Alex slipped, landing on his knees and sliding down with both hands outstretched against the soil that rolled beneath his fingertips, a conveyor that he could not grab hold of. His father reached down to catch him but the boy gripped onto a hunched, protruding root and came to a halt. “Are you all right?” the man asked with wide iceberg eyes, curls of black hair dangling from either side of his cavernous cheeks. He was short of breath, face flushed, not by exertion but instead from the thought of his son’s tumbling and irreversible descent: how a single, fumbled misstep could so callously erase all the life that came before it.
“I’m okay,” Alex said, conscious of his father’s expression. “I’m okay.”
“You have to watch your step. This is a mountain. It deserves your respect.”
Alex nodded and mumbled a vague acknowledgement while regaining his footing. He pretended to understand the meaning of the word, respect. He knew it was important, something that adults used to demonstrate their virtuousness, to show that they were kind individuals. He could understand the meaning of the word when told to respect his Dad, to respect the elders. But when Alex’s father told him to respect a tree and its fruit, told him to respect a goat before it was slaughtered, told him to respect those insects that survive the most profound of life’s calamities—told him to respect a mountain—then Alex knew just to nod, to feign acceptance.
His father grabbed onto a dangling cedar branch and pulled himself up the exposed rock to avoid placing weight onto his bad foot. Every other step was abbreviated and yet he remained confident on the steep incline. “Come on,” he said, holding out one hand to clasp.
“I said, I’m okay.” Alex replied, scampering up on all fours. “Is it much farther?”
His father nodded.
Alex sighed, keeping both eyes on the red and withered needles beneath his feet.
“Trust me. It’s going to be amazing. It’s like nothing else you’ve ever seen”
“I know. I know.”
Alex thought he knew. He called it The Beanstalk even though aware that it wasn’t a plant and had nothing to do with the fairy tale. He’d analyzed pencil-sketched drawings on wrinkled white paper. He’d overheard the words of adults that described this enormous structure with vocabulary and allusions that didn’t make sense to a six-year-old boy. His father assured that he needed to see it with his own eyes to appreciate its “profound scale.” And again, Alex’s thoughts would return to their copy of the picture book still occupying a narrow sliver of their living room bookshelf, yellowing lines of tape adhering the many tears that traced the spine and dog-eared corners on almost every page.
“So, what is it?” Alex asked, searching through the trunks of trees in hope of catching a glimpse of its profound scale. All he could see were other mountains. The entire world was an endless series of wrinkled peaks.
“I don’t know,” his father said, trying to mask his annoyance, not with the question, but with the fact that this had all been discussed numerous times before.
“But it’s not really a beanstalk?”
“It’s not really a beanstalk.”
“And they made it?”
“They made it.”
“When did they make it?”
“Before you were born.”
“On the Fourteenth of August?”
“Sometime after that.”
“And what does it do?”
His father forced another sigh into a chuckle. “You know I don’t know.”
“How come I can’t see it yet if it’s so big?”
“Because it’s so far away.”
“Farther away than those mountains?”
“Yes. A lot farther away than those mountains.”
“Can we stop and have a snack?”
“We must be close?”
His father didn’t answer. This was the third time in as many months that they’d attempted this ascent, each of the previous journeys concluding with Alex being carried down on his father’s back before reaching the peak. Alex lived his entire life surrounded by mountains and yet he clearly couldn’t appreciate their size, their profound scale, how he could hike for hours and still be told that there was so much left to climb. Perhaps that was what it meant to respect a mountain, he thought: they are big.
Although pleased that he was able to take a rest and eat as many dried blueberries as he wished, Alex knew what this meant. They were still a long way off. They’d been hiking since the first light of dawn, leaving their home long before the blue sky of day had smothered the last of the swirling, luminous nightlights. Alex was excited when he awoke; he could hardly sleep the night before. His father really believed that he was ready to make it this time. It just wasn’t fair that the trek took so long. Looking up the mountainside, the arching ferns and wrinkled tree trunks never seemed to extend much farther. They had to be close. And yet they weren’t. Every time they’d come across another pink plastic ribbon tied tight around the stalk of a lanky birch, Alex hoped that this would signal that the end was near. But there was always another. He wanted to admit to his father how weary his legs were, but it was too late to turn back. His dad would tell him that it didn’t matter, that he could do it, that he had to respect this mountain, or something.
