(c) Dave Wood
  Barry Judson Lohnes was born in Lewiston, Maine, the third of six children. Most of his adult life has been spent in the service of our young. Though he earned an M.A. in History from the University of Maine, he has taught in a number of different disciplines. His background includes three years service with the United States Marine Corps during the turbulent sixties. He remains an anti-war activist, and has published work in the MARINER’S MIRROR (London), the Maine Historical Society’s QUARTERLY, the LARCOM REVIEW, NORTHWOODS ANTHOLOGY, and the NEW ENGLAND WRITERS’ NETWORK. Also, he has published numerous book reviews.  


Fall 2007

Table of Contents - Vol. III, No. 3

Poetry    Translations    Interview    Essays    Fiction    Book Notes & Reviews

 

Barry Judson Lohnes

 

Precipice

The nearer the soul approaches Him, the blacker is
the darkness which it feels and deeper is the obscurity
which comes through its weakness.


-- St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul, Book II, Chapter XVI

A shroud of white powder spewed from the sinewy, scarred hands.

“You can’t climb rocks alone anymore, James,” the girl pleaded, as she stood glaring, hands on hips. “It is just a matter of time before you fall and kill yourself, and you know it!” She watched him scrape chalk into his climber’s pouch. “And you know it,” she repeated, tightening a muslin apron around her distended abdomen. “It’s not good for you to climb--especially with your condition.”

The young man nodded, folding the cover of the chalk box before returning it to the cupboard. He glanced at the kitchen clock. The hands pointed to twelve, high noon. He looked at his wife, perplexed. ‘”Listen, Jenn, I’ve cut the grass, gone to the dump, and painted one side of the rickety-ass porch--I’ve done everything that you asked, and then some--”

“Except spend time with me!” Jenn’s nose reddened, the usual precursor to tears.

The young man faltered, desperate to stave off the trauma of a woman’s tears. “Tell me what you would like me to do--I’ll do it . . . but don’t cry, Jenn.”

“I thought we could look for a play pen at the used furniture stores, that’s all,” she muttered, staring at a grease spot on the carpet, then poking it with her bare foot.

James looked at his wife’s distended belly, bulbous with child. He snapped shut the black chalk bag and hefted it, making sure he had enough; without it the sweat from his hands would prevent him from holding on to the Devil’s Head, dark and vertical.

“Jenn, we have a solid month before the baby is due--we won’t need a play pen for a few weeks after that.” He looked at his wife fondly, thinking her to be the most alluring woman that he could imagine, even without makeup.

“You don’t think I’m pretty anymore with this big belly,” she added, with an affected whimper.

James hugged his wife, taking care not to put pressure on her abdomen. He tasted the salt on her skin and the fresh soap on her neck. “I do, Jenn, you are beautiful,” he whispered into her hair. “More beautiful than anyone.”

“You don’t hug and kiss me any more,” she added.

“I just want to be gentle with the baby, honey,” he replied, sugary voiced.

She looked up, tilting her head, smiling slightly. “Are you sure, James?”

“Damn sure,” he said, kissing her lips.

“What time will you be home?”

“Five o’clock--and this will be the last time before the baby, I promise.”

“Oh, sure,” she said, messaging a shin with the arch of the other foot. “That’s what you always say.”

He hugged his wife, feeling the leaden baby pressing against his abdomen. The kitchen smelled of bacon rind, broiled at breakfast after they had snuggled warmly under the down quilt. “See you later, my sweet.” He patted her back three times, the universal signal that ends embraces.

“Come back to me honey man,” she crooned, pulling her palm over his crotch.

James burst from the frame house, focusing on the saw tooth ridges, ash gray in the rich rays of the noon sun. Dark clouds seeped in from the northwest, appearing stillborn and sooty against the bright blue sky. Moisture beaded on the hood of his old truck, the residue of a hard, killing frost during the night of a hunter’s moon.

Jimma, did you take your medicine? Jenn yelled from the tilting gray porch.

