No 12 - September 2000
She didn’t mind walking in dense fog and rain, but she was worried about blisters. She wouldn’t get lost -- the trails were too well marked for that, but yesterday her heels burned and swelled with small red balloons that might ruin her plan of walking for eight days. This morning she customized two moleskin bandages, cutting rectangles out of the large square, mapping the blisters on the moleskin with a ballpoint pen, then cutting out holes. The worst thing you could do for a blister was cover it up. She rounded the corners of each bandage, then pressed them against her heels. She pulled a heavy sock over each foot, pressing each heel gently with her fingertips to test its tenderness. She had been walking now for an hour and, so far, there was no pain, only the initial warming up. Now boots and feet were molded to each other and she was, hopefully, good for the day -- as long as she kept her boots on.
She could probably go for about six hours. Yesterday, her first day out, she had walked four, stopping frequently to nurse the blisters. If she didn’t have to bandage blisters today, she should be able to walk about two hours longer than yesterday. That would get her down this mountain and about a quarter of the way up the next. According to the time posted on the white and yellow sign, the Swiss Alpine Club hut was three hours away. Yesterday, she figured it took her about twice as long as the signs said it should. She was glad she’d decided to hike alone. When she arrived at the hut this afternoon -- more a small hotel than a hut if last night’s was typical of the others -- she would have a few hours’ light left and could read and write some postcards. She’d eat the overpriced but substantial meal with other hikers and could count on some conversation if anyone else spoke English. She would brush her teeth in the last light of the day at the outside spicket, take a last deep breath of the cold air, and crawl into her bunk alongside the others. She could get an early start tomorrow, maybe walk eight hours, which would put her over the pass and down into the next valley by early evening. Maybe it would clear up by then.
It had been raining since she arrived in Interlaken four days ago. At first, she put the hike off, staying in her hotel room reading or walking through the town looking at other tourists and in store windows, but she quickly grew bored and decided, rain or no rain, she might as well go into the mountains. It could be a week before the rain stopped. She might have to avoid the higher passes, but she could still hike. Plus the weather could change very quickly in mountains this size, with little warning. What she could see in spite of the fog and clouds -- that is, what was immediately around her, not the mountains that rose from every direction -- fit the storybook image she brought with her. Unlike the other places she’d visited. Paris had been full of dogshit and greasy French-fries. In Florence, she had almost been eaten alive both by mosquitoes and a young man in pointed white shoes and bright blue pants. But here, everything was cuckoo clocks and quaint houses, flower boxes spilling over with geraniums, perfectly stacked woodpiles and neat rows of lettuce and chard. It was almost too perfect, too sweet, saccharin. But it provided the sense of order she needed after three months of travel, and would prepare her for another grizzly year of student essays and committee work.
At ten that morning, she entered a small hut whose Ravina sign had a thermometer in it like the old Coke ones in the States. The room was dark, with one small window and a low ceiling. There was another, smaller room just off it. She felt tall and, with her heavy boots on, powerful, stronger than usual. She sat down on one of three benches made from halved six-foot logs. She stretched her legs out in front of her. Blood twitched through them. She liked the feeling. Two hours in the cold drizzle and she was ready for something warm. She thought of cognac, lemon, honey. An old woman entered from the connecting room.
“Gruss gottt” the old woman said.
“Gruss gott!” she returned the greeting. “God be with you.” “Ovalmaltine, danke schon.” She smiled carefully at the woman. She had just exhausted nearly her entire German lexicon. She didn’t like not speaking the language. She missed small talk. She couldn’t joke with people or discuss the weather.
“Danke schon,” she said again when the woman, neither smiling nor frowning, placed a thick glass of hot milk in front of her. On the saucer was the by-now-familiar orange packet of Ovalmaltine. The old woman returned to the kitchen, her head just clearing the doorjamb. Her eyes having adjusted to the dark, she could now see beyond the kitchen doorway. Beside a fireplace sat a dark, hairy man slowly moving a wooden handle through a copper kettle that hung solidly over the fire. He sat back restfully, his movements minimal, the handle long enough to allow him this. She wondered what he was stirring, but had no way of asking or of finding out short of walking into the room and plunging her hand into the caldron to taste its contents. On a beam over his head hung several bells, about two-feet in diameter.
