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Jan/Feb 2015 Fiction

Ascent

by Douglas Cole

Image courtesty of the British Library's Photostream


I drove east, north east, heading for my father's home. In the Cascades my poor horse labored and heated and slowed to a crawl, but we kept on moving through the high heat waves of midmorning and the crickets buzzing and the smell of pine needles baking on the ground. The temperature gauge showed red. I flipped on the heater, the cab filled with warmth, and I seemed to drive in a weird dream. Light and shadow across my vehicle, I drove through the alternating density of trees and sudden open spaces. I lost track of time and knew only I was moving away from the whirlpool of the city into another whirlpool of light and high clouds and granite ridge lines, rising from the forest breaks on slopes of gray shale into sharp walls and towers and peaks of blue ice.

Through the pass my horse began to run more free, the heat gauge needle dropping back down, and I turned off the heat as we cruised on down through the fluttering trees, the road seeming to float and rise and fall like a sea beneath me. I passed a few truckers, semi's, the occasional camper or pick-up truck, but rarely anyone else. No one seemed to see me.

When I came down into the eastern valley, I stopped in a little nowhere station. An old guy in grease pant overalls and a baseball cap with some emblem long ago worn away to obscurity came out, wiping his hands with a black rag. "What can I do you for?"

"Um... I'll just get a little food," I said. He nodded once, and I went into the station and wandered around.

"You got a bathroom?" I asked.

"Round back." He nodded toward the station, pointing with his eyes.

I went around the side of the station where there were old oil drums and car carcasses rusting in stacks and parts in barrels and wheels and engine blocks sitting on saw horses. The bathroom was an outhouse that smelled like the foul depths of perdition. I breathed as little as possible inside there. When I came out, I noticed a bumper lying tilted against an old Chevy, and on it hung an old license plate dangling by one rusty bolt. I looked around, didn't see the old man, and kicked the license plate off. It bent and twisted off and fell, and I stomped it flat and slipped it under my shirt behind my back.

I went back into the shop and grabbed a few snacks, some peanuts and beef jerky and beer, and I put them on the counter. The old guy stood there wiping his hands on that old black rag. "How much I owe you?" I asked.

He rang it up. Then he looked at me with an odd expression and kind of worked his mouth like he was biting the inside of his lip and said, "What you done?"

"What?" I said

"I said what you done, ya takin my license plate like that?"

"Nothing," I said. "I just wanted it for a souvenir."

"Ain't worth nothin."

"Then it's no loss."

"Take it. I don't care. Just seem like a strange thing to want for no reason."

"You ever do anything for no reason?"

"S'pose so."

"I'll pay you for it."

"Don't want your money. Like I said. It ain't worth nothin to me."

"Well, thanks then."

"Don't thank me. It's between you and God." I looked at him for a moment with an urge to explain, but he turned away and went back into the shadows, so I took my things and left.

 

I drove through the hot day and only stopped for some quick drive-through road food and kept on moving. Later, I did stop in an empty stretch of road and pried off my old license plates and tied that one I took from the old man onto the back of my car. It looked like it belonged on a Model A.

The blond road rose out of the distance from green seawave hills, and the white teeth of the Cascades diminished behind me. Theatrical clouds drifted into high anvil thunderheads off to the south. The valley floated in waves of heat, and a silver river slid with serpent scales flashing in the grasses as I followed it in my parallel course. At one point I looked down at my hands and they seemed to age before me, seemed as I watched them to become my father's hands. I felt pieces of myself dissolve until I could not tell where my legs ended and the car began. My arms went numb, and my mind shut down. I drove until bit by bit my mind wore away and I was simply the motion going forward, the road endlessly unfurling, becoming horizon and wind until something new began to appear.

The sun swung around as the earth spun on its invisible axis, and the shadows fell before me, my own vehicle's form leaping darkly ahead. I stopped just before sundown in a little town with boardwalks and bars and a few weathered shops and a real estate office with faded photographs of land perfect for building a dream home. I went into the hardware store and bought a few camping supplies: a little propane cookstove that folded down to the size of a book, a cookset, a knife, a flashlight, a tarp and a few blankets, and a large, sturdy backpack. Then I went to the market and bought some food: eggs and bacon and beans and bread and canned hash and soups in both cans and packets and coffee and finally two jugs of water, and I was gone from that town before I could become a memory to it.

