C.G. went to the forest. She lied about going on a sleepover―at Eleanor’s, Ma, and found her parents’ trusting, Okay, Cee, maliciously benign. She slammed the front door, shouted an apology and left, to pedal furiously along the road winding like a concrete shoreline by the river. At its end she hid her bike under bushes.
A farmer she recognized from the Saturday market allowed her on the back of his pickup along with his cants, toms, corn and berries. She ate one ear of fresh, raw corn while she was in the back of that truck, threw the husk to the floorbed and let the silk glide in the air to the road.
At Tadpole Creek, where the side road meets the highway, the farmer stopped; she cut him off before he could ask any questions. “A good kid,” he decided and drove on.
Again she hitched. Lowered her thumb when three different drivers who made her anxious slowed. Accepted a lift from a teenage boy whose great ambition was showing off his red four-door. The road ended; he yanked the emergency brake. She fidgeted with her ponytail and thanked him, trying to blend finality with gratitude. She was going solo and needed him to understand.
His face flushed while she listed her scouting badges in outdoor survival.
“I-I-I was an Eagle Scout,“ he said.
Two ravens met overhead, exchanged ancient caws and flapped away.
The boy worried a speck of dust on a fender. “Okay, then.“ C.G. watched as he backed up; held her breath when he stopped; breathed with relief when he shrugged at her insistence she was fine and drove off.
Holy cow. She scampered up another, smaller road, this one gravel, past a deserted campground. It was too early in the year for campers; the park service wasn’t recommending anyone hike until June, and all the better. She loved the month of May, its flower baskets and magic Celtic feel. May a good month for a quest.
She reached the trailhead and pressed onward, gaining 300 feet in ten minutes; putting real distance between her and the bothersome world, drawing herself into the Cascades.
When she spotted blueberry bushes, she crawled under to lie on her back and stare at swaying pines and hemlocks in the misty air. She looked past ripe green leaves of the blueberries to the deep and silver greens above. Drops of water slid from leaves, splashed into her eyes and magnified the flattened structure of each leaf and tension of droplets, the universe enlarged. She remembered a time she was with her sisters and parents driving. There was no outdoors in that memory. There was only the enclosed space of an old, gray car. In the back seat, an older sister on either side, sat C.G. The family was lost. Her father swore. Her mother prayed. Each sister pinched her and she’d cried. Did they care? Nah.
She started walking and realized that wile her mind stayed anchored back home, the trail was too wet for distractions; her judgment failed, her foot was sucked into slick mud. She teetered, yanked her boot out―she was strong―and make her way onward, concentrating on the present.
Clouds abounded but there was no rain; the air rang sweet and dank. C.G. headed for a rocky area that looked safe, veered away, choosing in favor of comfort. Her mattress that night was to be an almost convex surface with a patch of resilient undergrowth. She shook out plastic, unrolled her pad and sleeping bag; stretched her tarp above, fixing it between a tall dense bush and a tree.
Water from a nearby brook was so cold it made her head ache; she filled her jug. Four matches wouldn’t ignite, then bla-zooie, a fifth flamed so she could light her small stove. She sipped hot tea, chewed raisins and cashews.
And studied the wonder of a mountain with aspens and maples emerging from its slopes. You’re my spirit guide, she informed its unmovable form. Witches used cats for familiars. But I have you, my beauty. Mountains were women, she decided.
A quick sparkle above the peak made her heart race. Was this was a sign? Hey! She waited for more, but the sky became hazy wool; she crawled into her sleeping bag, and fell asleep like slumber was an enchanted well and she’d been thrown in. Once she woke and stuck her head out from the tarp. She craned toward the summit where this time she thought she saw a flash, but after groping for her glasses―stashed in a boot―she was disappointed. The sky was dim and dull. And vast and unsettling, she thought with the confidence of the impassioned, to anyone who was not on a mission such as I am.
At sunrise she heated water to boil the two eggs she’d brought as a treat. She manged to drop both and saw the yolk spread on the ground; her breakfast was brown bread.