She tore off the top of the Ovalmaltine envelope and emptied its contents into the steaming milk. The powder mounded briefly like a small island, then collapsed in upon itself. She swirled it through the foaming milk and took a drink. It was not quite like the Ovaltine she drank as a child; it was richer, heartier. It tasted healthier. Maybe it was just the milk that was different. Or maybe it only seemed better because every time she had drunk it in the past few days she had read the mineral contents on the label. There were many minerals in it. This was one reason she liked to hike. She only had to focus on the basics. The functions of the body, not the mind. She walked a certain number of miles, up steep moraine, she stood on top of a pass a few minutes, she came down. She burned a certain number of calories she had to replace, so she ate a chocolate bar. And she consumed minerals. She took some salt into the small of her hand and collected it with her tongue. Though it was cold outside, she sweated heavily while she walked. As she licked her hand, she looked out the window. She gasped. For a few seconds, a mountain peak cleaved the clouds. At a distance were two sides of a triangular mountaintop, one snow-covered, the other of dark, exposed rock. Then it disappeared again. The vision made her skin go rough. What was it? The Eiger? Jungfrau? Monch? She knew she’d been walking beneath these peaks, or roughly parallel to them, but they were still as distant to her as they had been when she’d first seen them in books as a child. Having glimpsed the one fragment of mountain, she had some idea of what she was in for. She felt restless. She paid and left.
She was in the forest. Pine trunks pressed toward her through the white mist. She pressed her face and hands into the cloud around her, closed her eyes to feel it on her lids. She opened her eyes and looked down. Clomping through black mud and ochre cowshit, she left her soles’ waffleprint with each step. She heard a cuckoo. She tried to remember the flowers’ names. Against the white background, their colors were offered carefully, individually. The quality of each color changed when it touched another: red hit purple hit yellow hit green and another green and another green. The lurid purple, she thought, was lupine. The bush that overran the path sometimes, hitting her hip-high, was called Alpine Rose; that she knew for sure. Forget-me-nots were the miniature blue bouquets that grew in clumps. She forgot the name of the hearty blue trumpet that stood out from all the rest, but remembered the wild orchid, a strange flower that seemed half plant, half animal. She bent and picked one. She gently peeled each petal back, touched the firm pistil, then pressed the flower’s purple perfume into the palm of her hand with her thumb.
They were face to face all of a sudden, practically colliding. What surprised her was she wasn’t surprised. She’d neither seen nor heard the man approach, but she was not startled. It seemed the cloud released him in a quick, easy breath. She could not pass him on the narrow path without trampling a clump of Forget-me-nots or crashing through an Alpine Rose.
“Grossgott!” she replied.
He seemed in no hurry or need to get by her. He stood, grinning a wide, white smile from beneath the large brim of a leather hat. He wore dark glasses and his black and grey hair curled at his ears. He had a few days’ beard. He was handsome, or at least he might be; she couldn’t tell for sure. Nor was she sure of his age; he seemed to be roughly her father’s age. He wore an ankle-length trench coat that was wrinkled and dirty, and a large pair of binoculars hung at his neck. He reminded her of Peter Sellers playing the part of a spy. They smiled at each other. A dirty old man, she thought.
“Such a great pack you have!” he said, tapping the large rectangle that towered over her head. Americans were immediately recognizable by their conspicuous, inefficient, oversized packs. She knew he meant large, not great.
“Oh, but it’s not heavy, really.” She jostled it from underneath to show how easily it moved.
“Vair are you from?” he asked. She guessed not everyone recognized an American pack when they saw one.
“I am American. You?”
“I am from here!” he said. “My chalet is just there.” He pointed downhill into the cloud. To her, the German language -- or, in this case, the English language spoken with a German-Swiss accent -- always sounded full of surprise, full of exclamation, of command. Achtung! she thought. Another word in her lexicon, one she’d forgotten.
“You like my country!?”
Was he asking her or telling her? “Oh yes,” she gushed. “It’s beautiful.” She drew out the “u” sound. “The flowers, the birds, the trees. But I haven’t been able to see...”
