I tell this story as part of a larger -- a very large -- essay on many things, love, loss, geology, marriage, riding my bike, polyamory. I tell this story today in honor of Indigenous People's Day. It was originally told by the Klickitat.
Let me tell you a story about a mountain. Three mountains, really: they're now known as Mount Hood, Mount St. Helens, and Mount Adams. Three mountains and a natural bridge, the Bridge of the Gods. That's where the story I like to tell starts.
On the Bridge of the Gods was the sacred fire, the only fire in the world. People would come from the East, from the West, from the South, and from the North to get fire to take back to their people. The fire needed tending, and Loowit, an old woman, a nurturer if there ever was one, she tended the fire. The great chief of all the gods was Tyee Sahale, and like most ancient gods he was generous but blessed with little forethought, he was quick to give and quick to take away. That's the thing about gods, isn't it? At first they'll give and then when you coddle and coax them they'll give more until they realize you can't handle such gifts can you? Then they need to do something utterly rash and irreversible. Something that usually ends up hurting them just as much as it hurt you but these are the wages of being a god.
Sahale loved Loowit for her nurturing ways, for her generosity, for her loyalty to her task. He -- godlike to the last! -- gave her a gift. She'd never asked of course, not for anything, she hadn't expected to be repaid for her work. She was like a zen master up until this point, doing the thing for the thing's sake. In the zen book I was reading all summer it is likened to burning like a bonfire, "leaving no ash" or "no smoke." If you are truly doing a thing for itself you do it with your whole being and nothing is left. No trace.
He gave her immortality.
But immortality is tricky, isn't it? It's not the sort of gift you should just hand off to people without checking to see if they wanted it first. Some people look forward to the end and others aren't happy enough to go on forever like that. Forever's a long time you know. Loowit wept. "I will be an old, ugly woman forever!" she cried.
Sahale couldn't believe what he'd done with this gift to Loowit. I don't really know a lot about Sahale but I know a lot about gods. So I like to imagine he was privately angry, set off a thunderstorm or two, and then mollified. Thinking, of course, I am, as gods are, beautiful. Could I live without my considerable charm? He gave her a wish and -- well, if anyone knows anything about interactions between gods and humans, they would have predicted this, so he probably knew what she'd be asking -- she asked to be young and beautiful.
Thus spake Sahale. Zap! Loowit was gorgeous! Strong and young and brown-legged and with breasts like those proud rocks the gods might hurl this way and that when they got into an argument. Naturally a woman with god-made youth and beauty would spark the interest of the gods themselves, and Sahale's sons, Klickitat in the north and Wy'East in the south, came to fall in love with her as fast as anyone could. The way I fall in love, pow, zing, pizizz!
CHOOSE! they demanded of her. In their godlike way.
How could she? This woman locked in her old age and plain face for years and years and years. She may have taken her nurturing as her passion, she may have traded away the spark of sweet love for loyalty. She may have told herself, I don't need this any more. Is love even real? Is passion? This is what women tell themselves when they go for years and years without seeing that stunning light in the eyes of a true lover. They wrap themselves in their rich, fulfilling duties of home and hearth and children, they sing songs of warmth and wood and write poetry to plates of hearty stew.
Knocked suddenly into the light of love -- oh my! A woman blooms not like a rosebud but like a forest of firs in the spring, each one bright on the ends of every branch with new growth. Like a hill of vineyards, like nine hills, plump with purple fruit hanging low and masculine below each vine. Everything is possible! Choose? CHOOSE? Who should CHOOSE???!!? Imagine my voice thundering across the canyon. Echoing through the hills. My arms raised and outstretched, arguing with the true-blue sky.
Loowit could not choose and so the brothers fought. They fought and fought, over her, as if that could do any good! What would they gain by winning? All they did was destroy, destroy, destroy. They hurled rocks across the mighty river at one another, and surely some of them ended up sloshing the channel with their enormity. Throbbing huge and proud, phallic symbols for the millennia to come; lumpy and stolid, chiseled spaces for climbers to span as their muscles spring under their browning skin.
The brothers Wy'East and Klickitat fought, and fought, and fought. They hurled rocks and set the forests ablaze with Loowit's sacred fire. Villages, too; whole lands burned to ash and smoke by their competitive rage. They left the lands to the north, and to the south, ravaged. They left the people scattered or dead. All because Loowit could not choose. Tyee Sahale! Oh how he must have wept. How he must have regretted his decision. Now there is a big mistake. What can be done, oh, you great god, you great chief among the gods? Your loyal fire-tender has become strong and brown-legged and wavy-tressed and the object of the wildest, fieriest passions. Your sons have been burning like a bonfire utterly other than zen. All they leave is traces, traces everywhere, weeping, stunning loss, desolation.
Sahale put an end to all that and made them mountains. Wy'East, Mt. Hood, proud to the end, over what I still don't know. Just, proud. Loowit got to be beautiful too as a mountain; her perfect cylindrical cone; they would call her, when humans started traversing the globe, the Fuji of the West, symmetrical. Snow-topped all the year round. As gorgeous in stone and tree and canyon as she had been in skin and teeth and bone.
Klickitat, Mt. Adams, was sad, he bent his head, sad to see his love covered in snow.
I decide to start calling the mountains by their Klickitat names.comments powered by Disqus