T/W: Sudden illness, grief, death
Moonlight traces an outline of the sofa, table and chairs as I creep about, gathering my things. Clouds bury the valley, but I know that above them the sky is clear, crystalline and pure. However, I am not there yet; I am here. Sequestered in my mountain-village flat, deep beneath the brooding cumulus.
The only sounds are the hum of the fridge and my flatmate, Sandra’s, soft rumbling snores. She’ll be angry when she wakes to find me gone, but it’ll be too late by then.
I don’t feel guilty since this is the only way it can be done. And at the end of the day, it’s just another hike. I’ve gotten very good at pretending, you see.
The last time I scaled this particular mountain, I was sixteen with my mother leading the way. Her: tanned, muscled arms pointing out bent or snapped off branches, paw prints in the dusty earth, cursing at any litter she found before picking it up and shoving it into her pocket. Blue eyes twinkling at the ease with which I kept up. Me: dark-blonde hair falling over freckled cheeks, eager and alert, mimicking my mother’s every move with gossamer-light feet. It is one of my favourite memories.
The Cascade trail is 20.1km of switchbacks, scree and gravel. It shouldn’t take me longer than five hours to reach the summit at 2998m above sea level, but I’m giving myself an extra hour just in case. I know I shouldn’t be going on my own, but I’m an experienced hiker and I know the trail. Besides, I can’t put it off any longer.
Once outside, fur-lined hat flaps warming my ears, I orientate myself, torch in hand - easily picking out the ragged shape of Cascade Mountain against the royal-blue velvet night sky - and begin to walk.
Somewhere, an owl hoots, long and mournful, and I wonder if it knows.
Summit in 16.5km
My muscles remember how much I like hiking before I do. Legs finding their rhythm, keeping in sync with my ponderous heartbeat as I follow the steady incline through the trees. I used to be so much lighter in more ways than one. Now, I am akin to a pack animal overburdened and undernourished. Irritated at my own analogy, I huff and push myself onwards, ignoring the complaint in my lungs.
When did I get this unfit?
After about two hours, the air begins to lighten enough for me to put away my torch. I am still beneath the clouds and amongst dense pine forest having ascended approximately a fifth of the way up. I estimate arriving at the peak for noon, which will give me plenty of time to rest, eat lunch and make my descent.
The only sounds are those of my own footsteps upon the bare earth, the occasional snap of a twig, a rustling of leaves and the steady tinkling of bells on my rucksack (for warding off wild animals). I absolutely love the feel of being the only person around for miles.
When I was little, Mum and I used to pretend we’d accidentally crossed a barrier into another realm and that magical creatures lurked beneath the gnarled tree roots and thorny underbrush. That if we were stealthy enough, we would see them and maybe, just maybe, they’d grant us a wish.
What would I wish for now, I wonder? I’m itching for my transfer to the sister-hotel in Vancouver to be approved. Spending my days lolling on the beach or hiking with the salty-fresh scent of the ocean in my lungs. Living in a city as opposed to a small village; I can only imagine.
And I do, too often: at home when adverts pop up during America’s Next Top Model (a show I like way more than I’m willing to admit), in the shower, at work when I’m listing off the hotel’s amenities to guests checking in or even worse, when I’m supposed to be listening to their grievances, nodding and grunting in the appropriate places.
I feel bad when I find myself doing that, glazing over as Mr and Mrs Pratt from Suite 17 complain about the hideous streaks left by housekeeping on their bathroom mirror, wondering if I’ll be any good at beach volleyball – maybe I should practice before I go; the Vancouver hotel might have a team.
I’d also wish for Sandra to stop behaving as if I have “Fragile” stamped across my forehead. That would be nice, though I don’t resent her for it. She’s a good friend and she has her reasons.
A bird squawks very close by and I jump, startled out of my reveries. I stop for a moment, leaning against a thick tree trunk as I wolf down a trail mix bar with a gulp of water before carefully returning the used wrapper to my side-pocket.
Feeling revived, I roll my shoulders, crick my neck and continue onwards.
Summit in 11.8km
The forest lies behind me now and the terrain is a little rockier. Before me is the boulder field, strewn with unstable rocks of varying sizes and on the far side is the first layer of impenetrable fog. I move slowly, focusing on my balance, placing both feet and hands with care. If I hurt myself, I’d need to explain to an exasperated mountain rescue why I (a local and not a bumbling tourist) was hiking a mountain alone in the gloom.
Unbidden, my mother’s voice rings in my head, “How many times, Jemma! You can’t do everything on your own. You need to learn to ask for help. Ask me! Ask me…” I smirk ruefully. Hello pot, it’s me kettle.
