The Misbehaving Mountain
by Louise Curtis
Most families don’t go to the edge of the world for holidays, on account of the monsters still lingering there, far away from civilization. Most families aren’t like us.
It’s my da. He’s technically human, sure – but only because he felt like trying it out. Sometimes he gets younger for a while. Sometimes he changes shape. He doesn’t even have a name, exactly. I call him Da, and Ma calls him darling, so it doesn’t bother us.
Ma is human through-and-through, and very good at looking innocent when regular humans start suspecting something’s going on. When that doesn’t work, our ship takes us and our crew to start afresh somewhere new. The cook taught me to read and write, the navigator taught me maths, and the captain volunteered for geography. Geography’s a lot more interesting when you’ve spent your life sailing from one place to another. I remember places better when they let us stay a while.
Us kids aren’t quite sure if we’re human or not. We look human and we feel human, but we’re certainly not like other kids we meet.
For example, I don’t sleep. Not ever. Sometimes Da stays up with me, talking quietly about what life was like hundreds of years ago, or what it’s like to be a bird. Sometimes he chooses to sleep at Ma’s side, and I’m left alone. Those nights I plait my hair in hundreds of narrow braids. When I’m done, my arms feel heavy as the ocean, and my hair still reaches my waist in thick black strands. When all the plaiting doesn’t take long enough, I dye the ends bright red, one by one, so I look as if my hair’s beginning to catch on fire.
I am Dance, named after my great-great-great-great grandmother (on Ma’s side) who faced pirates and monsters without blinking. I think Da knew when he named me that I couldn’t spend my whole life playing with my hair. Not even when our ship keeps changing the view by turning in gentle circles around the anchor.
My sister Jini is a different creature. When she gets nervous, she multiplies. I mean, pop! – suddenly there are two Jinis sitting in front of me. If I don’t calm her quick there’ll be more. Every Jini looks the same: like any other teenage girl who’s trying desperately to hide behind her own fringe. The extra Jinis vanish with a burping noise when she’s feeling better. No wonder everyone thinks I’m the oldest daughter.
One night, just as the sky began to pale and the watch was beginning to snore, I crept into the cabin where my siblings sleep. I hesitated for a moment beside my brother’s bed, but decided not to wake him. Tofaru has an annoying way of accurately predicting unpleasant futures for me. I crept past and shook Jini’s shoulder.
“Oh no,” she mumbled. “Your hair’s done already?”
I put my finger to my lips and tugged her to the ladder. She climbed obediently, as I knew she would. We tip-toed to the stern and loosened the twin ropes keeping the rowboat suspended from the water. It hit the sea with a splash, but none of the crew woke up. I picked up the oars and smiled at Jini. Her dark eyes brightened in response. She likes being bad – she just doesn’t have the natural talent I do.
“You go first,” I said.
She faltered and looked down at our boat. It was so small it had only one wide seat across the middle. From the ship, it looked even smaller. “Go. . . how?”
She shook her head, but climbed onto the stern railing at the same time. “Dance, I don’t think this is a good --”
I pushed her. She managed to squeak, not scream – but I couldn’t help noticing that two of her fell into the water. I dropped the oars down next to them, and they grabbed one each and threw them into the boat before climbing in. I jumped down, and they helped me aboard. Once I was in the ship, she burped. Suddenly there was only one of her, and we were able to sit comfortably side by side.
“That wasn’t funny,” she pouted. “I hate multiplying.”
“Sure it was.”
We rowed toward a chain of mountainous islands. The current helped us. Soon the mountains enclosed us, hiding us from the eyes of the crew. I relaxed into our adventure. Jini pretended to relax, which was fine by me.
Before that morning I didn’t know there were different types of mist. One kind filled the sky, one tangled in the mountaintops, and one moved across the sea-cliffs like a harpist’s fingers across her strings. I saw waterfalls everywhere, coming down from heights I couldn’t see. The splashing of the waterfalls mixed with the slap, slap, slap of our oars. Everything smelled of rain.
