“Treacherous Climb” is a short story by Sarah Süel, age 10. The story is written in the first person in past tense. We open onto the protagonist, Kate, feeding cheese to her pet mouse, Hammy. We learn that Kate lives on a dairy farm. After milking the cows, she makes a wish by blowing on a dandelion—she wants an adventure. The wish works almost immediately: she decides to climb Mt. Treacherous, a large mountain adjacent to her town. Mt. Treacherous is aptly named, and Kate and Hammy the mouse get into all kinds of scrapes, from falling off a cliff into a river to getting caught in a rockslide. At one point, they are trapped in a cave and must follow a bear cub to get out! Finally, on their journey home, they ride a log down the river. Back home, everyone is very impressed, and even re-name the mountain Mt. Hammy.
How does this writer choose words thoughtfully?
In “Treacherous Climb,” Kate’s narrative voice is hilarious and eloquent in equal measure. The word choice is incredibly precise, and also often a little goofy. A good example is the name of Kate’s mouse, Hammy—a strange name for a small rodent who is not a hamster!
Throughout the story, the writer makes strong (and abundant) use of simile. The similes are often densely packed. Take this passage at the beginning, where Kate is feeding Hammy:
My eyes, as blue as the sea that peeked over the top of the trees . . . poked around the mountain that loomed above us. . . . I was sitting with my legs crossed on a bench as rough as sandpaper, but it never had given me a splinter. I wore a light dress and simple shoes. My cheeks were as pink as a rose, and my hair went from brown to a gold like the sun when it has just risen. I wore earrings the color of the lovely lavender that grows in a clearing in the forest; they are made out of a pearl and shaped into a heart.
When we compare things to other things in our writing, we bring those things into the room too. Reading the passage above feels a bit like watching a slideshow—so many images jam-packed into so short of a space! Alongside the protagonist and the mouse, there is the sun, a rose, a forest with lavender growing in a clearing. Throughout the story, the similes are all extremely specific and unique.
At dusk I sat on the bench and gazed outside at the mountain above us. Then an idea popped into my head like popcorn does when it’s roasted over a fire.
By taking the comparison of an idea popping into your head like popcorn one step further—popcorn roasted over a fire—the writer creates an intensely specific image that the reader can envision as clearly as the mountain the narrator is looking at.
Sometimes, the writer uses metaphors or takes images to the extreme. In these cases, the images are just as strikingly specific:
I was rudely awakened by the mountain growling, or by what I thought at first was the mountain growling.
First of all, “mountain growling” is such a beautiful sound. There’s an assonance between the o’s and i’s across the two, and they almost have a slant rhyme to them—the n’s near the end of both really resonate. Beyond the musicality of the language, it’s also an extremely memorable image because it’s so unique. It also vividly encapsulates the danger of the situation by making the mountain become threatening in a whole new way.
- This story is image-packed, but it’s also action-packed! How does the writer balance description with fast-paced narrative in the story?
- What parts of the story feel like they move quickly? What parts of the story feel like they move slowly?
I was feeding my pet mouse, Hammy, some savory cheese I’d ripped off my sandwich. My eyes, as blue as the sea that peeked over the top of the trees and poked around the mountain that loomed above us, gazed affectionately at him. His cheeks were ballooned up, his eyes were bright and full of life, his fluffy grey fur was glowing in the morning sun, and his tiny but sharp claws held the cheese tight. I was sitting with my legs crossed on a bench as rough as sandpaper, but it never had given me a splinter. I wore a light dress and simple shoes. My cheeks were as pink as a rose, and my hair went from brown to a gold like the sun when it has just risen. I wore earrings the color of the lovely lavender that grows in a clearing in the forest; they are made out of a pearl and shaped into a heart. I had my hair in a braid to keep it neat while I worked.
After we were done with our breakfast, I put Hammy in my pocket and went out to milk the cow.
I came back a few minutes later holding two buckets full of milk that looked like the milk that comes out of a dandelion stem when you pull it out of the ground to make a wish. I gave the buckets to my mother to strain and make into cheese.
