The Glass Mountain
“Quiet, now,” she told us. “It’s like Tinker Bell.”
“What’s like Tinker Bell?” Gnome asked. It was a stupid question, but we forgave him because his eyes were the color of a sandstorm, and he sat still as an injured bird.
“If you don’t believe, it won’t come true.” Aunt Halina was patient with these types of questions. She wasn’t really our aunt. She smelled like melted butter, and she had a scar on her chest that she wouldn’t let us see. She started the story again.
“The glass mountain is very far from here, but you can find it if you know where to look. Past the dirt road that forks toward the empty sea, past the tree whose white flowers yawn open for the moon. Past the stone pillar shaped like a monk. If you are faithful, the mountain will let you find it.”
Eva and I had heard the story at least seven hundred times. It was our favorite. We even liked it better than the ones Halina told about her dead husband, Fillip, who had worked on a barge, and the parties they had floating in the middle of the river. Gnome, on the other hand, was new. He sat on an upside-down bucket, holding his breath, listening to the sounds of the world getting dark. We were jealous of his hearing the story for the first time. Eva picked a daddy longlegs off the screen door and dropped it on his shoulder.
“Does it break?” he asked. He cupped the spider in his palm and released it into the grass. Eva pouted.
“It doesn’t break,” Halina pronounced solemnly.
“Are there princes?” he asked.
“The princes all die, you know,” I told him.
Halina put on her splinter face, and it stuck inside me until I squirmed. “Hanna exaggerates,” she said. “She’s not to be trusted. She doesn’t believe.” She leaned in close to Gnome and put her hands on his sunburned cheeks. “Do you believe, little Gnome?”
“Yes,” he said. “I believe.” His ears were kind of pointy, and out of all of us, he was the one who looked like he belonged in a fairytale.
Eva let her head plunk against my shoulder. The stars were blinking awake in the summer blue sky, egged on by crickets and lovelorn frogs.
“We’ll begin again,” Halina said. “The glass mountain is very far from here.”
* * *
The glass mountain was just a story, but we pretended to believe it so Halina would tell it over and over again until we felt like we understood. The story went like this...
Sometimes you didn’t know you were at the glass mountain until you walked into it. The townspeople used to find it by the smell of dead birds at its base, but at some point the birds learned to fly around it. The glass mountain was smooth and heartless and perfect. At the top, a princess lived in an enchanted castle, hidden by the clouds. The princess didn’t have a name. Of course, she had a name before, but when the witch flew her up to the castle, she cast a spell. If the princess ever spoke her name again, the castle would shatter. Glass would rain down on the people she loved—her mother, her father, her sweet, tone-deaf sister whose lap had always been her pillow.
In front of the princess’s castle, the witch planted a tree with white apples. She sent a sparrow down to the town with a message—if any man could make it to the top of the mountain and pick one of the apples, the princess would be saved. The witch wasn’t jealous of the princess’s beauty, though the princess’s hair was made of crushed moonlight and her eyes were violet-bright. The witch was under a curse and had not slept in seven years. One afternoon, the princess wandered into the witch’s field and fell asleep in the goldteller flowers. The princess didn’t wake until the witch had her in midair.
* * *
Part of the reason I loved this story was that I related to the witch. While Eva would fall asleep during a five-minute car ride to the grocery store, I stayed up nights staring at the ceiling of my bedroom, turning the dripping spackle into shapes and characters, creating stories about an evil school bus driver who captured children and drove them to the forest where she kept a secret lair. Some nights I pretended to be sleepwalking, and I’d wander out of the house and into the yard, feeling my way past the trees blindly, arms extended, mouth half open and drooling. Which is how I discovered Gnome, a few weeks after he moved in next door with his father, curled up in our garden and watching me silently.
* * *
The rescue missions were constant and ill-fated. A knight would ride his horse partway up the mountain’s slick surface then slide back down and break his neck. The men of the town dug a mass grave nearby, but the bodies of the horses were too big to fit. Inside the windows of the princess’s castle, fingerprints and nose smudges accumulated. The witch cursed her with sleeplessness, and she sat, listening to the high, harsh scratching of the glass, the screams of the horses, the dull thuds when men and animals landed on the ground. She wished they would just stop trying. She wished she could lay her head in her sister’s lap and sleep.
