been herded already to her own apparent doom, she had learned to view fear as a thing to be overcome, like the importuning of men who wanted only the mirroring of their own desire. Like the envy of women who despised only the reflection of their own limitations. Like a mountain made out of glass: towering, treacherous, terrible.
* * *
She did not understand why He had allowed her to leave—had not expected Him to, truly. Not one other woman who had ever been offered to the mountain had returned; and yet here she was, breathing salt as she had never thought to again. The salt of the sea, sullen and restless; the salt of fish being scaled, dried, seasoned for storage; the salt of a man’s sweat as Fausto, who had escorted her down the slope, basked in the attention from the stunned and somewhat alarmed villagers.
“He let me go,” she said absently, in response to the crowd’s cacophonous queries.
She had not brought much with her, primarily because she no longer owned very much at all. A few diaphanous dresses, a hairbrush, tooth powder, the assortment of bottles she had used to hold water, a chamber pot—the scanty sum of her life, packed easily into the carry sack Fausto wore over his broad shoulders, with room to spare.
“I don’t know,” she said, in reply to some question she had not heard. “I don’t know.”
She also carried a large oval of glass that He had given her, prized from one of the chamber walls at His instruction. She had not known that it was loose, discrete from all the identical others of its kind—or perhaps it had not been, until the moment He needed it to be. There was so much she had not known, did not know, might now never know.
“What is He?” the people demanded of her. “What did He do to you? What will He do to us? What is He like?”
“He is what He is,” she told them, and went to seek her parents.
They were simple folk, her mother and father, whose most distinctive trait was perhaps their singular inability to discern anything out of the ordinary in their extraordinary offspring. “She is a touch too clever, it is true,” Mariska’s father had been wont to say, apology clearly enunciated in every syllable of every word. “But she has good hips.”
“She can cook well enough to quell hunger,” had been her mother’s endorsement.
Mariska would have liked to think that they had known, had always known what would become of her if she proved too desirable, too ripe—like a fruit that, once plucked for its savor, could never be returned to the tree. But she was pitiless even to herself, and a touch too clever for her own peace; yet she loved them, though she could not know if it was returned. They had neither of them said a word when she was carried off.
They had not that much to say now. “You didn’t run from Him, did you?” her mother asked, seeming otherwise unmoved by the unlooked for return of her only child. She was gutting fish: slitting their bellies open even as they strove desperately to breathe; using her fingers to hook out their innards; working with her customary, relentless regularity.
“I asked Him if I might leave, and He consented,” Mariska replied.
“Did you displease Him?” her father asked, the nimbleness of his own fingers belying the slow cadence of his speech as he made repairs to a net, a mass of slender black skeins tangled one with the other at his feet. “Did He send you from His presence?”
“I don’t know.” It was becoming tiresome, needing to return and return to those three words, like a serpent biting its tail, a tumbled turtle spinning turnwise on its shell, a spider snarled in a web of its own making. “He let me go.”
They told her, of course—as laconically as possible—that they were glad to see her alive and well; that they had worried for her health; that they would of course move the oddments they had kept in storage in her curtained sleeping alcove, if that was what she wished.
She did not know what she wished.
Standing there at the pier, she gazed down into the oval pane of glass He had given her—but it was clear, not a mirror; and all she saw through it was the relentless ebb and surge of the restless sea.
* * *
“You were his whore, weren’t you?” Juliana had once been her best friend—before their breasts had blossomed, before Mariska had grown from winsome to wondrous, before things between them had changed forever. “You can admit it. I’m sure we’re all thankful, though I hope you haven’t brought His wrath down upon us by escaping.”
“No.” She wanted to slip past the other woman, but Juliana’s antipathy was a tangible force—like a wall hemming her in, unseen yet threateningly substantial, more cruelly confining than a chamber of glass. “I asked Him to release me, and He did.”
“Did He tire of you?” Juliana pressed forward; and now the wall was a net, like the one at the pier in her father’s fingers; tangling, strangling, mangling. “Did it take Him only a year to delve too deep a trench between your legs?”
“Juliana!” Fausto thundered, coming through the crowd, breaking through the wall, tearing through the net. Freeing her to breathe again. “What is wrong with you, woman?! After everything you know she must have been through—”
“I am only saying what everyone is thinking,” Juliana replied, tilting her chin up in challenge. “You yourself have said that every time you saw her, she was well and unmarked. She has become the monster’s slattern, then, of her own choosing.”
“I am not disposed to striking women,” Fausto gritted through clenched teeth, “but one more word out of your mouth and I will gladly make an exception.” He took Mariska by the arm and led her out of the crowd; out from the blinding glare of their attention, their assumptions, their judgment.
She noticed that he was clasping her by the wrist, not the hand; for she was still clutching the glass oval—so tightly her palms ached—like a talisman, an aegis, a lifeline. She consciously loosened her grip somewhat as Fausto guided her beneath the shade of a spreading acacia tree.
“Pay her no mind,” he was saying. “She is jealous of you; she has always been. Not everyone thinks as she does.”
“But many do?” She felt curiously calm all at once, glassy as the sea before a storm.
“Well . . . no, not many—”
“Some, then.” She was turning the oval over and over in her hands, absently, as a woman plays with her hair, or her lover’s. “It’s all right, Fausto. It doesn’t matter.”
