The Mountain of a Thousand Caves
“498…499…500….” The man came to a halt, coughing out sand from his mouth as he arrived at the head of another cave. “501.” He sighed. The desert winds cast a curtain of sand around him while the sun beat down on him with an unrelenting fury. The blue sky made him reminisce about the water that his canteen had run dry of days ago.
As he stood about half way to the top, he looked up to see the mountain reach for the clouds and just barely fall short. The sun drowned the man in its furious glare; it had worn him thin and thirsty. A circle of patient vultures flew over the peak as if waiting for him to drop dead from the day’s climb. At this point his legs carried him on an automatic will as if his reason had forgotten him; though he could never forget his reason for undertaking this arduous journey.
Any other man would have met his limit and turned back days ago. This particular man met his limit somewhere in the ocean of sand far from the mountain, and then again when he stared up at the day’s trek that lay before him on this tower of stone. He met his limit again and again counting each cave on the way up with careful diligence though the sun had robbed him of the faculties of his attention. Something drove him well beyond his every limit, something that would lead him to the world’s edge if his desire dictated, dragged forward by his arms alone if his legs were to fail him.
Only a week ago, a rare disease had left his daughter on death’s doorstep. He might have resigned himself to sadness if no cure existed, but there was a medicine that teased him well beyond his meagre farmer’s earnings. He begged and pleaded with the doctor, but gold was all the doctor would listen to and only a king could afford his ear. So the farmer had set out for a way to make probable this nearly impossible task. And he found himself here, on the whim of desperation, at the Mountain of a Thousand Caves.
The townsfolk from where the farmer lived would often dismiss the tale as a legend, a story, a myth, or drunken lies told by loud travellers who had come to the town on their way to the desert. But there was a consistency to them that afforded these stories the substance of truth. The tale told of the 501st cave, on the winding trail that snaked around to the summit of The Mountain of a Thousand Caves. This cave was home to an agent of the world of spirits who could grant one wish to any man who entered. Some said it was a fool’s errand for those few naive enough to believe in rumours; others said it was a devil’s trap to tempt those who sought an easy answer to hard problems, a lesson in futility taught by the Devil himself. However, the man was already grasping at straws and had braved far too much to turn back now.
The cave stood like a shadow in the cliff face, gaping jaws of darkness where even the light of the sun feared to go. He entered, sure that he had counted exactly lest he must start once more from the bottom. As the man bid a glad farewell to the harsh sun, he found it was a surprising degree cooler inside the cave. It had been days since he had escaped the heat of the desert that plagued even the nights, and he thought to rest for a brief moment. But these thoughts quickly evaporated in the image of his bed-ridden daughter; the doctor had said she’d a week left for this world at most.
The cave was not so deep that it warranted exploration, but merely a large indent in the mountain as all the other caves had seemed, no different. Had the farmer not been so careful in counting, he might have doubted that this was the 501st cave of legend for it did not seem any more special than the rest.
“Hello? Cave Spirit? Are you here?” the man called out. His voice echoed against the walls. No answer came, but he refused to believe his journey had been for naught. “Show yourself! I did not come all this way for nothing!”
The cave suddenly shook with a violent rumble and the light from outside went out, as if someone had extinguished the sun with a swift force of breath. He heard the hissing of falling sand through the all-consuming darkness. He felt his way back to the entrance and found his hands dig into a wall of coarse grains. He could hear more sand falling like a hundred snakes above him.
An ebony light, unfathomable to the world of man, illuminated the stone walls as a ghostly black figure stood burning before him. He possessed a hulking presence, though the man could see the far side of the cave through him. The spirit wore the shape of a man and the most sinister red eyes that burned as the rest of him did, while his smile revealed a set of teeth like frozen flames. It was as if the spirit’s every feature were set ablaze.
“I’ve never heard a mortal so casually call out to me before.” The spirit floated towards the man.
“What’s going on here?” the man demanded, biting back his surprise as he looked to the entrance that had been closed off. He came here looking for a spirit; he could not say he was surprised to see one. “What are you? Can you help me?”
“What am I? Those who came before you have called me a Djinn, a Spirit, a Demon, the Devil himself; the answer changes depending on who you ask. But can I help you? That depends entirely on if you can help yourself. I am but a humble means. You, who enter my cave, must decide the end.” The spirit drifted closer. “I assume you have come here for the wish. But you might have noticed that have no way out from here” The Demon gestured around the cave, which the man could now see was still slowly filling up with sand. “And you do not have much time left, I dare say.” The Demon frowned, wiping a tear of flame from his eye, before allowing a malicious smile to stretch across his face once more.
“Can you grant my wish or not?” the man demanded impatiently, his tired eyes widening as the gravity of his situation became more apparent.
