This is a "short story" that I wrote for my English creative writing coursework. I thought of the idea on holiday and all I needed was an excuse to write it. Criticism most welcome. Enjoy!! A mountain, tall and majestic, stood against the darkening twilight. The moon started to rise above the cracked and misted peaks, each jagged and imposing against the smooth, clean sky. The stars twinkled in turn, pointing out constellations and people from legends and stories passed down from generation to generation, each told with meticulous detail to children before they drifted into sleep. The mountain creaked, singing its unique song. The thick blanket of forest added its accompaniment; birds chattering and the rustle of leaves in the harsh wind, were all so familiar, yet so distant. *** The bus jerked and coughed as it changed gear up the hill. It was old, used for long distances and nearly ready for retirement. Its green paint was flaking off and with each bump in the road, it shuddered and shook all the seats and the people in them. A young girl opened her eyes sleepily, her dream unfinished and repetitive, as it had been for the previous months. She had a slim frame and dark hair tumbling over her pale face, which she quickly brushed aside. Her deep brown eyes gazed out of the window, looking from the worn road to dense forest and further up into the sky, clear but with a few clouds obscuring the horizon. She wore a simple t-shirt, slightly grubby, that fell off her frame and came down nearly to her knees. Underneath, were a pair of grey trousers, worn on the knees and slightly frayed at the bottom. Her name was Chihiro, an unusual name, but not unusual in any other sense. She looked like many other girls in her school; long dark hair, equally dark eyes and a pale complexion. She was quiet and normally blended into the background in her large family; the second eldest of five children, she was by far the quietest. Her younger siblings were loud and boisterous, always wanting attention from her parents. Her older sister had always seemed more distant from her, never wanting to talk and always caught up in her own, and her parents', troubles. There was always a money shortage in their family. They lived on a large water village over the main river of the city. It was filthy, dark and damp, but it was all they had. The rotting wooden walls and doors crumbled under their fingers and it was only a matter of time before it all collapsed. The smell was almost intolerable too. Many inhabitants of the village had no drainage, so all the waste went straight into the river, which was already polluted from running through the city. Her father, mother and sister worked in a large factory, so Chihiro was always left to take her younger siblings to school. It was only a year before she would leave and go to work too. She was only ten. Her dreams were filled with nightmares about the factory, huge machines churning and drilling. Her hair getting caught in one of them, and her being sucked helplessly into the clamping jaws of the metal beast. However, about two months ago a new dream began to emerge. At first it was unclear, but soon more information began to be revealed to her; after about a fortnight, she knew what its message was. She had to go to the mountain and see for herself. She was being called. Her family would not miss her; just one less mouth to feed and one less body to clothe. Sometimes, they hardly realised she was there; who knew if they would remember her within a week? By now, the bus had started to wind around the foothills, allowing one side a good view inland, over the taller mountains in the range. Cloud whistled through the valleys and over the peaks, its pure, white form contrasting with the dark green forests and grey, craggy mountain tops. A few drops of rain hit the window of the bus, leaving their clean tracks through the dirt, no doubt gathered over several years. Chihiro looked up higher into the deep grey cloud above the bus. It loomed over them with no intention of passing over, even in the fair wind sweeping through the trees, shaking their branches. The small girl sunk back into her chair, her heart heavy. It was not a good sign, especially since she had very little equipment and extra clothing, let alone a waterproof coat; just a stolen piece of old tarpaulin, which she couldn't possibly move comfortably in. It had been so humid in the city, with the sun beating down on those working beneath; it hardly seemed possible for there to be a storm, or for the temperature to drop so quickly over only ten miles. Anxiously, Chihiro looked around the bus at the obscure group of people travelling with her. A woman with cages of chickens was the closest. She had a kind face and quietly smiled to herself, probably remembering a happy memory or face from her past. An old man sat behind her. He wore a suit and looked deep in thought, but his eyes still wandered to meet Chihiro's, who gasped and quickly turned to sit straight in her chair. The faint patter of rain had