The mountain held magic for anyone who looked upon it: ‘come closer’ it said, ‘come run at me; I’ll catch you and throw you high up into the sky like a gleeful child.’ Its dangerous beauty appealed to that human instinct to explore and conquer, that strange need to gaze down upon the rest of existence. Whether it was to feel superior to all the other creatures on Earth or to remind them how insignificant they were, Liath couldn’t tell. Either way, it was time to count the bodies.
She’d never wanted for anything; nature always provided, and her humble tools excelled where the torches, tents, crampons and compasses of men had failed. People often blamed their tools – they didn’t remember the old ways and couldn’t read the signs. Liath knew when a storm was coming, thought it was obvious, but not to the walkers, they always seemed taken by surprise, blinded by the whorls of snow or rain. Their curses and cries rode the back of the wind.
She shook beads of heather from her silver cloak and slipped it over her head. It could catch a glimmer in the murkiest of dawns, in a snow shower it reflected each crystal as it spun and danced, and in full sun it was dazzling to behold. To those below she must have seemed a beacon, or a will-o’-the-wisp stalking the slopes and plateaus after a bitter and lonely night. Some called her Nan, but most knew her as Liath, the grey one, on account of the cloak, she supposed, but also her hair, which tumbled down her back like soft boulders. It had been mud-brown once, but time had changed her, and time was the only thing in the whole of existence that she truly feared.
The morning was as peaceful as the night had been wild – not that the average eye would be able to tell: the snow hushed the frozen streams beneath its belly, and masked the scarps and gullies, making all things equal. It betrayed the birds and hares, though, and Liath followed the paw prints to the first site, where she found a mound and a lump that had no business being there. She knew in this spot the frozen mass would be easy to miss, the sun would take too long to thaw it and the arctic winds would barely stir it, so yet again it was up to her to clean up the messes that people left behind. Liath tucked her hair behind her ears and knelt down to dig, hardened to the cold after all these years. Her slender fingers scritched and scuttled until they’d uncovered the head and torso of a shepherd who had taken shelter in the overhang. His faithful collie lay curled up by his feet. She looked a long while at the young man and felt nothing; she wasn’t moved by the tightness of his pale skin, nor his lavender lips or smooth eyelids, frosted shut in a forever sleep. She mourned the dog, however, knowing that it could have found its way – had the strength to run but chose to stay. Liath entwined a single star-flower around its collar and piled stones up next to the two of them, a cairn to mark the place so that they’d be found and removed by the walkers, skiers and climbers who never stayed away for long.
Then she followed the hare prints a long, winding way that veered on and off the path forged by others – whoever it was had been so close and yet so far from salvation. She passed through a cloud, or rather, a cloud passed through her, and when she emerged she was surprised to find a little gloved hand pressed into hers and a young face staring up at her.
The boy tugged at Liath, puffed out his ruddy cheeks. “My dad, he’s hurt.”
She nodded and he led her quickly away, surefooted and quiet as only the dead can be. If only they’d been so sure the day before, his feet might have found the bothy that lay in wait just over the ridge.
They cut through a straggle of gorse and on the other side the boy paused. “I left him here, to get help,” he said, his head switching left to right. “He was right here!”
Liath placed her hand on the boy’s shoulder and gently turned him towards the hare. It sat watching them with round glassy eyes, silken ears pricked. At its feet is where Liath began to dig. As she chipped away at the white crust, the boy pressed closer and peered into the hole she was making.
“Please hurry!” His pinched voice sounded more like the gargle of a ptarmigan, and this stirred her a little, she had to admit.
Inside the hole lay father and son, unmoving bundles of blue and orange. The boy was on all fours, arms outstretched as he’d tried to claw himself out, but the man must have given up long before.
When Liath spoke some said it sounded like moss-covered pebbles knocking together, others compared it to the winnowing of ice from rock. “The man is gone,” she said, “as are you.”
The boy looked at the other boy, the shell of himself, and then up again at Liath. His eyes flickered with confusion, then realisation. “But it didn’t hurt… I didn’t feel anything. I thought dying hurt!”
“It’s just a change from one thing to the next. Sometimes it hurts, often it is painless and simple.” Liath reached over to the outstretched body and threaded a single feather into the boy’s hair, and as she did so his ghost loosened and fell like a new dusting of snow.
She stacked the stones to mark the place, drew her up hood and left.
By now the mountain was blushing in the sun and she knew that in a few days the melt would wash away the outlines of the bodies and sweep their tears into the lochs, making the land fresh and clean again. At least for a while. Liath finished her rounds on the very summit that had lured so many to their end, and gazed out at the world flowing from the hem of her skirt. It intrigued her still: she marvelled at how it had been broken and remoulded many times over, brutally gouged by the elements – yet to her each new face looked as beautiful as the last. Then Liath’s thoughts took a darker turn as she wondered how long would it be until she weakened and crumbled like that boy who had held her hand. Would she become nothing more than a pile of dust? Something shuddered in her chest. She worried, then, that she might be getting soft like the wayfarers who crawled up and down her slopes – looking for what, she did not know…