This is a short story I wrote recently. It’s a bit odd, but there’s nothing wrong with that…
Back in the days when the world was new, and people hadn’t been invented yet, there was a mountain by a stream. It was a mighty mountain, tall and strong and full of youthful vigour. It couldn’t talk, obviously, but if it could then it would have shouted “WOOA! LOOK AT ME! I AM MOUNTAIN, HEAR ME ROAR!” It was that kind of mountain.
The mountain stood there, day after day, just watching the stream as it flowed through the valley. The stream couldn’t talk either, which was probably a good thing. It wasn’t a very nice stream, and anything it would’ve said would probably have been extremely rude and unpleasant.
One day, as the mountain watched, a beam of light came down from the sky to land in the middle of the stream. The beam was vivid red in colour, and so bright that the mountain would’ve had to shade its eyes if it had had any. Which it didn’t. After hitting the water the beam bounced back up to the sky again and was gone, leaving nothing but a few bubbles and a wisp of steam. In a few moments these final traces had vanished too, and the scene was just as it always had been. A mountain standing tall by the side of a stream.
That was how things stayed for a week or so after the beam’s appearance, and if the mountain had had a memory then it probably would’ve already forgotten about the whole thing. The stream may not have forgotten, of course, but that was just because the stream had a more vengeful personality than the mountain. It had a tendency to bear a grudge.
When something did change it did so very suddenly. The sun went down as usual in the evening, and when it rose again the next morning things were different. No longer was it just the mountain and the stream and the surrounding valley. Now there was a box too.
It was a metal box. It stood, or sat – depending on your viewpoint – right in the middle of the stream, exactly over the spot where the beam had struck a week before. It was impossible to tell whether the box was touching the water itself or suspended just above it, but if the mountain had been the betting kind, which it wasn’t, it would’ve put money on the latter. If pressed for a reason for this decision, and if it had been able to answer that pressing – which it wasn’t – it would’ve said it was because the box looked very smug, and things that are smug very rarely have wet bottoms.
So now there was the mountain, and the stream and the box. The smug box, glinting complacently in the newly born sun. The mountain watched the box suspiciously, with the air of an aged aunt left to look after a toddler whilst the mother popped to the shops. Nothing happened. And nothing happened. And nothing happened. Then at last, just as the aged aunt would’ve been breathing a sigh of relief at the thought of not having to change a dirty nappy, something happened. The box opened, and a man stepped out.
There was no way that a man should’ve been able to step out, of course. The box was far too small for a man to have fitted inside and, besides, people hadn’t been invented yet. But step out he did, before jumping nimbly to the side of the stream and shaking the water off his feet.
He was a tall man, dressed in silver clothes that clung to his body as if they’d been painted on. An artist’s impression clothes, rather than the real thing. His head was covered by what looked like – or would’ve looked like, if they’d existed yet – an upturned goldfish bowl. He regarded the mountain curiously, and the mountain regarded him back. Neither of them regarded the stream, which broiled furiously between them. If the stream could’ve waved a placard proclaiming ‘Death to strangers!’ then it would’ve been waving one right there and then. And the placard may even have a second message on the back. Perhaps something along the lines of ‘And death to the mountain too!’. It was that kind of stream.
After a few moments the man drew a device from a non-existent pocket and waved it around a bit. Then he stared at the device for a moment or two, holding it up close to his eyes, before nodding in evident satisfaction. He stowed the gadget back where it had come from, and removed his helmet.
It has already been established that the mountain could not talk, and neither could the stream. The man could talk however, and he did so now. Loudly, and with gusto.
“By Gum!” He said. “Look at this place! It’s a real find! That Real-Estate merchant wasn’t kidding! Woooheee, I’m gonna have a ball here, that’s for sure!”
The mountain didn’t reply, of course, because it couldn’t talk. But even if it could’ve talked then wouldn’t have said anything, because if it was the type of mountain that could’ve talked then it would also have been the kind of mountain that could’ve been knocked down with a feather, and at that moment it would’ve been flat on its back and staring up at the sun.
If the man minded that the mountain did not reply then he didn’t show it. He simply gawped around him in wonder, whilst his tongue ran away with him once more.
“Yes sir I’m gonna buy me this place and I’m gonna build me a cabin, right there,” He pointed vaguely at the side of the mountain. “I’m gonna build me a cabin and I’m gonna make me a fishing line and I’m gonna spend me some man-time, just me an’ Mama Nature!”
