On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including science fiction, horror, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published three ebooks and one paperback anthology of those stories so far.
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I’ve always been drawn to solitary places, or to the times when the ordinary becomes strange. Familiar streets in the early hours of the morning can feel just as isolated and precarious as the truly remote corners of the landscape. Nothing quite compares to the oppressive majesty of nature, though, especially when facing it alone.
When removed from our human-scale world, there’s the unsettling feeling that things we can’t quite believe may nevertheless be possible. That’s what inspired today’s brief tale.
You see some strange things out here when you’re alone.
I’ve been doing this job for twenty-seven years, and I never grow tired of it. The fresh air, the scenery, the sense of purpose. The mountain is open almost year-round, but it has a closing time each day for safety reasons. The funicular railway stops operating at 17:00 in winter, and 20:00 in summer. After those times, and until seven the following morning, the mountain is mine.
I’m not the only ranger, of course. There’s a team of us; eight in total. We have a base of operations near the upper terminus of the railway, away from the direct flow of tourists but always accessible. At any particular time, there are at least four of us out on patrol.
I love the overnight shift. It’s best in summer when I start with a few hours of usable light, and I get to gradually watch the colours change and the sun go down over the valley below, spectacular every time. In winter, it’s already full dark before I even get to work — and on the mountain, dark means pitch black beneath the stars.
You can see the mountain for miles around, and some days it seems like you’re approaching it for an hour without getting any closer. Then you reach the access road that starts to curve upwards. Fifteen minutes of that and you’ll get to the car park and the visitor centre, which includes the lower terminus. A ten-minute dramatic journey aloft and you get to the upper terminus, which for me means checking in, getting into my uniform, and reading up on any incidents from the day shift. Most of them are skiing-related, but sometimes people do go missing for a while.
I like to take the first patrol of my shift at night, and the last one in the early morning. Sometimes I’ll go out between, too. I’ve always loved hiking, and I surely love the quad bikes and snowmobiles. The danger doesn’t bother me one bit. I have plenty of better things to think about.
I was still a young man when I first saw the lady of the mountain.
I’d heard whispers, of course, and one time when old Bill was good and drunk in the pub at Hogmanay, he even admitted having seen her. The others shushed him, and for a moment he looked angry, before the earnestness just dissolved into one of his big, easy smiles and a shrug to go along with it.
When I saw her, I was on a quad, and it was sitting idle. I was at the upper lake, and I could see for twenty miles by the light of a moon that had been full just two days prior. The air was crystal clear in that unique way it gets at high altitudes in the cold, like the frost has held all the pollution down in the valley. I was looking at the distant twinkling lights of a few late-night motorists on the A-road north west, and I happened to glance over towards the lake that lay just below me to my right.
She was maybe forty metres away, lit by the mirror surface of the water alongside. I’ve recognised the shape of a woman pretty well since I was ten years old, and on this particular night I was at least twenty-five further years older than that. When you’re under the moon you tend to lose the colours of things, but I remember that she looked like the pale silvery light was already her natural shade; hair, skin, and all. Her face was in shadow, and she was stood dead still.
My first instinct was to head straight over towards her to see if I could help, just like I was trained to, but something made me wait for a moment. I had the impression that she looked towards me then, even though there’s no way I could have know that from where I was.
At that moment, I swear I had never been more mortally afraid in all my life.
I knew, somehow, that she could have crossed the distance between us in a heartbeat. I knew that she would have been colder than the air around me. I knew that this place was hers, and that I was just a tourist now, looking at something I couldn’t hope to understand. And I knew for certain that if I ever saw her face in the full light of the moon, I would go mad.
She spoke to me. I’ll swear that until the day I die.
Not with her lips, you understand. I was too far away, and the words were too quiet. Intimate almost. Just four words, but I took heed of them, and I turned the quad’s handlebars and twisted the throttle, and I got away from there just as fast as I could.
I didn’t go back near the upper lake for a while after that. Nobody asked why. When your work takes you out onto the mountain when the sky is dark, there’s a certain understanding about things like that. When I did eventually go back past the lake a few weeks later, I began my habit of never really looking directly at it. I don’t think I’ve really looked at it from that day to this, come to think of it, at least when the sun isn’t in the sky.
I still hear her words, even all these years later. I hear them when I go to sleep — with a dim lamp on in the hallway — and I hear them when I go to work. I still take the overnight shift, and I still love my job. These days, though, with my hair fully grey and my bones too familiar with the cold, I let the younger men take all the patrols after midnight. The ranger station isn’t pretty, but it’s good enough for me.
In the morning, with the first light of the still-hidden sun starting to bloom beyond the horizon, I walk to my car, and sometimes I look back up at the mountain. It’s just a black shape; a hole cut out of the stars.
And I hear her words again, crystal clear like the air at the lake somewhere up there, whispering to me.
Look the other way.
That’s all for today. I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions; I’d love to hear from you; you can find me on Twitter.
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Have a wonderful week, and thanks for reading.