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A Shrine On the Mountain

by Jennifer Gossoo

By Jennifer AshleyPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 24 min read
5
A Shrine On the Mountain
Photo by Marita Kavelashvili on Unsplash

Mabel Marsh was deep within a dream in which she was moving very quickly.

The ground was far below, and it was whooshing along as though it were being carried by a swift river. All those miles below (for miles they seemed to Mabel), yellow pastures gave way to green marshland in which thin grey streamlets twisted and wove, and upon which little white goats bobbed their horny heads as they drank from the bog. Mabel thought that bogwater must taste as awful as it smelt, for she could smell it all the way from—

Ah, yes. Where was she?

To start with, what was she bracing herself upon to keep from toppling headfirst into the smelly water below? When Mabel took a step back, she saw that her "railing" was some kind of animal tusk at least a full head taller than she. The tip curved over her head, and she noted that there were two spaced equidistantly on the ceiling above that did the same, and another to her left. When she stepped back a little further, Mabel began to notice other strange things about the airborne room. For starters, the floor was disconcertingly soft, revoltingly damp, and as red as lamb’s blood.

This was the moment in her dream (for when awake, Mabel hoped that she would come to such conclusions much faster), that Mabel realized she was being borne aloft in the mouth of a gigantic animal. A glimpse over the lower row of incisors revealed the disjointed reflection of a shaggy grey belly in the greenish water below. Mabel was inside the mouth of a wolf.

The wolf was loping clean over every field and hill it came to, taking such great bounds that its tongue leapt under Mabel’s feet every three seconds or so, and she couldn’t imagine how she’d felt at ease clinging to the foul yellow tooth in front of her, or peering out over the dripping black lips.

And yet, she had felt safe. She did feel safe. Mabel approached the wolf's teeth again. Something in her belly told her that the wolf would neither let her fall nor throw her back like medicine, and from that vantage point she saw that they were coming up on something far below and just beyond the treeline.

What is it? Mabel thought, and not-her-voice answered,

It is my kill.

“Your kill?” Mabel repeated out loud. The shape they were approaching didn’t look like the sort of thing you could kill, even if you had teeth the size of elephant tusks. As they drew nearer, Mabel saw that the shape wasn’t alive at all— it was a steam engine, huffing and puffing away below the trees! Mabel had often dreamt of what the journey through Meridia’s mountains would be like aboard a train, though no such engine had passed through the port town for nearly a decade. She was too young to remember a time when the rusted engine that lay abandoned in the woods behind the alpaca pen had actually ferried goods in and out of Meridia.

“You can’t kill a steam engine,” Mabel said matter-of-factly. She thought that wolves, being uncivilized creatures, might not know such things, and she was happy to inform any ill-advised persons she came across. But the wolf said something strange then, in a voice that rose howling like a northerly wind and lashed Mabel’s skirts all about her with its fury.

My heart is borne fast away from me!

The hand that reached within my shrine has befouled it with ill intent.

It beats solely for the forest,

The forest which needs me at rest.

Can you feel me growing weak?

I must run until I devour the thieving hand.

I must run until I catch the house of iron flesh,

Or lie down and die, and the forest with me.

Even now I feel my bones shift, and ache.

With this claim, the wolf’s leftmost fang cracked clean down its centre, and Mabel was spared a split glimpse of the rancid blood that began to spill out when the wolf landed particularly hard on its front legs, and Mabel was thrown up, up, and—

Down.

Mabel’s eyes snapped open. She bolted upright in the darkness, and found that the movement made her head swim.

A dream. The wolf, the train, the words echoing in her head. All a dream.

And yet, this was not her bed.

Mabel felt around blindly, as there was no moonlight glancing in an open window as she was used to, nor a sputtering candle on a nightstand, or a dying fire in a grate nearby. She felt roughish fabric beneath her fingertips, and behind her, a smoother material that felt just like the stuffed leather armchairs in the library. Mabel felt along, her heart thumping hard as a hare’s foot in her chest, until she reached the end of the fabric, and then the room around her gave a violent shudder, and she was flung onto her knees.

“Ah, sorry! Sorry.”

