Jr. Jewish World /
March 16, 1998 / 18 Adar, 5758

The Mountain

by Libby Lazewnik

"Ma-a-a!" The indignant cry floated down the stairs to the living room, where Mr. Brand sat with a book. It quivered in the air for a moment like a question mark. Mr. Brand held his breath.

Then the cry was repeated. "M-a-a-a!"

With a sigh, he put aside the book and went upstairs to investigate.mountain

He found Benjy, author of those indignant wails, glaring red- faced at his big brother. David was laughing. At the sound of his father's approach, Benjy whirled around.

"Daddy, where's Ma?"

"She went out. Is there anything I can help you with?"

"Ma said to tell her if David teases me again. And he did -- just now!"

Mr. Brand asked mildly: "What's this all about, David?"

"Oh, he's silly to believe everything I say. Benjy, didn't you know I was only kidding?"

Benjy eyed him suspiciously. "You mean I don't have to really serve you snacks in your room every night?"


"And I don't have to call you `Your Highness'?"

"Your Highness?" Mr. Brand repeated incredulously. "David, what's going on?"

Grinning sheepishly, David said: "I didn't mean it, Daddy. It's just that I was elected class president today --"

"Really? Congrulations!"

"Thanks. I was going to tell you later. But the truth is..."

David faltered. "I'm not so sure how a class president is supposed to act. Part of me feels just the same as always -- just plain old David, you know? But another part feels like I ought to start bossing people around and getting more respect. It's confusing. That's why I was kidding around with Benjy, I guess."

"I see." Mr. Brand gazed thoughtfully into the distance for a long moment. Then he glanced smiling down at Benjy, who seemed still uncertain how matters stood. "David didn't mean to tease you, Benjy. You didn't really think he wanted you to call him `Your Highness,' did you?"

"Uh, no. Guess not," Benjy mumbled.

"Good. You're much too smart to fall for that sort of thing...

Now I want you, David, to come downstairs with me. I've got a story to tell you. A story that might help you understand a little more about what it means to be a good leader."

"It's not that, exactly," David said as he followed his father down the stairs. "I know what a leader is supposed to do, more or less. He's supposed to make decisions and tell people what to do and give them advice when they need it -- stuff like that."

"Stuff like that," his father agreed. They had reached the living room. "Take a seat, please, David. And Benjy --" The little boy, who'd been trailing them down, looked up hopefully. "You can listen, too. And after that, it's straight into bed. Agreed?"

"Agreed!" Benjy scampered over to the coach and climbed up beside his father. David sat down on the other side. Mr. Brand took a moment to gather his thoughts, and then began.

Once upon a time, there was a young man named Goff. He lived with his father and mother and two older brothers on a small farm in a valley. His father worked the fields from sunrise until dark, and as each of Goff's two brothers grew old enough they began helping him. Goff always thought that he would do the same. But a surprise -- a half-unpleasant, half-exciting surprise -- lay in store for him.

"Goff, you're old enough now to do a man's work," his father told him one day.

"I know, father," Goff said eagerly. "Do you want me to help with the plowing tomorrow?"

The farmer shook his head. "I don't think so," he said slowly.

"Your Ma and I have been talking things over. You see, this farm is hardly large enough to support one family, but now that your brothers have gone and got married, we've got to make it stretch somehow to support three."

"I'll help, father!"

"No," his father said again. He pushed his rough straw hat out of his eyes. "It's not that I don't want you, son. It would be a pleasure working side by side with all my sons. But the problem is, there's just no need for so many hands on this little farm."

"What are you saying?" Goff was starting to get a nervous feeling in the pit of his stomach.

"I'm saying, son, that it'd be better if you move on. Go out to some new place -- a farm, a town, whichever you like -- and make a fresh start on your own."

Goff stared at his father in shock. Not work the farm? Not live here, in the snug little valley that had been home to him all his life? The idea took some getting used to.

On the other hand, there was some exciting in the notion of picking up and starting out on his own. He scratched his head and asked, "What do you think I should do?"

"That's up to you, Goff. Your ma and I don't have much to give you, but what we have we'll give gladly. Take Betsy, your horse, and whatever cash we can spare. Look around a while. You'll find your place before you know it."

