by Annette Freeman
Wet mist slithered down my neck. I was standing on a wooden lookout platform half-way up the mountain’s flank, clutching the hood of my Gore-Tex jacket close around my face. It didn’t help. Grey mist swirled beyond the first few lichen-patched boulders, and I couldn’t see a thing from this supposed-viewpoint. When I drove past the BP station in the town this morning, the omniscient blue face of Mount Roland had been clear. But the weather had closed in during the hours it’d taken me to drive out past Paradise, to inch the hire car along the fire-trail to the start of the track, and to walk the easy sweep of the mountain’s lower flanks. As I’d struggled up the rock-strewn excuse for a path which had got me this far, the lousy weather had enveloped the place. Now, damp cloud shrouded the mountain’s head, and me too.
Maybe I shouldn’t have come. Back in town, sipping my morning coffee in the café, watching the mountain’s face—it’s visible from everywhere around here—I’d debated with myself. My two sisters, who lived interstate, reckoned this was what Mum wanted, but where were they when the job had to be done? I was the one of us who’d ended up here in Mum’s hometown, getting ready to do what Mum had supposedly wished. I’d been here a week, walking the streets she’d run around when she was a kid, crossing the old park on the path where she’d crossed as a young woman going to work at the local jeweller’s shop, trying to decide if I was up to this job. I could just get in the hire car, drive to the airport, fly home. But I had a second coffee, drove out to Roland, and started climbing.
On the mountain, I perched on the damp wooden bench and looked out into the non-view, munching on an oat bar. In town, I’d been directed to this platform as the favoured place on Roland for ash-scattering. There were two small brass plaques screwed onto posts beside the trail, engraved with names and dates. The little plaques seemed poor memorials compared to proper gravestones. Anyway, didn’t the plaques miss the whole point of ash-scattering—that is, to leave no permanent memorial defacing the earth? And yet, here were these miserable little brass plaques halfway up this miserable mountain.
I wasn’t so sure that Mum wanted to leave no permanent memorial. As I picked bits of oatmeal from between my teeth, I was close to deciding she’d prefer a nice niche in a garden cemetery somewhere. It was bleak up here. A garden would be better. Still, Mum had said she wanted to be scattered from Roland, and neither my sisters nor I were used to ignoring her demands. I was a grown woman, and I didn’t want to be here, yet here I was.
A bloke in the pub last week had asked me why I was in town. As I pushed my schooner around on the wet tabletop, I told him I was checking my family history. It was partly true, I suppose. There was a place I knew, a rough paddock, where there’d once been a split-timber farmhouse, the forest quickly reclaiming it. Driving through places with names like Paradise and Beulah, I’d seen the clear-felled forestry plantations, and stepped on the accelerator. I didn’t tell the bloke in the pub any of that. He wore a checked shirt and had sandy hair. His name was Angus, he said. He worked for Forestry—not a logger, something scientific. I stood up to buy the next round and when I came back to the table I changed the subject. Angus said he liked to go hiking in his spare time and invited me to go with him, but I declined.
Beyond the lookout platform, the mountainside dropped away to a presumably fabulous view. All the way to the coast, people had told me. Today, I could see only an impenetrable greywhite wall. I finished the oat bar and crumpled the wrapper into my backpack, feeling for the plastic box in the bottom of the pack. It wasn’t much bigger than a take-away food container, but much heavier than a serve of butter chicken. The remains of a mother. I looked again at the fog and thought about the breeze. Wind direction—I should take that into consideration. Wouldn’t want Mum blowing back into my face. I knew bugger-all about meteorology, but the wind up here seemed to me to be swirling. Did Mum want to swirl about in this God-forsaken spot? The cliché was apt: God-forsaken. The more I considered it, the more I wondered if this was really what Mum wanted.
I pulled out the plastic box and checked, yet again, that the lid was clipped on tight. Then I shoved it back into my pack. The gothic gloom up here was oppressive. I wasn’t usually so indecisive, but this whole place—the mountain, the town, the foothills and farms, the whole district—seemed to thrum with something I couldn’t catch. Stories I hadn’t been told.
