For the Forest on the Mount

A man carrying fodder on his back, As if our guide Over the summer moor. —Basho, from R. H. Blythe, Haiku, v. 3, p. 79

“Here, have some.” Dope leaned back into his fat armchair, a satisfied philosopher, and Bird reached for the decanter. “I think I know a lot what you’re going through,” Dope continued, blinking his blind eyes. “She left, and you’re lost. You’d like to drown your sorrow, and you don’t know which way to turn. Quit hopping around and sit down, will ya? It’s like you stand looking in a mirror, and you think you’re in it, so if you ever stopped, you’d be dead.” An old almanac lay alone on the table. Dope was giving Bird his medicine-man smile. Bird looked up twice through his glassy eyes. “You sure know where to hurt a guy.” He took a large swallow. “But your place is full of shit. Mine too, but you ain’t got stranded.” He looked into Dope’s black fireplace. “I ain’t got faith in things anymore.” “Yeah,” said Dope, smelling his greasy glass, “faith. Go to the holy places. Someone’s got to go. No matter what, go to the holy places. Walk there. It’ll do you good.” Bird was stunned. It was obvious. The whole thing suddenly turned around. It had been flat, and now it was round. “So, you went to see Dope, huh?” Rabbit peered over his spectacles. “What did he say?” Bird looked unconsciously out the café window, with sand in his eyes. It was just a truck stop. Sunday morning in Havre, Montana. “Nothing important.” He sad on the edge of his seat with his hand on his crotch. He stared at Rabbit, who was counting the people in the café. “Let’t go on a pilgrimage.” “You’ve been out of the reservation too long.” Bird hurredly swallowed the last of his black coffee, and turned towards the door. “Wait. I’ll go with you.” Rabbit laid some money on the counter, winking at the waitress. “So that’s what Dope said. Well. Dope’s a bastard, but he’ll tell you what you want him to.” Out on the road, breathing slowly, Bird stood looking southeast past the houses out of town. It was summer, and the amber grass stretched up to the fir and pine, up around the steep corners on the creeks that drained the Bearpaw Mountains. A truck drops him off at the gate in Lohman, and Bird walks up his driveway. There she is, looking out her kitchen window. “What do you mean, you sold your truck! How will you get to work? You must be out of your mind.” Bird sits down. “I know. It was running all right. But I need money now I quit my job.” She just stares him in the face. He has to leave the shack. He goes out and looks at the mountains. When he comes back, she’s gone. “Let’s go hike in the forest. Climb the Bearpaw Mountain.” Rabbit stuck his hands in his pockets, and lifted his eyes to the sky. “OK. If you know the way.” “But are you sure that old truck can get us up there?” “You ought to know. I ain’t been up there before.” It was an old red Ford, and it sounded like a tractor. Rabbit turned right at Lohman on Rocky Boy Road, and headed south four miles up the west side of Clear Creek. There, he pulled over to a bobwire gate. Bird got out unsteadily, and forced the wire latch over the post. Grasshoppers flew out of his way, wading backwards into the grass with the gate, and burrs stuck all over his pant legs. While Rabbit gunned up the truck and plowed through, Bird stood looking up the slope towards Bearpaw. The grass waved slowly in the wind. Rabbit got out to help him refasten the fence. “What do you think?” said Bird, motioning up at a crest of Douglas fir. “Who knows?” White clouds floated over Bearpaw in the blue sky, and a grove of aspen were quaking in the craw of a little spring. “Hey, I got some beer under that seat there if you’re thirsty.” Bird shook his head. “Naw. I ain’t drinking.” They rolled across the rutted trail into the brush in their little vessel, and idled on the ridge, looking down into the shadow at Clear Creek. It wound its way over rocks and around bushes and grassy mounds in the narrow valley, from up between two claws of the Bearpaw. Rabbit pointed at a couple of cattle, who stared at them placidly from the other side, chewing their cuds. “I guess they know what’s good for them.” They were small in the distance, and might have been rocks, if they hadn’t moved to eat the grass. Rabbit eased his truck, its brakes protesting, down the dusty slope. “Hey. You going to get this thing back up here?” Bird asked, gripping his seat. “Don’t worry about a thing,” Rabbit told him, with his big hands on the tiller. At the bottom, the tracks led across a gentle grass and forded the creek. The cold water washed up against the tires as they crossed. Looking down, Bird watched the silver stones move downstream with the crystal water. Rabbit offered him a smoke. “Wait a minute,” said Bird. “I’m thirsty.” He slammed the truck door, and ran across the grass back to the creek, while the amused Rabbit pulled a match out of his pocket and commenced to chew on it. Bird lay down on the bank, and stuck his face in the water, sucking up the cold fire. A charred stump sat in the damp ashes of a dead campfire, watching him. He bobbed his head out of the water, and the drops from his black hair jeweled down his face. He rolled over in all the unmarked sensations of matter, and gazed at his feet in the grass. From there, he saw a guiltless hawk, surveying the slopes. As he glided to the truck, Clear Creek carried the spirit of the mountains down to Milk River, and forever on indiscriminately through wheat fields and forests, on down the wide and muddy Missouri. The tracks led them about a mile and a half up the creek, where it forked, one continuing in the valley bottom, and the other to the east up a bald ridge. “Take the upper road, said Bird, and Rabbit swung the truck to the left. The way was rougher now. Gullies had been eroded in the tracks. The truck struggled and grumbled in the dust, and the grass scrubbed its bottom. At the top of the naked slope stood a lone Ponderosa, its base littered with needles and cones. “That mother fucker looks like it’s had a rough time,” said Rabbit. “It must be a hundred years old.” “Yeah. It looks like lightning has struck it more than once.” Rabbit stopped the truck beside