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Authors: Natalie Babbitt

Kneeknock Rise

BOOK: Kneeknock Rise
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This book is for
Alice
,

who spent the last days of a long

and happy life serving as a model,

in every particular, for
Annabelle

 

Facts are the barren branches
on which we hang the dear, obscuring
foliage of our dreams

 

The Mammoth Mountains were not really mountains at all. No glaciers creased their rocky, weed-strewn slopes, no eagles screamed above their modest summits. An hour or so would bring you to the top, puffing a little, perhaps, but not exhausted, and the view, once you were there, was hardly worth the climb. Nevertheless, the people who lived there were extremely proud of the mountains, for they were the only point of interest in a countryside that neither rolled nor dipped but lay as flat as if it had been knocked unconscious.

Because of this pride of the people’s, you were well advised, on passing through, to remember the famous and somewhat true story of an early visitor who rashly remarked that anyone who could call those molehills mountains had to be either a blindman or a fool. It was suggested to him that he was already a fool himself and in grave danger of becoming a blindman on the instant. So, we are told, he wisely thought better of it, looked again, and said, “I see that I was mistaken. No mere mole could have made those mounds. They must have been the work of a mammoth!” The people were satisfied, the visitor escaped unharmed, and the mountains were christened.

However, the Mammoth Mountains had far more to offer than pride of ownership and rest for the eye that was weary of level plains. One of the mounds was different from its brothers, rockier, taller, and decidedly more cliff-like, with steeper sides and fewer softening trees, and its crest was forever shrouded in a little cloud of mist. Here lay the heart of the mountains’ charm; here, like Eve’s forbidden fruit, dwelt their mystery, for good or evil. For from somewhere in that mist, on stormy nights when the rain drove harsh and cold, an undiscovered creature would lift its voice and moan. It moaned like a lonely demon, like a mad, despairing animal, like a huge and anguished something chained forever to its own great tragic disappointments.

Nobody knew what it was that lived high up in the mist. As far back as memory could grope, no one had climbed the cliff to see. The creature had mourned there for a thousand years, in isolation so splendid, and with sorrows so infinitely greater than any of their own, that the people were struck with awe and respect. Therefore, climbing the cliff was something they simply did not do, and curious children were early and easily discouraged from trying by long and grisly tales which told what might well happen if they did.

From time to time, in the land below the cliff, strange things in fact did happen. A straying sheep would be found slaughtered, a pail of milk would sour, a chimney would unreasonably topple. These things were considered by some to be the work of the creature on the cliff, while others refused to believe that it ever left its misty nest. But they all had their favorite charms against it, and to all of them the cliff was the grandest, most terrible thing in the world. They trembled over it, whispered about it, and fed their hearts to bursting with gleeful terrors. It was frightful and fine and it belonged to them. They called it Kneeknock Rise.

At the foot of Kneeknock Rise, on its southern side, stood a village appropriately called Instep. Instep was closer to the Rise than any other village and was therefore exalted among villages, a sort of Mecca where you could go from time to time and renew yourself with reports of the latest storm, fatten your store of descriptions that strove endlessly to define once and for all the chilling sounds that wound down from the clifftop, and go home again to enjoy in your own village the celebrity you deserved—until someone else went off and returned with newer reports. Instep was famous in that flat and hungry land and the people who lived in Instep, made smug and rich by tourists and privilege, had fallen into the custom of flinging their gates wide, once a year, and inviting everyone for miles around to come to a Fair. The Fair was always held in the autumn, when storms were fierce and frequent, and was a gesture of generosity on the part of Instep whereby its inhabitants could say, “Come and eat and dance; be entertained and spend your money; and—hear the Megrimum for yourselves.” For this was the name they had come to use when speaking of the mournful creature that lived at the top of Kneeknock Rise.

“Now, don’t forget!” said Egan’s mother for the twentieth time. “When you get to Instep, go directly to your Uncle Anson’s house. Don’t go wandering about the shops. Your Aunt Gertrude will worry if you’re not there by six, and she’s been worried enough since Ott disappeared.”

“If Aunt Gertrude is as fussy as you say, no wonder Uncle Ott keeps running off,” said Egan, pulling crossly at his new collar. “I wish I could stay with someone else.”

