Survivor

Allie checked her watch as she adjusted her scarf more snugly around her neck. She knew it was 2:30 AM, give or take, because she had been waking up before two in the morning for some time now. Her daily routine had her at one or another hiking trailhead every morning.  Today, it was Colby Mountain, one of her favorites—a nice steep start from the trailhead, up to a series of long switchbacks, followed by a meandering traverse during which she could catch her breath in time for a rocky, tough ascent to the summit, 3 miles and one hour away if she jogged the traverse.

She snapped on her headlamp and slung her backpack over her shoulders and attacked the slope feeling the sweet ache in her thighs and calves.  She moved smoothly through the dark accustomed to negotiating the twists in the trails and the rocky footpaths in the flat light cast by the lamp.

She felt happily alone on the mountain as she inhaled the scent of the earth and the chaparral that surrounded her.  She was unlikely to meet another hiker on the way up and had become practiced at switching off her light and melting into the darkness if she saw anyone approaching her.

As much as she had become accustomed to avoiding people, she relished her contact with the wildlife. Her light caught the eyes of a roadrunner that froze on the trail as she approached and then fled into the brush. The eyes of birds looked like sparks in the trees when she happened upon them.  Once last week, she froze when she saw the glow of large amber eyes just twenty yards ahead of her on the trail, a bobcat or mountain lion. She approached slowly, curious and unafraid, but the animal slid off into hiding, wary of the light.

By the time she crested the switchbacks she was in a good rhythm and could feel the sweat begin to run down her face and her torso even in the cold morning air.  She stripped off her scarf and her sweater, comfortable now in her shorts and long-sleeved t-shirt.

She began to jog easily over the flat traverse but was brought up short by a warning rattle coming from the dense brush to her left. She stopped and picked up a broken branch that had been kicked aside and gently lifted the twigs that hid the rattler. She knew that with the cold, the snake would be sluggish and not anxious to attack.  She got close enough to make out the diamond-shaped pattern on her back and the reddish color of her skin.

“Hey,” she said softly, “sorry to bother you girl. I’ve never met a red diamond before. You’re a beauty.”

The snake’s head pulled back and settled into a fold of skin as if comforted by her soft words as Allie gently lowered the twigs and tossed the branch aside.  She checked her watch again and realized she’d need to push herself to get to the top within the hour.  She jogged hard for the rest of the straight-away and stopped just long enough for a long swig of water before tackling the final rocky stretch cresting the isolated summit, enjoying her racing pulse and the full sweat that streamed down her upper body.

She sat on a flat rock, pulling her sweater back on and grabbing a couple of power bars and her water bottle.  As she rested, she checked her smart watch once again.  The digital readout showed her that she had lost four minutes on the trail somewhere, not summitting in her usual one-hour flat, and that today was April 3, 2022.  Her heart rate was already back down to 94 bpm and it was a brisk 48 degrees out.  She didn’t used to be so obsessed by time and numbers, but the pandemic had changed that for her.

When it first had struck and she had to spend all of her time at home, she felt paralyzed and helpless.  As the months went on though, she found some comfort in breaking down her day into hour-long segments. She found she could do eight hours of work in only five hours. Figuring she would get at least eight hours of sleep a night, she just had to plan for 11 hours.  Reading, television, emails, Facetime, social media, food prep and meals, all just rotated through and around her work hours.  After a while, it all started seemed normal until the insomnia fucked it all up.

The anxiety that built up over time brought with it chronic insomnia.  She began to wake after only a few hours of sleep, leaving her body restless and her mind full of spiders.  It was then that she had become a nocturnal hiker. She hadn’t expected it to become habitual, but the sleeplessness was unrelenting, and after a while her body craved the release that exertion brought and the hard, physical activity calmed her mind.

This routine had also allowed her to avoid contact with people.  Even when the authorities assured the public that the virus had been eradicated, she found it impossible to go back to being in crowded spaces.  Her graphic design firm had discovered it was cheaper and more efficient to have everyone work from home so she no longer had to spend time with her work colleagues. She continued to order food on-line or do take out and limited her time in public spaces to no more than two hours a day.

