Only the Mountain

Only the Mountain

Lotte Brown

One foot in front of the other.
One foot in front of the other.
One foot in front of the other.
We must keep going.
There's no 'we'.
Unless you count my stick. My crutch.

We keep going. Up the mountain. To the house. The basement.
I know this mountain. I walked on it four times before.
I guess I can't really say I know this mountain. It's so vast and old and full of mystery that four times scratching its surface is nothing.
Don't say it's nothing. It's something. And something is always better than nothing.
That something is helping you here. Right now.
Okay.

At least you kind of know the road.
Kind of, yes.
Everything is kind of, these days.
I've no sense of time. I must be very slow.
I remember it took us, with backpacks and food and everything, around three hours.
I feel I've been walking for at least two days. And nights.
Yes, I'm very slow.
I'm not sure of the road.

Time is lacking.
Without sun it's hard to tell night from day.
Still, there's a difference. The night is darker. Sometimes there's a moon.
I think the sun has now been blackened out for, let's say, a year.
A bit like in the Fimbulwinter?
Fimbulwinter?
Fimbulwinter is one long, dragged-out winter. Basically three winters in a row. No summer. No sun. It was written about in an old Norse poem. Some say it refers to a real period of extreme weather in 535, 536. Past Christ. Plants didn't grow. Crops died. Animals died. People died.
Stop saying that word. Just keep on walking.
And no, it's not like that. It has not been winter all the time. Just no sun.

I sit down often. I sit down as much as I walk. Probably even more.
In what I think is the night, I try to sleep. Stretched out. My head and arms around my belongings. A blue plastic tarp over my body. It's a tarp from the old farm. The one where she disappeared. It was her idea to use it. She always had the best ideas.
I think of strawberry jam in the basement and hear her voice telling me to stop thinking about it. Mind control. I hope there's not just apricot marmalade. They have a thing with marmalade here.
I would eat it. I eat everything. Almost everything.
Yesterday I ate a bit of yellow crust from my foot because I thought it might have protein in it.

I hear crackling and think it is a deer. Or a moose.
I saw four moose so far. She would have loved that.
Moose are only dangerous when they have babies.
I remember when I had never seen a moose and she wanted to show me one.
Her way of tracking them down was following moose poops. While doing so we got stuck in the spruces.
What were we thinking?

I look down and see the mountain. The part I climbed already.
It looks all right. Normal.
Of course, it's not as green and bright as it used to be but at least not everything is black like in the valley.
Maybe everything is all right. How do you know things are all right?
What's the measurement?

Do you know we used to sit in the forest at night? Voluntarily.
No phone, no light, nothing. We did it to be with the trees, the plants, and the animals. Maybe even talk to them.
The deal used to be: thirty minutes at least.
This is because they, the non-humans, go into hiding after being disturbed by our noises. Only after some time, they'll move again.

Another thing we used to do was 'have evenings without artificial light'.
We did this to see the natural shape of things.
It was on such a night that we saw the meteorite.
A blaze in the northern sky.
Minutes before it came we both cried. A little.
I think it happened because of a story I told her. It was not crying out of sadness. Rather of relief. Connection maybe.
Had we known? Was the crying one of the things that announced it?
A ripple as they say.

I remember insects flying fast that night. And bats. We both bled that night.
I haven't had my period in a long, long time. She too stopped bleeding. She too seemed to have more hair on her legs than on her head. My head is a combination of no hair and some very long black strands.
Hair needs sun to grow.
Hair is dead matter anyhow.
I remember touching the long hairs on her legs and telling her 'just a bit more and we can make a nice braid'. She looked good with braids. She looked good with everything but most of all she looked like a tree. Waving in the wind.
When I see trees, I see her.

Another difference was the wolves.
It was the old man who gave me the crutch who pointed them out. 'Listen', he said and together we listened to their howling.
The wolves had crossed the border and spread all over the country. Not that they cared about borders. Or countries. They did care about surviving and knew that in the old times, the Norwegian border was a dangerous place.
I try to think I'm safe because the wolves have plenty of deer to feed on. They will not be interested in me. Besides, I smell acidic. I know the smell. It's the smell of the pretty girls in school. Beautiful till you come close.