* * *
Gnome’s mother had died of lymphoma the year before he moved next door, and his father, a brisk and obsessively neat lawyer, didn’t like stories. He thought they were indulgent and, more importantly, useless, since they were incapable of beating back grief. Gnome’s mother had always used different voices when she’d told him stories, and sometimes she’d even made shadow puppets to highlight the most dramatic scenes, such as when little boys fought ooze-dripping monsters and won using the improbable technique of running through the monsters’ legs. Gnome told me all this under the tent created by an overhang of ivy off the side of his garage, a place infested with mosquitoes due to stagnant water trapped in warped gutters, a place where it was impossible to sleep and where night after night we tried.
Eva, with her easy sleepiness, was banned from the spaces that Gnome and I inhabited. I held tight to the excuse that she was too young and the tent was too small, but the truth was that I was jealous of my time with Gnome, just as I was jealous of my time with my sister. I was careful to guard against overlap, protective of what belonged to me alone. Eva didn’t know of Gnome’s desperate fear of hospitals, the way he turned pale and sweaty when he heard his mother’s name. Just as Gnome didn’t know of Eva’s dreamlife, the way that in her dreams she slept behind glass, the way that this was peaceful for her.
Eventually, Gnome’s father started dating a woman with eyes and hair that matched his dead wife’s, got remarried, and moved Gnome away from me, but for a few summers, at least, he was mine, curling at night like a fern against my body as we hunkered down in the green scents of our hideout. I even let him tattoo a mountain on my back with a safety pin and a licorice-scented marker, let him carve me with pinpricks that ascended toward my neck. When my back got infected a week later and landed me in the hospital on IV antibiotics, Gnome didn’t come to visit. I told Eva that the pain was worse than anything else in the world, so she would blow on my skin when it started itching. When the scabs fell away and uncovered the scars, I missed the hot salve of her breath.
* * *
In seven years, only one knight came close to saving the princess. He arrived in golden armor, and in the sunlight, he looked like a man made of fire. The princess bowed her head when she heard him charge, but the sound she expected, the sound of gold kissing glass, was replaced by the sound of horse hooves cracking their way closer. From her window, it looked like the knight was riding on sky, and he leaned forward, readying his burning body to pluck an apple from the tree. Just as he approached the peak, the witch, who had turned herself into a hawk, sailed down and sunk her talons between his horse’s eyes. The horse fought for only a moment before it began its downward slide, its hooves engraving the mountainside with a deep furrow.
The princess listened as the townspeople began digging a new grave. She lay her head against the window and closed her eyes.
* * *
Eva became obsessed with saving things. I tried to tell Aunt Halina that the story was going to kill my sister, but by then she’d decided I was not a reliable source of information. Eva’s crusades were always huge in scope, limited only by the shortness of her legs and her attention span. She once spent the entire month of June going door-to-door and asking people not to kill bugs they found inside their houses, to instead scoop them up with a newspaper and release them outside. The summer she was eight I convinced her that the clouds were going to retire at the end of the year, and she tried to build a ladder tall enough to reach them, to try to talk some sense into them. That was the summer she broke her leg.
* * *
In the winter of the seventh year, a young man arrived at the glass mountain at dawn. His shirt was dirty, and his pants were shredded over his left hip. He didn’t have a horse, but he’d tied the claws of a wildcat to his hands and feet. As he stood at the base of the mountain and pressed his pale forehead against its cool surface, the townspeople crowded together and gossiped. He was much too small to have killed a wildcat. He was so skinny a wildcat wouldn’t eat him. Death by a wildcat would be a kinder fate than death by the mountain.
It began to snow. The young man smiled, blushed, and started climbing. A thin layer of glistening white settled on the glass so that the outline of the mountain was clear against the horizon. The young man’s movements were slow and careful—first one hand, then the other, then each foot behind him. This was going to take a long time, the townspeople thought. They wrapped themselves in blankets and got comfortable.