I remember last winter, when the first snowfall was so high Mum couldn’t get out of her front door. Instead of calling me (or literally anyone else), she climbed down from the first-floor balcony, shovel in hand, and proceeded to clear the whole driveway unaided. It was hours before the neighbours surfaced and joined in, protesting that she should’ve woken them. “It’s no bother,” she’d said, “I’m not too old to shovel a bit of snow!”
My boot hits a loose bit of scree and I fall down on one knee. Wincing, I use both hands to bring myself into a better position and crawl the next few paces.
Well, I’m not too old to climb a mountain on my own, so there. Dad won’t mind, he said as much and I’ll tell him all about it when I see him at Christmas. He’s paying for me to fly out and stay with him in Montreal (either from here or, hopefully, Vancouver). My French is pas mal, but that hardly matters.
Apparently, I look like my dad minus the black bushy beard. I have Mum’s hair and hazel eyes, but whilst her face is pointed like a woodland elf, mine is oval with high cheekbones and a rounded jaw. They’ve been divorced for years now, but Mum has this special half-smile and a certain tilt to her head when she’s thinking how much I look like him. Though she always denies it, sighing as she tucks a loose strand of hair behind my ear and instead, tells me how grown up I am.
My memories of us all together are hazy as if seen through a waterfall. The smells of fresh snow and hot cinnamon like a fine mist on bare skin.
My foot slides again, but I catch it and right myself without falling. From what I recall, there is a fair bit of scrambling and two false summits to go before I reach the true peak. I reach the far edge of the boulder field and step into the shifting grey nebula.
Summit in 7.2km
How thick are these clouds? It seems to be going on forever, giving the landscape of rocks and scree an indistinct, ghostly hue. Visibility has dropped to twenty paces at most and each pebble I knock with my toe scuttles away, its passage muffled by the chill damp fog.
I’ve depleted my snack supply and two-thirds of my water. The sandwich I’m saving for when I reach the top. If I find the damned thing.
Am I lost? I staunch the fear brewing in my gut. Could I have missed the last cairn? I force myself not to whip around in a frenzy, which would only make things worse. My quads are burning and every step incites a new throb of pain, but I grit my teeth and keep going.
I’ve been through worse, like the time I skied down a double-black run at Sunshine Village. I was thirteen and it didn’t look too bad from the top. It meandered and undulated through the trees before joining up with a wide green piste. It took me about two seconds to realise I’m made a terrible mistake. The run was much steeper than I’d thought and too narrow to turn, making it impossible for me to slow down. Trees flashed by and I gripped my ski-poles with tight fists, desperately trying to stay upright, praying that I could make it to the end and out onto that safe flat. For a moment, I thought I might just do it.
Then I hit a rock.
My skis wobbled, clanking awkwardly as I tried to hold them straight. In desperation, I picked one up and rode on one ski for a painfully slow moment before crashing face-first into a tree trunk.
Mum was apoplectic, but mostly relieved that I wasn’t seriously hurt. I promised never to go off on my own again and she promised not to tell my ski instructor (I was terrified he would remove me from the off-piste explorers’ group). I told him anyway, which I felt was very grown up of me.
This isn’t that bad. At least I’m not careening down a mountain, but plodding up one. I remember once asking Mum how to climb a mountain and she said, “By putting one foot in front of the other. As long as you don’t stop and turn back, you’ll get there eventually.” I realised years later that this advice actually works for a lot of things.
A large boulder looms on my left and I know there is a sheer drop somewhere to the right. I consider stopping and waiting until the clouds are dispersed by the sun (as the forecast suggested) but mountain weather is vastly changeable, one minute its clear skies and the next—
The boulder moves.
Frozen in place, I shift my gaze towards the dark mass which lets out a wet snort and lumbers closer. I silence the scream clawing up my throat as every muscle in my body spasms, fighting to keep very, very still.
It’s a grizzly bear.
I’ve never seen one this close before. They avoid humans if they can, attacking only if threatened or surprised; the cloud cover (and my own careful footing) must have dampened the sound of my approach.
Turn around. I beg silently. Please, turn around and go the other way.
The roar of blood in my ears in deafening as the bear pads forwards. It hasn’t seen me. The ground vibrates under its weight, dust puffing around its enormous paws; an adult grizzly can weigh up to 770kg, and this one looks fully grown to me. Painfully slow, I reach my left hand back and unhook the bear pepper spray from my right side-pocket and hold it inoffensively to my chest.
