Whether you arrive in Kocierba by bus, car or train, the Glass Mountain immediately catches the eye. It glitters above the meadows and wooded hills, amazingly, surreally beautiful. A marvel of nature, unique on the global scale, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1978.
Geologists will tell you it was created by a local volcanic anomaly during the Alpine orogeny. They’ll point out the similarities between our Glass Mountain and the famous Obsidian Cliff in Yellowstone National Park or the less-known obsidian mountain near Tulelake in California, although the Glass Mountain’s clear greenish glass has a different chemical composition. However, some people believe it was created by extraterrestrial beings, by one of the Catholic saints, or by God himself.
There’s also that old fairy tale we all read as children. Its best-known version tells about a king who sought a brave husband for his lovely daughter. He ordered a huge mountain to be erected out of glass. A golden castle was built on the summit for the princess to live in, and the king promised her hand in marriage to whoever would manage to climb there first.
Many young men tried to scale the mountain and failed. Their bones littered the ground below. Finally, after seven years, the princess died of grief. Soon afterwards, her father’s lands were invaded and razed by the ruler of a neighboring kingdom, whose son had perished on the Glass Mountain.
A trace content of copper and boron ions gives its steep slopes an aquamarine tint. They’re smooth, gleaming, and wickedly slippery. At the beginning of the 20th century, when mountaineering came into fashion in Poland, several climbers met their death here. Today, any attempt at climbing off the marked trail will result in a sky-high fine. Tourists can easily reach the Glass Mountain’s summit via a flight of primitive yet sturdy wooden stairs. You’ll find similar ones in the Slovakian Tatras, in the upper section of the trail to the Sedielko pass. In Kocierba, though, the stairs start at the bottom of the mountain and lead right up to the top. The climb takes around one and a half hours: a boring but perfectly safe trudge.
If the golden castle ever existed, it’s gone now. At the top of the Glass Mountain, there’s an observation deck for tourists, complete with a souvenir booth and a coin-operated telescope. Two portable toilets stand off to one side. They spoil the magic of this place somewhat, but hey, life has its necessities.
Some versions of the legend say the castle on the Glass Mountain was surrounded by a garden, in the midst of which grew a magical apple tree. Its fruit healed wounds and guaranteed eternal youth. If you think this sounds familiar, you’re right. A wonderful tree with golden apples appears in myths from different parts of the world. In reality, the Glass Mountain has always lacked vegetation. The glass is smooth, untouched by erosion, without so much as a centimeter of soil. Only a historic Art Nouveau sculpture stands just above the observation deck: an apple tree with stylized, wavy branches and a falcon perched on one of them. It’s not as showy, though, as the fire-breathing Wawel Dragon statue in Cracow.
I’m resting on the observation deck, the late morning sun warming my back. In clear weather the view from this place is absolutely fantastic; makes you want to spread your wings and fly.
My phone rings. I answer eagerly, hoping for some good news. No such luck.
“Hello, Paweł, unfortunately Alior Bank has rejected our request for remission of interest and penalties. We’re still waiting for Crédit Agricole to communicate their decision, but I wouldn’t expect a miracle.”
I curse softly. Obviously, the debt settlement company isn’t to blame; they’re doing their best to help us. It’s not their fault the case is complicated, involving huge sums of money, and the creditors are reluctant to make concessions. Trying hard to stay calm, I thank the company representative, and then we arrange an appointment next week “to discuss our further strategy”.
After ending the conversation, I stare at my phone, wondering how to tell mom that we’re back to square one yet again.
My father used to work at the big bus factory in Sanok. Day after day, decked out in a respiratory mask and a protective coat, he’d spray varnish onto metal bus bodies. My mother always called him a “man with no ambition.” He died of leukemia just before I graduated from high school. Two years later, when I was studying history at the Jagiellonian University (I’d unsuccessfully applied for a major in psychology), my mother remarried. Her second husband was intelligent and enterprising: a man of success. Or so she thought.