I drove as the sun began to descend into the treeline. I headed up into a smaller range of mountains, and the pine trees began to accumulate again with their striated shadows. The river stayed with me, disappearing and reappearing on the other side of the road, then dipping down again as I crossed a small bridge and caught sight of its white surging force below. Just before dark, I drove off onto an old forest service road, following the river as it flowed through the hills, banks shoaled up with gravel beds arched high, going until the road dwindled down to a rut that faded out in a grove of white birch trees. I continued over land toward the sound of the river and maneuvered my car between four cedar trees with their limbs hanging down like a perfect hide-out. No one would be able to see me, especially in the dark, unless they drove right up on me.

I worked fast to set up a camp. I laid out my tarp and blankets and built up a little kitchen with rocks and made a fire ring. Then I sat down as the sun melted into a granite peak to the west, and I listened to the ticking of my car engine, listened and at last heard the voices of the river. I started to hike toward the river, then I stopped. I thought I heard something, other voices, the voices of people. I went back to my camp and listened, and I distinctly heard the voices of people out there somewhere. I walked toward those voices, trying not to be seen. And I remembered what my brother had said: you don't exist. That gave me confidence, and I slipped carefully through the trees, then stopped and waited and heard nothing. I looked around and saw nothing. What had it been? I waited again for a long time, remaining very still, but nothing appeared. I went back to my camp.

I sat there trying to penetrate the sounds around me, the river, the wind in the trees. Then I heard the people talking again, and again I crept out in search of them, but the closer I came to them or the place I thought they must be, the farther away they sounded, until I heard nothing at all. It was like they were moving away, then coming close. Like some game. I looked through the lace of tree limbs. I saw nothing. I moved slowly, keeping even my breath quiet and close. I stopped. I waited. Nothing again. I went back to camp.

Then I saw something, an orange hunting cap, there in the trees on the other side of the birch grove. I went out, stepping carefully so that I would not make a sound and be mistaken for an animal and get shot. But I saw no one. I waited there in the grove, in the open. And I saw movement on the perimeter. I followed it, wandering back through the birch grove. The limbs whispered around me, the little coin leaves flickering silver and green. The white trunks were a theater of eyes. But I found no one, nothing, and I thought, what the hell am I doing? Then it occurred to me that I might be going mad. Whenever I stopped, became still, I saw something or heard something. My heart was racing. My hands were shaking. I went back to my camp.

I must not panic, I thought. I gathered up some sticks and started a little fire. Light still moved through the treetops. I lit a cigarette and sat by the fire and grabbed hold of my brother's medicine pouch. No matter what, I decided, I will just stay put.

I was assaulted by voices, then, by intense conversations nearby, voices rising and falling, indictments, monologues, debates, harangues and laughter. And other sounds. But I did not move. And shadows flowed just beyond the edge of my camp, flickering, flashes of color, eyes. But I did not move. It became like some strange pageant of absurd forest monsters chattering, jumping, taunting me as they moved in closer and closer, my hands shaking, my heart racing, my guilty fearful mind fighting as I said over and over again, they're not real, they're not real, they're not real... trying to believe it, trying, and I began to sing a little song to myself, trying to fight it off, singing, home home heya, home home heya, home home heya, and it reverberated in my mind, created an invisible cloud of sound around me so that gradually the voices subsided and the shadows fell back as I rocked and sang and rocked and saw a deer appear there suddenly before me in the dusklight, a notch eared black tail deer standing at the edge of my camp. I went silent and gazed at her and she at me in an eternal moment during which neither of us moved, and my heart went calm and my mind went still and I just gazed into the black infinity of her eyes forever there in perfect trance communion without words she and I.

When the night fully arose and she faded away I tried to follow, but I only took a few steps, then let her go, knowing I had what she could give me and nothing more should I request as I stood there now in the darkness with a blanket over my shoulders and listened and heard nothing in the night and felt for the first time in...no time I could remember...peace.

