Down from Sugar Mountain

Snow is falling inside the house, said the boy. His voice was breathless from running.

Go. Quickly. Fetch my magic robe, said the old lady.

You promised to kill the hunter, said the boy when he returned. He gave her the robe and then his hand stole to his neck—scratch, scratch.

Let us go then, she said, and wrapped the cloak so tightly around herself that only her eyes and nose were exposed, deep inside its hood. The journey will take many hours, she said. Pack one bag, light enough to carry.

Can’t we take the car? the boy begged.

Cars can’t travel where we are going. The snow is too deep and the trail too narrow. Once we reach the city, it would be stolen anyway. 

The boy sighed, for although he loved to run, he hated to walk.

Tell me again about the hunter, he said.

The hunter kills those who find him. He lives in New York City. It

It’s a wasteland, the boy finished. Just like Sugar Mountain.

But the old lady shook her head. There is beauty on Sugar Mountain yet.

You will kill him, said the boy.

Yes.

How?

I will sneak up on him while he is sleeping. He is often sleeping.

*    *     *

We left at daybreak. To pass the time I told him this story. Our story. Though he is only six I did not spare him the details. It would make no difference anyway.

*     *     *

Cold slows it down. And here on Sugar Mountain it is always winter. On the north side there is always snow, but on the south there is enough sun to grow food most months. That is to say, a few types of weeds still push up through the frost—mutated and sour, to be sure, but we eat them: dandelion, purslane, burdock, clover. We trap the meadow mice that come for them as well, for while rank their meat is still edible, or at least it kills us no faster than we are already dying. They are surprisingly plentiful. The scientists say it is because of their short lifespan and the fact that their digestive systems are so adaptable. Despite malformations of feature and limb they even seem to be flourishing now that all their natural predators are gone, destroyed in a chain that began with the plants and ground insects and then spread to the water. In the face of such loss it seems amazing that anything survives. Thin tendrils of reason, braiding and holding on…

*     *     *

For so long we were led to believe the exposures were benign. The chemicals we daily ingested: pesticides, plasticizers, dyes, flame retardants, phthalates, heavy metals, aldehydes, and ketones. Powerful industries waged deceptive campaigns that led to their proliferation in our clothing, furniture, toys, on every surface we touched; we rubbed them onto our bodies ourselves though most never worked as promised. Present in such small amounts the scientists said they couldn’t hurt us. But they added up. Working separately for different sources none of the research ever accounted for how they added up.

*     *     *

Apocalypse is not the violent raging people imagined it would be. It is a slow dying, a drugged fall. There is much apathy, but little crime, for the rich sicken at the same rate as the poor. No one can avoid it because it is not contagious. Each of us is a black box, our individual weaknesses hidden within. Still we all succumb, the rising toxicity awaking something in each of us: neurological disorders, endocrine disruptions, dermatological diseases, respiratory dysfunctions, fetal abnormalities, cancers.

*     *     *

I can hardly walk, the cold wind sweeping across this mountain path hurts so. I keep my face hidden in my robe so my pain doesn’t show. My son goes first, carrying the baby, doing the hard work of breaking trail through knee-deep snow, taking small careful steps he knows I can follow. Mine is an endocrine disruption. I’ve aged twenty years in the six since he was born. I rarely sleep; my mind races. I am not yet forty but I look like an old woman, and my body is extremely fragile. My muscles tear, my bones break, I am highly susceptible to cold, and I seem to be allergic to snow; my skin cracks and splits everywhere it touches me. They say no two people have the exact same reaction. Apparently every body projects its own version of a fight or flight response when faced with all-pervasive contamination.

*     *     *

Tell me again, my son says, why you came to Sugar Mountain.

Long ago, I say, your father and I thought we could escape. But I stayed for you, and for your sister too.

On Sugar Mountain we still go through the motions. We send our kids to school. We work. I shelve books at the local library; my husband taught art at the local college. We help each other when we can, and no one ever leaves. There are other towns farther south; there’s still a government and an internet, but they aren’t places most people want to be, filled as they are with all the rage and hate and blame that comes from being blindsided.

People still have babies too, those that aren’t dead coming out or aborted for severe defects. But by age six on Sugar Mountain they’re all sick, and it happens earlier the farther south you go. Some say an immunity will build over time. It’s kind of like a religion. Because there aren’t many scientists working on the problem anymore. They’re too busy trying to get rich people to Mars.

I wonder what will grow on Mars, my son says.