“I can grant anything that falls within the realm of reason. I cannot let a man fly unaided, but fame, fortune, females: I can give you whatever else it is that you desire. Though I doubt fame and fortune will do you much good trapped in here with me. Perhaps the touch of a woman in your last moments?” The black spectre flickered into the shape of an exotic temptress, whose curves ran as smooth as her skin seemed. He held this image for seconds before reverting to his more sinister form. “But then again, you could always wish for escape. Most do. Oh, but you only have the one wish, and with that you’d be right where you began: the father of a dying daughter with no means to save her. Of course you could always wish her well and share your dying breath trapped in here with me. I wouldn’t mind terribly.” The Demon clapped his hands amidst peals of laughter. If ever there was a voice of evil, it would sound as this apparition spoke: saturated with glee at the sight of grief, rolling spiteful words off a silver tongue that knew only to lash at others like a whip.
The man bit his lip and tasted blood. “I want to cure my daughter. She is sick. But given this situation it would be my life for hers, would it not? I thought to leave here with some means to cure her or, at the very least, afford the medicine to save my only child. Though I suppose gold will do me little good trapped in here. It makes no difference, trapped or not, I am staying until I can leave with what I came here for.” The farmer’s eyes were resolute.
“Poor girl. She must be suffering so. You’re not quite so young; could you save her by staying here to die? Just wish her well. But then what would be the point if you cannot be there to raise her, and watch her grow into a woman, marry her off and one day hold your grandchild? Wouldn’t the news of your demise destroy her anyway” the Demon pondered loudly, smiling all the while.
The man would not show the Demon any doubt or weakness; he buried his fears, sat down cross-legged, and committed himself to thought. The way things stood, he could save his daughter at the cost of his own life. He was willing to do this much; he had lived 40 years and felt as if his daughter had only just been born to be left in the all-too-welcoming arms of death. “I am not leaving unless it is to see my daughter healthy once more,” the man spoke firmly.
“It’s been so long since someone so determined has come to visit me at my amiable abode, someone who sought to wish for something other than escape from this tomb of sand.” He gave a sidelong glance to the walls of the cave that were littered with dozens of rotting skeletons, “I think I would rather enjoy it if you stayed to keep me company,” the Demon licked his lips.
The farmer sat there, unmoving and unflinching, not in an admission of hopelessness but in preparation for deep thought. He refused to accept this cave as his coffin after all he endured to get here. Though he was a simple farmer, he felt that in tight spaces like this one just needed an open mind.
“Perhaps you ought to forgo the wish and pray instead. Pray to the God who put you in this position. Put your hands together to appeal to an uncertain God, as you share space with a Demon as real as me.” He mocked the man as he flew about freely.
“Even God cannot help those whose minds are as closed as the hands they holds in prayer,” the man said simply, moving no more than his lips as he meditated on his situation.
“Man’s arrogance knows no bounds. His Will continues to struggle for Life despite his mind’s resignation to Death. Life is never enough, and yet man chases away Death’s open arms. Nothing will satisfy man short of everything. So what better way to torture a man than to give him nothing for his efforts? What better way to crush the spirit of a man than to have him choose nothing for himself over everything?” The cave exploded with the ominous black light as the Demon roared with laughter.
The farmer sat fixed to his spot in the cave, the Spirit’s notions missing his ears. He heard the words, but they were just words; they were the colours of a portrait and not the picture itself. The farmer had known slim chances before: scarce harvests, cold winters, and short money. He knew his presence now was a credit to his endurance and resourcefulness. And though he knew he was at the end of his rope, he would sooner tie his own noose with it than willingly let it go. This was no partial bet; he had known that in coming here, he had cast in all of his chips.
“Look at the corpses around you,” the Demon announced, annoyed that he was being ignored. “They belonged to fools like you who sought to ask for something more than escape: to win a war, to save a loved one, to free a prisoner only to become one instead. Just wish for your own freedom; you may have it and be on your way. You will not win anything from this arduous adventure, but you will at least have your life.”
“I would very much like if you did not speak. I am trying to think,” the man said calmly.
“Let me offer up some rare exposition that I do not give to most,” he began, irritation flashing in the Demon’s eyes to replace his former sneer. “I am but a servant of the Underworld. This darkness you dwell in is properly known as The Cave of Futility. You think it was named for show? It is to remind mankind of his place at the bottom, as the most arrogant and aimless of the world’s ants, led in a line, strung along by false purpose. If you want an end to your problems and suffering, you should simply wish for d-”.
“A shovel,” the man said quietly.
“What?” the Demon replied in surprise.
“I wish for a large shovel… made of gold. With a comfortable grip, like the one I dug a channel with to bring the river to my crops when the skies refused me any rain.” The man finally decided.
The Demon hovered with a look of incredulity as he looked to the man who now smiled for the first time since their meeting, then to the mouth of the cave that was loosely sealed by fickle sands. He opened his mouth, and then shut it. He gave a vicious roar, and with a burst of hellish light the demonic shadow disappeared, leaving only the most expensive shovel to ever grace the world. The farmer gripped the shovel, plunging it into the still-spilling sands. And there he began to dig through the wall of sand and darkness, back to his daughter who needed him on the other side.