Old mountains are clever.
The warning was my mother’s favorite and one she repeated often. Most recently, and earnestly, on the phone that morning.
I parked the car and as I mounted the steps of the porch, her head swung toward me, milky eyes unseeing, but every other sense judging the weight of my footsteps.
She nodded once, as if confirming something she knew, and went back to her latest warding. At the moment it was nothing but a series of loops and knotted thread wrapped around a small black pebble, but soon it would take the shape of a cat or a spider or a snowflake, and join the others hanging from the eaves of the roof.
I sank into the rocker next to her and glanced out over the front field to the Blue Ridge Mountains beyond. They rose crisp and clear against the October sky, covered with a patchwork blanket of orange and brown from the changing leaves. They turned to rosewood when the sun set. At night, they were misty and mysterious. They were so different from their cousins, the Rockies, half a continent away. Those were young and wild, but stupid as the young often are.
It was not the young, but the old you needed to watch, Mom always said. They were the cunning ones and often unpredictable.
“Did you make yours?” She lifted the warding slightly in her lap.
“Hm? Oh, yes. A couple of days ago. Two of them. Josh brought the stones by. I told you I would get it done.”
She shook her head. “I wanted to make sure, what with your ‘oh so busy’ schedule. It’s important.”
I rolled my eyes. It was an old argument. “I told you I would and I meant it. Besides, it’s Nathan you need to worry about. He wasn’t finished when I went by his place earlier.”
Her lips formed a firm, thin line. “I called him. Text him, please, to remind him.”
I pulled out my phone and punched my brother’s number. “Are you sure it will be tonight? It just seems so… quiet.”
Mom chuckled lowly. “Oh, I’m sure of it. I know it’s tonight; I can feel it in my bones. I can sense it in the curves of the hills. I just wish your father were in town to weave his wardings. It makes me nervous that we don’t have them. Aunt Carolyn has been making hers all week.” I nodded, unsurprised. Aunt Carolyn was in a key position, her house right against the mountains’ feet. The rest of the family was stretched out from Front Royal down to Lexington, outlining the fragile space where the mountains bled onto the land. Some, like my parents and Aunt Carolyn, were closer to the mountains than others and took the making of their wardings much more seriously than I ever did.
My phone vibrated. “Nathan’s is finished. It’s on his porch. He wants to go to bed early.”
She nodded. “Fine, he doesn’t need to stay up. Are you staying with me?”
“That’s why I came. I’ve never seen this before.”
“Good, then you can help me.” She dumped a pile of string and pebbles into my lap. I took them in my hands and began to loop, tie, braid, repeating patterns I had learned over and over again in my youth.
The light began to fade and the sun blazed to a death behind the mountains. Above us, the stars came out. A butterfly, sparrow, and trillium now sat at my side.
“Ah!” My mother leaned forward, blind eyes searching the air for the unseen energy that only she seemed to sense. “It’s almost time. There!”
I followed her pointing finger. The ridge along Hawksbill Mountain began to tremble, shake. Folds in the mountains, outlined by moonlight, turned into hands, into arms that reached out and tugged free the blanket of trees. The mountains groaned. Arms flailed, bodies twisted out of the earth, dripping boulders. I gaped as I watched them struggle, trying to change position, trying to move so they could crush cities, homes, change the course of rivers, and leave new valleys in their wake.
Our house began to tremble, and wind whistled beneath our porch, sending wardings dancing and twirling. “Keep them steady,” my mother was shouting, starlight hair whipping about her head. “Ah! Catch that!” An intricately woven flower began to unravel in the mountains’ need. “If we lose too many we can’t hold them!”
I grabbed it, heart beating against my chest. I had heard stories but never expected something like this. Behind me, I could hear groans, old as rock and earth, as the mountains tried to move again. A head, a giant head, arched toward the sky, blotting out the stars. A butterfly warding floated away on the wind.
“How much longer?” I shouted.
“Not much! They know they can’t keep this up! We have them surrounded; we have their roots woven into our wardings, bound in place by string and twine.” She laughed, high and wild against the wind. “They think they’re so clever! But they forget that this family knows them well.”
The mountains gave one last valiant effort. We lost another warding. Then, with a sigh of defeat, they sank back down. Arms and legs settled, and they pulled their blanket of trees back over their heads.
The wind quieted. The world became still.
“God…” I breathed finally. “I… thought I knew, but I never would have thought it was… this or so real or so…” I couldn’t find the words to finish.
My mother rose to her feet. “I should call Aunt Carolyn and see if there has been any damage.”
I nodded mutely.
Sensing again, the way she did, she patted my shoulder. “Now, you truly understand. Don’t worry, this doesn’t happen every autumn, only when the mountains think we’re unprepared. But we never are. Just remember how important this is and — ”
“That old mountains are clever.”
Jennifer R. Fierro lives among the rolling hills of the Appalachian Mountains and is a lover of speculative fiction. She just completed a Master’s thesis on the exciting subject of sand.