The sun was sweeping through the trees and touching lightly on the path ahead. As we made through the forest, our easy steps were replaced by deeper lunges, our hands began to push off from our knees, and soon enough we were grasping for tree trucks and hauling ourselves up by roots splayed like sympathetic hands. My stooping companion climbed ahead of me. His name was Jacob Nester. I knew little about him other than his name but this was not on my account. Nester, by now I gathered, had a nature reserved to the point of rudeness, and would talk solely about the concerns of our immediate journey.
After a time, we broke from the trees and emerged blinking onto a plateau. It was a bicoloured step of soft browns and sharp whites; a lofty expansive lowland scattered with bracken and bark and mossed-over waterholes. It was near encircled by mountains which rose in distant and impressive formation, and in the middle was a mirror – a lake which itself was surrounded by a thin line of naked trees. There was a group of cabins about a minute away – the place where we would be staying. I saw through my narrowed wind-stung eyes that each was made from stone and wood, and that they huddled dangerously close to the plateau’s precipice. We approached, our posture crippled, and I noticed next that between each of these cabins was a shared patch of turf – cracked carpets on the hard ground that faded out into the frozen plain.
We mounted the frontier porch of the closest cabin, which was low enough to keep some of the wind off. Nester walked on past the bordered-up windows and knocked loudly on the door. A large wooden rocking chair sat shock still next to me on the porch.
The door opened a moment after Nester’s knock, and we were met by our small host – an old native woman whose name I did not know but who I would soon learn was called Mewbok. She did not speak a word of English. Through our fingers and other bodily motions and grunts of assent and dissent we came to understand that she had only a bed for one, and one of us would be sleeping on the floor. That night, I took the rugs she gave me and slept soundly in furs by the fire.
The next day I help Mewbok cut firewood. It felt like a relief that she did not evict me that morning. I half expected it. She greeted me with noises in the morning and fed me with Nester, but I could not escape feeling lucky that I could stay here for the time being; for the winter at least; for at least as long as I made myself useful. Although I knew little of Nester’s purpose here, I had no exact idea as to what I was doing either. It felt like a stopover; to what I was not sure. Perhaps I was meant to leave to look for gold and silver and other rare minerals even though I didn’t have a sieve; but such a pecuniary idea as this didn’t seem right, and although I raised many questions as to what my obligations were, I had no answers, and although I proposed many plans of action, none survived for long.
Weeks past like this. I learned three things: that the wind would kick you if you let it, that the days are always short, and that when the rains come they come to stay. Mewbok would not wait for the rain to stop. When the rains came, she would knock on the cabin window from the outside like she always did, and then we would go out and fetch wood. We brought with us a small axe to chop branches. We hardly ever used it though because the best wood was already broken and could be found underneath logs or in-between trees. Mewbok moved about her business with a hunch. I thought it was probably the accumulation of many years of hardship, possibly worsened by old-age bones and the lingering weight of past pregnancies. Over the course of a day we would make several trips, one to each of the cabins, and deposit firewood under the shelter of their respective porches.
The heavy lifting was done by me. I got no thanks for it. I suppose I did not expect any. I was her guest – her increasingly confused guest. She never spoke, not to me nor Nester, and not even to herself in her own tongue. I did learn something of Nester though. He worked as a cadet here, minding the mountain paths and counting the mountainside animals that grazed there. With his telescope, he cast his eye over the healthy scenery to spot from great distances whether there are twenty less sheep than there should be. He rises before sunlight; goes to the cabin across the way; leaves a note with an animal count from the day before; heads for the mountains; arrives wherever most pleases him, and then gets to the watching. He returns only when the afternoon is vanishing, and then he seems tired, and retires early to bed. As a result, I see him only at breakfast. Because Mewbok and I woodfind late and finish by nightfall, I often miss sunrise and so Nester altogether. Even when I catch him though, I never talk to him for more than a few moments. I think that we are meant to talk for more.
I grew to like Mewbok. I saw her eyeing my wristwatch, and used this to start a communication with her. I tried through demonstration but could not explain the purpose of a watch. I gave it to her, and her eyes shone and maybe even swam as she stroked the glass with vegetable finger and examined the movements beneath. No meaningful words ever passed between us, and yet, if she was churning orange potato in a wooden bowl, I would know instinctively what I could do which she would appreciate, such as keep the fire whistling, and I think she came to like me.
In the evenings I went for short walks across the tabletop wasteland. These widthways pacings were necessary for two reasons. One, because I thought they helped clear my doggerel cough. Two, because while I had come to accept my new frugal existence, something was playing at my mind which irked me, and I felt like Nester had something to do with it.
I chased Nester into his room one day after we had eaten what he had told me was called ‘kumara’. He was sat at his desk. I looked over his shoulder and saw that he in the middle of writing something. Without taking his eyes from the page he asked me not to talk. I stood and waited in silence. After a minute, he carefully crossed out the last few sentences he had been writing, and turned to me. I asked him what was writing. He told me that he wasn’t sure – but he said he had a picture in his mind of a cow with many stomachs within which a constellation of bees were plotting their escape. He wished to continue writing, so I went back to poking the fire with a foreboding feeling that I could not name.
