Mountain Shade by Janice Obuchowski
She did not believe in ghosts. She lived in mountain shade. A green mountain, part of the Vermont range, which much of the year was a blurred blue-gray, its edges made mild by time. She thought it might be growing larger. After thirty years in its presence, she thought she’d be in the position to judge.
Out West, on a recent vacation, she’d seen the world from eleven thousand feet: gray rock and yellowed moss, withered sage brush and tiny, delicate profusions of edelweiss. Her eyes had watered in the thin air. All about her was wind and thick white sky and further off jagged peaks. Time had held still.
Her mountain did not freeze time. Instead it offered up another existence—some space rough and strange and indifferent to longing. Outside of time, maybe. She was always trying to puzzle this out. Rows of her deceased husband’s philosophy books still lined his study, and she could’ve dipped into any of these and found some system of thinking that could illuminate, or at least categorize, her mind’s preoccupations. But in that beautiful dark room, those built-in bookshelves on three sides, his old oak desk, his brass lamp, his yellow notepads for all his lectures written in longhand: they went untouched, they were memorial to him.
That trip to Colorado: she’d been shocked that roads could wind up entire mountains, that these roads were paved, that signs told you where you were and what your elevation was. Charming, stupid arrows pointing and telling them that California was one thousand miles due west while she with her friends sat at a bench and commenced picnicking, sandwiches purchased earlier from a general store decked out in the hokum of cowboy hats and pictures of elk standing in river beds as fog wisped behind them. They ate baguettes with tuna and arugula, and from a thermos sipped cocoa. Wind had brushed the back of her neck. She couldn’t believe someone had sculpted something human into that terrain, that there was an apex, that one could arrive to it so easily. This ease: something in it lingered for her as particular travesty.
She’d never been to her own mountain’s top. She felt sure no one had. Her mountain was obscure, one of many in the forty thousand acres of forests the state had preserved. Its paths were crumbling—old logging trails that had fallen into disrepair and never were anything more than tracks of dirt. They started in the woods just behind her backyard. Over the years, she’d traced them, learning how they crisscrossed one another but in such broad gentle loops it took a long time to figure out you were moving in circles. The old pines and younger birch and maple provided a canopy and thus a vegetal twilight, a constant dusk. Not this no-time she thinks the mountain signals, but an entrance into it. Paths could always, too, change or disappear.
Small movements accompanied her: the crash and clatter of squirrels darting through bramble or up branches, tails sinuous and furred; branched leaves rustling; or the crunch of them underfoot, their scent of decay. Eventually she was joined by the sound of her own breath, which was too loud and immediate. She didn’t like being reminded of her body. In the woods, she was part of something larger and, in that sense, she became less corporeal, less bound by her own particular history.
Occasionally she had a hard time coming back. Not in the literal sense. She could always, if she did get turned around, eventually figure out which direction was west and get home, even if that meant stumbling into a neighbor’s backyard and then walking down the street. The difficulty lay in shedding the rough enchantment. She’d emerge from the trees and cross her sculpted yard to the outdoor deck, low and open and wood stained, with Nathan’s fancy grill and her rows of potted plants, her bird feeder set low in the nearby maple’s bows. All of it too safe, too easy, too shockingly undefended against the real terrain out there. She’d stand in a kind of limbo. Behind her, the woods held something both there and not there, an experience that haunted her, but which she knew nothing about. She guessed it to be a forgetting, star-filled but dark.
Sometimes this haunting felt so palpable she would—just before she came back to the house and was forced to see it as silly and small—sit on a large granite rock, often sun-warmed, and let her shoulders heave, her composure collapse, let snot fall onto her breast.
This when Nathan was still alive. So it wasn’t something as simple as a death wish. Just this awareness she had to carry, a sense of being outside what was really there.