I went outside and grabbed a dandelion. I blew a warm stream of air at it and watched the fluffy seeds float into the sky till they disappeared. I gazed across the freshwater lake that was right outside our village. As I gazed there, I remembered that I wished for an adventure and, if I looked, I would find one. And if I did, I would be ready.
At dusk I sat on the bench and gazed outside at the mountain above us. Then an idea popped into my head like popcorn does when it’s roasted over a fire. I would climb that mountain! It didn’t have an official name, but most people called it Mt. Treacherous. Maybe because not everyone who climbed up climbed down, or was seriously injured, or fell off the mountain. But those thoughts didn’t stop me!
That night I grabbed Hammy and a backpack with water, food, blankets as soft as a sheep, a flashlight, a strong rope, and mouse food.
As I was walking to the door, my dad asked, “Where are you going?”
I replied as calmly as I could, “On an adventure.”
“Well, good luck,” he responded.
I ran through the forest and stopped at the mountain. It was even bigger standing right next to it. As I started up, a wrecking ball of wind hit me and knocked my backpack off. I managed to grab it, but when I jerked it out of the sky, the rope, some of Hammy’s food, and one of the wool blankets fell out and got blown to who knows where. At first, I almost gave up, but then I encouraged myself and kept going. Making it to a ledge, I curled up like a pill bug with Hammy still in my pocket and fell asleep. When I woke up, I went on. I walked for a bit, then started climbing the steep wall.
Sweat dripped down my forehead and stung my eyes. I didn’t once peek down at the ground, for I knew I would fall and hit my head on the rocks that stuck out from the cliff. Though without them, I would never have been able to climb up this steep slope. My arms and legs were tingling like they do when your foot is asleep, yet this time they were tingling from tiredness.
I could see the top of the cliff—I was so close!
I was so pumped by seeing the top that I didn’t notice that the ledge I was reaching for was covered in yucky-colored moss, and it was like water to hold on to. My hand slipped, sending me wobbling, and I lost my footing on the ledge. I fell down fast! The wind was echoing in my ears, and I felt so helpless. I thudded in a thick bush that stopped me from getting anything more than a few scratches and some bruises the color of the sky at sunset.
When I tried to stand up, I got pulled back down to the ground and quickly saw that my foot was caught in a branch. I jerked my leg to get it unstuck. Though I was successful, I lost my balance. I could feel Hammy’s toothpick-like claws grabbing my pocket and squeaking up a storm. I fell off the ledge and into a river.
“Wow, we sure are lucky!” I said to Hammy after grasping the side.
The water made me shiver from my spine, and even more when the cold wind hit me. I scanned the surrounding area and saw a path that was pretty narrow and steep with shrubs surrounding it. The climb was still hard, but it was easier than going back the way we came. As I glanced around absorbing the lovely scenery, I thought, Maybe everything will work out. And with that, I went on.
I trudged up the steep slope with Hammy in my pocket, still shivering from his dip in the river.
“That river felt like liquid ice!” I said, drying my hair.
Hammy squeaked in agreement.
As we climbed higher, we saw fewer trees and bushes. We mostly saw small, sun-beaten shrubs clinging onto the rocky edges.
It was getting late. A cool evening breeze dried off my soaking hair and ruffled Hammy’s dense, grey fur. I scaled a rocky slope and sat down on a ledge, partly sheltered by some lush bushes. I took Hammy out of my pocket and stroked his soft fur. His fur might be the softest thing in the world—it’s like a cloud, or cotton candy for your fingers. I stroked him till he was fully dry, then I sat him on my knee.
Together we watched the ocean swallow the sun and the sun fight back with his rays of vivid colors. The ocean and mountain appeared to be on fire, glowing peach, papaya, and mango. Then the sun winked green to say goodbye and sank fully into the ocean. Hammy and I gazed into the dimming, vast blue stretch of the sea till we fell asleep. We slept peacefully under the glow of the Milky Way, sparkling in the cool, pitch-black night.
