Sometimes beer tastes better with peanuts. Largely, you can drink beer and have no need for peanuts. And most of the time when you eat peanuts all else that you want is more peanuts. But sometimes, both is better. I’ve been reading this story ever since I wrote it two years ago with a sense of chagrin. Something about it has just never sat right for me. The vague vision I had for it never quite reached me from around the corner. Whilst reading it over again today, however, I played the song that first made me want to write this story. Weirdly, it suddenly seemed to make sense, losing the air of incongruity that’s always dogged it. I remember when writing the story, I played this video as the soundtrack. I’d have it on repeat in the background as I carved out my tale. In a surprising way, I think for me the two go together. Maybe it’d actually be kinda inauthentic to put out this story without the accompaniment of its progenitor. No writer can say their writing is mostly original, let alone wholly so; usually these inspirations are multifarious though, so tracing and referencing them would be impossible. But ‘We, Kings’ is so indebted to this specific performance of ‘Condolence’ that I might as well call it part of the enunciation. So here’s a story I wrote and a song I wrote to. Listen to them in whatever order you want, or at the same time.
Around the speeding vessel, the fields swirled in circles and the trees bent to the will of the wind. All motioned as they would and had and as many others like them did. For that is the way the world was and should have been.
If you climbed up through the air, just like the vultures do, you would see fields swirling and trees bending in all their splendour, and there was nothing more beautiful on a windy, summer’s day that year than the sight of the fields playing oceans.
He’d started to climb somewhere in the morning. Quick at first, his pace had abated within the last hour, meaning he lunched with a third of the mountain’s heights still unclaimed. He watched the train station for a time. The tracks passed through its darkened mouth like a scar.
He climbed and his boots took on the skin of the mountain, dull despite the sunlight. They’d been calculatedly faded, more suited to strolling the train aisles in elegant and unique strides than for hiking on their own. But now they seemed almost new under their even coat of mud. They also rubbed, but he walked on. His face was forged out of the furnaces of Vulcania, where the Cyclopes labour under their Lord’s eye. His skin was a hammered bronze. It was pulled out of molten lakes by tight rods that left his chin thin, cheeks sharp and strong.
In his train boots and city body he found it hot work. He felt a bubble of sweat rolling down to his chin. He didn’t do this sort of thing. He was a city boy, he climbed steps. Something of the stare of this mountain caught him when he’d seen it in his friend’s book the other week, though. It held him in an intractable glare that made his stomach jump and freeze mid-air. In the evening he’d gone home with this knot still bumping around inside. He went to sleep with the sound of wind tearing past rock in his ears. It didn’t twist itself free the next day either. He started taking the stairs; he booked a train.
After another forty five minutes or so, he came across a sheer face of rock in his way. It straddled the entire width of the mountain’s ascent. He was at a sort of step, around which there was no way to be found. The rock had little holes spattered all across it and stood proud above him, about about ten metres in height: not insurmountable, but its conquering would take some thought. He considered the scarp for a moment. It loomed over a patch of ragged grass and wildflowers, like an ancient tombstone abandoned by all but nature’s course. The greenery quickly faded out as it approached either side, as if the edges enjoyed rubbing in their closeting presence. There was nothing apart from the holes to help him up. No one could say he was a coward and no one had ever said he was a weakling, but he could not see himself pulling his whole body up twenty feet with nothing but his hands. He managed to get to head height before being very surprised to find himself at the bottom again. This time there was blood for company.
From his arse things looked a little different. Inside a hole at about knee height there was a runway of damp moss covering the bottom. It lead at a sedate diagonal up and away from the mouth. Rising, further inspection revealed all the holes were similarly garbed. There was a lip at the entrance to each one, and his hands had been able to take a grip of these, never noticing the wetness beyond. His boots, unfortunately, had noticed, and taking a disliking to their circumstances had proceeded to eject themselves with the greatest celerity, rudely pulling the rest of Benjamin behind.
He sat down again and ate a bruised apple. It did not taste so good.
Throughout his life, older members of Benjamin’s family had often wryly noted that he perpetually possessed a look about him of being on the edge of tears. Possibly it was because when he thought deeply about matters – and this was the case quite a lot – he’d duck his head and stare hard at the ground. Or perhaps it had to do with his eyes, which looked doors to the sandbags beneath. In actuality Benjamin never cried, and maybe this was why he always looked on the verge. In any case, whatever it was in Benjamin’s face that spoke of sadness, it had never spoken it quite so eloquently as it did now, underneath the cliff. Above his eyes hung his forehead, though this was in no way as enigmatically remarkable. Atop this was sculpted a slope of hair that grew so thick that his occiput seemed to stand aloof, like his head was a ramp pointing towards the sky. And, on top of this, there was another pair of eyes – or at least, that’s what it felt like to Benjamin, sitting there. He felt these eyes and traced them up the rock-face. A man was peering down from the top, pity on his face. He stuck out a bare foot, gesticulating at it. He seemed quite unwilling to speak any more, and eventually Benjamin decided the man must be in trouble – maybe a broken leg. Not pity then, but pain.
“I can’t get up,” Benjamin called to the man. “What have you done to it?”
The man looked in some confusion, then seemed to realise what Benjamin meant, because he started to mime pulling a pair of shoes off.
Pity after all, not pain; though such a look was now closer to amused impatience. Benjamin pulled his boots off and tentatively stuck his foot in the first nook. It was still slippery, but his foot could curve itself slightly around the rim of the hole and be relied upon to stay there and hold his weight. He tied his boots around his neck and slowly pulled himself up. There were still some holes that had no grip to take advantage of, and Benjamin found himself holding on to the rocks with only his hands more than a couple of times. The climb took a good five minutes as a result, and by the time he reached the top he was exhausted. The man had evidently waited until he could see Benjamin’s hands come over the edge before leaving, for he disappeared around a corner as Benjamin lay heaving on the ground.