Thirty years ago, after Nathan had accepted his professorship, they left Manhattan for what they’d both jokingly referred to as the hills. Their friends—she thinks they spoke of it over fondue—were horrified. But they too were intellectuals young and hungry, so they understood: sometimes, to lead a life of the mind, you had to live somewhere without skyscrapers or taxis or takeout.
The first year, the college provided housing in town, the town being just a tiny row of brick businesses built near a crashing river. An old mill town where seedy Victorians lined the tree-shaded streets. There were at least sidewalks and a lovely little campus, all gray brick and marble. Then suddenly the Manhattanites needed land. Or, not suddenly. It was cocktail-party logic. As they sipped wine among the tenured, they saw their peers lived in houses with charming brooks dappling through their backyards, or lived adjacent to dairy farms: wet-eyed black-and-white lumbering creatures posing so everyone could crowd onto the porch and sigh over their rustic charm. Faculty were from everywhere, too—New York, Houston, San Francisco. She remembers holding a glass of white wine, discussing how teaching composition was going—a lectureship, a pittance tossed her way, faculty hires so often having spouses—and realizing she and Nathan were going to do this, too: live in the country and take for granted vast pastures, unremitting quiet, crickets, cows, clover, silos.
They termed their choice “cusp-of-woods living.” The house was open and dark inside, large windows letting in streaks of light passing through the treetops. A kind of wavering, as if they were underwater. Other houses were spread out along the street. On all sides the forest encroached. And further off the mountains, her mountain. About a mile’s walk were a gas station, a church, and a post office.
The world had changed after Nathan’s heart attack, and yet surely the only thing that had changed was her. Two other faculty wives—friends—had arranged the trip to Colorado to help her clear her head, but she spent too much of the time thinking she was a wisp of smoke that might twist off into the night air. One evening, they sat at a steakhouse and she told them she couldn’t escape the notion that had she not gone out to run errands, she could’ve saved him. The mildest of afternoons: she’d gone to her office to grab a stack of papers that needed grading, then to the co-op to get something for dinner. She’d lingered over tart cherries, finally deciding on them as a small treat. She chatted with an acquaintance in the check-out line. But had she not tarried? As she spoke, she moved blue cheese dressing about her plate. Low-hanging lamps shaded in red glass pulsed, brightening and fading, in time to her heart roaring in her ears.
“You shouldn’t destroy yourself thinking that way, Hannah,” Beth said. “You don’t know that anything would’ve been different.” She sipped too long from her wine, waiting for Hannah to nod or otherwise agree. Emma then said there was a difference between mourning—which was public—and grief, which was private, and she felt Hannah needed to mourn more. Run a 10K in Nathan’s honor or erect a scholarship in the philosophy department in his name.
Later, as Hannah tried to fall asleep, she found herself turning over this distinction. Nathan would’ve termed it a dialectic and said that such easily drawn distinctions don’t really adhere to the more amorphous shape of our thoughts. She imagined it—grief versus mourning—as a delicate bauble, an overpriced hand-blown Christmas decoration. The unexamined life was not worth living, Socrates said. Well, the examined life was like walking barefoot across a field of easily shattered Christmas ornaments. She drew about her the sheets in the hotel room’s unfamiliar dark. Her thinking was both indulgence and impatient self-excoriation. Neither was the answer. Nothing was.
Nathan had been fifty-eight. They easily could’ve had another thirty years together in their dark woodsy house. Had she not gone out for tart cherries.
At the memorial, she spoke of Nathan being an avid reader—not just of philosophy but of fiction that posed moral questions. He loved Mann, Camus, and Vonnegut. She talked of how students through the years always told her he was a wonderful professor, both wry and exacting, and how much, in particular, they loved his intro to philosophy course. And wasn’t that something, she said, in this fast-and-furious age.
A few in the audience offered attentive nods. She told them he was kind, that he liked British humor and being by the ocean—he loved the whorls on sea shells and the salt in the wind. That he was still that kid who’d grown up in the Bronx and spent his summers working in a cardboard box factory, that he often referred to the manual labor as part of his first inquiries into existentialism, that he thought roasted chestnuts from street vendors were the world’s most perfect food.