I decided to go down; this was crappy weather for hiking. When I stepped back onto the trail, an icy wind from below turned my face upwards. The narrow path, if you could call it a path, writhed on up the mountain, rocky and uninviting. Yet, weirdly irresistible. I turned upwards, telling myself I’d go just a bit farther.
Wet fog slithered between the boulders and it started to drizzle. The last part of the trail was steep, an uphill slog, the track becoming a muddy creek bed. It’d be a deep, wet creek bed on the way down if the rain continued. As I walked, I kept my head down to watch where I put my boots. I didn’t want to twist an ankle up here, hours from the ute. No other walkers had appeared today. It took another half hour to reach the next junction, and the misty rain never let up.
The forestry bloke in the pub, the clear-felling, the overgrown farmhouse site: I’d described them all in my journal. The grief counsellor, the one my sisters had insisted we all see, had suggested a journal. She said it could be your ‘best friend’, your ‘lifesaver’. She said that in a journal you could ‘speak the truth’. So far, my journal had a lot of entries about the past, and so far it hadn’t provided any solace that I could see. Perhaps if Mum had lived to a good old age, instead of succumbing to cancer when she was still pretty young—perhaps then it would be easier to accept. I wrote that down too.
The trail I was following came up over the saddle with Mount Van Dyke. At the junction, it met another path which came straight up Roland from the north side, the steeper Face Track. Where the two tracks met, a weather-beaten wooden sign pointed towards the last stretch to the top. I looked in that direction, my gloved hands shoved in my pockets. The boulders beside the summit track grew huge, like houses, grey dolomite patchy with green and orange lichen.
I’d come far enough. The mist hadn’t lifted; the wind still gusted. There’d be nothing to see from the top, even if I managed to get there. It’d be a huge effort for nothing. Along the Face Track, I thought I heard a sound, perhaps someone coming up that way. I waited by the junction sign for a few minutes, but I couldn’t be sure. No-one appeared. Should I go up, or not? Maybe Mum wanted to be scattered right from the summit. She’d always been a bit scathing about second-best; always exuded unspoken disappointment if your school grades weren’t absolute top of the class, or you came home with second prize for something. I turned towards the summit, still with the vague feeling that someone was behind me.
The climb rose through the alley of giant boulders. At first the going wasn’t too hard, then I reached the base of a real climb. The path disintegrated into a rock-scramble, tumbled boulders slick from the misty rain. A half-cave, near the base, formed a rocky shelter. I pulled off my pack and huddled in there for a while, considering my options. Rock-scrambling wasn’t my thing. I’d done plenty of hiking but I was no mountain climber. Bugger it, Mum. I can’t get to the top for you. What’s more, I need to pee.
I listened again for anyone coming, heard nothing. Leaving my pack under the sheltering rock overhang, I stepped off the trail and found a small space behind a shoulder-height boulder with room to squat. I pulled down layers of clothing and bent my bottom towards the ground. Hot piss squirted onto the cold heath, leaving a last mark from me on this land.
Someone’s boots scrunched on the trail near the rocky cave. I knew it. My scalp prickled, my senses went into action stations. I couldn’t stop the piss mid-flow, had to finish. Then I’d need to stand and pull up my pants—undies, thermals, trousers, waterproofs. Whoever it was would’ve seen my pack, maybe heard me, or smelled me too. Damn. It wasn’t that I felt embarrassed—hikers are used to people pissing along the trail—but I did feel vulnerable, a tiny bit scared. My bare butt was exposed, the atmosphere was creepy up here, and who had just arrived? I had a sixth sense about that.
Angus stood beside my pack grinning at me when I emerged from behind the rock.
“I thought it was you,” he said, waving a hand at my pack.
I could’ve said the same thing, but I didn’t; I just said “hi.” He asked if I’d been to the summit yet. I looked towards the tumbled boulders.
“No, and I don’t reckon I’ll be going up there. Too much for me. The rocks are slick with the rain.”
Angus walked over and inspected the rock face. There were one or two yellow metal flags attached to the boulders above us, the only indication of any pathway.
“I reckon we could do it,” said Angus. “I’ll give you a hand.”
