The Magic Mountain
Do people lose their way because they're human? Or are they human because of that? Going beyond piled up conflicts and indignation, we live.
“I’m going to be late. You guys should sleep first.”
That’s all mother ever said to us brothers when she left for the mountain.
“Please take care, mom.”
Looking at her back weighed down by a sturdy bag, I said the same words every time.
A long, long time ago, the junk yard was said to be a military faculty. After all the workers disappeared and left the faculty unusable, only robots remained. Their remains were made from rare metals. Mother would pick them up and sell them in the shop.
Come back soon, my brother wanted to say, but I shook my head at him. Those were taboo words. He looked depressed, and I put my hands on his shoulders. I wanted to hold back this small body that seemed ready to run after her at any moment.
Suddenly, I had a bad feeling. Everything else was as usual, only I tried to do something different.
My brother looked up at me, surprised. Mother did not turn back. Will she slow her steps if I shouted for her to wait?
In the end, I didn’t try that. And on that day, mother left.
One day after mother’s departure, my brother asked me the same question over and over again.
“Is mommy not back yet?”
“She’s coming back soon.”
Usually, mother’s back by noon of the next day, looking displeased. However, this is the first time she didn’t come back before evening.
“Brother, you said the same thing a while ago.”
“You did! Brother, you’re such a liar!”
Waahhhh, my brother cried out. I’m busy preparing food and cleaning up the house, but my brother was too small to do anything. He must’ve been bored.
“She went deeper than usual.”
“Hey, let’s go find mommy!”
My brother flinched. My voice was too loud. I immediately began cooing him with a softer voice.
“Didn’t you make a promise with mother? The mountains are dangerous, so you mustn’t ever follow her. Only naughty kids break promises.”
My brother probably gave up. He cried silently. Mother only got mad at us and beat us because we were naughty. That’s what my ignorant brother thought.
“Come. I’ll read you a book. Which one do you like?”
My brother sprung up and pointed at his favorite picture book.
It was midnight on the second day since mother’s departure.
Silently, so as to not wake my brother, I got off my bed and went into mother’s room. Her scent lingered. The scent she let off when she faced the mirror and put on her makeup. It was overtly sweet, and almost gave me a headache, so I could never like it.
Her bed was the same as always, but I had a bad feeling about the drawers in her wardrobe and dressing table before I even opened them. But I have to make sure.
I pulled out the drawers, and saw that her clothes had disappeared along with her old traveling cloak. Her bag seemed different than usual because she was hiding the cloak inside.
The drawer in her dressing table was empty as well. All her pretty bottles and cans with white powder in it were gone. What remained were her old, unused hairbrush and a curling iron.
That’s right. A day before mother left, we had a customer. It was a man from a faraway city. After talking a long time with the man, mother told brother and me to play outside.
I didn’t know what they discussed. But afterwards, mother was unusually happy. She probably gave us no thought, and only immersed herself in fantasies of life in faraway cities. No, she was like that from way before. She was indifferent to my brother and me.
We were just in her way…!
I came back to myself when I heard the sound of a shattering mirror. I realized that I threw the hairbrush at the mirror.
My brother could’ve been woken. I strained my ears, but couldn’t hear anything from the neighboring room. I relaxed, and began to gather the mirror shards.
Three days after mother’s disappearance. My brother cried and threw temper tantrums. I found some leftovers of materials in the workroom and put together some toys for him, and he finally calmed down and played with them.
I probably shouldn’t be the one to say, but I’m pretty skilled with my hands. I grinded the rust off whatever material mother brought back and fixed any bent ones ever since I was small. Now, I can manufacture materials and reinforce weapons.
My mother didn’t teach me any of it. She hated rough work. That’s why my methods are completely self-developed. When I played with the tools that my father used, I managed to somehow learn.
When I was cleaning out the workroom, I realized that we didn’t have many materials left to sell. Usually, mother would pick up more from the mountain before that happens, but mother is no longer…
I realized that mother not coming shouldn’t be such a big deal. The more important issue is materials. If we don’t have anything to sell in the shop, we can’t live on.
How should we live on. There’s food for a few days, but when I think of what comes after, I can’t help but be scared. How would we be living one month later? Half a year later? Even later than that?
My brother looked up at me, worried. I must’ve been thinking with a very serious face.
“You’re not going to open the shop?”
In truth, I promised to open the shop even when mother was gone. Most of the customers aren’t only here to buy things. They often traded our materials with food or other necessities.
“The shop is temporarily closed.”
“We don’t have enough materials to sell.”
“If mother comes back…”
I let out a louder voice than I intended to. My brother’s shoulders were shaking.
“Your brother will do something about it.”