stopped by now, but the weather was more overcast. Chihiro returned to gazing out of the window, the sky now scattered with many clouds, each as grey as skyscrapers in the city and with equal menace. Silently she began to guess which mountain could be hers, but none looked like the one in her dream, or from the faded photographs she had looked at in her geography class. Mount Kageyama was its name, or Mountain of Shadow as the locals called it. Some people from that part of the land had come to the city for jobs or a better life after being forced out of their farms, and brought with them legends and stories no-one in the city had the imagination to think of, nor the patience to tell, night after night to the children. They believed that the spirits of the dead went to the mountain for their freedom, and the clouds that constantly circled the mountain were freed spirits. If there was a clear day, then the spirits had been released into the heavens, but dark clouds meant the spirits were angry and that no good would come to the people round the mountain. However, these were only stories, made for children's inquisitive minds, not of any real significance or even truth. Chihiro had already realised that the world is not all sugar and spice, especially after one childhood incident she would rather forget. She quickly pushed the thought from her head, unable to relive the memory another time. Suddenly she saw it. High above the broken cloud cover, a cracked and decaying peak towered above the surrounding land. The small girl squeaked in dismay and quickly turned away from the window, tears stinging her eyes. She had no idea what she had let herself in for. It seemed impossible, incomprehensible, how such a small girl could ever climb it. It had been at least two hours on the bus now, but Chihiro had been so deep in thought that it seemed much less. She had sat next to the old bus for half an hour before she was let on, but it was absolutely necessary for her to leave so early, otherwise she surely would have woken one of her younger siblings. Then there would have been questions and persuasions for her not to go; and she would have missed the only bus that day and not been allowed to leave the house early for at least a month. Dwelling further on this, she dropped back into sleep, her tired eyes unable to gaze further at the task ahead. *** The peak was now completely shrouded in mist, looking less than threatening but by no means less imposing over the surrounding country. Many small communities lay in the great shadow of Mount Kageyama, thick, black wires allowing them the privilege of electricity, suspended next to the roads, kilometre after kilometre. The government had spent so much money on this, yet none on the poorest inhabitants, living in water villages which were certain to collapse very soon. It seemed impossible that they could treat people this way, but what could one person do, and a child at that? "Kageyama base camp!" the bus driver called out. Three tourists stood up from the back of the bus. They chatted happily in a foreign language, carrying small suitcases and trying to avoid injuring any other passengers as they slowly made their way though the seats. Chihiro, who had been so absorbed in poverty and the ignorance of the government, jumped when the shout rang though the bus. She quickly swung her large backpack over her shoulders, using the seat to help support its weight, and joined behind the tourists. Carefully she climbed down the steps, jumping playfully off the last, and took in her surroundings. A small community lay around her: a few hotels, of different levels of luxury, several souvenir stands with local crafts and tacky tourist T-shirts, and a large information sign. The bus door closed with a hiss, the engine groaning as it started back on its journey. Tentatively Chihiro walked to the sign and began to read. It had basic information about the mountain itself, its height, over four thousand five hundred metres high, and the first man to climb it, a Mr. Mitsuyama. He had conquered the mountain in 1958 and taken four days to do so, frequently getting lost and returning with severe trauma, exhaustion and altitude sickness. The sign also had a map of the mountain, showing and naming all the surrounding peaks and their altitudes. Now or never, she thought to herself, looking to the sky for the position of the sun. About two o'clock; plenty of time to get a good start before nightfall. Silently the small figure slipped out of sight and towards the beginning of the trail, marked clearly for the tourists to visit but go no further. There was, however, no guard to stop anyone going through, just a barrier and a security camera. Chihiro quickly located the blind spot and crept around, having to trample through some forest plants, before finding her way back to the path. It was somewhat overgrown, but still visible and not too wild. The ascent started slowly, a gentle walk with a slight gradient. Chihiro took care not too walk quickly, as she would exhaust