My stepfather ran a construction company. Business went quite well until a dishonest contractor cheated him out of a large sum. My stepfather foolishly tried to manage outstanding investment loans by opening more lines of credit, and his company ultimately went bankrupt. The total amount of money owed to the Social Insurance Institution, the Tax Office and five different banks was horrendous.
All the company’s assets were auctioned off. My stepfather’s large condo, heavily mortgaged, had to be sold. He emigrated to Norway to find work and pay off at least some of his debts, and died a year later of a heart attack. My mother, though, is still paying for his mistakes and her ignorance, since she’d co-signed some of his loans. She now works for an insurance firm, and a debt collector takes a large chunk of her income every month. The remainder is barely enough to live on.
Luckily, we’ve managed to hold on to our old family home in the small town of Sanok; my mother had signed it over to me just before disaster hit. She lives there now, and I rent a one-room apartment in Cracow. With the debt settlement company’s help, I’m trying to negotiate with the remaining creditors in my mother’s name, since her request for consumer bankruptcy was rejected in court.
The phone rings again. This time, the name on the display feels like a hammer hitting my head.
“Hi, Inga,” I say calmly, even though I’m shaking inside. I don’t want to talk with her, or hear what she has to say. The last email she sent was more than clear enough. And I understand where she’s coming from, I really do. I know my mother is head over heels in debt, while I’m pushing 30 with a nearly empty savings account, living in a rented apartment the size of a matchbox and driving a clunker bought extra cheaply from a friend. And yes, I’d been adamant about not quitting my job in Cracow to move with her to Gdansk, where Inga will be starting doctoral studies in October; there’s no guarantee I’d find work there, and I have to keep helping my mother. “You didn’t care enough about this relationship” was Inga’s tough verdict.
My ex mentions her clothes and other possessions still lying around in my apartment. I politely tell her I’m in Kocierba now, so she can retrieve her stuff after the weekend. My calmness seems to irritate her, almost as if she expected me to sound desperate, or even beg her to change her mind. But at the end of the day she’s moving to Gdansk, I’m going to stay in Cracow, and she always said a long-distance relationship is out of the question “because trust would be too much of an issue.” The conclusion is self-evident, and seriously, I wouldn’t have blamed Inga for the breakup, she just didn’t have to pour out her grievances as a parting shot.
I disconnect the call, slip the phone back into my pocket, and look around. Even though the Glass Mountain is usually a favorite destination for school trips and parents with noisy children, today the observation deck is empty. The sun is July-hot rather than May-warm, the glass crags already radiating heat. I sit down in the shade of the Art Nouveau apple tree, its apples as big as bread loaves, and muse about how I’d love to just get away from everything. Fly off into the azure like the birds now flitting back and forth in the cloudless sky. I feel like the bronze falcon above my head: heavy, powerless, permanently chained to one bough.
The wooden souvenir booth does its best to tempt tourists with dozens of gaudy trinkets: key chains, fridge magnets, plates, ashtrays and mugs, all decorated with images of the Glass Mountain. Mineral water, soft drinks, chewing gum and chocolate bars complete the assortment.
“Hi, how can I help you?”
The vendor is my mother’s age, perhaps slightly younger. Gaunt and weathered, she looks like a lifelong nicotine addict. Her hair is short and dyed blonde, probably to hide grey streaks. Her tired smile only deepens the lines at the corners of her eyes and mouth.
“I’d like a small bottle of mineral water, uncarbonated, and two Mars bars, please.”
Chocolate bars are more expensive up here than in Kocierba. Oh well, I should have remembered to bring something to eat. I didn’t intend to stay this long on the Glass Mountain, I only came up here to sit on the observation deck for a bit. Weirdly, though, now that I’ve scaled all those steps, I don’t feel like leaving, perhaps because there are no tourists in sight and the view is truly breathtaking, the sky over our heads a pure, unblemished blue, with only a cloud or two on the horizon. Crisscrossing white lines mark the trails of planes bound for destinations I’ll probably never visit.
“Do you know why it’s so empty here today?”
“No idea.” The woman looks around in surprise, as if taking note of the fact for the first time. “Maybe there’s something going on in town? A festival?”
