During the day, the glass absorbed enough heat from the sun that the temperature almost felt like human flesh. If I took off my shoes, I could walk in a spiral around the top of the mountain without slipping, and that was a way to pass the time. Earth mountains towered over my glass mountain, and they were full of life. I watched an eagle hook small rodents to carry to a precarious nest for his eaglets. Eagles seem more like people than birds because they’re large enough that you can see how terrible and loving they are.
That is to say, it wasn’t so bad on Glass Mountain. At the very top of the mountain, it was flat instead of jagged, which meant I could lie down and sleep at night. The apple tree that grew at the top shed leaves for me to cushion and cover myself with, and it dropped more apples than I could eat.
I fell into a rhythm. I rested under the shade of the tree during the morning, walked in the afternoon, and ate apples constantly to stay hydrated and keep my spirits up. If I heard the painful thud of a body or any wailing below me, I looked up at the sky so I wouldn’t have to see them. My father had warned me that many men wouldn’t make it to the top of the mountain.
Every morning, my father shouted up at me from the bottom of the mountain to ask how I was doing. Obviously, I wasn’t doing well. For weeks, I begged to come down, but he kept telling me, ‘This is the only way!’ Eventually, I quit asking.
Once I gave up on leaving the mountain, I began asking my father if someone could bring me things like bread and wine and books and clean clothes. He always said, ‘Wait another day!’
I wore white hosiery that grew dirty, and my dress was embroidered with gold thread, which might have been impressive from a distance, but it soon felt sticky and stiff from dribbled apple juice. If I’d taken the dress off at night, I would have been too cold. For no particular reason I could find, my filthy feelings ended one day, and I stopped longing for a bath.
The man who made it to the top of my mountain would become my husband, and he would inherit my father’s kingship. I got impatient, and one time I climbed down so I could teach the men how to climb properly, but my father yelled at me to go back to the top.
‘I can help them!’ I yelled back.
‘You climb by magic. They must climb by skill!’
As if the country’s future depended on a king who could climb glass.
I can’t say how many weeks or months I was up there before I saw a man who seemed like he could make it. He was halfway up, and he had clever suction cups attached to his hands and feet. He had a beautiful smile. Even from far away, I could see the light in his eyes.
‘Not him!’ I whispered to myself. I didn’t want him to die, but I couldn’t imagine – I mean – forever. And the whole country would be his.
Before he reached the top, the suctions gave way. A look of fear, then desperation, then disbelief passed over his strong features. I should have looked away, but I watched him fall, and I heard the crack of his body hitting the glass at the foot of the mountain. He cried out in pain, and then he was silent.
‘Why didn’t I want him?’ I asked myself. ‘It must have been my fault he fell.’
I felt like a murderer. I made up a story for that climber who came the closest. I decided he had always been in love with me, observing me without my knowledge. These thoughts kept me awake at night. I started sleeping during the day so I didn’t have to watch the climbers. I didn’t want them to die for my sake.
One morning, I shouted down to my father, ‘Haven’t you had enough? This contest is a punishment for me and your whole kingdom.’
‘Not yet,’ he said. ‘It’s for the greater good!’
Some days, I dreamed I was king. I knew I would be a better king than my father. How many men in our country had died for the sake of his contest? I couldn’t understand why he had done it, whether for entertainment or out of cruelty.
The one who finally pitied me was an eagle who flew to my side to see if I wanted help. I wanted to stroke his mottled brown head, which looked so soft, but I was afraid it would chase him away. It had been a long time since I had touched anything that looked so soft.
‘I can take you to my mountain,’ the eagle said.
But he smelled like death and garbage. He waddled closer to me. I’m sure I smelled awful, like fermented apples, but I’d grown used to my own smell.
‘You could live in the nest until you’re strong enough, and then you could live by the stream,’ the eagle said, having thought it over.
‘I’m strong! I don’t need help!’ Could anyone survive on a glass mountain if they weren’t strong? ‘Help one of those men below come to the top to get me. It’s the only way to save the kingdom. Otherwise, who will reign when my father dies?’
The eagle looked sterner than usual. ‘You should refuse to play this game.’