The mist made it look as if the mountains were moving. Sometimes the white cleared for a moment and I could tell how the mountains reached all the way to the clouds. I heard rain falling somewhere nearby.
“The ocean’s a song,” I said, “and the mountains are playing hide and seek while they sing along.”
“Don’t be absurd,” said Jini, shivering in the chilled air. “No-one sings while they play hide and seek.”
“Dancing then. Can’t you imagine them touching hands way up there?” All around us the rock faces were lined with ten thousand white ribbons of waterfall. They were terribly long ribbons, and the mountains – a line here, a curve there – were higher still.
Jini followed my look. “Nope,” she said.
“Is this what it’s like to dream?”
Jini looked at me and sighed. We both knew she felt sorry for me. “Yes, except it’s not cold when you’re asleep.”
I dug in my oar to turn us, putting the rising sun at our left. Our parents would be waking soon, and missing us. What I saw almost made me drop the oar. “Jini. . .”
She looked around, and around again, as I had. Her mouth dropped open, making her look stupid.
Our patch of ocean was completely enclosed by land.
“It can’t be,” I said. “There must be an opening somewhere, around a corner or something. Otherwise, how did we get in?”
I heard a pop, then a splash as a new Jini fell into the ocean. Uh-oh. I pulled her into the boat while glaring at the original. “Sorry,” said both Jinis. Their voices were strained.
“Let’s look for the way out.”
We rowed along the rocks. The cliffs rose straight up from the water. They were far too steep to climb, and slick with moisture. Jini popped again. I let her pull herself in. The boat was getting crowded. It sat lower in the water.
I whacked the solid rock with my oar. It wasn’t meant to be there. I felt sure it wasn’t there before. “Let us out!” I yelled, hoping the universe would obey me just this once. “Open up!”
We heard a creaking rumble far above our heads. I looked up. All I could see was mist.
“Move it!” I shouted. It was worth a try.
The cliff in front of us bulged out, pushing us backward. One of the waterfalls pooled for a moment, then started again.
Suddenly the entire mountain rose from the sea. I saw the rusted brown rocks from underneath the waterline. Our boat nearly capsized, and I heard more popping from behind me. The new Jinis clung to the boat’s side to stay afloat.
The mountain broke apart in front of us. White water gushed into the new opening. As we watched, the waves settled into a deep blue channel wide enough for Jini and me – and all our hangers-on - to row out. The rumbling from above formed into words.
“Sorry, love, didn’t see you there.”
“Who are you?” I asked, too astonished to be scared. One of Jini’s many elbows dug into my back.
“Halanah,” said the mountain.
I introduced myself and my sister. Sisters.
“I’ve hardly ever talked to someone so small before,” said Halanah.
I laughed, sensing instantly that I was talking to a girl mountain. “What’s it like to be made of rock?”
“Oh, normal,” said Halanah. “How does it feel to swim around on that tiny piece of tree you have there?”
Speaking of the boat, I noticed my feet were wet. There were so many Jinis our boat was sinking. “Jini!” I said, and looked at them all one by one.
The original Jini raised her hand.
“Halanah’s perfectly friendly. We’ll be fine.” I held her eyes and kept talking as she burped until there was only one of her. Our boat had a puddle from all the sopping Jinis. I decided to deal with it later.
Turning back to Halanah – or at least, lifting my face to the mist – I asked, “You don’t happen to have noticed which way we came in? We’re lost. Normally we look at landmarks, but. . .”
“I’m sorry,” she said, with a quake of embarrassment. “You’re most welcome to stay and dance with me for a hundred or two years.”
For a moment, I was tempted. Then the water sloshed across my feet, reminding me not to do anything stupid. At least, not with Jini there.
“A hundred years?” Jini squeaked. “How old are you?”
“Three or four,” she said.
“Hundred?” I asked.
She giggled, showering us with gravel that stung our faces. “Thousand. Don’t tell the adults I asked you to play.”
