MARLA and the MOUNTAIN
All good people should know,
From whence we came was b’low.
Flesh of earthy rich clay
Baked hard by heat of day.
Though skies are our concern
The earth we’re bound return.
Travels Log. World 23 by Norma Hughes
All the children of Rosen Valley had grown up listening to the stories of the dark mountain that grew near their village. A young witch by the name of Marla was particularly fond of falling asleep to her ancient Grandmother Birchwell’s recital of these tales. Her mother, who had larger than normal ears and always managed to catch them, would reprimand both Marla and her Grandmother if she ever heard them discussing it before bed. “The spirits in that mountain are incredibly powerful and are not to be laughed at” she would say shutting the door behind her. Grandmother Birchwell and Marla would give each other a mischievous look before her Grandmother continued on. “We are not afraid, we are Birchwell witches” her Grandmother would say winking with both eyes, as one was too tricky for a lady of her age.
“The Mountain” she would begin, her toothless gums quivering, “houses one of the many passageways to the land of the dead. Spirits, sooty from the fires of the underworld, used to drag their begrimed bodies out each night at the witching hour and crawl upon the land till the mountain’s skin was blackened and its heart rotten. The forest that grows at its feet festered from the evil and was turned into skeleton trees”. At which point Marla would look out her window at the pale, twisted trees which bordered the whole of the village. “And you’ve seen those great billows of smoke, haven’t you?” Grandmother Birchwell would ask, and Marla nodded, wide eyed. “They’re the spirits. They escape from the Mountain through tiny crevasses that look like the funnels of a window spider’s web, and they shroud the whole valley in shadow. It is at this point you have to be careful, as they have lost their bodies and they will try and enter a living one” her Grandmother would say, and she would hold Marla close and gently press her knotted finger against Marla’s chest. “But if you know who you are, and stand firm, they cannot get into your heart.”
At night Marla would often wake to the chattering of the trees, her Grandmother’s stories still fresh within her mind. Often, she would peek outside her window to try and catch them talking, but they would always fall silent and unassuming. And if she stared too long the silence would enter her head and make her feel sick, as if the gaping shadows between the branches absorbed all the natural noises of the world and left nothing; no reality, no sanity. It was then that she would think of all the villagers that had disappeared between those shadows and she would squeeze her eyes shut and hold her grandmother close.
“Tsk” her grandmother would say “you are a Birchwell witch. They are disturbed sapling spirits, nothing more.”
Marla was indeed a Birchwell witch, and that meant that if ever there was a dare concerning the forest amongst the younger children in the village, Marla was always the first to accept it. No one dared pick a fight with Marla, she was the toughest, and had walked the furthest into the forest out of all the villagers—and made it back alive that is. On one occasion, Marla had thought she had seen disfigured, broken bodies hanging limply in the trees. They stared at her with such pained, pleading eyes; arms appeared from their necks, feet from their chest, their noses removed or squashed into their face. Once she was safe at home though, she reassured herself that it was just the pale bark of the trees. Marla could never tell anyone the complete horror she felt being inside of the forest, for that would make it real, and she feared that the forest would know she believed in its evils the next time she entered it.
It was nearing the final days of spring and a dull heat had settled over the village which made Marla’s skin prick with sweat and her throat dry no matter how much water she drank. Herself and the other younger children of the village were gathered near the edge of the forest, making daisy chains or pulling up grass to look at the wriggling bugs. Despite the heat of the day, all the children were avoiding the shadows cast by the forest.
“Why do we always play here? It’s spooky” pouted Dylan, one of the youngest children in the town. Dylan suspected that the older children just wanted to look cool.
“If you want to be a scaredy-cat then you can play by yourself” replied Marla, looking down at Dylan, who puffed grumpily in reply.
“Don’t be such a cow Marla, everyone knows you’re just as scared of the forest” scoffed Hully, who was Dylan’s older brother, and similar in age to Marla. Hully and Marla had grown up in neighbouring houses and despite a proclivity for arguing, they had always been quite close. As Marla’s mother would always say, Hully had a gentle soul, and was a good balance to Marla’s fiery spirit.
“Am not” spat back Marla, chucking in his direction a clump of limp flowers that she’d been trying to make into a crown.
“If you’re not scared, then go” smirked Hully “and properly too, not just ten meters or whatever your record is. Make it to the mountain’s feet.”
Marla stared ferociously at Hully but didn’t speak. Her skin crawled at the thought of entering the forest, but shame burned her stomach and fuelled her with a false sense of bravado.
“Oh, I’ll go Hully Marlowe, but only if you come too. I’ll need an eye-witness to confirm I’d done it” she replied, rolling up her sleeves. “Unless it’s too scary for you?”
The other children all turned their heads towards Hully, whose face flushed.
