Peak Olympus

                Gradually they came to the peak and only then did their journey begin. The nattering old man, in a tan robe that brushed the ground, stopped and turned to his flock as they cleared the last outcropping of rocks. From here the pilgrims looked down and saw nothing but clouds. The enormity of the task before them had consumed all trace of their journey. Nothing remained but the question. Nothing but what they set out to accomplish: confronting God. Demanding answers for the enormity of loss.

                “Why. We must understand why.” Man, woman and child each had the same thought in the silence.

                The skies were clear, yet the flattened peak was covered in snow. The elder smiled, forgetting her tangled mass of yarn for a moment to run her hand through the sleet. It was fine and cold, melting quickly in her hands. Olympus’s top was a smooth dome and reminded her of her balding husband, whose hair had melted white, and then away to nothing as the decades passed. Still he refused to embrace age, clinging to what frizz remained as he approached his eight decade. He died in the bathroom, applying balm to his scalp purported to encourage hair growth. She buried him in a full, brown wig. It was what he would have wanted.

                Why? Why wasn’t I first? She closed her eyes, dropped her white knitting onto the white Earth, and awaited an answer.

                To the others who walked with her, trudging up the slope as she had, seeking answers as she did, it appeared that she stepped forward, dropped her yarn, and disappeared into the open air. They did not gasp, numbed as they were by their own losses, but merely waited. Waited for her to resurface, or for their own audience to begin. For her part, the elder did not know she was transported. Only that the sun rose, that a beam shining bright obliterated the world around her.

                If you were first. You would not be here. I require your strength, forged in grief. Step forward my daughter and be healed.

                The Elder watched her hands, watched the decades and the wrinkles melt away. Then her skin itself grew translucent. She felt light, became light, opened her eyes and saw a legion of billions standing before her. She smiled. Home, she was home. There, at the end of the first row, smiled a familiar, balding face.

                The Mother placed her silent babe on the snow. He protested this cool embrace no more than he did anything else, accepting the world with wise gray eyes. Instead he watched as she walked, palms up in supplication, towards Olympus’s center.

                “You cursed me!” She said aloud, eyes brimming with tears, voice quavering with madness. “You took away my husband, he who loved me best. Birthed me this… creature! Strapped to my back like a lodestone. I suffer and I must know why! Why this unnatural birth? Why take from me my one true l-”

                Midsentence, she too disappeared, and the others shifted uneasily from foot to foot, waiting for her to return.

                He looks at me and knows my thoughts. I hear in my head a child's voice calling me the loving names of my husband, taken from me in the throes of pregnancy. Why?

                The heady power of lost lovers, it builds between you even as you, unknowingly, cradle him in your arms. Look into your child’s eyes Mother, and tell me what you see.

                From the obscuring mist, she turned and looked at him, serene even in frost.

                No, it cannot be. He cannot be…

                Chance thwarts even my intentions at times. Your love’s accident was not in my plans, yet there is always another path. You two were meant to be together. To be together and serve me. Pick him up. Pick up your child—and come hither.

                The Mother bent from the mist towards the babe she once feared. He frowned up at her, as if to say “Now, do you know me?”

                “Of course I do,” She whispered. “Husband… son. Partner in life and thereafter.”

                To the others on the mount, it seemed as if her torso emerged briefly, reclaiming the life she once thought lost forever. There, in the fog, they took their place in the growing legion.

                Father and Son grew uneasy. It was one thing to commit oneself to confronting God’s might; it was wholly another to witness it firsthand. There was a force here that consumed them one by one. Its eye focused on them next. They felt it sweep them into the past, back into the hospital room. Back to the day that sent them stumbling down this course, through the cold and into the light. They too disappeared. Brother, Sister and Guide stood on Olympus Peak alone, the siblings waiting their turn, the guide hidden behind a knowing smile.