 

In the morning I cooked myself a big breakfast of beans and bacon and eggs, and I made a big pot of coffee and stood in the center of my campsite as the sun came up and cast down shafts of light through the mist that drifted out from the waters of the river and moved through the limbs of the trees. Blue Jays and camp robber birds worked the edge of my campsite, and I tossed bits of bread to them. They darted in and carried everything I tossed them away, storing their catch in hidden places and coming back for more. And I began to distinguish them and gave them names like Ruffled Jaw for the one with a tuft of brown feathers splayed beneath its beak, Ace for the brave one that shot in first, Spaz for the one so frantic it missed everything because of its furious movement, and Watcher for the one that never came close.

Then at last I went down to the river. The sound of it grew as I approached. I pulled back the branches of a huge ash tree and found the water and crouched down beside it to see. I stared into it, watched as it coursed over rocks in thick glassy arcs of water, fast and powerful, jade green in its depths toward the middle way, rising and falling and cresting in plateaus of water that slid forward, held up by the shaping dreamflow of all water, then rills and circling eddies that seemed not to move at all, places of motionless motion that came out from below where I saw the quick of the deep flowing current scoring the bank, driving through, riffling the white submerged ash tree roots that twitched like antennae as they shot forth their horns from the black talus bed under water. I reached in and felt the ice cold flow over my hands. I touched the white roots of the ash, the ground bebeath. The cold of the water worked down into the bones of my hand. Then I raised my hand cupped with a palm full of water and drank.

A Flicker shot over the water and took hold in the branches above me. I looked into the oncoming current and saw a few paces up from my campsite where two rivers came together, water flowing into other water, surge and current combining their forces and volume in a howl of colliding momentum. Sunlight shot straight down through it all, striking a bright red and green salmon that nerved and thrust upstream. It seemed that I gazed in the water forever, a giant to that salmon watching as it hovered in light, as though he were locked in my gaze and would not move until I released him. I thought of nothing else. And then my attention wavered, and he shot forward and was gone. Farewell my brother, I thought, as I lifted a hand and cast a shadow that fell through the water.

When I walked back into my camp, the birds scattered to the nearby rocks and up into the low tree limbs and chattered their annoyance at me. But I didn't linger. I packed my gear into the trunk and scanned the camp for any remains and found none. The air was cool, and high above roamed the junkets of denser clouds. Then I thanked my camp for treating me well, tossed a few more bread crumbs to the birds, got in my car and started the engine. And as I pulled out and onto the forest service road I saw a deer, perhaps the same deer that I had seen the night before. I wanted to believe it. It jumped across the road and stood nearly invisible among the trees, and as I passed it watched me.

 

I saw no one on the winding county road. The river flowed with me then drifted away, and I banked and swayed on the fluttering road, alone, driving in a perfect trance on a road I had known forever. Visions of past journeys came back to me, of my father and brother and me traveling deep into the northern plain to my great grandfather's home, a place he had built above an ancient lake when he emigrated here from Ireland. It was almost impossible to find, buried deep in the low-lying hills by the lake, misleading signs pointing down roads that lead finally away. It seemed we could find it only by instinct and by ignoring the county maps. The house burned down, leaving nothing but the stone wall of my great grandfather's foundation, a dry mason's masterpiece. Then my grandfather rebuilt it and kept it a going concern but eventually moved when prices dropped and the apple crops failed to produce enough to live on. For years, living in the city, my father talked incessantly of going back there. He talked of shedding the great weight, the chains of the city, and when our mother passed on and left him alone, he did. And he never came back.

Before that, we used to come out for summer trips to fish and to hunt. But that was another life, and I was a thief of those memories. I thought my way back into the present, my flight, and it occurred to me that when the police did not find me in the city they would eventually come out here. My hope was that I had made a good start and would be long gone before they arrived. I had to translate that time into escape.

I drove into the high altitude. Rain rolled in. I drove the wild blue road through a thick forest of mixed fir and pine trees and the quickening ripple of clouds flowing low. A white oblivion mist devoured the treetops and settled into a more absolute darkness in the depths of the surrounding forest. I plunged headlong into that narrow funnel of road as rain swept down. I flipped on the windshield washers, cutting into the watery world. I dove through the gray iris of storm and the shining black pupil of distance, a distance out of which mile on mile of two lane road went on forever.