A light wavered to life in the air above Mabel’s head as someone lit the wick of an oil lamp and adjusted the flame. For a moment, Mabel thought that she’d entered a bizarre sequel to her first dream, in which estranged relatives stepped out of her memories and plagued her with further nonsensical riddles. But her Uncle Ichabod just smiled sheepishly and reached down for her hand.

“There we are!” he crowed as he hauled his niece to her feet. “Stable as a table. Good lass!”

Mabel remembered a multitude of similar expressions from her childhood, when her Uncle Ike and Aunt Katrina had been just that, her aunt and uncle who happened to own the village apothecary, and not Aunt Kat who rented the attic and “that uncle of yours.” Mabel had never been able to pry the whole story out of her mother or her aunt, but her uncle had evidently done something unforgivable, and her aunt only spoke of him now with clenched jaw and glistening eyes, and only when absolutely necessary.

“You’ll get your sea legs in due time,” Ichabod said, turning away from Mabel towards the front of the train, for the lamp had revealed that Mabel was standing inside the narrow, oak-panelled gallery of a steam engine! Mabel was too dumbstruck to catch her uncle before he disappeared back down the dark aisle. Her mind was reeling; she was riding a train!

Mabel looked to her left, towards what she thought would be the front of the car, where a conductor in a striped cap would sit. Her uncle had walked in that direction. Surely he wasn’t operating the train? Mabel hoped not, for both of their sakes. Down the corridor to her right, Mabel could see several more rows of upholstered seats, two to a compartment with a frosted glass window on the wall between, and a dark oil lamp in front of each doorway. But the longer she looked, the more Mabel found amiss in the cabin. To start with, at least half of the lamps in the corridor were cracked or missing their shades completely, and Mabel was fairly certain that somewhere towards the back of the cabin, a shattered passenger window was emitting a fearsome howling as the train whizzed through the night. Then there were the seats themselves, whose floral upholstery now sported creeping coats of moss and lichen.

This was all that Mabel needed to see. She knew the train that she was travelling in. She’d nearly entered it once before, having crawled underneath the alpaca's fence and stood on tiptoe to peer through the mildewed windows.

With this realization, Mabel flew to the end of the car, where the howling from the broken window had reached a crescendo. The porthole in the gangway door was bleary with age, but through it, she could make out the uniform pattern of the rusted rail tracks disappearing beneath them, and overhead, snatches of light through the tight-knit canopy told her that it was not evening at all, but midday!

More importantly, there was no sign of a giant wolf.

However, this did little to comfort Mabel. She wasn’t out of childhood just yet, and she knew in a sober, unquestioning way that the wolf would keep its word to catch the train.

Mabel turned from the porthole to face the gallery, and found that every intact oil lamp along the corridor had been lighted. She wasn't in the mindset to marvel at the impossibility of this. Her uncle stood at the end of this tunnel of light, looking more sheepish than ever. And something else. The something else turned the sore knot in Mabel’s stomach into a throbbing tangle of thorns.

“I suppose you have questions for me?” Mabel’s uncle approached her as one approaches a wounded stag, braced for the beast to leap up with points flashing. But far from anger, Mabel was on the brink of tears.

“Why am I on a train?” was all that she could get out before the tangle in her belly reached up and squeezed her throat.

“Now that is an excellent question, my dear!” Ichabod sang. Mabel thought that her uncle might start dancing in a moment, if only to stop his niece crying. And as she needed answers and not riddles, Mabel wiped her nose on her sleeve, and looked at her uncle levelly.

“Tough as nails, my girl, just like that aunt of yours! Tell me”—

“Aunt Kat still hates you, if that’s what you’re wondering,” Mabel said bluntly.

“Ah… indeed.”

“Why am I here?” Mabel asked again. “Where’s mom and dad? How did you get this old train working? Where are we going? Does Aunt Kat know I’m with you?”

“Tsk, tsk!” Mabel’s uncle threw his gloved hands in the air and stalked back towards the front of the car. Mabel was fast at his heels.

“Unc”—

“Sh! I’ll explain everything when we've sat. Yes, here, and you can have the seat that the squirrels haven’t gotten to. Comfortable? Now, tell me what you remember.”

