Beyond the Wild Mountains
by Conrad Steenkamp
On the night that the aliens entered Jonno’s life, the men were out hunting wild cattle in the bush and he was huddling under his mother’s big hide blanket. He stared at the tongueletts of flame that whispered from the embers of the fire, the meat of a while ago a warm memory in his stomach.
Jonno shared the blanket with Snow Joe and a couple of other children. Further back his mother and a few of the women still sat upright, the pale heads of infants lolling against their breasts. Around them the village rested in the night. The smell of smoke hung in the air and a chill came from the river nearby.
It seemed exactly the right moment for a story and Jonno glanced expectantly at Grandpa Mooch-with-the-Crooked-Leg at the head of the fire pit. Somewhere behind that gnarled old forehead, deep within that cavernous old mind, a story lay waiting to spill forth.
But already the old man’s head drooped under the combined weight of the night and the ale he had drunk, and at his side Grandma Ana was sleeping soundly under a balding hound skin mantle. Even the fire seemed to be settling into the ashes.
Yet Jonno, eyes bright, continued to hope. The embers still whispered to one another like secretive little creatures and the charcoaled log in the fire pit crackled. There was life in the evening yet.
As if to prove it, wild hounds howled far away in the darkness of the bush, and Grandma Ana’s head lifted momentarily from Grandpa Mooch’s shoulder.
“Bad . . . bad . . . bad . . .” she muttered, watery eyes blinking before they closed again. It sounded ominous and without even turning to look Jonno knew that his mother was frowning. Ill-timed words like that brought bad luck.
Just then the stars above were drowned out by a burst of light. It seemed as if the firmament was being torn into two. A brilliant streak cut across the heavens, and moved rapidly towards the mountains. Everybody but Ma Ana was wide awake, craned their necks to see the light in the sky.
“What was that, Grandpa Mooch!” Jonno cried out.
The old man tracked the glowing trail in the heavens with his eyes until it had disappeared behind the blackness of the crags. Finally he straightened and his hand disappeared into his leather satchel, a gesture that evoked delicious hope in Jonno’s breast, for he knew what it meant.
The hand reappeared with a clay pipe, which the old man proceeded to stuff with stoic care. He reached out to pick an ember from the ashes between the tough, cracked skin of his thumb and forefinger, and slowly brought the pipe to life.
“Grandpa Mooch!” Jonno cried out, and at last the oldster relented.
“That,” he said gruffly, the smoke flowing from his mouth, “was them aliens.”
At the word “aliens” Grandma Ana surfaced abruptly from her sleep. “Oh!” she shrieked. “Aliens! Aliens! Them have big eyes! Eyes like this!” And she opened her arms widely.
“Come now, Ma Ana,” said Jonno’s mother, hushing the baby in her arms. “How can you know how big them eyes be? The only one in this village who ever saw them aliens is Pa Mooch.”
Grandpa Mooch’s sparse hair was now hidden behind a cloud of tobacco fumes like an untidy, balding hill in the morning haze. “Yes, that was them aliens flying about on them business,” he said. “Nasty business, I tell you! And bad luck them be, going about where none ought in those machines of them. Never had badder luck than when I saw them.”
“Grandpa Mooch is tricking!” Snow Joe cried out. “He never saw them! Nobody ever saw them and lived. Them aliens eat them all up!”
Jonno never liked Snow Joe, and he now liked him even less for impeding the flow of what was promising to be Grandpa Mooch’s best tale yet.
“Quiet, Snow Joe!” Jonno’s mother warned. “Else your backside be warmer than it is now!” Snow Joe’s mother died giving birth, during the worst winter storm the village had ever experienced. That was how Snow Joe got his name. It also meant that everybody had to take care of him, which turned him into the most precocious and spoilt brat in the whole village.
Grandpa Mooch coughed and cleared his throat. “That day I saw them aliens I was walking for ten days over there Wild Mountains – right at the top!” The old man gestured vaguely over his shoulder with the stem of his pipe. “I was a young man then, had two wives and seven children by each. Was a warrior too! When we battled in them days…”
“Pa Mooch,” Jonno’s mother cut in, “that we all know by now. And them that don’t can still hear them stale old boasting. So tell us about them aliens.” Never a woman to bite her tongue, Jonno’s mother.
“Yes,” said Grandpa Mooch. “As I was saying, I was a very tired young warrior when I reached them peaks over there. The way went through them valleys and up them mountain sides, down them hills and up again . . .”
