11. The Mountain Path
Quicksilver was unsure of the steps left to reach his destination. He was also wildly unsure of what his destination was, or rather, if it still existed. The years that had passed did not matter to them, but the mountain people believed in change. As far as he recalled, the villagers in the little cluster of houses far behind him tried convincing him of these things even then. He had heard most of his positivity from Sunshine- with her theories of how human beings always have a choice in what to do, who to love, how to love, and where to be. Her view was that things happened every day- people died, people fell in love, and crushingly, people fell out of love every day. Sometimes, Sunshine had said, people fall out of love after a day.
The winding path started to become far rockier- like the stones themselves were trying to jump out and join him in his quest. It had already transformed into a terrain too painful to traverse quickly through- and so Quicksilver was forced to bend his back more than once in order to regain balance as he adventured through. An ice-cold stream picked its way through the jagged edges. Until the dawn had begun breaking, the stream had evaded his sight, for it took on the dark color of the sky, becoming a long winding snake that curled under his feet without his knowledge. Now, pricks of sunlight injected themselves into the icy stream, and ricochets of warmth seemed to fill the entire path. The Professor had never seen anything quite so beautiful. Like ichor, the blood of the ancient Greek gods, the stream was a golden vein on the earth. It made the whole path quiver with energy, until it seemed to the Professor that he walked on a living creature whose blood flowed casually beside him. The blood of the Gods was guiding him.
He bent low to bathe his soiled fingers in the water, and exhaled sharply the moment his skin came in contact with the fluid ice. He caught thin pieces of melting ice in his fingers and held them up to the slowly emerging orb in the sky. How fragile must the sun’s life be in winter, thought the Professor. He imagined the sun, on this cold cold morning, appearing over the mountain peaks in all his splendor, appearing first in flashes of orange and gold and in cracks of blazing yellow on a dim blue sky. But the first snowflake had already fallen to the earth, and its companions must have been close following. The winter, in one swath of snowfall, would render the sun incapable of being what it is. The cracks of sunlight would disappear amid blindingly white carpets of snow simply laying themselves on the earth, as if sheltering the timid soil from the harsh light.
As if responding on time to his thoughts, the heavens opened its massive maw. The snow began to fall cold and soft, nestling on his shoulders, giving him a smooth white beret, and painting the jagged rocks so they looked like white daggers protruding from the ground. Quicksilver sighed, unearthing his notebook.
The whiteness has begun to fall,
But unlike that day,
I fear the fall of fretting snowflakes full of desire
To smash all greens all oranges all blues
Until I am in a river of white pureness.
What will prevail,
The holy fall of the heavens
Or the rooted tables of the earth?
Who will prevail,
My aching bones in a refreshed body,
Or the wolves of time that so ravage my mind.
As if the flakes had their own difficult mountain path to journey, they buried themselves with each other very slowly. Levitating down to the earth as if they operated in an entirely different time, the snow seemed to stop in mid-air. His heart was pounding in his ears, as if great drums had somehow grown inside him and tiny hands with tiny sticks beat upon them. The drums reverberated in his every bone, and it slowed his mind for him. Every beat seemed to happen at a frighteningly slow pace- as if his heart were trying to scare his body into thinking it would never beat again. And so Quicksilver stared at the paused snow as it floated in the air, his mind moving between the possibilities of living and dying with each beat.
The sun had taken his great throne; spears of bronze dripping orange blood pierced through the snow flakes, finding their way to the Professor. The stream at his feet, trickling with pieces of ice, had been enveloped by the light, and now flowed as a long blonde tress of hair winding its way through the mountain. The Professor reached out as the snow continued its slow descent. The crystalline flakes, so intricate in pattern and symmetry, sizzled when they touched his hot skin, skin with veins boiling with blood pumped by his overreacting heart.
He did not know exactly where he was, but something told him he was approaching the end of his long walk. How long he had been walking, he did not try to guess. A long time ago, a beautiful woman had told him to never wait for an end. Ends come and go, she said, and guessing at them did more harm than good. When he first heard it, the Professor scoffed in amusement. The thought of leaving our ends to fate seemed almost frivolous; it was a risk that only people of especially free spirit could take. His spirit had remained rooted to the ground, like a dead tree refusing to relinquish hold of the soil. But now, as he walked the mountain path, it seemed his spirit roamed down the sloping rocks, pressed itself between sharp crevices, and flowed with the freezing stream. It was all he could do to prevent it from disappearing into the soulful mountain, never to return again.
