As a child, I lived at the foothills of the mountains - just outside of the city. I looked up at the cold, white peaks reaching the stars and believed that I would cross them. Encouragement came with a stranger who told us about the other side. He said that he could take us over, however I considered myself too young to leave home and I stayed with my family, the place that I knew. I told myself it was just for now. As I grew older, the possibility of leaving seemed nearer and more opportune than ever, so I packed my bags, and told my family I would be off for bigger and better things, though I did not yet know exactly what.
The elders of the city gaped at me - how could I leave all of this responsibility behind me? It was beyond their comprehension. I had things to do there, and someday my parents would be old and I would have them to care for. They questioned me - what would become of my younger siblings? I looked up into the peaks. They were dangerous, after all. It would be easy to slip on a landslide. And then what would happen? I'd die, of course. I finally gave in. They were right... it was unreasonable to drop everything and climb the mountains.
Over time, the world became bleak. Our city had been under the ruling of a tyrant from far away, and they threatened to send more soldiers but no one wanted to look in their direction - it was too frightening. There was a day when the skies finally blackened and soldiers from a foreign land marched upon us. Some of us were killed, but most were only taken as slaves. "If you leave," they told us, "the ones you leave behind will be killed." Over time, however, we integrated into their culture. It was not long before our city was surrounded by black walls, black houses, soot and stray dogs. The trees I knew so well were torn down to make way for worldly inventions.
These invaders were from another part of the valley, but we had never paid them much mind before, and now, after they destroyed our homes, we didn't pay them much mind either. Silently we despised them, whilst outwardly we laughed with them and worked for them. It was all the cycle of life, after all.
Sometimes on rare occasion, I would find myself in a place of the city where I could see the peaks. I would look upon them for a long period of time and wonder what would have happened if I had climbed long ago. I could be free, I thought. Yet all I did was shake my head and return to what I suddenly realized was living death. I grimaced and continued, despite my discovery.
As time passed us all by, my emotions fell behind me. I became stiff, bored, and exhausted. I resented the rules, but continued to obey them. Then my mother passed away. My father passed away. The elders passed away and I no longer saw my siblings. One day the stranger returned, but none of us cared. He said he would take us through the mountains and show us how to live and be free, but we would have to let go of everything we had here.
Every one of us shrugged it off and let him sadly disappear into the mountains. "I will return when you are ready," he stated. If I had been younger, I may have rolled my eyes. Instead I reaffixed my life back to my job, the people around me, and my masters in the valley. This faulty peace did not last long, however. There came a day when a man had disobeyed and we were all punished. We had not eaten for two days, and I could no longer think properly. So, I went to my master's house and I stole from him. When we were confronted, I confessed quickly to get it over with. My master was displeased and punished us further. Soon, fights broke out and a rebellion started. After all, they had always despised us as much as we despised them. It ended with everyone of our kind in a prison beneath the earth.
They reminded us daily that we were in the earth because it was reality. Reality, we were reminded, is a troublesome place but we must learn to deal with it, and even enjoy it. Reality, we were reminded, was not a hopeful place, but some place dark, so pleasure must be taken wherever, and they taught us to be gluttonous when we had the chance. They taught us that our success is made by pleasing others and having others respect you for becoming great in their eyes. We learned that we were part of the world there and would have to live with it if we wanted to have our part of the valley. We were taught, we learned and we accepted.
While chained in the dismal deep, there was one day I realized that I was not part of this world. I could never belong to this world, and I would never be happy with my valley. I was not happy with it when it was normal. It had been barren and it was difficult to survive. The elders were overbearing and I had felt very controlled. I did not belong in the valley.
I waited then for the stranger to return. After all, only he knew the way to freedom. We could climb the mountains ourselves, but our elders had been correct - the mountains were dangerous and it would be irresponsible to leave anyone behind without inviting them. I gathered the others to me and shared my thoughts. No one agreed. I waited alone for the stranger to return, but I felt noticeably more free. Suddenly the things that happened here did not matter because I would go beyond the mountains.
At one point I thought the stranger would never come. My thoughts teetered on the precipice of my sanity. Blood and dirt were so common to my eyes that I might have found comfort in them, had I chosen to lose the hope I had. It was at this point when the stranger came for me. He came to my prison bars and asked "Would you like to go now? You cannot return if you come with me, but you will be free." My eyes and my weak smile replied for me.
So easily, he opened the door, as though it had never been locked - he had bought me, after all. He unfastened the chains around my wrists, ankles and neck like they had never been forged together and I was free. How long had I been there? I did not even recall the length of time.
Like magic, no guards came running to send me back, and even if they had, I felt I had the confidence to stand up to them - as long as the stranger was there. We exited quietly, and I bathed in a small creek outside of the city. I was not able to remove all of the dirt, but it was good enough.
Although we were out of the city, the mountains loomed before us like the city's massive black walls, their peaks hidden among the gray clouds in the morning. Their slopes were as barren as the valley below, and dust caked back onto my skin. As we climbed higher, I grew tired and ill. The oxygen thinned, and the cold air dried me. The dust etched its way into thin cuts that developed on my hands and feet from dehydration. Headaches and stiff winds followed us to the top. Although I was ill, the stranger stayed with me. He was never sick like I was, but it pained him to see me suffering, like I were family he had known all his life. I still feared he would leave me behind. I was afraid that he was a fake, or that the blue skies, white clouds and greenery would beckon his imagination as it did mine. "If you are worried that I might leave you, call on me," he told me like he had read my mind.
"But I do not know your name," I replied.
He hugged me and whispered it in my ear. His arms somehow made me warm against the wildest wind and coldest snow. He had felt the cold and the wind. He knew what it was, yet as he passed through the pass day after day, he was no longer susceptible to it.
Gray hung above us, darkening my mood. Gray blew around me, shoving us this way and that. Gray was the ground beneath us, holding our frozen feet fast to the top of the mountain, but red warmth was between us. As we dipped below the fog and the rocks beneath us retreated into a downward slope, The snow gave way to sights I hadn't imagined. Fields of blossoms cloaked the grassy hillsides until they met forests of pines. Sparkling brooks cascaded into steaming, swirling pools.
The slopes flattened at the bottom into moss-covered rocks and open plains. I saw the shadows of white clouds move gently across the wind-blown grass, slowly making their way out to a blue expanse. The closer we came to it, the more I could tell - this was the sea. The freshness of the air penetrated my world. My muscles could relax, as my ears only recalled the sound of birds crying, and tons of water splashing and retreating over and over.
"Are you worried about the ones you left behind?" the stranger inquired.
"Yes, of course..." I replied, uncertain if he would ask me to go back. "If only they could see this! I can't imagine returning to the city."
"Then I will go back for them, but I can only save them if they wish for it. Anyone who would prefer to live in the valley at the city may stay, and anyone who would prefer to come to me may come."
I thought of this as my doubts ebbed away. I had made it here, guided by the stranger who never left my side. If they wanted to, they could as well. The few others who had crossed the mountains joined me to feast and to dance. Not one of them wished they had stayed behind, and no one who stayed behind had been denied by the stranger. Immersed in beauty and love of the world around me, my worries took wings and flew away.