On the Slope of Olympus

                Every mountain suggests a tragic tale. Beginning, as all tragedies do, at a broad foundation, a base of emotion. You rise, you climb, towards a narrowing peak. Everything leads to the highest point, the loss you cannot see until it looms before you. Once you climb the mountain, once your heart has rent in twain, you can look down. Past the thinning tree line, the scraggly oaks, the brooks that feed the streams that feed the rivers, the water always rushing down, down. You look past the mountain and see the whole of the land, and you see how inevitable it was that you came to be here. You see the leavings of all that fell away from you, the slow dying of the bereaved. And you look up to find that nothing remains. Nothing but the hollow feeling that has become all you are.

                This Father thought, numb to the cold, deaf to the nattering guide that lead them towards God.

                The brief moment of camaraderie had long been forgotten by the seven pilgrims, the seven mourning souls driven here by their need for answers. Indeed, as they climbed together, shuffling through dirt, tripping over weed and underbrush, they had never felt more separate from one another. Silently, they judged, each not recognizing their arrogance reflected in the others.

                How dare they? How dare they encroach on my search for peace?

                The old man, their surprisingly surefooted guide, prattled on. “Five minutes, not a second more, not a second less. Every question you can have answered in that span you can ask. At the end of your time, together we will decide if you can be allowed to leave. Or if you will join the legion of the waiting. We will decide if you are worthy.”

                Strange words, and since they meant nothing to the assembled—outside of the fact that they will be allowed to ask the question burning in each heart—they ignored them as they scrabbled up Olympus’ backside. Brother and Sister held hands. If one fell, the other helped him or her up. They did not cry. Neither were left with tears to spare. Brother stopped briefly to watch a ratsnake slithering past in the grass.

                Mama, he mouthed. Mama?

                She showed them how to trap small game once, in a wood sandwiched between two Appalachian Mountains. How best to bait them. How to find the common trails used by rabbits, squirrels, hares and woodchucks. How to move silently through these woods. It had been some years in the orphanage since, but slowly memories returned to them.

                He watched the snake who regarded him in kind, unblinking and not moving its flat-black head. Brother made to creep low and quiet towards its home in the knoll, to wring the life from it for its insolence as Mama taught him, but was pulled away gently by Sister. She shook her head sadly, not wasting words on what her reproving gaze made clear. No, they whispered, remember why we are here.

                We will ask God why together.

                Never looking up from her ever growing mess of yarn, the Elder didn’t miss a step up the mountain side that sloped steadily upward. Though her task consumed her, her feet had eyes of their own.

                Quiet steps for the quiet Mother and her unnaturally happy child. Father could not figure this infant, seemingly warm in the cold, never hungry, never needing to be held. The longer they walked, the longer its Mother continued to ignore the life on her back, a suspicious grew in him: this ‘child’, this thing, whatever it was, was not human. He caught the boy watching him back, surreptitious glances from beneath the swaddling clothes. The babe wore the conniving smile of a far older man, grey eyes gleaming with sharp intelligence.

                They ascended in silence. The air grew thinner, their flesh chilled and their souls dour. Approaching the tree line, the forest shrank away. Flora that survived the oxygen poor atmosphere managed shriveled lives, clinging to the rocky slope like gangrenous limbs mid-amputation—only attached by sinew and ligament—like a stiff wind would send them tumbling back down the mountainside.

                Yet they remained. As did the pilgrims, climbing past brambles towards the apex of their grief, God and the summit.