I tapped my brother lightly on his back. I can’t get worried. I can’t randomly get angry either. Whenever mother became annoyed and unhappy, I could only bear her anger silently. I should be the only one experiencing that.
“You don’t have to worry about anything.”
Pushing back my annoyance and worry, I tried to be gentle. It was an easy thing. My brother would smile just at that. However, mother wouldn’t even do something as simple as that.
“Hey, I’ll make it so that toy can move faster.”
My brother broke out into a wide smile. He must’ve forgotten both the shop and mother.
Mother couldn’t do this, could she?
I’m good at this. Even if mother wouldn’t do anything, even if she weren’t here, my brother would smile if I’m here. I’m happy about that.
Four days after mother went out, my brother disappeared. I thought he was fidgety since breakfast. It was after I cleaned up and began the chores that my brother disappeared from the spot beside the shop where he was playing.
He wasn’t in the child room, mother’s room or the workroom. I turned the house inside out in search for him. I looked into all spots that he could’ve hidden in, the wardrobe, under the bed…
He wasn’t outside the shop either. I don’t see him around the bridge leading to the plains either. At last I thought of the worst possibility. The junk yard. Now that I think about it, my brother insisted on “finding mother” yesterday. He might’ve gone by himself because he thought I wasn’t going to accompany him.
I ran. No, he can’t go into the mountains. Because… there are things that shouldn’t be seen.
When my brother and I were still young, I once went into the mountain against mother’s wishes. My brother wouldn’t stop crying, and I felt like crying as well, so I took off after mother.
A short distance into the entrance, I heard mother’s voice. Yes, it’s mother, I thought and ran. But the next instant, my legs stopped. I heard a man’s voice. Mother wasn’t alone.
I heard low laughter and panting. I stepped further in as if entranced, and saw what should never be seen.
I couldn’t remember what happened after. But after that, I never thought of chasing after mother again. I don’t even want to go near the mountain’s entrance.
My brother went into that forbidden place. I couldn’t just stand here. I have to bring him back soon. I dashed through the narrow path, climbed up the ancient ladder and simply ran.
When my brother ran towards me, what engulfed me was not relief, but anger.
“Look! I picked up lots of them! Now the shop can…”
My brother was holding several materials, and I beat them out of his hand. Dented metal boards flew all over the place, and made my ears ring.
My brother must’ve gone to pick up materials because I told him that we can’t open the shop since we have nothing to sell. He thought he’d be praised. Just like how I continued to manufacture materials in hopes of being praised by mother.
However, what came out of my mouth was completely different.
“I told you not to go into the mountain!”
My brother’s proud expressions disappeared without a trace, and his eyes were filled with tears.
I knew what I did was horrible. I couldn’t bear to look at my brother’s sad face anymore, so I turned my back to him. Hearing small footsteps behind me, I began to make my way back to the entrance.
Five days after mother’s disappearance, my brother began to repeat “mommy” over and over again. He calmed down after coming back from the mountains, but I’m not one to punish my brother just because I get bit annoyed.
When will mommy come back, let’s go find mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy….
Mother wasn’t even gentle to my brother. I was the one who played with him and read picture books to him. She did cook, but then I could do that as well. I was the one who pat my fretful brother on his head to lure him to sleep, not her.
I cannot understand why my brother would be so attached to mother despite all that. With mother gone, I have to do more, but to my brother, nothing should’ve changed.
I was annoyed. And whenever I thought that my brother could go out by himself again, I couldn’t leave my eyes off him.
“Let’s go out. Let’s go into the junk yard.”
“No. I told you, the mountains are dangerous.”
“It wasn’t dangerous at all.”
“You were just lucky. You didn’t meet that.”
“The scary robot.”
There were still functioning robots in the mountains. Apparently they were very dangerous.
“Father was killed by robots.”
That was a lie. I don’t know how he died.
“He was crushed by evil robots, his limbs torn off, and father died.”
This was another lie, but I had no choice. I have to threaten him to prevent him from going into the mountains ever again. I highly exaggerated tales about the huge and evil robot, how father died mercilessly from its attacks.
My brother cried out of fear. I feel guilty but relieved at the same time. Now my brother won’t be endangered. He doesn’t have to bear unpleasant memories.
“It’s okay. Brother will protect you.”
If I don’t leave his side, my brother will be safe. He cried and clung to me, and when I embraced his small body, I felt better than ever before.
Six days passed after mother’s disappearance. Before my brother woke up, I nailed boards to the house’s back door to block passing. I did the same thing for all the windows. Now I only have to watch over the front entrance.
I succeeded in planting fear of robots inside his heart, but I could not smother the childish curiosity that nudged him to go outside. Even if I constantly kept watch, my brother wanted to slip out somewhere.
I couldn’t protect you that way. Please stay where I can see you. Please.
