Edition 29: The Old Man in the Mountain by Tom Howard
The man Denara had her eye on is missing, and she may have made a catastrophic mistake. An old legend tells of an aged helper of the mountain, so Denara decides she has no choice but to fix it. Tom Howard weaves a seaside community, beaten down by time, unawares of looms behind them. -SY
The unexpected silence woke her. For the first time in Denara’s life, no raindrops fell on the roof tiles over her head. She left her bed, pulling her homespun robe around her, and made her way to the kitchen. Her mother, tall and thin, stared out the window at a morning sky lightened much too early.
“The rain has stopped,” said Denara.
“Don’t worry,” said her mother, returning to washing the breakfast dishes. “I saw blue skies for two hours when I was your age. It’ll start raining again in a few minutes.”
Denara scooped chunks of fish out of a bubbling stewpot into her bowl, appreciative of the stove’s warmth. “Would you like some breakfast, Mom?”
“Why did the rain stop?” Denara asked, pushing the bits of fish around in her bowl and hoping her mother had a logical reason for the rain stopping.
“I don’t know,” replied her mother. “It might have something to do with the low tide last night. Your father said he’d never seen the ocean that far out.”
Denara didn’t look up. The tide had been low last night. Her boots were still wet from walking far out on the reef at midnight.
Her mother frowned. “Were you up all night crying over that boy again? I’m sure he’ll find his way back.”
Denara’s stomach twisted. Rico, the most handsome young man in the village, had disappeared in a squall the week before. Out of her mind with loss, she’d slipped out of the house last night and done something stupid.
What insanity had caused her to take the Blue Crystal, the village’s holy artifact, and offer it to the god of the sea if he’d return Rico?
Her mother patted Denara’s shoulder. “That boy never gave you a second glance. It’s time you let his other sweethearts worry about him.” She turned back to the counter and dried the dishes with her apron. “Someone’s coming.”
“Mother Ada!” Cleve shouted as he scrambled across the covered porch. The door opened, and a young man with a twisted left foot entered the room.
“What is it, Cleve?” asked Denara’s mother. “Has something happened to my husband and sons?”
The young man, apprenticed to the priest because of his lameness, shook his head. “No, Mother. Hello, Denara. The Blue Crystal is gone!”
Denara’s heart raced with the fear someone had seen her take the crystal from the temple.
Her mother looked confused. “Why would anyone take the crystal? It’s been part of the altar since beforetimes.”
“I know,” said Cleve. “The Father asked me to see if anyone knew where it might be.”
Denara’s mother looked out the window. “Is that why it’s stopped raining?”
Denara’s elbow hit the bowl of fish broth. It jumped from the table and smashed on the floor. Pottery shards and lumps of fish swam in the liquid and spread on the flagstones.
“Denara, are you all right?” asked Cleve.
“She’ll be fine,” said her mother, turning to Cleve. “Maybe the old man removed it for polishing and forgot to put it back.”
“No, Mother. No one is allowed to touch the crystal, not even the priest.”
“What happens if the crystal isn’t returned?” asked Denara. “What if it if it never rains again?” She bent and cleaned up her mess. “In school, they said oceans would dry up.”
Cleve gave her an encouraging smile. “I’m sure it will rain again soon. Even if it doesn’t, the ocean will take a long time to evaporate.”
“Still,” said Denara’s mother, “I remember the sun burnt my skin in just a few hours of cloudlessness when I was a girl. We’ll have to be careful outside today. Cleve, we don’t have the Blue Crystal.”
“No,” Denara said, standing with a cloth of broken bowl pieces and cold fish. “It’s not here.”
A week later, Denara was still sleeping poorly, and the rain hadn’t returned. At dinner, her father argued with her brothers over the curing of fish. Her brothers didn’t see why they couldn’t dry the fish outside on the beach instead of carrying it to the sheds.
“It’s the way we’ve always done it,” said her father. “What if it starts to rain while all the fish is exposed? We’ll lose the entire catch, meager as it is. There are fewer fish in our nets every day.”