I remember when she asked me how she looked.
She looked like a grey skeleton Huldra. A Huldra is a female mountain troll.
I answered that her eyes were beautiful. Like green fiery diamonds.
Do you believe in trolls?
No. But the stories were there for a reason. They had meaning.
I remember a man of an indigenous tribe saying that they had tried to pass on their wisdom but we wouldn't take it.
First because of ignorance and thinking we knew better. We the more scientific, modern, and cultivated ones saw them as primitives who kept themselves stupid with stories of ghosts and rituals that were only good for party.
Later we didn't take it because we said we didn't want to appropriate anything.
Even when they said it was okay and we could have it because us having their knowledge would benefit everybody, we didn't take it. We didn't want it. Always a reason not to listen.
Are you listening now?
Maybe.

The old man also told the story of a man, Leopold was his name, who, around 1910, was hired by the American government to figure out a way to exterminate the wolves. While on an expedition, sitting on a cliff, Leopold witnessed a deer washing itself in the river. When the deer came out of the water, it appeared to be a wolf. Leopold aimed and shot. When he descended to the green spot by the river where the wolf, a mother wolf, laid on the ground, bleeding, he looked at her and she looked at him. In her eyes, a green light. Slowly fading. As Leopold watched the fierce green fire dying in the female wolf's eyes, he realized that there was something in those eyes, 'something known only to her and to the mountain'.
This experience changed Leopold. He stopped killing wolves and became the forefather of an ecological movement and theory which states that deep experiences can lead to deeper commitment.
I can't say I'm committed to anything.
Except maybe myself.
And making it up the mountain.

Do you remember how it all went down?
Well, you make it sound as if it happened all at once. It didn't. Moreover, not all went down.
I'm here. The trees are here. The mountain is here. The grass is here. At least in some places.
I think it's not the right question.
Okay. But you know what I mean.
Yes. Well. It's a long story and I'm not sure I feel like telling it.

I imagine myself being interviewed.
I feel pathetic. Isn't this how we always envision ourselves?
The survivor. The hero. The one who made it out.
Out? Out of what? We are still in it.
Is this what we want?
To be able to tell.
As far as I know, there's nobody to tell to.
Is a story valid if nobody listens?

How did you survive?
Well. It was more of an accident than anything conscious or having to do with strength or skills.
She who was here with me was way better at chopping wood, finding food, climbing mountains, and sheltering from the rain. She disappeared anyhow.
How do you mean 'disappeared'?
Well, she got really skinny and wasted away.
Is that how it goes?
Yes. Kind of.
People get weak, do not feel like eating, and waste away. In the end, they hide. In the forest. Behind a barn.
And then, alone in that space, they let go.
Just like animals? Like when deer are hit by a car and will try to get back into the forest. To die. Alone.
Yes, but again, don't say that word. Plus, we are animals.
You didn't go looking for her?
There's no point in looking for them after they disappear. It's just how it goes.
You know when it's time.
It's never good to go look for the remains of what once was.
Why not?
Because it stinks. It's never what you wanted.
I don't believe you can find anything there. Or learn from it.
Always a disappointment.

Are you hungry?
I'm okay.
You know we can go forty days without food. Or more.
Gandhi knew. He did it for up to three weeks. A man called Bobby did it sixty-six days and died.
I think a lot about Gandhi these days.
I don't know much about Gandhi but some sentences and stories.
‘The world has enough for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed.’
I cling to them. Is that wrong?
Gandhi fasted for truth. And love. And according to some, as a weapon.
Weapons and Gandhi don't fit into one sentence.
Thinking about fasting and starvation makes me hungry.

My brain is full of half facts. Half wisdom. Not just about history or general knowledge but also how to do things. Practical things. For example, making a fire.
I must stop trying to reconstruct and connect all the bits.
Too much energy.
I want to let go. And start again with what I really know and see. In front of me.  For example, how a certain change in the air announces rain and how good berries are slightly less dark than the bad ones that made me sick.

I feel it is easier like that. Leave all the rest behind.
I must let go.
So why are you answering my questions?
I don't know.
Maybe it's the last phase. Like therapy. Telling it. Remembering to let go.
Make space for new things. Be anew.
Do you really believe this?
I don't know.
Do I have any other options?
No.

