Issue Forty-Two - Summer 2023

The Heart of the Mountain

By Ari Blatt

The hike up the mountain had been steep, and arduous, and screed. Fine scree underfoot on the lone flat saddle and more gradual slopes created gardens of wildflowers: gardens of lupine and verbena and paintbrush and heather and aster and penstemon and anemone. But scree of any grain size on the steeps left nothing to hold onto besides the assurance that nothing is secure, that it is best to learn to move with the pulse of the mountain, to understand that one step forward could mean nothing and everything at once, that one step contained the entirety of a world and all its possibilities.

The girl noticed how each step left its imprint in the scree, a little inverted cone, like the volcano’s shape upside down. The boy was preoccupied by other things. He had his watch on to track. Moving time. Distance per time. Elevation over distance. Heartbeat. His pulse ran at a different pace than the pulse of the mountain. He ran ahead of the girl on the way up from the saddle, and she alternated being angry with him, worrying for his ankles on the loose scree, and focusing on her next step forward.

They rejoined at the summit and altitude made it impossible to hold any resentment. Altitude and the view, and the cool thin air tickling skin, the whole world a light kiss cooing them to peck each other now and then between bites of sack lunch. The world they knew splayed out below them as if they were perched over the map. They could stay there forever but knew they couldn’t. The reflection off the rivers and roofs and the roadways called them to their home down below.

“Is it okay if I run again?” The boy asked before they headed down the scree, and his face was so alive the girl would never wish an ounce away from him. “Sure,” she said. “I’ll meet you at the lake.” They agreed. The girl returned her focus to each step, for on the decline especially was each step a whole world—her whole world in her body.

So focused was she that she would not be able to describe each step from the summit to the lake. Her arrival surprised her. There it was, the solid turquoise waters she’d passed by on her way up, glacier and snowmelt feeding the waters from above, and a hundreds-of-feet-tall pile of scree keeping the waters secure from the call of gravity on the downslope side. Or trapping them, she briefly thought. It surprised her. Either way, she saw the boy lounging on a bank along the moraine with his bare feet in the water. Maybe it was her shadow from above that prompted him to look up, pound his chest like a gorilla and caw like a raven to her, then promptly swan dive into the water. She laughed at him, began down to the lake to join him.

It was not until she reached the bank and his pile of possessions—backpack, hiking poles, dusty boots, sweaty socks and shirt laid out across a rock to dry—that she realized she had not heard him come up from his dive into the icy waters. The girl looked all around, spinning from bank to bank to bank, the scree walls of this hole in the mountain side bare of anyone, bare of her boy. On the water’s surface, she thought she saw air bubbles rising up, and she didn’t hesitate, she let her poles fall aside, ripped off her pack and boots and socks and shirt and dove in.

At first, everything was dark. Then, she remembered to open her eyes. It took a while for them to adjust. The girl blinked them open and closed, open and closed, meanwhile wondering why the water did not feel glacier cold, why she did not sense any need to go up for air. The girl held her hand in front of her face at varying lengths to determine her sight distance. Early on, she could barely even see six inches in front of her well. Soon enough, her fingertips were clearly defined at arm’s length; the girl could make out her fingerprints like familiar topographical lines. She could see the screed walls of the edges of the lake funneling to a point below her. The bottom, she thought, but knew this wasn’t true somehow. She looked around the walls again and noticed the tip of the funnel was exuding an orange glow. She looked up above her to the surface of the lake, saw the yellow white of the sun. She knew what she had to do. The girl arced her spine like a seal and dove down to the orange glow, to the bottom that was not a bottom, but an opening.

When she reached it, the girl saw the glow encompassed a whole other cavern, with scree walls in the same shape as the lake above but inverted, pyramidal. She couldn’t quite make out its bottom, for it was shimmering. She felt the edges of the space between the two, as firm and porous as all the rock she’d traveled over before. The space between was just wide enough in diameter for her to slip through. She would find the boy in this orange room, she told herself, she must. She gripped the edges, lengthened her arms, then pulled herself down through the space. Like sand in the hourglass, her fall was inevitable.

The boy knew the girl would follow him down the hourglass because neither of them could resist the enticement of that orange glow, of this orange shimmering glowing room. It was just too warm, too inviting; it beckoned them in.

