Alone on Top of the World
Dawn came early on top of the world. It was a hard dawn, not like the mellow mornings down below. Up on top, the glaring sunrays were as flint-edged as the wind and the burning cold.
But there was light and it found its way through the crack in the stone door and drew a glowing pencil line on the far wall. One, it seemed to say. One more day.
Aerin got dressed under the blankets and got up. There were none of the morning rituals down below that marked the first moments of each day. She could not start a fire for tea since there was only enough to burn to have a small fire at night. There was no spare water to wash: there was plenty of snow outside but it needed something to melt it, and if there was a morning fire, there would be no evening fire.
There was only one reason that anyone would have built this tiny world in a pocket valley at the very summit of Mt. Odinokii, 25,000 feet above the warm bay where the king’s palace stood, surrounded by its legions of palms and wisteria. These were the Ambrulo sheep.
There were twenty-six sheep currently in the flock, although five were heavy with lambs. Ambrulo lived naturally at high altitudes, but these had been bred to live beyond that, right on the edge of the living world.
And why? So that every month, one sheep could be carefully lowered down on the pulley-driven platform and brought by cart the six-day journey to the king’s palace. There it would be ritually slaughtered and the heart removed, a heart grown massive by the high altitudes. The heart of an Ambrulo sheep from Aerin’s valley, when eaten raw, was a taste beyond any other in the realm of the senses. So they said, at least, although only the king and his close friends would ever know.
Aerin opened the gate to the sheep cave and the flock moved sluggishly out into the morning air, their breath clouding the air and frosting in thick crystals on their huge coats. They knew their own way around the valley and moved out to the food and to munch at the snow. Aerin collected the hard lumps of dung they had dropped during the night to press and freeze-dry for fuel. Then she climbed her short watchtower. To watch.
It was then, as Aerin gazed up into the blue-black of the sky that the high air sprites came to her, flitting around the tower and playing their mystic flutes that made the thin air vibrate.
“Come dance with us, Aerin!” they called, tugging at her cloak with unfelt fingers. “It is so much better higher up, up where the stars never go out.”
“How can I reach it though?” Aerin asked, as she often did.
“Come to the southern cliff,” they answered. “A fairy stair leads up from there to the dizzy heights. It is invisible but just step off and you will feel it right away.”
“Can I come back?”
“Would you want to, though?” they asked, laughing and piping all around her. “Why come back to this tiny mountaintop where you freeze in the wind and spend your days picking up sheep dung.”
“But I promised,” Aerin said. “And the sheep need me.”
The sprites knew nothing of duties and vows and the pay that her family received for her being there so they did not reply, just continuing their dancing and piping and urging her on.
The wind picked up, and Aerin climbed down off the tower. She found herself walking towards the south side of the mountain and in a moment, she was standing at the edge of the valley where two sharp points came down to form a low place at the level of the valley floor. A fence had been built to keep the sheep from wandering over the edge but Aerin climbed over it and stepped to the edge. She looked down thousands of feet to the lower slopes of the mountain where trees extended out from the barren rock like a blanket.
The sprites whirled around her, dancing in a sparkling column. “She’s coming!” they called to each other. “Get ready for her. Make way!”
It would only take one step to know. She imagined climbing up and up an invisible stair until the blue drained away completely from the sky and the stars surrounded her like the lamps of a billion celebrations.
She heard a grunt behind her. One of the sheep was pushing its head through the fence. She idly stroked its head with a gloved hand. Finally she climbed back over the fence. Maybe tomorrow. There was always tomorrow.
* * *
On the protected southern slope of Mt. Odinokii, in a tiny cabin surrounded by bamboo forests lived an old man and his wife. The wife was just preparing breakfast when the husband came in with an armload of wood for the fire.
“Did you see her?” the wife asked.
The old man nodded. “Yes, right on the edge of the cliff, just like always, although only for a moment this time.”
“Every day the same for five years,” the woman said. Then for the thousandth time, “What do you suppose it means?”