“It doesn’t matter!” He seemed to seize upon her words. “It doesn’t matter to me, Mari—what you’ve done, or what’s been done to you. Even if you are despoiled, I will wed you. I love you regardless; I have always loved you.”
“You do not love me, Fausto.” She looked at him then, and saw the gleam in his eyes—perhaps hope, perhaps fever, perhaps madness. But after living so much time in so much radiance, it seemed only a dim luminescence to her: fireflies, candle glow, marsh light. “You don’t know me. You don’t even know I dislike fish.”
“Fish?” He stared at her, astonished, incredulous, uncomprehending.
“Every week of fifty-two weeks, you brought me fish to eat. I am not ungrateful you did. But I dislike fish—its smell, its sense, its savor. I had rather eat grass than fish.”
“Fish!” he repeated indignantly. “What have fish to do with love?”
“Nothing,” Mariska said. “Everything.” And she turned from him; leaving him gaping, leaving all that she owned in his possession, leaving everything but the glass.
“What are you doing? Where are you going?”
“I am returning to the mountain,” she told him.
“Have you gone mad, Mari?” Fausto seemed nearly apoplectic. It would have been laughable, save that laughter was rare and unlooked for in the fishing village at the base of the mountain. “I do not know what you think you know, but He is a monster. You were lucky to escape Him once; you will not be so again. He will devour you. He will destroy you.”
“He may,” Mariska said. “It doesn’t matter.”
She turned from him again—and Fausto, reaching desperately to clutch at her hand, instead struck the curving oval pane of glass she carried. It fell away from her grasp, and shattered on the ground into a thousand, thousand shining fragments; cold as ice, sharp as diamonds, meaningless as tears.
It was only as she was attempting in vain to reassemble the pieces that she realized they had once formed a vaguely reptilian scale.
* * *
Perhaps he had somehow sensed the shattering of the scale He had given her. Perhaps He had always known, even before she had known it herself, that she would return. Perhaps He had become wroth with her eventually for leaving, and had determined to rise and wreak havoc upon the populace in retaliation. For whatever reason, by the time Mariska had arrived at the outskirts of the village on her solitary journey, the mountain was in motion.
The first movement she witnessed was of the chamber she had dwelt in, the steep isosceles that had sheltered her from rain, enshrined her in sunlight. She watched in silence, stunned yet somehow not shocked as it unfolded, unfurled, unveiled itself to be a pair of gigantic wings, taller than trees, wider than several houses at once—enormous, ethereal blades of glass that threatened to slice open the sky.
In some strangely serene corner of her mind, she found herself wondering what had become of all the women who had lived upon the mountain before her.
Then the foothills shifted; or what she had always assumed to be foothills, several hours’ journey to traverse, and treacherous to the unwary—and the uninvited. Mariska saw trees, rocks, plants that had taken root over generations tumbling, crumbling, rumbling down as the great leg flexed, curled, straightened. A veil of dust rose from the ground, tiny motes made mystical, magical, magnificent in the varicolored, shifting radiance that suffused the world.
The vast bulk of the mountain followed, lifting impossibly, implacably, impudently off the ground, in defiance of both sense and natural law. Oh, but it was beautiful, the mountain, fracturing light into its own coruscating halo; transforming the landscape seen through it into strange and wondrous forms: a spiraling boulder, a scintillant shrub, a filigreed acacia whose gilt leaves intertwined among themselves in intricate splendor. It was dazzling, the mountain, awesome; in itself and in the way it transfigured all that embraced it.
Had they simply lived out their days in the glass chamber, those women, content to grow old and fade away into the splintered sunlight?
A crystalline tail swept directly above her head then, before she had even understood the fact of its existence. Like all other aspects of what she was seeing, it was nearly too large to comprehend, difficult to encompass in its contradictory scale and transparency—clear as glass, as water, as the distinction between choice and destiny.
The head rose last, arcing up into the uncompromising daylight from where it had hidden beneath the ogive of the upswept wings; the head she had never imagined beneath her feet, the face she had never yet seen with her eyes. It was composed of planes and angles, ridges and horns and teeth. There was nothing she could recognize of humanity in that gargantuan visage, devoid of intrinsic color—cold as ice, sharp as diamonds, meaningless as tears.
Had they left as she had, her predecessors, gone beyond the mountain to live the lives of their choosing elsewhere?
Or had they been despoiled, devoured, destroyed?
She did not know, could not know, might never know. And so she walked toward the creature that had once been a mountain, step by tremulous step—a prisoner to the gallows, a bride to the wedding bed, a moth to the flame.
She had always been less intimidated by what she did not know than what she knew all too well.
Nikki Alfar learned to write at the age of two and never quite figured out how to stop. Now thirty-five, she has been a flight attendant, a bank manager, a magazine editor, an office administrator, a radio newscaster, and, currently, a marketing and corporate copywriter. Along the way, she has managed to earn a few Anvil awards, two Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, one Manila Critics’ Circle National Book Award, a citation in the international Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror, and a spot as one of twelve emerging Filipina writers featured by the Ateneo Library of Women’s Writings.
Her fiction has been published in print and online, in venues both national and international, and she is currently putting together her first short story collection. She is a proud founding member of the LitCritters writing and literary critique group, and is happily married to multi-awarded novelist, short fictionist, playwright, and speculative fiction advocate Dean Francis Alfar. They have a six-year-old daughter, Sage, and are expecting their second child this year.