“Nonsense!” said his mother. “If you’re going to the Instep Fair, of course you must stay with your aunt and uncle. Anyway, Gertrude isn’t exactly fussy. She’s just nervous. Who wouldn’t be nervous, living at the bottom of the Rise? I don’t see how they stand it all year round. It’s very good of Gertrude and Anson to look after Ott, seeing as he’s never done a thing but read his books and write all those verses. And then, too, he’s sick so often. Colds and wheezing. It can’t be easy for them, even if he is your Uncle Anson’s only brother.” She walked around her son, eyeing him critically, and brushed a bit of lint from his shoulder. “Now, Egan, do be polite to Gertrude and Anson. They’re so pleased you’re coming to the Fair, and it will be a real treat for your Cousin Ada. Little Ada! Why, I haven’t seen her since she was a baby!”

Egan rode across the countryside to Instep with his father’s friend, the chandler, who was taking a load of fragrant new candles to sell at the Fair. It was forty miles from home to the gates of Instep, a long, tiresome ride on the hard seat of a bulky cart drawn by a very resentful mule the chandler called Frieda. The mule sometimes walked so slowly that you were sure she had fallen asleep, but she could also decide, quite suddenly and without warning, to break into a gallop. Every time this happened, Egan and the chandler would fall over backwards into the straw-packed candles behind them and then have to struggle upright, while the cart hurtled crazily down the road, and yell at Frieda until they were hoarse. The mule would stop eventually, gasping and glaring as if it were all their fault, and then the whole process would begin over again.

It was just after one of the galloping episodes that the chandler suddenly put his hand on Egan’s arm and pointed. “There they are!” he said excitedly. “And there it is!” Along the level horizon, sure enough, a row of dark bumps had appeared. One of the bumps, narrower and straighter than the others, rose up in the middle of the row, crowned by a shred of mist that shimmered in the clear autumn sunshine.

“Is that it?” asked Egan in a low voice, squinting at the distant cliff. “I’ve never seen it before.”

“That’s it!” whispered the chandler. “I’ve seen it fifty times, but it always makes me shiver. It’s a grand sight, grander close up.” He prodded the dawdling mule impatiently with his driving stick. “Hurry up, Frieda, can’t you?” he cried. “Get a move on!” Then his voice dropped again and he murmured, “That’s it, all right. That’s Kneeknock Rise.”

When Egan arrived at last, he was tired and dusty and somehow resentful of the somber thrust of the cliff that had loomed larger and larger as the cart jolted over the fields toward Instep. It was too big, he decided; too proud. He scowled at it jealously. And the first sight of his Uncle Anson’s house did nothing to improve his mood. A little girl was sitting on the wall that enclosed the small house and yard, and she studied him critically as he walked along the road to the gate. She was a skinny little girl with red hair strained back into one long pigtail and she was covered with scratches. She was cuddling something in her arms and he saw as he came up that it was a large, rust-colored cat.

“You’re Egan,” the little girl informed him.

“I know,” he said.

“Say hello to Sweetheart,” she commanded, and she thrust the cat forward. It was a very well-fed cat, battle-scarred and insolent, and it stared at Egan coldly out of narrowed yellow eyes, the tip of its tail switching slowly back and forth. Then suddenly it reached out a claw and scratched him across the cheek.

“Ow!” yelled Egan. “Quit that!”

The cat hissed at him, twisted neatly out of the small hands that held it, and lounged off down the road.

“For goodness’ sake,” said Egan, touching his wound tenderly. “What a terrible cat!”

“Sweetheart is the loveliest cat in the world,” said the little girl firmly. “He just doesn’t like you. I don’t like you, either. I’m Ada and I guess we’re cousins.”

 

 

“I guess so,” said Egan. He looked at Ada with despair.

“You certainly are a mess,” said Ada contemptuously. “How come you’re all covered with straw?” Then she grabbed his arm with her sharp little fingers and pointed. “Look there! You never saw that before, did you? I see it every day. It practically belongs to me. Uncle Ott ran off up there and the Megrimum ate him.” She smiled rapturously and pointed again.

Egan looked up just as the sun dropped down behind the mountains. A long shadow fell across the house and yard from beyond the wall, where the green and purple face of the rocky hillside rose into the evening sky. It was huge and silent and cold as a gravestone. As he stared, the mist at the top went blood-red in the sunset.

BOOK: Kneeknock Rise
6.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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