Time’s up, she thought.  She allowed herself just a fifteen-minute break at the top.  She was ready for the easy walk down the mountain and back to her car.  With the time she’d make up going downhill she should be at the coffee shop right when it opened at 5 AM.  She liked to have her coffee on the patio there and enjoy the sunrise and the endorphin rush she got from the hike. God, she thought, I hope Tariq isn’t working the drive thru.  He can be such an asshole.

One hour and five minutes later, she was the first car in line at the coffee shop.

“Hey, Allie, how you doing this morning?” came the voice over the speaker.

Tariq.

“Can I get a large, black coffee with no room, please?”

“Oh, sorry Allie.  We’re all out of black coffee this morning. Can I get you a mocha frappuccino or maybe a nice chamomile tea?”

Humor.

“Goddam it, Tariq.  Will you just get me my fucking coffee?”

“Of course, Allie.  Anything you want.  I’ll see you at the window.”

She drove forward and just wished he would let her be anonymous for once–just one more drone on her way to work.

“Hi Allie,” said Tariq, who always managed to look fresh and cheerful even though he’d been working since an hour before the shop opened. “Thank God!  We did have some black coffee brewed, but hey, guess what.”

“Tariq, will you please just give me my coffee?”

“You see, this nice man saw you drive up and offered to pay for your coffee, but he said that I had to come out and bring it to you personally at the table where you always sit.  So, I said OK.  I hope it’s all right with you.”

“You,” she said, giving him the death stare, “are just impossible.  I’m going to report you for harassing me.”

“I understand, Allie.  I’ll see you out at your table in just a minute.”

She gave up and drove around the shop, parked, and settled into her favorite chair at a table in the corner of the patio, fuming at Tariq’s ridiculous efforts to engage with her.

Seconds later he backed out of the shop carrying not one, but two cups of coffee and sat down with them as if he had been invited. He was tall, and good looking, Middle Eastern maybe.  She guessed he was probably ten years older than her 25 years.  She tried to keep up her sense of fury, her sense of intrusion as he sat down, but the guy was just so goddam nice, it was hard not to like him. He passed her a cup of hot coffee and a chocolate croissant wrapped in a paper bag.

“Tariq, why do you do this?  You know I like to be left alone.  I sit out here in the dark and the cold for a reason.”

“I assumed it was because you really reek from that crazy hike you take every morning.  And I’m just on my break so I thought I’d sit outside too. Can you be alone while I’m sitting here taking my break?  I like the view of the sunrise from here.”

“You know, I dread seeing you every day,” she said with resignation as she pulled the croissant from the bag and bit into it, suddenly hungry.

“I know,” he said as he sipped on his coffee and looked out at the horizon. “It’s going to be a pretty one this morning.  Now quit bothering me, so you can be alone, with me here with you for now.”

Exactly six feet apart from each other, they sat and drank coffee and watched the sunrise without saying another word.

 

 

 

 

The Seer

Tomás lived his entire life in the small fishing village of Polanco Negro.  Like his father and his father’s father, he lived the life of a fisherman just as all of the men of the village had done.  He learned all of the tricks of the ocean and how the sea could be generous in one year and miserly the next.

He was clever though and thrived.  In the lean times, he learned how to build with mud and brick.  He learned to mend his nets and, for a price, the nets of others.  He added rooms to the house he had inherited from his father and a fine kitchen for his wife.  He bought his neighbor’s land when his neighbor grew weary of life of a fisherman, and planted rows of hemp and taught his children to make rope that the men always needed and rough sandals that the children liked to wear.

Tomás was the most prosperous man in the village because rather than waste his time drinking with the other men when the seas were too rough or the rains came, he used his time to think and learn, to build and invent.  When he rested, he told his children wild stories of the sea, of beasts and monsters he had seen in the distance, and of gigantic fish he had battled for days, but sadly, had lost.  Their favorite story was the one about the wise man who lived on a jungle mountaintop far away, a seer.  “Some men from this very village,” he told them, “have left everything to try to find him and seek his wisdom.”  He let his voice drop into a whisper, “And they have never been heard from again.”

