When the world presses in, routines calcify, become set and implacable. Horizons stretch from weekend to weekend. Time, calendared, measured constricts compact as a cast. Defined by project and commute, meetings and complaint life, my life seemed more and more to belong to someone else. Or worse, to no one in particular. Lists appear each day beside the inbox. Strident calls for attention. Impatient, greedy for time. Red flags and priority exclamations announced deadlines and priorities set by others.
Thinking about it later I couldn’t say how I chose the cottage or if perhaps it chose me. The ad promised hiking and peace and abundant bird life, but so did any number of other possibilities. However it happened, I took a deep breath, booked a week and left my life behind.
The directions they sent said to drive toward the mountains and so I did. The towns grew smaller and the traffic dwindled and the dark green of the long rows of vines pressed in close beside the road. The cottage perched on the foot of the mountains overlooking the broad green valley floor and sat at the very end of every road I’d travelled that day. I sat on the wide front porch and considered the world. Below me, I could see the top of a pick-up truck as it made its way between the miles of grapes. Its pace, deliberately slow enough not to raise a trailing cloud of dust. At times I could see the head of a worker seeming to float between the aisles. The sun beat down on the hard sandy ground and the wind was restless and strong. The bright green of the fields seemed almost shocking, set against the dark and stony mountains, rising improbably from a sea of sand.
In the later afternoon and in the mornings I followed the small path out through the carefully tended gardens and into the wilderness of the mountains beyond the vineyard. The trail followed the deep cut of a stream. At times I could hear the sound of running water but the stream was careful never to reveal itself. Its course was only visible by the change in vegetation. Pampas grass in stiff plumes and lush tree ferns instead of the stiff and rattling reeds and the oddly graceful spray of the desert rose rising shockingly red from its thick, squat trunk. It was a landscape of unexpected and sudden treasures. Clumps of brilliant blue flowers bloomed fiercely in the morning but vanished without a trace by midday. White flowers rose waxy and perfect on slim translucent stems from ground impossibly hard and baked. Once, the wild clatter of hooves on the bare rock echoed from crag to crag, as a herd of skittish klipspringers bounded away.
I always saved the mountain pool for the trip back.
I heard the pool long before I saw it, the splash of falling water unexpected in such a dry and empty landscape. Hurrying on the twisting path, at first, I thought I must have passed it all together, or that some trickle had been magnified by trick of echo and cliff into a promise unrevealed. Until it appeared, spread cool and clear and utterly inviting between a steep cleft in the bare ledge. The rock around the pool worn smooth and shining from the torrents that must flow in the rains.
Lying on the smooth warm rock after the chill of the water I remembered the welcoming the warmth of the sand after too long in the sea when I was young.
That day, I walked long in valleys between the peaks. I left the trail and followed ridges until I had shut out all sounds and sights of civilization. The bird calls echoed from the rocks around me. Nothing but wind and sun punctuated by the calls of birds and frogs and from the cliffs above me the warning bark of a baboon sentinel. By the time I reached the pool I was hot and dusty and eager for the water’s chill embrace. I stripped off my sweaty clothes leaving them all in a heap and dove in, feeling the water cool and caressing along my body. I swam to the end just under the waterfall and closed my eyes to let the warmer water falling from above pelt down on my head and shoulders. I turned on my back and floated for a moment, feeling the contrast between the chill of the water and the heat of the air. I opened my eyes to swim back and saw you.
You were stretched out lazily on a towel spread over the rock. Invisible, there beside the rise of the ledge, until now. You lay on your side, turned toward me, head propped in your hand smiling. I let myself sink as much as I could in the water. It was too deep to stand and I tread water with as much composure as I could muster. I was suddenly too aware of me, of this, of you. You didn’t say a word, only stood, dark against the sun with the deep blue of the sky behind you
Every story has a point where it divides depending on choice and chance and from this point a thousand, thousand stories spin away each creating separate and yet parallel universes. Unmarked, too often unremarked, passed by habit, the head down, scanning as you go custom of our day. Or, noted and dismissed, another habit, this customary, cursory, automatic judgement, instant risk assessment, might be nice but, honestly, who has the time. Noted or not, each path holds these singular moments, perfect as pearls. Between us, loop long and delicate strands of chance and circumstance. Connecting moments such as this. Connecting you and me.
Take this story where and how you will. For me I know that as I walked away from the pool that day, walked away from the mountain pool, that the footsteps I passed, those same footsteps I had left behind, they were so much, much heavier than ones I left now, going forward.