to come when called, to cry when required by Cara Mast

The staircase is weeping again.

Not tiny flecks of moisture that could be mistaken for a fresh cleaning, but big shining beads swelling, straining, breaking.


I usually notice before I’ve got pools on the hardwood floor, but I’d been sitting in the dark, watching the fog creep up the yard outside, waiting for the last load of linens to be done in the dryer. On my trip upstairs is when I see the tears streaking the local timber, my arms full of folded sheets that need to be put back onto beds.

But the sheets will have to wait.

The staircase is weeping.

The mountain is mourning.

And I, the Witness, must go pay my respects.

I back down the stairs, heart sinking with the gravity of a full week of these summonings.

I take the sheets back to the laundry room, grabbing my keys on the way out to my car. As I start up, I slide my feet in the shoes I leave in the driver’s side floorboards for these occasions. Once I back out of the driveway, I mutter goodbye to the brakes and tear out of the neighborhood at a speed that used to alarm me. My driving education happened up north, the land of creeping commute congestion. When I first started driving down here, in the land of narrow mountain roads and sharp turns and blankets of fog, I crawled along gritting my teeth the whole time. Trying not to accidentally go flying off one of the scenic overlooks along the Blue Ridge.

That was before I knew I couldn’t fall off the mountain.

The fog today is light enough that I can mostly see where I’m driving, and thick enough that there aren’t other cars on the parkway. While the growl of the laboring engine is louder than the lazy silence I left back at the house, I can hear with increasing clarity the song of the mountain. I follow where it leads.

It’s a good thing that following the song, like many patterns of life down here, is more inexact instinct than science. The role of Witness is a family calling, but I didn’t have anyone to teach me. I inherited the mantle from my uncle, who got it from his father, and I’m pretty sure that a large part of my pappy’s move north all those years ago was to escape this legacy, this burden.

If I had to guess, my grandfather got the technique from his father, who died shockingly young. The kind of young where he may not have known he needed to teach his son. Which meant none of us learned. I only know from my own experience that you’re not born hearing the mountain. The song starts seeping into your spirit when the prior Witness is ending their watch. In the last years of my uncle’s life, when I was down visiting my parents and he’d come by, I would start to notice the signs right as he would get up to leave the house. Always out “for a drive” or “buying cigarettes” or “heading home.” And then some time after he left, an inexplicable weight of sadness would fade from my consciousness and life would move on. 

The mourning drone is peaking, and the sound sets my teeth on edge. Just off a curve in the road sits an ambulance, lights softened in the mist, sirens quiet for the moment. A house sits back from the road, a blurry light glowing on the porch. I slow down and pull off into the grass. Fog swallows me and the car. I get out and the air’s dense enough that I feel chilled and damp down to the bone.

I walk through the meadow on this side of the parkway – just another ghost wandering through the mist.

As I approach, the scene takes familiar shape into tragedy. A streak of red on the faded grey of the road, scattered with the glitter of glass, and not far from it a fuzzy lump resolving into the broken body of a wolf. Tire tracks gouging wounds into the mud in shouting distance from the house, ending in the ambulance, which may not be waiting for a patient but for rescue.

My heavy heart cracks, breaks. Eyes welling up, I don’t wait this time.

I reach out.

The mountain comes out of the mist and tells me the rest.

…home birth… stillbirth, mother in bad condition… wolf got spooked, darted across the parkway… driver didn’t see… impact… swerving off the road into the dirt… 

I don’t know whether the mountain speaks in words, aloud or just in my head, but I do always feel its presence holding me with stone hands, feathered breath wrapped around my neck and head. It is not a comfortable embrace, but I am not here to be comfortable. I am here to be held. The Witness to what the mountain’s lost. Today, I lean into the mountain’s anguish.

I weep at these losses. Wolf and infant, neither of whom chose their end. A parent-to-be who never became. The emergency medics, stranded and unable to offer more than basic comfort. My eyes dry out before the mountain is finished mourning. A single person isn’t meant to hold a region’s grief, but the mountain takes it all. My job isn’t to feel the mountain’s pain, but to ensure it doesn’t mourn alone.

The mountain and I remain until another set of lights flickers up the wet road, reflecting off the leaves of the trees and the sides of the house. Another ambulance, and then a tow-truck for the first emergency vehicle. There is still more grief to taste, but other feelings are arriving at this location and leaving it. The mountain lets me go.

Back through the fog, back into my car. Back down the parkway, headed back to the dark house on the peak overlooking my obligation. Back to the sheets and the quieted staircase.

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