Some believe the best times were the Old Times, at least in the Old Country. Everything matched, then and there; no one felt out of place.
The land then had more animals than people. Spirits, too, of living trees and rivers and of creatures who had become immortal through how they’d lived, as reward or sometimes suffering as punishment.
There were wolves, wildcats and hunting humans. Nevertheless, a certain red stag was able to live the life of Riley. He was fast, powerful and charming, and knew his way around enough to both lead as needed and wander as desired.
The woods between communities were more inviting than forbidding to him. The thicker and stranger the better. He would steal time to explore alone. It was odd, he understood, that this felt important, improved his mood. He couldn’t explain its practical function.
What was most inviting, more than any woods, had always been the mountain. The most impractical—if not impossible–destination of all. A red sun like a totem of himself crossed it every night. A floating leap.
The mountain loomed in the way his longing loomed–the way his future, the spirit of adventure, the hope to mean something loomed. It was something you saw so much you forgot to think about it, until suddenly it was all you could think about. The mountain became a feeling that resided outside of his body, pulling all his other feelings to itself. Maybe this had more to do with the stag than the mountain, maybe not. The point is that it grew hard to tell.
He had plenty of friends and plenty to do. Once, an arrow had pierced a tree above his neck as he bent for no special reason, just to bend. He had plenty of reasons to go and plenty to stay. He was not young, had treated a good bride reasonably well, but not saved her from the hunter that got her. She’d given him a red son and daughter who by now could handle themselves, more or less.
He trained privately but intensely. To his friends, when the time came, he only implied his good-byes. His children he found easily and let them know the whole plan. They doubted but wished him well. They didn’t honor him ceremonially or anything. No gifts exchanged hooves.
So then off went the greatest red stag of the valley so vast it had had no name but “The Land” or “The Country.” Up and over the mountain he was headed. Because it was there. To get to the other side. There had to be life on the other side. Did it mirror this? Or was it, in a way he couldn’t yet fathom, different?
The very idea of this fathoming had made his muscles twitch in his sleep for so long. Now, on a spring morning, the frost in the first light loosening into dew, he climbed the journey’s first hill. From atop it, the shadow of his wide antlers stretched to the mountain itself—seeming to feed the mountain as roots. The sun had given him a head start.
He made good time by considering his good-byes all said, his extended dependents now independent of him. Across a huge area he knew every shortcut, wild lettuce patch and claimable shelter. The sun leapt, gliding, over him, glowed red as it touched whatever was on the other side of the mountain. The mountain neither larger nor smaller than it had ever been.
The moon, that first night, rose from the middle of the sky, out of a hole. Three bright stars gave the same message as the mountain: none but Here we are. You can look away, but that won’t change that. Try it and see.
When he slept, he dreamed of the mountain close up. When he woke, the ground was hard, the light soft. He smelled the wolf or wolves, but couldn’t tell from where. The birds were silent; a twig snapped. He broke mountainward, would not be chased home. It was two of them, male and female, shiny-coated and thin. They were fast and worked together, but the great red stag was faster and smarter.
In a week, he crossed the river that marked the beginning of the plains. There was a colony of deer there that he visited to renew the social and species-specific parts of himself. He mixed in, laughed, butted heads, turned on the charm, and culled a doe a night before she or anyone else knew she was entering heat. Around the others, he’d kept his dream of crossing up and over the mountain to himself, but to her in the late middle of the night he implied it, and right away she understood. The next morning he left them all, her warnings ringing in his ears.
The main trail to the mountain went directly. In the name of discretion, he wove switchbacks along it, traveled increasingly at night. Owls, skunks, cats, mice, bats and bear knew, as he did, the way the moon crossed one by one over the three big stars, carefully marking night’s phases. He traveled by day, too. In some ways, how crowded the land was by day made it feel almost safer.
He crossed the farthest point he’d ever been without hesitating. In this he was like the sun or moon, but also braver. They knew their routes by heart.
