Coming Down the Mountain — Logan Frazier
In the dark gray and blue of the church, an adolescent girl bowed her head. To remove religious connotations, it hung, low and heavy, like a crowned head, one strained with days and hours of nervous fervor. Oil stained her dark hair, places of black and deeper velvet. Her breathing was audible, but invisible, and her breath battered against her teeth. It sounded like she needed to cough but didn’t and remained still. She looked wounded as she shivered, almost convulsed, while sitting on her hands, rocking back and forth. Her dress was torn from her right shoulder, exposing her breast. A large blotch on her chest melted from inflamed red to a duller purple as she sat.
The sun enveloped the church, the windows blown out with bright rays that shot through the gloom. But the dark wood walls, the pervasive green carpet and infrequent windows – the entire design of the building, including its placement in the landscape – insured the room remained in shadow throughout the day. Weighty matters and constricted hearts belonged here. One needed to cry, but the shadows and quiet would swallow the tears. The disrepair and dirt belonged, and the clear conscience did not.
She rose from her pew by the door and her neck straightened. This movement quieted her shake. Her bare feet sunk into the long carpet and her big toe crushed a small worm. She continued further into the church, down the aisle, and before the chancel turned right and opened a small discrete wooden door that matched the walls.
In the vestry, she stood over the large, thick legs of a man protruding from a body that lay in the black behind a dark oak desk. They wore dress shoes and pin-striped pants and were not placed but had flung out as the body fell. A golden angel lay on the floor. It was blooded across its praying hands and heavy wings. She watched the vague body beyond; her gaze measured, yet blank. Nothing moved, but dust motes in and out of the lone window’s light. She did not blink. The candle on the desk wavered.
Out in the overgrown and twisted lawn she strode away from the church, her white dress snagging on foliage. It tore as her momentum pulled her forward. The woods prevailed before her, undaunted by craggy lawns and dark churches, but she entered, pushing deeper in and farther down, down the mountain.
In the vestry, the man’s leg kicked out and a groan broke the silence. The groan turned deeper and harsher as pain came into focus.
The girl wandered in the woods at first, nearly doubling back. But soon, as she stumbled into brush and against trunks, leaning, a light cut into her glazed eyes. Her mouth worked, reclaiming her slack jaw. She stopped and gasped. Her face turned quickly from the edge of understanding, of recalling, into fear. She cried out and tears filled her eyes. She ran, falling into a fluid, but reckless dash and if she slowed or paid attention she would surely fall into the underbrush. She fled, and bits of her dress shed into the environment as glowing markers of her escape, complimenting the broken sticks and crushed leaves.
A low, long growl, breathless, but full and great rose from behind:
She turned, still flying forward. Behind her stood a large man with a white beard and a bloody brow. Out of a grotesque dark socket dispensed a glimmering, thick and continuous rivulet of blood. He leaned against a tree. He was far off but his good eye was close, almost on her. It stabbed at her. His pin-striped suit hung on his large frame and somehow the staining blood from his eye and head exposed it as a cheap toy. The blood rolled all the way down his large frame. She looked at him and wailed once in anger and horror. In her obedience to his grunted command, his assurance of pain, she had one moment of triumph. She remembered that pain is the tool of the living, against the living. She perverted his command and reclaimed her agency. She flung herself forward, her arms spread wide. Before her, the land sloped down, turning rocky and barren as the woods subsided into a cliff. She flew, momentarily. Then her body smashed the earth and several loud snaps made her limp. She did not cry out, only wept. Her form tumbled for several moments before flying off a steep ledge and to her death. Though broken, she did not flail in her descent down the mountain.
* * *
Jacob and his brothers rushed out of the old, discolored house and down into the small field, surrounded by pines. They sported expressions of concentration and the overt recklessness of childhood. As they ran they lifted sticks from the brush (all expertly hidden to retain zealous ownership) and whacked at one another with enthusiasm. They did not cry out, but struck with heavy gasps. Eyes darted from side to side, wary of a new opponent, for often if one boy felt outmatched, he would often join forces with another and dispatch the one now outnumbered.
