The man was there, standing at the back of the house. He’d been spying on me for three days, unless he was just a shadow, a tree frozen solid in the storm, which my eyes reddened by sleeplessness had endowed with a human shape. Yet it seemed that he was edging closer, that each night he took a few more steps, little by little exchanging the sheltering woods for the garden’s open space.
Someone other than me might have gone out and tried to confront him, but I was transfixed by his immobility, by his stubborn silence, a man of stone or wood who was unmoved by my pleas and insults, by the cries I launched from the doorstep, ordering him to clear off, to go away and leave me in peace: pervert, may you rot in hell!
When I yelled like that, my voice shrill, I was sure he was smiling, that his face swathed in darkness bore the rictus of a man who knows you are trapped and who is step by step biding his time, just to drive you mad. As soon as the door was closed I ran to barricade myself in the guest room, and sat by the window, an axe at my feet, in whose blade I saw him smiling back at me, a man of stone or wood hell-bent on my ruin – or his, as once my nerves gave out I’d raise the axe over his snow-strewn skull.
Each time I recall that place it’s music I hear, an organ’s rumble rolling down the mountain like an avalanche cloaking the trees in wreathes of fog that rendered the music more solemn still. Cold Mountain, that’s the name of the place, but people nearby call it Blue Peak, even though the mountain is for the most part grey, grey and black, where the thickness of the forest casts shadows like massed clouds stagnant in the heavy air.
I arrived there on 27 November, a few hours before the storm that was about to block the roads and isolate the Peak’s small populace for what seemed to me like a century. Captive to a house that was increasingly hostile, and knowing no one nearby, I anxiously awaited the light’s return, moving from one window to another, tapping in vain on the mute buttons of the telephone, and taking stock of my solitude and of the fear that can surface when you have only yourself to rely on.
I only knew Blue Peak through the stories my father told, and even though he’d spoken of the place’s hypnotic charm, I was far from imagining the effect it would have on me. Its beauty, I realized when I set my eyes on that pile of rock looming over the valley, derived not from the landscape’s harmony, but from its oppressive darkness. Cold Mountain was a widow, a woman weighed down by millennia of mourning.
When I left Eastern Brook’s main street to take the road leading to the former zinc mine, the prospect was utterly banal: stunted trees, frozen fields. Nothing to indicate that after two kilometres the road would give me the impression that I was plunging into the mountain, and, a hundred metres farther, that I was being swallowed up by it, drawn in by the magnetic force of its great mass. At the top of the hill, near a gas station whose rusted pumps accentuated the desolation of the place, I felt myself slipping, slowly slipping down towards the valley where the Crevasse River was flowing, and I understood, from the rumbling of the organs not far off, that I had reached my final destination, that point of no return which defines lives with no bearing.
Overwhelmed by the idea that I might have no other future than the shadow of Cold Mountain, I parked by the side of the road, where sheets of hardened ice had formed, and I opened the car window to let in the sharp air crystallizing the mist that was hugging the slopes of the Peak. My father had warned me, describing the valley, that you sank into it as into murky water. I lit a cigarette, studied the map he’d drawn for me years earlier, and drove as far as the foot of the mountain, taking the fork to the right. The house I’d inherited rose up ahead of me at the end of the road, veiled by the first flakes of the coming storm.
‘Fears attributable to no obvious source are the most subtle and the most tenacious.’ I’d heard that remark on the radio on my way to the Peak. The psychologist or psychiatrist being interviewed was talking about the dread associated with the night, tracing it back to the child’s fantasy world, to unreal forms taking shape in the darkness, but I’d quietly sent him packing, up yours, mister! I had no interest in anyone explaining to me how we manufacture ghosts, or how they can ruin our lives if we aren’t brave enough to strip away their veils and find that there’s nothing behind them but our very own faces.
