Somewhere in the slums of an unnamed city, Nicholas the Brave packs a newspaper and a saber and leaves to duel the Mountain. The sun has yet to rise; the city murmurs, shop owners and schoolchildren stirring like startled pigeons. Over it all, the Mountain looms.
As Nicholas winds his way through the cobblestone streets, the old wives eat their yogurt with honey and shake their wise gray heads—he’s a fool, that one. But the old wives have known too many men like Nicholas, and so when he waves good morning to them, they wave back and smile with their sad, wrinkled eyes.
Nicholas arrives at the base of the Mountain while it is still dark. He settles himself on a rock and looks up, squinting through the blackness. The Mountain is tall and broad—stony, with little growing on it—and capped with glittering snow. There are many stories told of it: some say it is the kneecap of a sleeping goddess, others the grave of a fallen star. None of those stories matter to Nicholas. For him, the Mountain is an enemy—no more, no less.
“Come and face me, Mountain,” shouts Nicholas the Brave, brandishing his saber. “I’ll have your head before the sun rises.”
No reply comes—but Nicholas, who has dueled the Mountain a thousand times, is unperturbed. He leans his saber (which is really a tire iron, but who can tell the difference?) against the rock, pulls his newspaper from his back pocket, and skims a short article on page twelve: 7 Year Old Prodigy Wins Singing Competition. The article is accompanied by a grainy, black and white photograph of a buck-toothed girl holding a medal. Her smile pushes her chubby cheeks so high that they swallow her eyes; her socks are mismatched. At first, Nicholas is interested; then, he is squirming; inevitably, he is bored. He stands and begins to pace, twirling his saber around his fingers.
“Mountain,” he shouts again. “Before the sun rises.”
It might be important to mention, at this point, that Nicholas is handsome. Not handsome as some men are, in a particular light or under particular circumstances, but really, truly handsome, with soft, waving hair and lips curved to shape sweet words. He is therefore used to getting what he wants, whether it be permission, forgiveness, or a woman. Only the Mountain makes him wait. Only the Mountain denies him.
So Nicholas hates the Mountain.
“Are you such a coward,” says Nicholas the Brave, “that you will not meet my challenge?”
His words hang in the heat. Somewhere, a bird caws. Then, out from the Mountain’s rocky side, steps a man. He is broad and square-featured, with callused hands and eyes like twin river stones. He carries no weapon.
“Took you long enough,” says Nicholas the Brave.
The Mountain eyes him with a world-weariness that can only be known by the earth.
Nicholas sighs. “You look like him again. Do you always have to look like him?”
He is referring, of course, to his father, who was also hard and square and calloused. Nicholas has never figured out whether the Mountain chooses to look like his father or whether Nicholas himself chooses to see the Mountain that way. He isn’t sure that he wants to know the answer.
“What is your challenge?” says the Mountain. His voice is like the tumbling of rocks.
Nicholas rolls his shoulders. “You have separated me from my wife and child, who live on the other side of the Mountain. You will grant me passage, or pay with your life.”
They are words he has said many times before, but he still manages to say them with a convincing degree of intensity. The Mountain, however, is unmoved.
“I will not grant you passage,” he says.
“So be it,” returns Nicholas. He readies his saber.
The Mountain sighs, causing a wind to blow into Nicholas’ chest. “I will not grant you passage, because it has already been granted.”
Nicholas scoffs. “No more riddles. I have known many men who have tried to overcome this Mountain—all have failed.”
“Tried,” says the Mountain, “is a strong word.”
This only serves to remind Nicholas of how much he detests the Mountain. He flourishes his saber once, twice. On a more typical morning, he and the Mountain would, at this point, cease their chatter and begin their duel. The Mountain would raise his stony fists, Nicholas would raise his saber, and in less than an hour, Nicholas would concede and return home, grumbling, to the city slums. I tried, I tried, he would tell the old wives, until they stopped asking him about it.
But this is not a typical morning, because the Mountain does not move.
“What now?” says Nicholas, exasperated.
“Why do you carry that newspaper?”
“For the same reason anyone does: to read.”
“I will rephrase. Why do you carry that newspaper?”
For the first time, Nicholas the Brave is silent. His beautiful lips form a wordless, empty O. But it’s just as well: he doesn’t have to tell the Mountain that the newspaper is ten years old, or that there is an article about a little buck-toothed girl on page twelve, or that the girl is Nicholas’ daughter, or that the stains on the paper are not coffee, but tears. The Mountain has already seen; the Mountain already knows.
