Up Cannibal Mountain

By Reece Pye


He keeps his eyes on it even though he is driving, that smooth grey crest protruding from the earth like an ancient monolith. He does this because he doesn’t need to see the road he’s driving on. He’s been down it so many times now that it has become something more than second nature to him. Ethereal, almost, the unnatural smoothness of the asphalt. So long as he can feel it beneath him, he knows he doesn’t need to look ahead, keeping his gaze directed towards the northeast side of his dirt-caked windshield. He watches as the grey slowly begins to dissolve to expanding patches of dark green, then progressively lighter green, until he can make out the trees poking out from the furthest side of the mountain like bristles. Seconds later, he can hear the tyres spitting out stones as the road transitions to gravel. Without looking ahead he makes the turn, drives up the steep and narrow slope, makes a sharp right, before parking in the same spot he always does.

He turns off the engine and glances around to check if there are any other cars or people. He is relieved to find that there aren’t. Not today. If it were a bright spring day, then maybe there would be. Even then, he’s not sure. But for him, it’s always the same day, same time, no matter the state of the weather. Wind, rain or shine, here he comes. Today it is only slightly overcast, with just a hint of sunlight peering out through the enormous congregation of clouds hovering overhead, towards the far east. He wonders whether they’ll pass by the time he reaches the top, turning the rear-view mirror on himself as he runs a hand over his face to make sure it is clear of any grey stubble. Then he carefully removes his glasses and tucks them away into his glovebox, knowing he doesn’t need them. Mostly just for reading at night, and to lament each new wrinkle he is convinced has appeared on his forehead or under his sagging eyes each morning, wondering if there’s anything he can do. Nothing, he knows deep down, and steps out of the car.

There is a mild breeze in the air as he closes the door behind him. Not bothering to lock the car as the keys are already in his pocket, he isn’t entirely sure if he will come back – despite the fact that he always comes back. He knows somewhere in the back of his mind that he will, even if there will always be part of him that doesn’t want to. That nearly convinces him he doesn’t deserve to. Before approaching the track, he looks up at the towering trees that stand before him on either side of the entrance, then over at the barbecue and toilet block to his left on the rise just beyond the parking area. He can’t remember the last time he’d seen a family over there, sitting at the table and eating. Laughing. Revelling in each other’s company like families used to do, back when he wasn’t yet old enough not to take such precious things for granted.

As he makes his way over to the start of the track, he is aware of the two signs that he is about to be met with on either side. The one to his left is the one he always turns to as he nears the track, and it reads: MT. CANNIBAL FLORA AND FAUNA RESERVE. 50-MINUTE WALK.

Beneath is a map that outlines the walking track each way, though he only looks at it out of habit as he already knows which way to go, and how long it will take him. More-or-less. As for the sign to his right, he ignores it completely. Pretends it isn’t there. Because he already read it the first time he came back to find that it was erected, and to this day still recalls what it says. Almost verbatim. No need to read it again, and so he keeps his eyes firmly ahead as he takes that first step forward, then the next, until the signs and all other signs of civilisation are well behind him, and all he can hear is the grinding of his feet as he ascends the slope, towards the gum tree where the track intersects.

In front of it is a wooden sign that is nothing more than a horizontal plank carved into arrows on either side. Left and right, though he already knows which way to go – right. Not only does it take longer, but there are no manmade steps this way, and the terrain is more punishing. Perhaps not so much for someone younger and fitter, but for him, it is exactly what is needed. Because he must fight his way to the top before he can earn the right to come back down, otherwise it is all for nothing. Absurd as he knows it to be, it is the only thing that gets him through each time.

The trail is narrow and winding for the first ten or so minutes, by which point he already finds himself gasping for breath. Smoker’s lungs. Despite trying to quit on-and-off for the last fifteen years, he has now resigned himself to the belief he is old enough that it doesn’t really matter anymore. And besides, surely whatever fate this lifelong habit eventually has in store for him is but the faintest taste of what he managed to avoid all those years ago, for better or worse. So on he goes, up the winding trail of the mountain, stopping occasionally to catch his breath and wipe the sweat off his burning forehead, listening to the echoes of birds through the trees around him. Tall and majestic, with those fragmented rays of sun reaching down through their peaks, those huge swaying branches. He knows most of them have only been around for about as long as he’s been coming here, and each time he cranes his neck that little bit more so he can encompass their incremental growth, year after year.

Just before reaching the bend where the trail begins to zigzag up and around the other side of the mountain, he comes across the bench welded into a small crevice in the mountain, so that people can sit and take a break as they gaze out across the southwest. The city sketched along the distant horizon. He can only imagine what the view must be like at night, all those lights lit up like a grid across the land for kilometres on end. And after all the time that has passed since he first returned some twenty-five years ago, he believes he has a fairly accurate idea of exactly where his house is – though not once has he ever permitted himself to sit down on that bench. Until the day comes that he has no other choice but to give himself even a momentary respite from it all, he knows he must carry on. And before he knows it, he is stepping over roots along the steepest incline of the trail. He has nearly made it to the other side and has to rest his hands over both knees as he presses onward with each step, refusing to give in to the implacable forces of man and nature.

By the time he finally clears the bend and the trail levels out again on the northern side of the mountain, he is sweating so profusely that he stops and undoes a couple of the buttons on his chequered shirt, runs a hand over the back of his neck and head to wipe away any excess sweat. The sole advantage of being in the latter stages of balding is that his scalp isn’t completely drenched like it used to be – particularly on the hotter days. Now it doesn’t matter what the temperature is, hasn’t for the last five or so years, and he takes great solace in the fact that the path ahead now is relatively straightforward, and the way down is always easier. Usually.

