To the Mountaintop and Back
A light rain began to fall, beading on the windshield and streaking toward the edges, glinting in the reflection of red tail lights from a car ahead of them. A quick flash of sheet lightning momentarily illuminated the night sky, the white gleam of Mount Shasta to the right like a picture frozen in time.
Oscar, Maggie’s dog, stirred on the floor, letting out a squeaky fart before heaving a sigh and settling back down.
The night and the rain stirred Maggie’s memories as she drove. Her thoughts, as usual, drifted back twenty-five years to when her daughter, Olivia, died senselessly—an innocent child who fell victim to crossfire between rival gangs. “Back after Livvy died, I was broken. I lost my faith and lost my way. That was as devastating as losing Livvy. I felt alone and forgotten, as if God had given up on me when I needed Him the most. I went to many places, churches, spiritual healing centers, nothing helped,” Maggie said. “A friend finally told me to go to Arizona to see a shaman near the Hualapai Indian reservation. So I did,” Maggie said.
“A shaman? Isn’t that like voodoo? You know, witch doctors and stuff?” Grace, her young friend, asked.
“Oh Grace, that’s only on bad TV shows and in the minds of people too rigid to allow for different paths to God. He isn’t one dimensional. There are so many ways to find Him if we just open our eyes to see,” Maggie said.
“A shaman is a healer, a conduit if you will, between the visionary world and our world. At least, the real ones are. There are pretenders in all religions, it’s just a matter of figuring out who’s who. Like Shakespeare said, truth will out.”
The speed of the motorhome dropped as the road curved through the mountain pass. The rain became heavier. The whooshing of the tires on pavement drowned out the rattle of the lawn chairs. Maggie’s jaw was set as she maneuvered through the night, white knuckled hands gripping the steering wheel.
Although this was the first time Grace had ever ridden in a motorhome it felt familiar; the gurgling roar of the engine, the hum of tires on pavement. She had been here before, she was sure. Grace closed her eyes, letting her body slip into the rise and fall of the road and her mind wander back over the years, searching for a time when she had ridden in a motorhome.
Once she let go of the idea of a motorhome, she caught glimpses of a memory of riding in an air-cushioned seat, her nose barely reaching the dashboard. A CB radio attached to the roof of the cab buzzed with static interrupted by disembodied voices talking about “smokies” and catching someone on the flip side. She remembered the luminescent dials on the dash, needles fluctuating as the noise of the engine changed, the darkness outside seemingly made even more solid by the glow of the lights inside the truck.
It had been an 18-wheeler. Grace could see a large shadowy figure lit by the greenish light from the dashboard, forearms resting on a steering wheel the size of a garbage can lid. She remembered nodding off to sleep, her head bouncing off the door frame, waking with a start only to drop off again in moments. And then hearing a gravelly voice saying, “Sweet Chunks, whyn’t you crawl in the sleeper?” And she had, stepping on the seat and climbing through the oval opening into a dark cave; walls covered in Naugahyde, the bottom padded by a soft mattress and thick blankets, smelling like tobacco and peppermints. She had dropped off to sleep, rocked by the sway of the moving truck and lulled by the drone of the engine and the voice of her father, taking his turn on the CB.
Many of Grace’s childhood memories had been lost, so she thought, hidden in the dark recesses of her mind. This last week had brought more of them to the surface than she could ever imagine. What had been a blank slate, an Etch-A-Sketch shaken clean, was instead becoming a detailed story. A smell, a sound, even a song seemed to trigger more and more parts of her past. She wasn’t sure she wanted to remember more. Things she thought she knew no longer made sense. It felt as if her very identity had been stripped away and was being rebuilt, memory by recalled memory. Grace wasn’t sure who she was anymore.
A green sign reflected in the motorhome headlights, a rest area one mile ahead. Maggie maneuvered off the interstate, pulling alongside two semi-trucks already parked and quiet, except for the hum of a refrigerated unit keeping a trailer cold on its journey to bring food to somebody’s table. The rest area was small, maybe a dozen spots for cars to park and a larger area for the truckers. Tall trees grew close, shielding noise from the interstate and making it feel like the rest of the world had faded away.
