Only High Upon The Mountain
rating: +8+x

A weary campground. It holds a fire. Spires of red. Light visible for miles. And inside the light there are two figures. Locked in sudden, brute conflict. Each wrestling for control of the other. They claw. They bite. Eventually. One grabs a rock and swings with it. Swings hard. Then, a thud. The other twitches for a second. Falls limp. Then, careens into the flame. The red spires shoot upward. Like they could touch space.

Part 1

Madly does the man sail through the oceans of sand awaiting, some ever-sweltering dunic variant of Ahab manic in his own becoming. More literally he crawls across it. Inch by inch. Paws his hands through mounds of the searing hot buildup, setting each his digits ablaze. The nerves beneath the tips of them battered and ever faltering with each subsequent handful of scorching stimulant. The rest of his hands covered in bright red lines and boils, fingernails chipped and bleeding or missing entirely. His body painted in swaths of orange particulate, like it had been drenched in the dryness. And in there lies not even a single molecule of water for his many systems to divide, not even a half of one. Every movement within his mouth burns him, tortures him. His throat pulsates with raw, unignorable pain. Each time he tries to stand his knees tremble and collapse and he is back down on the ground again crawling, pawing, crawling for all eternity and then some. Seconds of progress turning into decades in his head.

After a while his arms give out and he slides effortlessly into the fold of a dune. Lies there perfectly still submerged in something far beyond defeat, himself a small shriveled dot sat in the middle of a supermassive bronze canvas what harbors no border. Later he wakes to the sensation of his face melting, half submerged in sand and alight with pain from the fiery grit. He chokes out a weak gasp and swipes the sand off his right side and then coughs for several minutes on end. When he tries to sit up straight he heaves twice, then coughs up a thick trickling line of syrupy blood. He spits it out and then lies back down slightly, braces the weight of his thin body against his right arm, now plunged firmly into the sand, and then surveys the damage upon his face by gliding his left hand across it. There he struggles to register the feelings of touch as his numb fingers scan the surface of the skin, but after a moment all the data comes flowing to him. It is chapped and blistered and he can now feel thick lines of dead skin hanging off his forehead in large, definable strips. The topography is lumpy and sensitive and filled with deep inexplicable depressions that drag across the whole face. He thinks about this for a while and then moans out a crooked, desperate sort of cry for help. Sets his hand back down and crawls a few feet up to the top of the dune and stares out at the horizon with his pair of bloodshot eyes. There are waves of heat ruminating atop the distant skyline, dancing alongside the wind tremors. And beyond them, the sun, ever blazing and indignant to his plight. Near featureless and imperceptible within its own blinding emergence.

He rolls down the dune peak, kicking up clouds of sand in his wake. When he lands upon its bottom he begins the crawl towards the next hill, his hands shaking uncontrollably as he digs them into the ground once more.

He manages to produce about nine feet of distance before he passes out yet again.

By night he is only half-awake, staring up from the ground in a daze as he struggles to find any source of energy with which to propel himself forward. Now the sand has cooled, but the twilight wind that blows through the thin canyon placed between the two dunes freezes him to an absolute chill, drops his body to temperatures most lethal. He can see his own breath exhaling during the wheezes and hacking fits that try furiously to overtake him. His vision fades in and out of darkness, and in between he does not know if it is minutes that pass him by, or hours.

He is lying on his back now. Staring up at the stars. His long black hair tangled up in the sand. He places his left hand across his stomach and feels it rise and fall and rise again, and fall.

Eventually the night passes by and he lives still. By early morning he finds himself remaining in the canyon, his legs outstretched and arms clasped lazily against his stomach, his back leaning against a pile of sand and rock which marks the next dune he must climb. His eyes are only half open, so distraught with irritation that he cannot muster the strength, the courage, required to open them fully. Still he scans the ground with them. Slowly, deliberately. Tries to summon some kind of antediluvian instinct with which his primal ancestors would’ve been able to forage from for hours on end, to draw food and water from a landscape that held none apparent. He finds nothing. But hours later, as the sun finally rises to mark the end of the morning and stops to hang directly above him, he catches the glint of something shiny, sticking out the sand mounds opposite to his.