A stick whipped out, rapping Jacob’s knuckles hard, and he cried out and dropped his stick. The four brothers still in combat faced the disarmed boy, joining forces with the one who stuck the blow. Silence fell for a salient moment. The wounded boy sprinted to the woods and the others followed. One loser was good enough for all. Jacob had won the last two times, even as the middle ten-year-old, and knew his trashing would be thorough.
He reached a tree and leapt up to grab the first branch, then pulled himself up – a stick smashed into the trunk and broke into three pieces. The others reached the bottom, but Jacob had already scampered high, for the sound of crunching wood against the trunk had encouraged him.
The others began their ascent. Jacob peered up and noticed pinecones where the branches thinned out and tapered into green and needles. He continued his climb until he felt the weakness of the branch as it drooped under his weight, then stopped and looked down. Ben and Grant, both the fastest and the ones who felt wronged by Jacob’s previous victories, were staring up as they neared him. He grabbed a pinecone and threw it at Grant, the larger of the two.
“Shit!” Grant swatted the air too late and fell. He caught himself on a branch and hung, before beginning his slow descent, ashamed at his new defeat. Ben kept tree limbs between himself and his attacker. Several pinecones bounced off the wood, one nearly clipping Ben’s hand. Ben circled the trunk, forcing Jacob to do likewise.
The trapped boy raised a hand to lob another, then heard a far off, faint, wail. It echoed from the mountainside, the one which remained dark in the morning and, due to its slope, barely lit after noon. He immediately turned and faced the sound – so subtle and forlorn. Far off, a white, small figure flew from a ledge, almost in a sort of languor. It appeared for a moment before sinking beneath the tree tops: a shooting star captured and forced to live its fiery, beautiful moment on the dimming mountainside.
Jacob screamed. He loved and mourned in that scream. Ben, elated at the terror of his brother’s apparent response to his reaching him, grabbed Jacob’s ankle and yanked. Jacob fell, thus communing with the foreign figure on the mountainside.
Jacob hit the ground hard – loud cracking and blood pouring. His leg laid in broken semblance and the top of his skull bled. His brothers, sobered, thrust out of their triumph, rushed him to their mother who turned white and put him in the car and did not cry from her wide eyes, but bled from where her nails cut into her palm. She cried out for her boys to run down to the ironworks plant and call their father. Ben ran off, and the other boys looked down and kept quiet. In an absolute, yet unspoken pact, the five boys did not remind their thread-bare mother that none had seen their father in months. She sometimes spoke of him as if he was out for groceries, or at the river. Last time she mentioned him Thomas, the youngest, had been in trouble in school. He needed a whooping, and she slumped her shoulders and hitched her breath, then took him home to the dark house and offloaded his punishment onto an imminent and hope-ridden figure four months gone. It was punishment enough.
She took Jacob to be saved, but doubted, low in her abdomen, that he could be fixed. She would not cry till she knew. She would not mourn for what was lost until it hadn’t been found. Jacob passed out in the car and his silence was terrible.
* * *
“Our dear Sister Joelle. Our lovely Sister. Beloved daughter of the Lord. Wonderfully made, a blessing to all she touched. A true child of God who did not wander but followed the straight and narrow path set before her. A spirit so beautiful and full of life, Amen.”
“Amen,” they murmured, soft and bowed.
“The Lord gave her bright life to one and all of this community, and we loved her, loved her fire and her kindness.”
“Amen,” they conceded.
“But the Lord has seen fit to take her from us. We don’t know why… we can’t know why. All we can do is trust in Him to work all this to His Glory and Purpose, can I get an Amen?” The preacher’s heavy frame leaned over the pulpit, his great, white beard jutting forward. A thick smile stained his face. His eye-patch, untouched by his sickly-sweet grin, anchored his face with its vacuous, dispassionate black.
“Amen,” they answered.
“Those she has left behind may rest assured that she lives in His presence now. She lives in paradise and sings His praises.”
They cried, “Hallelujah!”
The eye of the large man swept the black-clad congregation. He smiled, and they smiled back.
The doors of the church lurched open and the congregation spilt onto the overgrown lawn. The man who shared his dead daughter’s sad eyes and thin frame led the way with his wife, who had once lifted their daughter’s square chin and wiped a tear from her soft cheek. She held the hands of two small boys, each of them looking uncomfortable and bedraggled in their oversized, cheap suits. The large man with the one eye followed them; his black, oversized pupil swung side to side, sporadic and distasteful.
