From the author: Getting away from everything, from an ending, can become moving toward everything, a beginning. (Free for winter solstice.)
Cutting track across five miles of virgin snowfall took all afternoon. As dusk turned the sky a deep indigo that gave the snow an iridescent glow I arrived at the shelter. Before my body warmth was lost to inactivity, I set to establishing a fire in the metal barrel stove. After unpacking provisions for my overnight stay I melted snow for a pot of herbal tea. With the hot cup I sat outside on a chunk of firewood. Trees trembled in a random wind that packed the loose dust of snow into drifts around the rough hewn logs of the shelter. A shooting star burned a streak over the Cascades in the direction of my thoughts. It was Christmas Eve and I was alone for the first time in fifteen years.
My children were south beyond Mount Washington, beyond Crater Lake and Mount Shasta, after the wet Cascades blend with the dryer Sierra Nevadas. They were in a civilized wilderness, a tamed place of leisure and commerce, celebrating the holiday at Lake Tahoe with their mother. This was my first Christmas without John and Molly.
The previous winter I had skied this trail with Marie during a retreat from our modern lives. The weekend vacation had resulted in the opposite of reconciliation. Marie had brought a cellular telephone to remain in contact with her office and thereby had disengaged from me. The emotional distance between us broadened even as we climbed the same alpine trail. We had stayed at the shelter just long enough to have the argument that had become tedious in its predictability. As she skied away with the determination of a hostile corporate takeover, I had lingered to calm myself. I had been able to see beyond my circumstances and had glimpsed enough of the mountain’s beauty to promise myself to return alone.
As stars sprinkled throughout the clear dark sky I wept for the loss of the daily connection with my children. The raw scab on my heart tore open to fresh wounds of futile, unrelenting sorrow. Gone were their innocent eyes of trust, replaced with the lonely confusion of unwanted anger. I sobbed until small icicles hung from my face and beard, until I cracked through the shell of grief to find a spark of hope with which to light my future. I resolved to hold love like a bold lantern into the dark world.
Weary, I went into the shelter and cooked a satisfying meal of sautéed vegetables and pasta with bread. While another pot of tea brewed I stoked the fire to warm the shelter as much as was possible against the gathering night.
A dark shape appeared at the base of the doorway.
A large black bird with oily feathers, a long beak, and fierce eyes regarded me in silence. I was astounded. Embarrassingly aware of my lack of natural knowledge, I had not a clue as to the habits of animals and had always assumed birds were not active at night. As the creature also studied me I realized it was same raven that had appeared during my journey when I had lost the trail on a dangerously steep slope. The raven had landed on a tree, calling so discordantly that I had been forced to take notice. Curiosity took me to the bird. When I reached the tree I saw the tip of a blue diamond trail marker sticking out of the snow. When I looked around to orient myself and try to find the next blue diamond marker, the raven flew to another tree and again began its raucous cawing. The path to that tree seemed safe so I followed. Another blue diamond was nailed just at snow level. This happened a third time before the trail again became obvious.
Like most men of my race I had ignored the raven's gift of guidance, amused by what I explained as odd behavior, and had considered it showing me the trail as circumstance. With the warmth of the campfire I was in a reflective mood and more willing to acknowledge the raven's nonhuman intelligence.
By disappearing beyond the dim light of the stove it beckoned me outside. I was reluctant to leave the warmth of the fire. The bird appeared in the doorway with a commanding _squawk_ that brought me to my feet. Wrapping a scarf around my neck I followed into the moonless night.
The raven led me along a ridge wind-swept of snow to a rock outcropping that overlooked the mountainside. Then it perched in the nearest tree like a sentinel. I felt anticipation gather about me like frost. Starlight illuminated the snow as if it glowed from within.
A howl arose from the valley, either a coyote or a wolf I could not determine, and my anxiety deepened. The environment reverberated with my ignorance. As the eerie call echoed a light appeared at the edge of the trees. An indistinct shape writhed inside the strange glow. It approached up the slope and a huge pair of wings lifted and unfolded. My heart quickened and energy jolted through my body even as I gasped a full breath of frigid air.
From the vision came an harmonious sound like the chorus of wind, river and rain. The cry of an eagle balanced the sharp snap of a falling tree, accented the laugh of a child, resonated with deep notes of whale song. A continuous symphony accompanied the looming shape as it reached the rock on which I stood like a conspicuous statue.
Now directly in front of me I could see the details of its form shift in rhythm to its music: a man in flowing robes; a hawk-faced creature with dark wings; an avalanche of earth and stones; a white-haired black woman holding a gnarled staff; deer bounding up the mountainside; a terrifyingly gaunt boy with a seething hatred in his demeanor; a swarm of frantic insects; monkeys in a playful mass; a woman with breathtaking eyes. Witnessing this spectacle caused my skin to tingle, my body to lift slightly off the ground, and my mind to fill with thoughts that I could not fully comprehend.
The apparition passed overhead in a stream of light and movement and sound that was far beyond sacred. In a blink it disassembled into pinpoints of starlight that pierced the sky like comets and struck my eyes. I fell backward into powdery snow, the tang of citrus coating my tongue.
Overwhelmed, full of questions and answers, mystery and insight, despair and joy, I could not realize sequential thought. Lost to bewilderment I nevertheless fought the temptation to drift into a realm of rational explanation and denial. Holding my breath like a frightened child I found my way back to the warmth of the shelter and spent the night dazed by recurring dreams.
When I awoke at dawn I considered staying until my food was gone, exercising the depths of my imagination and intuition, until I too would pass into that place of significance, but finally decided to return as I had planned to my human world.
I report my vision to those who would listen, take to heart and rejoice.
This story originally appeared in One Evening a Year, an anthology of holiday stories published by the Eugene Wordos Writers Workshop in 2000. It was written for a Holiday read aloud event..