Fog rolled down the mountain. Clouds descending, snagging on tree tops like flannel on loose nails. Bowing didn’t know where she would find herself, but she hoped there would be a cache of hers nearby. This was her sole stray thought while in the fog she had before failed to follow the three-eyed stag into.
Once they had walked to where the ground was no longer underfoot; once Bowing had taken some breaths to make sure she could still breathe in the thick moisture, an open and flowing sense permeated across the grey and through her. Bowing was aware they were moving, even if she stood still the fog continued with her in it. She considered her sole stray though, and then jogged to catch up to the stag that hadn’t stopped its amble.
This was not a spirit realm, nor were they going there, it was understood. And while they walked, they made no more or less progress than wherever the fog traversing the mountainside took them.
Bowing understood these things as she understood Qel when the swamp spirit was expressing herself without words. The type of bond they shared as Guide and Guided was created by the fog between herself and the stag.
Without communing, and without shifting.
The extent of relief Bowing felt was easily registered by the three-eyed stag, who had been expressing the safety of the space they were sharing.
It huffed, heading straight on without a turn of its head to glance to the woman adjusting to the surreal conditions.
“Should I talk?” she asked, following suit and looking ahead. “Or,” she gestured a hand outwards.
There was the consideration that the three-eyed stag didn’t know English, or any human language, and so certainly didn’t speak any like Qel had learned to.
Which was perhaps a barrier: limited to pure expression without defined concepts – no words. But Bowing felt instantly more comfortable without mandated speech. There was no expectation for her to form words into sentences, to follow social guidelines of conversation. She was happy to purely express.
The stag’s shoulders rose and fell with even rhythm and the force of moving mountains.
Bowing wasn’t sure she was equipped to deal with this. Faced with the scope of power and existence she played a part in, Bowing felt she was barely functional here on the mountain.
Assurance rippled from the stag that she was, in fact, quite good at what she did and knew.
There was just so, so much more.
The stag appreciated that Bowing acknowledged this.
There were entities, there were creatures, there were cycles, and natural foundations to the land that Bowing had yet to experience or come to know. Some of these, she would most likely have to.
As much as Bowing understood the sense of obligation on her with her duties on the mountain, this new push to do more was unnerving. It wasn’t something she was being forced to do, but something she’d have to do eventually. Something she was okay with, but as something impending, it was something to be anxious about.
The stag understood and didn’t press the issue, Bowing started to understand the terror’s view of the stag as an alright person.
She couldn’t tell how long they walked without either sharing anything. It was however long it took for Bowing to take to the idea of foreboding future, and to quell her gut reaction of anxiety. The distance they covered in this span of time was incomprehensible; there was no view of the landscape they passed through, no way to ascertain speed or direction. Back to the initially proposed thought – the things Bowing would need to do – the stag tossed its head upwards and exhaled through its teeth.
It expressed concern. For the mountains, for the things to come, for the inhabitants.
Bowing got the dreadful sense this was much more than the stag presenting the broadness of her future. That something might be wrong. The stag assured there was time.
She squinted at the antler’d beast, not one of the three eyes meeting her gaze. “Something’s wrong.”
The stag turned to stare somewhere over the top of Bowing’s head, into the enclosing fog. Its step, previously casual, was now heavy and straining with force. Something was always wrong, would always be, and the test was how one dealt with it and its affects. Difficulties were a part of life like any, challenges presented learning opportunities and experiences that defined an individual.
Bowing resisted rolling her eyes at the platitidues of the terrifying creature that had a 50% advantage on the eyerolling front.
A huff followed that Bowing had to take for a laugh. They both understood how heavyhanded a platitude was.
Sarcastically, Bowing put forth appreciation for their common stance on platitudes. She inquired about the tangent, though not as a tactic to avoid the primary topic – about her extended responsibility.
Hooves solid standing on and amongst fog, the stag reminded Bowing there was a lot to come and that which had come before was the experience and tools to forge ahead.
It was important, to recognize one’s previous realities.
Bowing barely had the time to agree before sensing the stag’s finality, and then she was fumbling. The ground that she had been walking on that wasn’t there was no longer there. She slipped through the clouds that were crawling through pine branches.