When night came the young man could go no further. The glass was too steep, and he was tired. His hands were crusted with a thin layer of frozen blood from where the claws had worked into his skin. In the morning, he thought, he’d just let go, let gravity carry him down to the pretty white grave below. But tonight, for one night, he would hook his claws on a glass ledge and sleep. He dreamt of falling through the glass and landing on the mountain’s inside. He dreamt of shattering glass and the sky rushing up around him.
At midnight he was woken by the calls of a hawk flying down from the apple tree to inspect the shadows. Hunching his shoulders, the young man braced himself for the waking sensation of talon tearing through flesh, and when the bird had him fully pierced, he reached upward, releasing the wildcat claws and holding tight to the bird as it carried him up toward the castle. At the apple tree, the hawk swooped down, heavy with the young man’s weight. He had dreamed of this too. He pulled his father’s knife from his pocket, sliced cleanly through the bird’s woody legs, and fell through the silvered branches to the ground.
* * *
The rest of the story—the young man throwing his white apple at the dragon and freeing the princess—we hardly cared about, fixed as we were on the moment when he plucked the splinters of bird feet from the unraveling skin of his shoulders. But Gnome wanted more of the story, more and more, until he was so full on it he could finally curl up and sleep.
“Then what happened?” he kept asking.
Aunt Halina indulged him, telling him how the body of the hawk was found days later in a neighboring town, telling him how the dead knights came back to life at the bottom of the mountain, mounted their dusty horses, and rode off with their shining armor into the winter light.
Eva had fallen asleep by this point, her melon-heavy head in my lap, her lips blowing kisses at the sky. “Why didn’t the mountain ever shatter?”
Aunt Halina would answer questions about anything, all the hard ones that our parents would ignore, about her dead husband, our dead dog, the dead baby that was found in a dumpster that we weren’t supposed to know about.
This question stumped her.
* * *
When Halina died, years later, I was in college, where my sleeplessness had grown deeper and settled in under my eyes. A few days after her funeral, I got two letters in the mail, which I took to the basement physics lab where I worked as a research assistant. A tree had recently fallen against the building, damaging the ventilation ducts in the basement, and the ducts that had been rerouted into our lab carried with them the smell of outside, frozen grass and rotten leaves that were thawing and cooking in the steam heat. I’d been up all night talking to Eva, who was wearing headscarves and stringing her apartment with Christmas lights in Halina’s honor.
The first letter was really a postcard from Gnome stuffed inside an envelope with a postmark from Chicago, where he was in law school. I read it absently, wondering how he’d heard, if his ears had finally rounded out, if he’d turned out handsome and well-rested. I hadn’t seen him in almost eight years, although we’d been writing to each other, sporadically, since the summer he moved away. I read the card a few times before I finally caught his postscript: I hate law school. Every time I dream about you, I wake to the sound of shattering glass.
The other letter was from Halina, sent by the executor of her will, and it smelled like melted butter when I opened it. She’d left me a box of seeds she’d dried from her flower garden, a photo album filled with pictures of her as a young woman, wearing scandalous dresses and dancing on a barge, and her wedding ring. She’d also left me a key I was supposed to give to Gnome. Tell him he was my favorite, she’d written. And tell Eva she was my favorite. You were also my favorite.
I smelled the letter for as long as it took me to start crying, which was longer than it should have. My eyes had been awake too long, and they were reluctant to produce tears even when I told them to.
* * *
Eva died three months later. She’d come down with a fever in Puerto Rico, where she’d been busy with her new crusade of saving the baby sea turtles, and by the time the doctors had found the welt from the spider bite in her armpit, there was little they could do. Gnome showed up at my apartment two days later, his body slim and drooping like a willow tree, wearing a tie and sunglasses and carrying a vase filled with ivy. He offered to go to the airport and wait for her body to arrive. He offered to drive me to the funeral.
“Where are your things?” I asked him.
