A story from the last century …
There were four hundred of us. Lars carried the water in a shallow basin, spilling a small amount of our vital supply each time he stumbled over concealed heaps of bauxite or other points of geological interest. Helga was able to top up the basin by melting patches of snow with her bunsen burner, but there was very little snow on the lower slopes, and what there was had invariably been shat on by pigs, wildebeeste, geese, and bats. By the second day, Lars had managed not only to spill the entire water supply, but had also cracked the basin in half by accidentally bashing it against a rogue shard of basalt. The rest of us were furious. Venables wanted to hurl Lars over a precipice. Van Gob brandished his rifle with menace, muttering threats. Lars merely sulked, squatting in the bracken and whittling away at a small piece of wood he had painted crimson some years earlier. The tension mounted.
Then Horst discovered some strange blueish flecks in a piece of rock. Gritting his teeth, he set about it with his iron hammers, and we were astonished to watch incandescent liquid spurt forth, forming a bright arc over the ramshackle encampment of pitched tents we called home. Glubb was the first to drink the liquid, for his thirst was the stuff of legend. He collected some in a battered tin cup and swallowed it at a gulp. Moments later, just as we were lighting a bonfire, his eyes glazed over and he stamped his feet in a demented rhythm. He began to declaim, slowly, in a booming voice quite unlike his usual prissy prating. He said:
“I have seen red shelves stacked with a thousand corks. The corks have teeth-marks in them, as if they have been gnawed, by a billy-goat or other beast of the field. Then, and only then, a vision of mud. I have listened to the sound made by chaffinches, and walked a hundred miles in driving rain, burning clay until it explodes, tying endless knots in brown canvas flags. My breath is the breath of a man who has the gift of tongues, a man who has spoken with corncrakes. Gemstones have I for ears, and putty for a hat. Wrap me in chrysanthemums, inveigle me with truncated proverbs – I shall not hear, for I hear only the clanking of broken churchbells set swinging high in towers when the air is still and the sky has vanished. I say to you that I am as of Ack, that which has a light known not unto you. Nor shall it ever be known unto you, for yours are the eyes and ears of pebbles lying scattered on the floor of the vasty deep. I have lavished you with ice and wood and Ack, and now I must begone from your sight. Farewell.”
So saying, Glubb marched away, uphill, towards the summit. He did not look back. We never saw him again.
The next morning, Lars was detailed to return to the sordid village at the foot of the mountain to get a new supply of water and a new basin in which to carry it. Lip’s attempt to glue the cracked basin back into one piece had failed, because the paste he used was contaminated. Waving farewell to Lars, and leaving Lip to catch up with us after extricating his arm from a narrow vertical crevice in the mountainside, we pressed on. Brabant took snapshots along various stages of the climb. There was a particularly good one of Helga making final adjustments to her snorkelling gear before diving to the bottom of the Imaginary Lake At The Mountain At Hoon, which has enticed so many earlier pilgrims on this route. Brabant himself was heroic, urging us onward whenever we became disconsolate or morose. He handed out his special biscuits, which tasted of bones, but were as nutritious as pemmican. On the eighth day, while everyone else was asleep, Brabant shaved off his massive walrus moustache. When we awoke, not one of us recognised him. Charming japes like this kept our spirits up.
It was on the eleventh day that we became worried about Lars, who had still not rejoined the party. Venables, Piccolo and Chasuble volunteered to go back in search of him. Before they left, Father Todge offered Mass. Just as Lip was about to take the communion wafer, we were distracted by a thunderclap, and the rains began. We sheltered under a limestone outcrop that seemed terribly crumbly. Van Gob did sterling work shoring it up with some of the zinc and titanium rods which he carried in his knapsack for such an emergency. The only sour note that day occurred when Dennis, spotting a lame horse through his tin telescope, witlessly left the shelter in order to parley with it. He was struck by lightning and incinerated. The horse whinnied and limped away.
Some days later, the rains stopped at last. Delaying only to bury what was left of Dennis, we made rapid progress towards the summit. Jean-Pierre and Istvana carried my wheelchair over ravines and gullies, at the bottom of one of which I noticed a huge pile of cutlery. It was perplexingly free of rust.
As we climbed higher, a yellow foul-smelling mist descended. On the fortieth day, Annette’s flask disappeared in a puff of roseate vapour. Brabant’s head took on the appearance of a turnip. It was he who announced that we had not brought enough oxygen tents. I began to knit furiously, doling out scarves, balaclavas, and woolly leggings to the company as fast as I was able. But we all realised things could not continue for much longer. When we estimated that we were four days’ climb from the summit, we gathered in Strob’s big tent for a meeting. Tempers were frayed, and Minnie’s attempts to jolly us along by singing selections from Ezra Pound’s Cowboy Songbook met only with hissing. We chewed what was left of the pickle supply and tried to iron out a strategy. After some aimless discussions, Venables announced that he had carried out an inventory. His eyes gleamed dangerously as he said:
“I have divided the inventory into three distinct categories, as follows. Category A, supplies we have exhausted; category B, supplies which we will exhaust within the next eighteen hours; and category C, supplies of which we have a huge and unwarrantable surplus. My inventory gives the following results: A – asbestos, bails, crimping irons, doilies, electric shoes, febrifuge, grey bags, and harpoonery; B – ip, jumble, kohl and largesse; C – muck, nose cones, operating tables, polevaulting equipment, querns, rosary beads, starch, talc, urns, varnish, whisks, expropriated jam, yashmaks and zobb. Hmm. You all look rather surprised. I don’t blame you. We have not been sensible of our peril. We cannot – ”
He was interrupted by a commotion at the entrance flap. We all looked round, and were startled to see Lars, heavily bearded, broken sunglasses hanging off one ear, struggling into the tent. He was carrying a giant bolt of sailcloth which appeared to be threaded with gold. Ashen-faced, Lars lurched to the podium and began to speak. We could hardly hear him, for he was close to death, and his words were mere gasps. It was only later I realised that he was revealing to us the knowledge he had kept hidden all along, thus consigning us to an icy fate on this terrible mountain. Why had he not told us before? As it was, none of us caught his meaning at the time. We heard only incoherent wheezing, which we dismissed as the raving of a dying imbecile.
We buried Lars in a shallow grave and proceeded to unroll the sailcloth. The thread was indeed spun of gold, but if the cloth had any significance it was not apparent. Using Helga’s cutlass, we cut it into sections to make hoods, blankets, bandages, and tourniquets. The next day, before we continued boldly on, Curwen challenged Horst to a wrestling match. The two of them had been arguing for days, following a brouhaha over the pitons. We formed a circle around
[The manuscript breaks off at this point. We are indebted to Waldemar Ng for this translation from the Hungarian. Unlike earlier translators, Ng had access to the actual woodblocks on which the narrator carved his journal. It is now over forty years since they were discovered, wedged in a crevasse halfway up the mountain at Hoon. Did the expedition reach the summit before they vanished without trace? We shall never know. The woodblocks, incidentally, are housed in the Museum at Ack-on-the-Vug, where they are guarded by a surly curator named Mungo. Gifts of raw meat and insect repellant are likely to melt Mungo’s cold black heart, should one wish to examine the woodblocks at leisure.]