“Father,” said Mayo, her oldest brother, “what if it never rains again?” Like the others, Mayo’s face glowed with serious sunburn. The village healer had made a salve from some of the local plants, but so far only hats and small sun shields prevented skin from blistering.
The old priest had taken to his bed, leaving Cleve to investigate and give what assurances he could to the villagers. Denara’s mother had invited the boy to dinner, and he sat beside Denara, looking tired.
“What does the priest say, Cleve?” Linkon asked. While Mayo favored his broad father, Linkon stood as tall and thin as Denara and their mother.
“He reads the ancient books, trying to find a sign,” said Cleve. “He’s not sure the crystal’s absence is linked to the rain stopping.”
“What else could it be?” asked Mayo, taking another helping of fried fish, seasoned with a few of his mother’s carefully grown peppers.
“We don’t know,” said Cleve. “Everyone is nervous and blames the robbery on their neighbors. We may need a peacekeeper.”
“A peacekeeper?” Denara’s father asked. “We’ve not had one in the village since I was a boy. Has there been violence?”
Cleve shook his head. “Not yet. Mostly shouting matches.”
“Couldn’t the crystal have dissolved or something?” suggested Denara. “Perhaps it had blinked off and on so long that it simply broke down.”
“That’s stupid,” said Linkon. “Why would the crystal dissolve suddenly after surviving for centuries? I say we elect a peacekeeper and let him recover the crystal.”
Denara swallowed hard. A peacekeeper would keep searching and questioning until he discovered who had taken the crystal.
“Denara, are you all right?” asked her mother. “You haven’t touched a bite of dinner. I don’t think you’re sleeping. It’s not about that boy, is it?”
“What boy?” asked Cleve.
“Rico,” said Linkon with a smirk. “Like he even knew her name.”
“Maybe we should ask the Old Man in the Mountain,” said Mayo.
“Who?” asked Denara.
“It’s an old legend,” said Cleve. “He’s supposed to live on Silver Mountain, an immortal who is all-knowing.”
“He could start the rain again?” asked Denara.
“He’s supposed to be able to do anything,” said Cleve. “Too bad he’s not real.”
“Cleve is right,” said her father, reaching for the fruit-in-syrup her mother had prepared for dessert. “It’s just an old wives’ tale. He’s as unlikely to come down from his mountain to save us as Denara is to bake a cake.”
“I’m sure Denara’s cake would be fine,” said Cleve, blushing as he spoke.
Denara, her mind buzzing with thoughts of the old man in the mountain, didn’t respond to her father’s teasing or Cleve’s kind words. For the first time in days, she felt hopeful, even if she had to rely on a dusty old legend. She ate. If she intended to climb Silver Mountain in the morning, she’d need her strength.
“Cleve, come sit on the porch and tell me more about this Old Man in the Mountain.” She ignored the hopeful look that passed between her parents. Let them think she felt kindly toward Cleve. In her heart, she knew she could never love anyone but Rico.
On the porch, she listened as Cleve stammered through what little he knew of the legend.
“It’s from the beforetimes,” he said. “He descends from Silver Mountain every decade or so, bringing knowledge and gifts.”
“That’s impossible,” she said. “No one can live that long.”
Cleve nodded. “The records show he came down from the mountain often in the early days, but there’s been no mention of him for many generations.”
“How would we find him? He must have had a cave or something. If he really existed, I mean.”
Cleve took her hand in his. “No one can reach Silver Mountain. The animals in the jungles are dangerous. Only since we’ve built the barricade around the village have we managed to protect ourselves.”
His eyes held hope and fondness. She felt sorry for him.
“You’re right,” she said, pulling back her hand. “I’m just upset about…the rain stopping. I’d better go in and help Mother clear the table. Thank you for telling me about the Old Man in the Mountain.”
Cleve stood. “I don’t like seeing you upset, Denara. I’ll do anything to help.”
“Thank you,” she said and watched him hobble away into the night.
If there was an Old Man and he could help her restore the crystal and start the rains again, she had to find him. The short tempers in town and the cases of sunburn were only the beginning. With the rains gone, her father said the fish would move out to cooler waters. Without fish, the villagers would die.