She needed something―armor or strength against meddlers of the world―to maintain herself―Carla Genevieve Matilda Standish-McMannis (as soon as she saved up the money she was changing her name, that was a given, what kind of parents hyphenated―or let two daughters have a say in naming the third?). She sorted and rolled her gear and slung her arms through her khaki backpack’s straps. Clouds scuttled, exposing her mountain’s classic peak the color of cedar, bare at its crest of everything but snow, a glacier on an oddly sloping side.
The final half-mile to the gap was strewn with rocks and boulders and she had to pick her way with care, step-by-step, sometimes one hand against a boulder to steady herself. This tedious climbing, this sense of being tossed and tumbled, left her grumpy. She wanted to be on level ground and when, after so many deliberated steps she could walk freely, C.G. threw herself on flat greenery. In her bliss she saw short climbs of 300 or 400 feet and across the valleys in all directions, the glorious range of mountains of which her peak―cipher and sibyl―was part.
What’s the secret?she asked; how do you do it? It seemed stoic, unless the occasional rock slide was a mountain’s way of complaining. It outlasted trees; would outlast anyone she was related to.
She rolled on her side. Before her was a tiny floating ghost of a mountain, a doppelganger which vaporized to became the sum of its parts and the essence of that sum: a mystical cloud wafting towards her, hovering, and in an instant, dissipating.
Are you playing tricks on me?
The cloud reappeared and disappeared.
Her family would smirk if they heard about her vision―and maybe they’d be right. It was weird.
We need to stop thinking and get to work. Was that her mother’s voice? In my mind’s stupid ear. The indoctrination would follow her to whatever corner of the globe she fled. She trudged up another 200 or 300 feet where she found a hollow tree to lean against as she ate a piece of bread and a few cashews. Clouds sped by, their spreading shadows dragging along green curves, the peaks and slope of the land beneath, slowly and sensuously.
Like a hand.
That was how lovers touched lovers. She just knew it―no experience necessary. She considered her mission―how to become so important every star in the sky would know her, every human on earth would love her, love C.G., for who she was. She tried to picture her life unfolding into high school and college and jobs and travel and maybe family. What she imagined was the short form of a decent life, the form without worry, disappointment or injustice. In her imagined future, she moved with grace and importance through jobs, award and applause. C.G. was fully in the future. When she looked around she was disoriented, then sensed she was being watched.
Was that a rustle in that tree? Her neck was plugged into an electric cord―her hair was straight and flying. Maybe another hiker was messing with her. Maybe red-car boy was a psycho and she’d missed the signs. An eagle flew in the distance. Had to mean something.
In an effort to make the eerie humdrum, C.G. whistled and ran her hands through her wild hair, rocked herself eye-level with a hollow in the log. Oh, not a good idea. She saw two eyes, white and round and chestnut and peering―with the sure, cold insight―from inside the dead tree. Damn. C.G. was afraid to move. But that was why she was here. For a test. To get strong.
Leave! she demanded. The afternoon felt quiet. She tried to sing, but notes fell to her lap. Time for me, then, she muttered, standing up, squinting left and right. Time for me to scout the best route out. She assured herself, It’s all gonna be fine and dandy, dandy and fine. The warm sun soothed, the air was soft and pine-scented. She hadn’t figured life out yet, but she was scoring points and she had another night. A whole other night.
She swung her pack off the ground but the freaking bulky thing was alive. She dropped it and jumped away.
C.G. knew she had to get going, and that she couldn’t leave her backpack with all her provisions. She inhaled seriously, like her oldest sister did when practicing yoga, then closed her eyes and put her finger on her third eye. Wow. Energy circled into her index finger, hand, arm and coursed through her body. She lifted her pack; her fingers curled around the strips. Everything inside was inert. She settled it on her back and laughed she’d thought there had to be a battle between bad and good, darkness and light. She wasn’t Guinevere or St. Joan, wasn’t brave as Harriet Tubman or defiant as Antigone.
“You haven’t come into your own, dearie.”
C.G. almost collapsed. A hand encircled her with short fingers which barely curled over half her forearm, but they were strong. It was attached to a creature, No, not a creature, a woman, but a woman like no one I’ve ever seen.
“I’m real,” the creature, female, said.
