The Mountain Keeper
I shouted my sister’s name in places I’d already searched and come up with nothing. Even if only the breeze answered me back, I just wanted to hear a voice tell me something. Words were movement, even if it was in a circle. But silence was a dead end that made me choke. At first her name was fire on my tongue that I spat at each turn. Iris. Iris. Iris. But my voice always returned to itself, tired and with despair, until any word felt like grit between my teeth.
The last time I saw her was a month ago, when she went out to scavenge for food. That day the bottom of my feet had blisters in the shape of small carrots, so I stayed in our camp. Iris knew the rules, which berries were poisonous, which paths belonged to wolves and bears, signs that the trees were hungry or the water was coming for a visit. But I should’ve known that even if I could trust little sister, didn’t mean I could trust our surroundings. The few people I’d encountered in the nearby town days later hadn’t been on the lookout for spare black girls and told me as much. I couldn’t blame them. It was hard enough keeping track of one body in the world’s remains, let alone a stranger’s.
I didn’t start to worry until a week went by. Sometimes it took that long to find roots or safe meats like rabbit or duck. She knew better not to hunt for anything bigger without me. No one had driven cars for years once they learned it upset the land. I remember the days where the forest would growl at the sound of an engine. Wherever she had gone or was taken had to be on foot. I wrapped my feet with bandages and extra socks then went to check the valley. Iris liked resting near the limestones, so I went up to the stones and called for her. My throat had grown so used to whispers that higher volumes cut it open. Then I checked the dilapidated houses that the forests had turned into gardens, reeking of fungus and broken wood.
The forest was full of knives for mouths, and I found myself looking for the dullest ones to befriend for help. The heads of the bead lilies and witch flowers were soft, letting me know I could pass through the terrain. I got as close to the trees as I dared, looking for small footprints. Her feet were half the size of mine. The smell of open earth grew stronger each day, pine needles and wet tree trunk. It masked the scent of any flesh that wasn’t carcass broken open by flies and grass. The only voices I heard regularly came from birds. The nuthatch and titmouse were most common. Taking up all the air with their chirps, yet they never told me anything. Sometimes the great horned owl would look into me and stretch one of its wings in a direction I’d follow only for it to lead to a mouse or snake that the bird swooped down to grab.
As time went on, I got desperate and searched predator paths, my hunter’s blade at the ready. Guns were too loud and attracted fangs and claws. Any weapons I used had to be quiet. One scent that lingered in the woodlands was the thread of human blood, which it wore like a trophy. If Iris lay dead somewhere in its clothing, I’d know soon enough. I wrapped myself in an old wolf’s coat, hoping it would mask my scent while I wandered between the trees and howls. Late into the night the thread of blood came to me, a young scent, symbolizing softer, smaller flesh. I knew it was human because there was a bitterness to it that animals never had.
I followed the smell to a resting grizzly bear. Juvenile, but fearsome nonetheless. It laid on its side, belly pregnant with a satisfying meal, and resting tranquilly. Blood stained its teeth and horny nails. I tried not to imagine Iris’s screams between its jaws but knew there was only one way to know for sure. Steeling myself for whatever came next, I crept over and sliced down its belly as swift and deep as I could. Its arm grazed my shoulder, more from surprise than anger. The coat took the brunt of the swipe, but I still felt slashes opening my skin. I took off the coat and threw it at the beast’s feet before disappearing behind one tree then another and another until I was more than a few feet away. As predicted, it roared and tackled the coat first, shaking it wildly for blood, but discovering it was empty stood to come after me.
Within seconds I heard its entrails pool onto the ground and it falling back to the ground. Because I don’t trust stillness alone, I waited for a few moments to make sure all life had slipped out. I ran back over to the bear and saw a river of its organs streaming along the ground. Locating its stomach, I cut it open and searched for anything familiar. Inside was a slightly crushed head whose face I couldn’t see. Before any other creatures could locate the fresh meat’s warmth, I took the head and what was left of the coat to the river. Moonlight was always brighter by the water. I bathed the head in the river and pushed the hair from its face. It was a young girl’s face, perhaps a sister, but not mine. I buried the head near a bed of stones, both relieved and terrified by the night.
Sometimes I miss the days where I didn’t have to be like this. Before humans took things too far and the land struck back, reclaiming the space that rightfully belonged to it. It started small at first. Flash floods in Louisiana and Mississippi. Forest fires in California, Oregon, and Washington. Tornados in Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Snowstorms in New York, Minnesota, and Alaska. Natural disasters that were normal for the vicinities. Events that could be rationalized away by news outlets and politicians. But then the disasters started happening more frequently. Became too pointed to be coincidence. Man-made places were starting to get ripped up, drowned out, burned to the ground, and frozen over. What could people do but start dying and keep dying?