Afterwards, as people murmured polite, appropriate condolences, she remembered—overwhelmingly and almost to the exclusion of what was happening about her—him giggling over Jonathan Cleese in Fawlty Towers, sitting before the TV with a bowl of popcorn, the low light flickering and Cleese shout – ing and running about. He’d laughed so much, half the popcorn hadn’t even reached his mouth, white fluttering kernels all about his lap. He’d noticed her watching him and flung some popcorn her way, which got no further than the arm of his chair. And at that, he’d laughed even harder. She wished then that what she’d offered to those who attended had not been so careful and banal. Perhaps more honest would’ve been to just put on that show and hand out bowls of popcorn, let people giggle inappropriately.
He had come home from a typically long run—sweat dripping at his temples—and had put on his glasses to kiss her hello, which was also habitual, if lacking in logic. He said he was feeling a little light headed, that he was going to take a shower. He waved off her concerns—I’m fine, my electrolytes are probably a little imbalanced, I’ll take some magnesium. He went into the bedroom and she went out into her day.
When she came back, cloth tote full of groceries, satchel full of papers, and walked into the living room, it was as if electricity had shot through her—that quickly she knew something was wrong. She called his name and then went to look for him in the bedroom, sunshine coming in through the windows slow and wavering and soft on him in this gross rigidity lying on the bed wrapped in a towel. His shoulders were jagged, one high, the other caved, and as she came closer, she saw his lips were the color of blue chalk. The ambulance crew who came were professional and kind and moved about her as she stood in the way, shrieking at them, What took you so long? And: What happened, what happened, what happened?
Later she learned they’d taken fifteen minutes to arrive, siren wailing, tearing along the small roads. And, one of them gently informed her as she watched them wheel his body out to the ambulance, a sheet draped over him, making him an object, making him anonymous, that he had had a heart attack and had already passed on before she’d come home. “Passed on,” was what the ambulance driver said. He had a smoker’s cough and light blue eyes. Passed on.
They had matching armchairs both turned to the large western-facing window. Red and oversized and luscious for afternoon reading, the chairs were turned inward so she and Nathan could sit in afternoon light and be bathed both in contemplation but also each other’s presence. That part of her life was over. It was one of her first thoughts. Why was it over? Because it was.
There was little in her life she’d undo, but she’d undo those twenty minutes. Over and over she has replayed them. First she’d called the ambulance. She taken her phone from her pocket and said something has happened to my husband, please come. She then put her mouth to his mouth and tried to compel his heart, pressing and pressing on his chest. His lips were cool and he was stiff and her adrenaline was such that the room appeared to be whirling about and only they were still. She tried until she didn’t—until horror crept into her and she saw him as a corpse. There was no response in his touch, none, and this was as grotesque a thing she could think of. She’d erase it instantly if she could, this knowledge of his skin without heartbeat, body without brainwave. This absence. She could drown in her understanding of it. Days now, it might be all she thought about.
Today she was at the sink, running plates under the soapy lavender-scented water. The blue-gray heft out her window considered her as she studied it in return, its thread of dark branches still stark in early spring. She had to teach class at 2:00 p.m., then she should pick up groceries on the way home. In New York, they now had companies that would deliver the ingredients of meals to your door. This sounded lazy, but she wished for it because what if she were in the co-op perusing the cheeses while outside tornadoes were swallowing homes and barns and whisking them away. Or if she were grinding coffee and a madman appeared on campus, raising his gun, ratty eyes alight with rage, and firing. People would crumple and no longer contain themselves. She’d emerge from the store to air electric with keening. It would all be her fault.
She could sell the house, leave behind its shifting, branching light, and return to the city. But she didn’t know how to change the tempo of herself to match its current grit and entanglement. And she would miss the mountains and woods. It was more than that. She’d become a part of this landscape.
