This week’s installment of the reader-driven blog serial, Porous. If you haven’t read the first chapter, please click here.
Flakes of snow curl around me like yesterday’s flames. They’re as puffy as clouds, as wet as Kuri’s tongue lapping at my cheeks. They drip from the sky in great empty breaths. I brush them out of my hair and stuff my hands back into my gloves, into my pockets. Flames cannot hurt me, but the cold can still chill me. My fingers are purple and pink against the vast, empty whiteness.
I glance down at my feet, sunk almost a half-foot deep in the snow. I bend down and scoop up a handful of the stuff, bring it to my mouth like a sacred offering. I take a bite and relish the sweet cool taste of mountain snow as it melts in my mouth. It reminds me of honey somehow. Sky-honey. This emptiness, out here in the snow, surrounded by pines, is different from the emptiness brought by the shadows. This emptiness is cleansing, purifying. Maybe it’s not even emptiness I feel here, but fullness: full of simplicity and elegance and awareness.
The shadows are nothing like that. They drain me away, siphon me off from myself. They leave me blank and hollow. Afraid.
“Noomi!” a voice calls. “Are you trying to get yourself killed out here?” It’s Paul. He’s trying to catch up to me, trudging ahead of the rest of the group.
“One thing you’ll learn, Paul,” I shout back, “is that it’s not a good idea to joke about killing yourself with a girl who’s been clinically diagnosed as suicidal.” He’s one of the newest counselors in my wilderness therapy group. He’s not very good at his job—he seems to think the emotional and psychological aspect of counseling is silly. He’s not interested in talking about our feelings or what he calls psychobabble. Of all my counselors and instructors, I like him the best. He doesn’t ask me to be someone I am not.
I wait as he catches up to me. He drops his head, staring at his feet. He’s at least six inches taller than me, but now he looks like a lonely duckling.
“Don’t tell Clara I said that,” he mumbles. I laugh.
“You know that’s why I like you, Paul. Because you’re not like Clara.”
“I don’t want to lose my job, okay?”
“I won’t tell her.” I smile at him. He huffs.
A hundred feet back, the other six members of my wilderness therapy group trudge through the snow, along with two older counselors. I stare out at the vast spread of the valley below us while they catch up to me and Paul. It’s so green down there, so wondrously green, and yet so white here. In the throes of spring, the world below is blossoming. But here on the mountain, winter reigns. I close my eyes and tilt my head skyward, staring into the vortex of tumbling snow. Crystalline flakes land on my face and melt down my cheeks. The droplets burrows into my scarf, chilling me, rinsing me clean.
No shadows here on the peak. There’s no darkness for them to hide in.
“Noomi,” Clara chastises, “you’re supposed to stay with the group when we’re walking together.”
“Well, be careful, okay? The snowdrifts can be treacherous up here. You need to stay warm.”
I know full well the cold can’t hurt me. But I nod anyway.
“We’re almost to the top, guys. Once we’re there we’ll break for lunch and do some reflective thinking—” Paul rolls his eyes, and I fight back a laugh “—and then head on back down the mountain.”
This time, I allow myself to fall behind the rest of the group as Clara and Paul lead us up to the summit. In a month or two, this peak will be crawling with day hikers, come to enjoy the wildflowers and picnic with their families in the sight of a majestic view. But for now, we have it to ourselves. I like it that way.
“Peanuts?” A boy next to me holds out a ziploc bag, an offering.
“Thanks.” I smile at him and try to remember his name. He’s new. Today’s his first outing with us. I shook his hand earlier in the week when he showed up at our planning meeting, but now I can’t recall his name.
After lunch, I sit quietly next to Paul while Clara leads a twenty minute “reflective thinking” session. Wilderness therapy was something I agreed to only to pacify my mother and at my psychologist’s insistence. The “therapy” part doesn’t interest me in the least. At first, I thought that doing dangerous activities like whitewater kayaking, mountain climbing, and extended backpacking trips would give me the opportunity to kill myself and make it look like an accident. An easy escape from the shadows, I thought. But then I tried to drown myself last year while kayaking the Hood river. They said I was underwater for four minutes before they were able to get to me.
“You should be dead,” she said, the counselor who pulled me out of the rapids, after I spat up a half-gallon of water.
“I know.” I stood up and pushed past her and got back in my kayak.
“You don’t have to keep going,” she had shouted after me. “Aren’t you afraid?”
“Why would I be?”
The truth was, I was afraid. Not of the water, but of the darkness underneath.
I stopped seeing the wilderness as a place to die after that. It became, instead, a kind of solace. The mountains are my favorite, especially the ones tall enough that the snow never melts. Past the tree line, the shadows can’t find me. The whiteness is protective.
