My cousin and I have always been close. We played together as children, and lived together in the same house after we lost our parents. I cooked the meals and kept the place clean while he looked after the animals. I loved our life; I knew it was bound to change someday, but I thought it would be because one of us married or decided to seek our fortune in a faraway land. I never thought it would be because of the Island of the Gods.
About two years after coming of age, my cousin developed a sudden mania for mountain climbing. Luckily for me, there are plenty on our little island, and even more on the larger islands to the north. Our archipelagio is filled with cliffs to scale, peaks to summit, and stunning vistas to behold.
Alas, in several months my cousin and a few of his more mischevous friends had conquered all climbable ranges within walking distance, and so it was time to resort to the boats. I wasn’t worried when they sailed off for the north islands, not even when they were gone for two months. They were experienced enough, in my opinion, to climb all the mountains in the world and come home safe afterward. And as for fear of the water, there was nothing in that. I won’t say that our people can row before they can walk, but the two skills are developed around the same time, and we are just as proficient at one as we are at the other. No, I wasn’t afraid for them in the least. I just didn’t enjoy taking care of the sheep while they were gone.
When they returned, my cousin’s friends seemed to have worn out their fervor for scaling everything taller than the village barns. One of them proposed to his sweetheart, and it was at their wedding that my cousin informed me of his next plan: to “visit the gods.”
It was the first time his new hobby had caused me to fear for his life.
Local legend says that the gods live on the smallest of the islands, the only one not inhabited by people. It’s not hard to see why: the shores are nothing but sheer rock, rising to a peak that has never been seen by man. Clouds cover it morning and night, summer and winter. We can see the island from our village, and though we can observe that sometimes the cloud changes shape or grows smaller or larger, it never moves. What else could be beneath that cloud but the home of the gods?
“The best part is, you’ll be able to stand on the shore and watch me climb!” he declared, in great excitement.
“Watch you disappear forever, you mean?” I snorted. “You know well that any man who has gone into that mist has never come out again!”
He laughed. “What, are you frightened for me, Ebba?” he asked teasingly. “Come, I’ll get Sakaris to lend you his telescope, and you can watch me up the side of the mountain. And if I don’t come back in ten minutes, you can send all the men in the village after me!”
This response was not comforting, but I didn’t have time to argue, as my cousin leaped up and joined the dance.
Three days later, the weather was perfect. I and my cousin’s two friends watched him depart. Sakaris, as promised, had brought his telescope, but had to get back home to his new wife. However, Janus had no desire to set foot on the Island of the Gods, so he elected to stay with me. We walked along the shore together as my cousin rowed out of the bay. As we reached the end of the peninsula, I shouted, “You’d better come back, Teitur Andreassen!” The only reply we recieved was a smile and a wave, and we watched him make his way across the water.
It was very gentlemanly of Janus never to request a turn with Sakaris’ telescope. While my cousin was still on the water, I offered it to him, but he waved it away. “You need it more than I,” he replied. “And I can still see him with these eyes. Teitur is dear to me, but not as he is to you. You have all the feelings of family to feel. Those of cousin, sister, and best friend. I understand; he is all you have in the world.”
I thanked him quietly and turned my eyes back to the progress of my foolhardy cousin. In truth, though I was frightened for him, I had not thought about the situation as deeply as Janus. It was true: Teitur was the only family I had left. What would I do if something happened to him? My anxiety, which was already great, tripled.
Through the glass, I saw his landing. He tied his boat off and started to climb the cliffs. He knew that no one had lived to tell what was behind the cloud, but still he climbed.
|Writing Prompt #327|
Fifteen minutes later, Janus spoke again. “You know, he is quite good. I didn’t have much of a chance to admire his climbing when I was paying attention to my own, but he really is the best of the three of us.”
I supposed that this speech was meant to be comforting to me, so I thanked him again and kept watching. I didn’t mean to be comforted, but it was easy to see that my cousin was a good climber. I would never have guessed that he would scale the cliffs as quickly as he did. Surprise dulled some of my fear, and relief swooped in to take its place as I watched my cousin flop down at the top of the cliff for a rest.
“He’s made it!” Janus declared, patting my shoulder. He and I sat down in the grass to rest as well. It turns out that half an hour of agonizing dismay is quite as tiring as mountain climbing.
“I’m glad I wasn’t along for any of your other mountaineering trips,” I confided. “How can you stand the stress and excitement of it?”
“I suppose it’s part of the fun,” Janus replied with a smile. “But don’t worry, Ebba. I’m sure Teitur will settle down soon enough. He can’t keep climbing forever, you know.”
