THE BIRTH OF MOUNTAINS

by

Michael Edwards

A pall as white as the snow outside covered Joey's face as he stood staring in disbelief at the most wondrous sight imaginable. For a single moment infinity seemed to have opened before him. Then he threw back his head and let out a piercing cry. It took all his strength to keep from cursing God.

He had felt himself being drawn to this place; and, though he somehow knew it was a place that would mock everything he cherished and obscure everything he believed, he let himself be drawn to it. He had gone ahead of the others as they sought a new place to live - something he had not done in the time since he led his people from Clingman's Dome. They had stayed together the whole time, testing one mountain pass after another. No one had gone off alone, Joey's first and foremost rule being that they must all decide where they would live; and since they must all decide, they should all come upon the place together.

"Our chances are better if we break into groups," Joey was told again and again. "While we're all clumped together, looking here, the very place we're seeking may be just beyond the next hill."

"God will guide us," Joey assured his people. "When He's ready to show us our new home, nothing will stand in His way."

They traveled in an arc, with Clingman's Dome at its apex and a twenty-seven mile zenith extending as far west as Thunderhead Mountain, then northeastward past Blanket Mountain, past the Elkmont Ranger Station, across the Little River, the Little Pidgeon River, old US Route 441, past Mount LeConte, and across Porter's Creek to Mount Kephart at its easternmost terminus.

"We must return to Indiana," Alice constantly advised. "This child's home is there: he cannot rebuild the world from anyplace else."

"No," Joey rejected the advice. "We're weary of traveling. It's time to settle in one place."

"But we haven't settled," Alice reminded him. "We travel every day: we should have something to show for it. Our travels should take us somewhere."

"I realize it seems we're only going in circles, and that if there were something here for us we'd have found it by now," Joey admitted. "But there's safety here, and the security of being on familiar ground once again. There are any number of spots here we could settle in if we needed to - and we will; we'll decide on one if we haven't come upon the right place soon."

Alice laid her hand on Joey's shoulder and looked deep into his eyes. "You still believe in your heart God will save him," she gently said.

Joey shook his head. "If I did, I wouldn't have left our camp," he answered. "God allowed him to go where his path took him - and no farther. He won't come after us. I know that. Nothing on earth could take him from that mountain. His eternity will be spent beneath that tree, with his brother by his side. I'm not keeping us here so I can be near him. If it were just me, I'd go as far from here as I could - back to Donner's Pass, no matter how long it took. But my first responsibility is to the rest of you; and, for now, we desperately need stability. We've been nomads long enough."

Dozens of times, each of the hills and peaks in this small swatch of the Great Smoky Mountains had been visited and studied; each time Joey and his people moved on to the next site.  A day never went by that someone didn't suggest going southeast, into North Carolina, where the mountains were more numerous; but Joey refused even to consider it.  The thought of being on the eastern side of Clingman's Dome, with its giant oak looking down on their camp, filled him with such dread that he ignored his own democratic imperative.  The wishes of the majority were nothing compared to the sacrilege of building a home in the shadow of what had happened beneath that tree.

One day in early November of the year 2072, as camp was being struck at the base of Mount Kephart, Joey looked off into the distance.  For nearly an hour, as everyone slowly gathered around him, he stared toward the northeast.

"What do you see, Joseph?" Carol Carter came beside him to ask.

"We've always stopped here," Joey replied; "and it was right to do so.  Now we must continue past this boundary."

"How far?" Carol asked.

"I don't know," said Joey.  "But I think not far.  Something is out there for us.  But I'm afraid of it.  It'll destroy as much as it saves.  Everything I am may end.  But it offers something we won't find anyplace else on earth.  So my own loss is of no consequence."

"It is to me," said Carol.  "I love you, Joseph.  I'm not sure I can put our well-being above yours.  Perhaps we shouldn't go beyond this point."

"It's not our choice," Joey told her.  "God wants us there, not here.  We must go."

The air, as always, was cold; nothing the sun did could warm it more than a degree during the day - which it lost when the sun began disappearing into the plain of white behind the mountains.  Slowly at first, then more rapidly as they kept pace with their new leader, the people moved northeastward along the Tennessee-North Carolina border, beyond the arc Joey had, in effect, drawn in the snow.

They traveled all day, stopping only twice.  By evening, they had covered nearly ten miles.  Joey had moved ahead of the others almost from the start, as if he were no longer aware of their presence.  Finally, they caught up to him, just as the sun was begging to set - not because he had slowed his pace, but because he had stopped altogether to stand in the shadow of a mountain nearly as high as Clingman's Dome.

At the border of Sevier County, where the Appalachian Trail juts due north, stood Mount Guyot, at 6621 feet tall the second highest point in Tennessee.  Joey stood staring up at the mountain which, from a distance, had nearly blended into the landscape; but which, from less than a mile away, towered over everything.  When the others reached him, they found him shivering as if he had been standing there naked beneath the mountain.

"Are you alright?" he was asked again and again, but made no reply - as if he had not even heard the questions.

"Is it evil?" Joey's second in command, Mount Everest, came up to ask.

Joey shook his head.  "No," he whispered.  "It's beyond evil: not in what it is, but in what it let happen."

"What do you mean?" Mount Everest asked.