“You don’t live in Kocierba?”
“No, in Rzepedz.” She eyes me with curiosity. “And where are you from?”
“Cracow.” I slip the change into my wallet, then unwrap one of the chocolate bars and take a large, sticky-sweet bite.
“Is this your first visit here?” asks the vendor, obviously bored and eager to chat.
Out of politeness I force myself to exchange a few more words with her. I learn that her husband died several years ago, and that her son got a computer science degree and emigrated to Sweden. My phone rings again, so I apologize and step aside. It’s my mom, sobbing.
“Paweł, I’m at my wits’ end, the debt settlement people have phoned…”
I sigh. Struggling to keep my patience, I say some comforting platitudes. My mother is undergoing treatment for depression (no wonder), but she just seems to sink deeper into despair and resignation with every passing year. She could probably get a second job, but I don’t have the nerve to suggest it. She’s nearly at retirement age and it’s easy to understand why she’s not bending over backward to pay down debts she didn’t incur.
It’s 2:00 P.M., the sun still bright and hot, the observation deck still empty. I’m sitting in the shade of the bronze apple tree, wondering why on earth I’m the only tourist on the Glass Mountain today. Not that I’m complaining. The souvenir vendor is probably less happy.
I remember coming here with my parents when I was little. My mother would spread sunscreen on her shoulders and cleavage, then anoint me as well. I hated that. We’d sit down on the deck, and my father would take out his binoculars.
“Look, a hawk,” he’d say, pointing at the birds circling over the forest. Or: “Look over there, the ravens have smelled carrion.” I’d nod distractedly, staring at the clouds.
As a boy, I used to fantasize that I’d become a pilot. Or a mountain climber. Or, best of all, a traveler. An explorer of distant lands, winning fame and glory. Stupid, futile dreams of an eight-year-old, unaware of his limitations, blissfully ignorant of the fact that all the tantalizing secrets of our planet have already been laid bare. The world has shrunk. Neither a trip to the summit of Mount Everest nor an expedition to the North Pole will impress anyone these days.
Years later, in the hospital, my father told me: “Paweł, life is the art of giving up on dreams.” His words made me angry at the time, but now I know what he meant.
It’s nearly 6:00 P.M. The sun is low in the sky, the air getting cooler. The shadows are lengthening, and I’m still sitting on top of the Glass Mountain. I’ve drunk the bottled water and eaten both chocolate bars, I have nothing with me except my wallet, an umbrella and a lightweight jacket. Even so, I make no move to leave.
I’ve turned my phone off because I don’t want any more calls today, either from Inga or from my mother. I’m too tired to drive back to Cracow, but I don’t have the energy to search for a hotel in Kocierba. I think I’ll spend the night here, under the statue of the magical apple tree that only existed in legends. Who knows, perhaps I’ll wake up in another world, in the garden by the golden castle?
The click of a key being turned interrupts my thoughts. The souvenir vendor has just locked her booth. She glances in my direction, then approaches.
“Still here? It’ll be dark soon.”
I shrug. The woman’s eyes narrow. She gives me a long, appraising look.
“Why don’t you join me for supper at the ‘Golden Platter’ down in town,” she says unexpectedly. “They make delicious spinach pierogi.”
Something in her tone makes me smile wanly.
“I’ve hated spinach ever since I was a kid.”
“They have cheese-potato-onion pierogi too. And blueberry ones. The best in Kocierba.” She extends her hand, and after a moment’s hesitation, I grasp it. “I can see you need to talk with someone,” she explains. “Anyway, it’s unhealthy to live on chocolate bars.”
The Glass Mountain blazes, reflecting the setting sun, while twilight stealthily advances from the east, the first stars glimmering over the horizon. A pale moon is rising. Mist covers the forest like white sheets. Down below, I can see the roofs of Kocierba and the church spire.
We keep talking as we walk down the stairs. The souvenir vendor’s name is Mira. She’s 54, just like my mother, but her movements are brisk and agile. I’m the one who has trouble keeping up. My knees hurt; a sedentary lifestyle, with no time for sport, has its pitfalls.