“I’m tired and I think we’ve left Gladiola and her buddy far enough behind.” Maggie said with a shudder, trying not to dwell on the hitchhiker they’d picked up a few days earlier, who’d tried to rob them—and could have done worse. “Let’s rest here before going farther.”
Grace let Maggie get unbuckled and into the rear of the motorhome before getting up herself, stepping over the sleeping Oscar. Maggie flopped on the queen bed at the rear, only pausing to kick off her shoes. Grace started to climb into the cabover bed, but Oscar awakened with a growl, clawing at her leg, finally grabbing the hem of her jeans in his teeth and pulling it in swift jerks. The small area holding the bed where Gladiola had slept smelled like a mixture of rotten meat and decaying flowers.
“Oh, I can’t sleep up here,” Grace said. “It smells awful.”
“Come on back, there’s plenty of room here.” Maggie patted the bed. “We can clean it up tomorrow. Lysol and bleach should do the trick. Maybe we’ll tie the blankets to the roof and let them air out while we drive.”
It was warm inside the motorhome, summer rain a steady beat on the metal roof. Maggie cracked a side window above the bed, damp air circulating through on a gust of wind. She unfolded a blanket and loosely tucked it around the two of them, Oscar settling back on the bed between them, resting his nose in Grace’s hair.
“Did you finish your story? About your trip to see the shaman?” Grace asked. She closed her eyes and let her tense muscles relax into the soft mattress.
“No, but it’s late. It can wait.” Maggie’s body was tired, but her mind was jumping with images of Gladiola’s face and Grace crumpled on the ground twisting through her head along with memories of Livvy’s still and bloody form on the sidewalk in Salinas.
“Please, go ahead. Tell me the story.” Grace felt like a little girl again, begging Grandma Kate for one more story, anything to hold her there, sitting on the edge of the bed, a comforting presence keeping the nightmares away. Grace was afraid Gladiola would return when her eyes closed and sleep lowered her defenses.
“All right,” Maggie said. She turned on her side, facing Grace, and rested a hand on Oscar’s back. “I drove all day and all night to see the shaman. I didn’t tell her I was coming, but somehow she knew. She had green tea brewing and a fire warmed the cabin. Her name was Doris.”
“Doris?” Grace almost laughed. “That doesn’t sound very, well, shaman-like.”
“Hush,” Maggie said. “I told Doris my story, about losing Livvy, feeling lost from God. And she just nodded and listened and told me to rest because the next day we were going to walk a long way. We got up early, before the sun, with only the sound of night birds singing and a distant roar of water keeping us company.”
“And then what happened?” Grace’s voice was muffled; sleep just an eye blink away.
The sound of Grace’s voice, soft and sleepy, made Maggie pause, her throat tightening so it was hard to speak. It took her back many years before, curled up on Livvy’s bed, telling stories until Livvy would finally drop off to sleep. Not stories from a book, but made up stories of a magical land where a princess could talk to animals and flowers had voices and rain was sweet like ice cream.
Sometimes Maggie would think Livvy was asleep and she would stop the story to simply look at Livvy, savoring the soft curve of her cheek and the way her dark lashes feathered against the delicate skin under her eyes, inhaling the fresh smell of baby shampoo and little girl. Livvy would ask in a small sleepy voice, then what happened? And Maggie would continue the story about Princess Olivia’s adventures until Livvy was sound asleep.
The pain of Livvy’s loss was like a fire burning in her heart. She searched on the window ledge above the bed for her bottled water, taking a long drink, waiting for the feeling to subside. Oscar stirred, stretching so that his back was spooned against Maggie’s side.
“We walked on a trail through the woods, climbing above the tree line over boulders and across creeks until we came to a waterfall. The sun was high in the sky, beating down hot on our heads. The spray from the waterfall felt wonderful, refreshing. Doris told me to sit on a rock by the water and she would come back when I was finished. I asked her how she would know and she just smiled. She lit a small fire for me and brought out a pouch with a sage smudge stick tied up with purple string which she gave to me and left.”
Maggie paused, no longer in the motorhome with Grace and Oscar, but back on that rock, smelling burning sage, the rain beating on the motorhome roof now a thundering waterfall.