 

The storm broke and passed on. I drove in a trance for many hours. And then my father's house appeared on its hill above a shimmering aspen grove. Its windows blazed in the late afternoon sunlight, and clouds streaked over it like wings. A small black creek ran down from the hills on the north side and through the remains of the apple orchard and finally down along the road and further on to join the greater rivers. I drove up through the orchard, stopped, and sat there for a moment looking at the house. It was so bright in the sunlight it looked like it was made of fire.

I lit a cigarette and listened to the crickets. White moths fluttered close to the ground. The orchard was an abandoned mess with some trees twisted and overgrown and nearly lying on the ground, others dead from the inside with ashen limbs and gray black bark. A few remained tough and tall with the weighted clusters of apples hanging from their boughs. Years back, when our grandfather had lived here, we came out and helped with the harvest. It was a flourishing orchard then, even if it didn't make much money. But when our grandfather left, it fell back into wild neglect. Our father never tended to it, had moved back into the house as a silent watcher only to spend his last years in quiet idle observance. Could it be resurrected? I wondered.

I got out and walked up to the house and found the front door open. I went in. It looked like nobody had lived here for years. Dust covered the floor and the window sills. There were animal droppings all around. Some of the windows were broken out. And most of my father's things were gone, though a few things still remained. It had the look of a place abandoned in haste. There were some cans of food in the cupboards, a heavy brown canvas coat and a rifle in one of the closets, some shot-gun shells in a drawer, and a photograph of me and my brother taken when we were little kids, standing up on a rock with bare chests, snarling like two little bears, our hands raised like claws. I looked at it for a long time, went into the time of the picture, that moment, then pulled myself free.

I suppose I was not that surprised that he left, but I wondered where he had gone. I went back outside and stood on the front porch from where I could see the road descending through the hills for several miles. I calculated that I had an hour or two of sunlight left, so I unloaded my few supplies and placed them in my backpack: blankets on the bottom and against the back, then canned goods, including the ones from my father's cupboards (for a moment, I wondered, had he left them for me?), the cook set, one water jug and the rest of the food on top, and at last the tarp; then, I put matches and pliers, flashlight and batteries, shot-gun shells and the knife in the outer pouches. It was a nice, light-weight pack, a good set-up. I tried it on. It felt okay, now, but after a few hours of hiking I knew it would feel heavier. It would be all right, though, I decided. It would do. And I set it on the porch along with the shot-gun and the canvas coat.

I drove the car around to the back of the house and threw the tarp from the woodpile on it and placed some wood on top to hold the tarp down. If anyone were truly searching for me, they would find it of course, but my intention was more to protect it from the elements.

I smoked and looked out to the west where the sun was half dissolving in a bank of clouds that rolled subsuming through the pine ridges. The light fanned out in beautiful rose hues along the mackerel scrimshaw of clouds above, punched through in sunbolts that strafed the valleys below. And rogue clouds raced juggernaut in the wind, dragging their shadows across the hills.

When I came back around to the front of the house, I looked down the hill again, and this time I saw the flash of a windshield. A car was coming up the hill. I froze for a moment, thinking it might be my father. Then I knew it was not my father. I knew it without a doubt. And that road led nowhere but here.

I went up on the porch and put on the pack with the coat strapped on top. Then I picked up the rifle. I went down the steps and hiked around to the back of the house and jogged across the back clearing and up towards the north ridge. I went fast and dove into the cover of trees. I listened, but I heard nothing.

I hiked up further. There was no trail, so I bushwhacked through the brush, trying not to leave signs of my passage. I stopped and listened again. Then I heard an engine in the distance. I was maybe two hundred yards from the house. I listened again, listened and heard nothing. Then I headed on, glanced back and could just barely see the house through the trees, and as I hiked my heart pounded fast, sweat pouring down. I hoped for quick darkness.

