Come down from the mountain: A short story

Katherine Blesie/Staff

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“We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it, — if it were not the earth where the same flowers come up again every spring that we used to gather with our tiny fingers as we sat lisping to ourselves on the grass; the same hips and haws on the autumn’s hedgerows; the same redbreasts that we used to call ‘God’s birds,’ because they did no harm to the precious crops. What novelty is worth that sweet monotony where everything is known, and loved because it is known?” – George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

I.

Mom is making me write this letter, which is stupid when you think about it because you can’t read and I don’t remember you, but you know Mom so here we are. I guess I can tell you about what’s been going on, like that Granddad came to live with us last summer, which was a hot, sticky summer that melted down my back and through the ridiculous starchy dress that Mom makes me wear whenever we visit Granddad in Georgia. But anyway, Granddad lives here now and we’ve gotten to know each other and when he’s in a good mood he tells me about things like fishing in the Chattooga River and how he once gave Dizzy Gillespie a light before he played the Cotton Club with the Earl Hines band. When he first moved in, though, it wasn’t all so great and I didn’t like him very much at all.

The morning after Mom had driven him all the way to the apartment from Georgia, he sat right down at the breakfast table with only his underwear on. I told him politely that he wasn’t wearing any pants, and all he did was grunt and light up his big fat cigar and open the newspaper like I was the one messing his life up. I took a deep breath and went back to my phone and after a while, I felt him staring at me, so I lifted my head and stared right back. We stayed like that for some time before I told him it was time to go take the dog for a walk, and then he asked me if I’d ever heard of someone called Hiroo Onoda. I said no, I hadn’t and he said, figures, and went back to his paper. I could tell he wanted to talk about it so I asked him if he would. He asked if I’d ever heard of Lubang Island. I said no, and Granddad said Onoda was sent there by the Japanese during the Second World War and when the Americans came and took the island, he ran off into the mountains. He didn’t believe anybody when they told him that the war had ended and ignored the notes they left him telling him to come down and surrender. He stayed there for years and years and years after the war and he wouldn’t leave until his old commander came to the island and told him he could. I asked how long he was up there exactly and Granddad said 30 years. By that point, Granddad’s voice was low and quiet and it almost sounded like he was about to cry, so I thought I’d better leave him alone and I took the dog out for a walk. 

But like I said, we’re friends now and he teaches me how to do things, and if we’re being perfectly honest, it’s nice to have someone to talk to when Mom’s at the hospital.

Sometimes I go to the hospital and hang around after school, which is fine because some of the older patients sneak me candy and tell me stories that sound made up and sometimes don’t even make any sense, but they’re great to pass time when I’m supposed to be doing my homework. It’s only a bummer when the sales guys come in with their gray suits and their red ties and Mom tells me to stick by her side and keep the chitchat to a minimum. They’re always walking around looking serious and stopping Mom to thank her for her hard work, and she always gets kind of quiet and says thank you and when they’re gone she shakes her head and tells me never to go into marketing. 

It was a nice day, the first one in a while, sort of like all the trees had only just found out it was spring and they were whispering to each other about it and shaking their baby green leaves this way and that and playing catch with the blue jays and robins that were flying between their branches.

I’ve known about all that for a while now. The second time I heard anything about it was one morning last March when Mom didn’t have work and Adam was over and so was Aunt Sarah and we all sat on the couch while Granddad sat at the table smoking his cigar. It was a nice day, the first one in a while, sort of like all the trees had only just found out it was spring and they were whispering to each other about it and shaking their baby green leaves this way and that and playing catch with the blue jays and robins that were flying between their branches. Adam was marching all around the room with his nose in the air reading this brochure that had come in the mail.

“ ‘Cerebrum offers the solution for enhanced living,’ ” he was saying in this pompous voice, wiggling his eyebrows. 

“Oh, stop it,” Mom said, and I giggled. 

“ ‘Affordable —’ ”

 “A mere 1 million dollars!” shouted Aunt Sarah from the couch. 

 “ ‘— efficient —’ ”

“So long as you don’t mind having your brain sliced out!”