Grey rock flashed past her eyes before they closed with impact, her mouth shut quickly before frigid waters reached above her head.
Pulling herself out of the snow-fed river, Bowing was an icy-gripped, flailing, trail of wet up a rocky shore to the trees. She was a sputtering mess, coughing out the water she had inhaled through her nose, spitting curses onto the sparse stone as she made her way onto dirt and bush.
Snow-fed rivers were never anything but too cold. A threat of illness for a soaked, clothed Bowing lying in the shade.
She groaned, compiled her resolve, and started stripping off what clothes she had still been wearing when she had stepped into the fog with the stag. Her bralette was on a tree branch, pants and shirt left in the sun on the rocks. The immediate surroundings were scanned; she needed to know where she was, which way was home, and where the nearest cache was.
Two things were very certain:
She was awake. The ‘refreshing’ plunge kept her aware of every chilled nerve.
The sun was in the wrong place.
Judging by the peaks, she wasn’t quite on the other side of the mountain, but in the very least well onto some other ridge. The river she had pulled herself out of had cliff on the opposite side – the side she wanted to be on – and judging by its speed, she had been far upstream when she had dropped out of the fog.
A silent moment was spent thanking the precision of greater beings, that she hadn’t been dropped through trees onto rockface.
She had maybe four hours to dusk, had wet clothes, and had nothing but stones to perform retrieval with. She also had a cache a twenty minute hike away that she decided was more beneficial to her than hoarding daylight. The brush she traversed in waterlogged boots and naught else. At the cache she acquired a hunting knife, emergency supplies, a tuque from Shannon had knitted, and the flannel everything had been wrapped in.
Draped in green and red plaid, she picked her way back to the riversite of drying clothes while making the decision to put the thickest, wooliest socks she could in every cache she had on the mountain.
Some ten yards from her site, Bowing slowed a fraction.
“Holy shit you are a naked person.”
Bowing twisted towards the voice, supplies pressed firmly against her side and hunting knife in hand. “Care to show yourself?”
She watched as the glimpse of someone 'respectfully' hiding themselves behind a tree stepped out. They were burdened with an oversized, overstuffed mountaineering backpack and Bowing's first thought was pants, followed by a second thought that this person's pants would not to fit her.
“Uhm, I'm Jashça, I'm hiking across, well, far, very far and was trying to find the river, or the river that's supposed to be in this area. I hope I have the right river.” They were clearly red in the face but by both fluster and exertion hiking. Their rambling speech was in their head voice, with stammered words and inquisitive peaks.
“River's over here, Jashça.” Bowing nodded in the direction she was headed and continued on her way.
Jashça spent a hesitant moment rocking on their toes, before following Bowing through the brush. They stared firmly at her distractingly squelching boots. “So.”
“I took a plunge in the river. Which's how I'm so pretty sure where it is.” She returned the knife to her supplies under one arm so as to button her flannel. Once making the rocky beach, she struggled out of her shoes and headed for her damp undershorts. Behind her, Jashça rushed eagerly ahead with no footing on the rocky beach and faceplanted into the cold water.
Bowing was still frowning at her pants when Jashça emerged from the water, hair streaming water over the collar of a sweat-stained shirt. “Should have took my glasses off maybe,” they said, holding them in front of his face with little tangible regret. He hung them from his soaking collar before acquiring every possible container he carried to fill with water.
“Get a little lost?” Bowing asked. Humans weren't something she dealt with very often. While they were technically not in her jurisdiction as part of the mountain, they were her jurisdiction since she happened to also be human. And therein something that could upset the ecosystem, just as any overgrowth of brambles.
“Well,” Jashça didn't look up from his task, drinking half of a waterskin and filling it again. “I'm working off this chart, or map that's a little old. And I'm not well-versed in this mountain doing thing.Well, I know mountains, and I hike. Lots of hiking, but the actual travel mountains– Like, getting over a mountain to another–”
“What's your goal?”
“I got here through Rabbit Valley, but none of the trains get to the west side of this peak so I was just gonna climb it?”