                Father and Son, in a white room beside her once more. The clean smell of death settled around them, an old friend they had forgotten but now faced again. Time passed, nurses and doctors filtering in and out, easing her pain, speaking words that passed around and through them. Words they heard and responded to, but at the same time did not fully comprehend. They crept closer and closer towards the inevitable. Knowing, yet not knowing, seeing, yet refusing to see. The days, they passed so slowly. The end, it came all at once.

                She had not spoken all day. The night before, after crying for hours, a nurse administered morphine for her pain. Now she only breathed, short, racking breaths, forced from her in spurts. In each gasp there was a little less life. Father stood by the window, unable to look at the beating corpse that was once his beloved. Son sat by the bed, holding her hand, reading her favorite cheesy mystery. The seconds crept by, each an eternity, each the briefest instant they would never get back. They relived this scene, they endured, both within and without themselves, wondering what they might change. Cursing themselves for not appreciating each moment, committing it to memory.

                These were the final minutes. Torture, paradise, all they had.

                The passing itself was not dramatic thing. One minute she was there, the dying Mother, the decrepit wife. The next she sighed, a brief hiccup, and was gone. Two, three seconds passed in disbelief. Had she squeezed his hand before she went? Did her eyes flutter briefly and focus on her husband’s face? Had they imagined it? Son blinked, thinking he might find himself back at home, and discover that the last few months were nothing but a dream. But alas, he opened his eyes and there he was and there she was not. Only a cooling mass remained where once there was everything.

                Grief rushed into the void, loud and violent and hungry grief. Father and Son held each other and wailed, but to no avail. No amount of performative mourning would replace what they had lost. A pit opened up in both of them. A pit they papered over with this quest. Here, bowed before God, the wound was exposed once more and bled afresh.

                They sobbed, and the voice spoke. Three words were all it took.

                She is waiting.

                They saw her, hale and beaming. They nodded and were subsumed.

                On the peak of Olympus, the mountain of God, Brother and Sister stood and waited. The wind cracked around their heads. Clouds gathered and in the wild air, it once again began to snow. A voice spoke from the gray.

                Step forward.

                Holding hands, glances resolute, they walked toward the mountaintop’s center. They saw a familiar smile, heard a laugh they thought lost forever. They too disappeared.

                Now alone, after waiting a moment to see if any would reappear, the guide departed, hiking back down through the frigid drifts.

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. 

At the Foot of Olympus

                They gathered at the mountain’s base, seven pilgrims. All came for different reasons. A father and son, mirror images of each other. Their faces cast in the hard-set of grief. The son’s hair was frizzy and brown, the father’s thinner and greyed. Both wore the long unkempt beards of many months of travel. An elderly woman, at first glance she appeared a frail thing just clinging to life, but the others knew better. Only the strong could hope to make this journey. Only the determined ever got this far. Two children, brother and sister, checked their packs for the climb ahead. They were idiosyncrasies equal to the elderly woman, two pre-teenaged young ones, but again, the look in their eyes presaged a tale of losses that would age any soul.

The last two travelers—a young woman with high cheekbones, freckles on her sunburnt nose and hollow eyes who stared mutely into the middle distance and an infant swaddled to her chest who slumbered and gurgled and never once cried—stood apart from the others. She wore the child like a backpack, seemingly unaware that it lived. For the child’s part, he seemed to want for nothing.

They assembled at the foot of Olympus and waited for the sign their journey was to begin. Father and Son did little to hide their unease at the other’s presence.

“Are you sure you’re able to-” Son started to ask the Old Woman, but her glare stopped him dead. Her look said more clearly than words: Mind your own business, boy, as I do mine.

“Well, we all have our reasons, I suppose.” He muttered to himself, shaking his head ruefully.