I find myself telling her everything about myself, about Inga and my mother’s debts. Mira listens patiently, nodding in sympathy now and then, making no attempt to moralize. She doesn’t say people have bigger problems or that I’m still young, with my whole life in front of me. Perhaps she actually understands. Or else she’s simply a good listener.
In a fairy tale, she’d probably be a benevolent supernatural being, and give me a goose that lays golden eggs or some other enchanted means for gaining wealth. Or, conversely, she’d be a demon, and offer help at the price of my soul. But no one should expect such twists of fate in a world where a Glass Mountain has been fitted with a flight of wooden stairs.
The streets of Kocierba look as quiet and sleepy as ever. It’s one of those towns where years pass and nothing changes. I can see no indication that something extraordinary took place here, something that would explain why everyone has decided to avoid the Glass Mountain for one day. It’s just another calm spring evening. Tourists are strolling around the small town square or sitting in beer gardens. Snatches of conversations and laughter float in the air. Shopkeepers carry postcard stands back inside and lower anti-intrusion shutters. A mouthwatering aroma of fried fish is wafting from one of the restaurants. I suddenly realize how hungry I am.
“Look behind you,” says Mira, so I glance back.
Down here, twilight is falling, but the sun’s last rays still illuminate the tip of the Glass Mountain. The sight reminds me of a lighthouse: a lone fiery spark in a blue sea. For a moment, I allow my imagination to run free: now that the observation deck is empty, perhaps the bronze falcon will come to life and fly away?
The “Golden Platter”, a pierogi restaurant, is located in a small white building beside the railway station. The stuffed dumplings are as good as Mira promised. After convincing me with motherly firmness to order a double portion with cheese-potato-onion filling, dressed with melted lard and sprinkled with cracklings, she’s watching me eat.
“You’re awfully thin, Paweł.” I’m not sure when we switched to first-name terms, but I don’t mind. “You should take better care of yourself, you know. It sounds like you keep putting your mother’s needs above your own.”
I shrug, not impressed by this piece of pop psychology. However, Mira’s way of speaking intrigues me. She’s obviously an educated person, so why does she sell fridge magnets and ashtrays in a souvenir booth?
The waitress takes away our empty plates and brings the tea we ordered earlier. I glance at my watch and decide that it’s too late to seek out a bed for the night in Kocierba. I’ll just catch some sleep in my car, and drive back to Cracow in the morning.
Mira produces an e-cigarette, inhales, and blows out a cloud of herb-scented vapor.
“I’ll tell you a story,” she says, breaking the silence before it becomes awkward. “You know the legend about the Glass Mountain, right?”
“That legend has several variants.”
“That’s right. I’ll tell you the most interesting version. You may have read it somewhere or not. It’s not particularly popular.”
Mira takes a deep breath, then hesitates, gathering her thoughts.
“In this version of the tale, the king placed his only daughter in the golden castle atop the Glass Mountain,” she begins, “and promised her hand in marriage to whoever would be the first to reach the summit. Many knights attempted to scale the mountain and failed. The first person to succeed was a poor plebeian youth. A student, believe it or not.”
Mira pauses and smiles, seeing my interest. She’s right, I didn’t know this variant of the tale. I’m curious to hear the rest.
“The student came up with a clever trick: to be able to walk on glass, he killed a lynx and affixed its claws to his feet and hands. Brave and stubborn, he climbed higher and higher, ignoring fatigue and the stench of decomposing corpses below. Finally, though, exhaustion set in, and he had to stop. Halfway up a sheer cliff, he clung to the slippery glass in the hot sun. Death looked him in the eye.” Mira lowers her voice almost to a whisper. “And then the falcon came.”
“The great falcon who lived on the magical apple tree in the castle garden?”