“You like the flowers! We have many many flowers. But not here, not on this trail. Too many walking peoples. Many many peoples.” He was looking behind her. She turned to see what he was looking at. There was nothing but the cloud rolling slowly uphill.
“Oh, no. There are many!” she said. “For me. Such variety, so many different kinds, so many colors.”
“You are alone?”
So that was what he had been looking for. Her companion.
“Then come. Come with me to look for flowers. I will show you rare flowers.”
“But I am going this way,” she laughed, pointing downhill.
“It’s o.k. Very o.k. There is time. We leave the knapsack here.”
She agreed, and undid the wide buckle at her waist. He helped her off with the pack, pretending to stagger under its weight. She took her wallet out of one of the side pockets and zipped it into her pants pocket. He put the backpack behind some bushes.
They walked up through the same woods she had just come down through, but she could see more of it now; the cloud was thinning. She could not keep up with him. His walk, like his voice, lilted. He seemed to barely land on the ground, trotting up the steep incline like a goat. She stopped a second, panting as quietly as she could, pulling air into her lungs. She stood almost at a forty-five degree angle to the mountain. She began climbing again, hauling one leg up after the other, taking the longest steps she could manage. She reached the edge of the woods where he stood waiting for her.
“You walk wrongly,” he said. “You must not walk like this. It is impossible.”
He stressed the “oss” and his i’s sounded like e’s. Eet iss eemposseeble. “You must take small steps so you will not be so tired. Like this.”
He continued up the mountain, taking two to three steps for every one she would have taken. He moved from side to side, never hauling his weight. She imitated him and realized she could move up the steep incline without becoming winded, without sweating too much, without its hurting. It took concentration. When she didn’t concentrate, she’d start loping again and her legs and lungs would feel it. Then she’d stop, and start again, counting to herself: one-two-three. After a half-hour, she began to feel like part of the cloud around her. She heard bells. For a moment she was completely disoriented.
“I hear cows!” she cried to the man. They had reached the summit.
“No. You hear bells! Cows say ‘moo’!” he laughed.
They were standing in a meadow; the ground was level for some distance. The cloud had receded into the valley. Several yards away stood nine or ten cows, massive, heavy, watching them indifferently. Just in front was a large puddle set like an opaque mirror in the chartreuse grass. The man lowered his knapsack, a medium-sized, leather affair, squatted, and pulled loose the string that gathered the top. He took out a glass jar.
“The pound has secret life,” he said.
She was getting used to his accent.
“Look!” he cried. “There!”
He was like an excited child, and contagious in the same way. She ran over next to him and knelt down, in the muddy water was a salamander about five inches long. He scooped it up in his large hands and jostled it. A small red stripe ran the length of its black underside.
“What it is in English?” he asked.
“Salamander.” She looked at the strange, promordial creature moving slowly against the man’s palms, its forelegs like miniature human arms.
“What jeeniss?” he asked. Genius? Genesis? What did he mean? Genus. Of course. Genus. Biology class.
“I don’t know,” she confessed. “ I don’t remember.”
“Salamandra atra,” he informed her, sliding the salamander into the jar.
Gentian! That was the name of the blue trumpet-flower that stood alone on the slopes. Blue Gentian.
“Wudderyagonnadowithit?” she asked, forgetting herself.
“Excuse me?” he asked.
“You put it into the jar, into the glass,” she tapped the jar with her nail. “Why?” she made question marks of her hands.
“Help them!” he declared. “Make families. They make many many families at my house.” He pointed downhill again, toward the invisible chalet.
He went around the edge of the pond, bent, alert, looking for a mate to the one already in the jar. His compact body and lithe movements around the water reminded her of the initiation ceremony she’d gone through at age seven to become a Brownie. She’d had to walk around a small pond -- really a mirror bordered with plastic flowers and vines, chanting “I went to the forest to find an elf, looked in the water and saw...myself.”
“There!” he cried, pointing, and ran to the spot. He dropped to his knees and scooped it into the jar. How could he possibly tell the difference between males and females?