herself too quickly and there would be no chance of her scratching the surface of the numerous kilometres she had to cover. Also, if she were not to make it very far before nightfall, and someone had seen her slip through the gate, then they would have a much better chance of finding her and taking her back. The trail had evidently not been trodden in months, but the last person who tried had cut the plants back severely, leaving them damaged and a wide path for them to walk. This trail had narrowed since, but was still clear. The ground was slightly muddy underfoot, but Chihiro trod on a carpet of decaying leaves that had fallen from the towering canopy above. The forest was thick now, ground covering plants spreading to cover every inch of space, ferns and small saplings reaching up to Chihiro's eyes, all under the magnificent, dominating trees of the upper canopy, which the small girl had to crane her neck to see. Very soon the slope steepened and sections of the path were cut out of rock. A small stream ran down the side of the path, winding its way down the mountain. Chihiro guessed that the path was that of a raging river, when a storm further up the mountain occurred, clearing her path of any trouble further up, but guaranteeing that the path would be unusable if she were to be caught in a sudden storm. The rocks too were smooth from the rain and rivers running over them, making some sections a mad scramble, no foot or hand holes, or even cracks to help pull her up. Every half an hour or so the small girl stopped and rested, sipping water she had packed and nibbling a chocolate bar saved from her last birthday. Upon starting again her bag felt a little lighter but had gained all its weight again around half way to the next stop. The temperature decreased slowly as she climbed: firstly because it was later in the day, secondly because the intervals of sunlight were decreasing under the thicker cloud cover, and thirdly since the altitude was higher and the wind was free, no barriers in its path. It whipped around trees and through foliage, hitting Chihiro with its full force, as it passed straight through her thin and well worn clothing. She had brought most of the clothes she owned, slowly building up the layers, lightening her pack. However, her tiredness made it seem just as heavy as when she had started, exhausting her further. As she climbed higher the plants became more diverse; many different orchids, trees and ferns, specially adapted to the infertile and rocky land, cold temperatures and constant battering from the wind, now filled the forest. Pitcher plants were quite frequent sights along the way, each varying in size. Their lids stood upright menacingly, waiting for some unfortunate insect to rest, its sticky sap trapping it until the lid closed slowly, digesting its treasure. Chihiro's feet trod on slowly, not needing any messages from her head to keep them moving. Her eyes glazed over as she thought of home, wondering what her family were doing at that moment, almost missing them. She shook away her thoughts, knowing that she would never see them again and trying to feel glad about it. The small girl approached another small passage of rock, but did not believe that her legs would support her any more. Depressed, she looked around for somewhere to rest, but instead found a means of going further. A dead tree stood by the path, its branches straight and brittle. Standing on her toes she gripped the branch and pulled it towards herself. After a great crack, Chihiro immediately felt the weight of the branch in her hands. Slowly she lowered it to the ground and easily stripped off the peeling bark and smaller branches. Then she grasped it firmly and dug it into any flat section she could find in the smooth rock, putting her weight onto it and heaving her light body and heavy pack up to the next part of the path. So pleased was she with her achievement and initiative that Chihiro hardly noticed the small drops of water hitting her hair and face and dripping down her neck. She had been lucky so far to escape any bad weather, but now it was unavoidable. When she did realise it, the rain did not look like stopping and with her only alternative to allow her clothes to be soaked through and make her catch a chill, she had to give in and stop. Dropping her pack with a heavy thud the small girl rummaged inside it for the blue tarpaulin she had hidden at the bottom. It was crumpled and creased, crackling horribly as she pulled it from her over-used rucksack. Quickly she propped herself up against a tree, resting her stick next to her, and pulled the tarpaulin over her head and pack, the tree's large buttress roots providing further protection from the rain. Fortunately it was not long to twilight, when Chihiro would have had to stop, so as to find a suitable place to sleep. After making herself comfortable, she rummaged inside her bag for the food she had packed. She retrieved two rice cakes and some smoked fish, followed by more sips of her precious water. Chihiro