She wiped her damp hands on her jeans and turned off the faucet. The regular grocery store would suffice—she’d save the co-op for another day. If people knew her mind, what mixture of pity and alarm she might engender. But some too must carry hidden irrational grief. They couldn’t all run 5Ks or see therapists or do volunteer work.
It was only eleven. She’d walk an hour, then have lunch before going to campus to leaf over lecture notes. She turned to grab her fleece hanging by the door to the back porch when she saw a coffee cup on the table. It was because she’d finished her coffee she’d first begun washing dishes. She picked it up, examining its rim for the faint imprint of her lips, then dropped it, a rolling thud into the leg of the kitchen table. She’d been trying to assess if it were Nathan’s. Picking it up, she bowed her head. Her mountain was waiting, but first she put more soap to the sponge, more floral-noted aromatherapy. She put the errant cup, now clean, into the rack to dry.
The walk took her through her backyard and onto a thin path through light woods that then opened to a dirt road along which one pale-blue house stood. The family who lived there had already set out their patio furniture, although it was too early for such things—the night still dipping below freezing and the daytime in the mid-forties. Today there was a damp in the air, and gray, austere light. Across the way, the horses in the pasture raised their heads from some hay to watch as she passed. The road turned left at the end of the pasture, dwindling into a trail that was nothing more than trampled leaves and slick old grass. On either side, the trees brought her into their hush.
Where the path first forked, she veered left, up a small hill to where the pines were thicker and enshrouded more, and the dusk that wasn’t dusk began to take over. Her heart rate rose and she heard her breathing while wishing she didn’t. And—sure sign of spring—in the distance a small stream was rushing and letting off the smell of damp earth, of copper.
At the second branch she went right, noting it so she could reverse course on the way home. A tattered sign tacked to a tree read No Hunting. Her mountain cast the walk in shadow and cooler air. Pockets of it drifted downward from where snow was still melting at the higher elevation.
This never was for Nathan, this negotiation through a rough quiet. He’d run for miles and miles but preferred to stay alongside roadways. He’d listened to podcasts these last few years. Before that, music on his iPod. He’d always been after her to bring her phone. She kept on her wristwatch but she didn’t need to be checking her email, listening to music, even stopping to take photos. Other – wise she could not be absorbed by what surrounded her. Even though she had not wanted him to worry. What luxury, she now thought, to know you could stir worry in another.
She skirted a large fallen pine bough and heard rustling—the beat of feathers, the skitter of claws on bark. Then footsteps rose above that and she turned. Just come from the woods, stepping around an old maple, was a man with dirty cheeks and beard, a red flannel and Carhartts, holding a cigarette. He nodded and she nodded back. “Nice day for a walk,” he said.
She agreed and kept moving. It might have been that he’d been unclean and also that he hadn’t been on a path. She knew not to judge, however, and shushed the alarmed flutter of her heart. Maybe he had an ATV nearby and had gotten off to smoke, or was checking sap buckets further in. She’d not recognize danger right now, anyway.
She crossed a stream where years ago someone had set out a small wood plank, now glistening with old rain and snow and edged in moss, and came into a clearing of birch. One had an exposed section of pink-beige where a woodpecker must’ve worried it. She picked at it herself, tearing the thin white skin, feeling ashamed and excited to add to the entropy. She was a half an hour in and should turn back. But she could eat a quick sandwich and didn’t really need to leaf over her notes. Blue was breaking through the gray cloud, weak light playing through the stark branches. She stumbled—a rock—and steadied her palm against rough spruce bark. This was her life.
At the outset, there’d been the initial pleasure of the greenery, the maple trees artfully arranged on campus, the Adirondack chairs beneath their boughs, a church with a white steeple at the top of a green hill. It was idyllic, a story – book picturesque. But once their adrenaline had settled—They’d moved! To Vermont!—she knew the town bored her with its small stores selling beeswax candles and postcards of covered bridges, apple-scented hand soaps and maple candies, vivid water colors of cows. Now if she had to articulate her dislike, she’d say it was because she found it false—an idea of a place but not an actuality.
