At Taft Point
by Liana Vrajitoru Andreasen
Bouncing from boulder to boulder and all around the valley, shrill voices blend with the cries of high-flying birds.
By early November, Glacier Point Road had been closed for two weeks. At the trailhead for Taft Point and Sentinel Dome, the small parking lot was lined with California black oak, incense-cedars and tall white firs. Free of tourists after months of hikers sunup to sundown, the bulge carved in the road for cars was white and silent in the rust-colored warmth of Indian summer. Massive, secretive forests surrounded the road.
Two white cars pulled into the parking lot. The doors did not open for a few seconds. Then people started to emerge from both cars, breathing in the sweet, robust air of Yosemite valley. Two young, beautiful women with braided hair down to their waist and long, black skirts each brought a child.
The blonde woman, lingering at the end of her teens, had a chubby toddler in her arms. The slightly older, red-haired woman waved a boy of about six out of the car. He dutifully circled the car to reach her, and she held him in front of her, close to her body, stroking his hair with vacant gestures as she waited for the driver to come out. The boy was holding a bird cage with a blue parakeet inside.
Three people came out of the other car. A middle-aged man with glasses carried a violin case. A young couple squeezed each other’s hands, leaving little distance between them, as if they were cold.
The last to emerge was the oldest man in the group — fifties or so — who had driven the car with the braided-hair women in it. He was tall, hair parted in the middle in such an old-fashioned way that it could have started a new style. His dyed black hair showed just a hint of gray roots, and he kept it long, as a Romantic poet might have. He narrowed his eyes toward the distant remainders of fog among tree tops. Even here, at the foot of the hike, the elevation was several thousand feet.
“Cara,” he said to the blonde, and his voice startled a few bush creatures. “You tell me when you’re tired of carrying the little one, and I’ll take over.” The little one was the chubby toddler, a girl.
Cara lowered her head in a nod, closing her eyes. She didn’t smile.
“Cheer up. Everyone, I want to see you smiling. This is one of the most beautiful places God gave us on this Earth. Who were you at the start of this very day? A mindless body in the shower. A crying child. Two mothers cloaked in the ignorance around them, to the point of being invisible. Two lovers crushed by these artificial pressures to become successful. A musician without dignified employment. Yet look how the embrace of the valley is large enough and forgiving enough for all of us.”
He took off his leather jacket and threw it in the car.
“Won’t you be cold?” asked the red-haired woman.
“Jennie, darling.” He turned to her. “I do appreciate your care. A man cannot wish for a more dutiful companion. But we’ll be walking uphill for some time. And there’s a sun.”
The boy held the bird cage up. The blue parakeet ruffled its feathers, turning its head to hear hidden birds.
“Not now, Huck,” the man said. “There’s a time for everything. We must go. Jennie, do you have water? For you and Huck?”
The boy’s mother said, “Yes,” and pushed the boy gently ahead of her. She pulled her long, black skirt slightly, to give her feet some freedom of movement.
“The hike is about two hours,” said the leader. He started walking ahead of the group. “What a shame,” he said to no one. Everyone seemed to know what he meant.
They followed him as he started on the trail to Taft Point. The young couple — he with a short beard, she with dark hair — walked behind everyone and, for a while, they held each other by the waist.
The other man, the one with the violin case, passed Cara and Jennie to walk by the side of the leader. “Mister Rex,” he said.
“Yes, Stan?” The tall, older man did not look at him as he took long steps on the wide trail. They were in the heart of the woods, passing shedding oaks and green firs and pines.
“You could have insisted,” said Stan. “The others, they just didn’t have their minds made up yet.”
“A shame, that’s all there is to it,” said Mister Rex. “I’m not one to force anyone to walk with me. There’s no signing of papers. The only true commitment is in the soul that has erased the chains of guilt and shame. Isn’t that what all papers are for?”
He stopped, turned to look at the small group following behind. They all stopped, watching his face for a sign, a command.
He smiled. He opened his arms wide, lifting them toward the trees that lined the path. “Love is around us. Love is all that has true existence. Those who denied us have denied the only truth there is. They stayed behind to be with the herds and listen to lies. We have it all, right here.” He began walking again.
Cara, the younger mother, was still carrying her toddler in stern arms, while Jennie pulled Huck by the arm when the boy started to protest the fast pace. The bird cage dangled in his hand, the parakeet flying around in a panic.
“Jennie, tell the boy that the first stop is his,” Mister Rex said.
Low, patchy clouds floated in the opposite direction. They unraveled gray arms toward the tops of the highest trees, to merge with the shimmering mist of late morning.