He gave her the peace sign, waving his two fingers. “Yes,” he shouted. He backed out of the gravel drive, then opened the window to pitch shiny turquoise capsules in the scrub crabgrass lining the shoulder of the road.

He parked the truck at the base of the mountain. The precipice rose steeply behind a thicket of beech trees surrounding an abandoned homestead. Gray boards splayed from the stone foundation, like outriggers, keeping the cellar hole from being swallowed by the tall grass. A rusted harrow and an overturned hay baler sat forlornly amid golden yarrow and fireweed--testimony to a farmer’s abject failure. The broken hardware reminded James of history book pictures: war weapons jettisoned by beaten soldiers, fleeing the field of battle, unable to sustain the horror.

A family of marmots stood watch as James attached his powder bag to his waist on his right side, and tied his canvas-covered canteen to the opposite side. He looked at the granite escarpment as he double-knotted his sticky-soled climbing shoes, the only technical luxury that he afforded himself. For insulation against the stinging winds of the higher elevations he wore ragged orange Adidas wind pants with elastic ankles. Tied around his waist was a lime pullover found in the Never Summer Mountains, stuck between two slabs of granite, as if stashed by someone who planned to return. His pockets bulged with hard candy, eaten to renew precious energy, soon to be sapped by the intense ascent.

Adjustments made in his clothing, James looked behind. Stalking the marmots was a female red fox, pointed faced, with ears prominently elevated. The predator and the climber stared at each other, the vixen casually keeping her distance. In the warmth of the sun James scrambled up the steep scree toward the Devil’s Head, a nine hundred foot slab that leaned inward at a sixty degree angle--a tangle of cracks and splits, interrupted by overhangs. Most of those who took on the escarpment climbed in teams, using ropes and a series of belays. James climbed without aid, using his arms and legs as a system of levers--it was man against monolith. “Stay,” he hollered at the dark clouds, no longer stationary, moving to blot the sun. When the scree tapered to solid wall he powdered his hands and mapped his course, nervous that the salt and pepper clouds brushed toward the sun. With powdered fingers he found handholds on the smooth wall, pincers jammed into hair-line fissures, using the strength in his legs to push while his hands pulled. He crimped his fingers around the minute outcroppings, memorizing the ones that would be suitable for footholds. Inside a small chimney, he encountered clumps of mountain asters, looking colorful and incongruous against the stark headwall. In the crevice, he used the strength from his arms and legs to wedge against the walls, resting his hands and feet. At two hundred feet, he drank deeply from the canteen and stuffed candies into his mouth, snorting to breathe. Resting his forehead against the cool granite, he smelled the moldy odor of the ancient lichen, wondering about all that had taken place in front of the headwall since the beginning of time. What secrets could it tell?

Squawking in a monotone, coal-black ravens circled, chasing mountain kingfishers from their nests so they could feed on their young. James smiled nervously when he thought of the ravens and magpies, picking at his remains, spattered on the jagged scree two hundred feet below. Nature takes care of its own, he mused. He dipped into his chalk bag constantly, moving up the barren horn. He climbed without looking down, inured with the wisdom of a seasoned rock climber: “Fifty foot falls kill the same as five hundred foot falls." Using pitons abandoned by rope climbers and pinching to find shallow erosion pockets, James climbed skyward, his white chalk splotches resembling sea bird droppings on an ocean cliff. At one point he put his hands in a crack and pulled, staying on place by pushing with his legs--laybacking the crack.

At six hundred feet the dark clouds screened the sun. Snow flurries whirled around him, chased away by freezing drizzle. He slipped, but caught himself by jamming a fist in a fault line--he did it expertly, keeping his thumb free to use as a lever, increasing the power of his hand jam. He looked up and saw the underside of the last overhang, ten feet above. With his heart thumping he paused to reload with hard candies, hoping that he could find the energy to reach the summit. James knew, in sweet consolation, once climbers reached the top, gentle switch backs led to the base--a walk in the park. He concentrated to stop shaking; he didn’t take the time to wonder whether it was the cold or pure fear. Yet, amidst the shaking he sweated hard; ice crystals coated the hair on the back of his neck. His dried sweat smelled like stale onions.

