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. 

A Vineyard Burned on the Moon

The vineyard on the moon was burning.

Flames lapped at frozen grapes; twists of orange danced in the airless dark. The Vintner screamed, but there in the void came no sound. He watched helplessly as his last harvest—that of the driest wines, preferred drink of heavenly oligarchs—evaporated to dust along the shore of an empty sea. He fell toward Earth to save it, his family adrift and fleeing the desolation, but too late. He was far too late.

            The Vintner flew to NASA, forced his way into their chambers. He begged of the scientists who stared at him in disbelief, grabbing the hem of their white coats in entreaty: “Please, my crop is ash. My people wither with poverty and thirst. Please, you must save us!”

            "What is the meaning of this?" They cried.

            The Vintner ran to their telescopes, pointing once towards the full, glorious moon. "Look! Look to the moon. It is my home. Look, can't you see it burning?"

            "Fire? In space? What is the meaning of this?"

            "My crops," The Vintner tried to calm himself. He had to make them realize. Of anyone, surely they could see. "The grapes. They smolder and catch fire. Soon they will be nothing, But still there is hope. Hope for my wine and for my kind. Please, can't you see?"

            He looked, and he could see the small trail of smoke from his home the moon. If only they would look, they would realize…

            …But they merely dismissed this clearly mad man.

            They scoffed at his claims. “Wine?” They chuckled, “On the moon? Seeded in what soil? Fed by what air? Peddle this nonsense elsewhere.”

            And they turned their back on him, not even willing to give his claim a chance at truth.

            He wept, and every time he closed his eyes, behind his lids he saw the fires continue to roar. He saw his loved ones, lost in space. They were dying… dying… dead. Their faces fixed in his memory, grim but not judgmental. They forgave his failure, and with their absolution, he felt himself ever more damned.

            And with his loss, he went truly mad.

            Soon he took to the streets, muttering and indigent. He wandered, lost in his hopelessness. He moaned, repeatedly: “Will no one help? Does no one care for their moon? Will no one help? My, my family needs…”

            His voice broke as he remembered his grief and he spoke no more. Until his clarity lapsed into the fog of madness, and again and again he called.

            "Will no one help? Does no one care for their moon…"

A passer-by clinked some change in his cup.

On Earth's sole satellite, on the edge of a sea of dust, where once trickled chrome ambrosia there now smoldered ash, crumbling a gray. And only the madman, the mad, lonely man, knew what loss there was to mourn.

Alas, the vineyard on the moon had burnt.



Life and Death and the Mountain

                She always loved this weather.

                He sees her face in the clouds, hears her staccato laugh in the crunching leaves. In the snowcapped peak he ascends echoes a fair facsimile of her bosom. In the chill, chattering him to the bones, is a reflection of the sorrow he still feels at her loss. This was their mountain. This was where they fell in love.

                Darkness falls as he hikes, the sun having long left him behind for an overcast sky. Yet surefooted he remains. This was more home to them than any four walls and roof had been. Here they came to mourn their losses, to weep where no one could hear. Here they hiked to celebrate their successes, to crow at the wild, to feel invincible.

                Here they came, one fall morning just three years prior. When she stopped at a brook, tears rushing from her lids to match its current. When she turned to him, put his hand to her chest and said the words that would forever alter their lives. “Cancer… Bill, it’s cancer.”

                He tried to be strong, for her, for the memory of their son who just the year before her diagnosis had himself succumbed to illness (meningitis, in a week he went from hale to grave). He marched, wore the pink ribbons, gave to the right causes, squeezed her hand in the doctor’s office, held her as she wept, wept as she held him. But they were always each other’s pillars. As she eroded, slowly, then all at once, he too felt his own spirit ebb. When she entered the hospital for the final time, he felt shorn in two. When he got that dreaded call, the apex of his building grief, he faded as well. A painful memory that his friends and her family were unsure how to touch, and so he drifted apart from and into isolation.

                And so he comes to this mountain, again and again. To feel close to her and the people they once were.

                He stands on its peak, from here looking down on the clouds, down into the icy chasms and crevasses, down onto the trees that looked like green and brown dots. Even though it was dark, and the view was blocked by shadow and by fog, he knew the landscape like his own hand. Or, more aptly, like he knew the peaks of her smile, the valleys of her dimple cheeks. He closes her eyes, and for a second, she is there with him, squeezing his hand. For a second, he imagines jumping, hoping in the fall and impact and injury and probable death, he might feel something once more. Hoping he might return to her.

                A voice whispers. Not yet, Bill, not yet. I’ll be here, waiting for you when your time has come.

                “But Sue,” He sobs, in response to the fading memory.

                I need to let you live. And you need to let me go.

                “I love you, I love you,” He tells their mountain.

                And I… I love you. I always will.

                Her hand leaves his. The night swallows her presence. The man is once again alone. Though he sighs, though the tears freeze to his cheeks, for the first time in months a ghost’s smile haunts his lips.

                Small weight lifted, he descends.