“Grandpa Mooch . . .” Jonno’s mother warned.
“And then! Suddenly them was there in one of them flying things!” The little ones jerked in their mothers’ arms and even Snow Joe flinched, but Jonno had been expecting a trick and chuckled with delight.
“Now you woke up them little ones!” Jonno’s mother said, but Grandpa Mooch merely chuckled so that the pipe’s smoke sifted upwards through his moustache.
“What them looked like, Grandpa Mooch!” Jonno asked. “Them had big eyes like Grandma Ana said?”
“No-no!” Grandpa Mooch said, smoke billowing forth with each negation. “Here old woman talking nonsense. No, them aliens climbed out them flying things slowly-slowly. They careful not to fall over, because them used to flying, not walking like us. Them each had four long arms, and three eyes, one underneath each hairy ear. And a big round mouth with teeth as thick as fingers! Them can bite off a man’s head without even sweating!”
“And were you scared, Grandpa Mooch!” Jonno asked even though he knew what the answer would be.
“Never!” Grandpa Mooch said sternly. “But them was. One was so scared he bit me. Just a little bite, you understand, and that is how I got me crocked leg.” Jonno shivered. The mere thought of such a horrible creature lunging at him with an open mouth was certain to give him nightmares for a long time to come.
“Enough-enough now!” Jonno’s mother said sharply. “Everyone off to bed now! Tomorrow we must shell the harvest and hard work that is!” With anything but sleep on their minds the children scampered off to the huts, leaving a handful of adults next to the gently smoking coals.
Jonno wrapped the hide blanket tightly around his body as he walked around the hut, for away from the fire the night had teeth. He kept a wary eye on the darkness around for wild hounds or, the ancestors help us, aliens. Having reached the entrance in one piece, he felt his way along the dark wall towards his sleeping spot at the back of the height. He reclined on the musty straw, the hide pulled up to his chin.
“You must not scare them children like that,” Jonno’s mother said, her voice muffled by the mud-brick wall. “We women sit up with them weeping problems when you long since went to bed.”
“Yes-yes…” Grandpa Mooch said absent-mindedly and coughed. Their voices droned on intermittently and Jonno drifted off; and soon he was a brave young warrior that battled the alien monsters from the sky.
Before long Grandpa Mooch joined the ancestors in the sky, leaving behind only memories of his limp, his pipe and his tales. Then Jonno’s father died on a cattle hunt, and not long thereafter he buried his indomitable mother on the hill above the village. Oldsters died and youngsters took their place.
Within a wink he had a wife and children of his own, four sons and a daughter, and another on the way. The sons were strong and the daughter as beautiful as could be. The villagers planted and harvested crops, hunted wild cattle and hounds. A couple of new thatched huts were built and some trees were blown over during a big storm. Winters came and went.
Inexorably Jonno was sucked into responsibility for the village, and many years passed before he thought of the aliens again. It was trader Dirk that did it.
On that day Johnno lay in his hammock in the coolness of the thatched awning of his hut. He drank musty corn beer and watched the river go by. It was a late summer day, one of those lazy ones in which one waited for the harvest to ripen. The fields were full and next to him was a bag of boar tusks and a pile of neatly folded cattle and hound hides, ready for trading. The trader always came before the harvest, when the villagers were idle and lulled into a false sense of security by the fatness of their crops.
In the afternoon a skiff appeared upon the silvery bend of the river with the rotund figure of the trader on the prow. It was heavily laden with goods, and slaves were pulling at the oars watched over by an armed guard. The children saw the craft coming from afar and ran yelling to the river side.
At last the skiff jarred against the wooden jetty, causing the trader to lose his balance and teeter over the water. He regained his footing and tapped the nearest slave on the head with his walking stick.
“Curse your careless fingers! Almost dunked me into the water you did! Who look after you when you drowned me?” It was not the slave’s fault, but he wisely held his tongue and leapt onto the jetty to secure the skiff.
The children, scruffy and dirty after a day of playing, bundled together at the beginning of the jetty. “Trader Dirk! Trader Dirk!” they yelled, held at bay only by Snow Joe and the hide whip in his hand.
“Back! Back!” Snow Joe shouted. He looked relieved to see the first of the women arrive. They would sort the children out.
The trader gathered his bright cloak and stepped onto the jetty. He landed with an involuntary grunt, the timber creaking under his weight. The children swamped him like a pack of ravenous hounds. They jumped up and down and tugged at his gown: “Trader Dirk! Trader Dirk!”