Father tried to help the children tending to their rations and clothing, but Brother snapped at him, barking like a mad dog. Sister did not even raise her eyes to meet his gaze or answer his offers of aid. The middle-aged widower backed away with his hands up, showing he meant no harm. Exchanging a look with his son, a whole conversation passed between them in silence. They agreed that their fellow travelers were best left alone. This would be no picaresque tale. They would trade no stories about the losses and hardships that brought them here. Their journey would not be peppered with the episodic remembrances of fellow truth-seekers.

Yes, he imagined very well that he already knew their stories. If not the specifics, at the very least their flavor. And he knew that he would be no more inclined to share the details of his pain than they were.

Even now, years later, Father saw, clear as day, Mother’s hand squeezing his one last time and going slack. He remembered how frail she was. How she looked just as anguished in death, frozen in the last moment of pain. He remembered the hospice caregiver’s last words: “She’s with God now, son.” Small comfort. Did God love her any more than they had? He very much doubted it. He looked up to the mountain’s peak, shrouded always in clouds, and wondered if the countless others who made the legendary ascent had found their answers at journey’s end.

Either way, soon his suffering would end.

He patted Son gently on the shoulder, lead him away to erect their tent and wait for dark.

The group split into four sections, waiting in a clearing between the forest at Olympus’ base and a quiet still lake. Its waters shimmered blue and orange, reflecting the sky. Wind whispered ripples across its surface. It howled in the traveler’s ears, and each of them were reminded of a different loss. Or the same loss from different perspectives. Father and Son sat around a makeshift fire pit, heating a simple dinner of ground meal and dried salted meat. They ate and talked of simple things, of their memories, of their quest.

The Elder sat, her back against a spindly oak, working with her thin fingers at spinning something out of yarn. It was a long, multi-hued woolen beast. Once it may have been intended as a scarf, but that had been years ago. Now it was merely her finger’s obsession, something to pass the time. A project she would add to until she died.

Brother and Sister, their losses temporarily forgotten, played on the pier that cut partway into the lake. Each trying to push the other in. Laughing, they fell in together and swam beneath the clear, calm water.

Mother and Child also stood on the pier, Mother still staring blankly, child still sleeping and murmuring in its dreams. No one came near her. Somehow they sensed hers may well be the saddest story of them all. What answers did she demand from God? Why bring the child?

After a fashion, night began to fall. The sun set behind the mountain and the group was left in darkness, segmented. The Siblings scratched stick figure patterns into the dirt with rocks. Father and Son prepared to sleep, in case they were not called forth by morning. The Elder knitted still, never once stopping, as if the action itself were all she needed for sustenance. Mother and Child had not moved in hours.

From the peak of the mountain came a sound like thunder, preceded by flashes like lightning. This sound and fury fell not from the skies but the mountain itself. A giant Tesla Coil. The travelers assembled, three pairs and the Elder, eager for whatever came next. One bolt struck the ground right before them, cracking loud and smelling of burning ions. It tore the ground asunder, shrieking and groaning as the Earth trembled. They covered their eyes and shrank from the noise and brightness.

When the dust settled, and the smoke cleared, a voice greeted them.

“Seven have come. Seven seeking answers to questions beyond Man’s purview. They seek the wisdom of a God they no longer revere. Welcome to Olympus.”

A stooped man, even older than the Elder seeker, stood in the cracked Earth’s hollow. Whether he had traveled by lightning strike, or been hidden in the Earth beneath their feet they did not know. He continued.

“This is the Rubicon. Beyond this point there is no return. Only forward, only answers to questions you may end up wishing you did not know. Ignorance is… bliss, they say.”

He turned and walked through the trees towards the mountain. The old man began to ascend. Slowing when he sensed that none followed, still dazed by his entrance, still rubbing the dots from their eyes and the ringing from their ears, he called over his shoulder.

“The time to come is now. If I pass out of eyeshot, you will never see me again. You will die, lost on this mountain.”

For the first time, each pilgrim met the other’s eye. Everyone nodded their affirmation. The unspoken camaraderie… we traveled too far to turn back now.

One by one, they began to climb. Towards truth. Towards sweet death.