On a Mountain Side

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They called her Ma Mountain. A wildly unimaginative name chosen more because no one knew enough about her to pick a better alternative than because it was a good moniker. Children believed she was a witch who ate her victims. Adults said she was a crazy woman, and told stories of her howling naked at the moon. She was neither of these. Ma Mountain was a woman like you or me, who one day, for reasons we may never know, decided to remove herself from society.

I first heard about this “wild woman” through a friend. An urban myth that had been passed from person to person, embellished with the fanciful imaginations that make such stories so interesting to hear, and more interesting to tell. With your own imaginative additions of course. But there was something at the heart of this legend that piqued my journalistic interest. I wondered where it had come from, if there really had been a woman at some point living in the mountains all by herself. There was a story here, I could sense it. But it wasn’t the story I expected, and I certainly never imagined I would actually meet Ma Mountain.

It took five months collecting different versions of the story to trace its origins, a location that I will respectfully not publish. I discovered many variations, some of which ventured into the plain absurd (that she was an exiled and secret member of the British royal family), while some remained perfectly sensible. One in particular has always stuck in my mind. Ma Mountain, so this tale went, was a single child of a poor family. Not overly endowed of beauty nor charm, she was overjoyed when the very man she had secretly admired since she was old enough to do so asked for her hand in marriage. But the wedding day passed with no sign of the groom. The very next day the utterly heartbroken would-be bride walked tearfully out of the town and into the mountains.
There is no reason to believe this version of events any more than any of the other variations, but it always appealed to me. Maybe because I am a hopeless romantic at heart. Maybe because few things other that this kind of heartbreak would seem to justify withdrawing from all society, hiding away from everything.

It took almost another month to find the exact location where Ma Mountain had been living, and I was almost too late. As I passed through the cave she had fashioned into a home, the first thing that I noticed in the low flickering light of a small fire was the collection of ephemera. Carved into the wall were shelves which had been filled with an apparently random assortment of items. On one shelf sat a snowglobe with a miniature Eiffel tower inside. Next to this, its distorted reflection wrapped around the curves of the snowglobe, sat what seemed to be an red plastic photoframe holding a photo of a woman and a child. The huge grins and perfect slightly soft focus gave it away as the stock photo that came with the frame. As I walked deeper into the cave the flickering firelight caught the silver of a ring on another shelf, the reflection winking at me as the light moved around. As I looked closer I saw next to it was a children’s drawing of a dinosaur, on wrinkled paper that had seen better days. I think it had been scrunched up then laid out again. In the corner was a name that I couldn’t quite make out in the dim light, and as I was peering closer to attempt to read it I was startled by a noise from the back of the cave. A weak splutter echoed out of the darkness, and once  got over the start it gave me I strained my eyes against the gloom and could just about make out a figure lying on a makeshift bed cut into the wall.

She was old, so very old, and frail beyond words. The woman I saw was more bone than flesh, wrinkled skin hanging so loosely over a skeletal frame that I feared even her shallow breaths would break what was left of her. Her gaunt fingers held on to a threadbare old teddy bear that looked as old as she. Quietly I approached, afraid of literally scaring the life out of her. I kneeled next to her bed and introduced myself in a soft whisper. Ma Mountain opened her eyes and looked in my direction but did not move. I knew then for certain that she was no longer able to, these truly were the last moments of her life. Without really thinking about it, without considering what it might mean to someone who had long ago severed all contact with other humans, I took this dying woman’s hand in mine and held it.

A look of pain washed over her face. Not physical pain, but something deeper. As her weak fingers curled around my hand I could swear I sensed regret in that look. Regret, and relief. A tear rolled down her wrinkled cheek, losing itself in the deep folds as she took a deep breath. Her hand tightened with the effort, but I could tell she wanted to speak. The whisper that came out was as much just escaping air than speech. One breathy word, the first word in many years, and the last. “Thankyou”. Almost as if she had been holding on for this last moment, Ma Mountain went still and silent, the gentle rise and fall of her chest finally at rest.

After all those years of self-imposed isolation the one thing Ma Mountain longed for most in her final moments is the same thing we all need: to feel the touch of another human.

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~ by RealJIMMY on February 14, 2013.

One Response to “On a Mountain Side”

  1. That’s like the start of a Diane Chamberlain book or something. The next chapter would be the person who held her hand vowing that she is going to know Ma Mountain’s life like the back of her hand because no one should die without having their story heard and recognised. Very emotive. Perhaps you can, in time, make Ma Mountain come to life even more and find her story yourself, from within you.

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