“The Girl on the Mountain,” by Jennifer Diemer
The girl on the mountain keeps Kivrin’s village safe, and the village, in turn, makes offerings to her every summer. But Kivrin harbors a years-old secret, one she hopes she will be brave enough to speak aloud.
(photo by blmiers2)
(Part of Project Unicorn: A Lesbian YA Extravaganza, updated twice weekly on Mondays and Fridays with a free, original, never-before-published YA short story featuring a lesbian heroine. Also, every story is a work of genre fiction [Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Dystopian, Post-apocalyptic, etc.].)
“The Girl on the Mountain”
by Jennifer Diemer
They call her Goddess, the Deliverer, She Who Moves the Sky.
I am the one who must bring the gifts to her every summer because I’m the one who found her, the only person from my village who has ever seen her or spoken with her. The only person who does not fear her.
My heart stills within me now at the thought of seeing her again after so many months away. Will she think me changed? Will she see the confession in my eyes? What will she say when I tell her that Lem proposed to me three months ago, and that I refused him, that I told him I was in love with someone else?
Will I summon the courage at last, or will I leave her mountain with the burden of my heartache once again?
Nine years ago, I was eight, and I was lost.
While my father’s hunting party stalked a herd of elk across the cliffs, I lingered behind in a patch of laurel, singing to myself and weaving a flower chain to take home to my mother.
Mother was sick then, and she died a few weeks later, but I believed, as children are wont to do, that my wishes and flowers could make her well, could reignite the spark in her pain-dulled eyes. I imagined presenting her with my white-petaled necklace, looping it over her head… She would be so pleased by my gift that she’d whirl me around until both of our dresses flared, and then she’d bake blackberry muffins and tell me a story at the fireside. Just like she used to do, before the fever came.
So many of the villagers had fallen ill over the winter, adults and children both. Rumors spread that Sun Valley was cursed, that we had angered a god by dancing on Rest Days or by overindulging in wine and song. Soon enough, dancing and drinking and singing were forbidden, and we prayed together from noon until dusk. But the fever raged on, and by summer, it had claimed a dozen lives and threatened several dozen more.
I begged my father to take me to the cliffs with him because I knew the laurels grew there, and they were my mother’s favorite flower, for she had grown up in the mountain range to the south of Sun Valley. Father agreed but made me promise to hold silent and stay out of the hunters’ way. He had neither the time nor the desire to child-watch a small, curious girl rambling over tricky crags and slick, mud-stained knolls.
But I fell to daydreaming there in the laurels, and I never noticed that the party had moved on until a cool breath of wind gusted my brown hair over my face, and I looked up, toward the cliffs, and saw no one there. My father and the others were gone. Possibly long gone. I stood, forgetting my flowers, heart beating like a hoofed stampede inside my chest. I had never been alone before, and here I was, lost in an unknown wilderness, too many miles from the village to walk back on foot.
I thought about crying, but it seemed a misuse of energy, so I fell back onto the ground, crushing my laurel chain beneath my knees, and simply stared. I stared at the space the party had occupied when last I’d noticed them. The scrub was still mashed down from their stamping horses, and I spied muddy boot prints upon the speckled granite. Perhaps, if I ran, I might catch up with them… But what if I followed the wrong path? What if I couldn’t find my way back here, where they surely must pass in order to return home to Sun Valley?
It seemed best to remain where I was, no matter how long I must wait, and no matter how frightened I felt—so lonesome in such a wide, sprawling place.
With a shaky sigh, I spread out on my back amongst the fragrant laurels and unfocused my eyes to find shapes in the clouds. The game calmed me. I lifted my arm and traced a finger along the fluffy white back of a newborn lamb, curled on its side with spindly legs tucked beneath its chin. I found a tall, narrow church with a towering spire; a hunchbacked woman carrying a small child in her arms; a sleek cat floating on fat, feathered wings.
My eyes were just beginning to slide closed with weariness when I saw something amongst the clouds that was not a cloud and not a bird, either. I widened my gaze and raised up onto my elbows, head tilted back so that my hair grazed the laurel bed and caught on the leaves.
I blinked and rubbed my eyes, but the vision remained.
There was a child—a girl—hovering above me in the sky.
She had no wings and appeared to be suspended, bare toes pointing down, as if she were held up by invisible strings. But then, in a heart-stopping instant, she curled toward me, headfirst, and drifted down the sky like a leaf caught in the wind: erratically, arms and legs sweeping wide. Her close-fitting, blue-grey gown billowed a little at her ankles.
I bit my lip and straightened my back, watching her descent with slitted eyes, a skeptic’s gaze. Surely I was dreaming, though the hard ground made my young bones ache, and I felt the air shift around me with her unpredictable movements.