People still have babies too, those that aren’t dead coming out or aborted for severe defects. But by age six on Sugar Mountain they’re all sick, and it happens earlier the farther south you go. Some say an immunity will build over time. It’s kind of like a religion. Because there aren’t many scientists working on the problem anymore. They’re too busy trying to get rich people to Mars.

I tell him about an article I read many years ago, about a thousand-year-old cherry stone. They sent it into space for a year, and when it came back they planted it to see what would happen. No cherry stone from this old tree had ever grown before, but this one did. But it bloomed years before it should have, and all the flowers were a completely different shape.

*     *     *

Coming down Sugar Mountain is like coming into spring. The sun grows stronger and the snow melts. Here and there mordant buds appear among the field stones, strongly pushing, childlike, innocent of their own ugliness. Fungi emerge where the ground is seeping, mere shells already, and puff a rancid powder when you step on them. Dead trees follow the slope like pointed fingers, laying blame. A few still stand, leafless, barkless, but they too are dead and therefore dangerous. Beneath those fallen there is a subtle greening. These are baby trees, the dormant seeds of aspen and birch and evergreen suddenly sprung between the damp earth and the heat of the sun. They’ll be dead in days from poisons ingested side by side with the nutrients of their ancestors’ decay, but right now they shimmer with life. It’s a good place to rest a while.

Run, I tell my son, run and we’ll sit here on this rock and watch you.

Okay! he says, a child still, despite everything. One hand steals under his shirt—scratch, scratch—and then off he goes, arms pumping, legs blurring as his feet scatter mud and stones. My daughter squeals and wriggles with joy, a mirror image of him.

*     *     *

My son wasn’t supposed to live. I lost my husband because of it, my lover, my soul mate. He couldn’t bear the thought of killing a child, even as I couldn’t bear the thought of bringing one into this world, not knowing what manner of monstrosity it might be. And yet once my husband was gone I found I couldn’t bear to be alone. So I let my son live.

And now I’m going to watch him die.

*     *     *

My son loves to run. He barely crawled before he was walking and within days of that he was running. He’s the fastest living thing on Sugar Mountain. Every day after school he runs home so fast he’s almost flying, his feet barely touching the snow-packed trails. The first time he arrived with a red splotch on his face I held out hope it was a heat rash. Heart in my throat, I drew an X on his arm with the closed cap of a ball point pen. But within minutes a new rash arose there.

A certain proportion of the population has become dermatologically hypersensitive. They don’t know what sets it off, the touch of plastic or sun-warmed dirt, something encountered innocuously a million times before, but once it starts it doesn’t stop. It fades from one place only to reappear in another. At first there are days between outbreaks, but within weeks it is rising much more frequently. And it itches terribly. You can always tell who they are because of the grimaces. The hands in their clothing, digging, jerking. Eventually it grows uncontrollable. This is the worst of the diseases, I think, because it doesn’t actually kill you. You die slowly of a torture like too much knowledge, watching everyone else die first.

*     *     *

There’s a medicine, my son told me yesterday. The other boys said so.

And it is true, I have heard of it too, a cocktail of pills: one for blood pressure, one for pain, another a steroid, and the fourth an antihistamine, somehow all working together to control the terrible itch. But it is addictive, and you can only find it in New York City, and even then few people have access to it.

They were doctors first, and then pharmacists, but now they can be anybody. We call them hunters because if they don’t have it they will find it for you. It is best not to ask them where or how. Most are addicted to something themselves. And when they give you what you want they take what’s most important to you.

The hunter we are going to find, I know he can get the medicine my son needs. But I also know he won’t give it to me willingly. I think he will even try to kill me.

That’s why I have to kill him first.

*     *     *

My daughter nurses as I watch my son run. Already he is slowing, desperate to scratch, first his leg and then his side, his movements no longer fluid but staccato. My love for my children tugs on me like spring itself. It is powerful and involuntary. They are the only things that matter now, and it seems to me that their lives are flowing by just like my milk. They suck and wait, suck and wait, and then life gushes over them, thin and choking, too soon fading to a rich trickle, and then it’s gone.

For this reason some choose to suffer. Some take anything they can get their hands on as long as it dulls the fear and then spend the rest of their lives already dead.

When your child is in pain your whole perspective changes.

*     *     *

We reach the flatland. The earth is slumped and brown, but the heat feels wonderful to me, even as the shiver in my bones intensifies. I must stop to rest more often now.