And so, one fine spring morning, Goff mounted his trusty old mare, kissed his ma good-bye, waved gaily at his father and brothers and, with his hat tilted jauntily over one eye, set out to find a place of his own.

He rode the winding back roads for some days, enjoying the sun when it shone and sheltering cheerfully under the trees when the rain poured down. Then, at the crest of a hill he saw some buildings in the distance. Spirals of smoke were curling up from their chimneys in a cozy way.

"There, Betsy," he said, pointing. "We'll start there." Agreeably the horse cantered forward.

The road grew broader and better paved as they went along. Coming upon a field of wildflowers, Goff stopped and wove a colorful necklace for Betsy. "We've got to make a good impression," he chuckled. Then he tilted his hat to a becoming angle, chirruped to the mare, and together they made their entrance into a good-sized town.

Betsy's wreath of flowers attracted immediate attention.

"Look, Mother!" a child shouted excitedly. "A show-horse!"

"Can I ride him, Mother?" another pleaded. "Please, please, pretty please?"

Goff smiled at the children, a boy and a girl dressed in immaculately cut clothes. Just behind them were a handsome couple, also dressed in the height of fashion. A long feather plume bobbed gently from the woman's hat. She looked uncertain. "I don't know if that horse is for riding, dear."

"'Course he is!" The boy maintained staunchly. "See, he has flowers round his neck. Ask him if we can ride, Mother -- please? Father, can we?"

The girl added her voice to her brother's. The man came up to Goff, who halted politely. He noticed now that the family had just emerged from a hotel on the town's main street.

"Excuse me, good man. My children were wondering whether you are offering rides on your horse? We are visitors here, but where we come from there's a horse hired out to carry children."

"Grown-ups, too," his wife murmured, coming up beside him. "In a sweet little buggy."

Goff thought it over. "I don't mind taking them up," he said in his friendly way. "Betsy's safe as a rocking-chair." He twinkled down at the children. "Which one first?"

"Me, me!" the little boy clamored.

Goff dismounted and helped the father boost his son into the saddle. The boy rose high into the air, cheeks bright with excitement. "Look at me, Mother! Look at me!"

"I'm looking, dear. You look just fine up there."

"Ready?" Goff asked. He tugged at Betsy's reins. "Giddy-up! Here we go!"

Under Goff's guidance, Betsy carried the boy first at a walk and then -- to his delirious joy -- at a slow gallop. Then he took the little girl up. Both children pronounced themselves delighted with the adventure, and decided that they wanted to have rides on Betsy every day of their stay. Other children, with their mothers and fathers, came out of the hotel and stopped curiously to see what was happening. Soon they, too, were clamoring for rides.

"How much will that be?" the father asked, pulling out a thick wallet.

And that was how Goff's new career began. All that day, he and Betsy took children for rides on the pleasant meandering paths at the outskirts of town. That night Goff counted up his earnings with disbelieving eyes. Why, he'd earned more in this one day than his daddy earned in a month back on the farm!

"Tomorrow I'll use some of this money to buy myself a little buggy," he decided sleepily, stretched out on his bed in Ma Barkley's boarding-house.

And that was exactly what he did. Early every morning he would gather flowers and make a fresh new necklack for Betsy. All day long he would give rides to children. Some were visitors, like his first customers; others belonged to the wealthier families in town. Couples celebrating their anniversaries, or visitors desiring a tour of the town, hired his new buggy for an hour or a day. Sometimes he drove people out of town to picnic on the slopes of a large mountain that loomed up behind it.

"What's she called?" he asked one day, jerking a thumb at the mountain, whose crown was wreathed in cloud.

"Mount Wisdom," his customer answered from the buggy.


The man laughed. "You really are new to these parts, aren't you? It's named for the three wise men who have homes there."

Goff wanted to ask more, but the customer's eyelids were drooping lazily and he didn't seem inclined for conversation. Soon enough, however, Goff had an opportunity to learn much more about Mount Wisdom and its special inhabitants -- at first hand.

One morning, as he boosted the first child customer of the day onto Betsy's back, she surprised Goff by whinnying loudly. When he tried to lead her toward the trail, she balked. Finally, in response to his insistent tugging, she walked reluctantly after him, but refused to gallop or even canter. Afterwards, Goff helped the disappointed child down and rebuked his mare. "I don't understand what's gotten into you, Betsy. You behave nicely now, hear?"

