Until You Hear From Me


Michael O. Starr

The Trausi in all else resemble the other Thracians, but have customs at births and deaths which I will now describe. When a child is born all its kindred sit round about it in a circle and weep for the woes it will have to undergo now that it is come into the world, making mention of every ill that falls to the lot of humankind; when, on the other hand, a man has died, they bury him with laughter and rejoicings, and say that now he is free from a host of sufferings, and enjoys the completest happiness.


for Michael Dagley

The first mile of the Mt. LeConte trail is the flattest and wettest, following the floodplain of a narrow, unnamed stream. It is easy walking, but the air is so humid that passing through it dampens his shirt. Lush walls of green enfold the trail. The air hangs thick with the sweet smell of something rotten. This is the southwestern base of the mountain, where cool night shadows last late into the day. The trail begins to rise gradually after the first half mile, but not enough to make him break a sweat. This easy passage ends where the trail climbs twenty yards up the valley wall to the right and passes under a natural arch, washed out by many years of seepage, after which begins a second mile which is steep indeed. Over and over he forgets how steep until he is doubled over, straining for breath.

For much of the morning he goes on like this, misjudging his pace and getting winded, stopping to pant and stare. It is exhausting and time-consuming, waiting for his lungs to cool off every hundred yards. He is nearly ten years older than the last time he made this climb; last time he was with his better-paced hiking partner, as well. He needs someone to make him take it slower, "Slow enough to walk, talk and gawk" was how his partner put it - a pace which seems slow indeed, especially early in the day. But in their years of hiking together they had ample proof of greater speed when his partner led. And you really do see so much more that way. An estimable plodder. "That's how you get a mountain climbed." With his partner's dictum in mind, he straightens up and embarks on the next, somewhat less steep passage of the trail, meaning to take it easy and keep a better eye on the vista opening to the west. As he climbs up the mountain's face, contours of its lower reaches become apparent. That slight, felt-smooth trough below him is the floodplain he just traversed, but he has no vision, as if he has no memory, of what that part of the trail was like. Didn't he just pass through there? He remembers the natural arch well enough, where the trail curves hard left and leaves the stream, because of the chilling drip of water down the back of his shirt as he stooped under it. Of the trail before, nothing. Sweat begins trickling down his face as he tries to remember.

Lost in thought, he does not stop at the Alum Caves, which barely rate the name and are really no more than undercut bluffs where the view opens up for the first time. Many tourists walk up and take lunch there, and a small group rests there now. Past that point it becomes a real hike. He passes through a moment's guilt because there's no one with him, as if he's letting something go to waste. He has never made this trip alone before. He is so hot now that the idea of another cold drip down his back distracts him. Another unseen quarter mile will be a new trail when he comes back down it.

Distant wind-blown leaves sound just like water falling. Around every curve in the trail he expects to see a stream, thinks, "Did I forget about water up here?" He gets his hopes up, and is disappointed. The trail up the front face of Mt. LeConte is especially noted for this effect, since it crosses almost no water for over three miles - an arid defile, by Smoky Mountain standards. He reaches a washout, where water coursing a fold in the mountain's face has carried down a long slide of palm-sized stones. The rock slide continues up slope right until it disappears in the treeline above. Seeping remnants of the latest rains trickle through a culvert laid under the trail here. He stops to wipe his face and admire the view, for now he can see the series of ridges, misshapen hub and spokes at the heart of the Smokies, from nearby Clingman's Dome on his left all the way to Look Rock in the distance before him, a featureless blue-grey wave on the western horizon.

It is an exquisite day, temperate and breezy since morning clouds burned off, with almost perfectly clear air, a rarity in the Smokies. The only possible scenic improvements would be catching the rhododendrons in bloom, or the peak of fall colors. He passes no one on the trail. He is lonely without trail talk, though conscious as well of wanting to be alone. True, a friendly wit to parry always makes a steep mile go faster, but often as not it won't shut up on the downhill side, either. That's why he'll only hike with someone he's comfortable with - for trail talk, sure, but for timely silence most of all. It took him years to get used to his hiking partner, and vice versa, years for them to learn when to call out to the other, and when to hold a thought until a better moment. With whom will he ever have the chance to go through that process again? Unlikely as he is to frequent such trails, he'd probably be happier going alone than with some stranger.