When the children would sleep, Tomás would make love to his wife all night long with a fierce passion, as if he somehow knew that any night with her could be his last. But they had many nights and grew old together.  They watched as one by one, their children moved to the cities to start their own lives, not one of them wanting the life of a fisherman.

One day, as he returned from a long day on the water that had produced no fish at all, he saw the village women surrounding his front door, and knew right away that his beloved wife had passed.  She had complained for days of a pain in her belly and had begun to take to her bed in the afternoons, but even though he begged her to go and see the doctor, she had assured him she would be fine.

He slid past the women and their whispered blessings and sad looks and saw that they had already washed and dressed her for burial, the only woman he had known or loved.  Just that morning, she had bustled about her fine kitchen making him coffee and pan dulceand teasing him about how thin his hair was getting, about how the sun would someday burn him down to ashes.

That night, he piled his nets into the bottom of his boat and poured kerosene over everything he used for fishing, set it all afire, and pushed his boat out into the water. He stood on the shore and watched it burn with all of the sadness that he felt in his heart until it sizzled and sank into the sea.

After her funeral, which everyone in the village agreed was the finest, most expensive funeral anyone had ever seen before, the man retreated into his house and did not come outside for many weeks. Even though his children begged him to come and live with them in the city, he could not imagine leaving the village where he had spent his entire life. Once everyone had left, though, he found that the house was now much too big and quiet.  It was not just that he was alone, but for the first time in his life, he felt he had no purpose, nothing to live for, no one to care for.  He thought and thought and thought, but for once, he had no answers.

Tomás began to think of the old story of the seer, the mythic tale he had once told to help put his children to sleep.  He became obsessed with the idea of taking the journey to the mountaintop to ask for guidance, for wisdom, and for purpose, everything he felt he once had possessed, but now had lost. Surely then, he could return and enjoy the rest of his life in peace.

The seer’s mountain had no name.  The story went that the only way to find him was to walk toward the rising sun, and to travel with nothing but an open heart.  Tomás needed no time to prepare.  He dressed in simple clothing, put on his best walking sandals and struck off into the jungle as the sun began to rise.

The hiking was hard at first, but he walked with the same fire with which he had lived his whole life. He walked from sunrise to sunset, stopping only to feed on the fruits and berries that were plentiful. At night, he found it simple to fashion a crude basket to catch fish in the streams which he would gut with his rough fingers, eat raw, and give thanks for the sustenance that gave him strength for another day.  Then he would fall asleep to the sound of rushing water and dream about the sea.

His journey stretched into weeks and then into months.  His body became nothing but skin and sinew and bones.  He began to walk through the day and into the night at times, stopping in the rain to drink the water that ran from the leaves and coming to know which plants and insects he could eat.

Tomás no longer thought about day and night. He slept when he was tired, ate when he was hungry, and drank whenever he could. He no longer thought about purpose or wisdom.  He simply walked toward the sun and did what he had to do to stay alive.

One morning, the trail turned into a jungle that was so thick that it turned the day into night. And then, before a massive tree, the path ended.  He was surrounded by trees and brush.  The only break in the greenery was a powerful waterfall that crashed down a steep tumble of boulders.  For the first time on his journey, he could see no way forward.  Exhausted and defeated, he propped himself up against the base of the giant tree and slept.

When he awoke, he felt weak and steadied himself against the tree with his hands.  He stood for a long time feeling the bark of the tree, allowing the tree to hold him up.  Before long, he could feel the bark pulsing, pulsing in rhythm to his own heart.  The wind through the trees whispered to him, and he turned to study the waterfall that had seemed impassable the day before.