“Come,” he said, twisting the lid onto the bottle. “Now we see flowers.”
They picked their way down through the meadow carefully, bending, squatting, examining, sniffing. From a distance -- to someone standing or walking on the ridge a half-mile above them -- they might have looked like insects or children. She recorded twenty-four flowers in as many minutes. He told her which ones she could pick and which ones she could not; many were endangered. Sometimes he stooped and placed his hand behind a blossom for her to admire. And he told her each one’s name and genus. A couple of times he spread apart leaves and grass to show her a blossom hidden by the dense overgrowth. They followed no trail, but moved along the wall of a granite crag. Once, he told her to wait for him a moment and climbed several yards up the wall, finding foot- and hand-holds in small crevices she couldn’t see from where she stood. He picked something, then slowly spidered his way back down, and dropped to the ground next to her. He handed her a furry white flower with thick, meaty petals.
“What is its name?” she asked.
“But of course you know!” he laughed. She felt foolish. Then it clicked. She did know. It was in every tourist shop in Switzerland. On keychains and postcards and music boxes that played its song.
“But you picked it! I know this one is endangered.” She wagged a finger at him.
“Just one. For you. There are many here on this mountain. Not like the trails.” He pronounced trails “trials”.
She twirled the flower between thumb and forefinger thrilled by it in spite of its being so tourist-y. But she was, after all, a tourist and all the hype turned real in these mountains; real edelweiss, real cuckoos; she didn’t dare ask him if he yodeled.
“Listen!” he said, pointing a finger toward the sky, toward an invisible hill above them. She could see nothing, but she heard the high-pitched chattering that had sliced the air many times in the past few days. It was an eerie cry.
“What is it?”
“The Marmot God.”
“Yess. The one that tells his friends there is danger.”
“Oh, the guard,” she pronounced the word for him.
“Yes, the gward.” He shaped his mouth around the vowels. “Gward. Gward.”
An hour later, her soaked Levis hung on a small clothesrack in front of the woodstove; her boots, their mud and slime beginning to dry into a crust, stood beneath them. She had changed. She wore her dry pants and socks and a pair of large corduroy slippers he had given her. She’d left the moleskin on her heels; wet, it was more like an extra layer of skin than a bandage. She was numb with fatigue.
She would not have called the place a chalet, as he had. She’d have called it a cabin. Or a hut. It was like the one she’d stopped in this morning, maybe a bit larger. It was efficiently compact; there was a main room and a small room off it with four bunks along the walls. In the main room was a fireplace and next to it a small woodstove for both heating and cooking. On the adjacent wall was a stone sink with no faucets and wooden countertop. A table took up three-quarters of the next wall, beneath the window. Beside it was a queen-size bed with a puffy white comforter on it. She stood at the double door -- what she would have called a Dutch door -- and looked out. The cabin was several hundred yards from the base of the enormous crag whose wall they’d just descended. A waterfall cut the cliff in two. Like spray from the water, pine trees sprouted at the base of the cliff. She heard cow bells. Behind her, the man fed the fire. She turned and walked the small space between door and fireplace and sat on one of the wide, squat logs that served as chairs. She’d walked almost nine hours. Her whole body ached. No matter which way she moved, she could not loosen her muscles.
“You have pain?” he asked.
She grimaced, nodded. “The muscles are new,” she said, hoping he would understand what she meant. She didn’t have the energy to explain in Pidgin English any more.
“Come. Lie down,” he commanded.
She looked at the bed, at him. He was pointing to the rug between the fireplace and the bed. She lay down. He straddled her back, pulled her arms out from under her chin, and placed them flat at her sides. Her face lay against the rough carpet. With the heels of his hands one on top of the other, he pushed quickly and firmly at the base of her spine. She grunted. He continued up the spine, pressing hard on each vertebra and each time she grunted. Her chestbone pressed against the hard floor. He moved outward from the base of her neck to her shoulders and then down each arm to the fingertips. He kneaded the muscles carefully. He thumbed her neck to putty consistency. He picked up each arm, loose now, and snapped it quickly and precisely across her back, locking her spine and neck and shoulder into place.