it. “I wish I’d live to be a hundred.” “God bless. So would I.” “But he’s all alone.” “No he ain’t. He’s got the mountain.” “Wow.” Bird had turned around. Behind them fell the foothills of the Bearpaw into the grassland, an island in a restless yellow ocean, undulating through the centuries. “Look at all them mountains,” he said. The Cypress Hills to the north and the Rockies to the west rose blue and proudly from the prairie. “Yep. He probably got what he wanted,” Rabbit said, speaking of the Ponderosa, which towered over them like a lighthouse. Both of them just sat there, considering the matter from all sides. The Bearpaw climbed five more miles above them. “We sure are getting high, ain’t we?” said Bird, and Rabbit stated the truck up again through the grass. Now there were juniper and chaparral, covering the steep slopes like fur, with scattered fir and pine, which clustered further up the mountain. Over yonder is the old Waldgrave place,” said Bird. “He thought there might be gold here once, and sunk a shaft back into a granite cliff. I guess now though, there’s nothing in his shack but rat shit.” “Maybe there still is gold up here somewhere,“ said Rabbit, looking at his watch. The sun had just passed noon. A silence fell again upon them, as the truck lumbered into the forest, which rose up to hide the sun behind its sticky trunks, dense with rotting logs and brush. A great tree lay fallen across the trail, and Rabbit turned the truck off. “I ain’t about to lift that thing on my shoulder,” he said. “So I guess this is as far as I go.” “What? You ain’t going up to the top with me?” Bird got out. “Nope. You go on. I’m sitting here,” said Rabbit, sinking into his padded cab. Bird looked into the trees, then he looked at Rabbit. “All right. You do what you want.” Bird walked over to a pine tree, and broke off one of the straight lower branches. Taking his knife out of his pocket, he trimmed it off. Then he took a firm hold on the fat end, and thrust the staff into the thick layers of needles and twigs. “I reckon this one will do.” He started walking uphill with it, disappearing in the warm shadows. Birds scattered among the evergreens, as he climbed around a clump of rock. He noticed there had been deer that way, picking out a trail through the brush. Bird licked his lips. Suddenly he came upon a small round meadow. The sun came down hot, and the smell of the grass rose up to him. “What the devil!” There was a great white rock, right splash in the middle of the meadow, and after its tired swim on the glaciers, scarred and covered with lichens. “Well, just a rock,” he said. The heedless rock just sat there, while Bird walked across the clearing, and recklessly knocked off tops of the wheatgrass with his staff, scattering the seed and the chaff on the ground. Back in the forest, he continued blindly towards the summit, sweating now, and breathing deeply. His heart pumped to bursting, threatening to hold all his blood at once. The pines had swallowed him up, but suddenly he broke out of them. A cold wind struck him like a white ocean breaker, as he came upon the final granite fortress. “God damn it, I’m tired,” he said with a big thirsty grin, as he made the top. He sat down with his staff on the last upright rock, as a wave of giddiness swept over him. “Wow.” The sun was falling towards the cloud-capped Rockies. Bearpaw swelled beneath him, while below, all circled around him, the country stretched out and touched eternity. The immense thing swum to his head, emptying his senses, while the Milk to the north and the Missouri to the south drained the earth. Bird was drunk with it. “My God. I bet I can see my whole country,” he said, and let the sky possess him. Color overcame everything he saw, and everything he couldn’t see. “Man, what a feeling!” watching the clouds move above him, and shifting his weight on the rock. “That’s what Bearpaw’s for. To sit on.” Feeling stronger, Bird jumped down to the ground. “I’ve been here long enough,” he said. He turned and headed down a dizzy slope into a dense clump of trees. When he came out, he was on the edge of a strange field, and the mountain shoulders bent around corners he didn’t recognize. Mossy granite rocks were scattered about the field from some giant beast who had shit them there. He was overwhelmed by the strangeness inside of him. “All right. Don’t panic,” he said, seeing a moving figure in the distance at the end of the grass. “Rabbit!” he yelled with his dry throat. “Raabbid!” His mouth felt like a dust cloud. But the silent figure moved on. Bird began running, stumbling after it, breathless, with pieces of granite flying down the hill in his wake. The image strode over the hill as Bird reached the middle of the field. Bird slowed to a walk, panting, but still trudged on after the silent guide. The clearing fell into a tree-covered ridge. Bird forced his way through it, and looked out at the Milk River Valley. Clear Creek meandered far below him. The figure was lost. Orienting himself, he looked over his shoulder, and saw the sun poised in the west. He made his way down a rock slide, and crossed a little spring in the shadow of the ridge. Up on the other side, he saw the valley that he had first come to after he’d left Rabbit in the truck. His ankles ached from the run. Dust and pieces of grass coated his wet skin. He pushed hair out of his eyes, and soon he came upon the road above the truck. As he walked down the cool way, the limbs of pines seemed to reach out and want to shake his hand, mocking him. He turned the corner, and there was the red truck, with Rabbit asleep behind the wheel. Bird collapsed in the cab. “Nope. It weren’t me,” Rabbit told him, “but I had a dream.” Bird didn’t want to hear the dream. “You look a mess.” Rabbit started up the truck. “It’s a long way home. We better be getting on down.”

epilogue “The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rock, whose dwelling is high, who say in your heart, ‘Who will bring me down to the ground?’ Though you soar aloft like the eagle, though your nest is set among the stars, thence I will bring you down, says the Lord.” Obadiah, 1.3-4

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