And so it was in listening to the syncopations of Booker T. & the M.G.s’ Green Onions that I bade farewell to my ghosts, pending their reappearance some night when there’d be a full moon. I then drove about a hundred kilometres, humming tunes by the Beach Boys, Jefferson Airplane, Vanilla Fudge and the Byrds, but a shred of the veil I’d lifted clung to the edge of my visual field, drifting like a clean white sheet over the frosted trees, because in coming to Cold Mountain, would I not be confronting my father’s troubled past?
I supressed the question and stopped to fill up my gas tank at a garage next to a snack bar whose reek of fried food, along with the stench of gasoline, was a perfect olfactory embodiment of American civilization. I followed the scent of rancid oil and ordered fried onions from a waitress who robotically reeled off the daily special: cream of tomato soup, hamburger, bread pudding. No, I insisted, just onions. I still had Booker T. inside my head, and I thought to myself that the onion rings might ward off the spirits reawakened by the psychologist on the radio. Anything to forget that I was surrounded by the dead.
I also asked for black coffee, really black, then I closed my eyes and tried to empty my mind, but I was too obsessed with the turmoil of the past few days – my hasty departure, my apartment left in a mess, my cactuses that were going to die – for a brief hiatus in a snack bar in the middle of nowhere to afford me the peace of mind I craved. I was twisting my napkin in my hands when Julie, the waitress, came back with my coffee. I brought my nose to it, the heat fogged my glasses, and I saw my face in the shimmering ripples stirred up by my trembling hands. Julie threw me a sidelong glance, as if to say are you okay, and I smiled to set her mind at rest. There’d be no sad meanderings from a lonely woman.
I was finishing my onions when a regular customer came in and greeted Julie, a man with a closed-in face who dragged his feet without paying much attention to where they landed, as if he’d long ago succumbed to what fate had in store for him. He hung his wool shirt on a coat hook and sat at the counter, his back hunched, to talk to Julie. Their conversation revolved around the stretch of road that was going to be built to the west, a disaster for the businesses to the east, and then shifted to the storm warning that was everywhere in the media. Forty centimetres, said the man, downing a mouthful of beer. Sixty, Julie corrected him, sixty centimetres over three days, maybe more, with heavy winds, blowing snow and sleet. There won’t be a soul in the snack bar.
Then they went silent, probably pondering the damage the storm would cause, and I felt the incipient wind raising the hair on my head.
When I got out of my car at Blue Peak, I thought again of Julie, then of the man leaning on the counter, his body curled around his bitterness to stop it from ebbing away, or because it embodied what bound him most firmly to the world. The wind swept again into my hair, then the flaps of my coat, and a piece of cardboard struck the corner of the house, slaloming through the snowflakes to drop down at my feet: handle with care. net weight, 30 lbs.
Despite the cold wind whipping a stern admonition my way, I almost burst out laughing, because I too had to be handled with care. I don’t know if it was the coffee, my fatigue from driving, the wild aspect of the place, or the chaos I’d left behind me, but I felt as if I were going to explode. If someone had touched me at that moment my skin would have split open, I was sure of it, and my flesh would have been scattered into the trees like so much bloodied wrapping, making slack noises as it dropped in repulsive pink patterns onto the snow-whitened ground. Dozens of cries would have echoed from the mountainsides, cries that had been locked up inside my taut body. ‘The curious death of a woman who succumbed to the pressures of life,’ the local paper would say, offering a detailed account of my spectacular eruption and black-and-white photographs that wouldn’t do justice to the macabre colour scheme of my sad end. I kicked at the piece of cardboard – handle with care my ass – and started to empty the car, which was full to the brim.
The house was beautiful, but it gave off the dusty, mouldy odour of uninhabited spaces. I advanced into the middle of the living room and I had the feeling that something wasn’t right, that the space didn’t fit with its true dimensions, or that an object that ought not to have been there disrupted the apparent peacefulness that prevailed in the half-light. I again attributed this uneasiness to the coffee and my exhaustion, and I put down my suitcase on the carpet. Welcome home, I murmured, fearing that the sound of my voice wafting through the rooms might rouse that of Adrien, my father’s brother, who had lived in this house until his death six months ago, and who had made me his sole inheritor.
