Pine for Clarity
Blackness is all I could see. I felt scared, and groggy, and a thought looped in my mind: is this Death? Is this Death? Is this Death? Then, through the darkness reached a hand. The appendage was blurred, as if underwater, and it was ever so pale against the dark. A faint voice could be heard, but the words were unrecognizable. I wanted to ask what he said, but I could not turn my own sounds into words either. Who could stay under so long? Suddenly, the hand broke the surface of the dark water, shining like a pearl. It was the sole source of light in my vision, completely entrancing me with its pale glow. I wanted to reach out and touch the luminous hand--perhaps it could fill me with light too. “Are you okay?” the voice spoke clearly this time as the hand drew so near I could see nothing but the bright light.
I sat up and looked around. I was on the edge of a jagged cliff, with fog lying still as death perhaps fifty feet below, and low-hanging clouds above completely shielding me from the horizon and what I’m sure would be a blue sky, for it was too grey to be night. Chris, looking down at my sleepy and confused form, repeated his question: “Are you okay? You just toppled right over; is it that low blood pressure thing again?” “Yeah, I’m fine. I think I stood up too quickly,” I replied. I craned my neck to look behind me and sure enough, just a few steps back was the log I had been sitting on, with its sister pine tree--still alive and well--towering courageously over her fallen brother. The log had been struck by lightning, perhaps as recently as last night’s storm, and must have fallen with a deafening crack, were anyone to have heard it. “Let’s go back to camp,” said Chris. “If you’re blacking out, I don’t want to leave you up here.” I stood without protest, but didn’t follow him. Instead, I stepped closer to the ledge and sat back down on the log. I picked up one of the charred pine cones. It was small and round like an apple, instead of cone-shaped like its name would imply. I examined the criss-crossing burn marks that the lightning had branded on the side. Then, my eyes fell over the ledge and to the area below. Some campers down there wandered between their bright neon tents and a small creek that led to Lake Superior. They carried water and washed their hands, like the natives from hundreds of years ago: same river, different water. Birds--probably pigeons, but it was too far to be sure--fluttered and lingered around the campsite, particularly around the cooking fire, and were methodically shooed away by the person tending the flames. They must be novices, I thought, or else they would know that a roaring campfire won’t cook food, only burn it. I told this to Chris, and he chuckled, but the happy expression was quickly replaced by a frown. “You know, you’re taking a pretty big leap of faith, sitting so close to the edge and falling down everywhere,” he said in his best attempt at a laid-back voice. What a mom. I scoffed. “Please, this is no leap of faith. I’m plenty far from the edge. Look, that other tree’s way closer, and I could be leaning against that or something.” I tried reassuring him, but his brows stayed furrowed and his forehead creased. I tried again: “Hey, you know what would happen if I took a leap of faith, Chris? Watch: ‘Leap!’” I lobbed the pinecone over the edge and the two of us watched it fall through the fog and into the very creek the people upstream were using. Chris did not look impressed. “Why’d you do that? You can’t drop things from so high. It could hurt someone!” he said. I cringed as I realized my mistake. “I’m sorry; I wasn’t thinking.” I said, “But there’s no way anybody’s down there, at least.”
“You’re paying for the lawsuit if you’ve hit anybody,” he grumbled.
A light drizzle had begun to chill my bare face, arms, and feet. It was weightless like mist, but it got me good and frozen anyway.
“Let’s go,” said Chris, nearly pleading by now, “It’s cold up here.” This time I listened, and together we hiked back down to our camp, which was at a more habitable altitude. The rain began to pour, and we hastily sought shelter in the tent. It was fairly spacious. The small amount of outside light filtered through the colorful nylon like stained glass, with the leaves’ moving shadows giving life and texture. When I laid down the archways rose impressively over me, making the tent feel more powerful than flimsy poles and nylon. After reading by the bright, heavy-duty camping flashlight we eventually fell asleep to the tapping of raindrops, washing our tent of any remaining worry about pine cones and steep ledges and lawsuits and low blood pressure.
That’s why I think it must have been the silence that woke me. I don’t remember exactly what I was dreaming, but I woke up with a feeling that I was missing something, so I turned on the flashlight to look around. As usual, it's beam was nearly blinding, and I winced as I looked over to Chris, hoping the brightness didn’t wake him. Fortunately, he was a deeper sleeper than me and seemed completely undisturbed. As I shined the light around the tent, a small, muffled cooing and fluttering in the silence caught my attention. I unzipped the tent door and poked my head out. I looked around, up, and then looked down, and quickly jumped back with a start. There, right before the door, was the dim outline of a bird. I tried to shoo it away, but I wasn’t going to make contact (it could have germs) and the creature seemed to know that because it stayed put just outside the tent. It had something in its mouth--its outline was distorted around its head. What could a bird be carrying at this time of night? I brought around the flashlight, faintly hoping that the brightness would scare it away. As the light fell upon the strange little bird-- a pigeon-- it squinted, evidently unhappy about the brightness. In its mouth was a pine cone, with charred burn marks criss-crossing on one side. I recognized it immediately; there was no mistaking it: it was the one I threw from before, and here it was now. I sat there in shock, staring at this blinking pigeon who had somehow brought me my discarded pinecone like a messenger bird with valuable information.