“That’s right. The falcon’s task was to protect the castle and the princess. It saw the exhausted youth on the mountainside, mistook him for a fresh corpse, and flew down to feed. When it sank its claws into the student’s body, he realized the bird might be his only chance for salvation. He grabbed its legs, and the frightened falcon soared into the air, carrying him. The student waited until they found themselves over the castle garden, and just as they were flying over the apple tree, he drew his knife and sliced the falcon’s legs off.”
“Cruel,” I comment.
“Cruel, but fairy tales evolved in an age when people were less sensitive. Anyway, as I said, the student cut off the falcon’s legs and fell down onto the apple tree, wounded and bleeding, but alive. When he plucked a golden apple and touched his wounds with it, they healed at once. He gathered more apples, then climbed down from the tree and approached the castle. Before reaching the gate, he was confronted by another enchanted creature, a great dragon, but when he threw an apple at it, the dragon jumped into the moat and disappeared.”
“And then comes a typical happy ending, right? The student enters the castle, the princess is overjoyed, the king throws a wedding, the young couple get half the kingdom and live happily ever after?”
“Not exactly. In this version of the tale, after entering the castle and winning the princess’s hand in marriage, the victorious hero can no longer return to the land of the living, since it’s impossible to descend the Glass Mountain safely. The student and the princess went on living in the golden castle until their deaths, and the falcon’s blood revived the corpses of everyone who had died trying to climb the mountain.”
“What did you study?” I ask, unable to restrain my curiosity any longer. “At the university, I mean.”
“Ethnography. I work as a tourist guide. I was sitting in that booth today because my friend, who usually sells souvenirs there, is ill. I normally take people on tours around Kocierba.”
A tourist guide with a M.A. in ethnography? Yeah, that explains things. But I’ve read my share of books as well.
“In this version of the legend, isn’t the Glass Mountain a symbol of the afterworld? The magical tree with golden apples sounds like a variant of Frazer’s Golden Bough…”
“The symbolic meaning of this story is open to interpretation.” Apparently Mira has swallowed the bait. “You can dig deep into mythology, into archetypes, but you can also read it very simply. I think the moral is that whenever we go where no one has gone, we pay the price. Whenever we pursue our boldest, wildest dreams, we pay the price. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Quite the opposite, in fact. One has to try, Paweł. Glass mountains exist for us to climb them.” She gives me a meaningful look. Wreathed in the vapor from her e-cigarette, she reminds me of a witch, a prophetess. An aging Slavic Sybil in capris and second-hand shirt, crow’s feet around her gray, thoughtful, melancholy eyes.
“Even if that means we have to spill the blood of falcons?” I laugh a forced laugh. You’re starting to sound preachy after all, Mira. Your intentions may be good, but still…
I turn away and gaze out the window. I can’t see the Glass Mountain from here, only the street, a small square with a fountain, and the big hotel where my parents and I used to stay during our vacation trips when I was a child. My father and I would spend days hiking in the woods and meadows. He taught me the names of birds, butterflies and beetles. That was his one passion, those birds, butterflies and beetles. In his youth, he’d wanted to study biology, but failed the entrance exams. He opted for zootechnics instead, but had to quit after a year because money was tight, and ultimately ended up in a bus factory.
Oh well, it’s getting late, Mira, I guess it’s time I said goodbye. And I’ll pay for my supper, thanks.
The morning sun shines brightly. I never liked to drive along winding roads, but keep telling myself I’ll be home in less than four hours. Even though I don’t really want to get there.
On a straight section of the road, I overtake a slow-moving tractor, then a bus spewing clouds of exhaust fumes. I reach the top of a hill where the signs read “Dukla 5 km,” “Nowy Żmigród 25 km.” Clouds are gathering in the distance. A glittering point on the horizon catches my eye, probably the sun reflecting off the windows of a house.
The radio has predicted a change of weather: a low-pressure front is approaching from the west, bringing rain, rain, and more rain. That’s the forecast for the Lesser Poland Voivodeship; my own personal forecast for the coming week says “work, work, and more work.” And a meeting with a lawyer from the debt settlement company to discuss possibilities for further action, even though it looks like we’ve run out of options. And a phone call to Inga about her belongings, if she doesn’t contact me today.