That night, she wrote her parents a note, shoving her fears to the back of her mind. She told them she intended to search for her one true love, Rico, and had taken the little boat to search for him. She begged them not to despair, that she would save Rico and return as soon as she could. Even to her, it sounded desperate and sad. She intended to go inland and not out to sea. She’d ask the Old Man in the Mountain to retrieve the crystal and restore the rains. Afterwards, she’d ask him to find Rico. How she hoped to accomplish all that, she didn’t know, but she had to try.
Stars sparkled overhead as she slipped out of the homestead and made her way quietly to the boathouse. The sun would not appear for hours, but she wore a hat, Linkon’s old trousers, and a thick shirt. She’d packed extra clothing and some food from the larder in her pack. She took a sturdy fishpole, a gaff with a large metal hook at the end, to fend off the deadly jungle animals.
She paddled the small boat down the coastline and released it in shallow water. With the outgoing tide, it would be miles away before they found it. She watched the little boat drift out of sight from the lonely beach. Her father had made that boat for her, and she’d used it for shallow fishing until her mother insisted fishing made Denara appear unladylike and demanded she help with the kitchen duties instead. Her mother wouldn’t miss her at all. Always pointing out how she’d been married and had a child by the time she was Denara’s age.
The night air chilled Denara as she waited for the sun to rise. Silver Mountain could be seen from the village, but she waited until morning to enter the jungle. Denara didn’t know how Silver Mountain had gotten its name. She’d overheard Linkon call it the World’s Breast once before Father cuffed him. It did look like a breast, broad at the base and rising to a shallow peak. The jungle crept up as far as it could, but the top stood gray and naked.
Looking down at her baggy shirt, Silver Mountain didn’t look much like one of her breasts. Yet. Silver Mountain looked more like one of the breasts on the young women Rico took into his father’s boathouse when he thought no one noticed. He’d never taken Denara to the boathouse, but one day when he returned and discovered her heroic efforts to save him, he’d sweep her up in his big strong arms.
Wrapping her arms around her knees, Denara drifted off to a pleasant dream, one where Rico paddled her little boat ashore and woke her with a kiss. Oddly enough, she didn’t recall him limping before.
The morning sun woke her. She felt sticky and hot and stretched her stiff limbs before peeing in the yellowgrass and eating a piece of dried fish from her pack. She could see Silver Mountain rising above the jungle. It didn’t look very far away.
After a long, hot day, she was lost, frightened, and bleeding from thorns and sharp bladed grasses covering the jungle floor. She’d encountered no animals but occasionally heard things scurrying through the grasses. Losing sight of the mountain through the forest canopy, she climbed trees periodically to keep her heading. Each climb took more and more energy, and the mountain seemed no nearer. She thought of turning back, but her brothers’ ridicule and memories of Rico’s dimples kept her moving.
She passed several streams and drank cool water from them. Strange paw prints made her clutch her fishpole and move on. Her day in the jungle turned into a never-ending series of steps—walk, climb, walk, climb, walk—but each step seemed shorter and more difficult. As darkness settled, Denara selected a tree with few lower limbs and tied herself with her rope belt to a branch near the top.
The jungle came alive at night, and Denara slept little as things roared and screamed, slithered and crashed beneath her. Once, a creature hit her tree so hard she feared she’d fall. She heard something large on the branch below her and shoved her fishpole toward it. The unseen creature screamed and fell to the ground, slinking away and not returning.
The rest of the night, nothing bothered her. She didn’t think she’d slept at all, but when she opened her eyes, the jungle floor showed patterns of sunlight. She untied herself and ate a piece of bread. The smell of yeast and grain made her homesick.
Her parents would be sad when they found her bed empty. Her brothers, cursing her, would take the big boats and search for her. Her mother would tell Cleve, and he’d be sad she’d gone. By noon, her father and her brothers would take their nets out, keeping an eye out for Denara’s little boat as they fished.
Climbing to the canopy, she saw the Silver Mountain clearer than ever. The clouds had drifted away, leaving a pale blue sky and a bright red sun.
