Green Hills Literary Lantern

Notification

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the walkway of his mountainside bungalow, Second Lieutenant Harry Wittig hefted a shovel against wet snow. The pants-legs of his fatigues, splotched dark olive where they were damp, had been yanked out of his boots, and he wore no jacket. There had been a large-flaked squall overnight and more snow was predicted, but now it was clear and the early morning mists in the mountains were dissipating.

His unit had been on alert for seven months. Although he didn’t want to go, he was prepared. He was even wishing, as he rested on his shovel, that that they’d get the call now, today, to have it over with. But perhaps he was just in a fatalistic frame of mind, because Jane Macklop had shot him down. Harry was the sort of nondescript fellow whom young women like Jane Macklop found it easy to shoot down. She was by far the prettiest he had dated, a civilian nurse he’d met at an officer’s club dance. He found her so attractive that once she’d granted his wish by agreeing to go out with him, he became sullen, because he knew she’d end it sooner or later. When he had called for their fourth date and she’d told him in so many words that they wouldn’t be going out again, he’d said to her, You know, you’re really stuck up. It had been a silly thing for him to say and he had regretted it, because she wasn’t at all like that. He’d simply let it end that way. But now he was thinking of calling her back and showing a little more spine with her.

He was contemplating how such a conversation might go when the door of the bungalow banged open and his housemate, Second Lieutenant Miles Bacon, leaned out.

- Hey, man. Headquarters on the horn. You’ve got a notification.

- What? Harry said.

- Come on, get in here and change into your greens. I’m driving.

Harry had forgotten he was on that day’s duty roster. When a soldier over there was killed, the next of kin was notified by an officer back here. Miles had been a secondary once and had described the process matter-of-factly. The primary read the news and the secondary escorted the next of kin to a chair. A piece of cake, Miles had said.

- So, are you supposed to be my secondary? Harry asked when he was inside, pulling off his combat boots and looking for his dress shoes.

- Right you are, cowboy. Miles was actually a city kid but he liked to affect the loose manner of a ranch hand. You don’t have to do anything, he continued. I’ll do the talking for you.

- I’m the primary, Harry said defensively. He searched in his closet for a clean dress shirt to go with his dress greens, and finding none fished a crumpled one out of the laundry basket. I guess this’ll have to do, he said.

 

At headquarters, Harry opened the manila envelope that had been awaiting him. The facts were listed in brief: a private in the expeditionary force had been killed in action under enemy fire. His next of kin, his father, resided on Morton Ranch Road in the town of Plano.

 - This one should be easy, Miles said, as they walked toward their company area. We won’t have to deal with the guy’s wife.

- How do you know that?

- Because the next of kin is the father. It wouldn’t say that if he was married, dummy.

Plano wasn’t far from the ski slopes, and Miles as usual had a bright idea. Hey, he said. We’ll get in some skiing afterwards. The rest of the day’ll be shot anyway.

Harry often gave into Miles, but rarely without misgivings. If you say so, he said.

They both had to square away their respective platoons, so they decided to meet at the company at 10 00 hours and then stop back at their quarters to pick up their skis before heading into the mountains.

 

Although the morning had begun in sun, by the time they got on the road, billowy storm clouds had moved in from the west and it had resumed snowing, lightly at first, with winds swirling the vaporous flakes in streams across the pavement. On both sides the valley slopes leading up into the mountains were white below gray rock down to their bases.

After stopping at a diner in Big Mountain Falls for donuts and coffee, they continued upward as the pine-laced hills before them gave way to hard cliffs and powdered peaks. At the height of Pomeroy Pass, they cleared the divide and proceeded along a prospect looking west upon the great Mark Plain, a vast lake of snow stretching to a dense rim of mountains at the horizon. As high as they were, the clouds above were sweeping down upon them, seemingly yards from their heads. Then, shortly after they began their descent toward the plain, snow suddenly began falling, thickly, weightily, in dollops from the sky. The vista faded in the blizzarding snow, and when they emerged into the flat, they could see no more than about fifty feet ahead. Drifts began to collect in the road, and then to deepen alarmingly. Miles slowed and pulled his red Firebird over to the shoulder. There was no traffic. With flakes sticking to coat and hair, he took some chains from the trunk and strung them out behind the rear wheels. He backed the car midway over the chains and then fastened them while Harry watched.