Mabel leaned back against the moldering leather and racked her brains. She remembered the day before just fine. Helping her mother knead the crust for a rhubarb pie, brewing nettle and ginger-root tea with her aunt, collecting eggs from the hens and feeding the alpacas. They were getting woolly; it was almost shearing season. And after her chores, as always, she’d walked to the library.

“I don’t remember anything before I woke up,” Mabel said with a frown. “Only, I had a strange dream.”

“Ah, well, I’m sure wee bookworms like yourself have the strangest dreams of anybody,” her uncle jested. Mabel generally agreed with this, but the knowing in her gut told her that her dream had been, at least in part, quite real.

“I was being carried in the mouth of a wolf,” Mabel told her uncle. “I could see the land all around and below, and I could see the train putting up smoke through the trees. It was this train, Uncle Ike. The wolf said its heart was inside the train— in the iron house— and that it had to catch up or it would die, and then the forest would die. It talked about a hand reaching into a shrine… it said it was going to eat the hand when it caught up.”

While Mabel spoke, her uncle’s face changed in the gloom. The lie he’d been set to weave for his niece had fallen apart, thread by thread. When Mabel had finished, she caught her uncle’s eyes in the light of the oil lamp, and grew cold with fear.

“I believe, dear niece, that you are a messenger for the spirits today,” Ichabod said at last.

“What do you mean?”

“I doubt that you’re old enough to know much Meridian lore, although perhaps your aunt has told you stories. In any case, your parents will have cautioned you against straying too far past the treeline, yes? Well, it’s hardly to keep you safe from bears or bandits. You’re familiar with the stone temples along the road?”

Mabel knew the temples well, only she and her father called them spirit houses. They were squat stone structures— some falling just above Mabel’s ankles with others coming up to her knees— which the village of Meridia was fabled to have been built around, accounting for the presence of the shrines in all sorts of unlikely places. For example, there was one of the little houses in the eastmost corner of the front garden. Mabel made sure to keep the weeds trimmed down around it, and scrubbed off any moss that accumulated on the miniature porch. Mabel also knew that there was a spirit house tucked out of sight beneath the stairs of the library; one in the unpaved alley between the abandoned apothecary and the bakery; another right out front of the court house (only you had to look behind the flowerbeds to find it).

Seeing the recognition on his niece’s face, Ichabod continued, “I know that you’ve always been respectful of those spirits whose modest dwellings abut our own. But there are far larger, older shrines, deep within the forest in places children cannot go. These are home to the first spirits, who called the mountain home long before humans settled at its feet. And there is a single night of the year when those temples lie abandoned, late in summer beneath the green corn moon.”

Mabel had never heard of a green corn moon before. If her uncle had said red moon or grain moon, Mabel may have known the day that he was speaking of, as her father made note of such passings in the almanac he kept in his woodshed. As it was, Ichabod said, “I believe you were speaking with the oldest spirit on the mountain, whose shrine I stole from last night.”

With this, Mabel’s uncle reached within his cloak and withdrew a clearish, fist-sized lump. This, he placed on the dining table between them, where it rocked softly to and fro with each pump of the train’s pistons.

The heart. Mabel reached out, but didn’t dare touch it. The “heart,” as the wolf had called it, was a rather large, oblong hunk of amber, polished to translucency in some parts, rough and opaque in others. It reminded Mabel of a lovely golden glob of honey, suspended in the nebulous shape she saw before her.

“Have you seen this kind of thing before?” her uncle asked her, and Mabel made to nod, thinking of all the times she’d seen mosquitos or sugar ants or seedpods caught in the slow ooze of tree sap. But this was not that, and she shook her head. “Look closely,” Ichabod told her, rotating the amber with gloved fingertips. As it turned, Mabel caught sight of small, dark shapes caught within the golden mass.

“What are they?”

“A little bit of everything that's ever called the mountain home, I suspect. Bugs, blood, bone, teeth, fur… vegetation, of course.”

Mabel could make out vague shapes that seemed to fit what her uncle was saying: a gossamer wing; a half-furled frond. Her hands reached of their own volition to draw the heart closer, and when they did, she felt a terrific heat coming off of the uneven surface in waves, like that of a living, beating—

“Why on earth would you steal it?” The words spewed forth in a jumble Mabel hadn’t known was coming. The accusation caught Ichabod off guard as well, for he snatched the heart off of the table and levelled a black look at Mabel.