Shivering at the sight of tracks around the base of the tree when she climbed down, she scanned the surrounding underbrush but saw nothing. A big puddle of blood had soaked into the ground. She ignored it and headed toward Silver Mountain, pleased she’d survived a night in the jungle by herself. Behind her, the yellowgrass rustled, and she quickened her pace.
At midday, she still hadn’t reached her destination. The yellowgrass stood taller, impeding her path and slowing her down. Something large snarled behind her, following her through the thick grass but staying a safe distance from her fishpole. Afraid a creature would cut her to ribbons from behind, she turned and lost her footing. In her scramble to regain her feet, she twisted her knee. Hot, dirty, and in pain, she quelled her fears and struggled toward the base of the mountain.
When the attack came, silent and deadly, she was limping uphill through the tall grass – now brown instead of familiar yellow. Denara barely turned when a large, sleek reptile with massive claws sprang at her. She screamed in pain as talons sliced her right leg to the bone. Grasping for the fishpole to defend herself, she found the creature had broken it in half. She grabbed the end with the hook and tried to ignore the pain. She swung the hook at the reptile’s soft underbelly. Foul, green blood drenched her, and the creature recoiled enough for her to crawl backwards on her good leg.
The creature clawed at the imbedded hook before giving a final spasm and dying.
Squeezing her open wound closed as best she could, Denara sank to the ground in a puddle of her own blood. As blackness settled over her and her grip weakened, she saw Rico’s face, staring at her with concern. And wearing a long white beard.
Her bed felt unusually warm and soft. She saw bright lights through her closed eyelids. Squinting, she tried to sit up but found herself restrained. She felt naked. Had Rico undressed her? Her leg—
“You had a bad fall, Sergeant,” said a shadow above her. “You’re locked in a sterile medical field while the autodoc repairs your leg. You’ll be back on duty in no time.”
“Please let me go,” she said. She raised her head to find herself covered by a thin blanket of silvery white.
“Just one more minute, lass. I’m Clarence.”
Her leg didn’t hurt. In fact, she couldn’t feel her leg.
“Mason!” Clarence shouted, pulling his head back far enough to reveal his face. A long white beard hid most of it, and he wore clothing made of the same silver material as her blanket. “We’ll have to put the sergeant on light duty for a few days. Mason, where the hell are you?”
He stopped as a jagged cough forced him to grab the edge of her bed. Mechanical arms swung away from the lower part of Denara’s body and raised themselves to the ceiling. Pressure against her body disappeared, and she was able to sit up.
Clarence pinched her exposed calf.
“Ow,” she said. She looked around for the old man’s companion, but she saw no one else in the large chamber. Oval shaped, the room had a very high ceiling and smooth walls, all as white as Clarence’s robes.
“I’m not sure you’re really here,” he said. “Who are you? What is your geneline?”
Denara held the blanket around her. “I’m not sure I’m really here, either, but my name is Denara. I don’t know what a geneline is. Are you the Old Man in the Mountain?”
Clarence moved slowly to a wall of cabinets, opened one, and withdrew a robe like the one he wore. “The autodoc had to cut your clothes off to repair your leg. You were barely alive by the time I dragged you in here. Mason!”
She swung her legs off the table. The skin of her leg looked normal where she expected to see an ugly laceration. “What happened to me?”
Clarence looked pleased with himself. “The alarms went off. I called security, but they didn’t respond. I found you and dragged you in here. The autodoc healed you.”
He stumbled toward a large chair near her bed. “I must take your place for a time. I need more and more recuperation time each time I wake from stasis. Autodoc, transfer patient.”
The old man sat in a nearby chair, closed his eyes, and sighed as the mechanical arms moved from her bed to him. She averted her eyes as probes opened his robe and inserted themselves into ports in his skinny frame. She dressed in the loose robe he’d provided and slid off the bed. She expected her injured leg to be weak, but the autodoc proved much more effective than the village healer.
Afraid Mason might appear at any moment, she looked for a way to escape. Not seeing an exit, she examined the Old Man’s cave while he napped in the autodoc chair. Light came from the ceiling and walls, but Denara felt no heat when she placed her hand on a sloping wall. Strange devices, blinking and pulsing, lined the circular room. One section, containing her bed and Clarence’s chair, also held a transparent tube, man-sized and empty.
