And the mountain was once so beautiful.
I wanted to call it Mount Caroline, I once told you on a particularly boring trail. There was no name more plain, common, or beautiful. Mount Caroline was just like the mountains surrounding her weather-worn exterior, but she was no less mesmerizing. She crept up from the earth in an array of grays and ashen browns, peeking over the green horizon in some spots, yet overshadowed the forest in others. Where she stood tallest, a height I could never quantify, Caroline reduced the wilderness below to toothpicks and pebbles. I thought she was just breathtaking, but I never expected you to feel the same. My mistake was believing you truly did.
I was an imperfect guide, I know this now. Where I excelled in the ways of the forest and the trees and rocks and creatures I failed my one true duty: people. More specifically, you. Though we had walked side by side for months, cutting our feet on the same rocks and fighting back the same woodland beasts, I never understood you. And maybe you never understood me. I would measure the hours and days by the shadows of redwoods. You burned your eyes to near blindness by tracking the sun. That unnatural attachment to the sky you had, that need to constantly look above rather than in front, was my greatest failure as a guide. No matter what, I could never make you understand how damaging and unreliable the logic of the sky was. Where I pressed the knowledge given by the moss on slate rocks, you countered with the changing position of Orion’s belt. I gave you the sweet, earthen embrace of coyote dens, cozy and warm, yet you craved the bitter cold, free from the Redwood’s protection. Even our sustenance, the mulberries and cactus water, you denied in favor of night air and that damned, empty horizon. But what really boggled my mind was your lack of compromise. I could never give you the sky. My job and references place me as an Earth-dwelling Guide of the Forest, not some celestial trekker. But for you, my companion, I certainly jumped into depths I knew nothing of.
We spent two whole days in that dying tree. I picked out a much finer one than you, a strong oak with a trunk thicker than ten strong men, with bright leaves of citron and burnt cinnamon that still clung to the wooden beast months into deep autumn. But it wasn’t high enough for you. No, none of the sturdy trees were up to snuff, but that twiggy grave seemed perfectly suited for your needs. I don’t think you even listened to my cries of discontent and warning because no matter what I warned, you just gazed up at the barely visible skyline. I don’t know what you saw in that tree, but the fact that the trunk towered so far into the sky that it became one with the horizon frightened me. But maybe that inspirited you more.
I remembered how you rushed to its side, trying with all your might to hurl your lumbering body up its brittle branches. I watched you fall about four times before the fun wore off, and I had to intervene to avoid serious bodily harm to your person. After dusting the broken bits of wood and dirt from your hair and jacket, I set to work carving out a path of safe steps for you to follow. You complained the entire time. You said I was “too slow” and “what’s the fun if every step takes five minutes to reason?”
To quiet your gabbing, I recited to you my mantra for the first and final time. As we scaled the weak branches and the soft, hollow body of that tree I recited to you:
“I am a Guide of the Forest,
and though I’ve had many companions before you
none will be as important as you.
Through trees and mountains and lakes
I shall walk beside you.
When it rains I shall give you my umbrella,
When it snows I shall give you my boots,
And should we meet Death,
I will give you my life.
Because I am a Guide of the Forest.”
Never again did I tell you of my oath. You became sullen and mute upon hearing it. I grew so anxious by the stillness of our passing silence that I missed your complaining.
We completed our climb the following night. After two days and nights of treacherous handiwork, I began to see why you loved the sky so much. Up so close to the deep indigo of the night, where our fingernails nearly scratched the surface of constellations and the blistering wind of dying autumn raised the flesh right from our bones, I witnessed for the first time the breadth of my work. We laid cradled in the embrace of two calm seas. Below, a lush green seascape painted with the purple hues of the starry ocean above. Where Earth met Sky, we stood right in the horizon line. I remember looking over to you, overjoyed with my newfound love of the heavens and I found myself compelled to tell you. But you weren’t ecstatic. You weren’t even happy.
Instead of looking straight ahead, right into the heart of the merging seas, you looked above. Still, you looked above the Earth, and maybe even above the stars, to God knows where. I went down first. You were still gazing above the bleeding colors of the morning turned afternoon when I finally reached the bottom.
