The following is an excerpt from the piece “My Mountain is Taller Than All The Living Trees” in McSweeney’s Issue 52, In Their Faces A Landmark: Stories of Movement and Displacement, guest edited by Nyuol Lueth Tong. To read the whole thing, buy the issue here. You can also subscribe and never miss another story again.
My mountain that I live on is not much to speak of and if you go by what some of the foreigners who come around this way say then it is really more of a hill, or even a mound. But I’ve never been anywhere foreign myself, nor do I want to at this point, and Barbados is about as flat as the bottom of a pan. Even on the ground you can see for miles around just by standing on the tips of your toes. So you can just imagine the view from my mountain, which is very near the town of Karata whose people keep goats to race on weekends or kill and cook if they are too slow. I know this because when I squint I can see all their business over that way, though it is not to say I recognize any faces from so high up. There was once a day when one of the goats escaped from its rope-fence enclosure and wandered off into the confused roads, across the devilgreen land, up and down through ditch and hole until climbing my mountain and there licking my face where my cheek became my jaw. I did not have any sapodillas or oranges or cherries to give so it stayed with me only a few minutes before going back from where it came.
The people of Karata are aware that I live here and are on good terms with me. This began with them taking the detour during their walks to pass by my mountain and wave hello. Now they tend to shout from further away. Sometimes they invite me down for a wedding or First Communion but I do not much like the taste of goat anymore and so I haven’t been to Karata, either. When I do need food, it is from the rainwater in my gourd or the trees around my mountain, which are sapodilla and orange and cherry—though some now have termites for veins and do not bear. I only take fruit from one of them a day, which I can look down and choose before making the walk. So you see? There are the birds and the sun and moon and the charcoaled corpse of a pine that was on its way to reach the clouds before it died, and that is it. My mountain is taller than all the living trees.
In general I do not face Karata because there is not much to look at apart from their lives and the beginnings of the sea on the horizon and also because most of the people who come to see me do so from the opposite way. I do not much like being snuck up upon and even though by the time someone is making their way up my mountain it is quite impossible for me not to have noticed, I would still rather I see them coming from all the way. The land in that direction is bush and farming plots cut from the bush. For me to not spot a visitor approaching they would have to not only avoid all the flattened clearings but also hope it is a windy day so I confuse their rustling of the bushes as nothing special. I no longer sleep much and, in the hours I do, it is simply ridiculous that anyone would think to visit then, though life has not been without its surprises. A woman was from Peru and a sleepwalker, moving like a drunk shadow in the field. I cannot say what it is that woke her but she right away took to screaming so loud the fireflies around her outed their lights. It was some time for her to notice my mountain. She headed over and climbed up and screamed again when she saw I was at the top. Who would have thought I was there without first knowing it, a mole-faced man whose hands have started to shake? She said she was camping and was from Peru and was a sleepwalker and did I know where she was. Over there is the town of Karata, I answered, but she’d come from that way where the stars are bunched tightest. It had already rained for the night, the cold dampness of a fever hung low.
She pondered the blackness. The grass here hides a tricky beetle whose song is a long hiss, so at night it can sound as if my mountain is in a nest of snakes. There are also snakes, real ones, but not nearly as many as the hissing would have you think and they do not have poison in them. But the woman from Peru did not know any of this and I could see in the anxious way her eyes darted to the insects’ calls that she could not decide which terror to brave between serpents and a man. She asked if I knew the time and I told her I did not. “I never walk longer more than an hour,” she said aloud, “so it is not more after than two. I would always know the time when I am little.” This talking as if she were alone calmed her and she went from a stand to a crouch, speaking at me about other childhood oddities: always knowing north even when spun around many times, walking in her sleep if she lay on her back. “But I am more comfortable if I sleep this way so this is the matter,” she said. Then I told her that most people walk through their lives in a sleep too, except they never get the chance to wake up. What bad manners of the mind to pass through life in a dream. She liked that.
When she slept it was with a rock as her pillow.
In the morning the sun faces my mountain from across the long yawn of land the woman from Peru had crossed. She grew sweaty with it and woke up itching and was making her way down before turning back to say thank you while once touching my foot. When I was sure she was gone I went down to pick my fruit. I do not know if her body still rises itself up to walk an hour north at night, but I do not see why it would.
Anyway, that meeting was a coincidence and you should not think I spend my time waiting for sleepwalkers to come my way. Most of my visitors believe I am where they find me. A few have believed it for so long they no longer expect to be proven right, as is true of those who go high enough in the air to see the whole earth is round. On finding my mountain they do silly things like wet their pants or sing—not all lunacy comes from delusions. I can tell apart the foreigners from their walk, which not only lacks the waisty roll and tumble of the country people around here, but also wanders, searching for whichever direction is left. Even when they are still specks no bigger than a cherry seed I notice the vague maybeness of their steps, a tender shuffle that comes from trusting the current of a journey more than its sense. When they reach my mountain there is always a pause while their senses catch up to where they stand.