“What happened next?” Grace asked.
“I was beginning what’s called a vision quest, a journey of healing. Nature has always been a source of peace for me, a place where I feel connected to everyone and everything.” Maggie said. “As night fell, I sat on the rock, praying as if my life depended on it. Actually, it did. I considered suicide after Livvy, I couldn’t bear the guilt of not saving her, the questions of why her and not me. She was my life and without her, I didn’t want to go on.”
“Oh Maggie. I’m so sorry.” Grace reached a hand to squeeze Maggie’s arm. Oscar lifted his head and bumped Grace’s arm with his nose.
“Toward morning, just as the sky began to lighten, only a hint of color in the sky, I heard footsteps behind me. I could tell they weren’t human, they were too soft, too careful. I opened my eyes, but continued to pray, for healing, for the Spirit to make me whole. A white wolf appeared at my side. He had the most beautiful golden eyes that seemed to look into my very soul. He leaned toward me until I could feel his breath on my cheek. When I looked down, my hands had turned into paws covered in brown fur.” Maggie’s voice trailed off and she paused, the memories vivid in her mind.
Grace’s breathing was deep and steady, her hand lying loosely on top of the blanket. This time she didn’t ask what happened next.
Maggie had leapt from the rock, landing on four feet beside the white wolf. She threw back her head and howled, filling the air with the sound of her anguish and rage. The white wolf nudged her shoulder with his nose and turned, loping into the bushes beside the waterfall on a trail only he could see. Maggie followed, hurrying her stride, following the flash of white in the lessening darkness. Up, up they ran, toward the craggy top of the mountain, leaping from one rock to the next, her body agile and quick, seeing and hearing through the senses of a wolf.
They reached the top together, standing shoulder to shoulder as the sun slid up over the horizon, throwing tangerine rays across the sky. Maggie stood, head in the air, smelling scents from miles away, reading stories with her ears and nose. A hawk soared high above and Maggie could hear the wind whistling through his flight feathers. While closer by, a ground squirrel gnawed on a nut, his teeth squeaking against the firm flesh. The musky smell of a deer floated on a tendril of air, ripe and delectable and Maggie’s belly rumbled in response.
A bolt of understanding pierced Maggie as if lightning had struck from the cloudless sky. The knowledge of the ages was all around and inside her. Everyone who had gone before her and those who would come after were with Maggie on the mountaintop and she could see that the season of time spent on earth was only an infinitesimal part of her journey, of everyone’s journey. A voice spoke to her, the pitch so melodic it was as if the heavens had parted to release the echo of angels singing in exultation. It said I am with you. Then there was a sigh of wind and the familiar sound of Livvy’s voice, Mom, it’s okay. I’m all right.
Maggie had called out, “Olivia,” the word reverberating as a howl off the rocks and into the sky. Stillness came over her soul, a peacefulness that had been long absent and Maggie knew that all was as it should be.
Maggie closed her eyes, the voices still ringing in her ears, and when she opened them again, she was back on the rock beside the waterfall, back in her human body with Doris next to her, shaking her shoulder. The euphoria eventually faded as they walked back to the cabin, although not completely. A vestige remained with her even to the present day. And the oneness with all things had slipped away, too. But she was left with a certainty that had never left her, a sureness that things happened for a reason whether she knew why or not. That there truly was a guiding force and never, ever again would she wonder if she walked alone.
“So that, Grace, is how I started my journey back.” Maggie spoke softly to Grace’s sleeping form.
A small leather bag hung on a gold rope chain around Maggie’s neck and she reached up, careful not to disturb Oscar, and clasped it in her hand. When she was ready to leave Doris and the cabin, she had stuck her hand in her pocket to get the car keys. A tuft of white fur had fallen to the ground at her feet. Maggie picked it up, the fur soft and silky, and smiled, thankful to have a tangible reminder of her experience. Later, she found the leather bag and put the fur inside along with a bit of sage and a heart-shaped rock about the size of a quarter, from the waterfall. She had worn it around her neck ever since, for twenty-five years, a constant reminder of her journey to the mountaintop and back.
Janice Colvin is the author of Grace Becoming, available from Amazon