Pinching myself, I wished with all my might that I would waken to find my father and his party gathered around me, scolding me for lagging behind. I wouldn’t mind the punishment, any punishment. I just wanted home and Mother and a soft, warm bed to lie upon.
But I didn’t wake up, couldn’t, because I wasn’t asleep, no matter how dreamlike the world now seemed as the floating girl alighted upon the granite beside me and knelt down to meet my stare eye to eye.
“Are you a cloud?” she asked me in a strange wispy voice, delicate as a wishing flower or a spider’s web.
I almost laughed at her question, it was so silly, but her earnest expression made me tilt my head and frown. “I’m a girl,” I told her simply. “A girl like you.”
Her small mouth tightened. She took my hand and placed her own hand flat against my palm. Our fingers were the same length, though her skin was paler than mine, nearly as white as the laurels beneath our feet. “No.” She caught me in her steady gaze, watery blue and bottomless. “Not like me,” she whispered, letting my hand fall. She sat back on her knees, calm and still.
I crossed my legs and leaned toward her. “How did you do it? How can you fly? I thought only birds could fly. I never saw a girl do that before. Can you teach me how—”
“No,” she said, and the word contained such profound sadness that I regretted my hasty questioning. But then she shook her head and tried to smile. “I wish I could teach you. But you’re too heavy for flying. That’s the difference between us.” She plucked at the laurels and cradled a small bloom in her hand, then placed it in my hair, just behind my ear. “And that you’re lovelier than me.”
I bowed my head, suddenly shy. When I looked back up at her, she was smiling softly, and I smiled, too. “My name is Kivrin. What’s your name?”
“I’ve never had need for a name. I don’t have one.”
Puzzled at this, I wondered if her lack of a name had something to do with her ability to fly. I was reluctant to broach that subject again, so I licked my lips and picked up my chain of flowers. “Would you like to be called Laurel?” I asked her. “You live here amongst them, or above them, and you look a little like them—soft and white.”
The girl laughed, though her laughter sounded more like sighing. “You may call me Laurel, yes, if you wish to.”
Happy all of the sudden, and humming an old lullaby to myself, I began to work at my chain again, bending and slitting the flower stems. I noticed Laurel watching me and preened at the attention, showing off for her by making wide, sweeping gestures and putting on a serious, grown-up face. “If you don’t slit the stem just right,” I told her importantly, “the flower chain will break. And then Mother will never get better, and Father will get angrier and angrier and stay away from home all night long, and I will…” I ducked my head to hide my childish tears, but Laurel patted my cheek and gazed at me gently.
“Is your mother sick, Kivrin?”
“Yes.” I nodded, wiping at my leaky nose. “Many people in Sun Valley are sick. Father says Mother will die, but I don’t believe it. I think she’ll be well soon, and she and I will take walks like we used to do, gathering mushrooms and berries. And she’ll teach me how to dance, like she promised she would, before it was forbidden, before…”
Laurel rose to her feet. “Perhaps I can help you—you and your village. I have seen the sickness you’re speaking of. And I know its cause: a disease in the air.”
I swallowed, blinking up at her. Her strange silver hair was haloed with golden light. At once, the full weight of my situation struck me, and I slumped, overwhelmed. Had Laurel truly…flown? How had she done that? She had said we weren’t the same, that she wasn’t a girl like me. What, then, was she? Now, gazing up at her, I was reminded of the statues in the village chapel, the smooth-faced goddesses with crowns of light encircling their heads.
I stumbled to my feet to stand beside her, surprised to realize that I was a little taller than her, though I naturally stooped beneath her piercing gaze. “How do you know,” I began, voice shaky, “about the sickness? How…how can you help?”
Laurel smiled broadly at me and pointed to her feet. I looked down at them, confused, and then watched in awe as, with a gentle scraping of skin on stone, her toes—her whole body—lifted from the ground, and she was floating beside me, bobbing a little, like a paper boat in a stream.
“How—” I began again, but she tapped my mouth with her finger, mischief in her eyes, and then swept up so quickly that my heart fell away, and I gasped, gaping toward the sky, toward her, because she was far above my head now, out of reach.
“I can’t tell you how I fly any more than you can tell me how you walk,” Laurel said lightly, still smiling. “It’s simply what I do, who I am.”
“Who…are you?” I took a few steps backward, keeping her in my sights.
“That depends on who you ask, Kivrin. People have given me—my people—so many names. None as lovely as Laurel, though.” She swooped down suddenly and suspended herself beside me, face to face—but upside-down. I laughed at the funny way her face looked from the odd angle; her long hair dangled down to tickle my neck. “Would you like me to help you?” she asked, slowing turning in the air, tucking in her arms and legs as she whirled. When she was right-side up, she lowered to the ground again—silently, effortlessly—and looked up at me, awaiting my answer.
