The following is from Joan Aiken’s short story collection, The People in the Castle. Joan Aiken began writing at the age of five and her first collection of stories, All You’ve Ever Wanted was published in 1953. Aiken wrote over a hundred books and was perhaps best known for the dozen novels in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase series. She received the Guardian and Edgar Allan Poe awards for fiction and in 1999 she was awarded an MBE.
The main thing about the mountains was their height. They were so high that they really did seem to join on to the sky; if you looked at them you had to tip your head back and back until your neck ached; then you were obliged to lie down so that your eyes might go travelling up to the final snow-crowned summits which were like needles among the clouds.
The people in the village never looked up at them. They had had enough gazing at mountains when they were babies and lay on their backs in prams. As soon as they could walk they turned away from white peaks and dark forests and staggered off in the other direction, towards the plains. If they had to walk towards the mountains they kept their eyes on their boots.
One day a man on a bicycle came to the village. He was a stranger, and consequently everyone stopped work and looked at him, but furtively. The blacksmith put down his hammer, but picked up a piece of string and pretended to be untying it, with his eyes fixed on the traveller. The postman stood gazing at a letter that he had been about to slip into a box as if he had suddenly forgotten how to read. The innkeeper came out on to his balcony and began busily polishing and repolishing a glass, though everyone knew that half the time he didn’t trouble to wash them at all.
The traveller pedaled slowly along, glancing from side to side. He saw that every house had someone standing in its doorway or leaning from its window. Only one house seemed to take no interest in him; it was a small bungalow with the name ‘Mountain View’ painted on its gate. All its windows were lace-curtained and the door was tight shut. He put on his brakes and came to a stop outside it. All the heads craned out a little further to see what he was doing. He leaned his bicycle against the garden wall, unlatched the gate, walked up the path, and rapped at the door.
After a few moments it was opened, and a voice snapped:
“Well, come in, come in. Don’t keep me waiting in the cold.”
He hurriedly stepped into the dark interior. He could see hardly anything at first, except the glow of a fire. Both windows had ranks of dark, spreading pot-plants across them, as well as the lace curtains, and bird cages hung in front of the plants. It was very quiet inside; he could hear the clock tick, and the fire rustle, and the birds clearing their throats.
“Well,” said the old woman who had let him in. “What have you come bothering me for? Aren’t there enough busybodies in the village but you have to come and trouble someone who keeps herself to herself?”
“I thought I was more likely to hear the truth from someone who keeps herself to herself,” said the traveller. “When was the last stranger seen in this village?”
“Ten years ago last Tuesday.”
“And where did he go?”
“He went up the mountains.”
“Did he have a canary and a roll of music with him?”
“As to a roll of music, I can’t say; he had a big leather case. He certainly had a canary.”
As she said this one of the birds in the cages began to hop up and down, twittering in a very excited manner.
“Is that the one?” asked the man, looking at it attentively.
“Yes, that’s him. Pip, I call him. The man gave him to me for a cup of tea.”
The traveller walked over to the cage, unlatched the door, and whistled a few bars of a tune. The canary continued the tune to its end, finishing with a triumphant trill, and then hopped out on to the man’s shoulder.
“He seems to know you,” said the old woman. “But he’s mine for all that.”
The man pulled a cup of tea out of his pocket and handed it to her.
“I’ll buy him back off you,” he said. “Can you tell me anything more? What did this man look like?”
“He had glasses. And a tie like yours. He went off to the mountains and that was the last we saw of him. Ten years is a long time.”
She drank the tea, looking at him thoughtfully.
“I’ve been ten years tracing him,” said the traveller. “He stole my canary and he stole my music. I’ll go on now, and thank you kindly for the information.”
He tucked the canary into a pocket so that only its head showed, and moved to the door.
“Wait a minute,” said the old woman. “In return for the tea I’ll give you a warning. Those mountains are dangerous. No one who goes up them comes back again. They say there are animals up there with huge feet who can fly faster than the wind.”
“I can’t help that. I have to go on,” the traveller said.
“The other man said that too,” the old woman muttered, shaking her head. “He talked about some mysterious barricades he wanted to find.”
“Yes? In these mountains?” exclaimed the traveller, his face alight with interest and excitement.
“How should I know? It’s only what he said. I’ve never heard of any mysterious barricades—nor do I know what they are, for that matter.”
“They are where the Civil Servants go when they retire,” he told her absently, and he thoughtfully fingered the black and red necktie he wore, which appeared to be made of typewriter ribbon. “Well, many thanks once more.”
He walked down to the gate and threw one leg over his bicycle.
“You’ll never get up the mountains on that,” she called. “Better leave it here.”