“I didn’t bring any,” he said.
The Puerto Rican funeral parlor hadn’t put any makeup on her, and when they opened the casket at the funeral home, her skin was covered with purple splotches that fanned out like spiderwebs. My parents left the room. Because Gnome put his hands on my shoulders, I tried to stay calm and resist the urge to vomit. I wanted to give the director instructions—make her look natural, not too much rouge or lipstick, no blue eye shadow—but I couldn’t.
“She’ll need something else to wear,” he said. They’d sent her to us in what looked like a tie-dyed bathing suit cover-up. “Do you have any of her clothes? Are you the same size?”
I couldn’t speak. All I could hear was shattering, and when I opened my mouth, no words came out. We’d never been the same size, but in my mind, I slipped on her clothes, her swollen skin, her spider bite.
“I’ll bring something this afternoon,” Gnome said. Then he reached across me and closed the casket.
* * *
After the funeral Gnome disappeared for a week. When he came back, he had a tent and a sleeping bag strapped to his back.
“I forgot to give you your key,” I told him.
“I dropped out of law school,” he said.
“Are you going somewhere?”
“I’m going to go find it,” he said.
The sun was setting behind him, and I squinted my eyes and looked for a line of glass in the distance. All that I saw was red light flooding the doorway and the glowing outline of Gnome’s darkened body. I was tired.
“Come with me,” he said. “I want you to come with me.”
When I turned to go inside, I had to step over the failing branches of his shadow, tilted in a puddle of purple red light. He waited in the doorway while I gathered my things.
* * *
We headed west. It was already dark when we left, so after a few hours of driving, we pulled off onto an abandoned road and found a patchy forest to camp in. The ground smelled like burnt wood, and the dew crept up around the tent while we drank cheap whiskey to keep warm. With the wind blowing in the branches above us, it sounded like the trees were singing.
“She always had a crush on you, you know.”
“Who?” Gnome asked. “Eva?”
“She used to put apples outside her bedroom door before she went to sleep, in case you came at night to rescue her.”
His face screwed up, and I could tell that it upset him to hear this, but I kept talking, telling my sister’s stories, listening as her name filled the dark spaces between us, until I felt too tired to talk anymore.
Neither of us expected to fall asleep, so Gnome took out a can of Sterno, and we roasted marshmallows and ate them until they made us sick. Part of me kept expecting him to lean over and kiss me, even though it was only partly what I wanted. I’d kissed Gnome before, a million times, behind a curtain of ivy, with bugs crawling up our legs and biting us. I wanted it and didn’t want it the way I wanted and didn’t want physical pain. Just before the Sterno burned out, Gnome pulled up a pantleg to examine a mosquito bite, and I suddenly wished that I had shared him with Eva, wished that I had shared them with each other. I was waiting for the light to go out so I could cry.
I didn’t really want Gnome to kiss me. I wanted him to let me sleep in his lap like a sister.
* * *
Day two on the road we ate raw potatoes from a vegetable stand. A hummingbird flew in through the rear passenger-side window and rammed its tiny, panicked body into my headrest until I shooed it out with a newspaper. Gnome got an angry call from his father, so we found a nice, quiet river, made a little boat from sticks and leaves, and sent the phone sailing away from us.
“I would’ve been a terrible lawyer,” he said. “I’m too gullible.” Then he added, “Not like you.”
The breeze gave out, and through the water, we could see a wreath of minnows encircle the makeshift raft, until the phone started ringing and the vibrations made it capsize.
“It’s not so different,” I said.
“You believe in things that couldn’t possibly be true, like Halina’s stories. I believe in things that sound like they couldn’t possibly be true, but they are. Dark matter. An expanding universe. I believe in alternate dimensions.”
Gnome stared into the water for a minute as his phone sent up bubbles like a cartoon fish. “That’s a start,” he said.
The next day we gave up on direction and took roads based solely on their names. Rabbit Hash Road. Bliss Boulevard. Lonesome Highway. We counted roadkill and hitchhikers and honked when we saw someone litter. Through the open windows, it felt like summer. We talked about home and the nights when we had known each other. We talked about Eva and the things she’d never get to save. We compared the sunburns on our forearms and breathed the sticky air.