He pushes himself off the mound and falls to the ground, moving on his hands and knees over to the object. He reaches it, pushes apart the sediment with his hands and unearths the treasure. Lifts it up for his eyes to see as sand pours off its rim. It’s an old metal canteen. The cap still tightly wound onto its throat, glowing brightly as the light reflects off it. He unscrews. Lifts it to his torn lip and tilts back. And then there is water. Christ, if there isn’t water. The singed mouth and the man attached to it granted their right to live longer yet by the decree of the liquid, the savior, rushing forth into his chamber and down the throat all the way to the shriveled stomach. He kneels atop the ground and quivers for a while. Then he drinks some more, splashes a little onto his face. He drinks about half the bottle before he begins to cough. Then he screws the cap back on and clips the canteen to his belt, and rises up from the sand.


Now he is walking. Still his legs shake uncontrollably, the body atrophied from an unquenchable and ravenous hunger far more bitter than thirst. It feels like all that is left of him are the bones, and that even they are brittle and snapping with each motion. His clothes– leather accouterments full of tears– are now twice his size. He can hardly remember a time where they fit him right.

As he travels, he unclips the canteen and inspects it closely. The metal is dark gray, yet full of little silver blotches where layers of lining had chipped off and become one with the barrens. In the way of markings or text, there is nothing. Not one word to identify itself or its past owner. He wonders if maybe there was a skeleton buried alongside the water that he’d simply failed to notice in his blind delirium. The desert seemed full of them at any rate. And that perhaps the tin had once belonged to it, with its withered hands wrapped around the bottle before he’d pulled it free amidst his own childish unknowing. That it might’ve once belonged to another did not much bother him, though. If it did then they were dead and it was he, chosen by the lord as it were, who lived to carry the water for them. And that was that.

He crosses the arids for another day yet. Taking little sips of his water only every few hours at a time. Only little strings of what used to be mark his path and guide him forward. In the middle of one dust bowl sits an old Sherman tank rusting. In another he sees a half-track sticking out of the sand. Then a pile of sun-bleached helmets gathered round an old bush made but of twigs and not else more. He picks up one of them and taps the sand out of it and puts it over top of his hood and then moves on.

Later that day he spots a lone concrete building, three stories tall. All the windows gone. One gravel-lined confinement seeming to bask in its own expanse of solitude. He makes his approach slowly as to not trip on all the rocks scattered about, though it pains him to hold in his encroaching excitement. As he walks through its dilapidated doorway he can't help but grin a little, his cracked lips spreading open and bleeding from the gesture.

He searches the first floor thoroughly. It is full of wooden desks and chairs, most piled on top of each other in the center of the room right behind some sort of cobwebbed secretaries office. The furniture is all partially crushed and rotted away, and inside their drawers he finds nothing but old papers with the words practically melted off of them. He sighs, and after closing the last drawer begins to ascend the stairwell up to the next floor. It is there whereupon he bears witness to a sight somehow even more empyrean than the canteen, that which felt gifted to him by the lord himself.

Sunlight floods in through the windows of the second floor, the rays casting themselves upon what lies in wait toward the center of the otherwise empty area which he approaches:

There is a large duffle bag, itself unzipped and half full of canned food.

Oh my god, says he, oh my good god.

He carves open one of the cans with a knife that he also finds inside the bag. Then he eats for the first time in days and watches the little strings of dust float through the air while they are illuminated by the sun, before it sets and takes the light and the dust with it. After a long while he sits up and zips the bag and shoulders it over him, leaving behind two cans that he’d emptied.

On the third floor he finds a room full of partial skeletons that leads to a hallway painted in old, dried blood. In an adjacent room there is a corpse sitting at a desk with a revolver in its right hand. He yanks the revolver out of its necrotic grip and studies it, finding that five bullets remain in its six-bullet chamber. He tucks it underneath his belt next to the canteen and then descends from the top, the most sound and content he’s seemed in a long time.