“What are we waiting for?” Hully huffed, getting to his feet.
All the other children, with mouths agog, surrounded the two as they prepared themselves for their journey into the forest. Marla removed her shoes as Grandmother Birchwell had always taught her to do, so she could feel the course of the earth beneath her feet. Hopefully that will be enough to guide us back, she thought so quietly to herself that she could hardly hear it within her own mind. Marla smeared dirt on her cheeks, her eyes flashing vehemently at Hully before she stormed ahead towards the forest, and Hully, somewhat reluctantly, followed suit. As they entered the forest, the sounds of crickets, birds and the general bustle of the small town ebbed away, till it was replaced with the loudest silence Marla had ever heard. It was a plangent, throbbing noise, that appeared to exist more within her own mind then outside of it. She faltered at the furthest point that she had walked to in her previous dares and looked back towards Hully. His face was red and his eyes wide from concentrating, trying his hardest not to trip on any roots, in case they grabbed him up. Her Grandmother’s voice suddenly resonated within her thoughts:
While most children pick flowers in forests, this forest picks children.
“Hully” she called out to cut through the ubiquitous quietness, just as one cannot resist the urge to sing when walking along dark stretches of road. He nodded in acknowledgment but dared not speak till he was standing abreast to her.
“Marla, I don’t know about this” he whispered.
“If we go back now, we’ll be known as the biggest cowards ever” Marla said in hushed tones that matched Hully’s, but each could see terror within the other’s eyes. She had never walked this far without seeing something preternatural, and she could not help but feel the forest was waiting.
“How bout we go in just a little further, and if we don’t see the mountain’s feet, then we come back?” she asked, eyeing the group of children who were still waiting at the edge of the forest. Hully nodded slowly and held out his hand. On any other occasion Marla would have scoffed and knocked it away, but she gratefully placed her hand within his, and together they walked deeper into the forest.
The two children adamantly focused upon the cool soil beneath their feet trying to ignore the whispers of the trees, or the uncomfortable absence of the spring warmth. To their surprise it was not long before they saw the sharp, dark slate of the mountain’s skin. The temperature became slightly warmer and the gnarled trees gradually dissipated to short, scratchy shrubberies. Curiosity welled within Marla and overpowered her fear as the mountain became more prominent.
“We made it” exclaimed Hully, a similar sense of relief and inquisitiveness spreading across his ruddy face as the two of them slid and slipped on the cracked slate. What had they even been worried about! Both laughed and whooped into the forest below, enjoying the sound of their voices echoing off of the surrounding valleys. They began exploring around the mountain’s feet, chucking stones down into the forest to see who could throw the furthest, almost tempting the forest, daring it, to do something back. But it didn’t, it remained patient. As Marla and Hully walked around the mountain they came across one of the dark holes that funnelled into the mountain’s heart. Occasionally a small wisp of ashen cloud would escape its gaping mouth, causing Marla and Hully to cough and wrinkle their noses, but it seemed the longer they stood there breathing in the fumes, the less acrid the smell became.
“Smells like my dad’s leather polish” said Hully breathing in more deeply as another little tendril of smoke unfurled above them. Marla smiled, but thought to herself how it smelt more like her mother’s baked cakes than some boot polish.
“Marla! Look!” Hully shouted unexpectedly, jerking Marla from her daze, “that’s Pop’s dog, the one that disappeared about a week ago.”
Marla thought she could just see a flicker of a shadow pass across the sooty wall and disappear into the darkness.
“I dunno Hully, it’s probably just a rat or something” she murmured quietly, suddenly aware of how loudly Hully’s shout had reverberated through the tunnel. The sour, bitter smell of the smoke became painfully strong within Marla’s nose and mouth again, making her choke and cough. Hully however, did not move his eyes away from the darkness at the end of the tunnel.
“Do you have any idea how happy Pop would be if I brought him back? Come on Marla, we came all this way, let’s just see if we can catch him”. Marla tried to warn against it, but her throat burned from the smoke, and before she should croak out his name, he had already disappeared into the darkness.
Now completely alone, the forest seemed to grow before her. Bony tendrils and roots were ripping up the earth as they edged their way towards her, and large eyes appeared to open between the slits of the trees bark. If they’d only turned back, why had she urged them deeper into the forest. The silence of the forest was replaced with the most horrific cacophony of screeching branches. Overwhelmed by the noise and the dark magic of the forest, Marla began to feel it would be easier to let the forest take her. She deserved nothing less for acting so foolishly, so much like the child she was. But Hully needed her, and he didn’t deserve this. She brought him here, and she was going to take him home.