But back then, though, she could only suggest—after their first two years had wrapped up—that Nathan apply to teach at Columbia or maybe NYU. “Be – fore we’re trapped here the rest of our lives,” she’d said. She shouldn’t have said it. They’d been on the living room couch, their legs on the table. She’d made them omelets with mushrooms, which they were having with beer. A metallic crackle across otherwise calm air. She was ignoring his happiness—small classes, bright students, nice department. Or she was suggesting his happiness wasn’t specific to the occasion or place—he’d be just as content elsewhere. Or she was saying her happiness was more important than his. And doing so all without sufficient ability to articulate what she was feeling, or the cause.
He pushed his glasses higher onto the bridge of his nose. “Hannah.” He gestured to the large windows, the shifting gray-shadowed black of outdoors, which made them feel they were in the belly of a ship. Then they had cheap lantern-like lamps, which glowed yellow. She already understood—and resented understanding because the logic was not hers—but he said it anyway. “This is the dream. We have it. It’s ours.” She still mistrusted this town proud of its sweetness and light—because, she thought, it refused ugliness and brutality and, therefore, real scope. She kicked a small stone.
She also mistrusted this self who conjured such stupid thoughts. What great truth to see a rotting raccoon infested with flies or a pile of ingested then discarded bones? If they’d lived any – where else, she’d probably have come up with similar qualms—some sort of refutation of what was there as not really meaningful or true. That might just be, at essence, her. Her philosopher husband probably understood this instinctively and was right not to give in all those years ago to her amorphous uneasiness.
She came to a tree that had recently gone down, its roots heavy with caked earth, small bugs whirring and wriggling within it. Her mountain, to her left, was purple-blue and close. She checked her watch, startled another thirty minutes had passed. She needed to turn back and moved through a stretch of mountain ash and alder, then couldn’t remember if she’d come from the right fork or the left. They’d likely twine, a very loose double helix, but one route might wind her in a circle, and at this point she didn’t have the luxury of time. Of course it was part of the woods’ bewitchery that its landscape constantly shifted in minute ways, but she was confused by her own confusion. This was not alien terrain. How could she have no bearings?
Before her were so many moldering leaves not fully decayed over the winter. She chose the uphill path to her right. Perhaps she’d lost track because the walking had been easy, because she’d been descending. So now she’d go up.
As she crested the ridge, she realized she would’ve noticed traversing this steep an incline (or decline)—and then three deer bounded across the ridgeline. Their flipped-up tails, the undersides of their bellies, were white. She felt the ground shift with their gallop and saw their terse, shifting flanks. Then they were gone, swallowed by woods and fractured sunlight.
To hell with it. She went straight down the ridge’s other side, eschewing the path and just grabbing at small tree trunks to keep from sliding. The direction had to be essentially correct if her mountain remained to her right. Not only would it be unprofessional and embarrassing to arrive to class late, it would make her fraying manifest. Her husband had died and therefore she’d gotten lost. It made sense. It didn’t.
At the bottom was a small, fast stream that she’d need to cross before climbing another hill. She couldn’t scout any path, so she sloshed through the ice water—sneakers soaked, pants wet up to her shins. If she’d really poured two cups of coffee this morning and not noticed. If Nathan were a ghost watching her as she went to Colorado and didn’t go to the co-op. If they were separated by tissue-thin reality—just into the blackness, this otherness, and she’d find him.
She zigzagged about trees, pushing herself to keep her pace brisk. Her heart was high in her ears. The trails, if nominal, at least often stayed on flatter terrain. She still couldn’t find a path. Her mountain was just a wall of rough spruce and pine, bare-limbed snatches of deciduous trees, ugly and overcrowded. She had to crane her neck to see its top and while doing so got caught in some light branches, which stung her cheeks. Her feet were heavy, her socks soaked in cold.