Near the outside walls of the building, he crouches and scans his hands. Their muscles act nigh inoperable. Each lined with boils. At first he thinks about taking the knife to them, but after much hesitation he fails to carve. Better to let those heal on their own, he assumes. Then he takes off the helmet, lowers his hood, and brings the knife to his head to methodically slice away the chunk of dead skin what hangs off his forehead like bark peeling away from its own tree. A stream of blood rolls down in response; he rips off part of his jacket and ties it around his head to staunch the cut. Then he chews off the dead parts of his lips with his teeth and brings some water to them afterward.

He feels his face again. It remains weathered, but not as frighteningly different as it once had been. He thinks that now– with his helmet and his little makeshift bandanna– the sun and its rays will have a much harder time disfiguring his body. And that if again it seeks to hurt him, he will make sure it works for the privilege to do so.

The sun, his adversary, may god damn it to the very deepest pit of hell. He thought it little more than a tiny yellow ball of spite and pain. And could it have been possible that the sun was the very progenitor behind all this ruin around him? That it chose to doom the world itself using its deadly waves of heat, and not that mankind had signed the final warrant, all on their own volition? That not even god had his own hand in the destruct, but instead that it was his solar child whom cast the stone for him? He did not know to any such certainty, but heavily he did suspect.

He grunts and tucks his hood back up, puts on his helmet and moves ever further into the dust.


And then he is wandering in the daylight, pacing back and forth through great plains of innumerable death like some blood-sodden undertaker sent to measure his gravely bound townsfolk. He is trotting across the empty wastes, a man alone to even himself, as he ventures past visages of decay so stygian and untellable that he may never yet forget them, try as he might. He sees sand pits filled with charred bodies only half-covered by heaps of ash and tarps, with their legs and their hands sticking out of the burial ground and pitching inward. As though they sought to beckon him, to request he jump down and join them to experience the perdition what soon follows. He sees the carcasses of lizards, vultures, coyotes— all picked clean of muscle and left with stringy rags of hair and indigestible tissue to hang off their yellow-white bones. He sees craters and deep fissures interrupting the sanded earth, and the combat vehicles nearby them about ready to tip and fall in. He sees cliff-faces and canyons almost alien in their weatherly construct, and upon them he sees angry faces morphing in the rock like powerful spirits of the dead, chosen to manipulate the still living. Numerous eclectic images of the planet in its absolute final state which in their many eventually blend into the one.

What happened to himself over the last few days made him believe thoroughly in the idea of a benevolent god, but what had happened to the world around him did not, not whatsoever. Was it that his survival was random, pure chance and luck? Or were the cans and the water meant as signs that the ultimate fate of mankind dictated not the fates of any single man individual? That he would prosper whilst the world declined, both by choice of his god? Or was it all merely the law of the sun— and that just this once the sun had not yet gotten to him in time?

He hears a crack from somewhere off in the distance. A cloud of sand kicks up nearby him as something explodes with impact on the ground. He looks over and sees the glint of a scope.

Between panted breaths he sprints to a boulder fixated in the middle of the otherwise empty expanse, furiously attempting to close the distance while more shots ring out from behind him in the hills far beyond. As he nears closer to cover, one such shot pierces his lower left thigh and sparks up a flare of irrefutable pain. He ducks and falls behind the rock and clutches his leg tightly as dark blood flows from it. He gasps, on the verge of tears. Unties the dirty bandanna from his forehead and twists it above the bullet entrance in a tourniquet. He sees no exit on the other side of his leg. One more shot flies out and marks the left side of the boulder where he had been not just a moment ago, and then the firing stops. Far away he can hear the sound of the attacker fumbling with their rifle with haste. He glances upward. He can see them crouched atop a small hill, frantically sliding a clip of bullets into the chamber of some wood-lined bolt-action rifle. For a moment he thinks about raising his own gun and returning fire but then reasons that the distance is too vast for his own shot to ever land. He ducks back down before the sniper finishes reloading and tries to compose himself with deep, spaced intakes and exhales.