At the far side of the plain came another river. He tried to cross it, was a strong and practiced swimmer, but it swept him not just sideways but under, viciously. There was a deadly magic to it, overseen by vultures. He tried his own magic and will, but was squeezed into nothingness. A fool. Tiny, a drop of water himself.
It took pity only after he surrendered. He clambered into the far-side shallows and bled from a haunch onto smooth, bleached boulders, the air in his lungs sharp and hot, somehow not his own. Bear food flopped at his ankles: a huge trout, half in and half out of his shadow. It twitched and vanished. He could see his own eyes. Reflected here, in a glass toenail of the mountain he’d always known by its shape. The very idea of its nature filled him anew. It rose monolithically. The woods rattled. The red stag shot into them just up the bank.
He pulled with his forelegs, sprang off his hindlegs. He liked the tumbling-forward sensation, the ever-balancing lean, of uphill travel. Summer was here, the woods parched and alert. Everywhere on him burned; he was a streak of fire across the darkness. The way the mountain was the mountain and the stars were the stars, he was the flare splitting night open so that it glowed behind him, a wound gradually closing.
The sun peered up at him from below and behind, rose to look him in the asshole, the back of the head, and vaulted over him, becoming his totem just as it saw what he could not yet see.
When he could see it, too, would he be able to glide, too, across that river of air?
Look up for mountain lions, down for snakes. He got the timing backwards, saw the flashes of action only after he felt them. He dropped and rolled, swung his hooves and antlers. The cat had come first, landing on him almost too late, at his haunches. Blood the color of the stag’s hide had instantly slickened his left leg in particular, and now spread everywhere as he tumbled and kicked, he and the predator half his size in a burning, bucking, dirty tangle. They both rose and struck. The stag dizzied the cat and stomped him good, then left a long blood trail to the nearest stream, where a green snake bit him and wolves sniffed him out. It was a rough afternoon and night that turned into a rough moon cycle of recuperation.
He emptied with the moon and filled with it. Eventually, everything hurt but not like it had, and worked, though not all like it had, so he moved on. His antlers were stone hands, lashing aside the brambles, the nettles, the briars, branches and vines.
Then, one early autumn night when the moon was at the second star, he crossed the treeline and looked down. The general line he’d taken upwards through the labyrinth of dead-ending ridges and seams looked elegant. In the converse of how he’d traveled the plains, he’d cut directly through a series of switchbacking main trails.
Of course, beyond his recent route was the whole country. This was a sight: picture it. The Old Country in Olden Times. A green fertile sea of vast and windy magic as well as every kind of small peculiarity he’d ever known. Hidden in the view were mushrooms, colored bugs, berries, edible flowers…
Above, the ground was rocky. Boulder forests and stone meadows were linked by corridors that seemed to be in the midst of shifting or crumbling. There was less food, water, shelter. More wind. Winds: breaths and voices petty and epic, competing and ceaseless. His shadow now distinctly a companion: sort of incarnated. Looking away wouldn’t change that.
That very first night above the treeline, a sky wind drove clouds against the mountain peak until they had to wring their water out. More came, until there was no room left, which did not stop more from crowding in, lower and lower until upon him, heavy and wild as spooked elephants. The sky was wrathful then—maybe at him personally. It whipped this way on trampling hooves, exploded in his ears and under his feet. The stag found himself backed against the mountain in a real fight. This went on and on. The light flashes as blinding as the darkness. Moving as dangerous as not moving. He stood braced between two boulders until his legs buckled. Summer tempests had always just excited him. But exhaustion in this brought fear. It was impossible to tell when day arrived; nothing changed. Mud, flooding, wash-off. The whole sculpted face of the mountain in flux.
It passed. Vultures circled and dipped. He regained the ground he’d lost, walked in what felt like a different body, came to snow. No footprints at all. Beneath it, some grass, tough as corn husks. He was so hungry…
Slippery now, and less than fun. He missed his children. He missed his dead wife. His belly ached with emptiness. His spirit, too. Even the air: it was hard to breathe here. And to keep his legs moving.