Two hours later night had fallen, and I was sitting in front of the fireplace, a glass of red wine in my hand, listening to the crackling of the dry wood in the hearth. As I’d said jokingly to the few people who wanted to listen, I had decided, impulsively, to come and install myself in this house along with Adrien’s buried memories. But I was not at all sure that I’d made the right choice. My gift for solitude had its limits, and I might have overestimated my ability to live alone with only the sounds of the things surrounding me: the snapping of the fire, the cracking of walls and trees, the whistling of the wind and the organ music that never seemed to cease. And yet the strange calm I felt, here where true silence was rare, reassured me.
I turned out the one lamp lit in the room, and approached the bay window giving onto the Peak. Through the blur of snow and the darkness, I could only see the cliff face at the top of the mountain, silhouetted against the troubled sky. Madman’s Cliff, my father called it, mocking the poorly equipped climbers clinging to it with their ropes and crampons, sometimes breaking their necks amid all that grandiose beauty. I could understand those madmen; there was something alluring about the cliff that made you want to defy it. I would go walking there, at its foot, when spring arrived and the melting water streamed down.
I was peering at the scrawny firs topping it, when I suddenly caught my breath. A shadow had moved in front of the house. I drew back instantly, certain that it was going to come and flatten itself against the window. Then I saw the piece of cardboard, aloft amid the wispy snow heralding the storm. Handle with care . . .
I turned the lamp back on, and before closing the curtains I saw my own reflection in the bay window, a pale woman with a frightened gaze, the perfect replica of her own ghosts.
He was spying on me. A man of stone or wood whose rigid limbs could only move millimetre by millimetre with intolerable slowness, his feet inching invisibly through the snow. Millimetre by millimetre. That’s how he advanced, from the woods to the garden, so I might release him from his exhaustion, or because he had a secret to pass on to me, a truth damning him to his slowness, and constraining me to patience.
But my watch was one of fear, fever, panic, an enforced vigil that would either end in violence when the man at last reached the house and was cut down by the axe blows that would cloud the days to come, or when his breathing shallowed at the back of my neck as he divulged the secret that would leave me as oppressed, as weary as himself, a woman of stone or wood doomed to inertia.
I had barely closed the curtains when a gust of wind from the mountain or the valley shook the house, and the flames in the hearth flared before being sucked up into the chimney. The storm was on its way.
I’d tried not to make too much of this storm, foretold on the radio while I was wending my way to Cold Mountain, telling myself that I would be at my destination before the bad weather reached the region, and that Adrien’s house, built to withstand the hard winters, would protect me, but then I overheard Julie and the man at the counter speaking in lower and lower voices, almost whispering, talking about the possible damage – forty centimetres, sixty centimetres, sleet, blizzard, blowing snow, not a soul in the snack bar. Their voices had lodged in my ears, echoing. And on the periphery of my gaze the soft, pale curtains that masked my fantasies flickered.
Still, this was not my first storm. I’d seen dozens of others, which for the most part had put me in a state close to euphoria. I liked to feel myself buffeted, lashed by the blowing snow, knowing that the elements I was struggling against were stronger than I was, that they could annihilate me if I defied them, if I ventured beyond the limits that man’s arrogance wanted to flout.
In this place, however, I no longer felt so brave, and the gusts of wind only filled me with the anxiety that precedes an imminent catastrophe. Because that’s what I felt, standing in front of the closed curtains, I felt that a catastrophe was going to descend upon the mountain. I went back to my armchair and served myself another glass of wine. To ward off the ghosts, I declared, holding my glass out in front of me as far as my arm could reach, then I drank a toast to Adrien, the unknown uncle who had drawn me to Cold Mountain.
I slept uneasily, waking every hour to confirm that I’d turned all the locks, to see if the snow had buried my car and if I could spot any signs of life at the foot of the Peak. Just before dawn my fatigue got the better of my trepidation, and I sank into darkness. It was a loud pounding on the door that pulled me from my dreams, a few discrete knocks followed by more powerful, hurried blows, urgent hammerings.
