“No,” she said, jamming her feet into her boots, “no, he’s not going to go like this.” She stabbed her hands into her gloves, jerked tight the cords of her hiking boots and finished the knot.
In the mountains you feel free, he remembered as the foothills fell away behind him and the mountains rose up around. He was going up too, higher and higher till all he could see was the snow on the sides of the peaks stretching free, silent, alone. You couldn’t think of anyone up here, anything – didn’t have to. In the mountains you feel free.
There were a lot more little birds than you’d expect in the snowy fir tree next to the chapel. Occasionally one would jump off into the air and soar around the little bell tower – not much more than a stack of icy rocks around an old green bell – then fly off and coast away to the peaks. Everyone was lost out here, up in the mountains where you’d only come to escape. You could wander the winter paths till they turned back into empty village streets and never really notice the change.
He had screamed at them, lost it, thrown himself out of the crowded Christmas living room with barely a thought for the pain in his mother’s look, cared less about his father. He grabbed a bag and pushed out the door into the cold, past his sister who seemed right on the point of breaking, collapsing. At the corner of the street he had paused, looked up to the mountains then turned for a second. His sister was standing on the porch. Her dark face was still covered with tears, glistening white from the ugly light above the door but there was something in her eyes that seemed different. Determined. He pushed it out of his thoughts.
People would walk into the town and stay for a few days, never talking, drifting the streets barely aware of one another. All sorts of people: old ones able to walk but with the look of people who’d been left inside like spare old sheets for years; young ones with empty faces and broken eyes. Others too – uncaring old bachelors, muttering stumbling old women, broken ill people whose worlds had tossed them aside with a pill, or a pension, or less.
The mountains beyond the town had a pull. People would stand there for days at the edge of town, right where the stone cut off suddenly and suddenly the mountains threw themselves up in front of you, spreading around and lead off jaggedly in the distance. They would stand there and look out into the snow and rocks and empty air, where the trees below seemed so small and led away shrinking till they too gave up. They would stand for a few days, alone or in little groups of two – only the old people ever came in twos – and then drift out into the mountains, their few bags left behind.
When they first stepped out, they looked – for a second – free.
His sister passed all sorts as she climbed the forest path from the plains, eyes set firmly on the icy footing, feet stamping over knotted roots and piles of snow. They were a little like ghosts, and the forest seemed to whisper as she walked past, like the gnarled old trunks hid voices and eyes.
The light up there was strange; always forest twilight, the time of night when nothing was quite right and it was hard to think of what was good with the world. The sun never quite made it up past the mountains, there, so the light stayed dull hollow grey all day and just got heavier at night.
There wasn’t much left for Rose at home; her children and grandchildren used to come by at Easter and New Year, and then that had stopped, and instead it was just a phone call once or twice a year. Then the Christmas phone call became more and more like an afterthought, and soon it was just her. She would look back over the family holiday photos: weekends down in Devon, where the kids would bury – try to bury – their Dad in the sand and she’d chat with their auntie and they’d laugh and have a glass or two or many once the children had gone to sleep. The memories were something, but sometimes it felt like they were only bound to make her feel worse. In the evenings, when there was nothing else to do and but lie in bed, her thoughts ran up and passed over and over her eyes till she could only cry or sit there hating the thoughts and the awful self she’d become. It was ok, though – numbness was coming, stronger and stronger, and that was enough for her.
His sister was halfway through the grim, teeming forest. There was a small cottage just ahead, little puffs of smoke breaking out from the chimney in cheerful waves. She could hear noise from inside, music and laughter bursting out whenever a gust of wind knocked a shutter open and gold light spilled out over the snow, for a second. The smell of something cooking drifted towards her. She went inside and sat down, and smiled at the steaming bowl pushed towards her.
Rose was one of the figures up in the mountains now, drifting always nearer to the edge of town. The brother and her almost smiled at each other, once, but the rush was too painful for them both and they turned away, grey faces afraid of the flush of warmth. They began to see each other more often, though, walking the streets past the chapel where the birds fluttered up and away.
It was not enough for her, a stranger’s smile. He could see her getting emptier and he felt the same inside him, and he cared less and less about the emptiness inside them both. They would get closer and closer to the bare rock at the edge of town, where you could see the mountains and they called you, where drifting down away from the last town was so much easier, the mountains said, was right.
But suddenly it became intolerable, suddenly the thought of that smile was like a lit cigarette burning on his skin. She had reminded him of something, there was something about the sadness and the smile lines around her eyes that reminded him of someone, he knew it. He stopped, turned wildly, rushed back, past the village, down, down the mountain until he came to the old tavern he’d half-noticed as he’d been wandering up.
He burst into the doorway, still manic, and stared in. His eyes were wide, adjusting to the sudden light and the amused, confused smiles offered his way. Then he was knocked back, blinded, his vision became a bundle of arms and a pile of hair was in his face and all he could hear was sobbing, his sister’s crying, his crying. The people in the tavern watched them knowingly, gently, as they stood there with her face pressed into his shoulder.
They stood there for a while, and his sister took his hand, like when they were little and she used to look after him -the little brother that he was. They’d used to call them Hansel and Gretel, he remembered. Such a perfect little team: they could have been from the story. There was a whisper in the air, though, and he could see the smile that had called him back here. Holding his sister’s hand he led her up to the town and they pushed back past the shadows with the warmth of the other like a lucky charm against the darkness. Rose was there, standing under the little old chapel, the last dregs of the glow on her skin draining away as the mountains pulled it away from her.
He threw himself on her and his sister did too, grabbing at her hands and pulling at her faded old skirt and shawl, skipping around like children with their grandma. Her face crinkled, cracked along the old smile lines around her eyes and suddenly the memories her loneliness had locked away flooded back, washed hot and soft around her warm, wrinkled face. Nothing had changed, in the mountains, but she saw it how it was; the light suddenly warm, the sky gold-pink with streaks of blue ink dashed on a palette, and the three of them could see what was there.
As they turned away, he looked back at the mountains and the empty village filled with drifting, lonely souls. The call of the mountains and that empty village was still in his ears, but now it was little more than a whisper. He smiled at Rose, and the three walked back through the shadows to the warmth and light, to the tables of food where they could talk, bicker, and laugh.
Their sadness has gone, in the fairy-tale way.
But reader, remember, as you chatter and play,
Those left alone on this Christmas Day.