Ten minutes later my cousin was up again. He waved at us before starting again, and we waved back. As he began ascending swiftly up the side of the island, I silently thanked Sakaris for his telescope and felt grateful to Janus for staying by my side. I knew that I wouldn’t have been able to get through this adventure without them.
It wasn’t long before Teitur reached the edge of the cloud. He seemed to hesitate for a moment, and then plunged in. It was the worst moment of my life. Without knowing it, I cast the telescope down at my feet and buried my face in Janus’ shoulder.
“He’ll never return, I’ve seen him for the last time!” I sobbed.
A short while later I became aware that Janus was stroking my hair and murmuring words of encouragement. Drying my tears, I thanked him for his help and retrieved the telescope. If my cousin was going to return, I was going to see him do it.
After what I was sure was an eternity, I lowered the telescope for a moment to glance at Janus. He was looking at his watch.
“Twenty minutes,” he reported. “It could be that he has not yet reached the top.”
I chose not to reply and instead remembered my cousin’s laughing face at the wedding feast, when he promised that I could send the entire village after him if he were gone for half that time. “Do you really think so?” I finally managed to say.
“It’s possible,” were Janus’ words, while his tone plainly said, “I doubt it.”
For the next several minutes I allowed my imagination to run wild. With my mind’s eye, I watched myself walking home with Janus that evening and returning to the tip of the peninsula the next morning, as day after day, I waited for the moment that Teitur would emerge from the cloud.
“Thirty minutes,” Janus said, interrupting my visions of the future. I reapplied myself to a closer watch of the Island of the Gods.
I cried out at the same moment that Janus gasped as we saw my cousin’s form emerge from the mist. There was a second when I thought I saw someone with him, but when Janus grabbed my arm, I glanced aside at him to see the look of joy on his face and give him a smile of my own. When I looked back with the telescope, I saw Teitur slowly begin his descent to the cliffs.
As he reached them, I stopped to embrace Janus and thank him for staying beside me, admitting that I would have gone crazy without him.
“It was my pleasure,” he assured me, “I would not have missed your adventure for the world.”
We returned to watching my cousin climb slowly down the cliffs. I knew he still was not quite safe, but my logic informed me that he had climbed up, so there was no way he could fail to climb down. Teitur reached his boat, cast off, and began to make his way leisurely back toward us.
He drew near to our spot on the peninsula, and I called out to him. His head snapped up as though he had heard my voice for the first time, his eyes were wide and staring, with something in them that I did not recognize.
“Janus,” I whispered. “What did he see on that island?”
“I don’t know,” he murmured back. He then took my arm and we walked along the shore as my cousin rowed across the bay, just as he had done an hour and a half ago. Had it only been an hour and a half? I felt as though I had lived a lifetime while I waited, and Teitur looked as if he had.
Janus ran ahead to help secure the boat as it slid up next to the docks, and Teitur climbed slowly out of it. I waited for them on the shore.
“Teitur,” I said as my cousin reached me. He took my hands in his.
“Ebba,” he said, squeezing my fingers, as he used to do when we were children.
I meant to say something else: tell him I was glad he was back, ask that he never do anything like that again, or find out if he was all right, but the words I was going to say got lost somewhere on the way to my mouth and I kept silent.
We walked back to our home together, hand in hand. At the door, I waved goodbye to Janus and went inside.
The next morning, there was no cloud over the Island of the Gods.
Teitur has not been the same man since his “visit to the gods.” He still cares for our animals and takes part in the social happenings in the village, but he has not been on a climbing trip since.
Many people have asked him what he saw when he climbed to the top of that island. Some have jokingly asked if he met the gods. My cousin always smiles quietly when questioned, and his refusal to answer and distracted manner have led quite a few people to regard him as a standing joke: Teitur, the man who strove to visit the gods, and was rewarded for his curiosity with the gift of stupidity. “The gods don’t like unannounced house guests!”
My cousin doesn’t mind the teasing. He doesn’t resent when others ask him questions. Even still, I have never said a word about the whole adventure. The only mention I ever made of it was when Janus and I asked Teitur for his permission to marry; he asked when we fell in love, and we both knew it had been that wonderful, stressful, dangerous day.
On very fine days, a cloud settles once again over the top of the Island of the Gods. Inevitably, on those days, my cousin rows slowly across the bay and scales the cliffs as he did when he was a young man, though he never ventures beyond. Instead he sits at the top of the cliffs and gazes at the village.
And I could swear that there are times when I have seen someone sitting with him.