Again, how did it go? What happened? You say it didn't go down at once, so how was it then?
Well. There were several stages.
First, there was pollution but nobody really noticed it. It was kind of everywhere and therefore we could not see it. I guess it was just how we thought the sky looked and the air tasted.
Then a bacterium came. It was kind of like the plague but different. It didn't affect everybody. It affected mainly poor people in a certain area so we thought it had to do with them. We would say things like 'humans are the virus' and let them be on their own. We called it shielding. The shielding meant they died and we didn't. Or at least not in big numbers.
Why would you say 'humans are the virus' when it was a bacteria?
I don't know. I think we didn't know the difference. There had been a virus sometime before and it got all mixed up.
It was crazy times. Everything happened in, let's say, three years.
How long ago?
I don't know. Not for sure. It's hard to tell.
Time is different in the mountains.

Why do you want to go to that house?
Because there's food. And it's safe.
It's where we came from. It's the closest thing to home.
The house was where we were when we saw the meteorite.
We were untouched. Safe. At first.
We only got in trouble when we went looking for it.
For the meteorite?!
Yes.
Why?
Just because. Maybe it would fit the project.
What project?
Some sort of art project.
Art? Was art still going on back then? Did you have time for that?
Yes. But it was silly. Maybe if we hadn't tried to find the meteorite, she would still be here.
It’s stupid to think like that.
I know.
Did you find the meteorite?
No. But we were told it weighed 100 kilograms.
It was one of the last things that got to us.
Got to us?
Yeah. Through the internet, through the news.
The news is the internet.

We couldn't see. Everything was black. Or greyish, covered in ash. You couldn't even see the mountain. It's only been twenty moons since the mountain showed itself again.
There wasn't much left of the village in the valley. As if it went into the earth. The houses. The old church. The new church. The people. The woman from the supermarket where we had done our shopping. All gone.
The smell of sulfur.
A volcanic eruption?
Don't know. Who can tell?
What else?
Well, electricity, internet, phone, satellites you name it, started breaking down.
Not all at once. But bit by bit.
At a certain moment, my mother called. She had no idea of what was going on.
I answered her question with 'risotto' and said nothing about the situation. I could feel her warmth through the phone. It seemed to go straight into may cold blood.
Did I tell you how cold it got after the meteorite hit? It was the middle of summer.
I was standing on top of a gas station sunken in the ground when I talked to her and regretted not having made better use of the phone before. This was not just a machine. A device that passes on messages from sender to receiver. It was her. My mother. Her whole being came through and I took it in.

How come you were untouched?
We were in the forest when it must have happened. Looking for the meteorite.
Had the meteorite anything to do with it all?
Yes. It definitely touched upon something.

So where were you all this time? Where and how did you live?
We lived in many places.
An abandoned hut. An abandoned house. A half-destroyed farm that was once very modern. Electronic equipment and computers that milked the cows. Some cows died with wires attached to their skin and rubbers on their nipples.
We managed to drink some of the milk that hadn't turned bad.
It wasn't enough.
One day we considered eating a dead cat we found on the porch.
In autumn we moved to another farm. An old farm. It was there where I got the stick from the man. We didn't know he was there till I heard noises from the basement and found him. Hiding in a corner. Talking to himself. Eating pickled vegetables with a silver fork.
I was a bit limp at the time because I had slipped on frogspawn while washing in the river.
Are you still limp?
No.
So why do you walk with the stick?
Because I like it. It gives support. And it's the only thing I have.
I can protect myself with it.

He gave me the stick the night a snowstorm was raging. That same night he told me about the Fimbulwinter and how it's not just something from the stories. Through the stories, sometimes carved in stone, future generations were warned.
The man may have lived on a farm, but he was not a farmer. What he was I do not know but he knew a lot. About many things. In many languages.
The house was full of books. Most in Old Norse. Some in English. A Steinbeck one I never finished. I believe there were farmers in it. And seasons.
Why did you leave the old farm?
It just didn't feel right anymore.
It seemed safe but I knew it was not. Also, I had started to see the shapes. They flitted through the room as I tried to sleep. Or rest. My room was a crawlspace above the kitchen. It was small. And warm.
After I left the old farm I never saw the shapes again. She too had seen them. She told me she heard them whispering. The volume was just a bit too low for her to be able to interpret their words.

I have to say it is a very beautiful crutch.
I know.
It reminds me of those of soldiers in old times. But prettier. Midcentury style.
Yes.
I guess it's worth a lot.
Hah.