I began to wonder what Tofaru would have told me if I’d asked him how the night would turn out. Hopefully it didn’t involve getting abducted by a delinquent mountain. So far, Jini was holding on to herself. “Were you dancing when we came in?” I asked carefully.
An overhang suddenly loomed out of the rock above us, then crunched back into the cliff face. So that was a nod.
“Honestly I’d love to stay with you,” I lied. Why had I gotten Jini involved in all this? I was going to end up drowning every single one of her, not to mention myself, and it was all my fault. “Could we come back tomorrow?”
Halanah pouted. There was no mistaking it. Her rocks darkened as if the sun was right behind her. The shadows of that fake dawn stretched to include me and Jini and our tiny piece of tree.
I glanced at Jini. She was looking furiously at her hands, saying, “One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight-nine-ten-one-two-three-four-five-six--” That was never a good sign. Last time she did that, she started multiplying exponentially. One at a time was bad enough.
“Halanah,” I said. “Don’t do anything fooli--aargh!”
Jini and I flew upward, boat and all. We sailed on a spire of living rock.
Through my screams I heard Jini popping. Our ride halted suddenly when we were on a level with Halanah’s peak. All the Jinis and I dug our fingers into the frail wood of the boat. Several Jinis dangled from the sides. Her many knuckles turned white. I wondered what happened if one of the extra Jinis fell to her death. I decided I was better off not knowing.
“This is fun, isn’t it?” said Halanah. The stone under us trembled with mirth.
I was trying to think of a reply when a human voice cut in.
“Halanah! Put my daughters down this instant.”
I looked down. Our family’s ship sailed through the opening between Halanah and the other mountains. Through the mist I recognised Da’s silhouette standing on the bow. No-one else could be so skinny and so scary at the same time.
“Halanah,” he said again, sounding cross. Da always knew everyone’s name. His voice was much louder than it should have been. It echoed around the cliffs. “You’ve been warned about this sort of thing. Stop it at once.”
Halanah melted into the water as if she was made of candlewax instead of rock. Our boat landed on the sea with a splash. Jini burped, and kept on burping. Finally I had room to move again. I felt like crying, which was silly. Everything was fine now.
Da addressed Halanah and the other mountains in a voice tougher and louder than he’d ever used on me. “Don’t you dare move until we’re well away. Or ever again, when humans are close. You know the rules.”
The sea rippled as the mountains settled deeper into the water. Jini and I rowed back to the ship’s stern, and Da let down the twin ropes for us to wind through the metal eyes on each end of the boat. We hauled ourselves up, wondering what Da would do to us. Jini managed not to pop, but I could see the strain in her eyes.
“Dance! Jini!” Ma grabbed the ropes from our hands and wound them onto the pins before we had a chance to apologize. Da stood behind her, and didn’t say a word.
Jini and I climbed unsteadily on board. Ma crushed us in a hug that was human through-and-through. She pushed us away to examine us. “You’re all wet.”
“Um,” I said. “So are you.”
She glanced down at her sopping front and laughed.
Ma left us to gather the morning’s watch and let down the anchor. They gathered at the other end of the ship, grunting as the heavy chain uncurled. I smelled the rust all the way from the stern. Da sent Jini to shower. She fled without looking back.
The aft deck felt barren without Ma and Jini. It creaked gently as the waves shifted us about.
“Don’t be mad at Halanah,” Da said at last. “She’s. . . young.”
I burst into tears. Da pulled me close and stroked my plaited hair until I got ahold of myself. I didn’t die. I didn’t kill Jini. Da wasn’t going to kill me. It was a good day.
He cleared his throat. “Incidentally, you’ll be doing everyone’s dishes for the next month. And I do mean everyone’s.”
I nodded into his chest. “Okay.”
* * *
Jini secretly helped me with the crew’s dishes, and Tofaru not-so-secretly spilled his breakfast on me every morning until Ma made him scrub the galley floor. The month passed slowly, but it passed. I thought of Halanah every day. That didn’t pass.
All my life I tried to find another naughty mountain, but I never did.
Copyright 2008 by Louise Curtis