By Cory Johnston
Maybe it’s because I’ve been here before. In previous years, down to the day, down to the hour. Sweat pools on our shoulder blades. A Camelback is passed around the circle, same as always. But the view from atop Mount Kearsarge is different.
We see the same things, of course: the vast green forests of western New Hampshire that stretch out under the blue afternoon sky on their way towards becoming eastern Vermont. We hear the same sounds: the wind against the steel weather tower, the conversation of fellow hikers echoing off the stone mountainside before falling into the shaded forest path.
But to hear people’s words echo, to stop once more, and once more, to examine a small film of lichen on some nearby stone, summons no deep chill from my spine. That sense of awe does not return, as I do. I accept that the scene is beautiful. I consider the fact that it must be so. But the mountaintop that once blinded me with brilliant sunlight reflecting off stone and trees—reflecting off everything—today falls in the penumbra cast by a slate grey cloud that passes through the sun’s gaze.
The others laugh and breathe deeply. They exchange the Camelback’s water for bottles of pale beer I brought in my pack. They line up cameras and take pictures, then line up cameras at different angles and take more pictures.
I stand off to the side and busy myself with the western view. But I’m thinking of something from when I was a kid, when our yearly vacation was documented not in digital files, but on film, and on shiny paper that came from cheap disposable cameras we bought at CVS. We would flip through the pictures as a family, still five of us back then, and swap stories about each scene we captured. For a moment our minds would return, would be transported, to the mountain and the forest. In our mind’s eye we again saw the lichen, felt its green dampness seep into our boots. Reflected on those other four faces was the brilliant sheen of the mountaintop.
In the back of our album were little strips of that shiny paper, smaller and translucent, like the top layer of skin after embalming, whose images were familiar but difficult to make out.
“Those are the negatives,” he told me. The words echo somewhere. “They make them by reversing the picture’s colours. So what was black comes through as white. And what was light shows up as dark. Pretty cool, right?”
I hadn’t answered. Just slammed the album shut. That a picture, a snapshot of real time and real space, could portray the opposite of what it claimed to reflect did not sound pretty cool at all. What business had darkness in a space that was bright? And why would light ever be absent from an unshaded hillside?
At the top of the weather tower is a lightning rod. Before our hike, a park ranger had told us that the rod gets struck at least one dozen times during every thunder storm that passes above the mountain. She showed us a picture from the previous Spring: against a backdrop of pitch black New England sky, a single bolt, as bright as any I have seen, strikes (or returns to?) the tower. But despite the brightness of the flash, or because of it, black and empty shadows criss-cross the base of the tower. It took a moment for my eyes to find them.
The park ranger seemed quite proud of her picture. She passed it around the circle for everyone to see.
Now the four of us, the ones who keep returning, stand around a picnic table beside the weather tower. We whistle little melodies, and tap fingers against belt buckles. I bend over and examine, once more, a slight depression in the stone, where a sheet of moss has grown beside a pool of still rainwater.
I pick up a bottle of beer. There isn’t much left. Only a few drops reach my mouth. It’s not enough to swallow, but the bitterness of the hops sinks into my tongue. I sit down at the table and turn the empty bottle slowly in my hands, until the blue and green label makes one complete rotation.
Cory Johnston is the assistant editor of The Literary Review. His work has appeared in Gently Read Literature and Spittoon, and is forthcoming in Yeshiva University’s Prism Journal. Find out more about him and read more of his work at CoryJohnston.wordpress.com.