“I needed it. Need it, rather, for a simple spell. And I need you as well, it seems. Katrina always said that about you: Close to the spirits, that girl. Never a streak of ill luck— not so much as a drippy nose or twisted ankle, eh?”

Mabel was beginning to feel a new kind of fear. This wasn’t fear of being the passenger on a rusted, runaway train, nor the very specific fear of being eaten by an ancient forest spirit. She was afraid of her uncle, and every warning her aunt had ever given against going to see him was echoing in her head (though, unbeknownst to Katrina, Mabel had been visiting her uncle every month for the past five years, often with a food-laden basket from her mother).

“I did stub my toe once,” Mabel muttered.

“Ah, well, I’m sure the spirits had their reasons. Now, listen to me. If what you say is true, then I haven’t much time before I’m down a hand, and I can’t keep this train moving forever.”

“How is it moving at all?” Mabel asked, returning to the enigma of their transportation. “This is the same train that’s been rusting in the woods behind our farm since I can remember. Don’t trains need coal, and a conductor?”

“I suppose in general that’s true,” Ichabod said distractedly, for he was holding the hunk of amber up to an oil lamp, and turning it round in his fingers again. “In my case, it was just your run-of-the-mill enchantment, a quick one-two animation spell to get all the necessary parts moving again. But, like I said, I can’t keep this up forever. How close did it look like that wolf was in your dream?”

“No…coal?” were the words that fell out of Mabel’s mouth.

“No, no coal. Magic’s the only thing that will do in a pinch.” As Mabel looked on, her uncle snapped his gloved fingers, and every flame burning down the length of the corridor was extinguished in an instant, pitching them both into near-complete darkness. Another snap in the black, and the lamps rekindled themselves, winking merrily at Mabel, who was beginning to see a likely reason behind her uncle's exile.

“Well… if you have magic, then what do you need me for?” Mabel asked at last. Her head was swimming with unanswered questions, but she was also frightfully aware that the only thing holding the dilapidated engine together was her uncle.

“Well, I didn’t exactly plan it, did I? You were already on your way over, and I didn’t mean for the spell to ricochet like that. Sometimes these larger enchantments get out of hand, you see. Broke every egg in the basket— pity, that. But I couldn’t just leave you lying by the tracks, could I? What kind of uncle would I be? I hadn’t any choice but to bring you along. Who knows what an angry spirit might do if it runs across a human in its path— even an unconscious one. It’s terribly lucky for me that you came along when you did and caught the recoil from the spell; I’d have probably stopped the train ages ago thinking I’d got off scot-free, only to have my hand chomped off out of the blue!”

As Ichabod spoke, threads of the earlier part of Mabel’s day came back to her: the weight of the egg-laden basket in her right hand, the skinny footpath that wove past the old railway platform into the woods, and just past that first row of firs, the shadowy hump of her uncle’s cabin. But, beyond ducking through the sweet-smelling fir needles, Mabel could remember no more.

“Mom is never going to let me visit you again,” she said after a moment. Upon this fact, at least, they were agreed.

“I have no doubt. But I’m grateful for your company, all the same. You’re the only Marsh who seems to be able to stomach my presence these days.” Mabel wanted to tell her uncle that this was not strictly true, and that her aunt couldn’t speak of him without choking up, when he added, “And you’re clearly more friend to the spirits than I, which may be to our advantage. Now, I need you to hold this.”

When Ichabod held out the heart to her, Mabel clasped her hands behind her back.

“Come now, we haven't time for teenage rebellion. I need you to hold out your hands, Mabel. The spell won’t work without a human conductor— you— and a spell reciter— that has to be me, as I’m the only one of the two of us who can translate these runes. Chop chop, no dilly-dallying.”

Mabel was not at all pleased at the notion of touching the heart, despite her initial fascination with it. She felt that it was the kind of object that was never meant to see the light of day, let alone be cupped in her clammy human hands.

“What sort of a spell is it?” Mabel stalled. “I deserve to know that much, if I’m going to be a part of it.”