“There!” He stood up half an hour later. She felt liquid. “It is better?”
“Yes,” she sighed. “Much.” She didn’t want to get up. Ever.
He went out and she heard the outhouse door squeak. She raised herself up, and sat, then lay on the bed for a moment; the quilt rose like a cloud around her. She fell asleep almost immediately.
He was gently tapping her shoulder with his finger. She woke.
“Come!” he said. “You sleep enough. You must eat.” He stood and lit the kerosene lamp on the wall above her head. They sat beside each other on the table’s bench and ate. In between mouthfuls of cheese and sausage she asked him questions. She felt wonderful. They drank milk that had cooled in a bucket of water in the sink.
“This is where you live?” she asked. There was a transistor radio and a row of books with German titles on the shelf above his head. He had shaved. The kerosene light registered his features. She’d been right; beneath all the rain garb he was very handsome.
“No,” he laughed. “This is where I -- how do you say it? Be not with people. Alone.” He tapped his fingers to his temple. “For the thinkings. The mountain thinkings.”
She nodded. She liked the way he put it. “Where do you live other times?”
“Bern” He pinched his nose. “Many many cars. Many many peoples.”
“And you come here -- how? It is a very long walk from Kandersteg.”
“My car. It is just there.” He pointed out the window. “Two kilometers. You cannot see the valley lights because of clouds.” He pronounced “valley” Wally, like the name. She had thought they were much more remote than that. She must have misread her map. She’d thought they were at least a day’s walk from anything paved or electrical.
“What do you do in Bern? What is your work?”
“I am a teacher, of course. Biologic.” Again, his lilting voice made it seem like this was something she should have known already. He leaned over and kissed her, tentatively. His face was very soft. Its creases excited her. She had never kissed a man so much older than she was. Not like this. She put her hand at the back of his head, pressing him gently toward her.
Outside, the waterfall fused dusk to night. The cows clanged toward stalls. From a distance, the window was a pale square of light. Up close, they made slow, careful love to one another.
Later, they sat in front of the fire and drank wine. It was some he’d brought from France, he said. Every year he made the trip to the village in the Jura where it was produced and brought home a supply he kept in his cellar in Bern. The firelight played against his face and she was reminded of the old man she’d seen that morning.
“Today, before I saw you, I stopped at a hut to get warm,” she said. “I saw a man there stirring something in a large pot.” She illustrated with her arms. “What was he making?”
Of course; that hadn’t occurred to her.
“And there were great, huge bells hanging there.”
“Bells. Yes. For the cows.”
“But they seem too big for cows.
“They are for the cows. When they come to the mountains in spring; when they leave in the autumn. The herders make a fete to the mountains with the cows. How do you say it?”
“Yes. A parade. In May. The cows wear their beautiful bells and flowers here.” He made a circle on the crown of his head. “Like a hallow.”
“A halo? Like the angels?”
“Yes. And here, too -- at the neck, circles of flowers and bells. They walk through the villages in the valley and up to the high meadows. And the peoples walk with them. In May they come -- many cows and peoples -- past my door. I go with them.”
“And then they take the bells off?”
“Yes. But not before. Before, they weared them in the summers. Now the hikers take them for souvenirs. Now the herders take the bells off the cows in the summers.”
“But I hear the bells. Outside. Now.”
“Just little bells,” he showed her the size with his hands. For utility only, so cows do not become lost.”
They finished the bottle of wine and went to bed. In the middle of the night, she got up and, sliding into his rubber boots, trudged through the mud to the outhouse. On her way back, she looked up. The stars pressed heavily toward her. They’d never seemed so close to her. She shivered, and came back into the room, and got back into bed. He curled his arm around her waist. She thought of how beautiful it would be tomorrow. On the mantle above the fireplace was the jar of salamanders. Their vague silhouettes swam slowly through the murky water. Tomorrow he’d put them in the river outside. She fell asleep up against his warmth.
