"Mountain," she said again. "I don't know if you're listening, but I'll talk to you anyway. I like talking to you. I wish you weren't so tall. But I like you, I always liked you, even though Mama never let me visit you before. She says you keep watch over us, and bring us the rain." She climbed as she talked, pulling herself up by the roots of the trees that grew from my soil. The trees were all asleep, and didn't notice her passage.
I had been sleeping, too, when she first started her climb. She'd woken me when she knocked a rock down a slope of scree, sending a shiver of gravel down my lower ridge. "Ah!" she'd said. "Sorry, Mountain."
Awake now, I focused on her, felt the tapping of her feet as she trudged upwards, her hands and knees on my steeper parts. I shifted my soil near her, spreading it to the air to hear her better.
"Mama says you give us our stream, too," she went on. "I like our stream. Yesterday, Ajj and I were swimming in the pool, in that little burbly part where the water is going really fast by the opening, and then it swirls a little ways into the pool, and we were in the swirl and just leaving it to swim into the real pool, where it's quiet, when Ajj just shrieked! I thought it was a rabbit getting hit by a hawk at first, but it was right next to me, and by the time I realized it was her she was already laughing about it. It was just a fish, kind of nibbling her leg, but without any teeth so it was really lipping her leg. I splashed her for scaring me and we had a splash fight." I heard her catch her breath as she topped a boulder to a flatter section. The small ones could move fast and easily, but even they needed to rest sometimes.
"We picked berries later. The sweetest ones are right next to the pool, if the sprites don't get them first. I would have brought you some berries, Mountain, if I'd thought of it. I thought there'd be berries up here. Maybe they're all by the stream." My stream was a cool flow down my sunset side, far from the south where she climbed.
"I thought I'd follow the stream up here, but Mama said it comes from way over there, and I could see it was turning away, so I left it. I don't think it goes to where I want to go."
I gave my skin a questioning pop a few feet from her, and a small rock bounced away. She didn't understand, only jumped a little and kept climbing. I wished I could make the same words that she used. For half my lifetime, I had listened to the humans as they scurried and chattered around my base, and I understood their language as completely as I understood the crows in my trees.
"You're not bringing us rain today, are you, Mountain?" she asked. "I know it's good, and I like rain, but it wouldn't be so good while I'm climbing. Mama's always telling me not to get caught in a thunderstorm." She jumped from a boulder to my soil. "You can keep sending those clouds over, just don't fill them with rain. Not today. Please, I mean. I meant to say please, really, Mountain. I just forgot for a little." She patted me with both hands. "I want to get there and back today."
Where are you going? I asked again, but this time she didn't even notice. If I spoke louder, I might hurt her, and I found I didn't want to do that. I settled down to wait in long-familiar patience.
She was quiet for a time, and I let my attention drift inward, to the trickle of water through my caverns. Only a few years ago, I had cracked a few rocks along the path to my center, letting the dripping of water there open into a thin flow. I let my thoughts enter that flow as it wound slowly through my bones of stone, until it reached a steep rock face, sheeting down in silence. I followed the water into the deep, still pool at my center, beneath a vault of air that echoed to the occasional splashes of fish. This was where I went to relax, to think, and to dream.
I floated, trying to sense the fish as they slid smoothly through the water, almost imperceptible. When the small human woke me with the fall of gravel, I had been napping for less than a year, just drifting up to wakefulness again. It had been a dream-nap, full of sunwarmth and scurrying small ones. I dreamed many koalas came to me and settled to live, but soon they had eaten most of the trees and swam away down the stream. I spread myself back out to my skin and checked my forests. They all seemed healthy. It was a dream that came from my thoughts, then, not one that came from outside.
On my peak, the rocks were scarred and shifted where a phoenix had rested from one of its long flights. I wondered why it hadn't woken me. I always enjoyed talking with them; they were among the cleverest and the longest-lived of the small ones. They lived long enough to learn my language, and it was from them that I learned most of what I understood about the small ones. Most small ones, said the phoenix, especially the ones that lived on the surface, had a sense called sight. They weren't limited to what their skin touched, or the sounds that came to them – they could look up into the sky and see the silent clouds, which drifted by even when they withheld their rain and thunder. They could even see thunder – the phoenix said it made a flash as sharp and bright as its sting.
Sometimes I wished I could be a small one, just for a time, to move and talk and see. Sometimes I wondered if the small ones ever envied me, and the stillness of inner stones and thoughts that they lacked. I also wondered, though, if they realized what it was like to be anything other than a small one. They never spoke with the phoenix.
On my skin, the soft patter of the human's footsteps stopped. I focused on her again. She was standing on my south cliff, a bare jut of stone that reached above the trees. I felt her jump up and down.
"Mountain, I can see it!" she said. "I thought I could! It's right down there, past the huts. We built it a long time ago, but it was only yesterday that the firebird came. It lit up last night, but you can't see it from the huts, not really, the perch is too high. From here it'll be perfect. Can you see it, Mountain?"
I couldn't reply out loud without disturbing her, but inside I chuckled.
"The sun's just going down," she said. I had felt my sunrise side growing cooler. "This is when it'll light up. Mama says –" She gasped. "There it is! I don't know if you're watching, Mountain, but it's all on fire, and it's dancing with its wings. I wish I could hear it singing, but that doesn't matter. I like just seeing it." She edged closer, where my cliff dropped off into air. I felt a tug on a vine that grew from a crack in my stones – she was holding on to it for security.
My soil had been loosened by a recent rain. The vine was mindless, and neither knew nor cared when its roots pulled free. As soon as I felt it move, slipping up like a snake between my stones, I clenched the crack closed and caught its end. But by then, she had already let go, and was stumbling over the lip of the cliff into open air.
There are many, many small ones that live and scurry on my skin. I try not to hurt them, but for the most part, I don't affect them one way or the other. They live their lives, I live mine. The phoenix are the only ones I pay close attention to.
But I had felt this human climb most of the way up my side. I had listened to her chatter and tried to respond. She was part of my thoughts, now, and it was without any thought at all that I bent myself to catch her as she fell.
Straight below her was a hard shelf of stone. I flicked it outward and away, opening space where it had been. Listening to her screams, which told me where she was, I heaved myself up underneath her and sank back down as she landed, rolling her down a slope of soil from which I popped out rocks and pulled trees aside. Finally, as she slowed, she grabbed one of the trees and clung to it. The tree had slept through everything and didn't respond.
The last of the rocks I had thrown aside crashed down again. Other small ones had chittered and fled. I eased the trees back into place and resettled myself around their roots. The human was dripping on me, but I was glad to taste the salt of tears rather than the tang of blood.
She moved eventually. "Mama's going to scold," she said. She stretched out on my soil and hugged me. "Thank you, Mountain."
I hollowed a little underneath her and squeezed her very gently in return. She sniffed and laughed. "Tomorrow I'll bring you something." She stood up and started downward. She was almost at my base. "Mama says uncle says you like water from the other river, with floating flowers. Um, make a rock move if that's right?"
I always enjoyed a taste of another river. I jiggled a rock loose a ways in front of her.
"Good," she said. "Bye now. Mama will be worrying." Her footsteps faded as my soil mixed with that around me, and she was gone.
High on my peak, a solid heat landed on my rocks and whistled a musical greeting. The phoenix had returned from its evening song. I rumbled a welcome.
We had much to talk about.