A beat passes and neither man acts. The assailant lays dormant atop the hill and the man clings tightly to the rock. Then the man starts to think carefully. Slowly as not to indicate himself to the sniper, he unsheathes his knife. Then he ducks very low to the ground and removes his helmet before placing it atop the point of the knife. With his right hand he raises the knife— and so to the helmet— up above the rock. The hill cracks in response and the helmet goes flying; quickly he sheathes the knife back into place and leans against the rock as though he were a dead man.

Soon he can hear the sound of sand kicking up as the sniper descends from their hill. His heart is pounding so fast, faster than it ever has. He tries to suppress his shaky breaths but it is nigh impossible. He tries to listen, tries to gauge the space between them as the footsteps grow closer and closer. No doubt the attacker has his gun at the ready. But so does he.

He waits another minute and then springs up from the rock with his revolver wrapped underneath both hands. The attacker is close, much closer than he had anticipated. He swings his aim over slightly to compensate and then fires two shots square into the sniper before he can react; the assailant twists and then falls dead.

He paces up to the sniper who now lies on the ground and puts another bullet into his head. If only to be sure.

Then he frantically retreats back to the rock. Stares over at the corpse from a distance for quite a while. His leg burning, heart thumping, a headache slowly overtaking his mind. Some time later he tucks the gun back into his belt and makes another approach.

And he sees that the corpse was but another man. With a brown beard and thick, bushy eyebrows. No hair atop his head. Large dust-warding goggles covering his eyes. Gray robes on him with some sort of symbol painted onto the torso, now defaced by two fresh, large holes. In death he clutches onto his rifle as if it were some newborn child.

He searches him but finds nothing. He considers taking the rifle but decides against it.

He limps over to the rock and leans against it once more. Stares up at the sky. His leg bleeding and in so much pain, the tourniquet not nearly tight enough. He gets to thinking about the body and how long its been since last he saw another man living. Even longer since he spoke with one.

Above him, the sun. Ever flaming and still yet indignant, even in the face of godly-protected men and their broad, systemic collapses. He aims his revolver at it and pantomimes the act of shooting it, but then lowers the gun and muses at how such things are impossible.

Part 2

She is a trapper and an explorer. She is a seeker; she is a breadth of parchment unfurled and unfinished, and later she is pen marks and annotations and little sparking lines. She is a small fire burning at night. She is a vision of the sun rising through the desert to cast light over the land it claims. She is grabbing her things, she is leaving after dawn. She is a tarp stamping out the embers, and then she is a dead fire wilting. She is a trail of footsteps emerging from an abandoned plume of smoke. And she is walking, walking further, always walking. She is old boots crumbling away from all the walking, all the damned walking.

She is the one who survives. One whom uses her strong, rough hands of the adept to dredge through lands each most hazardous. Her brown hair always kept short, oily and matted over, tinted with the dust from the many winds in their ever blowing. She's tall, she's very thin. Most everyone left is. But she's of sturdy build, and clad in even sturdier gear. An old handkerchief hangs off the tip of her nose to cover her mouth, to cover most her face. A pair of goggles protect her eyes at all given times. Then there lies a second pair in her jacket pocket, just in case. On her back there's a varnished rifle made during the old times, and it hangs next to a flexible cloth bag filled with supplies, filled with her precious maps. The cartography in them tells of the desert and its ruin, and little else. Every day she marks the progress of her journey east, but rarely does it change.

Today she passes by more ruins, more threats. First she spots a couple of people glimmering atop the horizon through the lens of her rifle scope. Tiny black scorch marks, like cave drawings of humans, their limbs thinning into sticks as the sun behind engulfs them. She has to sit and wait until the people disappear into the skyline, and then she has to change her course so that she's positioned further south, further away from them. Moving diagonally is inefficient— to her its hell. But she does it for the better part of the morning until she finally decides that she's placed enough distance between herself and the two strangers, and then goes back to walking in a straight line. All hours of all days of all weeks, all straight lines east, all walking. How long has she been moving? Can she even remember? There has to be something east. There has to be.