Realizing that he's just passed another hundred yards during which nothing registered, he glances over his shoulder to refresh his mental image of stone declivity, ledge of trail, treeline a hundred yards down the slope, and palpable absence all around him. He laughs out loud, recalling their grad-school wont to smoke lots of reefers in the mountains, stumbling along giggling. In those days only their giddiness made them stop to catch their breaths. "Ah, the lungs of youth!" he murmurs, rubbing at the persistent twinge of soreness in his chest. Yet on this so-far perfectly sober and industrious day, a day on which he is committed to doing a big favor, he finds he has no clearer memory of the trail, no faster pace, no greater enlightenment from the ever-more intense beauty he passes. He finds this vaguely comforting, possible evidence that his hiking partner was wrong: they had not in fact hobbled themselves with drugs, after all. Such fears had taken up a great deal of their time together in the last six months. His partner believed he'd courted a bad fate, ruining himself with years of substance abuse, pot, pills, drink and on rare occasions, needle drugs, though that had been a long time ago. It was hard to allay such fears. At best, he could briefly distract his friend from them.

Pausing to catch his breath again, he considers his own great fear, of losing one thing whenever he chooses another, each choice costing options which never present themselves again in a lifetime. So he might awaken one morning to find no good options left, or that one of his earlier decisions has diverted him forever from the true path, the chance to be happy, or content, or comfortable. His hiking partner assured him many times, "The fact is, nothing is not a trade-off. If you want anything, you've got to be willing to give up something for it." He agreed, for the most part, but protested that at the point of decision you always lack important information. Often you have none at all. How can that be right? His partner just laughed, but did not dignify that with a response, since they both knew rights were not involved.

Ah, such talk! With whom else could he talk about his fears, his feelings like that? When else had he ever had time for four-hour conversations? Not often, not since early in his second marriage, at least. When he first met his partner they were in graduate school together; they could talk for entire day-long hikes about school, no problem. Then they began teaching, which provided even richer talking fodder than graduate school. Then their marriages began to fall apart. Only at that point, several years into their relationship, did they undertake discussion of women or sex, and glut the conversation market permanently. Once these subjects had been broached, they often found themselves recounting their greatest blunders for each other, things they never told anyone else, shaking their heads in wonder and dismay at the awful things that had happened to them, or that were still happening. Often as not they died laughing at mistakes they almost died in the process of making. No, they never ran short of things to talk about. Their lives were moving to fast to let that happen.

Unfortunately, the changes in their lives made hiking in the Smokies impossible. Their final hike in the Smokies together took place during his last visit to Tennessee, when he made the trip in a rented van to pick up the last of his things. The hike was their only chance to visit, that weekend's hellish schedule leaving very limited free time, that and his partner's spurned, vindictive, soon to be ex-wife. But they were determined to get up to the Smokies together one last time, so they made the short hike out to the Bunions. He spent half the trip trying to convince his partner to move to New York City as well, as soon as the divorce was complete. On that topic, he could not tell if he was getting through or not. The far more successful topic of conversation that day was the Voyager 2 space probe, which at that time completed its pass by the outer planets. They spent half the hike marveling together at the glorious pictures of worlds never thus seen before. The irony was that swear as they might by data coming in at enfractioned wattage from light-hours away, he could tell that when his partner got home he would agonize in suffering doubt about all the feelings he could no longer sense within his own wife, or within himself, for that matter. Both friends had come to such a state. This was a time when their most profound terrae incognitae were emotional. They explored what they could together, beginning with a question that either of them might have asked the other on such a hike: "Now why in the world did you do a crazy thing like that?" It was such a relief, having someone to put questions like that to him with no other agenda than curiosity. For in each of the homes he's made in the course of their friendship, he has become isolated, defensive, invariably lacking most of all somebody he can simply talk with. Thinking this, he is puzzled, because he feels less alone just now than since he can't remember when.

When the trail turns sharply back to the right he has reached the top of Mt. LeConte. Over three steep miles lie behind him. He wipes his face then checks his watch. 11:30. It's as early as he's ever reached the top. How is that possible? He checks his watch again. It happened, so it must be possible. The whole trail's got behind him somehow. Must be distracting, trying so hard not to think about a thing. It's making not half bad time for a man pushing forty. Hiking alone involves that much less distraction, he thinks, and regrets thinking, because there's no way he wouldn't have company, if he could. From here it is perhaps half a mile to his destination, no reason not to be there before noon.

Right away the trail branches: the right fork leads to the level summit of Mt. LeConte, where there is a large, developed campsite, with wooden dwellings, dining hall and piped-in water for overnight campers. He means to avoid this, since he needs no water. He takes the left fork of the trail, which circles the campsite. Soon he enters a section of trail like a tunnel where entwined rhododendron and cypress close overhead, casting a strange midday shade that spotlights him front and rear. It is a striking effect, and a wonderfully cool section of trail, too, but he is sure this was not here the last time he passed through, and it puzzles him.