You pressured me to find mountains in the months that followed. The trek came to an end when we saw Mount Caroline, and I couldn’t bare to push us any further in the dead of winter. The biggest complaint from you was that Caroline wasn’t that tall of a mountain, which I would always retort back with “Why don’t you find your own damn mountain then, huh?” That always ended the conversation before it ever started. I set up camp that night, tired, achy, and freezing from the journey. The fire was wonderful. So wonderful that I felt myself drifting to sleep right in front of its furious embers and crackles. I heard you speak right before that warm hand of dreams overtook me, but I never made out the syllables.
I woke to the cold. On my back, in my clothes, covering my bones. A small frost overtook my body, and I shivered so violently that the ground below quaked with each convulsion. The fire was dead, not even a flicker or a soft glow from decaying tinders. You were nowhere in sight. I looked in the small tent, around the campsite, even back over the trail we created hours before. You vanished.
My worries overtook my sensibilities, and I began combing over the forest. It was only by sheer luck that I found a footprint a mile north of our campsite. Following the path edged out by your heavy footsteps, I made find myself at the lake’s shoreline. The rising sun guided my sight, and the shimmering reflection of Mount Caroline in the waters paralyzed my being. I saw you.
At the very summit, you stood, my sight barely making out your upturned face. Your body seemed poised, held high and with a weightlessness I’d never seen before. Rather than hunching your body, holding yourself down, you raised your chest and arms to the sky above. For a moment, for a single moment, I thought you were just eager. That you needed to feel the beauty of the mountain below your feet. That being up there, alone and away from the world, from me, made everything wonderful and beautiful. I was so happy for you. So happy that I didn’t even register your soft descent.
Your body swayed forward, overtaken by the gravity of our world. With those outstretched arms cutting the early morning sky like crane wings, I truly thought you flew for a moment. I thought the heavens had accepted you into their fold, that the stars parted ways to give you entrance into the land above the sky, and that the sun shined brighter for its new companion. But I was a hopeful fool. And so were you.
You plummeted straight down, arms and legs flailing in the rushing air as the world came up faster and faster. Rejected by the sky, you fell to our Earth and I watched on in horror, running through the freezing water with my mantra straining my vocal cords in prayer. I knew my body could never make it in time. But still, when that soft ‘thud’ echoed through the morning, I collapsed to my knees. The river bed quaked beneath with my body, the shock and cold overtaking my senses. My legs and arms were numb with the ice water soaking through my clothes, and all I could do was watch my own reflection’s quivering lips utter a useless oath.
But how I crawled. Every bit of me was soaking wet and bitterly frigid, my heavy coat pulling me deeper and deeper into the stream, but how I crawled. My palms were cut on the river bed, and the blood mixed with yours in a cloud of fleeting life. I tried to beat it back, as if the stained river could ever falter to my trembling fists. You were a broken mass in the middle of that frigid void. I reached you, grappling at the tangles of your flesh and muscle with numb fingers. Your hair mixed with the shreds of your scalp and brain, a little bit of you floating all around us. I couldn’t say anything. I don’t even think I was anything in those moments. I was not a Guide, nor a friend, nor a person. I surrendered to the waters. The river held us both for a time, my eyes to capturing the scenes of my night terrors to come. And it’s not the gore I fear at night, nor is it the shards of your bones scraping into my knees. It’s not the bitter cold and chill housed in my bones to this day, nor is it the raging blood that stained my jeans. It’s your eyes I see in my nightmares.
How the fall didn’t obliterate them, like the rest of you, I have no idea. But in your eyes, those pristine, almost new looking eyes, I saw everything. The clouds of winter roaming over the sky. The edges of tree tops that skirted about your iris. A flock of late-migrating Blue Herons. The ever present shadow of Mount Caroline. My own face. But deep within your pupil, past the reflection of reality, I saw it. I saw something I’d never seen in you before, something that I don’t think I truly knew till it stared back at me. Your eyes laid in a broken face. I saw no life. But I saw joy.
Fiction piece by Rikileigh Perry