Past Uppervale they turned north onto Highway 9, proceeding slowly. The chains produced a constant clinking that was reassuring. That and the moaning of the windshield wipers were the only sounds, because where they were there was no radio signal, only a pervasive blankness.

- I’ll tell you what, Harry said after a while. I’m thinking of giving that Jane Macklop a call back. What do you think of that?

Miles squinted up his face, though maybe he was just concentrating on the road ahead. That one, he said, I don’t know. There’s riper cherries around.

Harry nodded a clipped nod, a short, quick downthrust of the head with a slight pursing of the lips. Miles was everything Harry was not—boastful, obstinate, quixotic, egocentric, lazy, and irresistible to women.

- How about that sexy lady at the PX that I pointed out to you? Miles asked. I’d like to get her on a couch.

Harry shrugged. She isn’t my type, he said.

- Well, you don’t know till you try, cowboy. Give her a call.

Harry considered this for a moment. I’m thinking I’ll call Jane, he said.

Snow was packed in arcs on the pane above where the wipers furiously swept. All around them it fell, filtered through the light atmosphere, encapsulating them in a sphere of white.

Harry took the envelope from his long coat and, after examining it, returned it to the pocket. What if they ask for details?

- What do you mean details?

- You know, what if they ask how it happened? What are you supposed to tell them?

- Don’t worry about it. You want me to do it?

- No, said Harry. I’m going to do it like I’m supposed to. I’m just wondering what happens if they ask questions, that’s all.

- They won’t be asking questions. They’ll be too busy bawling. 

It was just after one when they passed Millville and rose out of the plain into the mountains again. It was a good two-lane road and it had been plowed recently so as to leave thick, packed snow under tread and three-foot hillocks piled at the sides. They so infrequently passed another vehicle that when one approached it was a surprise.

The road cleaved to the mountain sides, curving, rising, dipping. The snow was now only falling lightly, dancing in the air. Jagged peaks, like spires of rugged cathedrals, ghostily appeared in the distance ahead.

- I hope this sucker don’t have a dog, Miles said. The one I went to had a dog that was like to tear us apart.

They passed a billboard advertising a ski chalet. Miles pulled the car to the side next to a mountain tarn and took the map from the glove compartment. This Morton Ranch Road has to be around here somewhere, he said.

A mile or so ahead an unmarked sideroad intersected the main road to the left and Miles said it had to be it. At the turn there was a large sign advertising land for sale. A snowmobile must have recently preceded them, but its tracks were the only new ones on it. The land to the left was range, a gently rolling slope that ended in a valley between two pine-covered ridges to the south. There were cattle on the slope in the snowy distance, dark forms like black rocks huddled together against the white weather. On their right was an incline that was sometimes hill and sometimes cliff, and the pines covering it had their lower branches buried. Harry pulled the envelope out of his coat pocket again.

- See, the thing is that they don’t say anything about how it happened, he said to Miles.

- What are you, morbid? Dead’s dead.

- I’d just want to know how it happened, that’s all. Like what if this guy saved his platoon or something. Wouldn’t you want to know that?

- Probably he didn’t save anybody. Probably he was just shot in the ass by the dumb cluck behind him.

Harry thought for a moment. Yeah, well, he said, if I get killed over there, I’d like it to mean something.

After they had gone about a mile and half, the snowmobile tracks veered off onto a field. Miles drove forward over the untracked path slowly and carefully, and the tires, even with the chains, slid and slipped. 

- You’re sure about this, Harry asked, but Miles didn’t respond, giving his full attention to the road. At times it was difficult to pick out those slight parallel impressions in the snow they had to follow, and Harry was concerned Miles would lose his way. Miles said if they didn’t find the house soon he was turning around.

- Yeah, maybe we should, said Harry, but it was impossible because there was no place for it.

Then the snow became deeper on the road, sometimes up to the grille, and they were skidding around precariously. They didn’t seem to be making the headway they were a short while before. Harry urged Miles to keep the speed up.