They tramped through the woods on a rough-hewn path and the two boys cried and the father lifted the small one into his arms. The mother cried, and the older boy choked down his tears and squeezed her hand.
Farther back in the procession, Jacob limped along on crutches. His mother stayed by him, keeping her hand close to his back so he felt the heat and knew not to worry. The boy looked off to his right. A tattered white cloth, deep among the thickness of the wood, hung from a tree and shifted. He halted and starred and the fluttering material seemed to wave to him. He turned to face it.
“Jacob?” The mother’s brow creased at her paling boy. The hand caressed him, and he turned away and to the path. They continued along, but Jacob turned back twice, peering towards the now hidden cloth.
The procession reached a small graveyard. The headstones leaned into one another. The preacher ushered the family near the open grave with the raw dirt and the black hole. The older boy gripped his mother’s hand tightly. The father smeared his oiled hair farther back onto his scalp. The congregation gathered. A boy who had carried a stool from the church laid it before the preacher and he ascended. He opened his arms and then lowered them.
“Good people, this young girl, our dear Joelle, taken by our Lord, will now go to rest.” The preacher nodded slowly and the father lowered his head to his chest. The pin-striped suit swung around the man’s girth as he gestured violent and slow towards the woods from which the coffin and its bearers emerged. It lurked forward haltingly as the four men navigated the broken landscape.
“Sing with me.” The preacher-man swung back to his congregation.
Jacob listened to the lyrics of “I Know Not the Hour” and murmured along. His eyes drifted up from the coffin, as it reached the graveside, and toward the baritone call of the man on the stool. He watched the eye-patch sway back and forth. It looked velvet and damp with sweat, making it deep and vacuous. Jacob stared for a long moment, then jolted, as if out of a spell, when he found the active eye of the preacher watching him. He quickly looked down and began to murmur once more.
* * *
After the service, the girl’s family held a reception in their home, farther down the mountain from the church and to the right of Jacob’s home. It was much like the other houses around the mountain: old and rustic, sporting cheap wood and linoleum, peeling yellow wall paper and rusted faucets. The men, having removed their blazers as soon as their wives consented, wore short-sleeved white dress shirts. The women wore mid-length black dresses of a simple cut. The children, except Jacob, darted about in the backyard. He sat in the living room amongst the whispering adults, eating cheese and pie from a clear plastic plate with a white plastic fork, which he quickly grew tired of and discarded. His previously slicked-back hair had fallen across his forehead and dipped in front of his left eye.
One man with a mustache and balding head glowered down at the boy and his cast leg. Jacob furrowed his brow at him and stuffed more cheese into his mouth. The man continued on his way, opening up a sightline to the preacher in the hallway on the opposite side of the living room. He held the hand of the mother of the dead girl, grasping it firmly in both of his. The mother nodded as the man spoke. She shook slightly and he grimaced sweetly. He patted her on the back and she leaned over, crying. His white beard hovered above her head as she leaned, then it lifted and the one eye bored into Jacob. Jacob sunk low into the seat. For a small, toxic moment the preacher frowned, his large lips curling into each other. But then he smiled, and Jacob wished he hadn’t.
He looked for his mother, but could not find her and could not rise on his own to look for her. His propped-up leg throbbed and mocked him. After a moment of straining he sunk back into his thick, swollen armchair. From behind a large hand lowered onto his head. Jacob smelled the sweat of so many other hands on it, sweat that had been coaxed out by prolonged contact with the sultry palm. Jacob retracted his neck and winced as if he could suck his head into his body like turtles he caught by the stream behind his house. As the man behind him lowered to his haunches, his other hand reached out and grasped the boy’s left arm. Jacob vowed he would never catch a poor critter again unless he was going to kill it and eat it, because this must be what it felt like and he would rather be killed than suffer such capture.
“So very sorry to hear of your fall, little Jacob.” The face of the preacher swung into view on Jacob’s left side. The breath stung his eyes. The white beard elongated the man’s face so that it filled Jacob’s gaze completely.
“Heard from your ma that brother Ben was a bit violent.” This last word came out as vi-o-lent. “I’ll be sure to have a word with him tomorrow.” He squeezed Jacob’s arm. “How’s that sound?”
