Old hunkered by the mouth of his cave, as he had always done. His cave sat near the summit of a mountain. His mountain.
Old sat cross-legged in frayed robes, with a gnarled staff in his lap, a staff ideal for hiking – worn smooth by his grip, and just the right height for him to lean on when covering tricky terrain.
But Old had not been hiking for a long, long time. He could not recall the last time he had quit twirling his greasy beard by the fire to stretch his legs.
Old could remember a time when he had strode about this mountaintop, chancing upon all manner of wonderment and mystery – Old had seen eaglets accepting fresh-ripped meat from their mother’s hooked beak; Old had seen jagged towers of ice shearing off a glacier’s face and plunging majestically into the frigid lake; Old had seen just-laid tracks of the Yeti.
But that was an impossibly long time ago, however. Old had remained hunched by this fire at the mouth of this cave for a time beyond calculation.
Old’s legs calcified into a slack and unmoving knot; Old’s mind folded like the skin of a teepee around the spindly frame of the ideas he liked best, leaving all others outside it.
Old’s face creased not with laughter or worry or sorrow – it collapsed in on itself while he squints blankly into the embers.
Old ate the same rinds of bread, the same thin gruel, day upon day upon day.
Old dispensed the same threadbare wisdom to his dwindling number of visitors, and regaled them with the same pointless stories – stories rendered all the more pointless by the fact that his fidgeting visitors had heard them many times elsewhere. These pilgrims would lapse into silence as Old murmured these stupid, stupid stories. They had known him only an hour, but they had already come to hate Old a little bit.
They had climbed this goddamn mountain to hear platitudes from this toothless old bastard who managed somehow to smell like cabbage even though there wasn’t a head of goddamn cabbage within a thousand fucking miles of this cave.
These pilgrims would tromp back down the mountain the second they could. And they would never come back. And word would travel. And the pilgrims stopped coming altogether.
And Old grew more addled and lonesome and irrelevant. His yellowed and misshapen feet wore a shallow trough between his place at the fire and the nest of rancid thatch he slept on, and his narrow ass wore a shallow cove into the stone beneath him.
He cursed his longevity as he waited. He waited so long he forgot why he waited. What vestiges remained of his purpose dried out, curling away like onion skin and getting consumed by his dismal little fire. Old’s rheumy and unfocused eyes watched without understanding the cinders of his purpose borne aloft on tendrils of smoke.
Death was a mercy denied him. Each whistling breath was a cruelty. Each day’s waking a betrayal.
He grew more sunken and bowed and barren.
Then. One day. As the dawn was breaking, Old poked at the embers of his fire with a stick and peered down into the valley through the disconsolate smoke.
His heavy-lidded eyes opened wider than they had in a long, long time.
Down below the tree line, he could see movement. Ferocious and single-minded movement. And Old heard thundering footfall. And cracking tree limbs.
The first of the aspens dropped with a SHUSSSSSSSH and a BOOM. Then a pair of fir trees, sheared off like wheat under a scythe. And the trees kept falling in a march up the mountain.
Whatever was down there was kicking up a hell of a dust cloud. And dirt clods. And stones. And chunks of tree root.
Old gazed, transfixed, at the swath being cut up the mountain – his mountain.
Whatever that thing was down there, it was hauling ass for sure. Old could hear it growling, now.
A figure burst through the last of the trees, a figure whose features and form were tough to make out because of the staggering velocity of the guy. This guy was SPRINTING up the face of the mountain. But four-limbed like a primate – planting his knuckles, springing upward like a baboon burning with a need to kill you, just tearing up the mountain like demon.
Before Old could fully take in this figure – the bunched muscles, the bursts of sod and sticks, the blazing eyes – the demon primate was upon him, standing just the other side of his pitiful little fire.
The baboon demon thing was totally still – not inert, like Old, but coiled, thrumming, ready.
Old was so far past readiness, he didn’t even recognize it when it stood by his fire.
Old sat in stupid silence from a moment.
Finally, Old croaked in voice gritty with disuse:
“What’s your name?”
The stranger said nothing, just reached over the fire and grabbed a fistful of Old’s beard. He twisted the coarse whiskers into a knot around his fist, lifted Old off the slab of stone. He met Old’s eyes for just a second, his gaze volcanic with contempt.
Then he hurled Old off the face of that mountain.
And Old, as he cartwheeled through the air – before he shattered on the rocks below, and even though he was hurt and bewildered to have been chucked wordlessly off what had been his mountain – thought to himself:
“Whoa. That was pretty bad-ass.”