“But you don't do the 'mountain doing thing'?” Bowing had to give Jashça props for effort, but subtracted points for reckless endangerment of themself with the potential for death. Nothing could balance mortal endangerment. “I know that side of the mountain.”
“Want a look at my map? It's old but–” Jashça started, then continued with a trademark ramble.
Bowing wanted nothing more than a look at the map, she carefully expressed none of this eagerness when Jashça looked her way mid-stammered word with a hand perched over their pack already. “Sure.”
The map was older than Bowing would have imagined. Jashça had pulled it out of his pack without ceremony, but passed it over with care. She paid her respect to the sheet of paper likely as old as her bicycle. The date in the corner affirmed her estimation. Taking seat on a boulder, she studied the map.
Jashça passed her a granola bar at some point, walked along the shore a short ways, returned to look over her shoulder, reorganized their pack with their new supply of water, and came back again. “You, uh”
Bowing looked up, her hair dry enough to be shoved under the knit toque. “My cabin's here,” she pointed out a spot on the map that looked much more accessible from every direction but theirs. “It will get you to the road that takes you down this mountain face and into town. The route through here is a hard day's hike, just one. Otherwise, go downstream to circumvent the river here,” she trailed a fingertip down where there wasn't a river on the map, cutting through several elevation lines. “Then keep under this ridge to get where you're going, but road is hard to get to. This here had a landslide ten years back.”
Jashça took a solid minute to take in this information, nodding slowly and removing their glasses again after squinting through them to see where Bowing was noting on the map. “If you don't mind, not to presume, but if you don't, going to your cabin. Not that I don't trust I can follow the map to not-your-cabin, but at the same time I've been following this map–”
She shook a shoulder. “My job.”
Jashça straightened, rubbed the bridge of their nose and replaced their glasses. “Are you a ranger? I didn't think– didn't check– think this was a protected park area.”
“Nope. Just my job.” Bowing handed back the map.
“Will you be needing this?” Jashça held out the folded page, as the otherwise assured woman started collecting her things.
Her damp shirt became a bag for emergency supplies, her pants – thick and lined and insulated, impossible to dry by air in any reasonable amount of time – hung regrettably across her. She was slipping her bralette back on while answering, “No. I know where we are.”
Jashça was looking downstream, their voice carried away down the cliff face. “And you didn't before?”
She blinked at them once they'd turned, buttoning her flannel and awaiting their arrival at the obvious conclusion she had come downstream. “We've got three hours before setting camp,” she gestured both the way they needed to and wanted to go. “High ground.”
Jashça visibly stumbled with the lack of information, but headed off after Bowing without complaint.
“Your pocket knife.”
Jashça skittered on rock beach, “Ah, right, shit.”
Camp was made well past where the river sunk into the mountainside, and far from seasonal streams. It was both progress and a hassle, as the ice-fed waters forced them to hike further into the day than the sinking sun. On the way Bowing pointed out a reliable stream for Jashça to collect water from in the morning, she then disappeared while Jashça set up the one-person tent that they graciously informed Bowing could fit two in a squeeze. If Bowing hadn't gone for a dip in an ice-fed river, she'd have considered sleeping bare-sky.
Sleeping bare-sky was safer. She returned to the completed tent and Jashça's meal preparations, bouncing a handful of huckleberries by her hip and dragging something Jashca couldn't discern.
Their first instinct was to avert their gaze, returning to their dehydrated pasta sauce. When Bowing sat down across from them, it took effort to look directly at her. Whatever the furred, lengthly thing was, it hindered their ability to look up.
“A jackbear,” she stated, instantly easing the strain Jashca was experiencing though they didn't know the word. She was trimming its claws with her hunting knife. “Think of it as a really tall rabbit.”
Bowing looked up to check on the other. Satisfied with the level of alright they appeared, she continued her task with an ease of experience.
Now that they could, Jashça tries not to stare or split their attention to much from their cooking. They try nearly as hard as they ought to. “I mean not that– it's not, but– What are you doing?”
Leaning into her task, Bowing considers the best possible explanation in the fewest possible words.
Jackbears were more like grizzleys than rabbits, but in the flat, odd way of a sun bear. Laid out from her lap, it did look like a long rabbit, if one avoided the head and the teeth that filled said head. Its dark brown pelt was speckled white, and if Jashça could parse enough details, they would eventually see the jackbear was still breathing.