But Betsy didn't behave nicely. In fact, the very next child - - as it happened, a rather plump one -- took a toss right over Betsy's head when she stopped suddenly and refused to walk another inch. Goff managed to catch the boy before he hurt himself. He apologized profusely to the child's irate parents and decided to call it quits for the day. He was worried. What was the matter with Betsy?

The situation was no better next day -- and on the third, she refused to stir from her stable at all. Goff knit his brows in consternation. His mare was his livelihood. What to do now?

He mentioned his problem to Ma Barkley.

"Why, I'll tell you what to do," the old woman said heartily.

"You go up that mountain and ask the wise man what to do. He'll help you. He's a smart one, he is. Leastways, that's what they say. I've never seen him myself."

"How do I get there?" Goff asked.

"You just find the path on the west side of the mountain and follow it straight up. You can't miss him."

So Goff rose at dawn the next morning and set out for Mount Wisdom. He found the path he needed without much trouble, and all that day he climbed and climbed. About two-thirds of the way up there began to be signs pointing the way. "TO THE WISE MAN," they read. Heartened, Goff quickened his pace. At last, he found himself standing face-to-face with a couple of haughty guards.

"I've come to ask advice of the wise man," Goff said politely.

"Take a number," a guard growled. Goff glanced past his shoulder and saw a line of people waiting their turns. He went to stand at the end.

The line inched forward as the sun slid lower in the sky.

Goff's turn came just before it sank into the valley below. The wise man was seated, flanked by more guards, in a clearilng. His hair was long and white, as was his beard, and he was dressed in some sort of robe that made him look very sagacious indeed.

"This is the last one for tonight," he told his guard as Goff approached. "Yes?" he asked. "How can I help you?"

"It's my horse, sir," Goff said respectfully. "She won't work. In fact, she won't even budge from her stall. What do I do?"

The wise man smiled, a mysterious smile that seemed to hold within it secrets untold. His eyes glazed over as he began to speak in a faraway voice.

"That's easy," he said. "The horse, better known by its genus, equus, is characterized by the empirical symbiosis it forms with its master, genus homo sapien. Here we have an intriguing case, a complex conglomorate of subjugation and obduracy, leading to a highly volatile disequilibrium affecting all the integral areas of equine reckoning." He nodded sagely. "Yes, indeed. A most intriguing case. But, to one of my experience, not entirely unexpected. No, not unexpected at all."

Goff gaped. The wise man's words seemed as insubstantial as the clouds that wreathed the crown of the mountain he was standing on. "B-but what do I do with her?"

The wise man frowned. "How on earth should I know?" he snapped. "Do I look like a horse-doctor to you? Guards!" he called wearily. "I'm through for the day.

"That's the way down," a guard told Goff meaningfully, as another led the wise man sighing towards his house.

It was a very bewildered Goff who made his way home that night.

Old Ma Barkley was sympathetic when he told her his story next morning, but not surprised. "He's got his head in the clouds, that one," she remarked. "What you want is to go to the Cave under the Mountain, and see the second wise man. He'll help you for sure."

That day, Betsy wouldn't even let Goff mount her. Things were looking grim indeed for his flourishing little business. With a grave face he obtained directions for the Cave where the second wise man lived, and went to see him the very next day.

The way to the Cave was long, tortuous, and very dark. Goff had provided himself with a lantern, which allowed him to find his way -- though very slowly and carefully -- along winding, rock- strewn subterranean passages. Signs along the way told him that he was headed in the right direction. "TO THE WISE MAN," they read. And finally, after many weary hours, the last one informed him, "YOU ARE HERE."

This wise man had made his abode in the largest cave under Wisdom Mountain. It was large as a palace ballroom, and glittered with long stalactites on every side. The lines here were only slightly shorter than they'd been up on the mountain. Uniformed guards kept it moving briskly along. At last Goff's turn came.

This wise man, he saw, was fat where the first had been thin, and his three chins boasted no beard at all. "What can I do for you, my lad?" he boomed. His voice echoed up and down the cavern.