“This machine has a thirty-three speed,” he called back. “It goes up any hill that isn’t vertical,” and he pedaled slowly off. The villagers watched him until he was past them, then they stopped looking in case they should catch a glimpse of the mountains, and went across to question the old woman about her visitor.
But—“He’s been in the Civil Service,” was all she would say, shortly.
“Civil Service!” They looked at their boots, spat, and went off to their own homes.
Meanwhile, the traveller had reached the foot of the great forest which cloaked the lower slopes of the mountains. He switched to the second of his thirty-three speeds, turned on his light, and pedaled boldly upwards. The road was good, although carpeted with pine needles as if it was rarely used. Far overhead the trees sighed to each other, and above them the out-thrust elbows of the mountain hung over his head.
Soon he came to snow, and the bicycle began to slip and stagger on the frozen crust. He took out chains from the saddlebag and painstakingly laced them round his wheels. This helped his progress, but he was now going more slowly and night was falling; in the pinewood it was already almost pitch dark. He decided to halt for the night, and leaned his bicycle against a tree. Taking out a groundsheet from the bag he hung it over the bicycle making a rude tent, into which he crawled. From his pocket he drew out another cup of tea and a biscuit. He drank the tea, shared the biscuit with the canary, and then settled himself to sleep.
He had been sleeping for perhaps two hours when he was woken by a terrible howling in the woods above him. It sounded almost like a human cry, but a thousand times louder and more mournful.
He started to his feet, upsetting the bicycle and groundsheet. He saw that it must have been snowing heavily while he slept, for all his footprints were gone and the groundsheet was covered several inches thick. All was silent again, and he moved cautiously a few feet from his encampment, turning his head this way and that to listen. Something caught his eye—a footprint—and he went over to look at it. It made him turn pale.
It was the print of an animal’s paw, but what a size! He could have fitted his own foot into it four times over. When he looked for others he saw that they led in a single trail, fifteen feet apart, in a wide ring round his tent, and then away up the hill.
“Perhaps it has gone, whatever it is,” he thought hopefully, but in the same instant he heard the terrible voice again, nearer than before. It seemed to lament, and also to threaten; it echoed among the trees until he could not tell from which quarter it came, and he fled back to his tree and cowered by the bicycle, looking haggardly in all directions. His canary had fallen into a terrified cheeping.
Then his pride began to stir.
“Come,” he said to himself. “I am a Civil Servant. What would the lower grades think if they saw me now? What would my Administrator think?” And he recited to himself the little rhyme which the juniors in the lowest grades are set to learn when they first join the ranks of the Service.
“Always helpful, never hurried,
Always willing, never worried,
Serve the public, slow but surely,
Smile, however sad or poorly,
Duty done without a swerve is
Aimed at by the Civil Service.”
This encouraged him, and as he saw no prospect of further sleep he packed up his groundsheet once more, shared a few biscuit crumbs with the canary and wheeled the bicycle back to the path. He changed down to his thirtieth gear and started to ride up the hill.
Once again he heard the voice reverberating through the trees and seeming to cry: “Woe! Oh, woe, woe.”
He ducked his head over the handlebars and pedaled on, reciting to himself:
“Grade I, Step 1, ten pounds a year. Step II, ten pounds twelve shillings. Step III, ten pounds fifteen shillings. Step IV, ten pounds nineteen shillings. Step V, ten pounds nineteen and six. Grade II, Step I, eleven pounds a year. What a very peculiar tree that is over there. I wonder why there is no snow on it? Annual ex gratia allowances for married men, wife, ten shillings. First child, five shillings. Every subsequent child, two and six. There’s another tree on the other side, just the same shape.”
He disliked the two trees which grew along the ground for some distance before turning upwards. They were so very black and so very symmetrical, on either side of the road. An unpleasant fancy came to him that they might be legs—but who ever heard of legs the size of pine trees? And if they were legs, where was the body that belonged to them?
He glanced up fearfully into the thickness of the branches above. The sky was beginning to pale with dawn around the edge of the forest, but overhead hung a dense mass of black, supported, it seemed, on those pillar-like trees. He put one foot on the ground and craned back, trying in vain to decide if it was merely the darkness of foliage or if there was something huge leaning over him? As he looked it seemed to move and draw downward, and all at once he saw two great pale eyes, mournful and menacing, descending on him.
With a frantic spasm of courage he flung the bicycle into twenty-second gear and pushed off. He felt a hot dry breath on his neck and struggled desperately up the hill, his heart almost bursting. The light grew ahead and in a few moments he was out of the trees, crashing across virgin snow with the rising sun striking warmly on the top of his head as he bent forward.
