I sit on the ridge, like every night, a book in my lap but my eyes toward the stars above me.
It’s late—far past midnight by now. Father probably thinks I’m asleep; he’s probably pretending to sleep himself, sitting in the dark on the windowsill in his bedroom, staring up at the same sky I’m looking at now.
Tonight is a sleepless night for me as well. I had come to the ridge earlier that evening determined to finish the book that I should be reading—an adventure-romance father had bought for me several weeks earlier at the market down in the valley. There’s a full moon, and a clear sky; it’s the perfect amount of light for reading.
But instead of focusing on the book as I had planned, I’m looking up at the moon and the stars. The same moon and stars that I looked up at my entire life, no matter where I was in the world, no matter who I was at the time.
The same old moon and stars. They never change, whilst the world they shine on is always changing—or so it should be.
Or so I should be.
I first discovered the ridge when I was eight years old, about a year after Father and I started living together in our small cottage in the Northern Mountains.
I was in the middle of an adventurous stage—a stage that’s lasted until this day—and had begun a habit of wandering out of the house when Father had his back turned. Sometimes I would make it far down or up the mountain; other times, I hardly made it out of sight of the cottage when Father would come chasing after me and bring me back to the house, scolding me the entire way.
This kept up for several months. The timid girl I had been when I first met Father suddenly became a rebellious wanderer, desperate to escape the confines of my guardian’s watchful eye and the walls of the cottage meant to keep us safe. I wanted my own freedom—not a freedom I shared with Father, but a freedom all to myself.
Even though I had become an adventurous child during the day, my timidity still clung to me at night. I had nightmares—I still do, though not as much anymore—of the past: of the jeers and curses, of the weapons directed toward me, of the cold nights lying on street pavements, of the hunger and the terrible taste of moldy bread. All the bad memories had trailed me from the city streets to the mountains, from my life as an unwanted orphan to my life as a loved child of a kind-hearted man.
One night, I had such a terrible nightmare that I wet myself and woke up choking back a scream. Too proud and embarrassed to call Father out of his room to come help me, I slipped outside to get some fresh air and to calm myself down before replacing the bed sheets.
A full moon illuminated the sky that night—much like how it does tonight—and a gentle mountain breeze rustled the leaves and foliage that surrounded our cottage.
I sat on the front steps of the cottage, which overlooked the vegetable garden Father and I had just started. I wiped away the tears and snot that still clung to my face, and tried taking deep breaths to calm myself down. My lips stuck to each other with the salt from my tears, and my throat was raw and tight, itching for the cool relief of water.
Desperate for water, but not wanting to wake Father by using by using the loud, squeaky water pump in the back of the cottage, I decided to walk up the mountain path to get some water from the small creek. It wasn’t unfamiliar territory at the time—I had been there a few times with Father, and it was only a few minutes out of the cottage’s sight.
And so I went, with a stuffed nose, blood-shot eyes and dry lips.
After getting my filling of water, I sat on the bed of the creek, watching the water trickle downhill into the valley. The moonlight gave the water’s surface an enchanting luster, making it shimmer and shine in ways it never would during the day.
I wondered how far the river went up the mountain, whether it originated from the top of the mountain or started from somewhere else.
And before I knew it, I was following the river upstream, clambering carefully over slippery rocks and hills alongside the river. I didn’t think about how much time had passed since I left the cottage (though I should have), nor how far I was wandering from home (though I should have too). All I cared about in that moment was satisfying my curiosity, and forgetting about the nightmare I had just suffered.
The river took me farther up the mountain than I had gone before. It wound around large boulders in its path and curled around clusters of trees. The farther up the mountain, the thicker and more treacherous the forest became—the trees became more crowded and fuller, the rocks were bigger and steeper and harder to climb over.
It didn’t take long for me to exhaust myself. About half an hour later, I was making less and less progress, panting and sweating. My hands ached from gripping the rocks and my knees were sore and bruised from a couple falls.
After climbing the tallest rock yet, I decided to give up on my spontaneous excursion and return home. I had turned around to climb back down the rock when I saw it—a dirt path, slightly overgrown from lack of use, jutting away from the creek.
Naturally(and probably against my better judgement), I decided to follow it.
The path was far easier to follow than the river—despite a couple small hills, it was smoother and less strenuous to follow.
The path led all the way up the mountain to the ridge—the ridge where I sit now, the ridge where I go to when I need to be alone or want to daydream.
The ridge. My ridge.
The one place where freedom is all mine.
It’s a supermoon tonight, just like Father said it would be. The moon’s bigger and brighter than a normal full moon, lighting up the valley below me much more than it usually does. I can see the paths that winds around the neighboring mountains and the caves at the base of mountain to the north—both which I normally wouldn’t see at night.
A little bit of wind sweeps through my hair, getting a strand into my right eye—my normal eye—and sticking to the patch that covers my left eye.
I brush the hair out of my eye and look down at my book again.
But my eye doesn’t fall on the opened pages. They fall on something else—something outside the caves at the base of the northern mountain, standing on the rocky path that twisted it’s way upward.
It’s a person. They wear a hood and cloak that the wind catches and sweeps behind them. The hood covers their face from my view, but I can tell that their face is directed upwards, looking at the mountain I’m currently perched on top of.
Looking in my direction.
Looking at me?
I hop off the ridge and duck out of the stranger’s sight.
Was he looking at me?
It’s not unusual to see people on the northern mountain—during the day, caravans often make their way along the path that runs round it as they make their way to and from the small villages in the valley. But it was only during the day, and I always saw people travel in groups.
I’ve never seen anyone on the mountain at night. I’ve never seen anyone alone on the mountain.
And I’ve never seen anyone bother to look up at our mountain.
I peek out over the ridge to get another look at the stranger.
But they’re gone.
My eyes run up and down the path, looking for any trace of them. I squint to see as far into the dark caves as I can.
Nothing. The stranger’s gone. Gone, as if he were never there.
Was he ever there?
Or was I seeing things? Was it just my imagination running wild as a result of fatigue and daydreaming?
I lightly slap my face with my palms. After looking over the ridge once more to double check that the stranger was no longer there, I dart down the path leading up to the ridge back down toward the river.