The first clearing came soon. The group gathered on a round rock to look at stretches of the Yosemite valley, the great shadows of granite towering over the sea of brown and green treetops.
“Now, Father? Mister Rex?” said the boy.
“God will witness now. Let it go.”
The boy sat the bird cage on the rock. The young couple embraced, watching the little boy labor with the cage door.
“But it’s going to be winter soon,” the boy said.
“Do what Mister Rex told you,” his mother whispered.
Mister Rex crossed his arms. “You are mistaken, Son,” he said. “Winter will never be coming. Let the bird fly for as long as God wills it to fly. Bear witness to freedom.”
The boy opened the little door and put his hand in. The bird jumped on his finger and in this way was brought out of the cage.
The blue parakeet hesitated. His beady eye looked up into the boy’s face, to question the open air around. Then it flew. Mister Rex watched the boy, and the two mothers watched the father’s eyes, trying to read something new in them.
The bird disappeared into a treetop.
“I know you cry in your heart,” the father said to the boy. “But for all of us, without a sacrifice, our souls are lost to the indifference of the world.”
The group sang a song of praise, looking up and sending their voices forward into the mist. Huck sang the loudest.
On the trail again, the boy did not complain anymore. He walked fast, gloom on his face. The leader walked and hummed, now and then looking behind and smiling, showing his teeth. He looked pleased, the more he walked.
The young couple had become garrulous. They walked at a distance from everyone, pointing at nature, listening to the life hum in the crackling of gargantuan trees. They kissed often.
The mind’s heaviness dissipated as the heart rose to spaces that birthed themselves ceaselessly all around. Gray monoliths looked weightless as invisible winds breathed from rock to rock to sky.
The younger mother passed the toddler to Mister Rex.
At the next clearing, they sat down in a circle. They drank water and ate apples. From the mossy rocks on which they sat, they could see across the valley the giant granite promontory called El Capitan, the centerpiece of the Sentinel Dome. Its bedrock anchored deep into the earth, the largest boulder looked like the forecastle of a gigantic ship frozen in time.
Stan, the man in his forties, took out his violin. As the curves of the instrument touched his fine, long jaw, his dark eyes closed and he withdrew inward. Everyone’s face shifted to a longing they could not share, as the notes cascaded into the solemn distance.
Soft at first, the bow caressed the strings, letting out inhuman waves of patterned sound that bounced around, merging with its echo. The bow slowed down to let the music linger, at home among the other earthly wonders.
The pilgrims no longer had limbs, clothes, or names, but were part of something grand and eternal that breathed in tectonic rhythms. There was just a hint of mournfulness in the longer notes, but hope-filled trills quickly took their place. The clouds, too, lingered as though to listen.
At the end, Mister Rex stood up. He nodded at Stan, who stood up as well and with gentle hands he placed the violin at the base of a looming Douglas fir. In single file, the group descended back to the path and started on their hike again. Stan turned his head to see the violin one more time, but it was obscured now by shrubs. He adjusted his glasses, or wiped something out of his eyes.
They were close to Taft Point, where the summer months had brought hundreds of tourists in search of an easy, thrilling hike. The hump of rock became visible and towered above the tallest trees. The last part of the hike would be steep, to the greatest view of all.
“This stop,” the leader said, slowing down, “is for Andy and Melinda.”
The young couple looked at each other and halted. The two mothers looked at the ground, holding their children a little closer.
“Do not shield the children’s eyes. This is the greatest gift of love that this rock will ever know.”
“But... Mister Rex,” said Andy, holding Melinda’s hand.
“Do you love her?”
“Of course I do.”
“This is the time to show it from the core of your being. Nature, God’s grand stage, will bear witness to the essence of love, stripped of all social pretenses.”
“Can we hide behind those bushes?” said Melinda, her voice choked with anticipation.
“Do you hide your soul from God?”
Melinda smiled and blushed just a little. She started to take off her jeans. Young, deer-like legs. She took off her sweatshirt. Her bra. Compact, silky breasts. The six-year old tried to look away, but his mother gently turned him back around, to watch. Stripped of his clothes, Andy was hairy.
Everyone sat down as Andy and Melinda moved a bit farther, on a patch of grass. Their bodies fell to the ground, awkward at first, then forgetting the others. The trees crackled and buzzards cried high above, innocuous end rhymes to the poetry of breath. The two newly released — and suddenly relieved — human animals tumbled, grass sticking to their perspiring skin.
Melinda’s careless pitch set a few birds flying. The toddler was squirming in her mother’s grip. The leader put his arms around the two young mothers, drawing them close to him as they all watched. The contortions ended in slow motion, the trembling ceased. The lovers remained embraced for a while, eyes closed, their young bodies still tangled. Melinda sobbed with quiet joy, rubbing her cheek against Andy’s bearded face.
