The Golden Girlby Candice Lola
There it was.
The Mountain of the Gods.
Standing mockingly over the world, too proud to look towards the specks that worshipped at its feet.
Too massive to notice the crumbs they carried to honor it every day on their weathered backs.
The gifts would rot at her feet worthless and forgotten. Piles and piles of food, money, and treasured possessions wasted into the dirt, to be appreciated by ordinary brown birds and the occasional hungry thief made brave through desperation.
And sometimes, a young woman named Kalina.
Daily she would walk past the mountain, slowing her usually hurried gait to stare up at its golden halo.
It seemed to shimmer and move as if it were made of living luster. It was so bright that towns for miles around it could not experience a dark night, making sleep impossible for many.
It was worth it though, for those many, to be that close to the glory that was the Mountain of the Gods. They would push through their days, exhausted, all the time thanking the heavens that they lived in the presence of such majesty.
They weren’t the only ones.
Travelers from near and far would bring offerings to that haughty mountain, chanting, praying, and laying at its feet, hoping to absorb some of its magic, hoping for the slightest bit of attention from it.
Kalina was hoping for more.
By blood, she was a storyteller.
And so, by nature, she was also a dreamer.
Stories surrounded and filled her every day. The elders of her family told them. This was the way.
The stories would follow her to bed at night, beckoning to her imagination.
Especially the stories
about the Mountain.
The only stories that she had ever heard that seemed to end right in the middle.
No discovery, or triumph, or tragedy.
Right in the middle.
The listeners would always ask, curious and exasperated;
Did the man break free of his captor?
Did the woman kill the monster that blocked her path?
Did the rope that the young boy was climbing up the cliff hold?
The storyteller would shrug, no one knows, and that was that.
Except for this single thing: if one were able to reach the top, they would be rewarded with the status of a god. All powerful, wise, and gilded.
Imagine what a person could do with that kind of power?
Her ailing sister healed with a wink.
The poor neighbor, fully endowed with riches at just a thought.
Were she successful
lauded for raising her, becoming powerful in their own right.
It was far-fetched, sure it was, to you and me.
But it’s all a dreamer needs to search the bottom of the mountain, looking for something never meant to be found until it was.
The one that the very mention of would guarantee laughter that could tear through you like a hungry wolf.
The one that she was too plain, too silly, too dumb to find.
But look. Here she was.
The only person in a thousand stories to stand in front of it.
She began to climb. Of course she did.
The very discovery of this path foretold that she was meant to walk it.
And so, without a canteen or a plan or a glance back, she began to climb.
Up and up and away. She might as well be flying.
Her fellow townsfolk and foreign travelers from abroad could see her slow ascent.
To them, her failure was imminent. Her boldness, therefore, was a slap in the face.
How dare she think herself worthy to step onto the impossible path? Her, young, frail, and silly? Not long after she started off shrieks of laughter from below, stomping down the ambitions that served as her North Star.
In truth, she was woefully unprepared.
She took with her only her worn book and a pen to record her thoughts as she traveled, as she did every day. That’s it. A book and a pen. She was determined to finish the half-stories that haunted her childhood, unwittingly betting her survival on her naivety.
Somehow she reasoned that she could live on resolution alone, forgetting completely about food and water until her dry mouth would not allow her to ignore it anymore. And just as she was starting to regret her embarkment at all she happened upon a man drawing from a well.
She could barely gasp words out.
“Some of your water, please. I am so thirsty.” She made her face as kindly as she could.
The man turned to face her. Kalina stifled a gasp.
His face was terrifying.
Here and there were islands of deep golden brown skin surrounded by raw and pink flesh that was almost as painful look at as it seemed to feel. His eyes were such a light grey that at first look he appeared to be blind. His hair was long and ragged, and hung tangled around his face. He was delicately thin, yet extremely tall. His back curved in such a way that he towered above and looked down on her all at once. As he came closer she could feel her body shrinking.
And going cold. Oddly.
In fact, it was as if someone had tapped her confident energy and was rapidly draining it onto the ground around her feet.
“I…I began climbing thi…this mountain today in such, in such a hurry that I didn’t have a, I mean, a moment to grab any water.”
A sort of twisted, interested look crossed the man’s face.
A shiver of worry ran through Kalina’s body.