“I’d call this dilly-dallying. It’s a simple spell, as I said. A quick zip forwards and back. If all goes as planned, you'll wake up in your own bed and write this whole ordeal off as a troublesome dream. As will I.”

And Ichabod thrust the heart into Mabel’s hands.

Mabel recoiled at first. She’d expected the hear to sear her palms when she touched it. But the heat that it emanated was more akin to the heat of a fresh-laid egg, or of the alpacas after a shearing, when they'd been laying in the sun all afternoon. It was a living, breathing heat that Mabel recognized intrinsically as belonging to her as much as it belonged to every other beating heart on the mountain, and as she cradled it, it began to glow faintly from within.

“There’s a good lass! Now, don’t move.”

“What do you mean, a quick zip forwards?” Mabel was breathless and tingling all over from the heart’s life force, but her uncle’s forced nonchalance had put her on guard.

“Well, it’ll feel quick to you, I expect, as you’ll be the one staying behind. I’ve made some regrettable choices in my lifetime, the gravity of which I expect your aunt has never and will never share with you. Let’s just say that my penance is overdue, and this is the only way I know to go back and pay it. Of course, I didn’t reckon on being pursued by a jilted spirit, but then, I didn’t reckon on desecrating an ancient shrine either… A mere moment of overzealousness! One chisel blow too many and the thing split clean down the middle! I would’ve thought the shrine of a mighty spirit like that would be made of sterner stuff. But, I got hasty when I knew I was coming up on the heart— the heart, of legend!— and now, well… now I need you to hold still while I read.”

In her mind’s eye, Mabel saw the crack spreading through the wolf's tooth. “I think you’ve done something bad, uncle,” Mabel said. “Worse even than whatever happened with Aunt Kat. You can’t use the heart for this!” But her uncle was already reading off of a scrap of parchment he’d removed from inside his cloak.

Mountain’s heart,

Trapper of time,

Bring still this moment,

Past unwind.

As Ichabod spoke, the warm glow at the heart’s centre began to build, though it felt to Mabel that as the light within responded to her uncle’s voice, the surface of the amber grew cooler and more stone-like against her skin. Mabel opened her mouth to beseech her uncle, but a fierce gale was growing outside, and a second window towards the back of the car burst inwards with a bright, tinkling pop! Her uncle carried on.

Enemies to lovers,

Strangers in the end—

I beg that the heart

Let me circle back again!

Now the wind was truly raging, buffeting the sides of the engine until it rocked back and forth on its rails. Mabel tumbled over into a cubicle, the rapidly-cooling heart clutched fast against her stomach.

“On your feet, Mabel! We’re nearly there!” her uncle shouted, his voice triumphant.

Mabel scrambled to her feet, but she made no move to hold out the brightly-glowing heart.

“Aunt Kat wouldn’t want this!” Mabel had to scream to be heard over the manic howling outside. “You’re going to hurt the whole forest, maybe even the village, all so you can go back and unmake a mistake? What do you think will happen to Aunt Kat if this spell kills the forest spirit? To everyone that you love?”

Ichabod uttered a curse that his niece had never heard before, and began to recite more furiously than ever. Mabel could feel the weight of the cold amber growing in her hands, like a stone that wants desperately to sink. She struggled to hold it aloft as she turned to face the back of the car, where the porthole showed the blurred shapes of trees passing away behind them.

“People are supposed to learn from their mistakes,” Mabel shouted, though she didn’t have to yell quite as loud now. “Not sacrifice others to change them. It’s not too late.” Ichabod, however, was too late in reaching for her shirttail. Mabel sprinted to the door at the end of the car and heaved her full weight against it. On its other side, the wind heaved back. But, as what sometimes happens when people find themselves with their backs against a wall, Mabel grew just strong enough to hurl the door outwards, and into that dark, howling abyss, she offered up the heart.

It seemed to Mabel that, for an instant, time stood as still and silent as those insects trapped in amber. She felt like one of them, too, suspended weightlessly between light and dark. And then the howling tripled back on all sides, and Mabel realized that she was falling, falling out of the back of the moving carriage, and the heart was falling with her, and all that she could think was that if the heart fell and broke in two, everyone she loved would suffer because of it, and it would be her fault. And then the breath left her lungs as something caught around her stomach.