Minutes later, the group was on the move again. It didn’t take long to reach the rocky cliff, the awe-gilded boulder overlooking the valley. Bridalveil Fall rumbled soundlessly in the distance, a thin strip of water. El Capitan was in full view, majestic like the migration of continents, standing guard above the green, coniferous valley.
But the group didn’t lie on their stomachs to peek below, like tourists. They did not need to be that close to the edge to see how far the rest of the earth was.
All eyes turned to the leader.
His voice was strong, stony. It fell and rose in declamations that mimicked the peaks lining the horizon. Transfixing, like the landscape.
“My blessed children,” he said, “let me start by saying I love you all very much. I declare it to these mountains. Here, history witnessed the running of Indians from their lands.”
The others made a small circle around their leader, nodding as their furtive eyes were drawn toward the wide valley below.
“All over this country, the Natives were enslaved, ridden like horses when Columbus’ men were too lazy to walk. They were taken to Europe and died by the thousands. Their arms were cut off. They worked in mines. Husbands and wives saw each other as seldom as every ten months — and they were too tired to make love. Among the Tainos and the Arawak people, there were mass suicides. People poisoned their babies with cassava.”
“The Lord received them in His arms,” Cara murmured.
“The Lord will not accept one man to be the servant of another,” the leader said. The shadows on his gaunt face deepened. “When the government puts chains on you, your love is stunted. Your only freedom, then, is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
They joined hands, looking up to receive the knowing gaze of the leader.
“They will tell you that nature is indifferent,” he continued. “Look around you. Nature is love. This is not an indifferent nature, but the guardian of our life-force. If you go back there, you will find only indifference. Mass consumerism to lull your soul. What do you become? A void of emotion, a non-spirit. That is the ultimate indifference. Need I say it? That is the opposite of love.”
He was silent for a while. The mountains awaited the offering.
“It is time.”
Mister Rex nodded toward Andy and Melinda, shivering in each other’s arms.
“Don’t look down,” he said. “Look to the sky, where your heart belongs.”
The young couple stood at the edge of the rock, smiling through tears. They took each other’s hand. “One, two, three,” Andy whispered, and their legs pushed against the rim. They were gone.
The leader nodded toward the violinist. The man took his glasses off, dropped them to the ground. He walked to the edge.
“Love is light,” he said, and entrusted his body to the valley.
The leader looked at his two lovers. He moved to Cara, and he kissed the forehead of the little girl in her arms. He kissed Cara, briefly, on the mouth, and squeezed her elbow. He stepped back.
Cara moved to the edge and turned her back to the void. She looked in the eyes of her man, her life. She tightened her arms around the girl and she took in a long breath, as if to last her on her way down. She disappeared.
It was then that Huck, the boy, pulled his hand from his mother’s grip and ran away from them. His mother screamed, “Stop him! Stop him, Rex!”
Looking at her, his eyes darkened. He ran after the boy. “Huck! Huck!” he called.
He brought the boy in his arms, patting his red hair. He stood in front of Jennie.
“You first,” he said to her. “Say goodbye to your son.”
Jennie smiled, her mouth trembling. When she kissed the boy’s cheek, Huck screamed and kicked against his father’s stomach.
“It’s all right,” she said, repressing a sob. “We’ll all see each other very soon.”
She looked at Mister Rex, and lifted a hand to caress his stern, bony face one more time.
“I can’t take this...” she murmured and turned in one abrupt move, running full-speed toward the precipice. She left the world without a sound, as her son screamed in the arms of the leader.
“Are you going to be a man about it?” Mister Rex asked, turning the boy’s face toward his face. “I love nothing else as I love you right now, do you know that?”
The boy looked at him. Something in his father’s eyes commanded him to be quiet. The man’s eyes were gray, like granite. Mountains flickered in the depths of his dark pupils.
“I love you, Daddy,” the boy whispered.
The man bent his head to kiss the boy. It was an honest kiss, the opposite of indifference. He sat the boy down on the rock. “Give me your hand,” he said.
The boy obeyed. Together, they stepped closer to the edge. As the boy’s eyes met the void, he took a step back. His father tightened his grip.
“Now!” the man said.
“No—” The voice broke.
The larger figure tumbled in space, pulling after him the smaller, screaming figure.
The air was filled with bird cries. It didn’t take long for the scream to blend with the enormity of the sky, floating downward like a bird returning home to some eternal, long-awaited nest.
Copyright © 2018 by Liana Vrajitoru Andreasen