Unless the opposite is true and it is instead a peppered heat that has driven them all this way. There were once two men approaching equally distant from each other and my mountain and running like maniacs. This was in the dry season when footsteps crack like knuckles. I did not like their animal-rush, even more so after the barrel-built one running through the canefields to my right galloped on all fours when he tripped rather than right himself. I decided it was him I would hit with the rock I had picked up from my foot since he looked more solid of figure, better able to handle a misplaced throw to the head should I miss—my aim is not very good—and the other was already belaboured by his own high-knee running.
Soon they were close enough. But when the space between them had narrowed as at the bottom of a valley, they set upon each other with the futility of wave and shore, one too persistent and the other too stubborn, and I could not throw my stone in the tangle of limbs. Neither wanted to hurt the other man but instead keep him back from my mountain. I would not say the burly one won, though it was he who first touched the bottom of my mountain, for as he climbed closer I saw how deeply his face had been shred open by the ground and how pebbles poked from his cheek. Through spittle and blood he spoke of their race across three continents and an ocean, then of the fellowship between them that had turned sour. They were both without names—he on my mountain had never had one and he below had had so many as to not remember which was first—and had come in search of new ones. “True ones,” said my bald, bloody fellow. “How can a man speak with certainty when there is not a word to know that man by?”
My name is Itawadilela, which means he who greets with fire. I know it is mine as a child comes to know its own reflection: it moves as I do. And as there is no place for another to tell you which figure you are in a mirror, so is there no allowance for them to pin your fate to a word.
I said this loud enough that they could both hear. The lower one, lanky as a vine, crept up my mountain to be nearer. I asked why they did such terrible battle against the other when their hopes were the same and they said, “The news is that you speak to but one visitor a year,” which was a little true, because after the man with two limbs I saw no one else for thirteen full moons. “I have nothing to call you,” I said, but in their pleading and crying and reaching for my hands my heart was moved. “Your names are Wax and Wane,” I said, and when each asked which was his own I took a sapodilla from my lap and bit into it. A quick cloud made the sun blink.
I believe I am the centre of a game played by the children of Karata, though the rules are still not clear to me. In it, they send an emissary to ask me questions, but only to get a particular answer, or maybe as a distraction. Even now, school children from Karata are coming with giggles in their uniforms. I can see them: khaki shorts and skirts just above the knees, button-down shirts the yellow of fallen bananas. They sing for most of the way, a birdsong babbling that is still music. The smaller ones are in danger of becoming stragglers, and must often catch up to the rest with quick, little steps that leave them panting. The taller bunch wear their bags with just one strap on the shoulder. All of their collective courage stalls closer to my mountain until, a few feet from the bottom, they are silent.
A girl shouts up, “Afternoon, Sir.”
“Sir, you know it have a big storm coming this way? The storm big so:” she stretches her arms wide and spins around. Some of the others laugh and steal glances up at me. Their bravery spreads like a rumour.
Now that she has found her voice (and her voice is the voice of them all) she dares some steps uphill. She has a shallow chin that causes her mouth to hang open when not speaking. Black blemishes spot the skin on her arms.
“Well if is look you need to look for a place to stay from the rain it always have by my Granddad house. You must be know him, he pass this way before. He does wear a hat like in them cowboy films and have a dog big so. You know who I talking about, right? A curly hair man, but he have a baldhead in the front.”
By now she is well close to my feet and talking all the louder. Her head mirrors mine to occupy my vision. I have not said anything.
“You don’t want to listen to what I saying, Sir? You come to stay forever, eh? How you going to stay forever? Just like that?”
I do not much believe in the wisdom of children, as others seem to, nor do I believe in their innocence. Down there, some of them have made their way to the other side of my mountain and are picking up pebbles to fit in their pockets. As I turn to see, I hear the loud girl taking more steps up.
“What you go do with all the time if you stay forever, Sir? You don’t want to go?”
More of them scurry around. A girl climbs the sapodilla tree. Boys throw pebbles. Everywhere I hear them bleating.
“You want to watch everybody go and you don’t have to?”
I stand very quickly to push her down, and as she flails for a grip all she grasps are loose rocks that dislodge with her. She tumbles all the way, hitting the grass with a bounce on her shoulder. The rest of them scream and run away trying to throw things up at me but it is difficult to fight and flee. The talking girl is the last to leave, hanging the battered arm loose at her side, wincing when she tries to move it.
To read the rest of the story, you can buy the issue here. Plus, adorn your walls with the artwork from the issue with these special, limited-run screen prints. And then subscribe to the Quarterly and never miss another story again.
Eskor David Johnson is a writer from Trinidad and Tobago.