“Millie? Millie, are you up here already?”
A thin, pebble-strewn path wound its way tentatively up the side of this tallest peak of her grandfather’s mountain. The path wore deep into the rock. Her grandfather grasped the rocks and grass at either side, pulling himself up as he walked.
“There... That... that gets harder each time. Still this’ll be the last time, eh?” With a heavy gasp he sat down beside her, and brushed some of the hair away from the side of her face. The wind took it and threw it around the back of her head. “That’s better. Now I can see your pretty face better.”
She smiled, her chin still resting on her knees. The last time, indeed. From here she could see the whole of the mountain and their valley. The important parts, anyway. The log cabin in which they lived. The pig-pen, the pasture fields, the vegetable patches, and the forest. The stream that ran from somewhere she had never explored, and the stepping stones laid long ago. Her whole world.
Her grandfather patted his knees with his hands. “Are you hungry?”
She wasn’t, but she nodded anyway. She thought of what she’d already eaten. Thick oat biscuits smothered in syrup, with bacon and eggs. A breakfast like that should be enough to see her through past midday. She took the fruit and cheese her grandfather proffered, feeling the time-worn skin of his hands as she did so.
All her life she’d been happy here. More than happy. Theirs was a life of love, and she cherished her grandfather. The thought of what was to come terrified her.
As if reading her thoughts, he reached around her shoulders and gave a warm hug.
“Nothing lasts for ever, my dear. Someday even this mountain will wear away to dust; someday even our people will take their place in history. Or myth.” He pulled her close, squeezed once more, and kissed her temple. She gave another smile in return, and moved a hand so she could hold his; the one that still draped over her shoulder.
Our people. They had so many names in so many places, but were known everywhere as those who lived on the mountains in the sky, drifting here and there, sighted less and less. She hadn’t seen another mountain in months.
“Bamp, I’m scared.”
So was he. He remembered clearly the evening when it struck him for certain that this day was due. He’d always known that it would arrive, of course, in a vague sort of way. But there was also a world of difference between knowing you’d someday die, and a doctor telling how long you had left. Seeing those two buds between her shoulders emerge, growing week upon week... well, now he could appreciate what his parents must have felt all those years back. Always growing, always learning.
He wished her parents were still here; a dull ache, keener than ever on this day. Her wings, fully grown now, twitched as she sat and contemplated the next few days, just as his had so many years ago. The potent mix of terror and exhilaration as he flew high and free on wings he’d long since lost was a memory as sharp now as it had ever been, like looking through still clear waters at the bottom of a deep lake. He remembered taking off, a gust of wind lifting him so high and so quickly that he thought he’d left his stomach behind... the elemental power around him so out of his control until he learned to surf the surging thrusts, to glide the ebbs... the cold, the loneliness, the sun so close he could reach out and burn his fingertips... and the relief, the relief at finally seeing the small speck emerging from distant clouds just as he felt he could go on no longer. The speck that grew into a mountain. This mountain. Then the sorrow, years later, when his child came into the world, and life left his wings to atrophy.
It was their way. But what right did he have to sorrow? He’d had a family here, and though all he held dear was about to depart, he wouldn’t exchange one moment of the bliss she’d brought him, not for anything. Not even to purge the fear and impending emptiness he felt now, threatening to turn his bowels to water. He would give her every last grain of strength he had, even if it left him a weathered husk.
“What happens when I leave, Bamp? What happens to you?”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll still have the garden, the holding, the sculptures you made; this whole place is made of memories now. They’ll see me through.” For a while. Then the mountain would return to nature, awaiting discovery or decay. There were, after all, fewer than ever searching for a home amongst the clouds.
“What if I fail? What if I don’t find anywhere like this? What if I use up all my food, all my drink, and end up down there on Terra?” Once their kind set foot on Terra there was no way back up. She’d lose her wings and settle for an earthbound mate, raise an earthbound family, never to step on to a mountain such as this again.
He squeezed her once more, kissed her again. Wiped her tears away before his could fall. He tightened the straps on her clothing and adjusted the slits at the back to ensure her wings were as free as could be.
“Oh, my love. But what if you soar?”
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