Okay. Be quiet now.
I'm going to sleep on this moss. Brown crunchy moss.
Aren't you cold?
I'm always cold. Stop reminding me.
I wake up from a sound, open my eyes and imagine myself staring into the eyes of a deer. There's no deer. There's nothing. As usual.
I close my eyes and cover my head with my arms and drift off again. Drifting off is tricky.
'When you feel tired, not because it's night but because you are weak, you must never drift off', she told me. 'That's when they get you.'
I think of strawberry jam and remember the time when I lived in the city with a tall boy who worked next to a strawberry farm. The boy would bring strawberries every day and every day I would eat strawberries for breakfast and lunch. The boy thought I exaggerated but he brought them anyway. I guess he wanted me to like him. We always seemed busy liking each other. For example, I'm afraid of dogs but would play with his parents' dog. But only when he was watching. I thought if I didn't like the dog enough, he wouldn't like me.
Like? Don't you mean 'love'?
No. It had little to do with love. It was something else. I've no feelings when I think of him.
I wonder if I've any feelings at all.
When I look back it seems my existence consisted mainly of feelings. One big layer of feelings with a lot of wobbly stuff on top. Risky business.
I've no time or energy for feelings now.
Are you sure?

I try to get up again.
Have you eaten?
A bit. Some berries and crackers I took from the old farm.
We found them floating in the water and dried them above a fire.
They have a weird texture. The taste is fine.
I can have two a day. Max.
I need to get water. If I'm up early enough I can lick the dew but am too late for that.

I start walking.
One foot in front of the other.
That's what my parents used to say during our walks.
I hated walking and I couldn’t understand what they liked about it.
What's special about putting one foot in front of the other?
In the end, I gave in. I concluded that their lives were so miserable and stressful that walking was something that counted as ‘good for them’. I knew happy parents were nicer parents and I played along. Walked along.
Thinking about this seems to give me energy.
Wind under my feet.
I look up and see a familiar garbage bin by a familiar spruce.
I remember the bin was halfway up the mountain.
At least it's the right mountain. The right path.
Yes. Up up!
I tell myself I need to get there today.
Remember how it used to only take you a few hours?
What's going on?
Why is it taking forever?

I didn't make it.

I lay down on a stone and look at the moon. In front of the moon, sharp and perfectly delineated, a group of spruces. Tonight these trees are the chosen ones. The ones who can show themselves in the orange glow of the moon that seems to rule the mountain. I stare at the moon and a hazy circle forms around her.
I fall asleep and dream about her. In the dream, she wears a black robe and asks me 'if I managed to infiltrate?'.
Infiltrate? Infiltrate what?
Rain wakes me up and I look up at the black sky full of wet hell.
I open my mouth to drink from it.
I put out all the cups to collect the water.

Almost there.
Come on.
One foot in front of the other.
I count the trees. I see their smiles in the bark when I walk by. When I trip they laugh. She would never laugh at me. Not even when I laughed at myself.

Right when I think I need a break I see a chimney next to some dark purple weeds.
Is it?
Yes, it is.
It is the chimney of the house.
It's almost invisible. The grass on the roof of the house is almost one with the grass around it.
One small climb and I'm there.
I'm so tired. Everything hurts and I think I need a nap.
It is only twenty meters away.
'You can do it. No nap', she says. Her voice is clearer here. Here where all was normal once. Or at least we thought it was. Where I slept in the attic and she downstairs. On the sofa.
Later we would sleep against each other for warmth. I had never thought she would be so warm. And soft.

I reach under the bench in front of the house from where we watched the meteorite.
I know where the key is. She was always the one who locked the house but I watched her doing it. She didn't mind. It was as if she wanted me to know.
I look around to see if anyone is here but it feels foolish.
I haven't seen a person since I left the old farm.
The house is locked.
It’s easy to unlock the door and when the door swings open, it’s as if wind floats through me. I did it. I’m here.
Once inside I lock it again quickly. It’s my house now.
It’s rather dark inside.
I know where the candles and the matches are but shall not use them now.
There’s no point in trying to get the electricity on. It’s all gone.
I go into the kitchen. On the countertop, I see a carafe full of water.
I drink from it. My lips on the hard stone. I don't drink it all.
I have a plan.
I will load all the food and drinks I find into a basket and take it with me into the basement. There I shall sit till everything is over. No one will find me and I will be safe.
I open a small pot on the counter. Sugar.
I lick it. Put my face in it and it is almost as if the pot eats me. I'm the animal that gets stuck with its snout in the sugar pot. I think of a specific animal but I’ve forgotten its name.