He gabbled on further, but by now the mountain’s attention – if it had had any – would’ve slipped away from the silver-clad intruder and focused once more on the box. The smug box, sitting suspended just above the stream. The lid of the box was closing again. It did so slowly, stealthily and in the manner of a jewel thief tip-toeing past a policeman engrossed in doughnut. Finally the lock – if there was one – snapped closed, and the box was sealed once more. The mountain, if it had had eyes, would now have glanced across at the man on the shore before narrowing those eyes shrewdly. Surprise me once, it may have thought, and shame on you. Surprise me twice…
The mountain would’ve then returned its attention – if it had any – back to the box, and with the patience that only a mountain could possess, settled in to wait for another man to spring forth.
There wasn’t long to wait.
After no more than an hour – an hour in which the silver-clad man had wandered hither and thither along the side of the stream, jabbering all the while – the box sprung open once more and another man emerged. This one wore the same goldfish bowl on his head, but that’s where the similarities with the first man ended. As squat as the first man was tall, and as clumsy as the first man was lithe, he stumbled out of the box – soaking his golden suit as he did so – and dragged himself ashore.
The first man, still engrossed in the scenery around him, had not yet noticed the second. And the second man, pre-occupied with shaking the water off his golden suit, had not yet noticed the first. It was a situation that could not last, and if the mountain had had hands it would now have been rubbing them together in anticipation. Even mountains like a bit of entertainment.
After a few moments the gold man, apparently satisfied that he was as dry as possible, took out an instrument similar to the one that had been used by the silver man. He waved it around, stared at it for a moment and then ripped off his helmet in apparent disgust.
The mountain, if it could’ve have felt surprise, would nonetheless not have been surprised to hear a stream of invective spring forth as soon as the helmet catch was released. The man had obviously been chuntering to himself since the moment of his arrival, and chuntering to himself he still was.
“… Gold-darned time-travelling shysters trying to sell fish to the Eskimos! I’ll teach them to spring me back millions of years and land me in a gold-darned lake! And me hating the water too!” At this point the stream may have waved it’s placard once more, if it had had one. The man continued, unabashed. “Well I tell you straight, Messers Saxburg, Holden and Streuth – ‘Real Estate Merchants For All Time’ indeed – that if this place isn’t worth the salt it’s sat on then I’m gonna sue ever last one of you until you beg fo-“.
The invective broke off, abruptly, as the man at last raised his eyes and surveyed the scene around him. A slow smile spread across his face.
‘Wellll, lookee here!” He said. “Maybe those no-good shysters haven’t dickered me after all! Look at all this space! I could build a hundred shopping malls here, not just ten! A thousand even. Right from here to the horizon, as far as you can see…Just cover this stream, flatten that gold-darned mountain and presto – more money than God! Awright!”
The mountain, if it had had hands, would now have snatched the stream’s placard and hit the gold man over the head with it. And the stream – for once in perfect harmony with its giant neighbour – would’ve happily swept the body through the valley and into the rather vindictive waterfall that lay hidden around the corner. But the mountain didn’t have hands, and so the gold man remained in one piece.
The gold man’s mutterings were brought to a sudden halt by a shout from downstream.
“Hey! You! What are you doing on my land! There ain’t no public fishing here – this is all mine!”
The first man was running towards his rival, outrage clearly etched on his features.
“How’d you get here anyway?” He demanded. “Mr Saxburg promised me exclusivity! No one else is allowed to hunt or fish here but me. Scram, why don’t you! Get out of here! And I’ll be having words with that Saxburg, you see if I don’t!”
The gold man was shaking his head, a pitying grin on his face.
“Wooaaa, now you just hold on there boy!” He said. ” There ain’t no such thing as exclusivity when it comes to real-estate! That Mr Saxburg done sold you down the river. Was you born in a barn, you hick? You think that just because you gave him a thousand dollars extra he’s going to keep a site like this off the books? A measly thousand? I offered him twenty thousand, and he slipped me the co-ordinates for this place faster than a hooker drops her drawers. This place is mine now, you bumpkin, and I’m gonna make the best of it.” He waved a hand across the horizon. “You’re looking at Franklyn City, the biggest collection of shopping malls this side of the Big Bang. So why don’t you head back to your hick life and leave the land-buyings to the experts, huh?”
The first man spluttered in outrage.
“SHOPPING MALLS?” He said. “SHOPPING MALLS? This here is the prettiest, loveliest bit of greenery since -“.
The mountain, if it had had ears, would now have closed them off and paid attention once again to the metal box. The argument was clearly going to go on for a while, and there were other interesting things to look at. Like the lid of the box, which was tip-toeing past the doughnuts once more. Neither of the men noticed, intent as they were on their verbal tirades.