One part of the wall held no mechanisms, and Denara moved toward it, searching for a door and a lock. She reached out her hand to a dark panel.
“I wouldn’t open that door,” said Clarence as he rose. “The lower levels are unsafe. More of the corridors have collapsed while I slept. I waited too long. I’m too weak to go to the village to find my replacement. Thank the stars you appeared on my doorstep.”
“Am I inside Silver Mountain?” asked Denara.
He ignored her question. “I’ve seen your village grow over the centuries. How many people live there now?”
“Over a hundred,” said Denara. “Including Mae’s twins last week. If you are the all-knowing Old Man in the Mountain, why do you need to ask?”
“I haven’t visited your village in hundreds of years. Each time I sleep, it takes me longer to regain my strength. I’m afraid the Old Man will become the Dead Man in the Mountain soon. Why is the population so small?”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s been centuries, why aren’t there more people?” he demanded.
“I don’t know. Large beasts attacked many of our hunters in the past. We’ve built a barricade recently.”
“Ah,” he said. “You’ve become a fishing community. Now your numbers should increase.”
“Where is Mason?” she asked.
“Mason?” Clarence repeated, confusion plain on his face. “He served as my valet when we first landed. He’s been dead for quite some time.”
She remained curious why he had saved her. “Can you see outside?” Denara asked. “Do you know why the rains have stopped?”
“The rains?” asked Clarence as he stood and pointed at a nearby wall.
To Denara’s surprise, the walls slid back to reveal the surrounding jungle below. The sun sank into the distant sea, and the sky glowed in red and orange stripes. She approached the windows, awestruck by the view and the realization she must be atop Silver Mountain.
“I didn’t notice the rains had stopped,” said Clarence. “I tried to return to my sleep pod, but it would not allow my dying body to reenter. I have slept too long and too often. Your approach set off the alarms.”
“Can you restart the rains?” she asked, tearing herself away from the view of the curve of the sea and the beautiful sunset.
“I can but why would I? When the crew settled here, they had the controls for the weather satellite. They were supposed to stop the rain after the enemy departed. We used the cloud cover as a shield.”
“Crew?” asked Denara. “Weather satellite? Enemy!” Denara backed away. “I don’t understand.”
“It’s a long story,” said Clarence, rubbing his temples. “I’ll have Mason bring us some tea.”
Unfamiliar with tea, Denara nodded, tired of asking questions about Clarence’s strange world. Perhaps she’d hit her head when the beast attacked.
If Clarence had the power to restore the rain, perhaps he could find a way to locate Rico.
Clarence shouted for his valet again and finally activated a food machine in the wall. The tea tasted fine after she added sweetening and something Clarence called ‘cream.’ Although hungry, she turned down his offer of oatmeal from the machine. She sat at a small table with the old man, impatiently waiting for him to explain Silver Mountain and the unusual things she saw around her.
“I’m sorry I only have oatmeal,” said Clarence. “I find the softer foods gentler on my old teeth and gums.”
“We have oatmeal,” said Denara. “Like wheat, we don’t have much of it. The perpetual rains make it grow slowly.”
“Why haven’t your elders used the crystal controller to turn off the rain?” asked Clarence. He took a sip of his tea, made a face, and added more cream. After his session in the autodoc, he seemed more animated and alert. “I sent word to them hundreds of years ago that they were safe.”
Denara shook her head. “We never suspected the crystal controlled the weather. Rain clouds have always covered the planet. We were frightened when they disappeared.”
“Who is Rico?” Clarence asked. “You cried out for him when you were unconscious.”
Denara blushed. “He is…a friend.”
Clarence studied her face before continuing. “I should have stayed in better contact with the colony. I spent all my time watching for the enemy. The colony survived and grew. I thought they were fine, enjoying the wet weather.”
“So they won’t suffer if the rain stops? The oceans won’t dry up?”
Clarence smiled. “No. The planet is mostly water. Your village exists on one of the larger islands. It will soon adapt to a normal rain cycle. You should have learned that in basic science class, Sergeant. I shall speak to your squadron commander.”