He pulled his bony hands, which had been behind his back, to inches in front of her face. His fingers were so long that they seemed to wrap one, two, three times around the handle of the rickety bucket he was offering. Terrified but parched, Kalina reached a shaking hand forward to accept.
As she inched closer, the man dropped the bucket, spilling the fresh water it contained into the dust they stood it. Startled, Kalina screamed.
And then the terrible man made a terrible sound. He let out a deep, cackling laugh that revealed his razor sharp teeth and a tongue that seemed to dance around them. He seemed to be shrieking with glee, nearly convulsing with every bout as Kalina leaned to retrieve it. Her thirst had overcome her.
But he was gone. Suddenly. All that remained was the bucket, the puddle, and the piercing laughter that seemed to fill the wood to the brim.
She hurriedly filled the bucket, drank, ignored her growing fatigue and hunger and continued her sojourn.
It was getting darker. Colder. Treacherous. And Kalina, who had climbed all day with no food, was getting weaker and weaker. Before she lost too much light, she stopped to record the day’s events.
A lesser person would have turned around right then. A more reasonable one might have found a safe, hidden place to rest and started again in the morning.
But Kalina, the descendant of storytellers, was strengthened by hardship, in the spirit of all the heroes she had learned about, the ones whose half-stories painted them as perseverant travelers and superhumanly resilient.
So up and up and up, even the mountain began to feel as if it were swaying beneath her, and as if the wood were twirling around her.
If only she could find some berries, or mushrooms, or some herbs, or even…
And then, as if her thoughts had come alive, the same, terrifying man walked next to her holding a basket of potatoes, hot and wrapped and ready to be eaten.
She hungry reached for one, but he snatched them away. He lowered his crooked body until his sunken eyes met hers, and held his stare.
“How much.” There was no upward inflection in her statement. She was not curious. She was furious.
The thing looked off behind her.
Something in its dead eyes chilled her to the bone.
She froze as she counted the steps of whatever was coming up behind her. She could hear the sticks and leaves breaking behind her.
For reasons she could not explain she jumped into the bushes. The demon disappeared.
A young traveler, a man possibly around her age, trudged up the path. Even though he didn’t look familiar he was dressed familiarly as if from someplace in her home village.
A fellow storyteller, no doubt.
Why did his face suddenly perk up, and his steps quicken?
The basket of hot potatoes had been left in the path, looking and smelling inviting.
“Such luck!” He exclaimed to the wood. And he bent down to receive them.
Panic rushed through Kalina’s body. He would eat them all. HE WOULD EAT THEM ALL. And what then, she would die out here, her journey pointless, the ones she set out to help to die at their peril??
What was that face there, in the shadows across the path?
The same demon, it seemed, but even more terrible and darker than before.
And…alluring, how can that be?
Why did it seem to smile?
What did it know?
The young man was still on the path, weeping with gratitude at the discovery of the meal. He was on his hands and knees, savoring every bite as if were his last, putting chunks into his satchel for later on.
Without thinking and still staring at the monster across the way, Kalina gingerly onto the path.
Without disturbing a single blade of grass she bent down and wrapped her fingers around a large stone, and raised it above her.
Without flinching she brought the stone down over the head of the starving traveler, not bothering to dodge the chunks of him that flew out in all directions, not bothering to hear the screams of agony and surprise. Not bothering to stop until he lay lifeless next to his last meal. Not bothering to remove the bits of him that had tainted the food. She devoured every morsel, stopping only to spit out shards of tooth and bone that hindered her consumption. She ate as if she was an animal. Her trance overruled sensibilities with her carnal needs, which seemingly could only be satisfied in the most brutal of ways. She ate and ate and ate to the point where she was so stuffed that it nearly hurt to swallow, and she began to resent the very food she had killed for.
And, with that thought, she awoke from her transfixion. Suddenly, she realized what she had done.
What. Had. She. Done.
She looked at the young man. Miraculously (or was it) she had missed his face in her act of starving violence. She desperately wished that he could talk to her and keep her company.
HIs face, surrounded by carnage, was calm and peaceful. She imagined that as he’d died, the faces of the loved ones counting on his success passed through his mind.
She thought about all the good she planned to do when she reached the top.
Maybe as a god, she could bless his family and make up for her sin.
Was she forgivable?
And as that thought teased her grief, and rolling, wicked laugh shot through the woods.