Alex stood up, nodding with exaggerated swings of his chin to his father’s reminders of being careful, and grabbed a stick from the ground, his eyes drawn to the smooth bark and a clean snake-tongue split at one end. He held it towards his father. “Would this have made a good marshmallow stick?”
The man laughed, caught by surprise, “That would have made a perfect marshmallow stick.”
Alex turned back, holding it in the air above an imaginary fire, fascinated by the idea of a marshmallow. There were so many things that adults reminisced about that made no sense to Alex and that he had no intention of understanding. But marshmallows! As light as a mushroom and yet composed of pure sugar. Held above a flame, and the snow-white exterior would inflate to a crackling, golden brown. It was magic. Edible magic. Without looking back towards his father, Alex said: “We should try making marshmallows again.”
“I don’t think it would work out like you’d want.”
“But can we try again? Please?”
“What you’re going to see is way cooler than a marshmallow. Trust me.”
Alex nodded, not because he agreed with his father but because he knew that it would appease him. He banged the stick against a rock, looking out towards the distant peaks, recognizing only Skihist Mountian and hopeful that his father wouldn’t quiz him on the names of the rest.
A glistening black slug rested motionless on a bed of bloodshot cedar needles. Alex knelt closer, now able to trace its glistening, meandering path that originated from the bulging roots of a cedar. A pair of antennae searched through the space, two fingers feeling around in the dark, oblivious to the hominid that towered above, staring down. As Alex shuffled another step closer, the creature withdrew its protuberances and shriveled in defense. He poked it with his stick and the mollusk compressed into a dense mound. It could have been a fallen nut or a wrinkled, decomposing leaf. Prodding it further, the slug resisted Alex’s attempts to roll it over.
“What are you doing?” his father asked. “Just leave it alone.”
Alex sighed. He wanted to step on it. He still thought that he still might.
“It’s not hurting you. Come on, now. Let’s go before it gets too hot.”
The boy stared at the immobile creature, knocked it one last time with his stick, and turned to follow.
There it was. His father had limped ahead with excited steps and called out. “You can see it,” his voice breathless, his arm outstretched and pointing through the thinning trunks of trees. It didn’t look like beanstalk. No matter what Alex had been told, he still visualized something green, a snaking weave of leafy vines that would extend into the shroud of clouds that capped the sky. Alex stopped climbing, grabbed on to his father’s outstretched hand without looking. It didn’t make sense. It was too distant for details, to have any discernable color. And yet it could not be missed: a great vertical shadow, snaking like a gnarled branch held upright into the sky where it radiated auburn against the hazy ceiling of the atmosphere, out into the cold dead of space. It made any one of these mountains that he’d spent the entire morning scampering up appear like a lone fern beneath a looming, ancient fir. Nothing could be so massive. It just didn’t make sense and Alex winced and rubbed his eyes as if it was a mistake. The entire southern sky was cracked.
“What is it?”
“I said, I don’t know.”
“Are there giants up there?”
His father chuckled. “It’s not a beanstalk, remember?”
“What is it?”
“I don’t know.”
Alex kept squeezing his father’s hand. “I’m scared.”
“It’s okay to be scared.”
“Are you scared?”
“You’re not scared anymore?”
“I don’t think so.”
“You don’t think so?”
“I’m not scared.”
“Because I think we’re safe.”
“You think we’re safe?”
The man squeezed Alex’s hand looked him in the eyes with a tender smile intended to make his forthcoming lie appear as genuine as was possible. That same comforting, essential falsehood that his own parents had repeated to him, assured him, on countless occasions before their own vicious and untimely deaths.
“Trust me. We’re going to be fine.”