But then their tires didn’t seem able to hold and their progress was almost entirely arrested. And then, despite Miles’s gunning, they were stopped diagonally across the road, their right rear wheel spinning futilely in the ditch.

- You needed to keep the speed up, Harry said.

- Oh, really, I didn’t know, said Miles.

They got out of the Firebird and, standing up to their calves, looked at the snow and the wheel and the road and the ditch. In front of them the road stretched alongside a power line before being swallowed in the distance by dusted cliffs. It had almost stopped snowing, a few small flakes falling in afterthought. Around them the great mountains stood sharply against the slate sky.

Miles got back in the car and directed Harry how to push, but it was no use because the chassis was entirely hung up. Miles got out again and they both leaned into it, but without result.

- We’ll have to walk back to 9 and see if we can find a tow, Miles said.

- It must be, what, a couple of miles?

- Yeah, but we curved left back there, so we should be able to just cut straight through this field and end up on the road. That’ll save some time.

- I don’t know, Harry said. It might be easier on the road.

- Come on, you can practically see 9 at the end of the field there. Let’s get our boots.

They sat in the back seat and took off their dress shoes and pulled on their ski boots. The wind was up and was whistling in the valley.

Walking in the boots was like walking in boxes, which would have been hard enough on a clear trail. But they found the snow had drifted on the range in great wave-like dunes, which came up quickly so that they sometimes were wading above their knees in it. Where the wind had cleared the snow from the ground, there were frosted strands of golden grass sleekly matted on the frozen earth.

The wind was at their backs and the gray clouds above them were moving in the same direction. Occasionally the sky broke and the sun shone briefly through, illuminating the jutting peaks and turning the cliffs around them a golden white.

- I think we should be going a little more to the left, Harry said, catching his breath.

- Just follow me, cowboy, Miles said.

After they had trudged for more than an hour over hills and rough land, and the range had finally turned into a valley with steep slopes on either side, Miles pointed out a hill looming before them to the right that he thought they might climb to do some reconnoitering. It was difficult to ascend, as they kept slipping on the slick sod. Near the top, they saw that what lay ahead were still higher hills and beyond them craggy mountains. Hey, Miles said. Where’s the damn road? It’s supposed to be right here.

The only place 9 could be, and the only place they could walk to, was off a little bit further to the right, where the mountains parted and the hills seemed to flatten. They listened for the sound of cars or snowmobiles, but all they heard was the wind.

As they climbed and descended, the hard lips of their ski boots chafed and bruised above their ankles. Miles unfastened his top buckle, but that let snow sneak in when they were in depth. He had to stop several times to take his boots off and shake them and put them back on again.

When they had been walking for at least another hour and the livid clouds in the late afternoon sky were hustling pitilessly above them, they saw a broken fence and then a farm house dimly huddled against the pines at the end of the valley. The range was barren and the cold wind was hissing around their necks. They hurried, but when they got closer they saw the dark windows with the panes broken out and the rotting wood slats on the porch.

After taking a tour around the decaying house, which seemed too near collapse to hole up in, they searched for the road that must have led out of the valley from it. Although the sky was darkening, they reasoned they had gone too far by now to turn around.

The subtle depression in the snow they finally decided upon could have been a road or it could have been a cattle trail, and sometimes it seemed to be the one and sometimes the other. Then, after a while, it seemed to be nothing at all, just brutal and lost territory between mountains. The wind was stiff and the ground snow occasionally swept up into their faces like needles. In the crevices of the hills, beneath dagger rocks, it was cave-black.

Harry was walking in file eight or so feet behind Miles. When they had crossed more hills and the farmhouse had been forgotten in the emptiness of the darkling country, Harry called out and asked what they should do.

- Man, it’s got be around here somewhere, Miles said, his characteristic confidence wrung from his voice. His coat and hair and cap were frosted from the blowing snow, his eyes cast down.

- If we head over this way, at least the wind won’t be in our face, Harry said weakly, gesturing to the left.

Miles seemed displeased with this, but he turned and began walking in the direction Harry had suggested.