I swiftly pulled on a sweater, looked for my shoes, my glasses, my watch among the objects I’d scattered about, then I ran to the door, whose blinds I half opened, wondering who could come knocking at Adrien’s the morning of a storm.
A man wearing heavy winter clothes, his face reddened by the bitter cold, was standing on the little porch. Behind him everything was white, but of an unstable whiteness, folding in on itself, careening at the invisible mass of the mountain and collapsing on itself, white on white. While I was sleeping the landscape had been transformed, or rather had disappeared. There was no visible landmark, no more standing tree, no more stretch of road. I’d never seen such a sight, never so many sparring winds confronting each other in a howling, sterile struggle.
I hesitated a moment before opening the door. What was this man doing here in the middle of the blizzard? Seeing me hesitate, he mumbled a few inaudible words, and brought his face close to mine on the other side of the glass pane blotched with snow, imploring me to let him in. His lashes were coated with a fine layer of ice melted by the warmth of his tears and then refrozen, leaving only a narrow opening that must have given him a view of a liquid and frosted world. His upper lip was also covered in ice, as were the locks of hair protruding from his tuque and his wool scarf. I couldn’t send him back where he came from, since wherever that was had disappeared along with everything else.
I slid the bolt, not knowing if I was admitting into my house a madman who was after my head. He practically tumbled inside, propelled by the icy air, his legs shaking, his throat rasping as he tried to catch his breath. Fearing that he would keel over onto the carpet, I slipped my hands under his arms and led him to a chair, where he collapsed like a dead weight, almost pulling me down with him. A few tears had melted the tiny beads of ice sealing his lashes, and his body began to tremble violently.
I rushed to the kitchen to make some tea, and I soaked a pile of towels in cold water, brought them into the living room, and ordered the man to get undressed. He laboriously removed his tuque, his coat, his gloves, I helped him to take off his boots, not warm enough for the season, then I rolled his feet in a wet towel, his hands in another, while the kettle whistled and his spasmodic breathing brushed my forehead as I leaned down, rebuking him for being so stupid as to venture out in such a storm. What did you think you were doing, what in God’s name were you doing outside? My questions were purely rhetorical, because I didn’t expect an answer, not for the time being anyway.
I went to fetch the tea, put some logs on the fire, and then sat facing the man, studying his features while I waited for him to recover his speech. His face, curiously, was familiar to me. The more I looked at him, the more I was certain that I’d already met him, perhaps at a party, but I couldn’t place him in any location, ambiance or setting. Then some vague whiffs of fried food came to me, some distant crackling of a radio, and I leaned forward to examine him more closely.
Could it be the man who was at the counter, the disheartened individual who sipped his beer and commented on the weather? I’d only seen his face for a few moments, but he had the same absent eyes, the same deeply-lined forehead. And his hair? Wasn’t his hair also sprinkled with grey, and a bit too long on the back of his neck?
While I was trying to remember, a log split open in the fireplace with a dry crack. The man jumped, swivelling in the direction of the door, and spilled his tea onto the ground, where it mingled with the melted snow around his chair. He mumbled some excuses – the road, the cold, his numb limbs – but I wasn’t fooled. This man was afraid. I dug my nails into the cracked leather of the couch, and wondered if Adrien had a weapon hidden somewhere in the house, a gun I could use to defend myself from whatever had unsettled this man, the stranger I’d invited into my home.
What came after was the stuff of madness, the madness of warring winds, the madness of the man these winds had delivered up to me. Little by little his presence exposed me to my own alienation, to the blend of violence and cruelty within, whose intensity I would gauge in the mirrors Cold Mountain would hold up to me.
I was not mistaken. That place would be my last stopping point, and I would perish there like Adrien, walled in by the silence of stone and wood.
Image © Gabriel Peter
To read this text in French, please visit granta.com/cold-mountain-premieres-esquisses/