He hears what sounds like distant thunder. In the Smokies, getting rained on is unavoidable. On one of their first hikes together they were unprepared, sneakers and t-shirts, remember? They got drenched. All that day there had been clouds spread like pool balls about the sky. Just as they got to the top the sky shuddered, as if a player had dropped a quarter. The first hard drops fell on them in minutes. Waiting it out only meant watching it get worse. It was one long, slow, cold path down that day, with no view, and less witty repartee. If it rains today, however, he fears it not. In his pack he has plenty of food and a parka. He also has plenty of time to wait it out and an couple of reefers to keep him company, if it comes to that.

He rounds a corner, and there comes an instant of utter blankness, when the trail is completely unfamiliar. There is no such rhododendron thicket atop Mt. LeConte, is there? It's all cedar forest up here, right? For a minute he stops in his tracks, puzzled and a little scared. Things can't change that fast, can they? But there are only the two trails atop Mt. LeConte. Everyone knows that. He walks on. Unless they rerouted it. Is that possible? His doubts redouble when buildings come into sight through the trees beyond another fork in the trail. What the hell? There are buildings up here!

It is the Mt. LeConte Lodge. He has circled to the backside of the campsite. He remembers this almost instantly, and stops to laugh at himself. Of course it's the Lodge, a place you've always wanted to stay. Looks like they've made some changes. He spies asphalt instead of cedar shingles on the roof of the dining hall. The left fork of the trail takes him away from the developed area, and after another four hundred yards reaches yet another fork. There he stops again to read the familiar sign, Myrtle Point above Little Falls, somewhat more carved upon than before, but the same sign. All the same. Already he hears a shooshing in the gently raked, wooded hillside before him, like wind in the lower treetops. He finds himself hurrying now, crossing a fan-shaped clearing which tapers into a narrow, heavily forested vee as the roar of falling water arises below him.

He turns right off the trail as soon as water glints through the trees, emerging shortly on a flat slab of rock, across which runs a narrow, fast stream, with a good deal of water in it. Even so, he could jump it with any kind of running start. Twenty feet above and below where he stands the stream drops three feet, in a natural stairstep arrangement that makes for a lot of noise from a stream of such modest size.

That means it must be time for a little bee you zee zee, he thinks, rubbing his hands together. Maybe a snack, too. There's even time for a nap up here, if the notion strikes him. Napping in the mountains? He must be getting old. Better to hike out to Myrtle Point while he's here. He slips the pack off his back and drops it into a nearby bowl in the stone. It makes a hollow sound, which reminds him again of first things, yes, first things first.

This is, after all what he is here for, what all the hassle has been about. This is why he's incurred the bewildered animosity of his best friend's parents, though they'll surely come around, won't they? They had to admit it was something their son wanted very badly. Indeed, all this was clearly spelled out among his last requests. That much they knew. Still, there was a chance they'd never understand how their son could slight them like this, refusing his place in the family plot back home. They pretended not to see how he shuddered at the thought of laying in the earth, how palpably his mind eased once he was sure he'd have his way. Truly, decaying in a box never was an option. All along he fancied a better revenge on cancer, first a sauna, and then a long swim. Quite likely the parents would have opposed this less if only they were in good enough shape to make the hike themselves.

So here he is now with next to no effort at all, it seems, opening the canister, hesitating, then looking inside and finding an oddly colored flour needing one more sifting. This reminds him of some novel he read years ago. Something just like this happens. Sure, the book about the mountain climber, from you guessed it, that estimable plodder. It was one of his favorite novels. That must be where he got the idea. Wishing for more of his partner than nicknames and ashes, he means to take a moment to pray, but fears he'll break down again, and he's done enough of that in the last week, right?

He walks to the water's edge and pours the contents of the canister into the headwaters of the Little River, a thousand river miles from any ocean, thinking that if he already misses his partner this much, how bad might this get before it gets better? As the ashes fall, he realizes a truant thrill, a nearer awareness of the sky, a fading desire to get on with it, and the joy of sliding like a child once again into water. He hears a distant shout of laughter and feels a wash of pleasure knowing he's fulfilled his promise. Rising breezes swirl the trees above him. He looks up, expecting rain clouds. But once again the air above him is clear, presenting no barrier to the poker-faced uniformity of the sky. He looks up into it, not staring, but as if something his eyes can see is up there. He stands so for quite a while, and when he drops his eyes to the stream again there is only a mistakable blur of grey where his friend might still be, spinning out into a lower eddy, then disappearing in skyshine on the water.

