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The Monsters in our Mountains
My father and mother sat by the whispering, screeching radio. Their chairs faced each other and their overcome expressions were reflected. Father held a wrinkling newspaper between his knobby fingers and thumbs.
The words on the headline screamed at me a little like the radio, but the words were strange. Like kamikaze. The picture was like one of those amorphous, modern paintings that the newspaper also liked to advertise sometimes--full of clouds--and mother and father would shake their heads in confusion a little bit like they did just then.
I wanted to know, so I asked.
“Ma, what’s on the other mountain behind mine?”
Like always, my mother’s voice was thick with her ancestors and the gritty soil that they tilled. “There ain’t nothing good on the other side of that fence, Dillon.”
“What’s so bad about it?”
Before those words even left my lips, I began thinking all sorts of fantastically terrifying thoughts. I was an explorer, you see. My parents had a small, muddy farm at the base of our mountain, and the forest owned the rest of that land. I owned the forest, which draped over the top of the mountain like a fallen handkerchief, but I didn’t own the forest beyond the Fence. The Fence was an ugly, wiry, sharp thing that cut through the valley on the other side of the mountain opposite from our house. A whole other mountain lied beyond the Fence, and I’d been getting real curious about it.
My father cut in immediately, beginning his sentence with a savage growl that I’d never heard before.
“Monsters are what live in that mountain, I say. They done real evil, son. Don’t you ever go do your frolickin’ down over there, you hear me? It’s dangerous. They ought to be locked up.”
“Really?” My mind spun with the gravity of his tone. “Real monsters?”
“Yeah.” He spoke softer, turning his face back to the newspaper and his ear to the radio.
The next morning, I made sure my switchblade was nice and sharp before I even put on my boots.
My mind had gotten the best of me that night. Every shadow turned into the other mountain’s monsters. Out of the corner of my eye I’d think that I’d seen them—black and tall, twisted and deranged, bearing antlers of spiked metal and antlers of wood covered with withering leaves. Tree monsters. I thought tree monsters were the most terrifying and evil, because trees were supposed to be happy and good but monsters were the opposite. Father could have only been talking about the worst monsters.
Anyhow, the rusty little switchblade was stashed under my pillow all night long.
I slopped my clothes together onto my self, and stamped into the kitchen. My mother was, like usual, stirring something pleasant in the cast-iron pot, a lit lamp by her side. I sat down at our scarred, wooden table for breakfast.
After a few moments of silence, my mother turned to me. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Waiting for breakfast, Ma,” I answered snarkily.
“That’ll be in an hour, boy. The rooster hasn’t even woken your father up yet.”
I then looked to one of our few windows, and realized that the sun had indeed not risen, and some of the stars still lingered in the indigo sky. That was no good. I had to get out to the Fence as fast as possible, because maybe if I saw that the tree monsters were on the other mountain, then I would stop imagining them in my room. I couldn’t wait an hour for my mom to finish stirring--I had to go now.
After drawing myself up quietly from the chair, I snuck to the door. I slid open the latch.
“Where do you think you’re going in this light?”
“Not far, Ma.”
“Just… by the edge of the forest.”
“To get firewood.”
My mother looked at me in silence, so I opened the door. The chill air splashed my face.
“You’re not going nowhere. Close the door. I know you’re up to something.”
“But I have to go get the firewood!”
I dashed out the door as quick as a whip, leaving the door hanging open behind me. My mother yelled after my irately but it didn’t much matter to me. I’d get spanked, and I’d get more chores, but I’d done all of those things before. They weren’t as frightening as the night previous.
I ran all the way up to where mud and grass met the bony-treed forest, and hunched over to catch my breath. Though it was near freezing, my feet were warm in by boots with all the movement.
The wind played on the bare trees like a melancholy harmonica. I could hardly see anything besides my hands and feet, but I wandered into the dark woods anyway. I wasn’t scared of dangerous forest creatures—I’d fully explored this mountain, and hadn’t ever seen none. The scariest thing I’d ever seen was a vulture, still pecking at the corpse of a blackbird.
I was up to the top of my mountain in just a few minutes. By then, it was full twilight, and things seemed even spookier than they had when I couldn’t even see them at all. At the top of the mountain, I caught my breath again. I didn’t give myself time to get even more scared. I had to go. There was a tug on my feet to explore again.
I scampered gracelessly down the slope, my unwieldy boots slipping on leaves and loose stones. Crows and other big birds flew up noisily from places I’d been sure were unoccupied, as if I’d done something to frighten them. Birds were stupid like that. I didn’t have my slingshot with me--they should’ve seen that.
The misty woods led me to the Fence, finally.