“You can return, Nicholas,” says the Mountain who looks like his father. “The road waits.”
He tips his head toward the Mountain Pass, a long and winding road which cuts from the city through the mountain to the towns on the other side, a road which has been there for a hundred years, at least. For a moment, Nicholas looks at it. He thinks, as he has thought many times, about the journey: he could walk twelve days uphill and then twelve days down. He could find the little house in the little town where his wife Katerina lives with his daughter Sophia. He could apologize for abandoning them, all those years ago. He could explain—
But that is where the thoughts of Nicholas the Brave end.
“That journey is a death sentence,” he says. “I won’t fall for your tricks, Mountain. I demand passage, or your life.”
The Mountain shakes his head; the sound is sharp, like the grating of stone on stone.
“I have fought you every day for ten years. I have offered you passage. You have refused. No longer.”
He lumbers back toward the stone he came from, but Nicholas intercepts him, his coal-black eyes blazing.
“You made me what I am.”
The Mountain who looks like his father narrows his eyes. “Yes.”
“So how can I be anything but what I am, what you are?” says Nicholas.
The Mountain who looks like his father—the father who abandoned Nicholas and his mother on a morning not unlike this one—says nothing. He simply fades into stone, until his nose is nothing but moss, and his fingers are nothing but pebbles.
“Old troll,” mutters Nicholas under his breath.
He returns to the city where he wanders the streets alone until nightfall, singing ballads for passersby and thinking over the Mountain’s words. By the time he settles into his hovel beneath the city’s bridge, he is determined: he will return to the Mountain tomorrow, as always, and challenge him to a duel.
But the next morning, the Mountain doesn’t appear. Nicholas shouts; he brandishes his saber; he tosses his newspaper in the air along with every threat he can think up. Still, he is met with silence.
“Fine,” he cries, when the sun rises and he has received no answer. “Have it your way. I am Nicholas the Brave—” He bestowed the name upon himself, you see. “—and I will take your Mountain Pass, trick or not.”
So although his heart is in his mouth and his stomach in his boots, Nicholas, armed with newspaper, saber, and boiling pride, embarks on his journey along the Pass, twelve days uphill and twelve days down. His feet throb and bleed; his skin burns and blisters; his stomach collapses like fabric in rain. During the day, he dodges bears and snakes. At night, the dreams come: terrible dreams of weeping women, howling and gasping, chasing him through forests and fields. He escapes the Mountain Pass just barely, stopping near a cliff overlooking the town where he grew up, the village where his wife and daughter still live.
“There now,” he tells himself. “I will return to the city, and prove to the Mountain that I have tried.”
But he doesn’t move. He looks down on the roofs and hills and cypress trees, and he doesn’t turn back to the Mountain Pass. Instead, he clambers down the cliff, heading toward the little brown house he built with Katerina, a map of the streets still fresh in his memory. The house is just as he remembers it: squat and surrounded by olive trees, music streaming from the windows like water. He stands in the driveway, hands in his pockets. He realizes for the first time how he must look, with his unshaven cheeks and his clothes in tatters. Then something hits him in the stomach, and he doubles over—a soccer ball.
“Sorry, sorry,” cries a voice.
He looks up to see a woman with Katerina’s green eyes. Except this is not Katerina—her smile is too bright, her face too young. She apologizes again: her son is a hurricane, it can’t be helped. A toddler in blue overalls comes bounding from behind the house; she catches him in her arms. Then she looks back at Nicholas, still smiling. Is there anything they can help with? Directions, perhaps?
“I—I—“ Nicholas the Brave is at a loss for words. “I used to live here, once.”
The woman’s eyes widen. “Oh, how wonderful! My mother—do you know her, her name is Katerina—my mother lives here now, with her husband.”
“Yes. He is called Andrea.”
Her eyes pinch slightly at the corners, but her smile doesn’t fade. “I’m Sophia. You’ve already met Nikko.”
“Nikko,” repeats Nicholas.
“For my father,” she says.
“I never knew him.”
She offers to help him again; he refuses. So they say their farewells, and that concludes both the first and the last time that Nicholas the Brave has seen his daughter since he saw her in the newspaper.
He watches as an older woman—Katerina—lets Sophia into the house. He watches as they shut the front door; he watches as Nikko darts back into the yard when they aren’t looking, little mouth open in laughter as his feet fly toward the Mountain.