"I'm not even sure," Joey admitted.  "Only that it stood watching while something horrible took place back there, and did nothing to draw us to it till now."

"Are we to turn around, then, and go back?"

"No.  This will be our home," Joey told his lieutenant.  "I'm going up there - alone.  The rest of you set up camp here.  When I return, I'll show you the way."

Joey's resolve calmed his trembling body.  He took a deep breath and started up the mountain.  His path took him to its southwestern face, the gradual slope of the land itself bringing him a third of the way to its summit.  Though Mount Guyot was snow covered and lifeless, its trees withered and shrunken, something about it reminded Joey of the Sierras - of the eastern ridge of Monitor pass, where he had knelt before the tornado that, instead of taking him, wrapped itself around the mountain to take his mentor.

Joey felt as if he had been here before.  There was a cave on the same side of Monitor Pass that this side of Mount Guyot  resembled, about a quarter of the way from the top; he had come upon it after rounding a jagged promontory.  It was just to his left; he had meant to investigate it on his way back down, but never did.  Now here was the same configuration before him, only scaled back to the Appalachians.  Three quarters of the way up Mount Guyot a massive cut of rock jutted into his path, just like the promontory.  A hundred feet up, and to the left, was an opening in the mountain, enveloped in a kind of haze.  Joey made for it, half expecting a tornado to suddenly loom overhead.

When he reached it, he was amazed, yet not totally surprised, to find this haze surrounding it to be fog - an odd looking fog, denser and more compact than the cloud like drifts that used to rise out of the Mississippi when he was a boy.  More like steam than fog.  Joey walked through it, into the cave; it felt warm on his face.

The entrance, barely big enough to fit a man's body through, continued as a long, narrow corridor for another three hundred feet.  The light of his lantern cast his shadow everywhere, as if he led an army.  The walls of the cave were moist.  Joey felt a tightness in his chest which, at first, he took for dread; then realized it was simply that he had trouble breathing - which seemed odd to him because the air even in so confined a space as this was neither musty nor heavy.  Finally the mystery was solved when he became aware of another phenomenon - one he had not experienced in almost two years: he was sweating.  The air was hard to breathe for the simplest of reasons: it was hot.

Joey had not encountered heat since leaving the Sierras.  He removed his coat, scarf, hat and gloves; but he was still hot, and still sweated.  "I'm not used to heat," he reminded himself.  "Even warmth feels like scalding heat.  Take it slow," he cautioned himself.  "Otherwise you'll end up with pneumonia - and they'll lose their second leader in less than a year."

"We've got to get him," Joey countered her caution.

"Go easy," Alice insisted.  "The snow surrounding these houses is not packed tightly enough to walk on.  Their descent has loosened it.  Dig your way to him - or you join him in the same pit!"

Slowly, the four remaining men dug a diagonal path downward, as if making a tunnel in a hillside, gradually coming to the base of the mount where it touched against the side of the house.  From there, they dug their way straight down to where their comrade had fallen, this last part of the dig much easier than the first, the snow softer, more loosely packed - just as Alice had predicted.

The man was unconscious, but still breathing.  Carefully, they brought him out of the pit he had fallen into and revived him.  When he awoke, he at once tried to get up, but the others restricted him.

"We've got to get out of here!" he cried.  The others tried to calm him, to reassure him he had simply fallen through the snow.

"You don't understand!" he grew more agitated as he explained.  "I saw someone!  Someone looking at me through the window!  A man's eyes, looking out the window as I fell past!  We've to to get out of here!"

"We saw nothing - no one - when we dug you out," Joey assured him.  "I was as close to the window as I am to you now.  I saw nothing at that window."

A strange look came over Joey's face as he recounted what he saw.  "Literally nothing," he said in an incredulous tone.  "I saw absolutely nothing inside that house.  There was no interior."

Joey moved away from his men and made his way back down the hillside to the house - the man who had fallen pleading with him all the while not to go near that window.  He looked in, and confirmed his earlier observation.  The room inside - walls, floor, ceiling, furnishings - had completely disappeared.  He debated whether to break the window and climb inside to try and determine what had happened or simply walk away from the house.  While he pondered the mystery, Alice descended the hill and camp up behind him; he saw her reflection in the window.

"Do not enter," she advised him, "unless you're prepared to kill."

He stared at her image.  "I'm not here to kill," he said.

"There's death here," she warned.  "You may be forced to defend your life."

"There will be no killing," he assured her.  "Nor is there a reason to violate this house just to satisfy my curiosity.  Let it remain a mystery."

Joey turned and motioned for Alice to follow him up the hill.  Before he had taken a single step, a sound issued from inside the house.  He turned back, throwing Alice a questioning glance.  This time Joey debated nothing; he took his flashlight and smashed the window then crawled halfway through, keeping hold of the window frame as he let his right foot search for something along the wall to support his weight.  Finding nothing, he withdraw to the outside.  Then he and Alice heard to noise again, more clearly this time; they were able to pinpoint it to the other end of the house.

"We'll go around," he told Alice.  "We'll did our way in from that side."

Together, they climbed the hill and, summoning the others, worked their way to the rear of the house, where all six began digging through the snow until they had cleared a mount like the one out front.  Joey descended the hill, broke the nearest window and climbed in, this time securing a foothold.  He shined his flashlight into the interior of this room, and gasped at what he saw.