Follow the bird, the bird.

Tomassi’s head snapped to the side. He knew the difference between the sounds that were there and those that weren’t. Didn’t keep him from looking for them, though.

His mother wasn’t Italian like his father. She didn’t know his name was spelled wrong. Did his father know him?

He shook his head vigorously to clear it. Clear like the air, altitude-clear. He breathed deeply the way his doctor taught him. The phantom noises subsided, and he exhaled uneasily. He could see the high peak blue and hazy, solid in the distance. He liked when things didn’t move.

Tomassi resumed his march, pausing only to examine the cold grass stems where they sprang up behind him. It was the only movement aside from the wind-shifted trees. And the bird flying on the ground. His head moved too quickly again. It was not on the ground, so his wide eyes found it overhead, but he grappled them back down when he saw it was not the eagle. Follow the bird!

He read once that mountains moved. Once elsewhere that moving them was a good thing. This idea scraped his skin on the inside—something had to be still, and he could be still, too, if only he joined himself to that great immobility.

Better in the trees? Short vision, close in. Better in the meadow? The sky was too big to move, especially when it had no clouds to hide it, and that was nice. The bird!

This was the erratic path he traveled.

Tomassi knew he was not a fool. Oh, he often doubted, and Sarah spoke as if to a child. He grew weary of her tiptoes and soothing smiles. Was he only alive to be watched and protected and paid for? That apartment was a prison, even if the rest of the city was a hell.

Here, he was able to draw in the valley for a moment in a grand still-life. Usually, pictures like this were tinged in a false blue glow which he could not abide. Here, though—Tomassi saw the strong pine trees that could bend but also stand straight in their stoic crowd. A forest could be all of a piece, especially where the trees crawled up the side of the mountain ahead. Their brothers the firs bristled with each flat needle divorced from its neighbors. He knew he could draw closer and see the families of pine needles or the quadrangular solitude of those in the spruce trees.

Open sky of a natural blue, gradient grasses anchored by boulders. There, a stream with a voice like tumbling glass among leaves.

He struggled to ignore a twisted shout to his left. It was accompanied by the compulsion to seek a glimpse of the eagle he needed to follow to her peak. She nested there, the golden eagle from the photograph.

Tomassi was troubled by the things that weren’t there. If he could just find the bird, he would know for certain that reflections came from reality, that a picture was taken of something true. He wanted to know that his mind was doing more than lying to him. Sarah crooned that he imagined things.

But he was not a fool. He read books and loved those words that did not swim or shout the way screens did. Screens swallowed him and scrambled him. He was not a fool, because the feeling of entrapment told him there was somewhere he could escape.

Everything made sense to him, if only for a moment at a time. He had ideas, new ideas never realized by anyone else! And there was pride in the thoughts that belonged to him.

But then they fled. The ideas, and the people. And then pride queasily molted into shame, peeled back by an awareness of separation from the world he inhabited. He would never be a pine needle, joined to others.

The trail was dark with night. Darkness eased the motion-tension sometimes, but it made the falsehoods harder to distinguish. Tomassi wished he remembered the descent of the sun.

He dropped his hiking backpack and began to float. He quickly unrolled his sleeping bag and bedded down. Dinner was granola and jerky. Tomassi read about a body’s needs on these long, long walks, and he prepared. Water, then sleep. A checklist, listed and checked.

Closed eyes could be the best or the worst. Emptiness did not move, but neither did it congeal into something hard and reliable. Eventually he escaped the last eyelid swirls and focused on the mountain in his mind. The sharp-eyed eagle, one with the peak or with the wind, and never to be unsettled. Tetrachromatic vision that sharpened anything with unique hyperfocus, seeing it absolutely and fully. Even moving things could be fixed by those eyes.

Follow the bird.

Follow the bird.


In the morning, he discovered that the things which were not there could be drowned momentarily in snowmelt streams. He need only plunge his head into the glacial flow, and everything sharpened for a time. Worth the headache he developed.

Tomassi’s path cut a wildly inefficient route in and out of the trees, but he finally broke above the tree line. He did not turn. The peak was above him, he could see it. He was hungry, yet he did not need to eat. The ridge was immense and steep, but Tomassi knew he could walk it in switchbacks.

A herd of elk bounded over the ridge and poured down the steep earth with abandon. It was quiet here, but the frenzy of movement flung Tomassi’s head in circles. His head jerked wildly from spot to spot. He toppled forward rather than tumble away to the bottom of the mountain. He lay for a time with his face on the cold dirt. His eyes fixed on a stone inches away from his face.

Was he always this way? Tomassi thought so, but he could he trust his memory? Did his father leave because of the way he was? Would his mother have told him? Why did Sarah keep him from knives and belts?

Tomassi gathered himself. He breathed the crispness of air that no one touched. He reminded himself where he was—alone, on a mountain by his own power! He remembered that he had taken that knife last year, decided to write the words he couldn’t quite speak aloud. Sarah dialed the three numbers of deferred responsibility and let the firemen ask him questions. He answered the questions three times, to three uniforms.

People believed his trouble speaking meant he couldn’t hear. They all set about solving him, but it came to nothing. Tomassi wanted to escape, but when he finally pieced together a solution, it was not one so simple. The knives did not appeal to him anymore.

He was here, now. And if there was something he understood, it was motion. He pushed himself up and regained his feet, fixing his eyes on the top of the ridge. Hand over hand, exulting in the magma of his legs. He was a being of magma. Unlike people with whole minds, he did not let fires break out to hurt anyone else. His only lava had spilled out in his red handwriting last year, and he watched the distress in those who witnessed it.

No. Even if he lived in fragments, he could make a decision in every shard.

With switchbacks abandoned behind him, he ascended. He kicked steps into a snowy rift. And when he crested the high ridge, all that remained was a peak of boulders that rose like a giant’s cairn. He decided and decided, each one a step, until it was done.

Tomassi stood atop the mountain.

There, atop the peak, he observed a waiting bird with a curious lack of surprise. Two realizations funneled forward through a throng of competing thoughts.

One: The bird before him was not an eagle.

Two: The peak toward which he had marched for two weeks lay lightly shrouded across a deep wooded valley to the north.

Tomassi allowed his emotions to run their courses before engaging them. And then he smiled.

How many people looked up for a glimpse of a noble raptor in the sky? A winged shape caught a corner of their eyes, and their eager gazes sought confirmation that it was indeed the hawk, the kestrel, the eagle they wanted it to be—that amazing sight, that uncommon sight. And then, how many people observed the bird above and sighed in dismissal, “Never mind, it’s just a vulture.”

Facing the carrion bird, Tomassi eased himself down and set his small summit pack beside him. He crossed his legs.

In truth, he could see that other peak much better from this vantage. All around him, the world fell away in vast, beautiful sheets. Every forest, every meadow, every gemstone lake, every river, all made still as a painting by distance.

Tomassi patiently removed a small book from his pack. The vulture—common, but so rarely studied—shifted slightly, but it was all right. All was silent but for the wave-sounds made by mountain peak winds, and Tomassi realized he had not heard another voice in hours.

No one camped on the summit. It was dangerous, even foolish. Tomassi was no fool, but he resolved to remain here as long as he needed. He opened the empty pages and began to write, and the words brought him joy. He knew the confusion would always return, always be a part of him. He also knew he was creating something, and it was good. Tomassi laid orderly plans in his mind to bring peace to someone else like him.

This summit was truly tiny, a sharp point atop the mottled sprawl of the rest of the mountain. The vulture watched him closely, huddling its bald head into a mass of dark feathers, but it did not fly away. In fact, it did not move at all.

January 19, 2023 17:56

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