The village of A— was the last village before the pass. In the early spring, it was the last place to lose its grey piles of snow. By late April, there were still crusty patches of white under the hanging eaves and in the shadow of some of the larger trees. The stream had swollen into a river, grey and swift with the snow melt from the mountains. The bridge that crossed the stream had no railings and children were cautioned against going anywhere near it, though in the summer it would be pacific enough to fish from, if there had been any fish.
A—was too far up on the mountain to become mixed up in affairs of the world as some of the villages down in the valley had. When the last war had come, the only indication that anything was happening was the military convoys that used the pass to take supplies to the front. Once or twice, one of these convoys stopped, someone bought something at the little shop or asked after a family that had come from these parts, but usually they continued on their course, barely slowing down on their way through the village.
The people of A—had their own way of doing things. While it’s true that most people living in this part of the country were seldom in a hurry, the people of A—were more contemplative and did things slower than the people in the valley. The winters were longer and the planting cycle was shorter so the people had become more pastoral. They only planted cabbages and onions; Carrots were considered excessive by some of the older people and the children pointed in awe when they traveled to the marketplaces of the valley and saw the incredible colors of the tomatoes and peppers. The pastures of A—were all up in the mountains where the sky was perpetually dark and brooding. The people attested to the fact that spending too much time up there with the flock, watching that dark sky and thinking precipitous thoughts drove people crazy, although it was likely that mountain babble, as the people called it, was more the result of moonshine rather than any vague environmental pressures.
When the snows did melt in A—, beautiful poppies grew all over the fields. In June, when everything in the valley had turned brown, the wildflowers were just beginning to bloom in A—. They grew the best in places where the snow had sat for the longest: where the rain had fallen from the roofs and in the damp shade of certain trees.
A slightly different dialect was spoken in A—. It was, for the most part, mutually intelligible with the dialect of the valley, but certain everyday phrases like “where are you going?” were radically different and sounded as if from another language. The lowlanders learned to laugh at the way they spoke in A—from a very early age. When they put on straw hats, old shoes or anything rustic-looking they would bellow out something in the dialect and everyone would laugh.
The only traffic that passed regularly through A—was that of the potato farmers on the other side of the mountains bringing their crop over the pass and down into the valley. Their cars were old and battered, but painted in pastels. The weight of the potatoes caused them to bottom out at every dip in the road. In the autumn, when the potatoes were harvested, the farmers would occasionally stop in A—to sell off any blighted-looking potatoes that the people in the valley wouldn’t want. Sometimes they just gave them away. When they drove down the street yelling ‘potatoes’ the children ran alongside the slow-moving cars, as they would run alongside ice cream trucks in other places.
Apart from the potato cars and the occasional military convoy that struggled up the pass, the village got no visitors. Even relatives who had moved away seldom visited. So it was quite out of the ordinary one nondescript and still slightly cold April afternoon, when a stranger came walking into the town. The young man walked alone with a small green backpack and a black bandana tied around his forehead. The kids saw him first. The closest village further down the pass was about 17 kilometers away so most of them had never seen anyone walk into town that wasn’t coming down from the pasture. As soon as the kids saw the stranger, they stopped their game throwing sticks and stood completely still, having no idea what the appropriate behavior was in such a situation. When the stranger was close enough to meet their gaze he called out ‘hello,’ only one child dared to respond and he did so in such a low voice no one heard him. The kids watched the stranger walk on toward the village and, when he had gotten a few paces down the road, they began to follow him.
As the stranger walked, he glanced back occasionally at his growing tail of children. Nearly every house he walked by brought another kid running to join the group. Predominately, they wore red, but there was quite a bit of blue and grey in their attire patterned with little footballs and smiling bears.
The kids darted in and out of the crowd, running into yards to tell mothers straining milk and grandmothers making bread what was on the road. As the kids ran down into the yards, they stirred up chickens and lambs that were too young for the pasture. The crowing and braying sounds of the village increased and people in A—, so accustomed to quiet, came out to see what was happening.
The grandmothers came out into the yards and the mothers stayed in the doorways. There were a few grandfathers that hadn’t gone up to the pasture that day sitting on a stone bench near the store. The grandmothers yelled out to the grandfathers on the bench.
“D’you see what’s coming down the road?”
“WhaAAAAT? Can’t hear a damn thing you’re saying!”
“I said look down the road, you old goats!”
The grandfather who heard the best, told everyone else what had been said and, at once, they all turned to look. The grandfathers waited until the stranger walked past them, when he lifted his hand in greeting they waved him over. As if by agreement, one of them did all the talking.
“Now where are you going?” The old man asked. The stranger, not understanding the dialect, was unable to answer, prompting the grandfather to turn his question into a statement. “Where are you going? It’s dangerous up there!” he yelled pointing to the road that led up the pass. “The whole damn place is full of wolves. I don’t mean little ones either. I mean those big damn yellow-eyed ones.” The stranger showed no signs of comprehension prompting the grandfather to simply shout “wolves!” and point up the road.
The kids still stood back from the stranger, but in the middle of their village and with these grandpas nearby, they felt emboldened enough to move up closer to the strange young man and inspect his frayed t-shirt and obviously self-mended shoes. In a place that prided itself on appearances, they had never before seen clothing treated with such an obvious lack of concern.
The grandfather continued telling the stranger about the mountain pass he was heading for. “It’s full of snakes this time of year, too. Huge ones, big as a house! Besides, it’ll take you the rest of the day just to get up there,” he said pointing to the place where the switchbacking road vanished at the top of the pass.
The stranger suddenly thanked the group of old men and tried to start on his way. “C’mon now,” the lead old man said, almost pleading, “Why don’t you just sit down with us and rest a while. I’ll get you a coffee, when you’re feeling rested you can start back down to the valley.”
The stranger put on his backpack and thanked the old men again before stepping around them and continuing down the road toward the end of the village in the direction of the pass.
The melt water was high in the stream and it could be heard rushing under the bridge and down from the mountains. Next to patches of old snow were patches of new grass where cows were tethered.
The children continued to follow the stranger until the foot of the first peak. A few of them even followed him around the first switchback, but when they looked down and saw their companions and their village so far below, they lost heart and turned around.
That evening, the sun set across from the pass so that its orange rays lit up bends of the curving road. The old men stayed on their bench watching, but the children had moved on to something else and the mothers and grandmothers had gone back inside to take care of more important things.
The old men watched the progress of the green backpack steadily until they saw it turn the last corner before the top of the pass. Then it was gone.
“I guess he’s at the top,” the talkative old man said and was quiet for a while before looking at the others and continuing in a quieter tone of voice, “I wonder what it’s like up there.”