“I’m not a sergeant,” she said. “I don’t know what a squadron commander is.” Obviously, he confused her with someone else.
“And what of this enemy?” she asked. “What if they return?”
“I’m certain the war has passed us by in the last eight hundred years. Since the enemy forced us to land here, I’ve monitored this sector of space. Your village elders neglected to tell you your history.”
He added more cream to his cup of tea. “The humans, people like you and me, were a mighty race. When we spread to the stars, we encountered the Patreen, a warlike race of insectoids. We fought for every sector and every planet. Battle cruisers packed with soldiers secured the colonists’ safety.”
“So we’re colonists?” she asked.
“No. We’re the soldiers. The Patreen damaged the cruiser and forced us to crash-land here. We launched a weather satellite to create cloud cover to prevent the Patreen from detecting us. The men and women from the ship formed their own colony, and I stayed here to keep watch.”
“We’re inside the cruiser?” asked Denara, looking at the setting sun.
“No. This is one of the shuttles. The last shuttle carrying crew. The damaged cruiser fell into the sea.”
Denara’s grew angry. “All this time, you’ve had the means to help us? The autodoc, the food maker? While the villagers were being killed by wild beasts and disease, you sat here napping, sneaking down occasionally to count us?”
“I apologize for that, Denara,” he said. “I couldn’t save everyone—”
“So you chose to save none?” She stood, her hands clenched at her sides. “Right now my beloved Rico is lost at sea. Could your satellites have saved him?”
“Yes, but my task here is not to make your lives easier. I ensured the enemy didn’t return and destroy you all.” He coughed for several minutes, each hack followed by a moan as he clutched his chest. “They may return someday.”
“Are you all right?” she asked, moving to help him sit up. He didn’t look as if he’d last much longer, and she needed him to rescue Rico.
“I’m glad you turned off the rain,” he wheezed.
“How do you know I turned off the rain?”
He took another sip of tea and patted his chest. “You apologized while you were delirious. What did you do to the controller?”
Denara sighed. “I gave the crystal to the sea god to save Rico.”
Another cough interrupted Clarence’s dry laugh. “I hope your husband is worth it.”
“He’s not my husband,” said Denara, her cheeks hot. “He’s my…intended.”
“I’m fifteen,” said Denara. “After I rescue him, he’ll see me in a whole new light.”
Clarence shook his head. “You did all this for a young man who doesn’t know you’re alive? Is he handsome, the object of desire for all swooning maidens?”
Denara’s blood grew hot. “I am not a swooning maiden.”
“That’s probably true. The animal you killed in the jungle would have had a swooning maiden for dinner.”
“Can you find Rico or not?”
He pushed himself to his feet. “For a price. Perhaps more than you’re willing to pay. It will take Mason a few minutes to reset the satellite to surface scan. The lack of cloud cover will help. Do you know the area to search?”
“Yes. He’s been gone a week. The currents would have taken him south of the village. He may have washed up on the beach. How will you be able to see him?”
“I will show you, but if I find your heart’s desire for you, you must stay here with me and take over my watcher duties when I’m gone. The Patreen are sneaky.”
Denara stared at the old man. “You’re insane. I can’t learn to use all this.”
“You’re young, you’re bright, and you are brave. Can you read and write?”
“Of course I can read and write! I went to the sixth grade like all the village children.”
“Algebra? Physics? Calculus?”
“I don’t know what any of those words mean. But find Rico for me, and we’ll discuss it.” The possibility of Rico’s rescue made her heart hurt with joy.
Clarence moved to a panel and passed his hand over a section of the wall, replacing the twilight sky through the window with an image of a large blue sphere.
Denara grew dizzy as the moving picture swooped down on a small brown spot on the orb. When the picture stopped, an island – her island she supposed – sat placidly, lit by the setting sun. She could make out beaches and trees. Smoke came from chimneys in her village, and she could see boats at sea. Her father and brothers would be in those boats, returning home.
“I see an abandoned boat out at sea,” said Clarence. “It’s not far from your village.”
