by Dane Elcar
The boy massages the brush into the soap cup, building the lather white and thick, and spilling over the rim onto his thumb. The lather is warm and he can just feel it.
He sets the cup on the edge of the iron stove, the brush resting in the cup. He opens the razor carefully, with his fingers gently gripping the wood handle. Thumbing the cold steel the way he wants it, he presses the blade to the leather strop and runs it up. Then, turning it on its spine, he drags the blade back down towards him. He does this, up and down, counting in his head.
When he is done, he pinches a yellow rag from the hot pot of water on the stove and wrings the water from it, hot droplets falling to the wood floor, sinking through the cracks to the dirt below.
The old hero sits on a stool near the black iron stove. He takes the steaming rag from the boy with his bent hands, gripping loosely with his dark-blue finger tips. He brings the rag to his face, letting it flatten over his beard of white stubble, white loose flesh, his body shaking, disturbing the rhythm of the steam as it floats up and dissipates.
The boy of seventeen years takes up the cup and brush and when the hero removes the yellow rag, he brushes on the thick lather, gently covering the old beard. When it is all covered, the boy fingers the flesh taut, placing the blade at an angle and gliding down, slowly and carefully, bringing the white lather and the hair up together.
Later, the hero sits in his chair by the window. Light comes through the window and hits his bald pate, the skull flat in the back and the forehead large and round with dark spots. He has an old bent nose with deep pots, and blue at the end — suiting the round cheeks that have lost the muscle underneath. There are white lines, thick, that vein out and travel from his ears and from his long, curled-up eyebrows, and then through the yellow-white hair that horseshoes around his head — scars from the great bear that almost got him.
“Can you tell me one of your stories?” the boy asks.
This hero’s body is what is left of a strong body, large and round and used up.
“Tonight,” he says.
When he talks his eyes bulge out with his lips, straining with the words.
“You want me to tell you what everything looks like?”
The old hero doesn’t answer. He closes the thin flesh over his almost-blind eyes, and then he sleeps.
The boy leaves the cabin, the cabin that is broken and smoked-black. The steel chimney pokes up from the roof, smoke spiraling out over the cabin and up into the air. The cabin is close to the mountain and the boy looks at the mountain, looks at the steep trails leading up to the top, following them with his eyes.
Across the river, on the other side, young Mexican children, just younger than he is, wheel wood carts loaded with horse manure. They wheel these carts to a large pile set aflame with white smoke, the small bodies shoveling in the manure. Some children just watch, wading off in the mud of the river.
The boy walks on the planks laid down on top of the rocks. He walks on the planks across the low river, looking down into the water, looking at the green weeds moving back and forth and all the colors of the rocks underneath, bugs flying around and landing on the still parts. The mud-brick homes of the Mexicans run down along this river. Dark smoke clouds the sky, rising up from the clay ovens they share.
It is early still, but dry and hot with the Satanás winds. Dirt rises up and covers his pant legs as he walks onto Mupu Road. The boy is old enough to know not to look at some men. He knows not to look at the men outside the saloons, and he knows not to look at the trapper men on horseback, dark-faced and dressed in the furs of the animals they kill.
The boy passes the oilmen resting on their wagons outside the hardware store, large and covered in black and the dust sticks to the black — all of them are like this. He passes the laundry owned by a Chinese man, whose wife was sent for from across the Pacific and who stays in the room above the shop, wearing silk and combing her hair.
Some folks have a late start gathering outside the train depot, loading their wagons for the Sunday triangle. They steer the two-horse wagons up Sulphur Mountain Pass and then down into Ojai for mid-day activities, then on to the thin and rocky trail leading to the ocean of San Buenaventura, and then back again, following the river.
At noon the three families meet at the edge of the orchard where loose-hanging lemons fall with the wind gusts. They sit around a polished wood table, eating and talking, and they finish this picnic, wiping their mouths of sheep-butter sandwiches and stirring spoonfuls of sugar into cups of dark tea, turning their backs to the wind. The women wear their high-neck summer dresses and the men wear black breeches with high boots, watch chains hanging from their waistcoat pockets and hats level on their heads.
The boy and girl leave the party, cupping a hand over their teacups, covering them from dust, pinching onto the saucers with the other. They walk, careful in their steps, to the edge of this property, keeping in view of the families. They come to a new fence separating the orchards from the sheep pasture. The boy rests his tea on a fence post and looks at the sheep that stand dead still, close together, dust moving around them.
“You know the story of the face in the mountain?” the girl asks, looking past the sheep and past the river. “If you look at the mountain where it curves near there, you can see a woman’s face. She’s looking up. Rest of the mountain’s supposed to be her long, flowing hair.”
The boy looks. He looks at the mountain and he climbs up onto the fence, sitting, perched at the top, the tall grass on the other side moving around his boots. The girl sips her tea and then moves closer to the boy.
“Don’t you see it?”
He doesn’t answer.
“My father told me the story. About an Indian girl who couldn’t marry the man she wanted. He was from another group of Indians. This Indian girl was so upset she walked all the way up to the top of that mountain and gave herself to it.”
She sips her dark tea and the wind picks up and moves, and they turn their faces away from it.
“I like looking at her face,” she says. “Always looking up like that. I wonder what things look like from up there. What you can see. California is the end of the world, you know. So many folks in history been trying to go west. And this is it. No place else to go but up.”
They both look at the mountain, not saying anything for a while.
“I don’t see the face,” the boy says.
She helps him to find it.
In the late afternoon, after Bible and supper, the boy’s mother packs a basket of food. She wraps cooked meat and onions in paper, tying it closed with a cotton string and then covering it again in cloth. As is her custom, she puts a Bible in the basket, hidden under the food, hoping that it will not come back.