*     *     *

They say there are medicines to match every sickness. Combinations of drugs that can cure any symptom. But they kill you. In the body’s weakened state, it cannot process them. The people who take these medicines will die of heart attacks and strokes, liver and kidney failure, many years earlier than they would otherwise.

For this reason some choose to suffer. Some take anything they can get their hands on as long as it dulls the fear and then spend the rest of their lives already dead.

But most of us simply can’t get the medicine we need. Up on Sugar Mountain the drugs were used up long ago, and few of us are willing or able to risk the journey down to New York City.

*     *     *

I had an affair with a dead man. It was beautiful despite his delusions, or maybe because of them. It wasn’t love but it had that deep ache that sex near death can bring. He came to Sugar Mountain with seven Adderall left and when they were finished he started walking north again. He left me with my daughter in my womb.

*     *     *

The sun is now intensely hot; the land is black and blazing.

I feel colder than I’ve ever felt before. I stay huddled in my robe but I have stripped my baby bare. Her skin is flawless still.

I know I’m taking days, months, even years from her. It’s all a matter of calculation. Of balance. One of hers for one of his.

*     *     *

We pick our way through the rubble of the outer boroughs. It is an obstacle course of thrusting concrete and metal. Ahead Co-op City strobes in the super-heated air, a prism of noxious elements. My husband is in there somewhere, unaware that a boy in deep need of him is approaching, a boy who is the spitting image of him.

I thought he’d come back. And then after a while I heard he’d become a hunter. I heard he was taking his medicines himself, and not only the ones he needs. I heard he painted the dying people, the dead landscape, this physical record-keeping his strange obsession. The person who told me was from Sugar Mountain. Cancer attacked her uterus while she was pregnant. She went down to New York City in search of a medicine, any medicine that might save the baby. She found the hunter but didn’t save her baby and now she’s dead too.

*     *     *

My son knows the medicine will kill him, even as he knows it will cure his itch.

You have to choose, I told him, a life intense but short or long but painful, and he chose short—of course he did—because he loves to run. In the depths of his pain time has no meaning as a length, only as a moment, and my son wants everything from each moment.

My husband always saw time as something to be eked out, preserved, until our genes adapted and our babies began to survive.

If, I said.

What else is there, he said. You and I already know we are going to die.

*     *     *

We are so close. The dust is choking. The air stinks and burns. My baby wheezes; my son coughs, scratching frantically with both hands. We climb the stairs, one flight, two, ten. It is a long time with many rests before we reach the twentieth floor.

The hunter’s door is open. I am afraid he is gone until I see him. He is lying on the floor. He is very sick, I see at once, drenched in sweat and sleeping, or maybe unconscious. And yet in his dim repose he looks exactly the same as he always did to me, and I have to tear my eyes away.

Quickly, I say in a firm voice, trying to dispel my own feelings of weakness and need. We begin to search. We seek his cache. The room is tiny but full of things. Every surface is covered with tubes and brushes. Stacks of paintings are pushed up against the walls.

Still I think I will recognize his hiding place, and I am right. It doesn’t take long: The Birds of America, lying at the bottom of a pile of other books. Inside it, the fine hand-colored prints have all been carefully removed. A thin homemade box has been glued between the two covers instead. It is filled with tiny bags, each rolled and labeled in my husband’s neat hand. I run my fingers over them, lingering despite myself.

But when I find the right one, it reads like an incantation. Memory’s spell is broken. I hand it to my son. He tries to open it, but his own hands won’t obey; they keep stealing away to his hair, his cheek, his back.

As I move to help him, I hear a noise, and slowly turn, full of dread and already reaching for the knife I have sewn into my robe.

*     *     *

The hunter’s eyes are open now. They stare at my son.

Once, twice, he tries to sit up, scrabbling with feeble hands. Eventually he gives up, sinks back. They are yours, he says.

My son nods. He has finally gotten the bag open. He shakes a pill into his mouth. He chews, swallows, scratches. Waits. He stares at his father, and his father stares back.

When my son’s hands come out of his clothes, my husband’s eyes close.

I am the hunter now, says my son.

Katherine Forbes Riley’s work has or will appear in Whiskey Island, Eunoia Review, Literary Orphans, Eclectica, BlazeVOX, McNeese Review, Akashic Books, and Buffalo Almanack, from whom she received the Inkslinger’s Award. With a BA from Dartmouth College and a PhD in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania, her work also appears in many academic journals and conference proceedings.