"It's my horse," Goff began. Quickly he told his tale.

The wise man nodded somberly when he was done.

"Can you help me?" Goff asked.

"Tell me," the wise man asked. "When was this mare separated from her mother?"

Goff was startled. "Uh, we bought her right after she was born, from Farmer McGee down the road from us. I raised her myself."

The wise man nodded significantly. "I had surmised as much."

"But I don't understand. What does it mean?"

"We are touching the deepest chords of nature here," the second wise man intoned sonorously. "The very fundamental planks upon which equine and human character are built. Your horse, young man, is obviously in a state of deep repression, which has expressed itself in a passive-agressive rebellion against you, her master. The feet which refuse to bear you or help you earn your living symbolize the ego that faltered years ago, when she was taken from her mother as a foal. The trauma has lain dormant all this time, only to rise up now."

"T-trauma?" Goff stammered in confusion.

"You must deal gently with her," the wise man instructed.

"Plumb the depths of her emotional turmoil. Delve for understanding of the conflicting drives that motivate the poor creature -- her loyalty to you versus her need to stand up and be an individual! Tread gently, young man..."

Goff could get no more out of him. He left even more bewildered than he'd been on his visit to the first wise man.

"That one had his head in the clouds," he grumbled to Ma Barkley that night, "and this one has his down in the dark somewhere! Where can I find a sensible person who will help me?"

Ma Barkley hesitated. "There is the third wise man..."

"Tell me!"

"He lives a little way up the mountain -- on the eastern side. He has no fancy guards or visiting hours. There are no long lines of people waiting to see him, just an odd visitor now and then, like yourself. But they say" -- her voice lowered to a whisper -- "that he can help where the others cannot." She peered at Goff. "Will you try?"

"I'll try anything," Goff replied. "I need my old Betsy back."

And so he trekked to the eastern side of Mount Wisdom and followed Ma Barkley's directions to the home of the third wise man. There were no signs and no guards, just as she'd said, only one doorman who asked Goff for his name and his business before disappearing inside. A moment later he returned to escort Goff into a neat study where a pleasant-looking man greeted him warmly. He listened attentively to Goff's problem, then rose to his feet.

"Let's go check this out," he said.

Together, he and Goff descended into the town. Very few people seemed to recognize the third wise man, perhaps because he did not call much attention to himself and was not accompanied by a troop of uniformed guards. Arriving at Betsy's stable, he stooped and inspected the underside of Betsy's hooves.

"There, see?" he pointed at the front left one. "There's something sharp embedded deep in her foot. It's scarcely visible from the outside, but I imagine that every time someone sits on her back the pressure makes the pain unbearable. Have you got a pliers?"

In short order, Goff had taken hold of an old nail with his pliers and yanked it out of Betsy's foot. The horse whinnied as he did it, and then subsided. For the first time in days she gave some real attention to her feed box.

"I think you'll find you'll be able to resume your rides tomorrow," the third wise man smiled.

And Goff happily smiled back, and thanked him from the bottom of his heart.

Mr. Brand glanced down at Benjy, who had fallen into a light doze snuggled against him. Then he looked around at David. "Well?" he asked. "What did you get out of that?"

David had the look of a boy whose mind is working hard.

"I think," he said tentatively, "that's it's no good for a leader to be removed from the people he's leading -- like the man up in the clouds or the other one, hidden deep in that cave. And also... if you don't have a solution, it's better to stop and think, or even to say I don't know and look somewhere else for advice, than to spout a lot of nonsense just because you're supposed to be so clever."

"Yes?" Mr. Brand was pleased. "Anything else?"

"And... I think it's good to treat yourself with respect, but not too much. You have to be willing to get down and work with the people you lead. You have to have your feet on the ground, and... and really care about them." He looked at his father. "Right?"

Mr. Brand carefully lifted the sleeping Benjy into his arms and stood. "Right you are," he grinned. "-- Your Highness!"

Then he climbed the stairs to put his little boy to bed, while David remained behind to think some more about what it meant to be a leader and a wise man -- which are really two words for the very same thing.

Author Libby Lazewnik is one of Jewry's most acclaimed juvenile fiction writers.


© 1998, Libby Lazewnik