Hard Time Moon
We know it tires you. Wrapped in all that red; the red tent and the red sleeping bag and the red warmth; wrapping up the blisters, the damp drizzle that seeped through your rucksack into your clothes; burrowing into dark like a lemming, drifting through sleep not finding it; mapping out your route on the inside of your eyelids, for distraction. Perhaps you are deaf to us: the echoes of generations and civilizations drifting down from the moon, sticking like frost to the outside of your tent. Perhaps we are dead to you: bone splinters trampled into soil by your walking boots, again and again. Know then, that we are more than that. We are the spirits who sift through your waking dreams and thicken the air with our mutterings. We are the pathfinders who cloak ourselves in answers.
Listen. There is a path up the eastern hill, made by herders and hunters throughout the years. It is the least steep of all the paths, you must take it but beware of slipping in the grass, for tomorrow this drizzle will turn into rain. You will reach a rock after the first incline. A stream runs down it from the second incline and spills down onto the ground, where it forms a puddle. If you rest here a reindeer herder will appear. He carries a drinking mug in his hand and fills it from the water cascading over the rock. Ask him for the safest way. He will ask for your map in return, for there is no need for a map on a mountain. You will get it back if you agree to pick a petal from every flower on the mountain, and give him the petals at the end of your journey. You will accept. The herder will point you the safest way: due northwest along the second and third incline. Trust the arctic heathers; the flowers will bend their heads to the wind in the safe direction. Follow the heather to the fourth incline, where the grass shifts to stone. You will see a flat stone half way up the incline. If you rest here a hunter will appear. He carries a dead ptarmigan strapped over his back. Ask him for the safest way. He will ask for your compass in return, for there is no need for a compass on a mountain. You will get it back if you agree to count the stones in every cairn of the mountain and tell him the number at your journey’s end. You will accept. The hunter will point you the safest way: eastnortheast along the fourth and fifth incline, then across a snowfield. Trust the cairns, they will guide you past the loose stones and the sinkholes under the snow. You will see a field of stone beyond the snow. If you rest here, a wise man will appear beside you. Ask him for the safest way. He will ask for your watch in return, for there is no need for a watch on a mountain, even without the sun. You will accept, and the wise man will tell you that the safest way is determined by your eyes. Flies will spurt out of his mouth as he speaks, and when they are dispersed he will be gone. Now you must turn your whole being into an eye. See the mountain lift the mist over its head and give you itself, in all its pathways.
You reach the summit. There is a cairn on the western side, which juts out over the cliff and points towards the Bluehammer mountains. It is two metres tall and one and a half meters wide. A banner in the Sami colours, red, blue, yellow, white, is wrapped around it. Take a rest here. Perhaps you will wait for the men to come. We know your people: you map endings into summits, always forgetting that where there is a way up, there is a way down. You will wait for the men and curse their lateness, measure the sun’s progress through the sky and count the inches your shadow grows, until you lose patience, throw the petals to the ground and kick the cairn, dislodging a few stones. You stomp down the hill, thinking of the red you will wrap around you at the bottom, by that river down there, a silver lining cutting the wood in half - until another red, sharp like reindeer blood, slices your red thoughts to bits. You have slid on a rock and hurt your foot. You cannot put your weight on it. You limp across the stones, skirt across the snowfields. You follow the reindeer. The bulls have shed their antlers on the rocks and you tie these together to form a stick. You make it down to the river. Three men sit on the shore.
“Show me the petals,” the herder will say.
“Tell me the number of stones,” the hunter will say.
The wise man will say nothing.
You will say: “I lost the petals and forgot to count the stones, but I have this stick made of antlers.”
The wise man will stand up. You see now that he has a limp. He will take the stick and put his weight on it. “This stick is good for walking. You have passed the test.”
“But I lost the petals and the stones.”
“We knew you would. We knew you would forget about the mountain and think only of sleeping in your camp at night. We knew you would fall, and be forced to work with nature to find a solution. You have learnt your lesson.”
The men will hold out their hands, and present you the map, the compass, and the watch. They will laugh. Flies will spill out of their mouths as their contours blur. Three will become one; one will become none.
Josephine was a runner-up in the Wild Words Summer Solstice Competition 2018. Below she describes her creative process…
The first draft of ‘Hard Time Moon’ was originally the product of a writing exercise in class during my MA in Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham. We were studying narrative sequences of prose proems, and had just been reading John Ash ‘The Road to Ogalma’ from his collection The Branching Stairs. Our teacher gave us ten minutes to write something inspired by the piece, within the themes of navigation, discovery, and the idea of the quest.
I jotted down the first thing that came to mind. A wanderer struggling to find a way up a mountain, asking the locals for help. As my assessment for that module, I’d chosen to write a sequence of walking-themed poems and prose poems titled ‘Footprint’, so I was using the writing prompts in class to get ideas for new poems and prose poems for the collection.
As I started proper work on the piece, it became evident that it needed to end with a moral message. Like in a fable, the protagonist had to be taught a lesson. A keen hiker myself, I felt it necessary to convey a message of respecting and getting to know nature. Too many times out on the trail I’d seen rubbish strewn across moors and mountainsides, or people marching from hut to hut in two days without getting to know the landscape. Too often I’d heard on the news about people attempting to “conquer” a mountain unprepared, and being picked up by mountain rescue. My piece, then under the working title ‘The Road to Mount Helags’, would be my way of asking people to treat nature with respect.
In order to convey this message, I made the mountain as a character increasingly alive throughout the drafts. The tone became more ambiguous, conveying the idea that nature to a certain extent will always remain unknowable to us. Whenever we venture into the wild, we are nature’s guests, there at her mercy. We do not “conquer’ mountains, but the mountain allows us to reach the summit. The Sami and the obscure tasks they give the wanderer can be interpreted as manifestations of the mountain’s natural and spiritual power; ways of showing that the wanderer is there only on the mountain’s terms.
I am delighted and grateful to Wild Words for this opportunity to share my piece with a wider audience.