very rarely had a large appetite, which was particularly useful at this time since there were no great amounts of food that she could have brought with her, without depriving her family of the food needed to sustain itself. Shortly after she had finished eating the rain increased dramatically, first to large, heavy drops, then to pouring hail, which bounced off the rock path and completely covered it in a cold, white but quickly melting sheet. Carefully Chihiro peeked out, but quickly drew the tarpaulin back around her as the hailstones crashed onto her head. The noise was nearly intolerable under the waterproof plastic; the quiet crackling as the girl breathed and fidgeted added to the hammering of hail. However, Chihiro was too tired. The long journey had made her mentally and physically exhausted so that her mind did not toy with memories or worries of what lay ahead, but was unnaturally still. Her ears rang with the constant noise, but her head was lulled to sleep with the steady beat, eyes mimicking the action of the clouds. *** The faint light peered around the edges of the plastic cover, tiny holes allowing pinpoints of sunlight through. Chihiro murmured softly, her eyes screwed up again the dawn. Slowly she regained conscious thought and carefully pushed the blue rain cover away from her face. The mountain was silent, save the quiet calling of birds through the trees and a drip, drip, drip tumbling through the canopies after the storm. As quietly as was possible, Chihiro folded the plastic and placed it back in her bag, not willing to disturb the peaceful slumber of the mountain. After eating the remainder of the smoked fish, she set off again, well rested and willing to reach her destination. Hours passed but the girl did not seem to tire as she had done the previous day. Soon the forest thinned out and fell away, leaving only gnarled and twisted trees, shaped by the wind. They moved with their sculptor, branches against trunks, squeaking and calling out to the mountain. The sound was eerie, like a neglected door flapping in the wind, but never slamming shut, unending. The wind took advantage of the lack of trees and shrieked over the rock face, forcing Chihiro to stop and add the last of her layers of clothing. The wind brought cloud too, the white vapour whipping around the girl, water droplets beading on her face. However, she was not to be discouraged, not now, not after she had reached this far. But still there was the nagging doubt in her head, that she should use her remaining energy to get down and not push herself too far to reach the peak. Soon the nagging proceeded into worry, anxiety and finally belief that she would never make it. She felt like a child again; she needed her mother's warm arms to hold and give her strength. Tears flooded out of her eyes and down her cheeks, her breathing quick and hysterical. Soon she gave up completely and threw herself in front of a tree, wondering why she had ever left the comfort of her family on this impossible adventure. She felt wretched and stupid. "Hush, it can't be that bad." Chihiro stopped whimpering, wondering if she were going mad and hearing voices. "Come, there is still much ground to cover. You are not yet out of breath or energy, but if you carry on, you will be there long before nightfall. "Who's there?" Chihiro called out, jumping up again. "Do not forget why you're here, do not forget your calling." The voice died away, echoing into the forest, leaving the girl alone again. Confused and bewildered she used the sleeve of her jumper to wipe the streaked patterns from her cheeks and hurried on. "It can't have been real," she whispered to herself, hurrying away from the tree, in case the voice returned, this time angry that she were not moving fast enough. Before long her worries had been forgotten, her childish behaviour left behind. The rocks were slippery after the rain and the path muddier, but still she strode on. So absorbed was she in her thoughts that a sudden junction in trees threw her completely. Chihiro had expected the path to be constant all the way up, but here a fork in the path threw her back into confusion. She remembered the information sign at the base camp, about Mr. Mitsuyama losing his way numerous times, but had never thought that she would be faced with the same situation. Chihiro shut her eyes tightly, and opened them again, hoping it was her eyes playing tricks on her, but no, there was no game in it. Each side looked almost identical, one not more dangerous than the other, on the surface. The wind howled again, more cloud flying around the mountain. Chihiro looked closely at the decision, the white mist and wind turning and coming, unusually, from behind her now rather than crossing her path. It seemed to be pointing towards the left of the two paths. However, even more curiously, there appeared to be faint faces in the cloud each different and unique. Just imagining things, Chihiro thought, blaming it on the solitude, but taking the left path all the same. Soon the