The bird seemed tired of being in the spotlight, and it fluttered perhaps five feet away from the tent and stood on the trail. Come, it seemed to say, I can show you. I climbed out of the tent, trying to be silent for Chris, and the pigeon set off down the trail on foot. I don’t habitually chase pinecone-wielding pigeons during the ungodly hours of who-knows-when, and the soft warmth of my sleeping bag, lying open and hollow, lulled me back into a sleepy state. I reached for the tent flap, and the pigeon cooed in the dark. My eyes snapped back to the shadows, wide awake once again. I was scared-- standing by my safe and warm tent was one thing, but if I was to just walk away I could easily get lost. It was cold out, and the pigeon had almost disappeared, almost escaped my light’s range. The pinecone seemed, from this angle, to be the head of the pigeon, and it was significantly larger than its natural skull. The larger head made the bird look more brainy than your average pigeon, and when it turned again the eyes shone with a little more intelligence than I would have felt comfortable ignoring, were I to shoo it away and fall back asleep. Something else was out in the dark woods; I had to go in order to know. The heat of my own burning curiosity outdid the promised warmth of the tent, and so I followed the bird into the night. But the light was still clutched tight in my right hand.
The pigeon and I walked like this for some time. The pinecone in its mouth wobbled as its funny little head bobbed with each step, and several times I tried to shine the light on it to get a better look at the pinecone--I really wanted to make sure I wasn’t imagining things. However, each attempt proved futile, for the bird was clearly bothered by my light, and fluttered away whenever I shined it on him.
I watched the narrow beam sway side to side across the trail as I swung my arms in sync with my steps. It was very bright, but narrow, and focused straight ahead. I swatted at the bugs that were drawn to it. The wrath of my illuminated right hand crushed them against the light by which they were so hypnotized, and the intense heat burned my skin. After realizing the cruel fate I had forced on these insects, I began simply to shoo them away. The light shone brightly against my pale hand, making it glow in an eerily familiar fashion. I shut off the light, for I no longer drew comfort from it.
We soon emerged from the forest much higher in the sky than we were before. The air was thinner. I had long since turned off the flashlight, so my eyes were used to the dark. I saw the dark silhouette of a tree, and just beyond it, the ground seemed to end. We were at the cliff again, and I back to uncertainty. The bird stared at me. I shook, perhaps from the cold but more likely from how much this little pigeon unnerved me. It brought me here of all places, and that pinecone of all things. Could this have been a coincidence? An accident? My goddamned skepticism kept me on the fence, teetering over the edge. I wanted to make the leap into the smooth, clean water, but something was wrong. This whole situation seemed messy--so messy, now that I paused to take a look at it. The water had become so murky it was mud, and painted the white dove brown.
I sighed in acceptance: I couldn’t believe everything I had been seeing. The light slowly slipped from my now loose grasp and landed with a worrying crunch on the ground. So much for that lifelong-plus guarantee, I thought numbly as I made my way to the pinetree.
Other than the light misting, the jutting ledge seemed to have been missed by the downpour earlier. The bare rock here was not slippery, unlike the soft forest floor below; it, what the forces of nature could not erode away, held me up with power and certainty. I placed my hand on the tree and looked down at the world. Now, the climate was unrecognizable. The air was clean and dry, no longer sticky from humidity. The sky, though dark, was extremely clear with no fog in sight. The wind rushed up from the base of the cliff and danced, free, through the live and fallen trees. It sang true in my ears as the pine trees whispered the world’s secrets. Their cones, ancient brittle fruits plump with the seeds of knowledge, rattled in response. The pigeon strutted in front of me, dropped my own charred pinecone at my feet, and flew off into the night. I could see him for several minutes with my newfound clarity. When he finally disappeared over another ledge, I let go of the tree, stooped down, and picked up the pinecone. Sure enough, it was the same one. Shaking my head in disbelief, but grinning ear to ear, I rose again to listen to the wind. But then, once again, my vision grew foggy with the obscuring, artificial darkness. It closed in from the corners of my vision as the blood drained from my face, and I felt myself sway. Small white spots began to zip around my retina. I could no longer see. I reached for the pine tree’s support, but my hand was lost in the dark. And then, everything was lost in the light. An enormous cracking sound and too much light to see was all my senses could perceive. I waited with a dull pain in my skull and the cliff’s coolness against my back. The sound of a faint splash lulled my exhausted brain into unconsciousness.
Yes, a splash; the splash of me. I’m writhing around, waist-deep in water, clutching the bright hand that has its fingers firmly around my throat. I can’t breathe; I’m trapped by the hand, and its unusually long arm that is still extending from the water. It pulls and tugs, but now I can see without its brightness. I see through the water, see that there is nothing beyond the hand and arm. If I wanted to, I could pull it out of the water and wear it around my neck like a bunch of brilliant pearls; I could hold it to the dry, whirling wind at the edge of the cliff and let it shrivel up without its life-giving water. At this thought, the hand stopped tugging. It slipped meekly from my throat and sunk into the water, its descent stopping only at the hard rock bottom of the pool.
My eyes opened again, my fingers brushing against the pinecone. I grabbed it and sat up to face a smoking tree stump, scorched by the wrath of the heavens, with the trunk nowhere in sight. I looked to the right and saw the brother, who had long since begun to decay. Where was the sister? Had her trunk, leaves, and branches fallen off the cliff? I leaned over the edge and looked down at the creek and the forest, but my eyes were no longer used to the dark and I could not quite see where she had landed. Another bright flash startled me, but this time it was farther off. When the thunder followed I decided I no longer wished to remainon my ledge since the trees protecting me from the elements had gone. Pinecone in hand, I stood up (carefully this time), and before I knew it I was back at the tents, asleep just a few moments later.
The next day Chris woke me, saying I slept more than anyone he’d ever met, and asking me if I knew where the flashlight had gone. I went back to the ledge to look, but I didn’t know exactly where I had dropped it the night before. After rather extensive searching and still nothing to show for it, I promised Chris a new flashlight and we packed our camp and left the site, him at the wheel and me in the passenger's seat with a pinecone in my lap, looking out the window at the creek for a fallen tree.
And there it lay, a cross from the river.