At sunset, we drove into a lumberjack festival. From the car, as we approached the river, all we could see above the crowd was a line of men running on the water. Gnome reached over and grabbed my hand.
We made it just in time to see the chopping competition, the men hacking fiercely at their piles of wood, and we browsed through the winning stumps from the chainsaw carving competition. Gnome bought us T-shirts and homemade sausages, and we sat at a picnic table with a family who didn’t have nearly as much awe for the festivities as we did.
“If you think this is something, you should drive out to Spangler,” the woman said. From her cooler she dispensed juice boxes to her writhing sons and a beer to her husband. “They have an arboretum with all the weeping trees you could ever imagine.”
“I can burp the alphabet,” the younger boy announced.
“Jacob.” The father made an unpleasant face but went back to his sandwich when Gnome started belching the alphabet backwards.
“They built the whole thing around these Japanese trees called star magnolias. They don’t know how they got there, but they’ve been there for ages. Huge flowers, like blown up softballs.”
“White flowers?” I asked.
Gnome wasn’t listening, distracted by the eruption of a war sound from the other side of the crowd. The boys shot up and began tugging their father’s arms.
“It’s the Super Chain,” he said. “They rig up a chainsaw with a motorcycle engine.” He signed to his wife that he was taking the boys to go see it. Gnome trailed off behind them.
“White flowers?” I had to yell to be heard.
“It’s in Spangler,” she shouted. “A couple miles past the Stone Monk. Just stop and ask for directions. People around here are friendly.”
* * *
We were driving again, avoiding the question I would’ve asked before we left, had I actually thought we would find the place. What would we do when we got there? Gnome had returned from the chainsaw exhibition with mild hearing loss and a glinty axe whose handle was stained with hand sweat.
“Hold it,” he’d shouted, placing it in my hands. “It’s heavy.”
Behind us, dust bloomed wide across the road. We drove with the music off, bracing ourselves for what we could brace ourselves for. When we found the Stone Monk, we got out of the car and stood back from the tourists and their pictures. Neither of us had brought a camera. The monk’s head was pointing downward, in a pose of apology or shame.
At the arboretum, Gnome took a white flower from a star magnolia and hooked it through my hair. I felt shy about plucking flowers from the tree, so I gathered them from the ground and dropped them in my purse. For a moment, I thought I’d press one in a book and send it to Eva, and then I remembered. The petals left white dust on my fingers. They smelled like crushed moonlight, the way I’d imagined it to smell, after traveling through cold space to squeeze though curtains of ivy.
“Where does this road go?” Gnome asked a man with a rake.
“Landfill,” the man told him. “Where the lake used to be. The road keeps going, I think, but I wouldn’t drive that way without a gas mask.”
“What do you think?” Gnome asked, back in the car.
“Landfill or bust,” I told him.
He reached up and adjusted the flower behind my ear, and I could see that he was afraid. I wasn’t sure if he was afraid that we would find the thing or that we wouldn’t. Most likely, he was afraid of the same thing I was—the wakeful space that would come after.
“Drive,” I told him.
* * *
The glass mountain is very far from here, past the dirt road, past the empty sea, past the stone monk with his eyes that look like mourning. The glass mountain is smooth and heartless and perfect.
Inside the car, it smelled awful. Outside the car, it smelled worse. We stood together and pressed our hands against the glass, so cool, so quiet, so beautiful. I wished Eva were there to see it. I was tired, and I wished Eva were there, so I could sleep.
Gnome got his axe from the car and stood at the base, staring up at all that glass. His eyes looked tired. There was no castle at the top. The mountain had brought us to it, and we stood there, obedient, waiting to find out what happened next.
Gnome raised the axe over his head. His name wasn’t Gnome, but I had found him in our garden.
I was afraid that if I said Gnome’s real name, everything would shatter.
© 2008 University of North Carolina Greensboro