After I had made about a mile and a half, I heard an odd sound, a kind of pounding, rhythmic, pulsing. It grew, then I realized it was a helicopter. I was stunned. I never expected this. I heard it circling overhead, and I hiked faster, picking up the pace. The sunlight was fading slowly, but it was dark enough now that I could not see very far ahead. This meant they could not see very well, either. Come darkness, I thought, come. Then I saw a light about a hundred yards below me, a spotlight from the helicopter. And the helicopter circled with its spotlight shooting down through the trees. I heard a voice amplified and echoing in the gorge below, but I could not tell what it said.

I hiked over the soft loamy branches and ferns, ran in the clearings where I could see ahead of me. I walked as fast as I could through the denser woods, climbing over fallen tree trunks. At least, I thought, no road comes this way and there's no place to land that beast, so if they follow me, they will have to follow me on foot. My pack would slow me down, but they did not know where I was exactly. The woods spread around from my father's house for miles in all directions. And I had the advantage of the lead and some knowledge of the land.

After a while, the helicopter seemed to drift on farther away to the west, and I no longer heard the amplified voices. I slowed a bit and tried to get my bearings. I did not want to go in circles inadvertently. I knew I had to keep ascending, get across the ridge and into the next valley. No roads went there. It was open for thousands of miles, essentially borderless. The air was cool and my breath plumed before me. Stars began to appear overhead through the trees. I could hear the creek running down the hill on my right. I readjusted my pack and tied the rifle on the back to free my hands. I took out the flashlight, turned it on. I listened for a while, pushing my senses out, listening deep into the woods for all sounds. I heard whispers like straw in my ears, wind, the voices of the water, but nothing of men. I kept moving, my head down and concentrating on my steps, my own little light from the flashlight illuminating the smallest of circles before me. I kept moving, looking up from time to time but moving, moving. Then I saw a bright star, and I knew it, my brother's star, Polaris. "Thank you, brother," I said aloud. My heart leaped. I kept it before me, hiking on, always sure that I had it in sight.

I hiked through most of the night, stopping only for brief rests and to drink from my water jug. And I listened. I heard no voices, no sound of engines. I listened hard and heard only the sound of an owl singing somewhere far off. Maybe they had called it off for the night. Maybe they would resume tomorrow. I wondered if they had gone to my brother. From the crown of my will I imagined him, his blue eyes shining like mine, drifting toward me from the ragged clearing, his face blazing with light. I smiled, thinking of what he had said, and I reached up and touched the medicine pouch. I was sure they would never find me.

I hiked on. The temperature dropped. I heard the perpetual sound of water, the creek nearby, and I was sure in my mind where I was. I hung the flashlight back on the pack and hiked on, my steps purely instinctual, sure and unfaltering. And my sight went out slowly inch by inch as into a stone, disclosing the lattice of fallen limbs, the green burst of mosses, the flaring red eyes of mice. The air became cold, and late into the night I felt snow crunching beneath my feet. I took the canvas jacket and put it on. It kept me warm and helped cushion the weight of the pack and the rifle. Coyotes howled, and a thin, crescent Cheshire moon arose grinning through the geometry of trees.

 

Finally, I stopped. I just sat there for a long time, listening. All could hear at first was my own hard breathing. I could see absolutely nothing. And after a while, when my breathing slowed down, I could hear nothing at all. I stayed that way for a long time. At the first sign of pursuers I would get on the move again. But at this point I figured it was best to stay still. I had learned that lesson. I could not imagine anyone following me in this darkness. The woods were dense and hard enough to navigate in the daylight without a trail. I was hidden. And I kept thinking of what my brother had said... you don't exist. Well, of course I did exist, and certainly the marks of my passing had been discovered back at my father's house. But at this point, in this time, I had essentially disappeared. Certainly there was a chance someone was coming, but it was unlikely.

So now what? It occurred to me that it might be better just to set up a dry camp. No fire. I also thought it might be a good idea not to set up anything at all. Just wait till light and keep moving. It was too risky to get my stuff out. If someone should appear, I would have to move quickly, and I might not have time to gather up everything I needed. And I needed everything I had.