“I have you. Hold on.”

Ichabod had managed to catch hold of Mabel’s skirt as she teetered in the open doorway. Drawing hand-over-hand, he reeled her back into the cabin. Mabel sat down hard on the floor, ice-blooded and breathless, but prepared to put up a fight for the heart. Her uncle, however, smiled in a gentle way that she hadn’t seen since she’d awoken on the train, and held out his hands.

“Not too late, you say?”

Mabel, stunned for a moment, thought back to the “hate” that her Aunt Kat spoke of harboring for her husband, which didn’t look so much like hate to Mabel as it did grief. No, not too late. She shook her head.

“If you say so.”

Mabel placed the heart in her uncle’s hands. She watched him walk to the gangway door and hesitate on the threshold. Mabel could imagine that, in his place, she would be in agony over what was to come. And then he braced himself (rather better than she had), and held the heart out of the back of the train.

It happened slowly, and hardly at all, in a way. The howling was suddenly clear as day, and there above the treetops was the great head from Mabel’s dream. She could hear neither the crunch of footfalls nor the wet pant of open jaws as the wolf came upon them, but Mabel felt that the spirit was on its last legs. The grey muzzle came down through the trees to meet her uncle’s hands where they trembled above his head. The black lips closed around the heart, and when the wolf withdrew its head, the heart was gone, and with it, the ring finger from each of her uncle’s hands. The last that Mabel and Ichabod knew of the spirit was a deep, canine sigh that sent a warm breeze through the undergrowth and parted the canopy over their heads, so that a single shaft of late noon sunlight pooled onto the tracks. It was at this moment that Mabel realized they were no longer moving. Whatever enchantment her uncle had cast had worn off, or fallen away at the same moment he’d lost his fingers.

Mabel ran to her uncle, who stood frozen in the cabin doorway, and wrapped his waist in a hug. He was trembling harder than an aspen, and he was paler than Mabel had ever seen him, but he was smiling. Mabel noticed that the wolf hadn’t left any wounds; her uncle was simply missing two fingers, as though he’d been born that way. Mabel reached for one of his hands and held it in her own.

“I think Aunt Kat will like it,” she said at last. “You look like you’ve tangled with a bear.”

At this, Ichabod let out a throaty laugh, and then he couldn’t stop laughing, and that got Mabel started as well. Neither one of them could stop for some time, and their mingled laughter echoed over the mountainside, and set birds twittering in the treetops for miles around.

Short Story
5

About the Creator

Jennifer Ashley

🇨🇦 Canadian Storyteller

♾️ Metis Nation

🎓 UVic Alumni 2020

Writing published by Kingston Writers Press, Young Poets of Canada, Morning Rain Publishing, & the BC Metis Federation to teach Michif in Canadian schools.

✨YA Magical Realism✨

Reader insights

Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insights

  1. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  2. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  3. Expert insights and opinions

    Arguments were carefully researched and presented

  1. Eye opening

    Niche topic & fresh perspectives

  2. Heartfelt and relatable

    The story invoked strong personal emotions

  3. Masterful proofreading

    Zero grammar & spelling mistakes

  4. On-point and relevant

    Writing reflected the title & theme

  5. Easy to read and follow

    Well-structured & engaging content

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Comments (6)

Sign in to comment
  • Donna Fox (HKB)4 months ago

    Wow, what a breath taking journey you have taken us (the readers) on! I am in awe of all the themes and genre lines you were able to cross in this piece! Very well done Jen!

  • Mackenzie Davis4 months ago

    This is absolutely fantastic, Jen. It's magical, it's whimsical, and has a depth of legend that I adore. Even has sci-fi elements mixed in, the attempt at time-travel. What a riveting, wonderfully crafted story! I'll echo Cathy: EPIC!

  • J. S. Wade2 years ago

    Wow. Fantastic story. ❤️

  • Whoaaaa this was a hell of a ride (pun intended). I enjoyed reading it. Very engaging. You have done a fantastic job on this one!

  • Cathy holmes2 years ago

    All I can say is EPIC. Oh, and also Wow!

  • Lena Folkert2 years ago

    Wouldn't expect anything less from our Prologue Champ! Way to go with this one! :) <3

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