I sighed. I didn’t want any company to do what I’d come here to do. Still, it was a good offer. Certainly I wouldn’t be able to get up there without some help, so I agreed, though my heart began to pump. We shouldered our packs and I started up first, with Angus close behind. I didn’t even know if he’d done much rock climbing before. Why was I trusting this bloke? I knew nothing about him. We’d only met in the pub a few nights ago. I reached out to grab what purchase I could on the boulders, my limbs splayed out like Spiderman. We made our way up slowly and the drizzle seemed to increase. On the one or two occasions I looked up, I could see nothing above us. The slope remained shrouded in mist.
“How much farther, d’you reckon?” I called to Angus, as I rested for a minute. I braced my legs between two boulders. He stopped too and squinted into the mist.
“Nearly there,” he said.
I looked up, then back at him.
“You have no idea, do you?”
He grinned. “Let’s go. It’s cold,” he said.
We continued on. Ahead, a huge rock blocked the way. I told Angus this was it, I’d turn back, but he gave me a pep talk and lied again about us being close to the top. He climbed above me like a mountain goat and leaned down to haul me up. My fingers were freezing, despite my gloves.
The climb seemed like an hour, though only ten or fifteen minutes elapsed before we reached easier going. The boulders no longer formed a rising slope and the mountaintop levelled out into a small rock-strewn plateau where a trig-point had been set up. The summit. I was panting, and still on high-alert adrenaline levels, but as I looked about a deflating anti-climax came over me. Mist swirled. We could see nothing beyond the rocky plateau we’d reached with so much pointless effort.
“Yay!” said Angus, fatuously. “We made it!”
“Hardly worth it.”
There’d be no point scattering Mum up here. She wouldn’t reach heaven from this place. She’d just turn into wet sludge and be washed down the rocks and she wouldn’t be happy about that. Angus noticed me sniffing and asked, “what’s up?” So I told him, against my better judgement. I told him I had Mum in my backpack but with the weather so crap I didn’t think I should try scattering her, and it was all a depressing disappointment.
“Your mum is in your backpack—!”
I turned to consider the rock scramble down. It looked like it’d be even worse than climbing up.
“Let’s go,” I said.
“What about a selfie? To prove we got here?”
“Oh, piss off.”
I’d turned my back on him and started towards the downwards climb, when quite suddenly the rain seemed to ease. The wind dropped too.
“Thank goodness that breeze has gone down,” I said. “It makes it marginally less miserable up here.”
“Hey, look!” said Angus, with a surprised note in his voice.
I turned to see the sky showing now, to the north. A theatre curtain had lifted from a stage. I walked back to the trig-point and we stood beside it, looking out. We watched as the clouds lifted and light shot through the mist. Below us, the whole land came into view. Sunbeams like theatrical spotlights picked out the folds of hills, the patchwork paddocks, the darker green forest, the yellow clear-felled hectares, and at the far rim, the sea.
I gazed in awe. From here, in this moment we’d been granted, I could see the whole district spread out like a map. I could see the straight roads cutting through the town, and the meandering roads following the hilly topography. I could see the rivers and creeks glittering through it all, the new dirt-bike tracks and the old hiking trails, the settlers’ paths used to visit neighbours, overlapping the paths of the original inhabitants who knew the best ways to get to the coast. Paths and byways crisscrossed the land; ancient deep time fissures were overlaid by scurrying inhabitants making trails. From up here, I could sense the connections. I stood in the epicentre of something.
We scattered Mum out into a light breeze gusting off the mountain and over the plains below, over the land where she’d been born and where her people had made a refuge in a hard-scrabble life, a land watched over by this great rock upon which I now stood. It occurred to me that I should sing one of those old hymns about gathering at the river, or meeting on the other side, and I might’ve done except for Angus being there. Instead, I just said quietly, “There you go, Mum,” and then we turned away to the descent.
Angus said he’d go ahead and he started down, feet first. When his sandy hair disappeared below me, I went back to the trig point and took the other container out of my pack. It was filled with ashes too, a small pile I’d swept up from the fireplace this morning, when they were cold. The night before I’d had a little ceremony, burning my journal. I didn’t want anything more to do with the past, irrecoverable, blurry and full of static. I tipped my story’s ashes after Mum, and watched them dissolve and disappear.
I looked back at the view across the district, at the real-life map of the land. This time, I didn’t see any crisscrossed lines of the past, just one clear road running from Paradise to the future.