She sees a desolate park bench sitting in a drained basin. Chipped wood and rusted iron rungs. Splinters gathered around it, pointing out of the sand. No carvings.

She sees the drained blue body of a man stretched out on the ground. Gnats buzzing around him. Nothing in his pockets.

She sees a buzzard circling high above her; she shoots it, cooks it, eats it. Tastes like nothing.

She sees a faded billboard. Somehow still standing. On it there are various messages, some written with markers and others written in paint. People have left names, locations, plans— dates. The earliest one is from '49. Then the dates keep climbing. '50, '51, '52. So on and so forth. Until there are no messages left.

Not far from the billboard, she sees an old shack. She smells rot before she even enters it. Inside there are dozens of bodies entangled and drooping. Curled faces like they were smiling in death. But they weren't. They were burning.

And maybe he believed in a god controlling or in the sun adversarial, but she does not. She doesn't want to believe in anything other than east. And she never tries to think about what had occurred to the world other than in the simplest of terms; before and then after. And she never tries to remember the people she'd known in the before and how suddenly they’d all shrunk underneath the heat. Or to remember how the whites of their teeth had shined so brightly in that frenzied glow as their own matter began to shimmer, rise and fall, and rise, and collapse. Their flesh like seismographs alert during that ultimate moment. Or how no amount of wide-eyed staring could ever allow her to comprehend the sights she saw on the corner streets, the men sliding inside of the melting asphalt and becoming one with it. Like an extinct species fossilized so painfully, so instantly. And how no amount of thought— no amount of thought— would ever make it make sense to her, what the present world was. And so she tries to never think about any of it, to never believe in any of it. And so she fails to, every single night, as restlessly she again struggles to enter her sacred sleep state.

Her face is wiry and deeply unset. Something ferally off hiding in even her plainest of expressions. There are black rings tracing her eyes. And the eyes themselves, always heavy, always full. Red as if the thoughts could be allergic. To her they really could've been. Could've been to anyone stuck walking that desert. And sometimes she catches herself talking to no one, like a rogue preacher of religions unknown. The words coming out her mouth involuntarily, always nonsense yearning, or so she assumes after they have been said.

She sharpens a knife against a rock for hours. Scrapes it slow, lifts back up, and slides down again. Suddenly, she blinks. Looks down at the blade in her palm. Sheaths it real quietly. Then she resumes the walk.

Later she sits atop a boulder on a cliff and overlooks the land with her newest map unfurled. Beyond is more of the same. Ridiculous. She'd walked so very far, but the ground never altered. Like it were on a perfect loop that she couldn't quite parse. Were all the seas covered by sand as well? Impossible. She looks down, makes a little doodle of the bench and the billboard and the shack. Next to the shack she scribbles a note— don't go. She's not sure who this is written for.

Another day walking. The blazing easts fouled in their dehydration. Everything is swaths of dark remnant, everything is sunken or hollow or deformed, everything is something that used to be. Everything a carcass of itself.

Once this was all grassland. Now the essence of any living thing feels like some rare commodity. Only coyotes and wolves prowling the plains in search of prey that no longer exists. Their paws methodical as they prance over the dunes alone, backs arched and teeth bared. Covered in sun. They kill each other, eat each other to survive.

In her peripherals she notices a figure not far from herself. The scope magnifies it. A man, an old man. He wears frail gray garments. She can't see a weapon on him. He seems to move on the approach.

She fires a warning shot into the nearby sand, and the old man raises his hands upward. She jogs up to him with the gun in both arms, aimed at his gut.

"You alone?" She says.

"Ain't we all?" Says he.


By night a trade is dealt. She will build the fire and he will bring the food. And so he disappears for a while as she sparks the stones and later he returns with a few cans that they split evenly. They sit on opposite sides of the burning. Her rifle leaned against a rock next to herself.

"What's your plan?" She asks. Her voice is raspy and quiet and the words it makes just barely choke out of her.

"Naut fixin on desert death, if'n that's what ye mean. No ma'am. This one got to find his mountin."