He talked to spirits that weren’t there, including those of his parents. Blowing through the stones, he heard spirits who were there, but he was afraid of those.
It all became too long and too painful. Anger at his current regret over his direction propelled him onward. He was down to a final direction, and that was up. He was afraid something was following him, but lonely enough that the fear might have been wishful. He was not past injury or sickness either. He quenched his thirst by chewing snow, and though his coat thickened, he could not stop shivering. Each time he let himself sleep, it was because he couldn’t last awake longer, couldn’t even stand for the dizziness, and as he let himself go, he feared and also hoped a little that he would never reawaken.
He came to the highest and largest skeleton he had seen yet. It was in the best shelter he’d seen in three days. It was a stag, twelve points on the antlers like his own. He hurried on, walked through the night. The three great stars shone through a gauze of mist. The moon traversed them—with what effort? There was a way of squinting and seeing the whole world softly. There was a similar way of pretending to be warm and to have eaten. At first light, he closed his eyes where he lay, on snow in the open.
He dreamed of the skeleton, but it was not a dream. It was a visitation. This happened to be still within the reception area of the dead stag’s immortal spirit. This stag was brown-furred. You would think he’d have wanted to talk, but the understanding he conveyed was wordless. It was not regretful but was tragic, and felt like an arrow through the red stag’s heart. Tears just sprang out both of their eyes. Spirit tears, which cast no shadows, and water tears. Wind came towards and away from them like the thinnest of breaths.
After this, the spirit of the brown stag conveyed other silent understandings, but all on the level of small talk. He was from the red stag’s county, down in the north-eastward side of the valley. He’d lived in his body a hundred or perhaps two hundred years earlier. (It was impossible for him to tell time here, but he had ways of estimating, he conveyed.) They did not share any blood unless you went back to the times before history.
The times before history, thought the red stag, and for a moment wished he was there. Some, including his own mother, believed that those were the best times of all. Before there was history, there was nothing to compare the times to—which by definition made existence a state of grace. Made life an immortal single moment of natural essence, free of self-consciousness, in those forests where, both of his parents insisted, the Creator had walked and let Himself be seen.
The red stag awoke and forged onward. The top of the mountain grew farther away the closer he got, until at dusk on an eternal day, the same day and every day and the last day all at once, end-to-end and mixed together, he rose up one long gritty stone scramble and found himself there. On a vanishing plain that you could walk to the end of.
His step was extra-physical, his muscles carbonated with feeling themselves in the roaring wind.
And then he was not walking but standing: anchored, head high, burned like a lightning strike onto the shape of the far wall of the world he’d known, and the near wall of the world he’d blindly anticipated. A broad-shouldered, wide-antlered silhouette.
The shape, came the thought, of things to come.
And from his view: Yes. First: Well, yes. Before him spread a country, or another part of his country, maybe as vast as his own. Maybe vaster. Maybe as fertile, as green (though reddish-gray now with dusk) and rolling, as thickly wooded, as full of signs of organizing civilization and wild promise. Maybe more so—or not quite so. Different in configuration and the details of its promises, certainly, but plainly kindred. And still distant: it spread so far below him that his belly soared with the sensation of merely witnessing it.
The sun, red as himself, was just disappearing now behind a new horizon, a huge but rather lopsided range of mountains, the largest of which was off to the right, the north. It sort of reoriented you.
So, yes, he saw, was seeing, that first and biggest view he’d so long awaited. The view he would, for his nearly infinite life, store within himself, spread all the way across a nearly bottomless gratitude.
The tragedy, though, won the day. It was this: below him, in every way forwards, were sheer cliffs. There was no getting down on this side at all, at all. The mountain was, it turned out, a great ramp to one hellish drop-off. You soaked in the view and your place in it—for an hour, or a frozen, fasting, timeless month. But sooner or later—unless, like the sun, you could leap and glide on the sky as if swimming—there would be nothing to do but wind back down the way you came.
Fuck, thought the great red stag, standing there beneath his three winking stars, the measuring moon. It would have been so much easier to just go around.