* * *
I was rudely awakened by the mountain growling, or by what I thought at first was the mountain growling. But I shook off the sleepiness and got to my wits—there was a rockslide!
I stood up and quickly threw everything into my backpack and slung it on my back. I gently, but quickly, put Hammy in my pocket and ran up to the ledge above where I had seen a small hole in the rocks and squeezed in. The squeeze made me feel like a lemon getting squeezed into lemonade. Lucky for me, the cave widened out into a huge chamber. Now there was just one small problem: the rockslide had blocked the tunnel entrance and we were trapped!
Just as I was about to panic, I heard a whine that didn’t belong to Hammy. I moved behind a stalagmite that looked like a claw coming out of the ground. I beamed my flashlight around and spotted something that made my heart leap.
“There’s a bear here!” I told Hammy, my eyes wide. “But it’s just a cub! Maybe it got trapped here like us!”
I watched the bear sniff around and start to gallop away. Then an idea popped into my head.
“The bear cub will go toward its mother’s scent, and its mother, to my understanding, is outside the cave!” I shouted out. “So, let’s follow that cub!”
Staying out of sight, I walked behind the cub and saw that I had been right! The cub had found a small crack in the wall. He went through the hole, and Hammy and I followed. I ducked behind a tree to avoid being seen by the mother bear, whom the cub had found. I slipped by without, thankfully, being seen by the bears.
When I was far away from the bears, I looked up for the first time. I was so close to the top! But there was such a steep slope, I would never be able to get there. I sat on the dirt. I felt like a piece of paper that someone crumpled and put into the trash.
As I sat, Hammy escaped my pocket and started running away! I chased him and caught him right by a huge tree with branches that reached all the way to the top! A smile spread across my face as I placed Hammy in my pocket.
“Let’s go!” I cried out.
I grabbed the tree and started climbing. About a minute later, I was standing on the top of the mountain, proud as a sailor who had just discovered a new island.
“We did it!” I cried at the top of my lungs. Birds flew away. I should have felt offended, but all I felt was pride. I was happy, but I wondered how long we would take to get back down. Just then I noticed a river, a sharp rock, and a log . . .
* * *
“Yahooooooooooooo!” I yelled as we went down the river in the log I had hollowed out with the rock. “We should be down in no time. Thanks, Hammy!”
A few minutes later, I saw the lake poke over the trees and a rush of joy came over me when I saw my house, standing out from the rest, welcoming me back.
“Kate is back!” the farmer called from his musty-smelling barn. His shout alerted all the villagers, and they came running from their posts. A crowd came swarming around me, buzzing out questions like bees buzzing around a flower.
“Did you do it?” “Did you climb to the top?” “Where’s Hammy?” “Was it scary?” “Can we name the mountain after you?” “What was it like?”
Question after question piled up onto me, and I answered as many as I could.
“Yes, I climbed to the top and it was a bit scary. Hammy is safe! I think we should name the mountain after him!”
“Okay!” Everyone said at once.
Hammy popped his fluffy, grey head out and squeaked wearily. Then my dad, tall, with neat hair like a grizzly and eyes as blue as the sky, much like mine, strode up to me. My frost-colored eyes trembled, as well as my knees, as I gazed into his eyes, steady as a rock gazing back at mine. For a second I thought he would be angry at me for climbing the mountain, but then he scooped me up into a hug. He hugged me like a cobra grasping its prey, then he planted a warm kiss on my cheek.
“I am very proud of you, Kate. You did a great job,” he told me, beaming.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
“Do you want a greater challenge?” he asked, a mischievous look in his eye.
I nodded my head, my whole body smiling.
“Then climb that mountain!” he said with a chuckle, pointing to a mountain that I had never noticed, shooting out of the ground on the other side of the village.
Now I could feel my whole body groaning, but I smiled, Hammy squeaking rapidly in my pocket.
“Sure,” I replied, facing the mountain, the confidence noticeable in my voice. “I climbed Mt. Hammy, and I will climb you!”