Something happened―a movement of clouds―a play of light and dark. C.G. could see the female’s gray eyes which saw her as she wasn’t sure she wanted to be seen. That creature had too much wisdom for any one person or any one creature.
“Are you sure you’re real?”
Something scuttled along the ground. They were too high for snakes but C.G. did a quick jig, the kind you do when you don’t want an unknown near your ankles.
“Real enough.” The non-human feline almost smiled. “I’m a…” she paused, and C.G. thought her expression was cynical or sarcastic, the kind teachers and parents hated. “I’m what’s known as a crone.”
The crone―for sure not a word the woman liked using to describe herself―crouched next to her. C.G. saw she was beautiful in the way women could be―with lines and imperfections and supreme confidence in their power.
“See this?” The old woman blew on her palm and the air filled with dust that was more than dust. C.G.’s eyes stung and her throat hurt. “Not earth. Just clutter. Something temporal.” She assumed C.G. understood or knew enough to get the drift. “Don’t let yourself be so pulled into it.”
C.G. shuddered. She realized night was on the way.
The woman not quite real, or too real, pulled at her long matted hair. “You’re not there yet, but it’s there for you, someday. I have no magic for you and no more advice and about that I don’t care.” And disappeared. C.F. heard a howl or cackle.
She knew she’d better move, and would have but she no longer knew what move meant. It had something to do with her feet and legs, right? The last thing she wanted to be was a news item―Missing Mountain Teen, or the focus of an editorial on the burden of inexperienced campers on search-and-rescue teams. She was ashamed for such a trivial thought after such a momentous meeting, but then nothing was good or bad. Her feet tingled like they’d fallen asleep and were waking up. She hauled down a different trail, found a spot midway down and set up. After slunging up her tarp and boiling water, she crawled into her sleeping bag, a hot canteen by her feet.
Now, a tarp thrown over a rope to make an A-frame shelter is no tent. Each end is exposed to the fathomless black of a mountain night. The tarp didn’t afford much protection, but she barreled into an exhausted sleep.
And woke a few hours later to hear a shrill and gripping whine as if all of life’s suffering as knew it at her age had been drawn out in one audible line of pain. The pain of a life without every person alive cheering her on.
It’s over. She was ready to die. The crone showed up to lead me to the next world.
Was she was breathing? Her life would have flashed by, but she hadn’t come to the mountain to review her life. She’d come to prepare for it.
The chanting stopped.
When she woke at break of day, she saw raindrops beading the tarp. She became a spin of smooth and even impulse, packing, slipping on her large, bright poncho, tending to the details.
The mystery of life: some fear, some pain, some cessation. Some joy. Some tranquility. That wasn’t the answer but she was preparing to find an answer, maybe in a few years, maybe on her deathbed. She squinted through mist. Trees like troops flanked the mountain’s stout sides. Her spirit leaned, then sank, into the hillside of evergreens.
She reached the trailhead and made her way to she the gravel road where, in the late afternoon, she was picked up by a friendly threesome of fishermen in a station wagon. She sat in the far back with a collie and a golden retriever while the men talked.
“What we didn’t catch this trip just won’t be caught.”
“Nothing like it.”
“We got some good fish.”
“Good fish and good fishing.”
They dropped her off on the river road at her bike hideaway. The boy with the red car anxiously waited. He asked if she was okay, poured her coffee from his thermos and told her he’d spent most of the time since he dropped her off driving between the trailhead where he’d let her off and the river Then her sisters pulled up. On a hunch they’d called the friend she claimed she was visiting; noted her missing bike and pack; rummaged through maps on her desk; sweated it out; said nothing to their parents. The boy tied ’s bike to the roof of the family car, and waved.
She was glad to be with her sisters even though they didn’t stop crabbing―she was foolhardy, she was a dope. But together they snuck her through the back door so she could bathe, dress in her flannel bed clothes and greet her mother and father with respect and cordiality. Her parents kissed her with love and the usual confusion.
When she bolted upright at three a.m., hearing the chant, she called out, remembered the wail could end. She remembered the crone, and fell asleep, one hand dangling off the mattress above a small clump of earth she’d shaken from her boots.