In the Mountain's Shadow

October 26, 2008
By Charles Hempfling, New Harmony, IN

The spirits roared and the mountain did not yield. Wind and ice dueled with stone, and neither could rally. Icy gusts reached down from the lurking clouds, whipping up snow in whirlwinds on the piercing ranges. The despairing clouds obscured the highest peaks and the bitter cold, froze plant and animal alike. Paths lie covered in a white carpet and trees frozen in icy grips. The legendary blizzards of the Pamirs, had arrived.

15 year old Ismail, trudged higher and higher. He cursed the gods and spit in the snow, only to watch it become ice. He appeared a ghastly figure on the path in the morning light. His turban was snapping around him in the gust, caught in whipping animation. His phantomlike shape staggered through the drifts. His small frame obscured by the driving snow. He clung to the rock face of the mountain, keeping away from the abyss to his left, which would send him to the lowland valleys and pastures of his people much faster that he intended. He searched ahead, looking for some cave or indention he knew his family’s flock would use for protection from the sky’s wrath. The goats, which usually migrated down the slopes themselves in the late fall, were now trapped by an early storm. He had hiked for three days searching for them on the path the goats always used, only to find they had moved higher to find pasture and know were caught in the first winter’s storm. He wrapped his turban tighter and pressed on. He fought to keep his eyes open but he walked mostly blind, as he tried to keep them from freezing.

He cursed the snow and his small stature, as the growing drifts reached his knees. The wind suddenly picked up and it tore across the mountain’s side, with a screaming crescendo. He tried to walk, but found he could not. The gusts were beating him back. His grip was torn from the icy face, and he found himself flying towards the edge. He grasps out for anything, screaming prayers to his ancestors. He caught something and held fast. His head whipped forward banging into the rock ledge he hung from, just barely. His body hung over the mile long drop and the wind beat him against stone. He looked up to see what he held to, and saw a pine sapling. How it held, he did not know. He was slammed into ledge again, his head became dizzy and he fought from blacking out. Something warm flowed out between his lips and he tasted something metallic. The wind stalled and he swayed back and forth, trying to regain composure.

He grasps higher on the sapling and pulled himself up inch by inch, until he swung back up onto the path. He crawled to the rock face again and sat. He put his head in his hands and cried from relieve and fear. He raised a hand to find that blood had froze on his lips and chin. He wondered what his family would say when they say him bring back their flock. He searched the sky above him, looking for the jutting peak, and there it was! Oh, how close he was! The goats couldn’t have gone any higher. The youth pulled himself up carefully. He began his murderous hike once more.

Hours past and the blizzard only intensified. Ismail, close to the summit, faced dense fog, which along with the snow, made it impossible to see far. He could not believe the goats had pushed this far up, and he came to the conclusion that they were seeking shelter. He continued on. The cold made his whole body numb and he could feel his body slowing trying to conserve energy, he no longer even shivered. Finally he rounded a turn and saw, the flock. In a canyon in the mountain side they sat in a snow filled meadow. Ismail ducked off the path into the canyon, sighing with relieve to find no wind. The goats began to bay with glee when they saw him, many of which he had cared for his whole life. Ismail counted around eighty goats, twenty fewer than when they had left them in the fertile mountain valleys in the summer, but loses where unimportant. He knew the goats would starve if he did not fetch them. With that thought he moved amongst them kicking them up. They bayed with displeasure but it did not matter, survival mattered. He got to the back of the flock and started to wave his arms pushing them out onto the path. The males took point and the small troop moved out with Ismail kicking the stragglers along. Soon he had hem descending the mountain via the path. Ismail still stumbled but the goats where right at home in the dismal place. They found traction easily. The blizzard still assaulted them but they continued on. Ismail wanted eagerly to leave the mountain’s upper half and the storm behind. The sooner he cleared it, the better.

The boy and goats hiked for hours and Ismail was becoming uneasy. The goats bayed continuously and they smelled so horrific, he was sure the dead could smell them. He kept a keen eye behind him in the swirling storm, and on the overhangs above him. A snow leopard was every highland sheppard’s nightmare. There were no other beast to worry about on the ranges, except for the mighty birds of prey, but the storm had driven them away. Everything was too good for an ambush. Ismail could not see. He kicked another goat forward, wishing they would clear the storm’s veil quicker.

The first frightened bays came from those goats around Ismail; he knew the cries all too well. He took his spear out from pack slung over his shoulder and got into a crouch, holding the juniper spear at the ready. His father, brothers, and he had fought a leopard once. The battle cost one of his brother’s lives and the beasts. He searched the rock face around him, searching for the cat. The goats bayed wildly around him. He saw something move in the shadows in a collection of boulders on a ledge above the path; a glimpse of white and a black spot. He ran waving his arms at the goats. He made them run down the path in a little stampede. They were soon out of sight around a bend. Ismail turned, spear held ready and searched the boulders again. It was gone. He caught movement behind him and spun. The leopard stood in the trail behind him, less than twenty paces away. The snow whirled around it and its beautiful features were shown in terrifying clarity. The thick coat was spotted with black spots and white as the snow itself. It stood as tall as Ismail’s waist, but he knew the cat must weight twice of what he did. It twirled its tail and barred its fangs at him, emitting a simmering hiss.

Ismail took a step back, and the cat lunged. Ismail couldn’t believe anything was this fast. It covered the distance in two strides leaping at him with barred claws. He stepped aside at the last minute; his legs where almost frozen in fear. As the cat tore past, he punched out with the butt of his spear, catching the beat in the stomach with all his might. The cat landed on its back, and rolled to its feet. It hissed again and pounced. Ismail tried to raise his spear but a paw blocked it away and the cat landed on him. He held the spear horizontal in front of him as the cat’s jaws closed on it. Its breath was hot on his face and he could smell every meal it had eaten. Claws dug into his stomach and shoulders and he screamed in pain. He kicked up, driving the animal into the air. He jumped to his feat and wished he hadn’t had. The pain was unbearable. He looked into his shoulder and saw bone. He leopard came again, this time it ran under his guard and bit into his leg with its teeth. Ismail roared and reversed his grip on his spear. He drove the point down into the cat’s back. The haft on the spear broke. The cat drove him down into the ground and relinquished his leg to go for his neck and head once more. It lunged down for the killing blow, half of his spear still in its back. Ismail, taking the broken end of his own spear, shoved it into the cat’s neck. It stopped on the stake. It made a gurgling noise and sank onto Ismail’s chest. He lay there, trying to regain his breath, as the snow leopard’s blood ran out onto his torn coat. He finally shoved the carcass off of himself. The snow leopard’s eyes, black gems, still gazed out in shock at its death. He staggered standing, and dropped to a knee. He stood again, this time able to stay upright. He set of to find the goats. When they saw him, they bayed happily and huddled around him. Their thick coats felt warm against his legs. He rubbed their heads and they licked his hands. He took a shredded length of his coat and wrapped his shoulder. Finally, he looked up to the peaks one last time.

“Let’s go home,” he said and the boy and goats all walked off into the mountain’s shadow.

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