The path we’d spent the pre morning darkness looking for wound up the side of a mountain neither of us had been to in years. Leaves crunched under my feet as we walked over fallen tree limbs in the half light of morning. I yawned, breaking the relative silence and said, “They closed it off right after you left.”
My brother didn’t turn around but he slowed his walking and gave me an exaggerated nod, then pointed ahead and told me that he knew it was just up the trail. “What trail?” I asked, knowing he was wrong. The path we were looking for opened up close to a crumbling indian burial mound, and from the marker we’d passed before leaving the beaten path, I knew we were at least three miles from it. Deep in the woods, and far away from any road, I breathed in a silence that I hadn’t known in years. Trees moving in the wind were loud to my ears, and animals that moved out of sight seemed to be right beside me. I knew we were lost and that at best we would find a familiar trail that would lead us the few hours back to my car. An anxiousness began to bubble up inside me and I wanted to hurry. I began to feel trapped by the ground and the trees. Nestled on an unmarked trail in between several rising hills, I knew there was no quick escape and just as I wanted to call out to Zach, walking ahead of me, I could almost hear the voices of my father and grandfather coming from behind, walking here as they had in life, talking about stories of places that didn’t exist anymore, remembering old memories as they took us along to make new ones. My pace slowed and I listened to people who weren’t there. A half an hour passed, the sun was beginning to take its path over the trees and my legs demanded my attention. “I think we’re lost Zach.” But he shook his head, pointed forward with an exaggerated hand motion and kept walking.
Zach never listened to reason. He’d just smile and ignore whoever disagreed with him and keep going, which is why my boots were covered in mud from a hike we weren’t even on yet. I dodged a puddle and mentioned that I was thirsty and tired and needed to pee. “You should quit smoking,” he said over his shoulder, not slowing down. I hadn’t seen him in six years and was glad to find that he hadn’t changed completely. He was still a dick.
I walked for ten more minutes, then found a cluster of rocks that had already dried from the night’s rainstorm. I stopped, dropped my backpack, took a water bottle from the side and threw it at the back of my brother’s head. It missed. “I’m stopping.” I said. “I need to sit down.”
He turned around and shook his head at me.
“And I need a cigarette.” I hoped he still remembered what it looked like when I smiled but didn’t mean it.
“I thought you had to pee.” He said, opening the water I’d thrown him and taking a long drink.
“I know why you’re here.” I said.
He opened a granola bar from his backpack, sat down on the rock next to mine and said, “Sex, drugs and rock and roll?”
I knew that he, and everyone else, were aware of the kind of things I did, the men I dated for drugs and the time I spent in jail because there was no one to bail me out. I knew it, I even feigned pride in it, but Zach talking about it like it was a joke stung.
“Sure.” I rolled my eyes at him. “How much older are you than me again?”
“Ok fine.” He stood up, walked away, turned his back toward me and starting peeing in the bushes before he said, “Sex, drugs and dub step?”
If we were younger I would have hit him, but I was twenty-two and had enough problems. So much had changed since he went away and because he never came back, he didn’t see it. I knew he heard about the things that happened, and knew that mom was still a pain and that the six men she’d been serious with in six years were each a little worse than the one before. I wondered if he knew that no one invited us for Christmas anymore, or sent cards or asked how we were doing. I wondered if he was afraid of the answer when he asked.
They all felt sorry for us when we were little, but expected us to grow up to be no better than our mother and when I showed the first signs of her recklessness I lost everyone I’d ever loved. Zach had too, but his solution was to leave and start a new life in a place where his mother’s indiscretions didn’t matter. He came home now only to ease the throbbing conscience of a newly christened do-gooder. All at once, in the honeyed light of the coming afternoon I was embarrassed and furious and wanted to run, though I knew my damaged lungs would never let me get far.
Zach opened up a ziplock of trail mix and filled his mouth before saying into bag. “You’ve got to stop. He chewed with his mouth half open then looked me in the eyes. “You’ll end up like her.”
It was an insult more offensive than any other but I swallowed it and tried not to cry.
It was after 1 o’clock when we almost missed the mouth of the trail we’d been looking for. A thick pine tree had hit the ground and taken the old wooden sign that marked the trail with it. “Hey!” Zach called out, already climbing over the tree trunk and brush when I got back to him. My legs burned at the thought of pushing up a path that had been closed off and overgrown. “We should eat first.” Zach said walking over to what used to be a clearing with pick nick tables and trashcans, but was now only a bald spot in the forest of trees all around.
Standing in the place I’d been to so often as a child brought with it all the days I’d spent roaming the quiet woods and Zach and I compared memories as we settled on the ground and emptied our backpacks of the food we brought.
“Where are the sandwiches?” I said.
“I told you, I don’t eat bread anymore. Try these lettuce wraps.” I mocked his enthusiasm and wished for a hamburger and a rum and coke. I hadn’t realized Zach planned our whole day and I was starting to itch for a drink of something that wasn’t water.
“Listen to that.” Zach held up his hand to the complaint I hadn’t made yet.
When we were little, Dad would always regale us with tales of the creatures that lived in the mountains. He’d tell us stories about mountain lions and bears and remind us that if we would be quiet, we might see something we’d never seen before. He’d meant it to inspire wonder and probably to curb our bickering, but all it had ever done was make me want to carry a tambourine when I was hiking.