“Trader Dirk always bring good-good stuff!” he bellowed, his face red and full and glistening with sweat, fanned their excitement into a frenzy before magically producing a little bag from one of the many folds of his gown. The shouting died instantly and the children ran off in a tight bundle, preoccupied with the serious matter of distributing the contents of the little bag.
“Remember that!” Trader Dirk shouted after them, then his face settled into a scowl as he turned on the slaves. “Offload! Offload! Quick-quick now!”
The slaves were already hard at work carrying bales of cloth to the riverside where excited women were gathering. Trader Dirk grunted his satisfaction and hauled his sweating bulk over to Jonno’s hut.
“Greetings, Trader Dirk!” Jonno called from the shade.
“Brave Jonno!” the trader bawled. “Fine day for trading them ancestors gave us today!” He reached the hut and allowed his ample flesh to plummet into Jonno’s neat pile of hides, as if it already belonged to him. “By the ancestors!” he cried out. “Soon them children will be too big for me to make peace with a bundle of sweets, and what will poor Trader Dirk do then? Already them almost killed me! What a day, Brave Jonno.” He dabbed at his face with his gown.
Jonno’s wife emerged from the hut with a mug of foamy corn beer for the trader. She handed it to him respectfully, not looking him in the eye, then trotted off to the jetty scuffling up dust with her bare feet.
The trader took a grateful draught. Suddenly, as if it had only now occurred to him, he balanced the beer mug on his belly and he felt around under his posterior.
“Ah wait, see what I brought you!” Breathing heavily and the beer slopping over the rim of the mug, he dragged out a purse by the strings. The gesture made Jonno feel suddenly young again. He remembered how he too once tried to look past Trader Dirk’s then far less considerable girth to see what delightful titbit he was holding in his hand, and excitement boiled up in his stomach.
Trader Dirk opened the purse and proudly produced “the thing”. “There . . . I bringed you something very special!” he said, with that perennial calculating twinkle in his eyes and the thing dangling invitingly from his puffy fingers.
“What’s that?” Jonno leaned forward. Nothing could explain what he saw.
“Want to touch it?” Trader Dirk suggested and Jonno’s last line of defence crumbled. He knew that the trader had manipulated him into buying the thing even before he had held it in his hand.
The thing was as thin as a stick, implausibly hard and smooth to the touch. It was black, so pitch-black that all light disappeared into it, so that it looked like a little bit of heaven itself. And it fit into his hand as if made for it.
It seemed . . . alien.
All at once the memories flooded back: the brilliant flash in the sky, the smell of Grandpa Mooch’s pipe. So many years had passed. And Jonno knew that he had to possess the thing.
But how did Trader Dirk manage to get hold of it? Did he actually see the aliens, and why did they give him the thing? He knew that Trader Dirk would not divulge such secrets; also that the price of the thing would be far more than he could possibly afford.
It filled him with dismay.
“What it be good for?” Johnno asked, feigning as much disinterest as he could muster. Trader Dirk leaned over as if to take back the thing, then fell back with a delighted wheeze when Jonno refused to let go.
“It be a fire-stick from them aliens, Brave Jonno,” he said. “Push the knob and fire shoot from the tip. I knowed you will see its value.”
Instant fire from the aliens . . .
Trader Dirk launched the next stage of his assault. “Them aliens eat up two of my slaves! That’s what it cost me! Them be more dangerous than a man can think! Barely escaped with my life!”
“What do you want?” Jonno asked dejectedly. He felt the blood drain from his heart when Trader Dirk named his price: not because he could not afford it, but because he knew that he would pay it. A madness took took hold of him, and he stuck the thing into his loincloth as if to hide it. “Tell me about them aliens!” he demanded. “At least tell me!”
When the village woke up the next morning Trader Dirk had already left, and Jonno’s daughter with him: his price for the thing. As the sun rose Jonno remained in his hut, face in the bedding and crying tears that would not come. His stomach was hollow with dread, and when he would not get up to pursue the trader, his wife left with the boys for the village of her parents downstream.
Over the following days and weeks Jonno stayed in the hut. He kept the thing hidden in his clothing. It achieved nothing for everybody knew that he had it. Chiefs all along the river had refused the trader’s price and the tale of Jonno-with-no-daughter spread from fire to fire.
Jonno never saw Trader Dirk again, as it turned out to be his last visit. It was a relief somehow to see the young men appearing in his stead. The cloth, beads and iron, and the manner of the young traders, each with a number of slaves and a guard on their skiffs, remained the same. Only the faces had changed.
