It was never about camping, or hiking, or climbing to the top of a peak, or bird watching, or getting back to nature, or cowboy coffee over a campfire in the morning, or making love in a tent, or sharing a sleeping bag for two, or even one. You were scared of heights and I was scared of you. Leaving. Face your fears, said your yoga teacher Zario.
A weekend retreat, though you refused to use that word. Let’s call it a weekend advance instead, you said, and I—out of my league, unable to touch my toes, unable to empty my mind, unable to even breathe right, the one who farted while trying downward dog in front of the class—went along.
The trail was precarious at best. Mountain goats would have been put to the test. On the climb up, I filled the silence with chatter. Did you know goats have different accents depending on where they’re from?
Animal facts felt real to me. So did the chain handrail as I inched up the narrow ledge of straight-down mountain. Dodo birds had wings but never flew, I said, only used them for balance like a tightrope walker. Wouldn’t they be handy right about now, I laughed. Of course, Dodos became extinct. Bad ideas have a way of finding their way out of the gene pool, right?
You were focused, silent, tongue stuck out in concentration. I wore tennis shoes, you hiked barefoot. I thought of what we called waffle stompers in the ’70s. It seemed a new day then—down jackets, gorp, and hiking boots with enormous textured soles. Now my Adidas felt inadequate as I trailed you, followed your footprints in the dirt. How could that not hurt? Granite and shell, mountain thorns. You were somewhere else. Embracing pain, you did not feel it. Releasing fear, it let you go. Letting go of the chain freed you from all attachments...the PR job you despised, the condo with its dreaded homeowner’s association (a cult of self-importance you called it), and Fear itself—fear of falling, fear of dying, fear of missing out, fear of being alone with me, apparently. I stood on the trail gripping the chain, unable to move forward, unable to go back. Iron links penetrated my palms. A shiver of altitude passed through me.
Flannery O’Connor made the papers as a six-year-old when she taught a chicken to walk backwards. The longest flight of a chicken on record is 13 seconds. Thirteen seconds. I eased my grip, finger-tipped the chain, and stared at the side of the mountain.
An inch from my nose an ant made its way over a rock and encountered another ant. Ants bow to each other in greeting. You were no longer there to hear that fact. See that act of wonder. Ants herd aphids and drink their sugary liquid, the only animals to farm other animals though it sounded more like slavery to me. As usual I’m at my pithiest when no one’s there to hear me, with no paper to write down deep thoughts.
Paralyzed in place, I marveled at the priceless, worthless million-dollar view below. Moa were the only known birds born without wings. Huge and friendly, they were easy prey, walking targets, extinct by the 1400’s. Did Zario believe in extinction? Is that what happened if you couldn’t touch your toes? Failed to execute Mountain Pose on a steep ledge? There was no advancing, no retreating. No growing wings. No forgetting the fact-book you gave me for Valentine’s Day, Animals of A Bygone Era. Back in the ’70s, Paul Simon said there were 50 ways to leave your lover. I said, let’s make it 51, and let go.
—After a photograph by Cindy L. Sheppard:
The Chains That Free Us
—Publisher’s Choice for Winner of
The Chains Writing Challenge
teaches “low fat fiction” and is the author of five collections of poetry
and short prose: Nova Nights (Nomadic Press, 2021),
Grace (KYSO Flash Press, 2019), Soundings and Fathoms: Stories (Finishing
Line Press, 2018), House Samurai (Iota Press, 2006), and Parts &
Labor (Thumbprint Press, 1992). His stories have appeared in dozens of venues
including Carve, daCunha, Flashback Fiction, KYSO Flash, Sea Letter, Third
Wednesday, and Exposition Review, where he was twice a Flash 405 winner.
In 2018, his flash was nominated for the Best of the Net anthology.
Born in the Chihuahuan Desert near the Mexican border, Guy grew up on a Sting-Ray in
Ventura, learned to write in the Peace Corps during a civil war in Guatemala, honed his
craft pulling weeds and planting flowers as a gardener in San Francisco, and later
received his M.A. from San Francisco State, where his teaching career began.
He’s been a creative-writing midwife since 1991.
Guy lives on a houseboat with his wife and a salty cat, and walks the planks daily.
It’s all true, especially the fiction.
Author’s website: https://www.guybiederman.com/
Author’s blog: This Day Afloat: Reflections of Life on the Water