At that moment, he could see one single stone in the midst of the rushing water that he could reach from the bank, a stone that he swore to himself had not been there the day before.  He stepped out to it and felt the current pushing hard against his legs.  From that stone, he could see another, and another, and another, each one rising up the face of the waterfall. The current crashed into him as he pushed himself from boulder to boulder, but the vibration from the tree was now in the water and seemed to give him strength even as it beat him down.  He thought of nothing except the next step and pushed himself for what felt like hours.  Suddenly though, he pitched over the edge into a beautiful pool where he was able to pull himself up onto a stone ledge and see that he had reached a clearing on the top of the mountain.

As he looked at the clearing, paved with stones that had been carved from the rocks of the mountain, his heart was certain he had found the home of the seer.  The stones created an intricate mosaic of the sea and the sky.  Facing east was a stone hut large enough to sleep in and be safe from the rain. A small fire pit sat near the entrance and next to it, wood neatly stacked next to a crudely fashioned bench. Inside the hut, he found shards of flint, a sharp knife, two simple bowls, and a sleeping mat woven from leaves and fronds that were plentiful in the jungle. He gazed around the clearing as the long shadows of the afternoon creeped in but saw no one.

“He will return in the morning” Tomás thought to himself.  Grateful to have a roof over his head and something other than the ground to lie on, he crawled on to the sleeping mat and slept deeply and dreamlessly throughout the night.

He awoke with the sunrise but lay there for another hour and let the sun warm him in the shelter.  Surely the seer would return today.  He set about gathering food and stripping the bark of trees that he could use to repair his clothing that was little more than rags after his lengthy trek.  He fashioned snares and traps as he had learned to do on his journey and filled the two bowls with water from the stream that fed the emerald pool.

Once that was done, he was content to sit and watch how the light changed as the sun crossed over the mountaintop, and listen to the birdsong, sip his water as the day became hot, and hear night sounds as the sun went down.  He learned how to use the flint to start a small fire for heat and for cooking the game that he had caught during the day.

The seer did not return that day, nor the next, nor the next.  Tomás contented himself with his life of waiting on the mountain top.  The journey had stripped him of desire, and he began to relish every new sunrise, the sounds of the creatures around him, the rushing of the stream, the comfort of his hut during the rain. He felt himself heal and grow strong.  He no longer thought about the past.

He lost track of how many days he had been waiting for the seer and began to forget just what it was he had hoped to learn from him.  As the months went by, he didn’t think about anything but what wonders might visit him each day—a passing hawk, the call of owls, the chatter of frogs, the hum of insects, the crack of a passing thunderstorm.

Months became years and Tomás found that he began to lose his words; his mind was filled with what he could see before him and the only wisdom that he found came on the sound of the wind during the day and the beating of his heart at night.

One morning at sunrise, he was wakened by the sounds of a splash from the emerald pool and of a person struggling to climb out of the water.  He rose from his mat, and padded over to find a disheveled, ghost of a man collapsed at the edge of the clearing.

Tomás touched the man’s shoulder and roused him from his stupor.  When the man saw Tomás standing over him, he wept and circled his arms around Tomás’s legs and cried, “Master, I’ve come so far to see you. There is so much I need…”  But Tomás put his fingers to the man’s mouth to stop his supplication and helped him to walk to the simple bench and sit upright while he served him.  In one bowl he gave him the remains of the rabbit he had roasted the night before and a then gave him a fresh bowl of water all of which the man consumed gratefully.

As he served the man, Tomás realized that the man had mistaken him for the seer.  In his heart he felt he had no answers, no wisdom he could possibly share.  He had not thought about his own journey to find the seer for many years, but his years of solitude had brought him the peace which he had once sought.

Refreshed, the man turned to him and once again began to speak, and once again, Tomás stopped him, holding two fingers to his lips.  He had no words for the man. Instead, he grasped the man’s hand and pressed it to his own breast, sighed deeply, and held it there until he was sure the man could feel the beating of his heart as they gazed out over the trees where the sun was just cresting the ridge.  He then took the man’s hand and pressed it to his own heart and let him feel the warmth of his own soul.  Together they sat for many hours, warmed by the sun, their silence only broken by the whisper of the wind in the trees.