I stayed by your side after you cried from nightmares, until you fell asleep again; I took your share of punishment from mother; I covered your ears so that you couldn’t hear mother’s deprecations, and…
Because nobody ever protected me. I wanted to protect you, to make up for my share of protecting.
That night, I blocked the entrance to the mountains with huge boxes. My brother wasn’t strong enough to move the boxes yet. After that, I looked out the door that faced the plains.
A door made of wires separated us from the huge bridge on the other side, from where you could reach the plains. Our customers all come from that wired door. That door was the only thing connecting our house to the outside world. If I could block that, then my brother would be trapped forever. In this absolutely safe haven.
However, if customers couldn’t get in, then we wouldn’t be able to get food or necessities. We don’t have much food left. I could bear not having a few meals, but I don’t want my brother to go hungry.
What should I do about food. Just thinking makes my head hurt. There are probably fish below the bridge… no, I don’t even know how to fish. What about the mice around the shop? They don’t seem that hard to catch with traps, but I wonder if they are edible or not.
If I really had no choice, I could always cut off an arm or a leg and feed it to him. Plus, I still had time.
I searched the kitchen thoroughly for anything that looked vaguely edible. However, there was nothing worth mentioning. I thought that mother would leave us some food at least. No, if she’d do that, she wouldn’t abandon us in the first place. The only things important to her were makeup and decorations. And that man who came to visit. Everything else is the same to her.
Let’s stop this. Stop thinking about mother. What should I do from tomorrow… that’s more important. Thinking about what to feed my brother is important, but what’s more crucial is how to soothe my brother.
If only he’d behave more. If only he didn’t miss mother, if only he didn’t have any interest in robots.
Or, if he was a sickly child that had to stay in bed all day long. If he was satisfied with reading picture books at home or playing with toys, then my worries would be halved.
Right. What if my brother couldn’t go out alone no matter how much he wished to? What if he could not longer move his body at will?
I opened the door to the children’s room, careful to not make any noise. My brother was fast asleep. His blanket with a few feathers sticking out was falling onto the floor. My brother would always move in his sleep. I’m the one who had to pull his blanket over him numerous times throughout the night.
What if my brother couldn’t walk? Then I could protect him. Much easier than now. My hands shook slightly, and the knife I carried felt heavy.
You don’t have to go anywhere, right? You don’t have to walk on your own. I’d take you anywhere inside the house.
I looked down at his exposed tiny legs. These things should just disappear. It’s better that they do. If my brother couldn’t walk, I could always be a “good brother”.
Let’s get this over with. Before my brother wakes up. Just plunge the knife in without a second thought.
Will he cry? If he cries, then I’ll embrace him gently. I’ll read him his favorite picture books, I’ll make him toys again.
I promised to protect you, right? Yes, I will protect you. With my life. Right here, in this place. Protect. Always. Until the end of my days.
That’s why, I just need one. One single payment…!
The moment I swung up the knife,
I stopped myself. He was just talking in his sleep. My brother smiled widely at some kind of dream he’s seeing. A smile of utmost happiness. What I really wanted to protect was this. It should’ve been just this.
All my strength left me. What am I trying to do just now?
I ran out of the children’s room and outside. I wanted to leave the knife behind, but it seemed to be stuck to my fingers, and I couldn’t let go of it. I ran towards the wire door, and swung my arms with all my strength. The ancient knife flew across the bridge, and I couldn’t see it anymore.
I unlocked the gates and headed towards the mountains. I returned the boxes to their original position, and the passageway was clear again.
I felt unbelievably tired. I dragged my feet back to the children’s room, and tried to cover my brother with the blanket, but fell asleep. I didn’t dream.
Seven days have passed since mother left. Food was getting scarce, and we still had nothing to sell. Still, I wanted to open the shop. We have to live on.
Can I not melt the kitchen pot and manufacture something? It doesn’t even have to be a pot. If I do something to anything in the house…
While I was thinking, I heard the wire door open. Someone is here. I strained my ears, and caught some of the conversation. Not one customer, but two.
Weiss? What a weird name. What was the other guy’s name?
“Brother, I’m huuuuungry.”
“Wait a bit. If I remember, there’s something over here…”
While searching for something to feed my brother with, I had a good idea. Should I kill the customer and steal his money? Everyone who comes here have a decent amount of valuables.
No, I can’t. There’s no way that’ll go smoothly. They have two people on their side, and even if it’s only one person, there’s no way a kid like me can kill an adult.
And even though everyone who came here were bastards, maybe those two were kind. Moreover, since mother’s gone, I now own this shop. They’d be my first customers. Though I have nothing to sell, they were important customers.
The conversation and footsteps stopped. The shop’s door was opened.
I welcomed them with my best smile.