Clara stands up and we all shoulder our day packs, lighter now that we’ve eaten our food and drank down our thermoses. I shiver. I don’t want to walk down into the trees, down and out of this pristine mountain where I am untouchable. But I can’t stay here forever. Night will come. Shadows will fall. They’ll empty me, and I will be nothing.
I take my first few hesitant steps down the mountain, trailing Paul at a distance. Part of me already feels tired. It was a strenuous hike up. We climbed almost two thousand feet. My feet are aching and my belly is full and warm from lunch. We cross into a patch of trees, and suddenly the world looks black and white, like a photograph. If not for the green of the pine needles, the world might as well be monochrome. The trees cast dark marks on the ground, a dangerous crosshatch of treachery. I have to be on my guard. Here, they could be anywhere.
My boots seem to grow exponentially heavier with every step I take. At first I can’t tell if it’s normal human tiredness or the kind of fatigue that signals doom. The blackness grows like a vortex, leaning viciously into me. The happiness I felt earlier, the freedom, the invulnerability, seems to slough off of me like the snowflakes I brush from my hair. My feet drag. The green pine needles on the Douglass firs have faded into grey and black. I cast my eyes around. They’re growing, I realize, without surprise. The shadows are growing. I’m too tired to be surprised. They seem to dislocate from the trees and rocks that own them and take on a form of their own. I feel the spindly creeping fingers peeling the emotions away from me like layers of an onion. Finally the stain leaches into my eyes and dark ink, impenetrable, spills across my vision. I stagger. I try to claw through it but I have no energy. No emotion. No fight left in me. Now even the tiredness fades and there is nothing. Bleak. Empty. Nothing.
“Noomi!” A voice rips through the inky curtain and brilliant light shines through. It’s a white that’s devoid of color. If you separated it with a prism there would be only whiteness. I stare into the boy’s eyes. They are as white as the snow dusting his jacket. Now they change: they are rimmed with silver. Now they change again: in his eyes there is color, all the colors of the spectrum, iridescent as an oil slick, an infinite array of color that calls me back to the world.
“Oh God,” I gasp, sitting up. I’d fallen. I’m on my back. The heavy branches of pine trees frame my vision. The shadows are gone, or at least diminished, drawn back to normal. They have reattached to their earthly bodies. The boy with rainbow-colored eyes is staring at me, though his eyes are normal now. A dull green, almost brown. The color of damp moss. Human. He’s the one who offered me peanuts earlier. “I’m so sorry. It’s the—the….” My mind races, trying to come up with an explanation. My eyes dart around above him, looking for any traces of the shadows. “The fainting spells. I have fainting spells.”
“You don’t have fainting spells,” the boy says. He’s perfectly calm. His composure unnerves me. His hand is still on my shoulder. “Your eyes are as black as the night sky.”
I push his hand off and stand up. He stays on the ground, crouching, looking up at me. The fur lining the hood of his jacket makes him look like some feral animal, waiting to pounce.
“I just … I just fell over, is all.”
He doesn’t say anything. But after a few seconds, he stands up and brushes himself off.
“If you say so.” He turns to leave. His hands disappear inside his pockets, but not before I realize that he’s not wearing gloves.
“Aren’t your hands cold?” I ask.
His face splits into an oaken smile.
“No,” I retort, raising my voice so he can hear me above the wind. “But I have gloves on.”
“You don’t need your gloves,” he calls back.
I run to catch up with him, my feet sinking deep into the snow with every stride.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
He turns to look at me, and I catch a flash of that vivid whiteness, the multicolored prism of light that shone through his eyes earlier.
“You don’t know? We met earlier in the week.”
“I’m sorry. I forgot. I’m not good with names.”
“Right. Sorry. Nice to meet you, Silas. Thank you for helping me.”
He laughs again, and I bite my lip to contain my anger. I don’t like being laughed at.
“You don’t need my help, Noomi. Not in this world.”
So! What do you think of this week’s installment? I think I have next week’s already plotted out, but I definitely need some help after that! Here are some questions I have for my readers:
How does Noomi go about fighting the shadows, or at least trying to learn more about them? What is Paul’s role in her life – more of a friend or more of a counselor/mentor, or maybe something else altogether? (He’s definitely not a love-interest – aside from being totally unethical, that would also be kind of creepy.) The shadows are obviously able to get to her while she’s in company, so it’s only with her family that she’s safe. Why does her family offer her protection?
AND here’s the burning question: Who is Silas? What’s he up to? What’s his role in this story, and where do he and Noomi see each other again?
Can’t wait to hear what you all think about this chapter, and where I can take it from here! Please leave any and all suggestions, ideas, or critiques you have, I’d love to read them.