Many looked for refuge in other countries. Mainly to Canada and throughout Europe. Each state in the US began holding raffles for asylum. Our parents decided to stay because they figured what was happening here would eventually happen everywhere. “No one can run from the Last Days,” my mother told us. She taught us the bible over the years including the seven plagues mentioned in the Book of Revelation. I listened to the lessons out of respect but never believed them. To me, my parents sounded like homeless people that spouted visions because they refused to take their meds. Our lessons were no different than useless subjects like trigonometry, having no real bearing on life other than to test our imaginations.
Then the rapture started happening, and the rest of the population was left to die out or survive. Those who lived learned what angered the land. Air pollutants, electronic waste, fracking, deforestation, chemical dumps, and so on. We learned what to live without and the land began reforming its body: breaking up the cement, tearing down or repurposing buildings for vegetation or blank slates. Animals began to roam back in the places they called home, and very few were civil to human beings. Ties between man and nature were becoming untethered.
Mom and Dad had always been levelheaded, no matter what was going on. So many people around us were always anxious, in fear of war and outbreak. Our neighbors were addicted to the news, feeding off whatever the latest violence was. Everyone from school to the grocery store even at church. The congregants prayed and prayed yet the fear never went away. Everyone grew exhausted from talking about it yet couldn’t stop. My dad laughed when I criticized his unnatural disposition and pet the small of my back. “Why worry about the things you can’t change? All we can do is prepare in the ways available to us. Everything else rises and falls out of our control. We can decide whether to move with it or against it. One way or another you will be moved.”
I used to think our parents acted that way for Iris and me, so we wouldn’t worry. But even when they were alone, and I’d sneak near the vent to their bedroom to hear what was really going on, they talked about normal things. Family and friends, laundry, work, prayer. They took turns reading novels to each other. Sometimes there was sex. Once in a while, one of them would bring up what would happen to us girls if they were deployed, as if rehearsing. “We raised them right. They’ll find their way,” my mom replied.
When I looked at myself, I didn’t know which ‘way’ they meant. I only knew how to be alone, to arrange my books, hide my gawky features in black and look away when people spoke to me. That’s where I was most myself whether the world burned or not. Meanwhile Iris was her own living thing. Though we had the same eyes, we shared nothing else. When we were young, Iris existed more for the outside than home. Easily bored, she was looking to be distracted or entertained all the time, for which I had little tolerance. “I’m just a bird, waiting to fly away on a sunrise,” she used to say.
Our parents were both in the National Guard and were called away a few months later to rescue survivors from a hurricane in a neighboring state. They told me to look after her, which terrified me. I’d never given her much thought beyond walking her to school, or begrudgingly staying to watch a few Adventure Time episodes with her. Sometimes when I’d paint my nails, she’d pester me into painting hers too. She knew I didn’t talk much and was one of the few people who didn’t ask me to smile or say I look tired. Sometimes we’d go to each other’s rooms and lay in bed together when we couldn’t sleep. Maybe that had been a type of survival, the kind that requires warmth, but with Mom and Dad gone, I’d have to carry her on my back in a way I never imagined.
I tried to channel parent energy, performing calmness. We went to school and church, read books, ate together. Some of the deaconesses would stop by and check on us every few days. Iris was ten and I was fourteen at the time. Still, it always felt like a bomb was in my belly waiting to go off. There was news of the hurricane spreading in North Carolina to Virginia. Bodies were found floating in the debris. Even though I turned away from these conversations, they still followed behind me like shadows. One day Iris asked if I would paint her nails again. She picked a shade called watermelon. While I tried to focus on painting straight lines, she told me about a boy she liked at school who she partnered up with for her science project. But since one of her friends also liked the boy, Iris decided to gift him to her friend out of the kindness of her heart. It was ridiculous in so many ways, but important in its normalcy, so I kept my mouth shut and quietly raged inside.
“Let me do yours next,” she said once her nails dried.
“It’s fine. You don’t have to,” I said, placing my hands underneath me on the couch.
“C’mon. It might lighten your mood. You’ve been walking around here like Eeyore lately.”
I resented the comment since I’d been trying my best. “Maybe in a bit, Iris.”
“Why, do you have some other plans besides moping around?”
Before I could stop myself, I threw the polish at the back of her head. “Do you realize that we could fucking be dead tomorrow? That Mom and Dad could already be dead? And your biggest concern is some throwaway boy and the color of your nails. Grow up.”
Iris cradled the back of her head with tears in her eyes. “You’re not a grown up just because they’re gone. And even if you were, it wouldn’t make you a better person.”