Jacob shook his head. He could almost hear the grating plates as he managed to twist his tensed and shortened neck. The preacher’s constant, low wheeze caught in his throat and was expelled in halting intervals as he laughed.
“Come now, can’t have Ben bullying you.” Jacob did not like it when the man said his brother’s name. “I won’t stand for it.” The man let go of Jacob’s arm, then shifted his weight farther to the boy’s front and finally lifted his hand from his head, but used it to grab Jacob’s arm once more. Jacob’s hair was matted and darker now.
“Now, Jacob, I heard of some odd happening connected to your fall. Something beyond naughty brothers.” The man peered with his eye at Jacob and Jacob turned away.
“Yes pastor. I already talked with them lawmen yesterday,” said Jacob.
“Very helpful of you! And now you’re talking to me. Your mother said you saw something on the mountain side. That you saw Joelle. Is that right?” Jacob nodded, still looking away. “Hmm. That is unfortunate. Deeply so.” His bulbous weight shifted aimlessly. “What exactly did you see? It’s alright, you can tell me.”
“She fell. In her white dress.”
“Ah. I see. And that was all?” Jacob nodded, then hesitated. He wasn’t sure that was all he saw, now that he thought over it. Something above, something just inside the wood… something large. The man frowned. “What?”
“I think that’s it.”
“You think? Nothing else?”
“Did I remember wrong?”
“You ought not to lie to me, if you remember more than you say.” The man leaned in and once again his heated breath stung Jacob’s eyes.
“I can’t remember right.” Jacob winced against the closeness of the man. “Do you remember something I don’t?” The man straightened. The unassuming question of a ten-year-old had momentarily disarmed him. Jacob furrowed his brow. “Did you see her too?”
“No, no of course not. Quiet now.” The man rose high above Jacob and smiled down at him. “I’m sorry you had to see that, boy.” He walked off.
* * *
That night, Jacob climbed into bed with the help of his mother. She tucked him in and kissed him on the forehead. As she pulled away, he reached out and gripped her bicep, stretching the soft muscles from her frame. He didn’t mean to grip her with such fervor, but his mother only waited patiently, the permanent crease between her eyes deepening. He released her and slumped back against his thin pillow.
“Yes, Jacob?” Her tone was not unkind.
“Please, enough of her,” she sighed, and turned from him.
Jacob sat up. “Was preacher ever mean to her?”
His mother turned, her eyes narrow.
“What makes you ask that?” she said, sharply.
“I don’t know.”
She watched him closely, then leaned forward and lowered her voice. “He’s good to all his sheep. Always has been. A good man.”
She straightened and turned to the two other boys in the room. She bestowed them with goodnights, then she stood in the doorframe and the light went out.
“He’s gon’ start teaching Benny catechism soon. He’s a good man.” His mother smiled, but she was a silhouette against the hallway and her thin lips’ message died in the shadow. The door closed.
Jacob waited some time and did not struggle with sleep. The eye framed in the white beard stayed with him.
Around ten he heard the steady breathing of his roommates. Jacob sat up and slowly twisted his body and with both hands lifted his casted leg to the side of the bed and eased off, using the bed post for support. He took first one crutch, and then, after securing it under his arm, took the second one. He grabbed a flashlight from his bedside drawer, though the moon was out and in full glory. The flashlight had a string attached to the bottom which he hung around his neck. He managed to get to the front door without too much noise. His absolute attention kept him from hearing the soft footsteps behind him as he exited.
Out in the yard, he picked up speed, easing into a rhythm. He managed to reach the field in which he and his brothers played war and looked nervously at the tree-line. He knew the underbrush of the woodland would prove difficult. He had just swung forward again when a soft voice whispered behind him.
“Snuck up on you good, didn’t I?” Jacob whirled around and nearly toppled over, but Ben grabbed ahold of his shirt and steadied him. Ben clicked on a flickering flashlight and blinded Jacob, causing him to throw up his arms. “Where you off to, Jakey?”
Jacob slowed his breathing. “I saw something today by the church and I want to go look at it.”
Ben, surprised at the bluntness, fell out of his smug half-grin. “What for?”
“I don’t know.”
They stared at each other.
“It got to do with that Joelle?”
Jacob nodded. They illuminated half of each other’s face, casting skyward shadows across the other half.