He could hear no sound behind, and finally ventured to stop and turn around. Nothing was visible except a distant agitation among the tree tops as if the creature was watching him from the cover of the forest but dared not come out. Encouraged by this he hurried on and was soon out of sight of the trees round a fold of the mountain.
All that day he climbed, and in the green light of evening he was nearing the top of a pass which seemed to cut right through the peak of the mountain. Huge rock walls, seamed with snow, reared up on either side of him.
The traveller was terribly tired. He had hardly halted all day and eaten nothing save a cup of tea and a biscuit when he paused to pump up his tyres. He had sweated under the fierce heat of noon, but now it was beginning to freeze again and he shivered and longed to lie down and cover himself with the friendly snow.
It seemed to be only a few hundred yards now to the top, and making a final effort he struggled up in ninth gear, to stop aghast at what he saw. The right-hand wall of the pass dropped away at the top, giving a fearful vista of snowy and cloud-wrapped peaks; but the left-hand cliff continued sheering up more and more steeply until it was vertical, with its top veiled in obscurity. Across the face of the cliff ran a narrow ledge—all that remained of the path.
For a moment the traveller was daunted and his heart sank. He had been sure that the top of the pass was the end of his journey and that there he would find the Mysterious Barricades. But his courage only faltered for a short space, and soon he began doggedly working his way along the little path. At first it was wide enough to ride on, but presently he came to a sharp corner in the cliff and he had to dismount. He tried to edge the bicycle round but it slipped from his grasp on the icy rock, and fell outwards. He leaned sideways, holding on to a projection in the cliff and saw the bicycle falling down and down. It became as small as a moth, then as small as a tea-leaf, and finally vanished without the faintest sound coming back to him from the gulf.
He turned, sick and shaken, to continue his journey on foot, but to his unutterable astonishment found the path ahead blocked by another traveller. A short man, wearing spectacles and carrying a leather case stood gazing at him seriously.
The traveller stood silent for a long time.
“Jones!” he said, at length. “I never expected to meet you here. I thought that you would have passed through the Mysterious Barricades many years ago, using my music as a passport.”
Jones shook his head.
“For ten years I have been wandering in these mountains,” he said sadly. “I am beginning to believe that the Mysterious Barricades do not exist. I thought that your music would open all gates, but though I have played it daily upon my flute there has been no sign. Perhaps that was the punishment for my theft.”
“How have you lived?” asked the other, looking at him compassionately.
“Buns. They were all I was entitled to, as a Civil Servant Grade III. Would you care for one? I am sick of the sight of them.”
“I’ll give you a cup of tea for it.”
“Tea!” Jones’s eyes lit up. “I didn’t know you had reached the higher grades.” He drank it as if it was nectar, while the other man munched his bun, pleasantly filling after a prolonged diet of biscuit.
“Now what are we to do?” said Jones presently. “We cannot pass each other on this ledge and if one of us tries to turn round he will probably be dashed to destruction.”
“Let us play my sonata for two flutes and continuo,” said the traveller, who had been looking at the leather portfolio for some minutes past.
Jones cautiously drew out some sheets of manuscript music and passed them over. The traveller turned through them until he came to the piece he wanted, which was inscribed:
“Sonata in C major for two flutes and continuo by A. Smith.”
The two men took out their flutes and Smith propped his manuscript on a ledge in the cliff face so that they could see it by looking sideways. They stood facing each other and played the sonata through, but when they came to the end nothing happened.
“It wants the continuo part,” said Smith sadly. “Let us play it again and I will try to put it in.”
They began again, though Jones looked doubtful.
This time the canary suddenly popped its head from Smith’s pocket, where it had been sleeping, and began to sing with its eyes fixed on the distant peaks and its throat filling and emptying like the bellows of an organ. The two players gazed at each other over their flutes in astonishment but nothing would have made them stop playing, for the music produced by the two flutes and the bird was of more than mortal beauty. As they played the mountains trembled about them; great slabs of snow dislodged from their niches and slipped into the gulf, spires of rock trembled and tottered, and as the travellers came to the end of the sonata, the Mysterious Barricades opened to receive them.
Down below the villages felt the ground quiver as they trudged homewards with the sugar beet harvest, and their tractors snorted and belched blue smoke. But the men never lifted their eyes from the ground, and the woman turned their backs to the windows, so none of them saw the strange things that were happening in the mountains.
“The Mysterious Barricades” from the collection THE PEOPLE IN THE CASTLE by Joan Aiken. Used with permission of Small Beer Press. Originally published in More Than You Bargained For, Cape. Copyright © 1955 by Joan Aiken.