“Yes,” I breathed, unable to hide my tears now, because I believed her; I believed she truly could help my village, could save my neighbors, my mother. “Please help us,” I choked, sobbing.
Laurel took me in her arms, and I gasped quietly, startled by the softness of her skin and the light feeling of her, as if she truly were made of air or clouds. I wondered again what she was, who she was, to be able to do such extraordinary things, but her scent surrounded me, soothed me, and I grew relaxed in her embrace.
Everything would be fine now, I knew. Laurel would save us, all of us, and it didn’t matter how she did it, or who she was, only that she was kind and my friend.
“Kivrin,” she whispered against my hair, “there are men approaching. I hear their voices in the wind.”
“My father!” I let her go and peered over her shoulder, craning my neck to catch sight of the hunting party.
“They’re many paces off but will be here soon.” Laurel rested her hands on my shoulders and stared into my eyes. “They mustn’t see me. I have to go. But…” She lowered her gaze and smiled softly to herself. “I’m glad we met today. I knew you wouldn’t be afraid of me, that you were brave and good.”
“Brave and good?” I repeated, mystified, because I had never been called either of those words, nor anything like them. My father favored “lazy and wild,” and my mother called me her little goat, because I was always rambling out of doors, upon the hills, and striking up mischief.
Brave and good. The words circled in my mind, again and again, until they made a sort of groove and became a part of me, until they began to feel almost true. Perhaps I wasn’t truly brave and good, but I could aspire to be, for Laurel. I would try to be brave and good for her.
“I’ll do what I can for your village,” she said then, exhaling a little sigh. “But, Kivrin, your mother… I can’t promise—”
“I know,” I said, and I did know, deep down. I knew that my mother was dying, that nothing and no one could save her, not a laurel chain, not even a girl made of clouds. And I couldn’t think about it, not too long or too hard, because then I’d shatter, and I wasn’t prepared to shatter, not yet.
I took a trembling breath and smiled. “I’m glad to have met you, too.”
Something sparked between us, something I could never explain, or try to, because it was at the borders of my vision, and I felt it more than saw it. But it happened: a lightning moment, a bolt zapping from me to her, or her to me, and when our eyes met afterward, Laurel looked older, somehow. Softer… Beautiful.
I took a step nearer to her, but then the voices were upon us, and Laurel swept upward, so high so quickly that I lost track of her as she arced across the sun.
My father found me blinking up at the sky and knocked the laurel from my hair with his big, fisted hand. “Last time you’re coming here, you wild, lazy—”
Frightened by the finality of his words, by the prospect of never returning to the mountain, of never seeing Laurel again, I told him everything, though the words tasted profane as they fell from my lips, too ordinary to explain what had just happened and all I had felt, all I now knew.
Still, Father—and his hunting party gathered around me—listened to all I had to say and, in the end, chose to believe me, because what else did they have to hold onto? Maybe Reiner’s flighty daughter had fallen asleep in the laurels and had a fantastical dream…or maybe she truly had seen a mountain goddess who had promised to heal Sun Valley and make its people well.
They clung to the latter possibility, to hope, and sent me back to the mountain every summer with the village’s offerings, because Laurel did chase the diseased air away, as she’d said she would. My mother was the last fatality of the sickness, and her death nearly broke me, but only nearly.
I still had Laurel. She Who Moves the Sky.
The basket is heavy this year with my stepmother’s canning and the pastor’s wife’s knit goods, “to keep the poor thing warm up there. Gods forbid she catches a chill!” I smile a little to myself now, imagining Laurel festooned in the bulky wool sweater, her hands weighted down by giant mittens the color of apricots. She’ll laugh when she sees them, and she’ll admire the canned tomatoes and pickles, but she won’t take any of it, and she’ll tell me again that the offerings make her feel uncomfortable, and I’ll tell her again that Sun Valley is grateful for all she has done, and this is the only way they know to express their thanks. And she’ll say—
I drop the basket to the ground and run, stumbling over stones. I press a shaking hand to my temple, to the place that always throbs whenever I imagine telling Laurel how I feel, how I’ve always felt, and how that feeling torments me every hour of every day… When I’m milking the goats, I think only of Laurel, of her soft, white skin and graceful limbs. When I’m hanging up the washing, I think of the way Laurel’s dress shimmers as she moves, as she floats beside me, a pale silhouette against the sky. And when I’m lying in bed, I think of Laurel up there on the lonely mountain, and I wonder if she ever thinks of me, if she ever wishes—
I startle and trip, falling to my knees.