The only problem with this final long stretch of the trail are the trees scattered haphazardly down the north slope of the mountain. There are noticeably fewer on this side then there are on the other, even though they are far more abundant than what they were when he first came back, and the devastation was still raw. Of the few original trees that do remain amongst those that have since been replanted, he can still make out some of the charred and blackened debris that has yet to be overruled by nature. Whether they be pieces of limbs or stumps that are leftover in the hard earth, in utter defiance of all the life that now thrives here, he wonders how much longer it will be before nature succeeds in erasing any and all traces of history. Probably not until after he is long gone, he thinks, for he is nothing more than a meaningless footnote in time.

As he continues along what is left of the trail, which is even narrower and surrounded on both sides by overgrown bushes, lashing his knees with each step, he spots an echidna trying to burrow itself into a shallow hole in the ground just off the beaten path to his left, its back to him. He stops and watches it for a moment, those sharp white spines and their black tips already warding off any would-be predators. How he envies it, or any other animal that’s greatest defence is to turn its back on its enemies, the world, and simply cower away. If only the same went for him if he had some kind of shield with which to protect himself. Yet he knows, in the deepest pit of his heart, that the struggle lies within, nowhere else. And so he keeps on walking. Not long to go now.

Five minutes later and he reaches the first outlook, a flatbed of overhanging rock that gives an open view of the east, nothing but paddocks and the endless run of the highway over towards the east, where the cars look and move like the ants scurrying around his boots. Then he turns his back on the closest thing to civilization there is out here, and on he goes up the trail, knowing that the second lookout is only a few minutes away. He won’t bother to stop there because the third and final lookout is only around the next bend, and provides more-or-less the same view – albeit much wider, more encompassing.

The moment he passes the second lookout, however, and begins to climb the final rise of the hill which leads directly onto the third, the sun emerges from behind the clouds as if on cue. As he looks up to see it glaring down upon him, feels his heart nearly skip a beat. Like this is his moment of judgement, and he wonders why it has taken so long as he steps over the rise and down into what is easily the largest and flattest bed of terrain across the whole mountain. Not that it’s any coincidence the trail leads here, he knows. He stands directly before the slanting rockface that overlooks the northern plains, and the dirt road leading into the vast stretch of woodlands that holds his gaze for a time. Once he reacquaints himself with the view, which he does every time despite how many times he’s seen it, he steps forward, again, and again, until he is standing only a few feet away from the edge of the boulder embedded into the ground. So that his view is unimpeded by the all the other rocks surrounding him and the rest of the mountain as he looks out across the open plains towards the tree line until it finally comes to rest upon the same spot where it always does.

Upon the house that, once upon a time, a quarter of a century ago, you could just about see through those trees when they were far less in number. Before the land had been scorched black and the inferno raged through the budding forest that was there, leaving no way for her to make it out with their newborn daughter before the flames would have begun licking the borders of their property, trapping them in. Not that there was anything he could have done seeing as he was already too far from home, fighting the blaze where it first began sweeping across the countryside like some biblical plague. And by the time he did become aware of just how far it had spread by midday, from all corners of the state, he already knew there was nothing to be done once he made it home.

Only this didn’t stop him, for when he arrived on the scene to witness the full extent of it, the smoke was so dense in every direction, he could barely make out the flames creeping up along the mountain towards the sky. Yet he knew he’d no other choice but to leave his mates behind so that he could make sure they had made it out. It didn’t matter how much his closest mate urged him to stay, that it was too dangerous to go any further until the fire was stopped at the mountain, still he pressed on. Even though the ground was already ash and dust, singeing his boots, columns of smoke blowing all around him and the flames dancing from afar -as if to say their job was already done.

So it was. Well before he saw how dead those trees were ahead of him, stripped bare to their blackened trunks, he knew fate had already taken its course. Even if he couldn’t accept it at that moment as he fell to his knees, partly out of despair but mostly out of sheer exhaustion, for he could go no further into the thickening smoke. Crying to himself as his best mate dragged him back to the truck and told him to stay put while he went back up the mountain to help the rest of them combat the very face of hell itself – the only thing on earth that could turn day to night at an instant’s notice. All while he sat there thinking of how much he yearned to go back, to push on the rest of the way just so he knew unequivocally that his worst fears imaginable hadn’t, in fact, come true.

The only thing that kept him from this was his own fear, that crippling hopelessness he couldn’t shake from his paralytic body as he waited for the men to come back down the mountain again. And many of them did, eventually; many of them except for the one who’d saved him. The one who perished along with the others, all of whom were more than likely engulfed by the barrage of smoke as they battled their way uphill. Though he can’t bear to imagine it, nor the fact that their lives have now been reduced to nothing more than statistics. That no matter the truth of it, fire tends to leave little room for evidence. This is the one thing he understands more than anything else after more than thirty years – from the time he began till the time he retired, almost a decade ago.

He was sick of being called a hero by some random halfwit at the pub, and before long it drove him mad just hearing the word. And despite the cruel irony of it, the only thing that has ever helped is to come back each year and see it all for himself again. Remember the days when he used to come here with her before they were married, and they decided to start a family. How they’d already had their first – and only – by the time he finally mustered up the courage to propose. How they used to come here most weekends for a picnic, or a barbecue, or even drinks late on a Friday or Saturday night, back when they were still young enough not to share a care in the world between them.

And as he retrieves the single cigarette from his breast pocket, which he allows himself to have only once he’s made it to this very spot, he takes the lighter from his back pocket and raises it to his mouth under the scrutinising eye of the sun as he lights it. These are the things he chooses to remember. As he takes that first long, cathartic drag, exhaling through his nostrils, watching the smoke evaporate into nothing. Because he knows, in a world where time happens to be the greatest commodity of all, it is important never to take for granted one’s ability to stand back and take a breath of fresh air from time to time.



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