Anyone who grows up in the valley knows the rules: do not run, avoid direct eye contact, don’t scream and if a bear charges… you stand your ground and wave your arms. Advice I recite to tourists and visitors alike from the safety of my hotel reception desk. I always wondered how I would fair in such a situation (thinking that I would be brave), but as it happens, I really, really don’t want to find out.
I’m shaking violently now, staring at the tip of its snout, not daring to blink as it inevitably, inexorably turns to face me. Go away… Please.
The bear charges.
Every blade of its midnight-black fur glistens as its razorlike claws shred the gravel. I thumb off the safety tab, point the spray and fire.
Click. Nothing happens. Oh God, please work!
Click. Click! Again, nothing.
The bear roars. A screeching howl of primal outrage and hot rank breath slaps my face, stinging my eyes as it rears up upon its powerful hind legs, the front paws swaying in line with my head.
I don’t move. And, from somewhere deep in my core, anger surges, overwhelming my fear. How dare this animal get in my way! Today of all days! My outrage gives me the courage to slowly wave my arms.
The bear stays upright for a few moments, swaying, inspecting me, weighing and judging. I try telepathically to tell it I’m not a threat.
Then, it crashes back down, close enough for me to see its lolling tongue and pointed teeth. It sniffs at me, once, twice, grunts and – I’ll never know why – turns away in dismissal. Bored, it ambles off back into the fog and disappears.
I don’t move again for what feels like a very long time.
At the first opportunity, I will hunt down the man who sold me the bear spray, but for now I put my vengeful thoughts aside because finally, I’ve made it.
The true peak.
Relief tingles my skin as I approach the official lookout point marked by a large red-painted cairn. The sun throbs directly overhead and in every direction a blanket of white cloud covers the landscape, pierced here and there by other rugged peaks. I feel that, at some point, I crossed that imaginary boundary between worlds and now I’m floating, adrift, and above it all.
As I admire the view, an unexpected thought grips me, stifling any others: I don’t want to do it.
I shake my head, unsure of how to proceed. Chill wind tickles my hair, blowing it in front of my face, into my mouth and eyes. Automatically, I tuck it back behind my ears, just like Mum used to. Except her fingers were different. They were longer and more delicate with the tenderness that only a mother’s hands possess. I emulate that gentleness as I undo my backpack and remove the little grey box snugged beside my spare jumper.
The summit’s cairn is where I remember it to have been, just a few steps away from the slabs of white rock upon which Mum and I stopped to rest the last time I was up here. We ate lunch there, drinking in the view as she probed for information about my (non-existent) love life and future plans. Dreams of leaving the valley to explore the world, get lost in unknown cities and camp under unfamiliar stars.
Mum’s dreams involved wildlife conservation projects, eco-friendly lifestyle pursuits and painting. “If I sell one, I’ll have beaten Van Gogh” she’d said, dabbing the end of my nose with bright-blue, right as I was leaving to go on a date. And in response to my fury, she’d said, “If he doesn’t like you with a blue nose, he’s not worth it.”
Why was she always so right? Why can’t she still be?
Because all those dreams that Mum had - all her secret thoughts and throw-away smiles - they came before.
Before an undetected blood clot slipped into her main artery and rode it all the way to her brain. Before she collapsed in the supermarket, golden locks fanned out in a sunburst with her beautiful green eyes already losing their light.
I was at home making spaghetti when it happened and I want to say I felt something, that on some level I knew my world had been torn apart, but I didn't.
It doesn’t feel real. One day she was there, and then she wasn't. Never again will she tuck my hair behind my ear or kiss the top of my head, breathing in the smell of me (I used to think that was really weird, but it’s one of the things I miss the most). Now, all I have are our memories.
The funeral is a blur of snow-white flowers on sunlit wood. I was lying when I said I'd wish for anything other than to have her back with me. I do so wish I could carry on pretending...
And that’s when it hits me. Why Dad suggested I scatter her ashes on the summit of Cascade Mountain.
It was to help me say goodbye.
Trembling, I kneel down in the exact same spot where we laughed together all those years ago and bring the box up to rest against my lips. I love you… and I’ll always miss you, Mum. Always.
I lift the lid and gently pry open the bag. I’m not sure what I expected to happen, but as I tilt the box, thus beginning the trickle of ash, the wind ceases whipping my hair in all directions and instead blows steadily away from me.
I blink away my tears, watching as the tiny particles catch fire in the molten glow of sunlight like diamond dust sprinkled on the wind. My chest swells with the beauty of it. Enraptured by the ethereal blend of finality and endlessness as she is carried up and away, into the azure blue and on towards the glorious shimmering horizon.