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The Voice of the Mountain by Stephen Crane

 

The old man Popocatepetl was seated on a high rock with his white mantle about his shoulders. He looked at the sky, he looked at the sea, he looked at the land—nowhere could he see any food. And he was very hungry, too.

Who can understand the agony of a creature whose stomach is as large as a thousand churches, when this same stomach is as empty as a broken water jar?

He looked longingly at some island in the sea. “Ah, those flat cakes! If I had them.” He stared at storm-clouds in the sky. “Ah, what a drink is there.” But the King of Everything, you know, had forbidden the old man Popocatepetl to move at all, because he feared that every footprint would make a great hole in the land. So the old fellow was obliged to sit still and wait for his food to come within reach. Any one who has tried this plan knows what intervals lie between meals.

Once his friend, the little eagle, flew near, and Popocatepetl called to him. “Ho, tiny bird, come and consider with me as to how I shall be fed.”

The little eagle came and spread his legs apart and considered manfully, but he could do nothing with the situation. “You see,” he said, “this is no ordinary hunger which one goat will suffice—”

Popocatepetl groaned an assent.

“—but it is an enormous affair,” continued the little eagle, “which requires something like a dozen stars. I don't see what can be done unless we get that little creature of the earth—that little animal with two arms, two legs, one head, and a very brave air, to invent something. He is said to be very wise.”

“Who claims it for him?” asked Popocatepetl.

“He claims it for himself,” responded the eagle.

“Well, summon him. Let us see. He is doubtless a kind little animal, and when he sees my distress he will invent something.”

“Good!” The eagle flew until he discovered one of these small creatures. “Oh, tiny animal, the great chief Popocatepetl summons you!”

“Does he, indeed!”

“Popocatepetl, the great chief,” said the eagle again, thinking that the little animal had not heard rightly.

“Well, and why does he summon me?”

“Because he is in distress, and he needs your assistance.”

The little animal reflected for a time, and then said, “I will go.”

When Popocatepetl perceived the little animal and the eagle he stretched forth his great, solemn arms. “Oh, blessed little animal with two arms, two legs, a head, and a very brave air, help me in my agony. Behold I, Popocatepetl, who saw the King of Everything fashioning the stars, I, who knew the sun in his childhood, I, Popocatepetl, appeal to you, little animal. I am hungry.”

After a while the little animal asked: “How much will you pay?”

“Pay?” said Popocatepetl.

“Pay?” said the eagle.

“Assuredly,” quoth the little animal, “pay!”

“But,” demanded Popocatepetl, “were you never hungry? I tell you I am hungry, and is your first word then 'pay'?”

The little animal turned coldly away. “Oh, Popocatepetl, how much wisdom has flown past you since you saw the King of Everything fashioning the stars and since you knew the sun in his childhood? I said pay, and, moreover, your distress measures my price. It is our law. Yet it is true that we did not see the King of Everything fashioning the stars. Nor did we know the sun in his childhood.”

Then did Popocatepetl roar and shake in his rage. “Oh, louse—louse—louse! Let us bargain then! How much for your blood?” Over the little animal hung death.

But he instantly bowed himself and prayed: “Popocatepetl, the great, you who saw the King of Everything fashioning the stars, and who knew the sun in his childhood, forgive this poor little animal. Your sacred hunger shall be my care. I am your servant.”

“It is well,” said Popocatepetl at once, for his spirit was ever kindly. “And now, what will you do?”

The little animal put his hand upon his chin and reflected. “Well, it seems you are hungry, and the King of Everything has forbidden you to go for food in fear that your monstrous feet will riddle the earth with holes. What you need is a pair of wings.”

“A pair of wings!” cried Popocatepetl delightedly.

“A pair of wings!” screamed the eagle in joy.

“How very simple, after all.”

“And yet how wise!”

“But,” said Popocatepetl, after the first outburst, “who can make me these wings?”

The little animal replied: “I and my kind are great, because at times we can make one mind control a hundred thousand bodies. This is the secret of our performance. It will be nothing for us to make wings for even you, great Popocatepetl. I and my kind will come”—continued the crafty, little animal—“we will come and dwell on this beautiful plain that stretches from the sea to the sea, and we will make wings for you.”

Popocatepetl wished to embrace the little animal. “Oh, glorious! Oh, best of little brutes! Run! run! run! Summon your kind, dwell in the plain and make me wings. Ah, when once Popocatepetl can soar on his wings from star to star, then, indeed—”

       * * * * *

Poor old stupid Popocatepetl! The little animal summoned his kind, they dwelt on the plains, they made this and they made that, but they made no wings for Popocatepetl.

And sometimes when the thunderous voice of the old peak rolls and rolls, if you know that tongue, you can hear him say: “Oh, traitor! Traitor! Traitor! Where are my wings? My wings, traitor! I am hungry! Where are my wings?”

But the little animal merely places his finger beside his nose and winks.

“Your wings, indeed, fool! Sit still and howl for them! Old idiot!”

 
 
 

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