The mountains ringed a wooded enclosure that contained an earthen path. A person emerged every so often from the woods by the enclosure and started on the path. At night, he lay by its side and went to sleep. He did the same the following days and nights. All the people on the path did. They lived eating the plants and drinking from the streams by the path side. This pleased the people and none of them ever quit walking there.
Then a young man among them took a dislike to it. I walk around and around this place and it’s driving me crazy, he thought. He went into the woods and up the mountainside. The mountains proved steeper than he supposed and he marched up them, body and head thrust forward. He came soon to an open area floored in dead autumn leaves. On an urge, he ran the leaf-strewn ground following the mountain slope. He wound up back at the earthen path in no time. He was angry over this as if he had been tricked. He turned and reentered the woods. He hiked far and went a good distance up a pine-clad mountain. He walked the remainder of that day and the next several, feeling compelled to go and yet knowing he chose to go. While the mountain forest was dark and strange, he marched determined to walk it. After a great distance, the man went down the mountain, not knowing where he was but feeling it right for his trek that had exhausted him. When he reached the mountain bottom, he discovered he was again at the earth path within the enclosure. The people walking there learned and said he should accept he always would circle on the path just as they did.
The young man refused to listen. He considered his problem was not that he had left the path, but how he had walked the mountainside: he had let his steps go too often where chance led, not where he had meant. He decided that he would stick relentlessly to a route when he attempted his next trek. So, he went up the mountain. He took his first hundred odd steps as he had planned. Then he meandered a bit, curious to see some tree at the edge of his line of sight. He brought his steps back to the line he had decided for. He went on slowly as the steep slope of the mountain played him havoc, a wayward tumble threatening at his every footfall. But he made it up the mountain as he had meant.
After the young man rested, he journeyed within the mountains. He felt a new kind of control as he followed several routes of his own choosing. He took first an arched, then an elliptical route; he even went by a zigzag, a weaving course that underlined for him his new freedom. He returned to the earthen path at will and told the people there of his journeys. They had never known anyone to wander as he did, and several asked if he might lead them into the mountains, too.
“But why don’t you go into the mountains yourselves?” he said.
“We don’t think we would make it very far.”
“Have you tried?”
“We might manage better if you helped us.”
The young man feared the people would stay on the earthen path unaided, so agreed to lead them. As the people followed him up the mountain, one man said with decision that they were ascending too high. He excused himself and took his way elsewhere. Soon others followed his example, going their own ways. The young man was relieved. He realized the people had taken liberties to go where they would without him.
As their routes widened and ascended the mountains, the young man encountered the people from the path in his travels. These wayfarers became his friends, which he had not expected when he first led them in their fear. He looked forward more often to their meetings. The truth was that his mountain journeys had started to bore him. He had never expected to feel it after leaving the earthen path, he told himself.
One day, the young man came to a clearing in the forest where he saw the mountaintops that loomed over the enclosure. He felt it strange that, in all his journeys, he had never crossed them. He considered that beyond the mountains there might be other forests and open spaces, other pools larger and wider than by the earthen path, other people he had not known. What might I say or do when I meet them?, he asked himself. Driven to know, he decided to cross the mountains any way he could.
The mountains were very high and rugged, and the young man hiked a long time before finding one he was sure he could cross. He had come dressed lightly, for he had not considered the mountaintops might be cold and their air thin unlike it was at the earthen path or even the forest. He came short of breath as he hiked through snow near the mountaintops and found it nearly impossible to walk. He almost imagined he would not make it through there. However, he sought for a path ahead, certain that he must find one.
Norbert Kovacs lives and writes in Hartford, Connecticut. His stories have appeared in Westview, Gravel, STORGY, Corvus Review, and The Write Launch. Norbert’s website is www.norbertkovacs.net.