Jonno lived from day to day, subject as before to the interminable cycle of life in the village. He helped with the sowing, and harvesting and hunting, but he lived apart, gave little attention to the affairs of the village and cared even less. A paralysis had overcome him.
One day Jonno realised that Snow Joe had stepped into the space that he had vacated. He settled quarrels between families, lead a war-party against the neighbouring village to deal with an insoluble marriage dispute, and held regular court around the fire-pit in front of his hut. The centre of the village had shifted, and with a little flicker of surprise Jonno found no jealousy or indignation in his heart.
Jonno never used the thing. He kept it hidden in his loincloth, clutched at it whenever the consternation about what had happened to him became more than he could bear. The traders began to arrive with ever stranger cargoes, arrays of glittering and strange alien objects.
One day he realised that the young trader unpacking his unearthly goods had become a middle-aged man. Jonno too had grown old. Like the waning moon his once muscular frame had melted away; his glossy mane had faded to a few pale strings over a sun-blemished scalp. The reflection of his face in the river showed a drawn and gaunt face, the skin translucent and drained of youth. Jonno stooped as he walked, ever clutching at the thing, chewing away at his gums. The emptiness inside him was so pervasive that he was no longer aware of it.
“Aliens . . . Aliens…” he muttered as his hands skittered over the unearthly artefacts displayed on the riverbank. He seemed to move about in a void. The children became big-eyed and silent in his presence; women pretended suddenly to be attracted by a piece of cloth further down the line.
And all at once, standing among the many coloured bales of cloth and trading goods, Jonno realised that his life had passed him by virtually unnoticed. Somehow, it dawned on him, life was disappointing.
“Where you come from?” he asked the greying trader, so intensely that the man took an involuntary step backwards.
“I be from Garvey, as well you must know,” the trader said and hastened to accept the distraction offered by a young woman who seemed dissatisfied about the price of a length of cloth. “Very cheap it be!” he insisted.
Jonno poked him in the back with a bony finger.
“Where be Garvey?” He fixed the trader with his dark eyes and nudged him once more. “Where be it, I ask!”
The trader whipped about.
“By the ancestors, oldster! Garvey be up them river beyond there Wild Mountains. Now leave me! Have work to do.”
Jonno turned and walked away. He followed the river’s winding course walking as fast as he could, through the foothills and past countless villages just like his own; passed them all without a word, refused food and rudely dismissed those who approached him.
He followed the river up to the gorges of the Wild Mountains. It was a raging torrent now and a well-trodden footpath indicated the route used by the traders. There were no more villages or fields and presently the footpath veered away from the river, and headed up the mountainside through ever-thickening bush.
Jonno knew that it was dangerous, for there was sign of wild cattle and hounds all around; but he continued walking, practically without rest and eating only such wild fruit as he could find by the way.
After many days he came to a halt in front of a steep and bouldery slope. It was just short of the mountain crest, but he was utterly spent. His feet were raw and his spindly legs wobbled. The boulders clattered underfoot as he ascended. He stumbled and his body hit the ground with a powdery snap.
Jonno knew instantly that he had broken his hip. But it did not matter. He rested only for as long as it took for the pain to subside, then began to drag his bony body up the slope. The fracture grated upon itself and the pain forced him to stop again and rest. He started again, and again, until he lost track of time, then he stopped.
Jonno lingered on the edge of oblivion. He felt the sun pass over, then the cold of the night. Eventually he surfaced from darkness, like a creature of the night, and found himself in a harsh landscape of wind-sculpted rock. He knew that he was on top of the Wild Mountains where Grandpa Mooch said that he had seen the aliens. But he felt no sense of accomplishment. He was simply there.
The aliens were tall and thin, Trader Dirk had said, like overgrown insects with large, composite eyes, and long sharp mouths, as sharp as spears. When they saw his slaves they uttered insufferably shrill shrieks to paralyze then, and then skinned them with their snouts, lightning fast. That was when Trader Dirk was able to snatch away the fire-stick that even now lay pinned to the ground under Jonno’s broken hip.
Jonno saw no aliens on the crest of the Wild Mountains. On the other side lay a tame and gently undulating slope dotted with fields and homesteads. At the bottom of the valley stood a town, the thatched roofs of many huts visible behind a fortified stone wall. It was bigger than anything he had ever seen and had to be Garvey, from whence the traders came.
