Before I continue “North to Alaska,” I thought I’d add this post to the mix:
Terminal is a piece of short fiction I wrote several years ago. It was inspired by a wintertime visit to Mt. Pisgah…and the thought of how quickly things can change from delightful to…terminal.
(Terminal was published in the October 2006 issue of WNC Woman.)
That last bottle of water was definitely a mistake…
Cotton batting clouds the color of baby aspirin wallow up and over each other on Pisgah’s folded shoulders; the frosted, foiled top of the mountain is the intricate dream of a celestial glass-blower. Spangled, stiff-fingered pines—chandeliers of afternoon light—are interrupted where last summer’s sumac thrusts rusty arms up toward the sky. All that dazzling-silver world, but no sound. No nothing.
No sound, that is, except the hiss of hot pee punching a hole in cold snow. I crouch, legs trembling as they sustain the necessary hover-mode to keep me from splattering my boots or jeans. Hands folded into my armpits for warmth, leaning forward for better balance—again I regret the decision to down that final bottle of water before beginning this hike. It’s a lot easier to access the bathroom when it’s in the same room with you instead of the edge of a cliff. Who made up that eight-glasses-every-day rule, anyway?
When the leaves are gone and there’s nothing to soften the bones of the mountain, the narrow ridge rising in front of me seems inadequate to buttress Pisgah’s towering bulk. It makes me think of—
–a waiter I saw once, expertly balancing a tiered wedding cake of sparkles and beaded crystal lace as he negotiated a path to the bridal table. I’ll never see another wedding cake without the image of this mountain in the back of my mind.
Late day sunlight knifes through a gap near the top of the mountain. Somewhere far off, some kind of bird chee-chee-chees to another; nature’s version of a pager. It reminds me that there is still a world where time is not money, not product, not anything but time. I tug at my jeans, fingers clumsy in the cold.
I haven’t had to pee in the snow in what—years?—but the view from this position is worth the ventilation.
I remembered, though, to scrunch my mittens out of harm’s way in the pockets of my coat, just like I used to do when I was a kid.
Tomorrow, it’s back to the blah of public and private porcelain for another year until I earn two more weeks of freedom. I wish I could take a piece of this back with me. No, a peace of this. That’s what I really mean.
My truck is less than a quarter of a mile from here. I would have driven all the way to the trailhead, but I couldn’t get past the locked gates that separate the state’s narrow access road from the Parkway. A quarter of a mile is pretty far in weather like this, when the rangers probably don’t even patrol more than once a week, just to check for storm damage and rockslides. I’m glad it’s all mostly downhill to the place I’m staying, too, in case the truck takes a notion not to start.
As the day fades and the light dwindles down to dull grape and pewter ashes, the slush on top of the pavement will start to ice up again. Time to head back before it gets any harder to keep my footing on the increasingly uneasy surface beneath my boots.
With its matte surface like a blacksnake’s hide, the road clings to the mountain, reversing its direction each time it wraps Pisgah in another loop. This whole section of the Parkway from Cherokee to Shining Rock is still closed for bad weather—they get a lot more snow at this elevation than they do back in town.
I guess it was maybe not smart to come up here by myself, without telling anybody where I was headed. You never know. There were those girls up at the Buck Springs Overlook a couple of years ago—they never caught whoever did that—
A shower of icy fireworks shivers down, disturbed by a movement in the branches arching over my head. In one smooth sweep of dark wings above pale breast, a hawk launches itself into the empty space below me, banking side to side, held steady by the same wind that whistles through the gap between my jacket and jeans. The hawk eyes me, a stranger in its kingdom, still standing spraddled above the evidence of my trespass.
My pants are no longer at half-mast, but the zipper defies my fumbling attempt to grip the flat, narrow pull and finish the job. My fingers slip, shredding the skin over one knuckle. Try again.
There—at last it’s up! Now to work the button closed and get my backside off the backside of this mountain before I start hearing sinister footsteps crunching up behind me—at least I won’t pee in my pants if I hear somebody coming and have to make a run for it. How much more skittish you get when you’re in danger of being caught with your pants down!
I must be out of shape, my legs are that stiff, I’m—
Caught on something? Boot-lace snagged in last year’s matted underbrush? What the—
The hawk veers away with a single, startled shriek. Echoes my own, left behind in a frozen balloon drifting through empty air.
Blink, blink again, try to open my eyes. There is a sort of sound, after all. A throbbing beat that I feel in my whole face; it matches what I guess must be my heart, still pumping underneath what is now the snagged, ripped ruin of my jacket.
Can I turn my head, even a little? Blue blur pressed against my cheek? So my hat is still with me—that’s good. I let go of a breath I didn’t known I was holding. Steam puffs up and a slow flood of something warm crawls over my upper lip, settles into the depressions on each side of my nose.
“Uck,” I say out loud, disgusted by the mess clinging to my lip. One numb hand goes up to paw at it—where are my mittens? Birthday present; don’t want to lose them. My fingers come away red and shiny, coated with a bloody bungee snot-line that stretches, snaps back cold against my face. Double uck. Hot copper taste blooms in my throat, drips backward.
If I turn my head the other way, I can see part of the gouged, wallowed track I left as I tail-over-teakettled down the slope. The snow was a cushion, maybe, between the rocks and stones and stobs, but my jacket is still bleeding chunks of its lining through snagged rips and peeled-back flaps.
The hawk swims in rippled rings of sky above my head. Can it see me here, a footnote at the end of a blank page? Can anybody see me here, fallen all the way to the bottom of the world?
Get organized, take inventory—that’s important.
Hat? Good. No mittens? Bad. Jacket structure compromised? Also bad. As in not good. As in, this is really not good. Nose? Like an overripe tomato, trembling, ready to burst its fragile skin in a minute. More not-good.
So—not-good currently outranks good. Where’s the escape key to get back to good? Problem is, command option is non-functioning. Hands too cold; don’t want to work.
I’d reboot… if I could feel my feet.
Surely there’ll be someone soon—a flash of warm plaid in the spaces between the trees or a bit of face showing between beard and balaklava as someone bends over me. Surely I’ll feel bare hands, still warm from gloves, checking for a pulse against the underneath of my chin. Not a ranger—I don’t expect that much—but someone that could call a ranger. Please, someone?
I’ll never go peeing again. I promise. The hawk knows what happened—surely it will tell somebody. It just circles slow. Circles slow; a toy bird on a tether, gliding in widening circles.
Control, ALT, Delete. System is not responding. Wait twenty seconds.
Seconds tick by. Ringing in my ears—no, in my pocket? Doesn’t matter. I’m not available; please leave any messages after the tone.
Program has performed an illegal operation.
Terminal error results in system shut-down.