In ancient days when the island was new, Moon, Sun and Mountain spoke.
In these ancient days, not long since our land rose from the lightless sea, Man talked with these three elements and was given great knowledge. But not all was good. In those days, Mountain threw out great clouds of fire, smoke and ash, so that the HoluKo became sick and their crops grew yellow. Many climbed his face and asked him to stop. Some made sacrifices in the hope that he would cease. Many tried, and all failed, until at last SutaKe came to use his cunning.
Like the others, SutaKe climbed the face of Mountain. Like the others, he braved fire, ash and smoke. And like the others, SutaKe spoke. But SutaKe’s speech was different. He did not plead, and he offered no tribute. Instead, he proposed a wager.
“Great Mountain! Long have the HoluKo marvelled at your size. Long have we admired your unending strength, and always are we grateful for the glass you give: the black stone from which we make mirror, blade and arrow. But your other gifts we do not like. Your fire sears our land. Your smoke chokes our lungs. Your ash smothers our tuber fields. I greet you with honour, but I intend to stop your gifts, so that fire and smoke shall no longer rise, and ash no longer fall.”
“Pitiful wretch! You have the impudence to come here, thinking to contend with me? I should bury you! I should grind your bones into my glass! You think you feel my wrath on your feet? You stand only on my merciful crust, which I can separate at will, and send you down to fiery doom. What madman’s fancy has made you think that any strength of yours could contend with mine?”
“O Mountain,” said SutaKe. “It is true that no mortal could match your strength. But we small men are greater than you think. Though not your equal in raw power, our strength of will far exceeds your own, and the challenge that I have devised will show this, if you will be content to try.”
“And yet more impudence!” Mountain’s sides glowed red with rage. Flames leapt high as the stars from his great head, and smoke painted the sky with black. “What foolishness! What outrageous pride! I should swamp you with my wrath. I should send a deluge that would burn your village down. I should encase your screaming brethren in my glass, that they should remember in their last moments by whose grace it was that they had lived so long. I should do this so their blackened forms would remind you of the virtues of humility, when next you dared to sully the sides of Great Mountain with your dirty feet.”
SutaKe saw that, should Mountain’s rage burn any brighter, it would indeed spill over all the island, searing everything in its path. However, he saw also that the time had come to press his cunning. “Such a feat would surely be a testament to your strength, Great One. But it would also be a lasting record of your impatience, your intransigence, your fear.”
“Fear? What do you think I could fear? Sun cannot harm me with his heat, and Moon has no power over the tides of my flames. I fear not these figures, and there are none greater on this island, or anywhere else.”
“I say there is fear in you, Mountain! I think there is fear in you as much as flame: not only do you refuse my challenge, you are too afraid to hear it! What greater coward could there be?”
Mountain’s ire cooled a little. “You are mistaken, mortal thing. I do not fear your challenge, and so I will hear it. But first I will hear what prize you offer, and what prize you demand. Be warned, however: I will never stop up fire and smoke and ash. These are the things it is in my power to produce, and never shall I stop up all three. You must choose just one, though I do not think you can win it from me.”
SutaKe realised that he could not argue with Mountain on this point. Neither did he need to. He answered immediately. “I choose ash. Our crops die beneath its choking grasp: if we do not have food soon, I fear your smoke and fire will no longer be much bother.”
“Very well,” rumbled Mountain. “Then I choose my prize. If I win your contest, smoke and ash and flame shall all be doubled—I will have you know that until now, my compassion has held back my power—and your body will be my tribute. I will roast you slowly, so slowly. You shall taste my flames until the end of time.”
“I agree to your terms, Mountain.”
“Then tell me of your challenge.”
“You have the strength to pour forth fire, smoke and ash. But I do not think you have the strength of will to stop. We will each of us hold our breath: whichever of us holds out longest will be the winner, and take the other’s prize.”
Mountain laughed, spitting embers like inverted comets across the sky. “You are a fool, SutaKe. I am immortal. The things I do, I do because they bring me joy. Fire. Smoke. Ash. These are not things that I need: but you need air. You shall die before I yield, mortal, but do not think that death can save you. I am good friends with Moon, and your spirit shall not be allowed to travel on to the white island if I forbid it.”
SutaKe shuddered to think of this. He feared death like all mortal men, but to be refused a new life on the white island of Moon…that was something more terrible still. But SutaKe was confident. “You underestimate us mortals, Mountain. My breath will last me longer than you think.”
“Will it, now? Well know this SutaKe: I do not underestimate your cunning. My breath can be seen from anywhere on the island, but my eyes are not strong. I do not think I could see yours. How can I know you do not cheat?”
“I shall dive into the lightless sea, where there is no air to breathe.”
“Then do it. Your feeble challenge has already wasted too much of my time.” And with that, Mountain became silent. Smoke, ash and flame all stopped, and he watched SutaKe fiercely until the man dropped beneath the waves.
Mountain watched the shifting waters a long time. As the seconds slipped by, he pitied the feeble man, sure to lose the wager he himself had set. As the seconds became minutes, Mountain became impressed. The man would not win, but his attempt was honourable. Minutes became hours, and Mountain was astonished: this mortal might almost be a worthy opponent for him. Hours became days, days weeks, weeks months and months years. It has been eons, now, and still Mountain holds his breath, still with stone eyes fixed tightly on that place where his rival plunged beneath the waves. Nothing in the waves there will ever escape Mountain’s sight.
But there is much that Mountain did not see. He did not see how SutaKe swam through hidden caves, and he did not see how the HoluKo greeted him when he emerged. Never again has there been such a lavish feast, and never since has smoke risen or ash fallen. SutaKe has taken Mountain’s power, and Mountain can no longer speak.