And he sticks out a thumb and points it at himself, and slowly lowers it and goes back to eating. His voice is loud, cantankerous. Crazy Old Man, she thinks. His bald head covered in grime, blackened by it. The flames of the fire cast shadows atop him like streaks on a canvas as his face grows dimmer and dimmer with the daylight ever fading. No stars in the sky. They went out far too long ago.

"What mountain?"

"The mountin! Ye ain't seen it? I seen it ever day."

He raises a jittery hand and waves it back and forth in a confused gesture that she doesn't comprehend.

"Caint see it at naght, 'course. Only durn the day. But ye do see it if'n ye look hard. Theys a mountin out yonder, coverd in thick snow, an I means to scale it an I means to live on tawp it. Or die on tawp it. At any rate, I'll be aways from all this damn sand!"

And he laughs in a sporadic fit like a child told a dirty joke. His mouth hung wide open and his teeth— or what was grayed and left of them— exposed and beaming in the firelight.

"And— and— hehe— an ye, an I— I seen the mountin ever damn day! Ever day, ever day. An I git a lil closer too! Ever day, yes'm."

"Well I've never seen it."

"Huh! If ye nare seen the mountin, then what could you're plan be?"

"I'm sticking in one direction. I should hit the coast that way."

His smile fades slowly, piece by piece. His eyes glow red in the dark like a cats.

"Lady. Theys ain't no coast left. Drained isself. Thought ever one knew that."

"But that's not even possible, is it?."

"Missy. Ever thang possible in this world."

"I guess we'll see."


They resume eating. A crow calls in the distance and the old man snaps up and stares into the pitch for minutes, and then looks back down at his can.

"I ain't seen a person in… God!"

"Yeah. Me neither."

"Aye. So ye travel alone as well?"

She looks up to make eye contact with the old man, but he remains fixated on his food.

"Always better that way, I reckon. But it makes ye question yerself, yes it does. Ye get brought to do thangs ye never thought yerself capable of."

"Like what?"

"Well, I don't know. Little thangs. Theys always addin' up."

Quiet around the camp for a while. The crackling of the flame and the wind of the dunes. She wonders if anyone is speaking right now, or if it must be a silent planet habited solely by silent men. Every desert gone mute during the wake of the world. But he breaks the quiet.

"The mountin is real. I know that."

"Then so is the coast."

"If ye ain't have the truth to prove it, then no it ain't."

"What's your proof in the mountain?"

"I got faith. And I got sight."

"I don't think faith is real anymore. It was lost the day the world became sand. What you have is an imitation."

"Watch yer tongue. Ye are not the arbiter of what is and ain't."

"Neither are you."

"But I seen it. Hell, I seen it just this morning!"

"But I haven't. Not even once. Must be a mirage…"

"Ain't no damned mirage,"

"The desert is full of them, old man."

And then they eat in a different kind of silence for another few minutes. It must be an angry planet. Confused and lost and festering within its spite and abandon.

"Ye will see it this morning. Sure as the sun will rise. Ye will."

"No, I won't. I'm going to leave tonight, once I'm done here. You can keep the fire. You can keep your mountain."

"Ye will see it. Ye will see it."

"I will not,"

"But ye have to."

And the heat grew dense and they stared at each other through the flickering flames, and they stayed still as the wind broke its dancing lines and parted it so that they could better view each other, orange and dim and drenched in shadow and something else, something frustrated and primitive. And they had stopped eating out of their cans, but not because they had ran out nor because they had grown full.


By the next day the old man sets forth on his path toward the mountain, and sees that it shines as strong as ever. Superimposed on the sky so large and beautiful. Its many creeks and valleys gleaming and morphing under the morning brightness. He thinks that it grows larger with each passing day. He'd be damned if he wasn't positive of that. But the desert was so full of mirages and the coast was so far, and the mountain was so far, and they both could fade into nothing so quickly, that he could never be so truly sure of them or of anything.

Months later. He sees a figure moving in the far distance. A scrawny thing. Real frail. Long strands of black hair sticking out an old war helmet.

Were they, too, headed for the mountain?

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