It wasn’t the uphill, it was the downhill that was difficult on the icy parts of the trail. Gravity doesn’t help in these situations. JJ hiked carefully down the steep section between Sheep Mountain and the little valley below the ridge. An ashen gray sky, very close to the ground, and a couple inches of hard icy snow crunching underfoot. Seventeen degrees and the dead of winter.
JJ stopped and it was suddenly quiet without the crunching of his boots. There was a distant hum from the interstate on the far side of the mountain and then he heard, as if an echo of his own movement, crunching footsteps coming up from the valley below. A shape moving through the trees below, coming straight up the trail. JJ waited for him.
The man was intent on his climbing, trudging sure-footed at a good clip, and he only noticed JJ when about ten feet away. The man stopped, unsurprised. “White-tailed deer,” he said, gasping a little.
“White-tailed deer. Back that way,” he said and pointed back down the trail. He was catching his breath. “Three of them. Ran up the rocks like it was nothing.”
“Yeah. And did you notice the winter trees. The bare branches reach for the sky like capillaries. Or blood vessels. Without the leaves I mean. The silhouettes of the branches reach into the sky, yearning. And they get nothing. Not this time of year.”
“I do get the capillary thing. Not the yearning, though. They’re kind of beautiful.”
“Yeah. Kind of like a lot of these people everywhere, reaching for something that can’t be had. Reaching for the sky, but stuck in the ground. Beautiful but doomed to be stuck.”
“Isn’t that human nature?”
“It’s just nature. Some people are birds, soaring. Or song birds, perky and social. Some are burrowers, like possums, nocturnal. Many people are trees, rooted and stuck in place.”
“What are you?”
The man took off his hat and looked up at the sky. Mucus was frozen in his moustache and his sweaty head steamed in the cold. “I haven’t figured that out yet. Maybe I’ll never know.” He put his hat back on. “Which are you?”
JJ thought of Lila and not drinking anymore and the money he won. “I think I was a dying tree that’s turning into something else.”
“Yeah. Sometimes there’s magic at work. Alchemy.” He looked hard at JJ. “I’ve had a lot of time alone.”
“Take care,” he said and continued trudging up the path. JJ noticed the spikes attached to the bottom of his boots, gripping the ice, giving traction.
“I want more traction,” JJ said to himself. “I’m no bird. But, I don’t want to be a tree stuck and reaching to an uncaring sky.” He thought of the white-tailed deer, bounding effortlessly up the hill. He had seen them up here as well, usually in the morning or near sunset. They were silent and watchful, ready to move, graceful, and always in a small group.
“I’m definitely a land animal,” he thought. He started back down the trail, careful of the icy spots, picking his way gingerly. “I’m no deer, though. That’s for sure.”