All data and calls to reason had fallen away when the boy saw the room, when he’d jumped in, maybe even back when he’d shed his layers and jumped in the lake. The numbers he once cared so much to track– to push the limits of, to expand and contract– were replaced by music, sweet music in his ears. Something stringy picking off the lake water and scree dust from his skin. Brass and baritone buttering him up. Drums, piano, and underlying it all some sort of bass beat that brought everything together somehow, brought him to the same edge the girl would grip so tightly to pull towards, just like he did, his watch snapping off his wrist as he entered the chamber, the girl not noticing it still resting on the edge when she came to it later.

The floor the boy fell on was blonde parquet and tapping on top of it were dress heels and chair legs, spilled champagne and cake crumbs bouncing to the beat. He touched his fingertip to a crumb, crumb to his tongue: sweet volcanic—was this red velvet cake?

“We can get you more of that if you like,” a golden bubbly voice said from above. He looked up to see two smooth bronze shins and an elegant hand reaching out to him. He grasped it. “Hard fall?” she asked once he was up. Her hair was shiny ruby red, her eyes gold flecked with copper, or maybe copper flecked with gold. A woman made from minerals. Her dress sparkled. He took her in; she held her smiling gaze on him. He wiped his shorts and thighs and forearms off; aware he was underdressed compared to her. He blushed. “Don’t worry about that, we can suit you up too. No one will mind either way, really.” He looked around and all was shimmering, all was alive. A party—the mountain’s pulse. “The meeting will start soon, surely. We haven’t had someone fall in some time. But we can dance in the meantime,” she reached her hand out again. He had so many questions but felt assured the answers would come in due time. Due time—an odd phrase, he thought. As if people owed time itself anything. All a person has is each moment.

He took this mountain woman’s hand. The girl would be coming soon, he knew, in the meantime he’d dance with all the mountain people.

The girl’s fall to the mountain floor came not long after, not long at all, though time couldn’t keep track. She was surprised the landing didn’t hurt. All her aches and pains of her earlier descent had been shed—must’ve been the doings of that icy glacial water, she thought, forgetting how it didn’t feel cold at all while she was in it. The floor had a bounce to it, and she pushed herself up with ease.

“Another one!” A mountain man exclaimed to no one in particular and to the whole room, to jubilant cheers from all around and from no where identifiable. She came to stand in front of him. He was absolutely bronze. His eyes glacier blue. His hair smooth obsidian. “Meeting will start soon. Dance with me until then.” He reached out his hand. She didn’t hesitate. She took it. All a person has is each moment, she knew.

The girl and the boy danced with the mountain people like they had never danced before. They were tuning to the mountain’s rumblings. That they found each other on the dance floor came as no surprise to either of them. They spun in and out of each other’s steps, laughing. They were part of a larger body now. The girl thought the boy’s skin was starting to sparkle quartz-like out of the corner of her eye. The boy noticed her hair had new copper tones to it out of the corner of his.

From out of the corner of the room it seemed, the music quieted, and the bodies slowed their steps to stand. The boy and girl finally embraced. He tussled her hair and she rested her hand on his chest, laughing. The meeting was being called.

When the meeting began, the pulse of the mountain changed. It grew dark and cold to the boy and the girl. They could not see past each other, could only hear muffled voices and unintelligible rumblings. Where had the mountain people gone? They wondered. The music, the dessert? Had any of it ever been there at all? They shivered; they trembled. They clung on to one another. So long ago it seemed their arrival in the mountain had been.

The girl tried again and again to look up, to try to find the opening they’d come down in, to see any sign of the blue sky and yellow sun above that glacial lake. But she could never make it out, and eventually she began to weep.

The boy held her and held her and wept too. He had gotten them into this mess to begin with. He longed for the mountain air they had felt above the surface, for the rivers and rooftops and roads they’d seen from the summit, for their home together aboveground.

“I don’t regret anything,” the girl surprised the boy at first by saying. “We lived well,” he agreed.

The meeting they could not see dragged on and on. The rumblings got more frequent and louder. They wouldn’t be able to point a finger on it, but soon enough there was no silence at all, and the mountain was absolutely vibrating. They did not know how this would end, but they knew the eruption was inevitable. They held onto each other even tighter. All a person has is each moment. Each moment is a whole world.

When the boy and girl awoke aboveground, the ash had already settled. In the blink of an eye, saplings were sprouting up from it and new wildflower gardens were blooming and butterflies floated from one flower to another. The air tickled their skin, and the sun warmed it. They looked up to the mountain top from its base and saw its summit fractured. There was light and there was dark in the world and the world would go on, they knew.

Copyright 2023 Blatt