air became thinner, forcing Chihiro to take more frequent breaks. She felt breathless, as if breathing were bringing no new oxygen to her body, only using precious energy. Her determination did not waver again though, but stayed strong and constant, worry always being pushed further from her head as she advanced, and the hope of reaching the top flourishing. All the trees had now disappeared from sight, lack of air and nourishment binding them to the lower regions of the mountain, no freedom to climb further. One final scramble and pull from her stick and Chihiro was there, loose rocks falling from beneath her free hand and feet as they struggled to take her weight. Relief flooded through every inch of her weak body as she turned to look over the path she had taken, leaning on her stick for support. The small girl seemed taller, more majestic. Her T-shirt, now slightly brown from struggling over rock and through mud, reached only to her hips and her hair flowed freely in the wind. But her ordeal was far from over: one last breath and she fainted, exhaustion and the altitude finally taking their toll. *** Rain rattled the flimsy, tin roof as it had done at home, a storm raging outside and the waters probably lapping at the floorboards. The room was hot and steamy, a fire choking the air of oxygen, thick smoke filling the room. Chihiro tossed and turned, hot and uncomfortable on the rough floor. Her eyes were wide and frightened, but saw they very little of her actual surroundings. A man leant over her, he was old, with worn hands and a smiling face. He looked concerned and brought a cup to Chihiro's mouth, trying to get her to drink. A crash of thunder rumbled over the mountain, shaking the small hut's weak and thin walls. Chihiro's eyes shut again, absorbing her into another deep, unconscious sleep and vivid dream. She was leaning over the side of the pathway, looking at the waves below. There, tropical fish swam, happily pecking at the barnacles, which had attached themselves to the supports of the walkway. She leaned closer to the water, rays of sunlight dancing on their slippery scales. She grasped the top of the support with one hand, the other reaching out, trying to touch the water, but her arms were too short. Just one more foot, she thought, bending down further, her fingers slipping on the rough wood. Six inches, five, four. The small girl's eyes widened and her mouth let out a loud scream as her small, weak fingers left the wooden support and she fell, splashing and crying into the water below. Wildly she struck out, her arms and legs flying through the water and air, spraying it everywhere. Her head was submerged for a second; the screaming muffled, but reached up again, gasping for breath before continuing to shout. "My child!" Her mother was leaning over the side now, doing as she had done; her arms were longer, but still not long enough to reach the splashing child. "Help! Help!" she screamed to everyone around her, who quickly ran around looking for a rope or ladder, or rushed over to gaze at the unfortunate child. Chihiro's head disappeared under the water again, her eyes clouded over as the water entered them. Her limbs were tired now, quickly losing energy, but something splashed into the water in front of her. A ladder? A hand? A rope. The small girl's hands shot out and pulled her light form above the water, gasping for life to re-enter her lungs. The rope began to ascend, the small girl still gripping on, until she could fall, exhausted, onto the platform. Her mother's arms were around her in a second, checking for any cuts or bruises, her voice scolding, but finally settled on relief. She shut her eyes and felt her mother's warmth and embrace, allowing the darkness to swallow her. Chihiro opened her eyes slowly, blinking to remove the clouds from her eyes. The room was familiar; she sensed that she had been there for some time, but did not know where. She felt a cool hand on her forehead, "Your fever has released you," it said. It was a man, elderly but with a warm, familiar face. His hair was silvered and he smelled of fire and forest. "Come, there is something you must see." Chihiro did not disobey, but stumbled onto her feet, still feeling weak and not ready to walk. It was night, but the man brought a lantern with him, the tiny flame flickering inside its glass casing. The moon was up, its brilliant white circle shining over the land. There were no clouds remaining over the mountain, just a flicker of mist resting on the horizon. Birds sang quietly and frogs croaked from the forest below, and above the stars shone clearly, their constellations bright against the dark blue background. Chihiro walked in front of the old man. It was her dream. The same colours, the same sounds, just from a different perspective. She had made it. She was there. The man rested his hand on her shoulder, its translucent form somehow natural, just like hers. She placed her hand on his; silver hair floating in front of her face, gently blown by the breeze. "Welcome home."