NO! It seemed to gleefully howl. She could nearly feel her demon screaming out the answer to the question she would never dare to think again.
Exhausted, she pulled out her book. It was covered in the young man’s blood. Perhaps the joy he felt before he died or the peace he felt afterward had permeated it.
She didn’t hope for this too hard. She wanted to avoid another wicked laugh.
Through her sobs, she recorded the day’s events, honestly, clearly, sorrowfully. And then she finally laid to rest, right there next to her victim and the remains of the meal she had murdered him for.
She cried all night.
Even as she slipped into unconsciousness her disappointment ran down her face. She awoke in the morning light in a shallow puddle of mud.
Her eyes were cloudy. Her face, dry and covered in dirt and blood.
The young man’s body was gone.
His face, her final comfort, probably ripped to shreds by an animal hungrier than her.
She was officially broken.
She didn’t have the will to move.
She didn’t have the will to search for food.
True to her ancestry, she could only pen a short account with the last bit of resolve she could muster. After that, she was his.
And there he was. Tall. Intimidating. Evil. Terrifyingly.
He leaned forward and kissed Kalina squarely on the lips, lingering in the warmth.
Kalina felt safe.
She felt happy.
She felt weak. The weakest she had felt on this trip.
And so, when her thoughts seem to whisper follow me she did without hesitation.
Back in the valley, Kalina would have had questions.
Back in the valley, she would have done research.
But here on the mountain, where her dreams had been dashed and her good character shamed, she did not have the strength for any of this.
And so she followed with no argument, without even a look left or right.
Up and up they went. Past caves and through wild plants and over ravines.
Every few steps stopping so that her guide could taste her mouth, assuring her devotion and sapping her energy.
After a while Kalina seemed to be dragging behind him, unable to direct herself. When commanded to eat she ate, sleep she slept, walk she walked.
Years later she would refer to this part of the journey as a silvery haze of which she could not recall much at all.
She does remember the day, however, when her joints became harder to move than the day before.
And the moment her guide chuckled when she whimpered with each step.
She remembers looking down miles later and seeing the deep mahogany flesh of her feet turn a bright, flashy golden, and how now the guide seemed to climb even faster up the path.
The dance to the peak had grown into a trudge, the looming figure guiding her becoming more and more demanding as they rose.
And did he look…younger?
Or was she becoming so much like him that he was familiar now?
Is that why was his seemed brown skin and rich, instead of the putrid gray it was before?
And Kalina’s skin, and ever stiffening gold?
What is this?
One day Kalina worked up the courage to ask. It was the day she happened upon the books. The hundreds, maybe thousands of books strewn about the road. Some books obviously very, very old, and others seemed to have been laying there only a few weeks, even days.
What is this.
The guide smiled, then chuckled, and then let out a loud, cruel, full-bodied, joyful shriek.
For the first and last time during the whole trip, her guide spoke.
THIS is godhood, girl.
And then in his final act of cruel guidance, he grabbed Kalina and dragged her, running full speed up the mountain. Kalina’s book, dutifully filled with the trip’s accounts, fell from her weakening grip and lay abandoned on the side of the road, another half-story never to be completed.
It all hurt. Kalina bounced over jagged rocks and stones, unable to bent around them or scream out from the intense pain she was in.
Kalina could not fight.
She could do nothing but accept her fate, for the closer she got to the mountain’s peak, the more the mountain’s golden halo wrapped around her skin.
She was becoming an idol.
Trapped within her own body, a casket for her dreams.
This was the dream, right?
They reached the top. Her captor was still laughing, unable to contain himself.
He loosed the girl and set her squarely on top of the mountain, in the midst tens of hundreds of other living idols
frozen in gold and cold.
Prisoners of their own ambitions, unable to move a muscle towards accomplishing what they had set out to do at the foot of the mountain.
Like her, they could only weep, hope, and pray that they would find an escape.
But there no hope of escape. None at all.
Forever now they would be worshipped worldwide, every day, on the peak of a mountain that little children would dream of climbing.
He set her to face the direction of her town so that she could hear the sounds of their praise and prayers for the rest of her life.
Forever they would speak her name, unaware that their calls were falling on helpless, frozen ears.
A tear escaped as she accepted her fate. Her captor looked her in the eye.
You’re welcome, he said, and was swallowed by the mist.
You’re welcome, the words echoed, as the cold of the mountain set in.