I stop at a gas station in Gorlice to buy petrol, coffee and sandwiches. By now, clouds have covered most of the sky. Raindrops begin to fall. In Cracow, it’s probably raining cats and dogs already.
Standing by the car with a Styrofoam cup of a disgusting brew redeemed only by its caffeine content, I let my eyes wander again towards that distant spot where the road disappears from view. The glittering point is still visible in the distance. Actually, I’m fairly sure I can see several glittering points, not just one. Modern glass-fronted buildings? A factory, perhaps?
My phone rings. It’s Mom. Irritated, I tell her I’m on my way to Cracow, and no, Mom, not now, we can talk later, when I get there. I disconnect the call, finish the nasty cheap coffee and stuff the cup into an overflowing litter bin, next to which a rook is pecking at the crumbs in an empty biscuit package dragged out from the trash. Resourceful little chap. Overall, it probably manages to carve a better life for itself than I.
More raindrops mottle the asphalt. Time to go.
I arrive in Cracow in a downpour, later than I anticipated; there was a roadblock just outside the city because of construction work. I had to take a detour and encountered a traffic jam. The radio forecast mentions “brief showers and local clearing.” When I park in front of the block of flats where I live, the rain subsides.
My tiny apartment on the tenth floor is messy as ever: clothes hanging on chairs, books strewn about, printouts and training manuals lying on the floor. I go to the window, the vista as bleak as ever: communist-era apartment blocks surrounded by parking lots and bushes, railway tracks visible in the distance. The clouds are dispersing. I can see a patch of blue sky and a rainbow. In the distance, sunlight illuminates huge advertising banners on the metal framework of the unfinished Unity Tower, better known as the Skeletor.
Suddenly I recall Mira’s parting words when we said our goodbyes in front of the pierogi restaurant. The streets were empty and silent; above, the Glass Mountain gleamed like liquid silver in the moonlight. Just when I was about to leave, Mira unexpectedly grasped my hand.
“Wait a second, Paweł. Do you know the Glass Mountain in Kocierba isn’t a true glass mountain?”
“What?” I stared at her. Funny how moonlight makes you see things. For just a second, a glimmering band seemed to appear around Mira’s temples: a silvery wreath… or a coronet?
“True glass mountains have no stairs leading to the summit,” she said softly, with a gleam in her eye. “And no tourists. A true glass mountain is invisible. But when the time is right, it suddenly appears before us… like the mythical fern flower.”
“Once a year, on the night of the summer solstice?” I said, attempting a lame joke, but Mira answered in all seriousness:
“No, Paweł. It appears when we actually want to climb it.”
Silence reigns in the Planty Park. A thin drizzle is falling, the wet lawns a fresh, vibrant green. Cars hum in the distance.
I’m standing with my head tipped back, ignoring the rain. People with umbrellas pass me, oblivious to what’s going on; now and then someone throws me a surprised look.
I’m gazing up in awe.
The mountain towers before me, its brilliant outline rising above Cracow, reflected in the dun waters of the Vistula River. It’s beautiful, much taller than the one in Kocierba, its summit wreathed in clouds, and I’m absolutely certain I’m the only person who can see it.
It’s my own glass mountain, reaching up to the sky, insanely steep and dangerous. Mine and mine only. Up till now, I’ve always slid off its gleaming slopes, merely because I never believed there’s any sense in climbing to the top. That has changed now.
I don’t want to kill falcons, pick golden apples or live in an enchanted castle with a princess at my side. In fact, I’m pretty sure neither castle or princess are to be found on the top of my own personal glass mountain. My mountain exists just so I can climb it. Just so I can prove to myself that I can.
I send a brief text to Mira. I’m beginning to regret not buying a souvenir from her: a key chain or fridge magnet. Something that would remind me of our conversation in Kocierba, because one thing is certain: this will be a long climb. I don’t have a set of lynx claws. I’m not particularly good at coming up with clever tricks, just more determined than ever. And maybe, just maybe, that will be enough.
I slip the phone into my pocket and set out.