Gathering strength, he chanced to look out, seeing if anyone was down below who might help him. He saw Haven Johnson’s Red Chevy pickup parked next to his Toyota. Two faint stick figures stood in front of the pickup, close to each other. What was Haven Johnson doing out here? He doesn’t climb, James thought. Maybe he brought a girl out here. Haven was known for putting girls above everything else. The young men at the high school harangued Haven for having ‘pussy on the brain.’ Haven sallied from one girl to another, always having one on his arm. He seldom participated in sports and slept through most classes, saving energy to chase women. To Haven, girls were oxygen.

“Concentrate James,” he rasped. “Concentrate, or you will die.” The wind whipped rivets of ice into his hands and face. He reached in his chalk bag, surprised to feel a scrunched up piece of paper. He jammed his lead hand into the crack and took the sore hand out. His fingers wrapped around part of the wrapper from his chalk box. Through wind burned eyes he read: James the baby is not yours. How do you like that? “Oh shit,” he shouted, causing his foot to slip. Only a painful elbow jam kept him from falling. The paper swirled away, tossed by an up draft. As he struggled to gain a foothold he felt granite chips pepper his torso, followed by the sound of a gun shot. He looked back to see a figure, leaning across the hood of the Chevy pickup. A puff of smoke lingered in the heavy air, settling in front of the Chevy. Then he felt another bullet hit the granite wall to his right. The ring of ravens circled noisily, frightened by the sound reverberating off the cirque. Another veil of smoke. Now he knew what was going on. Haven and Jennie were in it together--Haven was shooting at the cliff, not trying to shoot him, but shooting close to make him fall. It was no wonder that Jenn had taken that big insurance policy on him just two months ago. ‘Give the baby an education in case something happened to you, Jimma boy.’

With granite chips flying about, he waited until his hand melted the black ice before he could switch hands to continue climbing. Then quickly, he raised a foot to gain the hold before the rock froze again. He followed the fissure to the top, jamming his bloody fists into small cracks whenever he started to slip. The intense pain in his hands caused tears to stream from his eyes. “You dirty bastards,” he cursed, saying it over and over. The chalk had clotted with blood, turning his hands a coral color. He climbed slowly, melting the thin film of ice with frostbitten hands, then moving to the next glazed surface.

Dusk had descended on the Devil’s Head when James’ heel hooked over the top, clothing encrusted with black ice. A high pitched, delirious whine came from his mouth, as he stared over the edge. Wracked by the pain of lactic acid in his muscles, he saw only his battered Toyota--the Chevy and the two stick figures were gone. He screamed over the abyss. “Haven, you rotten bastard, you can eat shit and bark at the moon!” Then he turned over and muttered: “Jennie, I’m done with you for good. Yippee ding!” He laughed hysterically. “Freedom!” He prayed to good God Almighty that this was not one of his hallucinations. “Oh God, let it be real, let it be really real," he thought, as his laugh evolved to tittering falsetto. “Freeeeedom!” He raised a bleeding fist toward the inky clouds above him, before his eyes closed and his spent body sagged against broken stones.

Within shouting distance three homely black ravens perched on a horizontal block of granite. Patiently, they stared at James with hollow-eyed hunger, an instinct displayed by stalking predators since the Devil’s Head was thrust up in a prehistoric tectonic cataclysm.

Back home, Jenn closed the squeaky door of Haven’s truck. “Thanks for taking me to see James, Haven—you are a good friend. It’s his last climb--thank God.”

Haven waved from behind the wheel. “Any time, Jenn.” Too bad she’s married to a friend of mine, he thought.  

 

Barry Judson Lohnes

Poetry    Translations    Interview    Essays    Fiction    Book Notes & Reviews

   
     

Webpage Copyright 2005-6 by Loch Raven Review.