Harry's cheeks and ears and fingers and feet stung with the cold. The skimpy dress cap was doing little good, and his leather ski gloves were like gripping ice. His legs ached where the top of his ski boots were cutting into them. For the first time he entertained the idea that they weren’t going to find the road, or anything at all. In the growing darkness, it had become difficult to see and they were falling frequently. Harry kicked at the snow, which was ugly and dangerous like ground glass.

A black hill ahead of them became a pine forest soughing in the wind. Harry couldn’t tell whether the flakes were coming from the sky again or were just the fallen snow being whipped around in gusts. After they had reached the edge of the trees he stopped to look at his watch. He thought it possible that it read after seven.

- Let’s take a breather, Miles said, sitting down in the snow under a pine tree.

But this was anathema to Harry. We gotta keep going, he responded, his voice now raw.

- Go ahead – I don’t care.

Harry walked back and stood over him, breathing heavily, his fists clenched. I’m not dying out here with you.

Miles looked at the ground between his knees and spit. After a moment he rose and pushed by Harry, You’re one hell of a crybaby, aren’t you, he said.

Harry had been thinking he was being courageous but now he realized he was only scared. He looked around. I’m not crying, he said softly.

Miles was leading forcefully now, but he was walking nowhere in particular in the gloom. Harry wanted to have a plan. He was trying to think of a decent idea but nothing in the miserable cold came to him. He was angry at Miles for bending his heroism into cowardice. At the same time, he kept thinking that Miles might be right and that they would come across something over the next hillock, a house, a highway. But there were only more downs and darkness, and in the night that enveloped the mountains the wind was biting and the cold more hostile. It was back to snowing now, and it was a wet snow that smashed into the face and eyes. The idea of the road beckoned before Harry, but it was only an idea, not a fact, and anyway their path seemed to be taking them only deeper into the dark mountains, farther away from safety. Harry now had to summon up strength not to let down. The way ahead had become a blur, and his hands and feet and face were numb and aching and his legs had turned into bags of frigid sand. He imagined himself stopping to sit down as Miles had—now it seemed like not such a bad idea. He knew there was some irony in it somewhere, but he couldn’t locate it. He wanted to say something to Miles, who was now wandering off erratically in the bleakness, circling, drifting, falling, disappearing.

Then Harry was alone. It was very quiet. He was amid trees. The snow was falling softly on him, collecting in the folds of his coat and on the skin of his face, the snow beneath him a soft bed on which to lie.

There was a question and there were two answers, and the biggest answer was that here in this high land all that really mattered was the wind and the rock and the snow, which was as it had been forever and forever would be. But there was also another answer, small and fragile in the circumstances, which was that there were pockets where people gathered on this cold crust, places where, despite all, or perhaps because of all, they made up reasons.

He didn’t even know if he was still walking when he first thought he saw the light in the distance. In the mist of the falling snow it shimmered and swirled like an apparition, even gaining in intensity as he struggled to force his body to cooperate. He raged through the night to get to it, but the more he lunged the more it faded on itself. He thought he saw it everywhere and nowhere, wavering, swimming, dimming, and then it was gone, snuffed out. He stood sobbing in the snow, feeling Miles’s absence like a knife.

It took Harry a while to find him, because he couldn’t walk, he could only project himself one leg at a time, following first his own and then Miles’s footprints along their tortuous route. And when he did, Harry thought at first that his partner might be sleeping. But then Miles seemed to lift an arm, which Harry took as an indication that he was to sit down beside him. Take a load off, cowboy. Miles might have said.

Through the reticulation of the trees, stars shown brightly from a clear sky, casting dappled patterns everywhere on the snow. Glad I found you, Harry said, barely able to speak.

Harry listened for a long time to the soft silence, and after a while he heard in it the faintest strands of a song, a distant whining song of the snowmobiles that were looking for them. Eventually, that song was the only thing that was real in the land of the cold and the snow and the starry sky.

 

Geoffrey J. Huck is a linguist, writer, and editor. He lives in Toronto where he teaches in the English Department at York University. He is currently working on a satirical novel about life as a graduate student. In his spare time he races sailboats.