“I am a Birchwell Witch, and I will save Hully Marlowe” she screamed into the forest, and it drew back somewhat, as if in surprise. Working quickly before the forest restarted its pursuit, Marla tore at the hem of her fraying dress and pulled away a strip of fabric, placing it over her nose and mouth and pulling it into a tight knot behind her head. Carefully, she lowered herself onto her hands and knees, and began to crawl into the darkness of the cave. It was a darkness unlike anything she had ever experienced. Normally her eyes would adjust to shades of blue and grey, but this darkness wouldn’t allow it. No matter how long she spent in the cave, all remained dark and terrifying. Her shortened dress now exposed her knees, and she could feel the skin tearing against the broken chips of slate that littered the cave floor. When the smoke appeared to have thinned, Marla stood upright, her knees smarting with each step.
For what felt like hours Marla continued along the dark passageway, till suddenly a soft singing voice reverberated from deep within the passageway causing Marla’s skin to erupt in goose bumps. Following the sound, she gradually began to see a small glow of light at the end of the passageway, a light marred only by what looked like child sized puppets sitting at the mouth of the tunnel. Hiding behind one of the clay puppets, Marla looked out into the large, cavernous room before her. There were other tunnels that appeared at different points across the walls of the cavern, as if they were arteries leading to the mountain’s heart. More puppets were seated at those tunnels’ entrances, and even more were littered around the room, or even strung up against the walls. A deep hole consumed most of the room’s floor, so that there was only a thin crescent of floor. The hole’s depths were unseeable, and a thick layering of the ashen cloud covered all but a set of poorly hewn stairs that lead into the darkness. Occasionally a bright flash of fire would erupt from the hole, filling the room with an intense heat. This fire would twist and curl around a creature that stood upon the crescent floor sharpening a large obsidian knife in the flames. Marla had to squint while looking at the creature, for its whole body moved as if it were made up of thousands of little pictures making Marla feel dizzy.
Behind this creature, sat a small figure upon a wooden bier. Marla was almost sure that it was Hully, but there was something wrong with him. His eyes were beady and glazed like a taxidermized animal, and his skin appeared waxen and shiny, as if it were slowly melting under the intense heat of the fiery pit. Marla could not help but think how greatly he resembled the many puppets around the room. Just as Marla was considering how she could get to Hully, the creature paused in its work and walked to the stone stairs, descending into the ashen gloom below. Afraid that this may be her only chance, Marla hurriedly pushed aside the listless dolls and stepped down from the tunnels mouth onto the crescent floor, weaving her way through the puppets towards Hully. “Hully” she whispered as she drew closer, but he did not move. Marla made to grab his shoulder and found her fingers squish into his flesh as if it were made from butter. She recoiled in horror, staring from the dark brown clay upon her fingers to Hully’s now disformed arm.
“And what do you think you are you doing sneaking into my chambers?”
A bolt of fear coursed through Marla’s body, and she jumped, quickly turning her head to face the creature coming up from the darkness below. Marla moved in front of Hully, shielding him from the creature. She stared into its horrifying face, its small, beady black eyes glinting under the bright, bursts of flame. The creature hissed, “No, no that won’t do. This one is mine now”, and suddenly the creature was before her pushing her roughly to the ground, where she was held by the now mobile puppets. She squirmed to try and free herself from the puppets grasp and managed to kick one of them into the fire and darkness below, but more came and replaced it.
“You cannot protect him” said the creature, and he placed his long fingers before Hully’s face and smudged Hully’s eye so that it simply vanished. Marla began to scream, but the puppets forced their grimy hands and fingers into her mouth to make her quiet again.
“You have not advanced far from the dirt you were made from. I wish I had cut you into little pieces and moulded you into rats. You looked beautiful, perfect in your waxen forms, only to be exhumed from the furnace as debased beasts.” It shook it’s head in disgust, and snarled, “and then you started making yourselves. Disgusting, filthy things you are. I twist up all the little children that wander into my cave and leave them for the forest”.
Marla turned her face away as another burst of flame erupted from the black pit, appearing to do little harm to the creature but singeing the hairs upon her legs and arms. The creature picked up its glass obsidian knife and bent down towards her.
“I wonder what I’ll do to your pretty little face?” it whispered, lying the cold blade against her cheek and leaning its rancid face towards her. Marla spat at it, and black, blistering welts appeared where her spit landed. The creature touched its face with a look of incomprehensibility, but before it could retaliate a thumping noise suddenly sounded from deep within the pit, and both creature and puppets alike paused as they cast their attention towards the narrow, stone staircase. A pale arm reached out of the gloom, and gradually pulled up the disfigured body of the puppet Marla had kicked down into the pit only moments before. The young boy appeared to be shrouded in the black smoke of the spirits that hung around the ceiling.
