The climber slips.
Bone-weary from hauling himself up the mountain and half-way down again, the climber, now descending through the trees, allows his bleary eyes and impact-bruised feet to disconnect for a mere fraction of a moment and is rudely awakened when the sand and rock beneath his feet give way and he slips on the precipitous path, falling heavily, but perfectly, into a sitting position - the path steep enough to accommodate such a landing.
Jolted from the locomotive trance that his feet have lulled him into, and he comes to, finding himself in the act of picking himself up and... he pauses. He breathes deeply. He looks around and he sits back down.
The booms come up at him, from broad, treed apron spread flat from the vertical here (where distances across are rendered irrelevant and only the descent counts) of the mountain to the horizontal there (where relief is ironed out by the vertical remove of the observer) of the valley. Flat from above, the land's east-pointing wrinkles are revealed only by a brushed alternating pattern: trees on the moister, shaded, north-facing slopes, and low brush in the baking heat of those facing south. These mounds, these surfaces, these slopes built up by a young mountain's rush to find equilibrium with an ancient world, its self-destructive drive to assimilation. The slopes cut off abruptly where the floodplain of the Arkansas has eroded their bodies, carrying them, bite-by-bite, to the Gulf of Mexico.
The aspens, ridiculous yellow only two weeks ago, have remade themselves again and are now grey ghosts - a mist of branches and trunks populating these slopes in crowds. Here and there, a late grove still bears its yellow - a faded glory in the face of the oncoming winter.
And then, above all of this--above the mountain, the valley, the trees; above the peace and the sun and the wind; above the elk, the hunter and the climber--hangs a moment devoid of space but everywhere at once. A moment that, like a shot (for it is
a shot, after all) that ricochets around the valley and the mountain and is borne on the wind and hits each of them - some literally, some figuratively. It is a moment in the past, the present and the future, each for each. It is a moment of death.
The shots don't happen
. They don't occur in a time that can be measured, observed, marked. Rather, they are put into place by the squeezing of a trigger - a hunter squinting down his rifle, across hundreds of yards of air held still by pine and aspen, at the heart of an elk. A piece of him that he probably doesn't even understand and cannot identify informs his finger that this is the moment, that this is the elk that will die. The hunter, then, too is a target of the moment, a subject of the cascade of inevitability. His limbic self kicks at the snow and the whole slope is thereby is set in motion, potent or latent - the avalanche is born and the world... the world is changed.
Before even he knows that he has chosen to pull it, his fingers have pulled it. The bullet leaves the rifle, kicking back its momentum gained into the shoulder of the hunter. Perhaps this, then, is the moment of awareness for the hunter. his shoulder is the instigator of awareness. The message to his brain that momentum gained has been charged to his body may indeed precede the the knowledge that the time has come for the trigger to be pulled, for the elk to die.
The elk is not aware, yet, of anything. Perhaps he has already today been bothered by the scent of men: by diesel, or sweat, or gun oil, or perhaps chewing tobacco. The elk does not hear the shot, or, if he does - if the sound reaches it - it is lost in the confusion of the momentum gained again - by the skin, the flesh, the internal organs, the very body of the elk - and the foreign kinetic energy, once foreign and directed, now converted to a heat, a chaotic tearing, and an instantaneous and unbidden momentum that is the first awareness in the elk. Perhaps before the elk is even aware of this mélange, this chaos rendered to his body, he is down. The next awareness of the elk is a heat, a tearing, a mélange of never-before felt sensations. They are not yet pain. They may never even be pain, even as the life ebbs in his eyes. Even as he finds himself suddenly, unaccustomedly heavy on the earth. Before he knows he is going, he is gone.
And all this—the independent finger, the pounded shoulder, the downed animal—happens below the climber, and before his time, which is one of pounding feet, jarred joints, eyes searching unconsciously for the next footfall.
Buried in the slip is the passage from the valley floor, now lost back in the early morning, up the shoulder of the mountain, threading across the scree slope above the northern wing of the Angel of Shavano snowfield—the eponymous angel having long since flown in search of whiter pastures—leaning out into the freezing easterly gale on the broad, wind-whipped saddle between the summit pyramid and the mountain to the east, where the wind squeezed tears from his eyes and froze snot from his nose into into eastbound icicles, scrambling north, up and onto that summit pyramid squeezing himself through the desk-sized rocks frozen in their slow-motion plunge escape from geology, and, finally, the summit itself, a roof-sized collection of loose rocks hoisted some 14,229 feet into the air. But not
finally, for the climber well knows that most accidents happen on the way down
the mountain and it is a long, long way down through the wind and under the sun and over the rocks and into the very weariness that envelopes him on the trail and whispers to him of sleep.
And the shot happened, and it never happens, and it is gone. The moment is past. It is all over before he even knows it. The event happened - there is no tense in which to capture the order of precedence of occurrences that constitute the the event. It just once wasn't, and then immediately was gone.
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