She tells the boy to be careful and then he leaves the house, hopping off the wood porch, swinging the basket of food on his fingertips and walking down the dirt path with thick lemon trees on either side of him. The boy looks down each row of trees as he passes by, the light low and orange, each tree in motion with the wind. He walks towards the center of the city, houses spread out in the valley with growth between, smoke rising up from the chimneys.
On Mupu Road everything slows for the night. He walks down this road and then over the planks, crossing the river, keeping his balance. From here he can see the cabin and he can see that the steel chimney is without smoke.
Inside, the old hero is still in his chair, low light from the window illuminating the bent figure. The boy is silent as he walks to the table and sets the food out, carefully unwrapping the meat and onions, splitting the hard roll of bread with his hands, the crumbs falling onto the table and onto the floor.
Then he walks over next to the old hero and he sits on the floor, bringing his knees in close, and he feels like he should cry but he doesn’t. He sits here watching and it becomes night and he rises and finds a candle. He brings the flickering lit candle close, looking at the old face in the moving light, looking at the changes in it.
The boy stays until he knows that he must go back. He leaves the food on the table, uneaten, and he blows out the candle, the room now completely black.
Outside, the boy looks at the dark cabin here by the mountain, holding the empty basket with the Bible. Hot winds scream, picking up things and moving things. The cabin is just still and useless now. The boy bends and picks up a stone and he throws the stone at the cabin. He picks up another and he throws that too, the sound echoing out into the valley and then gone.
The boy walks down and over the river and onto Mupu Road. On this road he can see the moving illumination from the lamps men hold. Men are known in the dark by the lamps they hold, and in this darkness the boy is not known. He walks this road in the dark and he decides that he will not tell of the old hero in the cabin.
After prayers, when the boy is in bed and his brothers asleep, that is when he can think. He can hear the winds over the orchards and the rocking of the tall sycamore trees. Here in bed he thinks of the old hero, alone, sitting in his chair. He can see the still face in the candlelight, his eyes closed, lips flat, succumbing to gravity, yellow-white hands resting on his lap.
On this night the boy lifts the thin flesh over the old hero’s eyes, and he moves the hero. He stands up from the chair, standing in his old clothes, clothes that are meant for him — the coat of bear fur stretching past his knees, his hat of both beaver and buffalo skin. The boots are sewed roughly, in his own fashion, with deer straps and otter hide. The thick leather belt around his waist is weighted down by a knife of whale-bone handle and a pistol. A canteen of powder, strapped around his shoulder, hangs at his side.
The boy can see this old hero walk through the dark cabin, and he can hear the sound of the wind, and then he can hear the rumble, a rumble that comes from the mountain and moves through and around everything. Outside, a horse waits with saddle and bit. The hero knows this horse, an old friend, large and black with scars of white fur above the hooves, where the old hero bled him once a year for good health.
The strange rumble comes like thunder, pushing out over the city. The old hero touches the horse, running his hand down its long neck, and then, finding the saddle, he mounts the horse and they become confident. They ride in the dark to the trail that will lead them to the mountain, the rumble now pulling at the hero.
The boy knows that the journey must be hard, and as they move up the mountain the noise becomes louder and clouds come with flashes of light, light that strikes down close, the horse rearing up, then steadying.
“Easy, old friend,” the boy thinks.
With the rain, they move slowly up the mountain, through the brush and the mud, water flowing and pulling at the thin legs of the horse. Cold rain sinks in and chills the old hero, his bent hands numb, and just holding onto the reins. Lightning explodes down, so bright they cannot see when it is dark again.
“Easy, old friend,” the old hero says.
The trail becomes steep, mud moving under them. The horse slips into the mud, whole body smashed down, the horse wailing out and the old hero thrown into the brush, branches cutting into his face and eyes, the horse wailing and trying to stand but unable to.
The hero crawls through the sloping mud and feels with his frozen, bent hands, reaching out into darkness. He finds the horse, breathing, deep in mud, pushing out breaths from his nostrils, mud covering his body. The old hero stands, leaning into the mountain. He takes hold of the bit and he pulls and pulls and pulls, and the horse rises up, slowly, one leg at a time.
Steadying his stance, the hero then lifts the leather over the head of the horse, bending down the wet ears, the bit dropping from the mouth, covered in spit and foam. The hero takes his knife from his belt and cuts the girth of the saddle, letting it fall.
“You did me well, old friend,” he says.
He touches his friend’s large jaw, running his fingers over the fur, down his snout. The old hero leaves the horse standing in the mud. The horse does not turn back, but becomes part of the mountain here.
The old hero holds out his hands as guides and walks in the dark, soaked and cold, continuing up the mountain alone. He must fall on this journey in the dark many times. He falls in the mud, pushing, splitting his cold hands on sharp things, his knees coming down hard. Fighting into the sinking mud, pushing against his weight, pushing against all that we know, he rises and walks, hands out, the rumble growing louder. Thunder that comes down and moves the mountain and moves through the old hero and through the mud and water and through his old blood, pulling him, calling to him.
On this night the boy knows that the old hero is not in his cabin, with the rumble of the winds moving outside, and his young brothers asleep here with their soft breathing. Tonight the boy can see that he is on the mountain, a hero, old and used up, pushing through the mud with a broken body, with no eyes to see — a hero fighting for a hero’s death.
When he walks to the cabin in the morning with the basket of food, the old hero will not be there. He will not be in the chair by the window, and only the boy will truly know where he is. And tonight the boy clenches his teeth down hard and cries for the old hero, silently, so he does not wake his brothers.
At the top of the mountain it is no longer night and the clouds are gone. The ocean is there in the distance, a light blue touching dark blue. The old hero, broken and wet, steps the last step that he will ever step.
From here, he can see everything.