“You monster!” the boy screamed, hobbling towards the creature. He lunged, knocking the creature backwards so that the knife slipped from its grasp. The creature screamed and struggled, unable to push the boy away with its thin, gangly arms. Marla continued to push more puppets into the fires below till soon the creature was covered in small children, holding onto its legs and arms so that it teetered where it stood. Marla ran to the fallen blade and picked it up, and before the creature could raise its arm to stop her, she buried the knife into its neck. A black unctuous sap poured out from the wound, dripping onto Marla’s hand. The creature lurched back, clutching at the blade. It opened its mouth to try and howl at her, but instead bubbles of the black sap gurgled in its throat. Overwhelmed, the creature succumbed to the children, and was pulled over the edge of the crescent floor.
Not being able to see the creature made Marla feel even worse and she hurried back to Hully and began to push the bier towards the edge of the pit. She worried that if she dropped him into the flame a different spirit might find his body, and so she would have to hold him, and think of his spirit to bring him back. The bier was close to the edge now and Marla pulled it to a stop and waited. The chamber filled with an unnatural silence, broken only by a steady thumping noise from below, which made her pulse quicken.
“Please, please” Marla sobbed, unable to stop her entire body shaking. Finally, a large plume of fire erupted from the pit, consuming the entire bier and travelling partly up Marla’s arms. She screamed as her flesh sputtered in the heat, but she would not let go of Hully. The flames died away as they had done before, and Marla pulled the bier back towards the wall of the chamber. Hully appeared human again, his flesh no longer clay, but his arm was heavily disformed and his eye had been replaced by a film of skin.
“Marla?” he asked groggily, trying to raise his arm to feel his face, and realising it wouldn’t move.
“Hully we have to leave now” said Marla, grabbing his hand and helping him from the bier. She pulled him back through the tunnel till they finally saw the golden light of the afternoon sun. A deep, gurgling growl echoed from behind them as they came around the final corner of the corridor, spurring Marla ever faster towards the entrance. They finally cleared the dark tunnels and ran out into the open air, the sun beating down upon them from a pellucid sky. Marla made to run through the forest, but the trees bent down before her and would not let her pass. She tried pulling at them, but it only tore at her flesh, the branches were too sharp and tightly packed. The sound of retching and choking grew louder as the creature made its way to the entrance, and when Marla saw its face, she realised it was laughing. Marla wrapped her arms around Hully and held him tight as the creature sluggishly stumbled and slipped on the slate down towards where she stood. She could hear her Grandmothers stories in her head; stand firm and do not let it take your heart. Marla closed her eyes tightly, mustering all the power she had left within her. Her hair crackled and frizzed as energy welled up inside her, and when she opened her eyes, they shone silver. She knew who she was, and she knew the creature’s weakness as soon as she had spat on it.
“I am a Birchwell witch, and you cannot defeat me for I am your equal, you did not make me.”
The creature stumbled, its head lolling as if it were close to tearing off, and Marla could see there was fear in its eyes. Marla continued to shield Hully as she raised her arms and allowed the power inside her to course through her hands towards the creature.
As the creature drew closer, her hand touched the surface of the creature’s old body and it screamed an unnatural, awful sound. Gradually its body dissolved into sand and old rags, and the black sap that had once filled it oozed into the earth below.
As soon as the creature was gone, Marla collapsed onto the ground and could not move for some time. Her whole body shook, and she felt as if all her energy had been drained. She could not rest though, and gingerly, she got to her feet while supporting Hully on her shoulder. The trees had returned to their normal position as if aware that their master was no longer there, and she was able to pass easily through the forest till she could finally see the grass clearing and the roof of her little house. The sun had nearly set completely now, and all the other kids had left. Marla hurried past the lengthening shadows of the forest and ran towards her house yelling out for her mother and Grandmother before collapsing at the doorstep.
In the ensuing days, Marla drifted through states of feverish consciousness and disturbed sleep, only vaguely aware of her surroundings. She could feel the pain in her arms gradually lessening, but the torment and guilt she felt for her responsibility in Hully’s maiming did not heal. She would awake upon her small bed but would not open her eyes or move her body, hoping that sleep would drag her back into a realm of nothingness. She thought she could hear Hully speaking with her mother and Grandmother but could not bring herself to check for the fear that it would actualise Hully’s injuries.
It was a particularly cool afternoon when Marla felt a small warm hand press against her own. Knowing she could ignore her fears no longer, she slowly opened her eyes to see Hully smiling at her. He had a black piece of cloth strapped across his face to hide the missing eye.
“I’m so sorry” whispered Marla, unable to look at his face. Hully reach his good arm around her and hugged her close as she cried into his shoulder.
“I’m still me” he said, “but I’m pretty sure I reached the mountain first, so I guess I’m braver than you now”. Marla laughed shakily, “I’m just glad I could bring you back” she replied and the two of them talked and laughed till the aches of sadness and loss had left their chests and receded to the forgotten corners of their minds.