A Girl Climbs a Mountain

Ruth Joffre

 

Her mother wakes her up at 5:30 that morning so they can hit the road before dawn. Half-asleep still and swaddled in down, she tells her mother about her nightmares: how in one of them what looked like the shadows of a spiderweb solidified into a spindly monster whose narrow legs were like vines sucking its prey dry; when it discarded one, she saw that it was the husk of a man whose internal organs had dried up so that when cut open he looked like a doll stuffed with those brittle red chili threads that garnished her dinner a few nights before. While she recounts this, her mother navigates the foggy freeway with directions from her phone, which periodically gives her voice updates: Keep right…in 300 feet, turn right onto…recalculating…proceed to the route. Her mother pauses at a light to stroke the girl’s head. “Did the monster attack you?”

“No. It stayed in its corner and I stayed in mine.”

Her dismay accelerates at the green light. “You were in the room with it?”

“Sort of. It felt like we were on different planes. Or scales. The man was really tiny.”

Like a doll, her mother remembers, picturing the dollhouse her daughter used to play with in kindergarten and the family she always arranged at the kitchen table in the evening. One night, she snuck leftover barbacoa from a taco into the dollhouse and forgot about it. Her father found it a week later when he spotted a line of ants marching from the back door, up the stairs, then down the hallway to their daughter’s room, where the ants were swarming the tiny family still sitting in their tiny kitchen. Some part of her remembers, her mother thinks, though she doubts that the girl retains a conscious memory of that morning or the fight she had with her husband about what she could not remember. It both comforts and worries her to think the images in the girl’s nightmares have clear, identifiable origins. Even when her mind transforms the everyday into monsters, they still don’t attack her—that has to count for something, her mother thinks, as she winds the car up the bumpy mountain road.

At the base of the trail, they eat breakfast: boiled eggs, pepper jerky, a handful of nuts, an entire thermos of hot, caffeine-free tea smoothed with milk. While they eat and use the park’s pit toilet, the bright sun rises through the trees and starts burning off the fog. Other cars begin filling the parking lot, offloading hikers and their gear: hiking poles, sleeping bags, camp stoves, freeze-dried pouches of curries and goat milk and the occasional ice cream; but these are the real hikers, intent on spending days or even weeks in the backcountry, whereas they are just here for the day, as an escape. On Monday, a judge will decide who gets custody, and, though the mother believes she made a strong case, there is still the possibility, because her ex-husband is white and a higher earner, that the judge (also white) will decide in his favor. She tries not to think about this.

If this is their last weekend together for a while, then they must enjoy it.

On the way up the mountain, the girl, ten years old and full of curiosity, points out all the bits of nature she finds particularly beautiful or strange, or both: banana slugs so slick and yellow that she suspects they’ve been regurgitated; shelf fungi so evenly spaced as to form a staircase up the trunk of a tree; a series of waterfalls, all gray with glacier melt. One camper coming down off the mountain as they go up says, “Snowpack’s been getting worse every year. Pretty soon, all the ice will be gone and our crampons will basically be worthless.” That is a new word for the girl—crampons. Her mother can’t define it for her, but the sound conjures images of pain: blood on the sheet, icicles piercing her ovary at that time of the month. Her daughter is still too young to know that particular pain. Her fresh legs and clear lungs serve her well. It isn’t long before she assumes the lead on the trail and pushes toward the summit.

At the top, they collapse on twin boulders, hydrating and breathing hard.

Eventually, the girl twists, peering in every direction. “Which way is our house?”

It takes her a moment to calculate: the sun just passing its zenith, the snake of the freeway undulating to their right, the ocean nowhere to be seen, but out there, farther west. She points off, toward the south, and then shrugs. “Until we sell it, anyway.”

Deflated, the girl asks, “Do we have to?”

“Your father is insisting. You know how he is.”

Without missing a beat, the girl says, “Vindictive.”

Her mother nods, watches her stuff a water bottle into her backpack. “Want a snack?”

In silence, they eat peanut butter protein bars, warm apple slices, some cheese bread from a Brazilian bakery near their house. Other hikers come and go and pause for photos as they linger just below the tree line, soaking in the sun. At one point, the girl lies back, as if to nap on a stone. “If we were mountain goats,” she says, “we would never have to worry about climbing down; we could just jump from ledge to ledge, just you and me, for as long as we wanted—our whole lives, even. Nothing could stop us. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” She opens her eyes, briefly, when her mother strokes her hair to say yes, then closes them again. After a while, she asks, “Do you think mountain goats dream of flying?” Her mother smiles and looks up at the sky. Yes. Yes, I do.

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Ruth Joffre is the author of the story collection Night Beast, which was longlisted for The Story Prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Lightspeed, Gulf Coast, Prairie Schooner, The Masters Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere.