Once there was a person who was tasked with reducing a mountain into a flat plain. For a shopping mall. For a housing development. For a prairie. For the gemstones within. They moved their family to a new home at the base of the mountain, which was tall enough to keep snow at the peak even though it was summer down below. Oh, the deer were making children.
There was no matter place to begin than the beginning: all the person had was a wheelbarrow and a small pickaxe. They filled their wheelbarrow with a stone and took it to another part of the world, because, as with ashes, it was a kindness to help the dead see more of the world.
One time they passed by a young couple being wed while pushing a stone in the wheelbarrow. There were white flowers. There was a flash’s crack. There were hands clapping.
One time they saw an accident, two cars on their roofs, bodies scattered in the grass. They called authorities, waited for people with other commissions to show up. Machines beeped along pulsebeats. Lightning made someone breathe again. There was a white sheet. There was a siren, fading.
Returning home from a long time away, the person’s partner said, I miss you. They said, You work too hard. They said, I think I heard a bear, up there.
One time they saw a doe on one side of the road, and its mother on the other. No matter what they tried, the doe wouldn’t cross. It was stubborn, the person thought, but the truth was that it knew something the person didn’t: there was a wolf lurking, it would soon be motherless, but still alive.
One time they passed by a lake so large it might have been a sea. An old man watched a duck drinking water. I can’t wait until it drinks it all up, the old man said. When they asked the old man what happened then, he answered, I die, of course.
They saw time pass. They watched cities yawn into new boundaries. They tried to befriend the bear, but didn’t know where to look.
One time they saw a raven eating the corpse of another raven, and it made them think of glass being recycled.
One time they crossed paths with a boy who asked, Is this the place where no one ever dies? The person said no, but that leveling a mountain could be a good alternative—it would take a hundred years to remove every stone. The boy said that wasn’t good enough, and disappeared.
They mountain started to grumble and teeter, like it was ready to collapse. They asked their only child, who was barely a child any more, if they wanted to climb it together—one last adventure together before their child went to college. When their child said no, they asked if something else might work, but their child was taken into a game that involved killing monsters, divining magic. Their child explained, The game never ends. Even if you get to the end, there’s always more to collect. Well, their child then added, at least until the server gets shut down.
One time the person passed the man and the duck and the lake again and it was half-empty.
One time they saw machines of war: a tank, a dozen Humvees, men and women with weapons of all sorts. A jet flying overhead. A small aircraft, too small for a person to fit inside, circling.
One time they crossed through what had once been a forest. The trunks still stood, roots tangled beneath, but the bodies were gone. A machine rolled through, peeling it all back like carpet.
All at once their partner decided they needed something else in life, and so they departed. If their goodbye were placed vertically, snow would collect at the top, it was that long.
One time they traveled to what had once been a low-lying area and found it overrun with seawater. Seabirds scavenged for crabs. A whale exhaled. They left the stone there, thinking they could fight the ocean.
The mountain collapsed, making it small enough to be scaled even at the person’s middle age, and so they climbed it alone. Pika stood on the tallest rocks that remained, bundles of yellow flowers in their mouths, staring up at the sky, searching for cold.
One time there was a bay dyed black. A seal, dripping in black, cried out. A turtle, encased all over again. A hundred others. They emptied out the stone to help carry the tarred animals, but there were too many, and no one came for them. They buried what they could in the backyard.
One time they were pushed back from a forest they knew well, with uniformed men and women shouting, This isn’t your country any more.
One time they passed by their partner, who had their own task of reducing a different mountain in a distant land. The two lined their wheelbarrows parallel, lined their bodies parallel. A motel with a king-size bed. A television tuned to a premium channel. The partner said, I’m catching up to you. The partner asked, Does yours have a heart, too?
The person’s home started getting western sunlight by then. The home was full of light, but it was empty.
One time they passed by lake and the man and the duck and they were all gone, or dead. Some bones. A concrete foundation at the middle, the sound of a hammer.
One time they dug up some stones and found a skeleton beneath. By the shape of them, they knew it was a bear’s—their partner had been right all along. They buried the bones next to the seal and the turtle and the rest. An owl kept watch. A raincloud sermoned in monsoon.
One time they passed a city that had been decimated by bombs. There was dust everywhere. There were bodies, forgotten. There was a chain of other cities, leveled. There had been a war. There was nothing to be done.
One time they crossed paths again with the boy who wanted to live forever. He had become an old man in the meantime. He said, I don’t know if I want to live forever any more. The person said, If I knew where I had left all the stones, I would go put them back. I would do it all backwards. The boy asked, Why? They said, Never once did I think to take someone with me, show them any of the things that I got to see.
One time while passing through the village they asked a stranger if anyone missed the mountain. The stranger asked, What mountain? and then disappeared.
The last of the stones was delivered to their child’s new home, which was in a distant place. More children had begun to exist. All the children called out the person’s name. The person was too tired to do much of anything. There was cake. A cocktail with a maraschino cherry. A television tuned to a children’s channel. Someone asked, What’s next?
A cave. A flashlight guided the way into the space beneath the emptiness that was the mountain. Stalactites brushed against the person’s face. They descended until they lost their sense of place. They wondered if their partner was somewhere nearby, wandering too in search of them. If only they could reunite again, even here. A dizzy of bats singing ultrasonic. A beating heart, or maybe just a distant drip.
Somewhere above, sometime later, a grandchild arrived with their own children. This is where your great-grandfather once lived, the grandchild said, and the great-grandchildren all tangled their teeth over the word great. One great-grandchild stacked a stone onto another. A second great-grandchild stacked on a third stone. A third great-grandchild stacked on a fourth stone. There was a flash’s crack. There was a deer, waving through newborn trees.