‘But what about the kingdom?’
The eagle didn’t understand. They don’t have kingdoms. He felt he had to help me, though I wish he hadn’t. Was it because I reminded him of an eaglet? Or maybe in spite of his protests, he knew he was like me. He had a part to play.
He swooped around and around the mountain, looking for a climber he could aid. I watched him settle on one who had slaughtered a bear and was using its claws to gain traction as he climbed. It was awful to see him use an animal’s severed paws, but it must have impressed the eagle. The climber was strong and resourceful, just like the eagle was. So the eagle grabbed him with his talons and carried him to me.
I watched in excitement. I didn’t care who won the contest anymore, who I would have to marry, who would rule. I only wanted my suspense to end.
The climber cried out in fear when the eagle lifted him. He didn’t understand our plan. Instead of allowing himself to be flown into the air and set down by my side, the climber used his stolen claws to sever the eagle’s talons.
In a flash, the climber fell towards me, tumbling into piles and piles of apple leaves and apple cores. The eagle’s severed talons fell beside him. The eagle’s body tumbled down the side of the mountain, and his corpse took its place among hundreds of men.
The climber was miraculously unharmed. He stood up and started to embrace me, but we both took a step back. He must have noticed how pungent I was, and I couldn’t forgive him for what he had done to the eagle. He was clever, which was why he was destined to win, but he had climbed over corpses to get where he was, and he had slaughtered two animals. I hadn’t realized it before, but I loved the eagle. I didn’t know why, but I did. And I could never love this climber who’d made him bleed.
‘You killed him!’ I said. ‘He was trying to help you!’
The climber looked so confused. ‘I’m here to help you,’ he said, ignoring my strange grief over the eagle. ‘We’ve all been worried about you. We didn’t know how you could survive up here.’
Then I noticed that he was cut and bleeding, and he’d broken his arm, and he was limping. All for me and the kingdom.
I began to cry, but before I could say anything else, a band of servants rushed up the mountain to attend to me and my future husband. They carried us down on cushioned chairs, and they cleaned me, and my bathwater smelled like wine. They fixed me up and put me in a pink silk dress, but I couldn’t stop crying. Everyone thought I was crying because I was so happy.
My father decided who could easily ascend Glass Mountain and who would have to struggle, but he never used his magic to prevent me from climbing down. He only used his warnings. If I had escaped or let the eagle carry me away, it would have saved so many.
There was nothing to do but wed the climber who cut off the feet of the eagle. I think the eagle was my best friend. I should have gone to live in a nest.
After our wedding, my father put a crown on my head and a crown on the climber’s head. No one introduced me to the climber, and I didn’t ask his name. After the crowning ceremony, my father gave me a dangerous smile. He said (like a child), ‘Watch this!’
He climbed to the top of Glass Mountain, and when he got to the top, he jumped. He joined all the corpses of the men who had died for his contest.
That was more than I could bear. I took off my crown and threw it at the feet of the climber who was my husband. Now that he was king, he could choose another queen. Before anyone could catch me, I ran. I took off my pink slippers so I could climb to the top of Glass Mountain. I’d been wrong about the eagle. The mountain was my best friend. At the top, I hugged the trunk of the tree, and I hungrily ate an apple. No other food had soiled my lips since I’d been rescued. I had believed I was uncomfortable up there, but it was the only place I could be myself.
‘Come back!’ My husband yelled at me from the bottom of the mountain.
In response, I threw down the eagle’s severed talons. I told him, ‘I will return when you reattach the eagle’s feet and bring him back to life.’
He looked puzzled, but he promised me he’d do it.
I was the queen for the time being, and I’d created my own contest. Like my father’s contest, it seemed impossible to win. I lived happily on the mountain while I waited, and I watched the strong eaglets leave their nest and teach themselves the deadly power of their talons. ∎
Ivy Grimes lives in Virginia, and her stories have appeared in Vastarien, Dark Matter Magazine, Tales from Between, Potomac Review, Shirley Magazine, and elsewhere. Ivy also has a story forthcoming in a future issue of Interzone. You can find her on Twitter at @IvyGri and subscribe to her newsletter Hypes and Archetypes.
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