As she slammed the door to her room, I knew she was right. That I was just scared and didn’t know what I was doing. It didn’t feel right to sit or stand, to be happy or sad, or complain when others had lost everything. There were no right answers. I didn’t know how to be in my own skin, and perhaps I was resentful that Iris had found a way to be at peace in her own. Later that night, I went to her room and grabbed the box of polishes off one of her shelves and sat next to her on the bed. “Can you help me choose a color?”
She rolled her eyes and looked from me to the polish. “What color do you think an apology is?”
I looked through, gently clinking through the glass bottles until I settled on turquoise. “This one.”
Iris took it from me and knocked it against my forehead before stretching out my hand. “Just making sure it’s good and shaken up first.”
I smiled a little and stroked her thumb with mine.
Another week had gone by and I still hadn’t found her. I traveled as far out as I had in years. The last time I walked this long had been when Iris and I decided to search for our parents. I wasn’t ready to come up empty again because it would mean I was truly alone this time. Iris had no reason to leave. We weren’t happy, but were living, content with each other’s presence. I refused to believe she was cruel enough to die on me.
I checked the caves near the mountain. Some of the caves were known to close their stony mouths and swallow inhabitants. I bathed in the river that morning and ran a few smooth rocks along my body, hoping to catch the sulfurous odor along my skin. Perhaps then I’d smell like a friend, too familiar to eat. I carried a torch in one hand and ran my fingers along the wall with the other. I called my sister’s name in the dark and listened to the walls absorb the echo like my voice never existed. The mirrored pools reflected back only the cave’s insides, but not me or anything human. “Have you seen a girl who has my eyes?” I asked. Nothing answered at first, and then the water grew at my feet. Something gurgled at the back of the cave’s throat and I knew it was time to leave. As I ran, a flood retched and threw me out of the chamber. I gathered myself, and the whole forest floor was damp, and mud had risen to my ankles.
By the time I made it to the mountains, the water was to my knees. I searched for divots in the earth’s crust and began climbing to higher ground. My shoulder still ached from the bear claw, so I focused on trying to find an opening that was large enough to rest in. The further up I got, the more I smelled Iris. I didn’t know I could smell memories, but the scent of fingernail polish came back, hitting me between the eyes. There was a small crack in the wall large enough for me to slip into. At the end of the climb, I felt the stone push me up like a hand forward.
I called her name and felt my way through the dark. Though I was touching stone, it also felt like muscles, fleshy in its warmth. A hand holding mine as an introduction and guide. I went down the corridor. Pockets of light came through the stone. An apparition came to me in blinks. Glassy eyes, wing-shaped lips, sun-kissed beard, a well-defined face. I’d never seen this man before and yet I felt his face near mine and his body on the gneiss.
He was the hand that helped me. My trust and faith in men had waned over the years since they’d often been as ravenous as the beasts outside, but worse because they tried to hide behind their words first. Somehow, I felt the mountain’s words stitch together as I touched him along bands of neighboring rocks. I saw a man who existed several lifetimes ago who had died in the mountain with no one to mourn him. With no place to rest, his spirit filled the bedrock, making him its keeper. He watched over the woods, hoping someone would find him, hoping to be fed by their presence.
Instead, men mined away the mountain, blasted away its coal and minerals, cut down the forest that sheltered him, hunted the animals that were his friends, and closed off or poisoned the waterways that nursed stone, wood, and flesh alike. He grew to resent the smell of smoke because it often announced thieves’ presence. They picked the land down to its bones and were surprised when it fought back. Yet even as the world tore itself apart, he still hoped for a friend.
I’ve lived long enough to tell who a person is by their hands. The wrinkles, touch, and what they hold.
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked.
Because you’re the only person I’ve met who had hands that listen.
For so long I’d only thought about how humans would survive the world, but I never thought about the world struggling to survive us. I had never thought of nature as forgiving and yet it was. How infinite the patience of a mountain and its community had to be when they were stolen constantly. How they did their best not to disappear and remain at peace for each other, as well as humanity. I found myself attracted to the calm the mountain offered. That in a world so loud in its destruction, he was thoughtful in his quiet existence, trying not to be forgotten as I often desired for myself.
I asked if he’d seen a girl with my eyes, but he didn’t see through sight but through touch and sound. Given that I could only hear him when I touched the rocks, I understood. He mentioned that others had sought shelter in him recently. I wanted to move forward, but my shoulder throbbed in pain and was soaked in blood. Rest, he said as if speaking into my wounds. For the last few years, it felt selfish to be in any state of rest, like I should be worried at least if I couldn’t help. That if I was lost or dying, it should be in service to others, as it was for my parents. And with Iris gone, resting felt like weakness, a failure to watch over the one person assigned to me. But if you don’t grant yourself rest, no one else will. Not even your sister. I never thought of myself as my own answer or that I’d need permission to lie down. But somehow hearing his words put me at ease and drew me to a bed of bones.