He lay there staring at the town while the sun burnt down and his mottled skin blistered. Waves of pain eddied outward from his hip. It lapped at him like water at the prow of a boat: life as an endless river and him a flat-bottomed skiff grating onto a pebbled bank.
He felt lost in time.
Hands turned him over roughly so that his hip bones rasped. It was a familiar, comforting sound by now and told him that he still lived.
“He be finished.” Hands fumbled through his loincloth.
“He got something?”
“Nah, just one of them fire-sticks.”
Their footsteps thudded down the slope in the direction of Garvey.
“Who be you?” someone asked and Jonno did not know whether it was the same people or not, and whether one night had passed or several. He wanted to say that he had come to see the aliens, but his lips were glued together and his tongue would not work. The pain from his shattered bones was so fierce that he could no longer feel it.
Water trickled into his mouth. He felt himself being lifted, bones jarring. He knew that he was bleeding inside, slowly draining into the creased bag that was his skin, but no longer cared. He hoped only to survive long enough to see what he had come for.
He floated into what looked like the nether world: wide fields and huts with stone walls; people in gaudy colours bobbing by; Garvey with large gates and cobbled streets, urine and faeces floating down open drains; the noises and smells of more people than he had ever seen together, save once on the battle field.
“We take you to the house of the ancestors,” his benefactor said when he noticed that Jonno had returned to this world. “The priest will tend to you.”
“Aliens,” Jonno whispered anxiously. “Where be them aliens?”
“Oh! Aliens!” the other man said. “Now there be something to see!” And for a while they walked in silence.
“There be number inside there alehouse,” the benefactor said suddenly and pointed. They paused at the door so that Jonno could look.
There were two of them in the alehouse. Each had two eyes, not three, and a nose and a mouth with two rows of perfectly white small teeth. Their faces were smooth and unwrinkled. They wore bright, long-sleeved tunics over their torsos and narrow black boots on their feet. An assortment of strange tools hung from their belts, and each held a mug of ale in the hand, their free arms draped over the shoulders of local women.
The aliens were human.
“Them say them be our ancestors,” Jonno’s benefactor said. “That them come back from the sky to help us.”
“But them cannot be ancestors,” the other one added. “Them be just like us. Just smarter, much smarter.”
One of the aliens glanced in Jonno’s direction, nudged at the other with his elbow. For a moment both aliens held him with their eyes, and it seemed as if they wished him to speak. Jonno opened his mouth. He wanted to tell them about his youth, all his desires and what had happened to him, but he found no words within.
And then the moment had passed.
The aliens looked away and to Jonno’s consternation his helpers carried him on. He told the men to stop, but his voice came out a ragged whisper, unheard in the busy street. He strained backwards with his head and saw one of the aliens lean across to kiss the woman at his side, an act of intimacy that sparked a rage in Jonno’s heart.
He held onto the anger as the men carried him up a long alley and placed him on the front porch of the House of the Ancestors. They made him comfortable and left.
Lying on the cool flagstones Jonno became aware that it was heading towards night. He could tell that from the angle of the light in the narrow space between the houses, the crispness of the air and the smell of smoke from cooking. Mothers yelled for their children to come home.
And as his anger began to ebb, Jonno at long last knew that the emptiness inside him was grief. The fire stick in his loin cloth forgotten, he yearned for what he had lost. He wondered whether his daughter still lived somewhere in Garvey and whether he would perhaps see her before he died. She would be a grown woman. Would he recognise her, or she him?
A sliver of hope took root in his soul just as the pulse in his veins became sluggish, slowing down like the river at the end of its journey. Perhaps the ample-bosomed woman coming down the alley now was her; the mere possibility gave him comfort, even though she passed him by.
As night fell, the chatter around him became muted, the air cooler, and people closed their doors and window shutters. An alien craft drifted across the darkening sky, black and heavy. Flame thundered abruptly from its nozzles. It drowned out the sounds of life and cast a ghostly pallor over the town.
Conrad Steenkamp is anthropologist with work experience in southern Africa, Afghanistan and Alaska. He started writing stories at the age of ten, and started doing reviews of youth books in an Afrikaans-language newspaper some years later. His first fiction book, “Thomas and the hole in the universe (translated from the Afrikaans),” won the Ernst van Heerden Creative Writing Award (1993) in South Africa. He has since published some ten short stories in South African and Dutch literary magazines and books.This story was written ten years ago and had lain dormant since then. It is his first English-language short story. He is currently working on “The Ordeal”, first book in a science-fiction trilogy.