Weeks went by, and Nester became more introverted still. At dinner, he would eat his food quickly so that he could return to his room. Feeling spurned, I started to leave the house in the evenings, and would stand outside on the moon-stroked porch to breathe the rime and the dust. I breathe heavily on the porch. Smoke passes through my scabby lips in front of my nose and drifts off towards the mountains. Then, one day, by a motivation unknown to me, I decided as I stood their alone that I would wander the tabletop all the way to the faraway lake. Since then, I make the long lengthways walk daily. The lake is always frozen over and shrouded by its council of pine, and I do nothing but shiver there, and stare out at the dancing fireflies which move chaotically over the ice.
Over dinner, I observe that Nester is once again eager to get away. I can tell he wants to leave and be off to his bedside table. I am so overwhelmed by this that I push away my dinner, stand up rudely, and with my right-side molars gripping my right-side tongue, I stride for the door and exit into the infant night.
I trudge across the flat. The lake is silent and still in the distance. It emits a light which illuminates the surrounding trees so that their lack of leaves is clearly marked against the high landscape. I drag my feet and come to a halt. Leaning against a tree with my right leg cocked at the knee and my hands gripping the rough lining of the inside of my pockets, I watch a single pine needle float in the middle of the lake. I hear a person walking up behind me.
Nester now stands alongside.
He says nothing for a full minute, then: “Did you ever have a lady?”
Another minute elapses. Neither of us look at the other. It’s horrible.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” I say at last.
His breath passes on the night like an invitation being waved across my face. “What are you still doing here… with me and the native…” Nester turns as if to address someone else, perhaps the lake. “You need to get up…”
My pockets empty.
He reels. He’s hit. Seize the collar. Our legs give way. Our bodies shake from sudden violence. Our fists pump. Then, as my eye stings and starts to shut, a lost elbow comes into my mouth and a bottle of red does surely flow. We dance together slowly with the fireflies, leaning against one another, music playing, and I making inroads into his neck, my head nuzzling underneath his chin, and up above he splutters my name. Punch. Gently. And another, this one to the gullet. Two broad palms thud and I fall down. His figure collapses into a sitting position opposite me. As he slumps; my head lolls.
I feel my clothes sticking.
I can’t see.
I feel myself being pulled along the ground by my tunic. My forehead bumps against a forearm and my nose crumples against a wrist my head hovers underneath my chest.
My legs are gathering white powder behind me and leaving railway tracks in the ground.
Now I shiver by a fire.
My carnivorous companion might be near. I can’t be sure.
My lungs work unequally.
I lick a bowl that has been lain out for me. I am wearing pelts. I splutter and cough and lose my breath and a pain leaps up into my chest. A hand cups my head and a voice begins to warble.
I can hear nothing; the voice may have been a dream. I stare into the flames and enter the in-between place between two red worlds – the crackle of the fickle fire before me on the open, the darkness of my amber eyelids on the close.
I wake up. I think have enough strength to push off from one knee. A cold rag presses me down from against my temple. I use my knees and I go and open his door but he’s not there. On his table is a slender red vial, but without standing up I am not high enough to see anything else. Next thing my head fogs and my chin lies dormant on my sternum and I am once more in the footholds of sleep.
I wake up. Today, the mountains are glazed with a canitude. I have seen the effect before. Each silver trees leans into the next, and, like a staggered heartbeat, together they circle around from where the very first rocky climb begins, a mere one hundred paces away from me, until they reach all the way over to the other side of the plain where the mountains rise to hallucinogenic heights. I see all this through the window. Behind me, the noises of Mewbok as she prepares to leave with her basket to collect firewood. I turn to look at her, into her eyes, and she frowns as she sees that I have risen and stand on two feet.
Nester’s door is open and I check but he is not in his room. I think he lives here still. I tell Mewbok that I will leave by pointing to the door. Immediately she drops her basket. She makes many gestures at me and tugs at me with her leathery hands as if she wanted to pull me down to the floor, but I feel much better, and although I understand I am not well, I tell her again and again that I must leave by pointing and moving her aside. She may have even imagined hitting me, but she could not stop me, because I was a man and she was a woman. I apologised uselessly and gathered my meager luggage.
I go to the door.
“Leon?” – Mewbok had spoken, and her voice had sounded as voices do when they haven’t been used in years. She doesn’t elaborate past this one picked-up word. She can’t. Her hands move about with unarticulated protest and she pulls at the stringy brown curls in her hair.
“Leon!” – she rushes into her tiny bedroom with her spotted brown face wildly concerned. She returns with a blanket and a scarf on hand, and she places them both around my neck and winds them around my shoulders. Then she starts to rub the length of my arms with her hands.
“Leon.” – the cold outside shocks me as I push open the front door. I wonder whether I should circumnavigate the edge of the tabletop one last time. I walk over to the edge of the flatness to begin my descent down the mountainside. I turn back and look at the hut. In a window, I see Mewbok in outline. She is watching me, and might be thinking that I stare back at her, but now I am looking far beyond the hut, far beyond the smudge of faraway water even, up towards the mountains.