It was taller than me, carved out of rotting oak and garnished with rusty barbed wire that wrapped around and around slowly and choked the life out it. Able to recognize the pattern of the forest, now, I turned left and jogged slowly down the side of the Fence. There were no more sounds but the leaves shattering under my feet.
A minute later, there was a breach in the Fence--a lower board that had finally given way after decades of rain and mold. The barbed wire around that area had fallen slack, so I had to pinch it with two fingers and carefully lay it over the top of the fence again so I could get through. It wasn’t a hard task, but I cut my thumb anyway.
Then, I got on all fours and slid out from under the Fence. It happened so quickly--I couldn’t really believe it. I stood there, with my back to the wood, as if I would immediately see something that I wouldn’t have if I was standing back only a few feet behind the Fence.
I knew that was stupid, so I took a step forward and nearly jumped out of my skin. The sound of my own footstep frightened me. I shook my head at myself. I had to stop spooking myself.
Soon enough, I was striding through the uncharted land with feverish anticipation. I looked to every tree, making sure none moved while I wasn’t looking. I started climbing uphill, right up into this neighbor mountain I’d always wondered about. I should’ve never asked my parents about the mountain, because I would’ve gone anyway and wouldn’t have gotten in trouble.
I had become used to the rustle of my own footfalls, so I knew immediately when I heard the sounds of different leaves trembling nearby. There was no wind, now. Everything else in the forest was quiet except the leaves behind me. I froze, smushing down the animal urge to take flight. Then I turned around.
There was a huge maple tree that I had passed, and it was waving at me.
Its bottommost branch spasmed out from behind the grey trunk, waving its dull brown foliage. It stretched out further right, as if extending a hand. I wasn’t about to shake it. I was paralyzed, only living because I was breathing faster than a winded dog.
I’d been right. And I really wished I hadn’t been.
But I wasn’t right.
The branch suddenly fell forward, and I knew that it hadn’t even been connected to the tree to begin with. Something had been holding it up vertically. I took a step forward.
A creature walked out from behind the tree--no, a boy. A boy with hair as black as pitch, and eyes that narrowed slightly at the world.
“Are you going to help me?” he asked.
My voice sounded like it had rusted over in the twenty minutes that I hadn’t been using it. “What?”
“Help. Me. Can you understand me? “
“Yeah,” I said. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“Because some people cannot. They can only understand themselves, ya know?”
I hadn’t taken much notice during my period of surprise, but I did then. There was a strange lilt in the other boy’s language that I couldn’t place--a way the words knocked around in his mouth uncomfortably, like beans coming up through a water pump.
“Yeah,” I answered, unsure.
“Can you help me build my castle?”
I blinked. “Yeah.”
I took hold of the other end of the branch, and helped the boy carry it to wherever he wanted. The trek stopped at a pile of more broken branches and scrap wood. We let the branch fall with a thud.
“What are you going to do with all that?”
“Build the castle.”
“You can’t build a castle with wood. You have to have marble and paint and stuff.”
The boy glared at me, unfazed. “Yes you can. I’ve done it before with my father.”
From then on, the boy told me where to set the branches around a narrow oak tree, and we worked diligently together on that strange mountain. I couldn’t see a pattern in the construction that would lead to any big, shiny building, but the boy sure was convincing.
“Say,” I said, as I tried to keep a certain branch from falling and making the others fall also, “what’s your name?”
“Matsu,” he answered while catching a cluster of twigs that I’d bumped before they fell to the ground.
I couldn’t get how he said the name--I rolled the accent around in my mouth for a little while, but it was so strange that I gave up.
“Can I call you Mat?”
“Yes. What is your name?”
Matsu repated me, but the l’s in my name got so muddled that I just told him to forget it, too. He called me “Dee,” which I found a little funny and degrading at the same time.
“Are you sure this castle will stay standing?” I asked. “It’s all going to fall like dominoes when the wind starts. Or when the monsters get to it.”
“It will stand,” Matsu said as his slender fingers lingered on a wobbling twig. “But monsters? What do you mean?”
“Monsters live here! You’ve gotta know that much. My dad says they’re evil.”
“No monsters,” Matsu said, picking up a few sticks full of still-fresh pine needles. He laid them across the branches to begin insulating the wobbly structure. “I’ve lived on this farm all of my life, and we moved into the woods a few weeks ago so we wouldn’t be taken away. I have not seen any monsters. I only build castles.”
“But papa said so,” I insisted, forgetting my work to look the other boy in the eye. “He ain’t ever lied to me.”
“Maybe he didn’t.”
Matsu’s face, once filled with pride and determination looked bleak. “Some people will call anyone a monster. That’s what my father says. We aren’t monsters. We just live here.”
I returned to the castle the next day—and it still stood, quite sturdy and taller than my head. Matsu was gone, and I wouldn’t find anything besides birds on that mountain ever again.