“You know” I said, louder than I normally spoke, “you’ve turned into a real pretentious ass.” I waved at all the health food and the outfit he’d clearly bought from REI. No matter what I said, or how I insulted him, he smiled back. So we ate a lunch fit for rabbits in silence, listening to the birds call over head, and the pine trees rustling in the wind. I leaned back in the grass and looked up, letting the food settle before embarking on what was starting to feel like an idiotic attempt to reclaim something that would never be again.
Closing my eyes I listened. Dad was right, it was easier to hear than to see. With my eyes opened I’d only seen one bird singing its sweet song to another in a tree up the hill. With my eyes closed I heard more birds and scampering feet somewhere beyond my the edge of the trees. The sound of running water reminded me that somewhere close by there was a creek. I knew the water would be high because of all the rain we’d been getting and without knowing why I needed to see it more than I needed a drink or a long pull from a cigarette. I stood and left my brother laying with his eyes closed on his back, his face turned up warming in the sun that peeked through the trees and I asked him as I walked away, “Did you remember that there was a creek here?”
He got up and followed me, with one look back to our abandoned packs and said, “Not until I heard it.”
We walked farther than I remembered having to and found the running water right where we’d left it. It looked smaller than I remembered, even though it was running fast and almost overflowing from its banks.
“Do you remember jumping in?” Zach smiled and took off his shoes.
I did the same and heard him hiss when his feet hit the water.
“Cold!” He said, sitting down on the side and running his hands over protruding rocks.
“Dad was so mad.” I laughed at the memory of him splashing in the water in December trying to get to me before I drowned or cracked my head open on a rock. When we left that day, it was cold so Dad carried me all the way back to the car, accidentally leaving my new hiking boots sitting on the rock my brother was now leaning back on. It took us hours to get home once we were on the road and it wasn’t until he tucked me into bed that we both realized where my shoes were. The next day he drove all the way back to the mountain and hiked to the creek to find them.
Zach put his shoes back on and stood, “We should go or there’s no way we’ll make it back to the car before morning.”
The trail was overrun with called branches that it was no one’s job to clear anymore and staying on the trail we both knew well was harder than either of us thought it would be. “Should it be this overgrown already?” I asked Zach. “It’s only been six years.”
He laughed and said that if he were the mountain he would have taken it back the minute people stopped trying to carve themselves into it.
“Like we’re trying to do?” I said.
“No.” There was a cluster of fallen trees that we had to climb over then under and for minutes neither of us did anything but grunt and try to pull ourselves up and over branches that were likely crawling with spiders. I shivered. “We never did what other people did.”
“Leave the woods better than you found it.” I mocked my Dad’s old hiking mantra. The one that meant we had to pick up any garbage we saw, the one that prevented me from taking flowers to press in books or rocks to add to my non existent collection.
Zach spent two hours asking me about my life. He wanted to know about my boyfriend and if I loved him. He wanted to know how I liked my job and ignored me when I told him I hated it. He asked every question there was to ask except the one I knew he wouldn’t, the one I hated. He wouldn’t ask me what I wanted to do with my life because he knew my answer. He stopped talking when I stopped responding and I wondered again what he thought he would get out of dragging me all this way. I asked him and he still maintained that he just wanted to spend time with me.
It hurt more than I thought it would, walking up the old trail. I thought that since I dreamed about it almost every night it would be easy but every corner we turned revealed a place that I had forgotten. The sun was going down and it was getting hard to see the trail when we passed a cave that dad always said may be the home of a mountain lion. I sped up my walking to be closer to Zach and kept my eye on the opening of the cave until it was out of sight. I bumped into Zach and he told me that there was little chance of meeting a mountain lion in woods that had been so recently populated by people. “Comforting.” I mumbled and stayed within an arms reach of him for the rest of the trip to the top. “Why are you really here?” I asked when the silence began to feel too loud. “Do you think it’s going to make me remember all the good times we had here?”
Zach took a deep breath and said he didn’t know.
“Have you forgotten that our good times always stopped when we stepped out of these mountains.”
The trees overhead contributed to the weak light guiding our feet up the dirt path and hiding my brother’s expression from my face.
“Life was just as shitty then as it is now.”
He said nothing.
“Should I just stay here forever?”
Zach held my hand as we reached the last turn around the mountain, and took the long stretch of steps made by rocks, still embedded in the earth to the top.
“I just wanted you to try.” Zach said.
“And I want you to understand that everything you think is destroying me, is me trying.” I took my hand back and moved ahead of him and waited in the clearing at the top of the mountain.
I felt my brother move to stand beside me, his arm brushing mine and I looked out over hills dwarfed by our own height, almost black in the darkness that inched across the miles. Our life had passed on that mountain. Every bit of who we had ever been touched it and every time home needed to be found for either one of us, she never moved, not from the earth or our dreams.
“There’s a story about this mountain.” Zach said repeating Dad’s words from a place deeper than memory. “There was an indian war on it once a long time ago,” the wind blew cold and I zipped up my sweatshirt. “They say that it was stained red with blood for a hundred years.” He bent down and put his hand on the ground, “They say the blood is still here and if you touch the rock, you can feel the beat of a thousand hearts.”
I was alone.
My face was wet with six years of tears I hadn’t shed and I sat on the ground and held my head in my hands as I bent over and sobbed for my brother whose demons were stronger than his resolve and whose pain was greater than his will to live. I touched the ground and called those thousand hearts to me and knew that my brother’s was among them.
Callie Armstrong © 2014