“Oh, are you hurt?” Her hands glide over the backs of my arms, lifting me up, holding me suspended—for just a heartbeat—above the ground.
I find my footing and shake my head, dusting off my skirt and inspecting a little gash on my wrist. “Elegant as usual,” I smirk, and Laurel smiles down at me from her lofty height, bowing at the waist to tap my nose.
“I never meant to surprise you. I just knew you were coming—I heard your footfalls ages ago—and so I hurried to meet you and to lighten your load, but…” Her blue eyes flicker to my hands, narrowing. “You haven’t got a load this time.”
“No,” I murmur, ashamed at my brash abuse of the village’s offerings, but I take a deep breath and shake my head again, frowning to myself. “I thought—Well, you have no use for those things, anyway, so I left them behind, but of course Sun Valley send its gratitude and prayers, as always, and wants you to know—”
Laurel waves her hand and drifts down until she’s seated on the flowers, legs folded beneath her. I sit beside her, brushing my fingers over the laurels and biting my lip.
“I wish they wouldn’t send their prayers,” she sighs, raising her eyes to the sky. “You know I’m no goddess, no deity. I’m only…” She sighs again.
A wonder, I think. A treasure, a dream.
“A girl on a mountain,” she says, turning her gaze to me. I fall into the blue of her, and when my own eyes flutter and water, I look away.
“A girl on a mountain,” I repeat, swallowing hard. “Well, so am I, here and now. But you’re more than that.”
“Am I, Kivrin?”
I glance at her, and she snares me with her softness. “Laurel…”
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about—I mean, I’ve been coming up here for nine years. We’ve grown up together, and the moments I spend with you are…They’ve been…” I swallow again and shift my gaze to the flowers carpeting the mountain beneath us.
Just say it, Kivrin. Say it, and then you’ll know. One way or the other, you’ll know. Just say it.
Laurel covers my fidgeting hands with her own and ducks her head to catch my eyes. “They’ve been what?” she prompts me gently, and my gaze is drawn to her mouth, pink as the wild roses that grow in the forest at home.
I groan and cradle my head. Just say it. Say it! “I love you.” My throat starts to close, to stop the words up, but I cough and fill my chest with air and look right into Laurel’s eyes and say it again: “I love you. I think I’ve always loved you, from the moment you fell out of the sky, but I couldn’t tell you, because you’re you, and I’m just—”
“Just?” Laurel whispers, smiling faintly and leaning near. “Kivrin, you aren’t just anything. You’re grand and lovely and good and brave and…” Her voice falters. She glances away, at the flowers, at our entwined hands.
“And?” I squeak, trembling beside her.
“And…” Her eyes flit over my face, restless. “And you have been so loyal to your village, so—”
“My village?” I mutter miserably, finally catching her gaze. “Is that what this has all been about, Laurel? My village? You have protected us from sickness and storms, and we have prospered and worshiped you, and laurels bloom in every garden, and is that all it’s about? Is that all I am to you?” I swipe a tear from my eyes, even as she moves nearer, reaching out to lay a hand upon my cheek. “Am I a messenger, nothing more?”
“No,” she says, and there is power in the word—water and wind and lightning. My skin prickles as her palm brushes hair back from my face. “No, Kivrin. It was never about the village. I’m a selfish thing, if you must know the truth.”
“Selfish?” I blink, red-faced and confused.
“I didn’t blow away the disease and the floods for them, Kivrin. Never for them.”
“It was all for you.”
A blast of air sweeps through me, chilling me and warming me at the same time, as her words claim a place inside of my heart and upon my history. It was all for you.
“Do you mean…” I whisper, hardly daring to hope.
But she takes my chin in both of her hands now, and the lightness of her fills me, lifts me up…truly lifts me up, because we’re floating together. Her arms are wrapped around my waist, and we’re so far above the ground that the flowers below are barely freckles upon the vast grey stone. “It means,” she whispers, as the air gusts around us, “that I love you, too, and that I always have. And that you, Kivrin, are much braver and more good than I, such as I am, could ever hope to be.”
There’s mischief in her eyes and her smile as she kisses me upon a bed of clouds.
“I’ll build a little house at the top of the mountain,” I tell her, as she kisses me again. “And sometimes you’ll come down to me, and sometimes you’ll carry me up…here, with you, and we’ll live—”
“Forever,” Laurel says, and I feel the lightning between us again, and we float together so high that I lose sight of the ground.
All around me, there’s only blue. A beautiful, bottomless blue.
I cradle my wonder in my arms and move with the breeze, lighter than air.
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