With that the story ends, does it not? Gone now for sure, and only thirty-four years old. It is difficult not to feel cheated. "Naw, no way," was all the empathy this feeling elicited from the dying man. "Cheated? Me? I've had my chance. I've outlived Jesus," he said, nodding sagely, "Hank Williams too, and look what he accomplished," laughing at his own joke. He developed quite a repertoire of sick humor, claiming it as a cancer perc.

Dropping the canister into his pack, he sits on a convenient ledge of stone, thinking of good times they'd known after his friend moved to New York. Being their own masters again, they could relax as never before. Their friendship really took off at that point. They no longer needed hikes for excuses to talk all day. And though the city changed their hikes forever, the conversations went on, different only in that they'd both given up teaching and their marriages, so new issues rushed in to fill the void. Even after they could no longer leave the apartment, they had many happy hours together. Now he has only a bitter feeling of abandonment. For years all his major relationships have come to irrevocable, but intended endings. This is the first time, family deaths aside, that he's lost somebody about whom he still cared so deeply. Having gotten that close to someone, he can not help but wonder if there might not be reason to hope for more, somehow. Of course, you can always hope, reason or no. They built a friendship that would very likely have lasted many more years. In fact, he does not yet feel that their friendship has ended, and as he leans over to look into his pack for what he might eat, he wonders if the friendship itself is not as alive as it ever was. In the near air around him, a stirring makes him almost ready to hear as he hears: "It's true."

He stands up, feeling very quiet inside. He looks all around, muttering "Who the devil" but smiles, realizing that's the wrong word, and prepares to meet whoever said such a thing to him just when he was thinking . . . what was he thinking? But there is no one there, as far as he can tell. A voice. Two words. It's true. As if spoken in a perfectly remembered dream. He shakes it off as THC, except he hasn't consumed any yet, okay, then as a minor brain-burp, as the water, the wind, some animal. Wishful thinking. He sits back down, and tries not to think about it.

Grand days like this in the mountains last in the mind for years. He thought such days were gone forever when his partner followed him to New York, replaced by nothing more strenuous than hiking Manhattan tip to tip, or running around in the modest hills of Central Park. Both got busy with new careers: he became a secretary, then a word processor. His partner took up proofreading, and worked his way up to an editorial job, the medical exam for which turned up a strange lump in his abdomen. For another six months they continued taking such walks as they could manage, shorter and in only the most accessible parks. Always their ambulant conversations allowed them time to discuss their fondest projects, the greatest of which neither had yet accomplished. And now one never will. This thought brings him another of those terrible moments when his heart feels squeezed and he can't get his breath. How can anything be worth attempting when if it comes to no more than this? How is he to have faith, when sooner or later that means trusting to something this deeply disappointing? They say you don't make new friends after you turn thirty, right? He's well past that age now, so what's the point of trying? He thinks a long time about this, until his thoughts are as choked and constricted as his chest.

At length he thinks, all the same, there is nothing lost in having tried, just as there is no wasted conscious effort. Right? Even though his friend's string of wise choices in his last couple of years had disappeared with barely a trace remaining, that could not make hope not worth having. Rational or otherwise, had not their ambling debates led them to plenty of emotionally compelling reasons to hope? Even toward the end last month, they were hard put to deny that a crapshoot such as life appeared to be, even with results such as these, might itself be the proving miracle for which they hoped. Even in their last, sad conversation (had it only been five days ago?) they never found a means of disproving the possibility of having souls or of outliving their bodies. Oh God, if that could just be true!

"It is true."

This time it stands him up as if on strings. If anyone sees him they'll think he's gone crazy, jerking back and forth, hopping from one foot to the other, he's so excited. It is his voice, isn't it? How is that possible? That's it, delusions, at last. He puts a hand behind his ear to feel if he's got a fever, but he can't tell - he is so scared his hands sweat. It sounded just like he always thought an answered prayer would sound, like a muse speaking in his ear, but if that's the case this one doesn't have a hell of a lot to say, does it? He shakes his head. Thinking like this scares him worse the longer it goes on. What is the answer? He's heard it very clearly twice, and that means it is no hallucination, right? And it is the voice of his best friend, a voice he'd not easily mistake. It is true. Absurd! he thinks, shaking off a rush of panic. But then friendship is absurd, is it not? Begging exemption from the fact of having to end, clinging to what cannot be kept.