When he had caught his breath Benjamin continued on, far too tired since the last break considering how little a distance he had progressed. The terrain was now made up of boulders twice a man’s height. They all crowded in on each other, creating trenches through which he quickly walked. Under him lay slabs of their fallen brothers, which guided him in a hopscotch through the mazes. He was lucky to be walking in the summer, for though there were midges he had to swat at, his feet weren’t trying to escape from underneath him in frosty renunciation. Just the midges.
It was very grey now, with the mist sinking down to cloak his way as the walls pressed in. He hadn’t a map, so he generally took the path that looked like it was going upwards. Surprisingly, this worked out quite well. He found himself in a clearing and spotted the man who had earlier helped him up the little cliff. The first thing that Benjamin noticed, and thought rather odd, was that the man still had bare feet. They must have been very hard not to be protesting by now – Benjamin himself had put his boots straight back on. The second thing that Benjamin noticed was that the man was about to fall off the mountain. The man wasn’t being very dramatic about it, but sure enough he was beginning to lose his grip. He held onto a reasonably smooth rock in a sprawling manner with a (boldly bare) leg and arm. Meanwhile his other hand had hold of a heavy, recalcitrant-looking bag that seemed to be the source of the problem, for it dangled over the edge. His remaining limb waved Benjamin over in a vaguely desperate but unassuming sort of way. Benjamin quickly obliged in pulling the man up, crouching down to get a grip on his torso and dragging him from the brink.
They lay there – the man, his bag and Benjamin – and for some minutes they breathed. He looked above him into a sky that had now cleared of fog, and felt the wind on his cooling chest. He sensed a tear of sweat break from his eyebrow and past his eye, dragging away across his cheek and towards the ground. His cheek fell with it, and his eyes were pulled towards the man who lay at his side. The man was still breathing deeply, though he had not been the one pulling the other from the brink, and an arm lay across his face. A tremor so faint that it could have been imagined passed through his body. Benjamin got up and pulled his own bag quietly away. When he had turned a corner, which took him out of sight and away from the mountain’s edge, he set his bag down again and put on a jumper. He had grown quite cold, all of a sudden.
It was not long after that he came out of the maze and found himself at the bottom of a small hillock. He had reached the mountain’s peak, and this was its head. He paused, but did not rest, deciding instead to reach the top as soon as he could. The giant’s head was not huge, but it rose quickly and proudly, with very little to aid one’s presumptive ascent. It was adorned with grass for its hair, cropped, browning, and balding. Soon he was forced to stoop over as the gradient became too much. His boots were pulling at his heels, as if they wanted to turn back. They pulled so hard that he had to pull at the grass in turn; and even that was almost not enough. Benjamin climbed with the determination that a child has when faced with a particularly spindly tree and a trapped kite. Just as the tree would smugly say to the child who, having thrown sticks, sits in sulky silence ten feet below, that such half-hearted effort achieves nothing, the giant sneered at Benjamin as he mustered on. Benjamin felt these sneers more harshly than anything else, so that he could not bear to stand, with the thousands of feet below all clamouring for him to fall. That last stretch, the last incline, he crawled all the way. The wind pulled at his clothes, his boots pulled at his feet, his hands pulled at the grass and as he reached the top he felt his skin shake and tear away and his mouth scream as his hands rinsed themselves of blood in the long awaited tears which he threw at the world.
And he fell into the grass which crowned the giant’s head, and he lay there, and sobs wracked his body, and he gasped for air as he felt the absence of anything at all, and he did all this because he knew this was it.
Having drunk your fill, vulture as you are, of this sea of nectar and ambrosia, you would wheel around to the titans of the lands, behemoths if ever there were: great hulking beasts that crouched so as to not quite touch three thousand feet. Birds of prey nestled in the crooks of their necks, and the titans warmed them with their breath.
Monstrous they looked to most, but the few that knew them would have sworn their intentions were surely benevolent. These solitary few, though they huddled close, knelt alone. Hectares of growths surrounded and cut off the brooding, damned deities.
It wasn’t clear how long he lay there, but when he sat up, dry eyed and red, he met the man’s eyes and they stood up to look out behind them.
In the distance there was a group of large hills, younger and more attractive by far than these gargantuan eyesores. Frequently, if the weather was nice and nothing needed readying for the next day, people would amble up their pretty little lumps and feel vaguely satisfied in some strange, smug way.
But most never ventured to the Three Kings. After all, why trouble yourself with the effort of ascending those slopes so far away? Maybe one day, but for now their younger cousins were a little less hostile looking. And yet, for those who ventured onto the legs, torsos and heads of the Three, they found themselves wildly welcomed and rewarded, for they drank as gods, on a Mount Olympus all of their own.
Theirs was the tallest and the last, this mountain of theirs, so as they looked back they saw all was gold. When they looked forward it looked the same, just new and less certain. It was not quite so bad.
This said, few did. Thus, these oligarchs, these monsters, regardless of their dominions and jealous friendship, seemed lonely despite all else.
They walked back down, and they walked tall, soon passing the mazes, the rock-face, and all below. They did not break at all before they arrived at the bottom. They continued walking in contented silence through the fields until, suddenly, Benjamin became lost among the grasses. He stepped out into a clearing to find himself alone; and all around him was dust.
By James Duff