“No. That is my little boat. I left it to convince my family I’d gone looking for Rico and not for you.”
“Love must have changed much while I slept,” said Clarence.
“Then you must never have been in love, old man,” Denara said.
Clarence smiled but didn’t argue. “I’ve found another boat, this one pulled up on the beach not far from your village. Let me see if I can get a closer view.”
“There’s a body on the beach!” exclaimed Denara, her heart pounding. Oh god, had she gone through all this just to find Rico dead? “We’re too late!”
“No,” said Clarence. “I think the body is moving.”
The picture focused on a young man writhing on the sand, his clothes half torn off.
“We’ve got to help him!” she cried.
Clarence turned to her. “Um. It appears someone is already helping him.”
As she stared, her beloved Rico rolled over to reveal the naked body of Serena Ironsmith.
“No!” screamed Denara. “It can’t be. He was lost at sea.” She clutched her chest as if her small hand could stop her heart from breaking. The room swam, and she braced herself against the wall.
“Who is she?” asked Clarence.
“The mayor’s wife. She must be slipping away to spend time with Rico.”
“Do married women often do that?” said Clarence, waving his hand and removing the image.
“No. They must have planned his disappearance together. He sailed off to a nearby beach during a storm, and she came to meet him.” Denara couldn’t stop seeing them writhing on the sand. She’d hoped Rico would wake up one day and realize his love for her, but if he copulated with the married women of the village as well as the single ones, no hope remained.
“You are the Old Man in the Mountain,” she said through clenched teeth. “Make him pay for what he’s done to me.”
Clarence made his way to his chair. “Ah, the fickle heart of a pretty girl. We do not punish. We protect and we watch.” He reached for his cup, knocking it off the table. “Now, my days of doing even that are numbered.”
“What about me? What about Rico and the village?”
“It’s up to you now, Watcher. You are our only hope. Now that you know the secret of Silver Mountain, do you think you’ll be satisfied as a fishwife?”
She saw the truth of it. She hated Rico now. She couldn’t go home to her family knowing what she knew.
“I’m to become the Old Woman in the Mountain?”
“Not for hundreds of years.” Clarence looked at the sleep pod. “When you enter the stasis tube, the machine will teach you about the technology you will need. When you awake, I will be gone.”
“What if I say no?” Denara asked. “What if I don’t want to spend my time watching and sleeping? I can’t leave my mother and father.”
“It’s up to you. Spend the night inside your mountain and decide what you really want to do with your future.”
He led her to a small room with a cot and an indoor outhouse. Clarence showed her how to operate the toilet and a large container called a bathtub. As she soaked in the unbelievably warm water, she tried to cry a few tears for Rico. She was surprised when she couldn’t.
Her family probably thought her lost at sea by now. One more night would not change things. Her entire world had been torn apart, and she didn’t know if she could weave herself back into the fabric of her community knowing what the Old Man in the Mountain had shown her. She didn’t look forward to being a perpetual baby maker, never allowed to sail the sea or think for herself.
The next morning, after another bath and a tasty bowl of oatmeal supplied by Clarence and the food machine, she asked more questions.
“If I take your place, can I visit the village occasionally?” she asked. “Just to help them.”
“Yes,” he said with a smile, “after your first decade in the sleep pod. I don’t want you sticking a hook into Rico or giving your family an unfair technological advantage.”
She didn’t like it, but she understood. “It’s funny how my entire life has been Rico, Rico, Rico. I’m going to feel lost without him.”
“Sounds as if you’ve made your decision. You’ll have plenty to occupy your time, Denara. First, I’ll have Mason show you how the food synthesizer works. I’m sure you don’t want to eat oatmeal for the next thousand years.”
“That’s true,” she said, having made her choice. “Can you show me how to activate that picture screen?”
Clarence nodded. “After breakfast. You’ve got all the time in the world.”
Tom Howard is a science fiction and fantasy short story writer living in Little Rock, Arkansas. He thanks his children and friends for their inspiration and the Central Arkansas Speculative Fiction Writers’ Group for their perspiration. Find out more about Tom at his Amazon author page.