Sitting here is making me crazy, he thinks. Perhaps he better move on. Myrtle Point is a three mile round trip, sane or no. And who knows when he'll have the next chance? They were together at Myrtle Point the afternoon that clouds on the North Carolina side became trapped, boiling in the valley like a witch's brew in the movies, an amazing sight. That was the day neither of them could come up with that line about the mirrors on his hobnailed boots. Drove themselves crazy all afternoon. What song was it? Did we ever decide? He thinks, and again he can't remember. He thinks God how I hate this! At least one of us managed to get out before he was completely unable to stick with a thought.

As if to confirm this idea, he realizes he cannot remember what his friend looked like. For God's sake, he saw the man just last week! Harder and harder he tries to bring back the image, to force himself to see that face again. He tells himself the eyes were hazel, the hair fair. Cheeks a little high and chubby. But these are only words. No image of his friend's face recurs. His penchant for absurd, monstrous books, yes. A man who could play you Duke Ellington and Jazz Butcher Conspiracy records in the same afternoon. Such he could recall, but not the man's face. No sweat remembering the quirks, like the way his friend went along, to all appearances on an even keel, keeping regular working hours, paying all his bills, keeping his apartment clean, buying five new records a week, all the while claiming he was at the last verge of despair, leaving the door off his oven for weeks at a time, in case he opted for the gas. But people making so much noise about suicide are the last to do it, right? This was all the more aggravating because he had his life very much to his own suiting, especially after he moved to New York. In fact, his friend's idiosyncratic working hours and lifestyle paid him well, yet left him ample time to have all the fun a reasonable man could demand. Proofreading required approximately 20% of his attention, so he worked half as hard for three times the money he made teaching. Still, he pissed and moaned. Often as not it seemed like a willful grievance, worked up to get himself through the divorce. He insisted his fouled up family caused the whole thing and talked at great length about codependence, dysfunction, a world of psychobabble, combing through the past for all that it failed to teach him his first time through. He needed to get on with his life, and didn't seem to want to, until his health failed. If nothing else, that at least got his attention back on to reasons to live.

He is so upset his fists are clenched, until he laughs and tells himself to relax. Aggravating as they might have found each other at times, they had been good friends, all right, good enough that he'd been entrusted with this final favor despite the troubles they both knew it would entail. It was all carefully arranged, with very clear instructions and papers, and even a short letter: "I realize this imposes burdens on you just as mine are finally lifted. I trust a trip back to the Smokies will in some way compensate for any trouble this may cause you."

He wonders how long it will be until he has another day like this, all to himself in the mountains. Since this has never happened before, has he any reason to think it will ever happen again? Not likely. Too bad, he thinks, for the company had always distracted him, so he never noticed how the sky, even without clouds, wears as many faces as he might put on himself in the course of a day-long hike; or how very quiet it gets above four thousand feet, when even the chirring of insects dies away. Open skies and silence - two great rarities in Manhattan. He suspects this is what his friend meant to give him by asking this favor.

His heart has stopped racing, and he is certain he has neither fever nor any other sign of illness. There simply has to be another explanation. After all, if wishful thinking alone made things happen he'd be off in the ferns with his second wife, or perhaps his first. No, he becomes certain that this is a meeting, and that it's not their last meeting, either. But if it is a miracle, why can't it be visible, or happen some magical number of times? Of course, there's always that flashback they'd threatened him with for so many years. Whatever the cause, he can remember something over thirty-five years of life during which nothing like this ever happened before. Again he feels something easing its way through the air around him. God knows what it is. And as he has this thought, he can feel that it is happening again, the same way they used to start talking at the same instant after a long period of silence.

"My friend. It's true."

His sight is blurred, spotted and streaking. He realizes he is crying so hard that tears are squirting onto the inside of his glasses. Is that even possible? It is true, so it must be possible. Absolutely. Even the most fanciful wishers are, on occasion, quite correct. He's been really close to someone, had a very close friend, and if it's happened once, then he has reason to hope it might happen again, given time. That right there is worth the price of the ticket, so the rest of the ride is what a dead friend used to call a poor man's amusement. He takes his glasses off and wipes them clean.

It is a shining, beautiful afternoon in the mountains. Never more perfect weather for a hike, under cerulean shine, over undulant green walls, a cooling stroke of air delicious in the throat, and now the rare at this altitude, therefore precious call of a thrush in the rhododendron. The last of a grey mist turns out of the lower eddies long before he thinks to look again, he is so wrapped up in this glorious day all to himself in the Smoky Mountains, because of that estimable plodder. He was as happy with that title as with that of absurd friend. Who else would be doing him this big a favor after he's already dead? Not many. He wonders how long he'll have to leave him unthanked for that.