The next day was cloudless. They walked up the mountain, the one she’d planned to be part way up the night before. He carried her pack and she his. The views were what the books and postcards had promised. She counted her steps carefully, remembering yesterday’s lesson. Occasionally, she would look up and lose balance, the view made her dizzy. She wanted to absorb the view, to preserve it; its impact was a physical one -- a rush of blood, a fullness in her chest and throat, a stinging in the eyes; she thought she couldn’t feel it hard enough. She thought too much. The man walked in front of her. She flushed when she remembered how he touched her the night before. She thought they might leave the trail and go into an open, soft meadow to make love. He was singing as he walked. They stopped to rest and she added another layer of moleskin. Standing at a sharp angle to the mountain, they embraced and kissed. She felt very light headed, and thought she would fall. She stood still for a moment. She looked at her feet instead of the slope or the peaks all around her until she had regained her balance, and then began to walk again.
Two hours later they were well above the treeline and had been walking in snow for some time. They sat on a boulder and he was looking through his binoculars at the area above -- a huge, bluish cliff that reminded her of an iceberg. She felt slightly winded, but nothing like the day before.
“You know what it is,” he stated, sweeping his arm toward the area above them.
She smiled at him. A mountain? Snow? The pass? She gave up. “What?”
A glacier. She’d never seen one. She didn’t know what to look for.
“There is the door. Just there,” he pointed, and handed her the glasses.
She looked up and saw a waterfall some two hundred feet high. It was impossible to gauge from this distance. It seemed to stroke the blue cliff like a white silk scarf. She could not hear it, only see its movement.
“That is the opening of the glahzure. The beginning of it. Also the end. The glahzure turning to water.” She tightened her grip on the glasses as if it would make her see better.
“Many things come there. Rocks. Big rocks. Sometimes people who fall in crevasses. Many many years later.” She imagined someone’s arm shooting out of the falls fist up, plummeting down to the black pool.
They ate cheese and chocolate. Crows gathered quickly. They threw pieces of food, which the birds caught in mid-air.
They followed the glacier for two hours, hearing the roar and sometimes looking quickly enough to see the ice cliffs exploding downward as the sunlight loosened them like great chunks of powdered sugar. After six hours of walking, they reached the pass. The sign in the valley had said it would take four. She was getting better.
At first, she thought he might stay with her. Sometimes the huts had small, private rooms. He spoke with the hut warden and she heard him speak his own language for the first time. He sounded very clever. He had told her the night before there were almost as many dialects as there were valleys in Switzerland. The language could change as soon as you went over a pass. He and the warden were laughing together. “Nein. Nein,” she heard. He came over and sat at the table with her.
“I told him you are staying here tonight, only you. And tomorrow you will reach Kandersteg, perhaps Gemmi.” She was disappointed but not surprised. They drank their Ovalmaltine in silence and went out. They walked along the glacier, toward the mountain that hung over the pass, Wildfrau. Out of view of the hut, they took pictures of each other, smiling, standing at the edge of the glacier. Just before he left, they held each other and kissed. They exchanged addresses. He gave her his sister’s, said to send letters there.
An hour or so later, a tall American man about thirty-five or so arrived at the hut with his wife and two children. A few other hikers -- Swiss or German, she could not tell which -- arrived before dark. The American man wore after-ski boots instead of the hut’s compulsory flannel slippers. They were large nylon affairs. She decided she’d pretend she didn’t speak English. They sat at her table at dinner.
“That your North Face pack upstairs?” the man asked her. Face to face with an American asking her a question, she couldn’t pretend she didn’t understand. He and his wife talked to her all through dinner and the man explained that they were right under Wildfrau Mountain.
“That means wild wife,” he chuckled. As if the two were synonymous.
“It doesn’t only mean wife,” she told him and looked also at his wife and kids. “Frau means ‘woman’ in German. Not every woman is a wife.”
The next morning early, she stood outside the hut. The last glimpse she’d had of her Swiss man yesterday was as he sailed down the white lip of the pass’s crest, the one they’d hauled themselves up an hour before. He moved quickly, lightly, like a gentle, mythical creature, half bird, half man, barely touching the ground. And he was yodeling. He’d stopped, looked back at her again and waved and then turned down the trail that led away from her. The contour of the mountain made it seem as if he’d taken off into the sky. She stood in the snow, and looked down today’s trail, sure of her footing. She began.
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