Presently, as the mountain would’ve expected if it was that type of mountain, the box-lid opened once again and a third man stepped out. This one was dressed in black, and carried with him an elegance and self assurance that only the very rich and the very crooked can carry off. ‘Ahhh, Mr Saxburg, I presume,’ the mountain would’ve thought if had had a brain. ‘Mr Saxburg, come to make sure he gets the highest price possible!’
Mr Saxburg – for it was indeed he – stepped confidently to the shore and placed himself between his two predecessors.
“Gentlemen!” he proclaimed, after taking off his helmet. “Gentlemen, gentlemen. Enough of this arguing. We can hear you all the way back in the future, and it really is quite distracting. Now if you’ll listen to me, I propose a way in which we me may settle this dispute. Are you willing to listen?”
The first two men stared at each other, hatred in their eyes. Neither replied to Saxburg’s question. He sighed, melodramatically.
“Very well, very well.” He shook his head. “You leave me no choice. Either you agree to my proposal or NEITHER of you will get this land, am I clear? The deeds are back in my office, and neither of you will get your hands on them unless you do what you’re told. There are plenty of other people, people much richer than you, who would snap this land up in an instant, and frankly I don’t care who gets it as long as I get my money. Capiche?”
The two men nodded, sullenly.
Saxburg nodded too. And if the mountain and the stream had had heads then they would have nodded as well. When a man like Saxburg tells you ‘capiche’ then you nod, and that’s all there is to it.
“Right then,” Said Saxburg, reaching into an invisible pocket. “I have here two duelling pistols. You’ll recognise the type, of course, having both visited the eighteenth-century in your time. Single shot pistols, accurate to twenty-yards. So here’s the deal. You both sign over all your money to me – every last scrap that you own – and I give you the pistols. You walk away from each other until I say ‘turn’ and then you turn and fire. The one who’s left standing gets the land, and the other one has his body thrown in this stream. Capiche?”
More nods all round, and perhaps the stream would’ve begun to get excited again at the thought of the bad tempered waterfall.
Saxburg clapped his hands together. “Let’s get to it then! I took the liberty of hacking into your funds before I came, so the money side of things is already in hand. All that remains is the duel.” He paused here, and looked each man in the eye. “And one more thing, gentlemen. Do not even consider turning these guns on me. Not only do we have all your money, but my dear colleagues are also visiting with your families.” He turned to face the man in gold. “Mr Franklyn, your wife is presently having coffee with my friend Mr Holden, who has a rather large knife concealed in his belt.” He nodded to the silver man. “And whilst you, Mr Durrant, are not married you do nonetheless have a father who I believe you treasure. He is currently out fishing with Mr Streuth. It’s shocking how easily old men fall out of boats these days, especially when they’ve got lead weights tied to their feet.”
The two men had both paled visibly, and Mr Saxburg laughed in delight as he handed over the pistols. “You really should’ve looked into us more before you engaged us, gentlemen, you’ve got no-one to blame but yourselves. Now. Ready? Good! Walk!”
Franklyn and Durrant paced slowly away from each other, guns raised to attention. The mountain and the stream, if they had had breath to breathe with, would now have been holding it in anticipation. It wasn’t often you got entertainment like this in your own back yard, that was for sure. Sunrise would never seem quite as exciting again.
“Turn!” Came the shout from Saxburg, and both men span and fired. The smell of cordite wafted across the grass, and Durrant fell dead in a heap.
“Woohoo!” Franklyn jumped up and down in delight. ” I got him, I got him! It’s all mine! I’m gonna be rich, I tell you. How about THAT, Mr Saxburg? Mr Saxburg? No wait, you can-“.
Mr Franklyn was cut off, permanently , by the noise of the third pistol. Saxburg shook his head at the gold-clad corpse. “As I said, Mr Franklyn. You should really have taken more care before you hired us. Now, to work. To work.”
The mountain watched implacably as the man in black rolled the two bodies into the – possibly – jubilant stream, which then carried them away out of view. If it had listened carefully, the mountain may then have heard a definitive splash as the waterfall did its work.
If it had then turned its attention back to Mr Saxburg, the mountain would have seen him putting his helmet back on before wading confidently out to the box and climbing in. There was a smug whirring noise as the lid closed on top of him – swiftly this time, with no air of doughnut-dodging – and then, abruptly, the box was gone.
The mountain stood still, whilst the stream flowed through the valley. Perhaps the stream flowed a little more smugly than it had before, but apart from that it seemed that very little had changed. The sun still shone above, the gentle breeze still stirred the heather and there were no people in sight. But if the mountain had been the sort of mountain that could think, and consider, and mull things over in its massive mountain mind, then it might well have fixed its thoughts, once more, on that spot in the middle of the stream. Fixed its thoughts, focused its mind and waited. It probably wouldn’t have had to wait for long.