A combination of relief, energy, and tiredness hits me.
I let myself slide down and end up in a slumped position against the kitchen wall.
The green sugar pot between my legs.
I look around and think about the things I need.
A can opener, a knife, scissors, kitchen paper, …
Water.
Water is the most important.
Would there still be water from the tap?
The water in this house comes straight from the well.
The tap has nothing to do with electricity.
I get up and open the tap.
Crystal clear water, as if it's the most normal thing in the world, runs out and I catch it in a cup.
I’m safe.
I need to pee and decide to do it in the fireplace.
I close the curtains.
I take some books.  A board game. A set of cards.
Candles. Matches.
Cushions to sleep on.
Blankets.

I collect the food (crackers, muesli, nuts, crisps, chocolate, and canned vegetables) in five big blue bags with yellow letters that almost make me cry.
The stairs to the basement are steep.
I don't know if I can do it today.
Maybe just once, I can sleep here.
On the sofa.

The rain wakes me up and I immediately start bringing stuff downstairs.
It feels as if someone attached a motor to me.
I'm impressed with my own efficiency.
It's not the truth. I first ate crackers with peanut butter and some with chocolate paste.
Some walnuts too.
In the basement, I find the round pot of strawberry jam on a shelf.
We bought the jam together. She had asked me which one I wanted and I had answered  'strawberry'.
I remember it well. I suspected she thought strawberry was rather plain but she bought it anyway.
For me.

I think I installed everything.
My bed, made of sheepskin.
The food corner.
A bathroom system with a bucket.
Food organized by category.
All my tools.
I need to know where everything is.
I must only use a light when it is really necessary.
I found 32 candles. After a while when I know the place is safe, I can let the stair hatch open for natural light.
Why don't you stay upstairs? Why the basement?
It’s safer.
I think of the old man in the basement.

The moment has arrived.
I light a candle.
For light.
For ritual.
For atmosphere.
All is ready and I shall eat the jam.
With a spoon. A buckwheat cracker on the side.
It's hard to open the lid.
I remember a trick my mother taught me: wrap a cloth around it and bang it on the floor.
I hit the pot on the black sheepskin I'm sitting on and it works.
I go in with the spoon and bring it to my mouth.
I close my eyes and everything, the whole world, seems to come together.
She, the meteorite. My mother.
Everything in vague pink colors.
I take another spoon.
I know I must not overeat.
I heard the stories.
But I do need it.
Did I tell you I had double vision when I arrived?
I go into the jar again. My mouth is still full. Big chunks of strawberry. Before I swallow, I suck on them.
A strand of hair falls in front of my face and when I sweep it back it feels sticky.
I glue it behind my ear and eat another cracker.
There are so many still.
It's okay.
I hear scraping and tingling.
It is the spoon hitting the empty jar.
All is gone and I'm dizzy. My heart is raging. Probably because of the excitement. The sugar.

I'm tired. So tired. More tired than after a day and a moon of walking.
I expect her to tell me not to sleep but hear nothing.
I whisper her name and think that any minute her silhouette will appear.
Tall, wavy, with long arms reaching out.
I extend my arms. Make it easier for her to pick me up. Put me to bed.
I take a brown woolen blanket and crawl into a corner. Behind a barrel.
I stare at the candle which is almost at its end and makes restless shapes on the walls of the basement.  The walls are made of big oval-shaped stones. Stacked on top of each. By people. A long, long time ago. When I look at these stones it all feels rather simple. Simpler than the houses I know from the city. I never understood how they manage to build those. Here it’s easy. One stone above the other. I could have done that, I think. Back then.
I don't feel like singing anymore. Everything hurts. Even breathing.
Where does it hurt, exactly? Your belly?
Yes, but it hurts even more ten centimeters above.
Your lungs, your heart?
Yes, that whole area.
Stay still.
My heart slows down. The slowest metronome. Hypnotizing almost.
I close my eyes and wrap my arms around the barrel. I press myself towards it and feel softness only. Soft fabric. Soft tissue. Soft skin.
I sink in and think about tomorrow. And the day after.
Soft colors slowly dancing in front of my closed eyes.
Warm pastels. Soft ice.