by Maude Larke
with apologies to James Agee
Now we have come to the long descent that takes possession of the green slope nestled in the amethyst icebergs of peaks through the repeated Zs of the path where dust rises, plays, settles, repeating in rhythm to the successive passing feet. A lingering yellow winks sparsely from the scattered gentians wandering and searching in the angled meadow, neither flocking to us nor fleeing. Our feet walk through shadows, clouds surveying, until they follow one, a red kite, wings in circumflex, two eyebrows raised in a question for what the prairie will produce. Voices are silent; the click of the nailed tip of a hiking staff on a rock, the soft, muffled tide of a canteen; the tin ticking of the loose buckles of a backpack. Dusty patches of path; muddy patches of path, chocolate and greedy for our boots.
We imitate the dance of skiers, drifting down in their balletic diagonals with our one pole to balance, to turn us. The kite finds its mouse; the shadow shrinks and corners of eyes see the eyebrows frown. The mouse searches a hole, a log, in the instants before the talons fold. Then the mouse meets the feel of flight for the very first time. The gentians nod complacently and gaze. The mouse’s tail flicks, twice, thrice, as the kite’s tail fans, flinches it delicately back into its gyre. The silence salves anew. The sun bathes us as if we were babies and the blue that it climbs, sliding its round back along the vault, between or along the missing ribs of implied arches, fondles the eyes when the eyes rise to it. They scan the narrow tan track as well to navigate the root, the stone, the lacing elbow. The navigation sometimes slips: a boot thuds, a cleat grates. But yet no words are spoken as we wind back downward into the world: the leader, still hoisting the shoulders of an army career, braking at each step; the sisters, one mostly silent, one mostly talkative, both quiet now; my good friend’s nephew, too mischievous for a slope so far from base; my love, dark hair reaching to red from a week of the sun’s reiterated rays. And I am winding too, down to laundry and schooldays and books, and try to take my eyes to all the amethyst icebergs as they roll backward behind the green slope, the beeches joining branches and marking the vertical, the Zs that hum as they cradle our feet, the winking gentian. But they search elsewhere also: for the kite gone to its banquet, for the sharp crest separating Spain from France by a worm’s slime track, the mist gathering in like a hungry flock, gleaming white right then; for the designation with the thump of a staff of the arrival at altitude, the huge cirque opening just beneath it and the northern wheatear scolding us for interrupting; for the herd of Pyrenean chamois, grazing to our left as we rose, anxious for their sanctuary, to our right, muffled urgent thunder arrowing down one meadow slope to leap the frigid coursing brook and paw intently up the other, the babies’ double-time hooves keeping up with the mothers’; the utter, present, cottony quiet of the globe once the tents were closed; the stiff swinging of the tent flaps on mornings when frost still defied day.
I break from trailing the new memories as we break from the trail and settle in the last corner of the green blanket before we tuck ourselves into the gathering woods. Our mats are spread, our last provisions are spread, we perform the vanishing of final traces of sustenance and offer the cheese, the semolina, the doses of powdered milk, the carefully treasured chocolate bar. I boil the water and drink the tea carefully; the metal cup jabs at my lips as malignly as it can. I drink slowly, in little sips, knowing that the last sip leads to washing, the washing to packing, the packing to taking up the load, lighter though it is. Not knowing yet about the last gems I will also pack: a grey donkey nuzzled to an old black horse with white whiskers; a glimpse of a curious but reticent fox; a nightingale deciding to rehearse after hours; beeches ceding to pines and footfalls like perfumed sounds of harvesting.
Oh, of course, we do crave it, the base, the laying of the loads, the coffee beans ground and drowned, cooking smells caressing our nostrils from an oven. But the sinking from the ridge is also a shrinking from the true trajectory of cleansing and an acquiescence in personal pollution. I sigh against the return to the too-complex, too unmigratory me waiting on the other side of a door with a lock on it that I will be soon to unlock and step through, that I will still know to unlock and step through despite the stiffness of the tent flap marquetried with frost and its swing welcoming out.
Maude Larke lives in France. She has come back to creative writing after years in the university system, analyzing others’ texts, and to classical music as an ardent amateur, after fifteen years of piano and voice in her youth. Publications include Naugatuck River Review, Oberon, Cyclamens and Swords, riverbabble, 52|250, and Sketchbook.