Maybe she was too close if the actual cliffs and shelves of rock were visible. So as corrective she headed east. A bird called out—the throaty hard sound of a blue jay—then swooped from one high branch to another. She had half an hour left. Years and years, and she’d never been this turned around. The sky was marbling over, losing its blue, returning to its initial gray.
Her stomach growled in protest, in reminder. At breakfast, she’d barely touched her toast. Her mornings so slow and queasy now, since everyday she woke expecting to see Nathan with his near-sighted smile rubbing his bristling cheek—to hear him sigh sour breath and then rise to brush his teeth. She’d slip into her robe and make coffee. They were neither of them early risers. Sunlight and birdcall would be thick about them at all the windows, the striped shadow of branches and tree trunks. After he’d showered, she would. Then she’d comb back her hair, dress, and return to the kitchen so they could sit and linger over good bread with butter and coffee. His favorite white mug was from their New York years.
She found herself at the bottom of yet another hill, which she charged up, thinking she could be tired and sad later. Her breathing was so loud, so heavy: being lost was the opposite of losing yourself. All this time spent in self-preoccupation, aware of your limitations.
The she saw again that goddamn fallen tree, its dirty tangle of roots spread in the air.
She hugged herself. Light broke above, some cloud shift. She turned to her mountain, then sat in the dirt and cried.
The light scratches on her face stung with salt, and with the back of her hand, she smeared away some mucus pooling at the indent above her lip. She wondered if this were grieving or mourning. She grabbed a handful of leaves and wiped at her wet face. Someone somewhere would find that horrifying and lecture her about dirt or bacteria or ticks.
She stood because she couldn’t just sit. She turned to her mountain once more, convinced it had tricked her.
She climbed the first hill she’d gone up before running ridiculously down it. This time she stayed at the top of the ridgeline and walked along its path, which lead her directly away—as she perceived it—from her mountain. She was sorrowful and sore. She felt outside of every existence: the ones she inhabited, the ones she conjured.
She stopped. There, in the distance: the soft rush of cars along pavement. She kept going in that direction and then the trail crumbled and before her was a steep dirt cliff. But she could also see out to a paved road and, beyond that, the steely distant Adirondacks. She let herself practically fall down the cliff, sliding in a crouch to go faster down. She spilled over into some blackberry bushes, the purple tangle all whipsnap and thorns, and came out onto someone’s farm. A barn across the field—a few trucks parked alongside. A trough off to the left and beside it a stack of old tires. Farms inevitably had old tires on their property. It was one of those ineluctable but nonsensical things. She was safe, she was not lost. She was still pretty lost.
A man came out from the barn, in waders and a dirty, torn blue shirt. He was holding a sandwich in one hand. He regarded her. Then he took a bite of his sandwich. “
I got lost,” she said. “On the trails.”
He nodded. “Those old logging trails go back and back for miles.”
“How far are we from town?” she asked. She must’ve driven past this property a million times. But she could only think how glad she was not to be within grasping distance of a tree trunk.
“Which town,” he said and took another bite, chewing. She wondered how terrible she looked, and thought how kind—in a sense—of him to regard her with such indifference.
She told him where she lived and he said she was maybe five miles south from where she started. She could just walk back along the road, he suggested, rather than go back into the woods. She had no intention of returning to the woods. Class had already begun. She thought to ask him to drive her home—to say she was so tired and that her husband had died and she’d maybe lost her mind and maybe the landscape had just shifted to keep her centered on herself and outside the otherness it contained—but what right did she have to burden him this way? To burden anyone? There were so many reasons to keep grief hidden.
“I was in there for hours,” she said. “I got so turned around.”
“It happens.” He pointed north. “You head back that way, you’ll get home safe.” He walked back into the barn, and she went toward the road. What philosophy could get at loss, begin to even explain it. Her mountain watched her as she began again to move.