I was cold. My nose and my cheek bones felt numb. My hands and feet were bitter cold, too. I had begun to shake. I felt a vague and menacing apprehension. And I knew the air was getting colder. I didn't know how high I was in terms of altitude, but I could feel the difference in the temperature. The risk of not building a fire was perhaps worse. I was not equipped with heavy clothes, and I was susceptible to the elements. In the end, I decided to build a fire.

I found a spot in a clearing and gathered up some dry sticks and twigs from beneath the trees to get a fire started. The ground was dry, sheltered as it was by the canopy of the forest. I took off my pack and listened again and heard nothing. Okay, this would do. I opened my pack and took out a few of the cans and ripped off the labels to use for starting the fire. My hands were numb. They felt lifeless. I couldn't actually feel the things I was touching. I had to concentrate to make my fingers move. In fact, I watched my hands working with a strange and distant awareness, as though I were watching another person's hands, even though I was consciously controlling them.

And then I just stood there. I was cold, yet I felt closer to something, standing outside myself, as though I were climbing higher into a moment of freedom when the mind is opened, like the child's first trip away from home. I was light, breathless, floating in space. What a beautiful sensation. I didn't want it to end. It struck me. I was safe. For the moment, nothing was happening. My mind flew back over the course that brought me here, the driving, the stop at my brother's place, the stop at the old house. Somehow, my flight had taken me over old ground. A pattern seemed to show itself. A crooked smile. Then something happened in my vision. I felt like I was seeing through a long tunnel. I felt like I was physically moving through that tunnel, even though I was simply standing there. Something was near. No, someone. But I couldn't see. I knew it, though. I waited, like a person in a haunted house waiting for an actor to jump out. A flash. Wait a minute. A sort of blue light appeared. Was I close to dawn? Stay still, I thought. Stay still. I had to fight a growing sense of panic. But concentrating like that, I kept myself out of it. Then I felt my body again. I made myself feel my body again.

With a new focus, I crumpled up the labels and clustered the grass and twigs over them and lit the paper. This took real effort. But I soon had a smoky little fire started. I found a few seasoned branches and broke them over my knee to make smaller pieces and coned them on the flames that were going. Now I had a good little campfire. Then, for or a moment, I panicked because I thought I might be making a mistake, but again, I fought the feeling back and stayed calm. The forest was thick, so I shouldn't really worry about anyone seeing the light of the fire. I certainly didn't hear any helicopters overhead, and if they had come I suppose I would have doused the fire, but as it was I heard nothing. So I sat there just absorbing the warmth and the light, letting my mind settle a bit into the dance of flames and the pitch-crackle of the wood.

Sensation came back to my hands and feet. The fire was a success. And I kept feeding it with twigs the size of my fingers and occasionally ones the size of my wrist, careful to protect the nucleus. I didn't need a big fire, just a need fire to get me through this. And so I kept my fire going, but I didn't sleep. I listened. No voices this time. I had moved past that. I listened, listened hard, but now I had entered that quiet space where nothing comes. All was stillness. And I stayed there as long as I could, as long as it lasted.

 

It was gradual at first, almost indistinguishable, a gray glowing forth of the trees, a gathering of substance in the earth around me. I was coming out of the darkness again. So I gathered my things and kicked the dirt over the place where I had built my fire. I scattered the collection of twigs I had gathered. I scuffed up the ground where I had been. I did a good job of erasing any trace of my being there. And I moved on.

In the twilight I made my way. And as I went, I could feel something in the forest change. I noticed it in the light. Not the light of growing day, but something else, the way the light was coming through, the way it was reaching me. The trees were more spread out, now, and I could see farther on through the gaps between them. I was approaching new ground.

And then I was in an open space, a gray land between darkness and light where the forest ended and another landscape began. I felt like a mole emerging from its hole as I moved through the trees. I saw the world spread out, the white waves of snow glowing out and away. And the sun broke its eastern plane, light flowing over the clouds, clouds rolling deep through the valleys below me, mountain peaks rising like islands. I was above it all in a dreamsea of sky, seeing in every direction. And I went forward, one black hawk far ahead on the cool arc of wind. And I went forward, thinking, I'll try, I'll try my luck again, going forward into the vast white field.

 

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