“You think about her too much.”
“How would you kno–”
“You look real sad. Night you fell you looked sadder that she was the one that fell than that you might never walk right.” The two stood quietly for a moment, Jacob hopping slightly on his good foot, Ben shifting awkwardly, holding one hand behind his back.
“I watched her fall,” said Jacob.
“I hated it.”
A night owl hooted and the boys flicked their eyes toward the tree-line, a wall of solid black in the misty dark.
“Then why you going up there?” Ben asked, gesturing toward the tree-line.
Neither could see it in the night, but they both knew the land rose behind into that peak, ominous even in daylight. Now it drew itself up in their minds, scouring the landscape just out of sight in brute expanse.
“I wanna know why she fell.”
Ben frowned. “Jacob, she wandered off and played too much and tripped.”
“I never seen her trip before. Have you?”
Ben looked down for a moment, then back up. “What else could’ve happened?”
“I don’t know, that’s why I’m going. I saw some of her dress caught on a tree… least I think it was her dress.”
Ben nodded. “Well I’m going with you… To help.”
“Cause I broke your leg.”
Jacob raised an eyebrow, then, when Ben did not waiver, lowered it. “Okay.”
They hurried off into the wood, Jacob leaning on Ben for support, one crutch left in the field.
* * *
Jacob would not have made it far without Ben, who had two years on his crippled brother. That became abundantly clear as Ben pulled and pushed and lifted his little brother through the woods. In the second hour of their journey Ben needed a break. The trek tore at both of them. Jacob kept going because he needed to and Ben because he would not be outdone.
They surmounted the mountain by one-thirty, and found the church in the dark, their two flashlights poking bright eyes into its side. Ben’s flashlight flickered terribly, and the church seemed to wink at them.
“This way,” said Jacob.
Jacob turned to the path they had followed that morning. He kept his flashlight trained on the woods as Ben kept his on the path, guiding them both.
“There,” Jacob whispered.
Ben halted and turned to see the white cloth illuminated in the warm light. He looked at Jacob, whose face drained of color. They pushed into the woods and reached the cloth, and for a moment watched it flutter in the slight mountain breeze.
“Now what?” Ben rested against a tree.
“I don’t know.” Jacob looked about with his flashlight. “There!” Ben stood up and looked to another piece of the dress, farther toward the church.
“Think she’d tear it twice… same way?” said Ben.
The two boys approached it and stared for a moment. Then Jacob limped along the same path, Ben in tow, noticing broken sticks and general signs of abandon. Near the edge of the wood, with the church in sight, he found what he’d been looking for: a large footprint. Jacob reached his finger into it and scooped up some slightly damp and burgundy crusted earth. He compared it to the tan, dry earth beside the footprint.
“It hasn’t rained since she fell, has it?” asked Jacob.
“No,” replied Ben. They stared for a long moment. “Mama said Joelle went to get her catechism she’d left in the church the day before. Said she couldn’t’ve fallen much after.”
“Yeah,” said Jacob.
The two boys looked at each other.
“You got your new lessons on catechism with preacher tomorrow, right?
“Yeah.” Ben looked down at the footprint again. It almost looked like it encompassed a smaller footprint that had sunk deeper, like it was running. But he couldn’t be sure. Jacob took a step closer and turned his body towards Ben.
“You oughta wake up real sick,” said Jacob, his eyes wide and pleading.
Ben looked over at him and frowned, then looked back at the footprint that seemed to house another in its monstrous breadth. He nodded. They knew they would need to tell their other brothers, their friends, their brother’s friends. Even the meanest girl at school would need to know about the white cloth and the footprint. Their imaginations would suspend their doubt, and maybe they’d be alright. Jacob and Ben knew the use of a whispered pact, one unspoken to mothers and fathers, much like the boys’ pact to keep their father’s departure buried. It might break loose someday, just as they might scream someday at their mother, “he’s gone! he’s gone! he’s gone, and he’s not coming back,” but for now, their knowing silence would be enough. Their suspicions of more, of darker, would have to do.
The boys descended the mountain, mirroring the moon’s descent and graphing it into the red clay. On their way down they passed the bottom of the ledge and both boys, first Jacob, then Ben, touched a rock stained with blood.