“Sarah,” Mom warned, pointing her head toward me in a serious way.

“ ‘— and utterly precise. If you are considering extending your life, consider Cerebrum’s scanning and uploading services.’ ”

“Well, I think it’s bullshit,” Sarah said with her arms crossed, and Mom shot me a look as if to say, “Don’t even think about it.”

“You don’t even know how it works,” Mom said, and then I think she regretted it because she started wringing her hands together like she always does right after she yells at me and right before she apologizes.

“I’m not an idiot, Lotte,” Aunt Sarah said to Mom, but she winked at me when she said it so I don’t think she was really mad. Mom was still very serious, though, wringing her hands every which way and putting on her apologetic face.

“Sorry, Sarah, that’s not what I —”

“The human soul,” Aunt Sarah continued, waving the apology away and pulling a pack of cigarettes from her shirt pocket, “cannot be replicated in a brain scan.”

“Outside, Sarah, please,” Mom said with one of her big heavy sighs, and she went around stacking the dinner plates and piling them in the sink. 

When Adam and Aunt Sarah had left and Granddad was back in his room, Mom sat me down and asked if I knew what that was all about and I said no, but really I did because I’d heard her and Adam talking about it one night when I was sitting on the staircase spying on them. 

The first thing I heard when I was all situated was Adam asking Mom if she didn’t want to do it because she couldn’t bring Granddad. I could tell Mom must have been a little drunk because the kitchen was a mess and she didn’t seem to care at all. Also, she was smiling. 

“Because you can, you know,” Adam was saying. “He just won’t go through right away.”

“It’s not my dad, Adam, it’s the whole world,” Mom said. “It’s where I grew up. Does nothing make you sentimental?” Mom is very sentimental, which I guess you know. She cried like a baby when the postman retired. 

“They have ones that look like here, you know,” Adam said. 

“But it’s not the same,” Mom said.

“It’s better!” Adam shouted and stretched his arms wide. I think he was a little drunk too.

“It’s fake,” Mom said, shaking her head. She got quiet for a while and got that look on her face she sometimes gets when she’s staring at the kitchen window doing the dishes after dinner.

Then she snapped back to it and looked right at Adam. “It doesn’t mean anything.” 

“Does this?” he asked quietly.

“Of course!” 

“Why does it, then?” he asked.

“Because it’s real!” Mom cried, and she tugged at the tanned skin of her forearm like she used to do to me when she didn’t want to lose me crossing the street.

“Because it’s real!” Mom cried, and she tugged at the tanned skin of her forearm like she used to do to me when she didn’t want to lose me crossing the street. “Because we’re born and we cry and we laugh at stupid jokes and we have shitty sex with strangers and we fall in love and eventually, after years and years and years, we die!” Mom was serious now and I was too. If there’s something worse than hearing your mom say “sex,” it’s hearing her admit that she’s had it. But I was too drawn in at this point and so I made the decision to stay in the name of freedom of information and also more generally the pursuit of knowledge. 

“But you can do all that there, minus the bad bits!” Adam was saying. 

“But what are the good bits if we have no bad bits?” Mom said. 

“Good bits,” Adam said and then he’d leaned over and kissed Mom and I’d taken that as my cue to leave. 

So when Mom sat me down and asked me if I knew about it, I said no because I figured if I told her I’d heard her and Adam, she’d be embarrassed that I saw them kissing. And so Mom told me all about it, which was good because there was some stuff I didn’t know, to be honest. It would sound crazy to you, I guess. Although maybe not because we’re learning about Moore’s law in school, and you probably know about Moore’s law too because you were a kid when they made it up or discovered it or did whatever it is they do when they decide that a law is a law. Anyway, the point is Ms. Edwards says that Moore’s law told everyone a long time ago that this kind of thing would be possible, so if you knew about Moore’s law maybe you knew that this might happen. 

If you’re wondering, though, Mom’s not going to do it. She’ll always come back here and so will Granddad and they’ll sit right where they’re sitting now and talk to you and when they run out of things to say to a pile of dirt, they’ll close their eyes and they’ll weep.

Contact Katherine Blesie at [email protected].

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