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Published Sunday, December 16th, 2012

Words by

The Mountain

The woman at the top of the mountain wears a blue glass pendant in the shape of a triangle, and a hemp choker. She asks me for the time when I take out my earbuds. I look at my iPod and tell her, 3:32. I sit on my rock and wait for her to leave. She walks off, down the stony spine to the west. After she vanishes, I stretch out my legs and look across the valley at the shadows of the clouds moving on the far hills. There is a light like the sun on a tiny mirror, opposite me.


I see her head rise dark black against the white peaks when she comes back up the spine of the mountain. She is wearing a wicked pink top, new running shorts, and carrying a sleek backpack with a water tube coming out of it. She stands ten feet away, tossing her hair, and shifts her weight onto her hip, looking out across the valley.


I decide to outwait her.


With her gear and necklaces, she is not a real hippie. A hippie-yuppie who lives in town, a pack doubtless stuffed with granola bars and energy gel packets. The mountain is new to her. She considers the thirty-minute drive up the canyon an escape: from people, traffic, life. She is here to get in touch with something.


I absently curl into the crook of a rock, massaging the yellow bruises on my knee from a fall I took on my last jog up here.


There are magpies cawing loudly down below us, like carrion birds. They fly back and forth, their wings almost oily in the light.


She squats down. Will she not leave? I look over and she is still gazing out across the valley. The river of sun between the clouds shifts but is unchanging. There are white things, possibly blossoms, in the lower reaches of it.


There is no reason, of course, for me to wait her out. I jog up here every day. I look down at my ragged cotton t-shirt. My sweat, my DNA, is indelible on these stones. Hers will flake away in the next rain.


She smiles beatifically, squatting, now trailing her hand in the dirt, now looking out over the mountains, touching her pendant. Doubtless, she is having an Experience. If only, she thinks to herself, I would leave.


In order to have something to do I pick up small stones and throw them at the magpies. I do not have good aim, and they fall short, but the birds always scatter. Then loop back for more.


She takes the neat little tube from her pack and sucks down some water, still smiling.


There is a noise of a helicopter, but you cannot see it. I imagine someone asphyxiating, or convulsing from rattlesnake poison, somewhere in one of those small hidden houses below us. The helicopter thuds like a pulse. Otherwise these mountains present a silence so smooth it would crack like a vase with one tap.


I stand up so as to have better aim at the magpies. The rocks I throw ring as they hit the ground. The magpies fly off in all directions and do not return.


The woman settles from her squat, taking a seat on a rock. She stretches out her legs like mine. Battens down. Her pendants sparkle as she plays with them.


There are more profound ways, of course, to destroy the sacredness. I contemplate putting in my earbuds and cranking up Eminem. I could jerk my head in time while still looking, as she is, out at the high far peaks.


I find, however, that I cannot.


Seated, she folds her hands across her stomach as if she is comfortable. Surely, with those bony legs, she cannot be. I tuck my legs back into my chest. The sweat from my run is drying on my thighs and the wind is cool.


If I look at the time she is winning.


We wait for hours. The sun inches down the sky. The trees will get black, then bruise-purple. I think of a cup of coffee waiting for me back at home. It is cold. I think of the way ceramic shatters on boulders like silence.


The shadow of the lone tree is moving to consume mine. Ten feet away, still she is glazedly smiling. Against the wind it has become a fact, a sculpted fact, not a feeling.


The pulse of the helicopter has long since died. The wind is marshaling itself in the valley: a low, building moan. I dig my fingernails under an old scab on my knee and I pull it off. There is a bright pain, unexpected. A line of blood trickles down my leg, then puddles in my sock.


The light across the valley begins to wink. Chattering, the magpies return, but they are cautious. They keep to the shadows, just a dark motion in the pines.


I could throw stones at her too. I could drive her off with sticks, screaming. I could break her spindly body on these rocks and I could give it to those magpies.


It is getting towards dusk now.


With her short dark hair, she looks like the mother of a friend of mine whose father committed suicide, two years ago. I wonder suddenly if she is up here to remember someone: a husband or an old friend who died up in these mountains. Or died anywhere at all—they all come back to the mountains. Perhaps the point of light across the valley is a sign for her. Perhaps she thinks that somewhere in the dying sun something speaks to her.


Her face is thirty-something, or older, and sad.


I find that none of this stops me from hating her.


Presently, she stands up. I catch her looking over at me. Smiling no longer, her face is oddly forlorn. She does not make to go anywhere, but bends over, reaching down and touching her toes, then tracing shapes in the dirt. She unwraps a packet of energy gel, or maybe a power bar—the wrappers all sound the same.


I remain seated, though the rock is cold. I count the trees with the small white blossoms climbing up the side of the distant hill.  The blood on my leg is clotted, almost purple. She cannot trick me.


She finishes the food and stands for a while longer. I feel the pressure of her gaze. I look down below at the moving, sleepy magpies. After a time, I hear the sound of footsteps. She walks around the top of the mountain once. When I turn around, I see her pink form disappearing down the trail.


After she leaves, I kiss my wrist and I do as I have done every day that I’ve come up here, making a silent wish to the snowy peaks. A cottonwood seed floats in the last of the light. The ring of her boots on the rock recedes, two switchbacks below. I look at the flickering light across the valley, and I trail my thumb down my knee, stirring the ragged edges, smearing the fluid across my leg.


I stand and stretch, staring across at the far peaks. Then I glance down at the boulder where I had waited out all of these hours.


Savagely, shamefully, I mark the spot where I sat with an ‘X’.

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