When Bowing finished trimming the claws, she massaged the animal's pawpads, and stroked its brow. Standing, she heaved it over her shoulder and its wispy tail the most discernable feature to Jashça as she walked away.
“What did you do with it?” they asked on her return, offering a bowl of essentially tomato soup – they had long since run out of pasta.
Bowing took the bowl immediately, and sat to consider it. “Left it a safe distance.” She had to give Jashça props for not sputtering completely.
“It was still alive?” they exclaimed, nearly losing the contents of their bowl.
Once again they found the woman staring at them bluntly. “No reason to kill it.”
Jackbears, as odd a creature to occur, were a part of the mountain's ecosystem. Bowing didn't kill anything unless she needed something that required killing it.
Once their short meal was complete – Jashça making sputtering ventures into conversation that Bowing either responded to with single words or silence – the sun had set. Thanking them for the meal, Bowing left Jashca in a rush and with nail trimmings in hand. She returned smelling of burnt cedar, just as Jashça made final preparations for bed. Laid down in close quarters, Bowing thanked Jashça for their assistance and supplies, while Jashça fell asleep hardly believing the eventful evening of this, the twelfth day they had been lost.
Jashça had to nudge Bowing awake in the morning, she hummed annoyance and scrunched up her face. They decided to refill their canteens before trying again. Bowing's shoes, left out overnight, were the expected gross crusty dry on the surface and just as wet as yesterday once she stepped into them. Jashça offered socks – something of theirs that would fit her – but she declined.
They made a lot of ground. Not as much as Bowing could if she were throwing rocks, but their progress to the cabin was steady. After patches of huckleberries, another of Bowing's caches that she passed without disturbing, and an odd section of climbing through large, blue-tinted stones, Bowing indicated they were 'in the clear'. She did this with a gesture; from their position, she drew a line across the tops of trees where they thinned momentarily. A river.
The river on her side of the mountain. The one that marked the edge of her backyard; the area she didn't even consider a hike. More akin a stroll.
As they descended, she felt regret she couldn't commune. Or rather, that she had no form of long distance contact with Qel. Not that they had needed this; notes were left in the cabin, they both knew the mountain well enough neither needed worry for absences. But the convenience of long distance contact would be essential, with the straggler behind Bowing.
It would be little warning ahead of time.
Bowing wondered if there were any other methods to contact than communing.
Rolling out the bridge for herself and Jashça to cross the river, she felt the rush of home. This ground, its dark and rich soil, these trees were filled her with security and strength that the rest of the mountain didn't quite have. The mountain's sense of home was more than the town at the mountain's base or train tracks sprawling east.
The cabin felt hollow and dark before she had a clear line of sight on the structure. The porch door swung open with a rattle and slam that echoed the emptiness of the inside. Bowing shucked off shoes and left doors open for Jashça clambering behind her with his pack. She found fresh embers in the stove and thanked the Guide connection and spiritly senses of Qel, that she had vacated. This was Qel's home just as much as it was Bowing's, but not every stranger was familiar with spirits.
Bowing retraced her steps around the kitchen and found a note, written on the back of the note from three days ago:
I'll be on the other side of the river, at the nurse log, tomorrow.
Jashça had followed Bowing's suit with shoes. Relieved of their pack, they pulled off layers and layers in the cabin that still held heat from the recent fire. These layers were neatly gathered into a pile. “Is there a– or can I hand wash these? Just, before going to town tomorrow, and–”
Bowing nodded past Jashça, at one of two doors in the cabin that wasn't the front. “Tub's in there.”
“Tub?” They only escaped Bowing's blank stare this time by being so subjected to it. “Can I wash up– Or, ah– It's a tub, person tub?”
Visibly relaxed in her home, Bowing nodded. “Water's hot,” because Qel would have set it up in expectation even last night, “Tank's small.”
The pure relief of Jashça lost in the wild for nearly two weeks with only frigid core-chilling water around, poured from them as though they were already stripping layers of sweat and dirt. They returned to removing layers, now more for bathing. “Thank fuck.”