When he paused to look up again, he instantly regretted it, for the sight he beheld was so heart-stopping that it stilled his footsteps. A whistling whirlwind stirred, whipping the cold stream into chains of ice before leaping onto the miniature cliffs all around Quicksilver. A small tornado with a mind of its own, it swirled atop a sharp spike of stone, its million arms slowly gaining some sort of shape. The Professor’s gaze followed the curves of windy strands until they seemed to halt, and a magical creature stood before him. Shaped by steel wires, she was a sculpture made with the fragility of the gusting wind and the sturdiness of a womanly frame. The two arms at her slender body began stretching out towards the sky, as if to embrace it lovingly. She welcomed the skies to her bosom. Cheekbones began to form on her face, sharply angled, sloping towards the heavens. Above the handsome curve of bone, eyes emerged with pupils that shone like diamonds. A mouth with slender lips appeared next, lips that looked like they had been sealed for an eternity. The silver robes that billowed around her body threw dust into the Professor’s eyes, and he thrust an arm out, but he did not want to stop looking.
Her body stood motionless, as motionless as a stationary hurricane could be. It did not bend with the wind but stood erect, even though to the Professor, she seemed to be built of air. The swirling hurricane shone golden in moments, as the sunlight glanced down nonchalantly, but the phenomenon gleamed silver. Like a coat of silver needles flapping in the wind, she was moving metal, melting with the wind, reforming with the wind. The woman emanated cold, in waves that spread fast-forming goosebumps on the Professor’s arms. And in a flash, she swirled again. The hurricane turned on its heel, and it dissipated. The sun shone in the Professor’s eyes again, and there was nothing special to look at.
He examined the sharp rock with his hands, letting his rough skin move over the hardened rock. There was nothing different about this piece of stone, nothing magical. Hard and tough, sturdy and stubborn, it had nothing to do with the spirited winds that formed a cold steel body. The Professor wondered if he would ever see such a thing again. In the first few seconds, he had panicked. As her body formed, he feared he would see her again. But as soon as the cold wind formed a body, it looked further away from her than he was right now. It struck him that people change, and in fifty years, how much would she have changed? If she were alive, today, he was determined to believe that she did not look as cold, distant, and dangerous as the hurricane-woman. The last remnants of the stony path disappeared into hard-packed snow and ice.
Crystalline galaxies of ice surrounded glowing embers as sunlight penetrated the ground, and the Professor made his way cautiously across the hard, slippery chunks of ice. Keeping himself upright by holding onto the bluntest rocks he could find, he could feel his body heat rise above the icy landscape. The snow glistened and gleamed and began to run small lines of chill water down the pathway. It would soon become a dangerous terrain, with his hands slipping over stones and his feet stumbling over melting ice. If he went on, smarter people would call him foolish, wiser folk would call him irresponsible. But as his hand slipped over the first rock, and he came thudding down onto the shockingly cold ground, a thrill rushed through his body. He shuddered, his backside sticking to the ice, and he attempted, in vain, to push himself up with his arms. He struggled to extract himself from his rather embarrassing position; his arms still felt shaky after the fall. Flexing his muscles to regain sensation, he pushed his body into the air, his feet coming up underneath him.
Ahead, the path grew narrow, almost like it once was a thin stream, wide enough to fit three grown men, but the ice, after years of prodding and poking, finally crawled into its veins. Like a staircase, the path turned up and left into the mountain, a wall of rocks coated with ice forming barriers on each side. Quicksilver made his way to the spot like a man on crutches- gently, and carefully. Each movement had to be calculated, if he were to get out of this. He huffed and puffed before sitting on the flat ground at the turn of the path. He pushed his back into the stone wall, letting the hard blunt edges press his flesh, stretch his skin, and release the stress in his muscles.
The flame of the lighter lit up the icy floor momentarily, before a puff of smoke jetted out of his nostrils. He was glad he remembered to buy his cigarettes. Sunshine would have laughed to see it- a second chance at life wasted by the ‘sticks of wood’ she detested. He had thought about it, he fondly recalled as he sat on the ground. He had wondered how it would be if he broke his habit before fifty years swept him by. A chance to cancel out fifty years of death- it seemed the smartest thing to do. It was the smartest thing to do, admit the Professor, releasing a cloud of smoke.
The plants were too cold to whisper anymore. He was alone, as alone as he could be. Cleverer men and women remained tucked in on this cold morning, and the animals…he wondered what the animals felt. He wondered if the animals ever crawled, mistakenly, onto this path. Did some animals enjoy the refreshing waves of cold as they penetrated fur, and did some find it repressing and suffocating in its numbness? Humans were much the same, on this mountain. There were those with the protective covering of fur, and there were those without. Quicksilver did not feel like the cold pricked him too uncomfortably, but he didn’t enjoy it either. On this occasion, it did not bother him simply because he did not let it. The mysteries of past journeys unraveled before him; adrenaline pumped through his veins like fire.
