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Answer Mountain

By Sarah E. Skwire; used with permission. This story appears in What If Nobody Forgave? and Other Stories edited by Colleen M. McDonald (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2003).

For a dramatic storytelling, make signs that say "The Answer Is No," "The Answer Is Yes" and "The Answer Is under Construction." Show each sign when it is mentioned in the story, or engage three participants to each hold up their sign at the appropriate time.

Long ago and far away, or yesterday and just around the corner, or maybe somewhere halfway in between, there was a town that sat, quiet and content, tucked into the shadow of a mountain. And carved on the side of that mountain, big and tall so no one could miss them, were the words, "THE ANSWER IS NO."

No one knew where the words came from or why they were there. They'd just always been there.

But, oh my goodness, the people who lived in that town cuddled into that mountain were glad to have those words there. Because whenever the townspeople had a question, all they had to do was to look up the mountain and read it. The answer was always NO.

Making decisions was very simple, and life went on smoothly and easily in the town cuddled into the mountain . . . until one day. Now, on that particular day, Ma Custus was about to make dinner for her family. And she just couldn't decide — because sometimes you can't — whether to make stew or steak, pasta or potatoes, dumplings or doughnuts, so she went out into the yard.

"Should I make liver for dinner tonight?" she asked, and looked up at the mountain. And the mountain said, "THE ANSWER IS NO."

"All right. I knew that, really. Nobody is crazy about liver. But should I maybe make steak for dinner? "

And the mountain said, "THE ANSWER IS NO."

"Should I make chicken? "

And the mountain said, "THE ANSWER IS NO."

"Should I make tacos or tofu? Baked beans or broccoli? Pork chops or popcorn? "

The mountain said nothing but "THE ANSWER IS NO."

Ma Custus asked more questions until the sun disappeared behind the mountain. She kept on asking questions until the sun came up around the other way. And all the mountain ever said was "THE ANSWER IS NO." Because Ma couldn't get an answer that was any kind of answer, she and her family went all night and all the next day and all the next night without dinner.

Finally, Ma just gave up and made liver anyway — even though the mountain said no, and even though everyone hated liver — because liver was the first thing she'd thought of. But Ma Custus had had enough. She glared at the mountain, stamped her foot, and shook her fist. "Why is the answer always 'NO?' Why can't you just say 'YES' for once?"

Ma turned around and stomped away to ring the town bell and call a town meeting. Well, when that bell rang, the whole town came running. From the oldest man with the longest beard to the youngest kids who still needed carrying, no one would miss a town meeting. They all came, and they all listened carefully as Ma Custus told her story.

"Seems to me," she said, "that we've got a problem. That mountain just isn't helping us like it should. Seems to me it would be nice if it would say 'YES' for a while."

The townsfolk knew Ma Custus had a point, but they didn't much like this idea — changing something that had been the same for so long. But after they thought and then thought some more, they finally nodded solemnly. The mountain would have to be re-carved.

Mason Sharp, the stone carver, nodded along with the rest of them. He scratched his nose, adjusted his cap, and slowly gazed up the length of the mountain.

Then he cleared his throat and said, in his gravelly voice, "Looks to me like I could do the carving, if that's all right with all of you."

And so it was. Mason spent the next two weeks up on the side of the mountain, chiseling and chipping and carving away, and coming down only when it got too dark to see. And when he was done, the mountain said, "THE ANSWER IS YES."

Mason rang the bell to call the town together, and once again they all came running. From the oldest woman with the whitest hair to the youngest kids who still needed carrying, they all wanted to see the new sign, and they all wanted to cheer for the stone carver and all his hard work.

Ma Custus, who had started all of this, came right up to the front of the crowd. She figured she ought to be the person to ask the first question of this new and different mountain, since she'd discovered the problem with the old one. She stepped right up to the foot of the mountain, looked way up to the top, and asked, "Should I make liver for dinner tonight?"

And the mountain said, "THE ANSWER IS YES." Well, now, Ma Custus almost fell over with surprise. "But Pa Custus told me he'd never forgive me if I served liver again, and all my kids threatened to hide in the barn for a week. Should I really serve liver?"

And the mountain said, "THE ANSWER IS YES."

The townspeople began to grumble. They didn't like the sound of this. Ma Custus's family grumbled the loudest.

"But, well, I can't," Ma said. "I mean, I just can't serve liver again. I promised I wouldn't!

"Are you telling me I should break my promise?"

The mountain said, "THE ANSWER IS YES."

The grumbling got louder. And Ma Custus, well, she glared at the mountain again, stamped her foot and shook her fist, and she turned to the townspeople and said, "This just isn't right! This just can't be right! What are we going to do?"

Once again, the townsfolk put on their thinking caps. Everyone thought: Ma Custus, Pa Custus, and all the Custus kids (who probably thought the hardest of all, because they were worried about the liver — very worried). Finally, the smallest but one of the Custus kids piped up.

"Why does there have to be just one answer? Can't we have more?"

The townspeople gasped. No one had ever thought of such a thing before. They mumbled and grumbled and talked among themselves. Finally they decided that the mountain ought to say, "THE ANSWER IS SOMETIMES YES AND SOMETIMES NO AND SOMETIMES WAIT AND SEE AND SOMETIMES I JUST DON'T KNOW."

Mason the stone carver, who had been listening to all of this talk, cleared his throat, scratched his nose, adjusted his cap, and said, "I think I can do it. I don't mind — not really — even if I did just finish carving in the new change. But, well, it's going to take a lot of time, and I can't work all day long like I did the last time. How about if I work on it when I can, and we'll hang us up some kind of sign on the mountain that lets people know that the answer is coming?"

And so it was.

The funny thing was that, for a little while, Mason worked on the mountain every day. And for a little while, everyone in town waited eagerly to see the new answer. But soon, the stonemason got tired of climbing the mountain every day and everyone else got tired of waiting, and they all started asking each other questions and helping everyone else find answers that seemed to fit. The townspeople realized that different questions usually had different answers, that sometimes the same question had more than one answer, and that there were many more answers than they had imagined. And all of that was fine with them.

After a while they thought that maybe the answer the mountain was giving them right then, just as it was, was better and more sensible than any other answer it had given. And so they left it as it was.

And the mountain said, "THE ANSWER IS UNDER CONSTRUCTION."

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Last updated on Wednesday, October 26, 2011.

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