Would you mind lying down next to my remains while you rest? Sitting with a stranger’s bones should’ve been unnerving and yet somehow, he wasn’t dead to me, just reformed. His spirit was alive in a way that most people hadn’t been with me. If he could be vulnerable, I could be the same. And I knew that desire well, the one that drew Iris and me to each other’s beds when we couldn’t sleep. Perhaps it was a trap and I was seeing what I wished to see. But if I was, I didn’t have the strength to fight it off. The apparition came back with strong hands that lowered him to the ground next to me. The words thank you echoed in my head as I drifted to sleep. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt that safe.
When I awoke the next morning, the soil beneath me was softer. I knew that the water outside was rising and flooding the area from the deep sighs I heard against the rocks. I went up to one of the small holes amidst the stones to inhale fresher air and see how things looked. When I did, there was the sensation of a bare chest beneath my fingers. There were already a few carcasses floating in the muddy waters below. A fox’s golden eyes flashed before me as its limp body moved across the way. Since it was dark in the mountain, I asked him to be my eyes and to lead me towards its highest peak. The smell of fingernail polish lingered along with images of Iris’s collarbone and mouth. The parts of her that I was forgetting were finally returning, so strong I knew it wasn’t imaginary. Soon her memories would have flesh for me to hold again.
I spent the next few days walking up the passageways. The mountain slipped his walls open for me to go outside when I needed more air. But I found myself craving his voice. I had rations in my bag that’d last for a few days, but discovered a subterranean garden of turnips, pumpkins, and squash.
He asked me things that no one else cared to know. About the silences around me, what my life was before this world and what it would be after. There never seemed to be any time to think of the future and yet he gave time back to me simply by asking.
“I’d always wanted to be a librarian,” I told him. “The world was safe, spoke in a language I understood, at a pace I can move through books.”
Perhaps books survive on listening the way that hands do.
The last time I mentioned what I wanted to be when I grew up was when my dad asked Iris and me. “I want to be something that sets you free,” she answered. At the time I thought she was ridiculous, but the further I moved through life, the more I understood what she meant.
My shoulder still ached so the mountain directed me to a stream to soak in. The coolness seeped into the scratches and helped my pain subside. As I sank deeper into the waves, I wondered if the mountain could feel my body wading around in the water. The curves with which I was uncomfortable and the scars that I had learned to live with. After I left the stream, I leaned against the rocks until I was dry. Though I wondered what parts of his body cradled mine, I also knew it didn’t matter because I was where I needed to be.
The water continued its way up but was quieter in its creeping. I felt Iris’s presence so strongly that it was like I was carrying her on my back again. But she wasn’t the sister I remembered or wanted her to be; she was instead who she needed to become for the world around us. For the past month I’d been searching for more than my sister, I’d been searching for control, for a way to make life make sense again and to be less cold because I thought that’s where my peace lay. But as the water grew and the mountain and Iris came to me in whispers, I saw that the story was bigger than me and the present, and no amount of storm would change that. All I could do was move. When I got close to the top of the mountain, he opened himself and revealed an owl perched nearby. I climbed and reached out my hand. The owl settled onto my arm and cooed. I looked out at the expanse before us. The flood had finally stopped. I wasn’t afraid of what I couldn’t see in its depths nor of the other beings hidden throughout the slopes. I was content with the silence. I would wait for the day the bird flew away from the mountain.
Jeneé Skinner’s work has appeared in the Cincinnati Review, Passages North, Roxane Gay’s The Audacity, and TriQuarterly. She has received fellowships from Tin House Summer Workshop and Kimbilio Writers Retreat. She is the Writing in Color Book Project Fellow for the Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She’s an MFA candidate at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where she’s working on a historical magical realist novel. Her book includes Igbo and Christian folklore, swamps and mangroves, snakes, alligators, a haunted house, the African-Diaspora, and chattel slavery.
From Special Features Guest Editor Toni Jensen:
In the world of Jeneé Skinner’s story “The Mountain Keeper,” grizzlies roam and eagles nest in the woods and mountains, which provide refuge in this time of war and climate crisis. A young woman searches for her baby sister; she battles the elements and her thoughts, of what’s lost and what she might find. Skinner’s prose is sharp and clear in its lyrical attention to detail. The landscape is rendered beautiful and violent; it conjures both past and present-day to show us how the world we live in shifts beneath us, and yet beauty persists.