Impressively, his cigarette luckily escaped the last few snowflakes as they tumbled to the ground. The sky was a distant blue, and it was almost like staring into the depths of the ocean. The deep blue looked out of place up in the heavens; an unseen creature from the darkest corners of the lowest trenches could leap out at any time. Every time he looked up, his cigarette dangling from his lips, the Professor felt like giant swordfish would spear him from above- giant swordfish with teeth like stalactites. The higher he raised his eyes, the darker the blue turned, like ink collected atop the surface of water like a black pall. Without the sprinkle of snow, like glitter sinking into water, the sky was vast and empty.
With levitating swordfish thrusting spears at him in his mind, Quicksilver stubbed his cigarette and crawled across the wet and rocky surface. The hollow sound of wind rushing through crevices and cuts in rock could be heard slightly over the constant drip of the frozen stream as it came apart. Sheets of ice, thin as paper, sloughed off with every step. Every step had its own danger, for he felt in milliseconds a frightening sensation- the sensation just before you slip, where the sole of his shoes trembled backwards a little too much and his center of gravity momentarily collapsed. Instantly, the step would end and his body would relax, and he would be erect and unscathed- but it felt like his body moved like a see-saw, thrust into panic suddenly and within seconds, back to normal.
Halfway up the rocky maze, he paused. Evidence of his continual falls stuck to his shirt and trousers, coloring them a dirty green that made him look much like this very pathway in the summer. If the sun had shone perhaps a little brighter, that green surface would have been visible. Oddly enough, the tasking journey through the rocks did not feel new. He felt much like he had been through all this before...
It only hit him when he examined the frayed hem of his trousers, and memories of another series of falls came to him. He gingerly reached out and felt the sides of the rocks, using his fingers to trace outlines. The stream had worked its magic on the stones, rendering them polished and smooth. His fingers had expected roughness they were familiar with. And as he felt the rocks underneath him, he found traces of a previous state- patches on the polished facets that were bumpy and ridged to the touch. Here and there, he found reason to believe he had walked this path before, and it had looked vastly different.
Triumphantly climbing to the summit of the rocks, he looked down at the scrambled obstacle course he had meticulously crossed. Like one photograph slapped over another with no consideration for borders and colors, he seemed to see two images before him. He first saw the path laid out like it had been so many years ago- at the peak of the summer. The rough rocks had not, at this time, been subjected to decades of molding by the cold stream. Quicksilver guessed that the stream had begun its flow not twenty years ago- for it to have worked this much was still doubtful, though. He saw the rough rocks, still sharp-edged, swelter in the heat of the afternoon sun. Flowers peeked out of crevices, crevices that were now filled with hardened ice.
In a waltz of imaginary petals, Quicksilver could almost hear the symphony of a wild orchestra, the orchestra of the forest around him. The music was soft, much like the trembling stream and the sizzle of ice over his bare hands. The hurricane woman had left a scent in the air, and every whiff he took reminded him of freshness, of leaves crushed and held to the wind, of dew drops on green surfaces. It almost pained him to not follow the scent, but he had come with a destination in mind. His instinct seemed to plead with him internally, egging him on, asking him relentlessly to follow the wind. But the wind flowed in one long current straight into the trees, and Quicksilver found the daunting presence of the endless canopy far too frightening to clamber in and follow his nose. He imagined himself roaming the forest, quite alone, quite lost, and realized it didn’t sound like such a bad thing at all. He chided himself, for he was supposed to be a man of answers, not a man seeking more questions. Veering away from the sweet scent and up the path, Quicksilver was filled with regret.
Like stones pattering to the ground, he heard the sound of heavy feet. Muffled steps around him were amplified by the silence. Instantly, the waltz hung in the air, silent. He closed his eyes, and the vast silence encompassed him. He counted the padding steps in his mind, making sure to not confuse sounds for his own heartbeat. He could count them, he realized; he had counted them before. Crouching down, his worn out shoes half-immersed in the stream, he knew he had counted these sounds before. With shock, he took in a whiff of damp fur. Breaths steamed all around him, but the four legged army did not converge into the mountain path. They came closer and closer, until he knew they could hear him better than he could hear them. He waited anxiously, wondering if he should have lumbered into the forest when he had the chance. But as soon as it seemed ripe to strike, the creatures seemed to move away. It happened swiftly- there was suddenly a lack of padded feet, an absence of damp fur in the air. Almost out of fear, Quicksilver had been left alone. The creatures had veered away from him like he were the plague- and it made him wonder how his frame could strike such a powerful pose. In this new body, he wondered if he looked daunting, or even intimidating. As an old man, he could tell his students looked at him like he were a small, gentle, harmless human being. It gave him a thrill to feel intimidating, or powerful, even.
Feeling like he had conquered the mountain path and the mountain wolves, Quicksilver climbed the last ledge, hefting himself up. His fingers felt lush grass and smooth rock, and when he looked up, he was thirty years old again.