Sunday Snippet, Flash Fiction, Upward by Bill Chance

“The daily hummingbird assaults existence with improbability.”
― Ursula K. Le Guin, No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters

Nambe Lake, New Mexico

Upward

The smell of a mountain stream, pines, water gurgling over rocks – his feet are wet and cold. The sun is already hot – peeking around thousands of feet of granite. Overhead strips of snow – that’s where all this water is coming from. There is a humming in the air – swarms of tiny hummingbirds flying in what seem to be patterned waves. Coming and going. It’s almost like something unseen in controlling them – something sent them. He begins to walk upstream and the tiny birds follow – he wonders if he is controlling them, if he called the swarm.

Hours of walking, ever upward and the stream has narrowed and deepened. He can’t walk in it anymore. It now tumbles steeply in a series of waterfalls. The trees are now gone – replaced by scrubby low shrubs – looking ahead, far above, he sees bare rock.

The hummingbirds disappeared with the trees – now there are rodents and farther off large mammals – bears and deer – walking along. Sometimes visible, usually not – they are watching him. He is breathing hard, the air is thin. He should be tired but he is driven upward and the pain in his legs feels like it is happening to someone else, someone far away.

The scrub drops away and he is left on bare rock, scrambling higher and higher. All the animals have given up except for a small herd of mountain goats moving ahead – lightly jumping up the rocks and then waiting for him to catch up. His progress is slow, the rocks are loose and slide down and away – sometimes rolling, tumbling, booming, down into the green valley far below. The headwaters of the stream are all around – tiny rivulets of water tumbling over sharp-edged rocks. He looks up and sees the blinding white snowfield where the water is coming from.

For hours he struggles up and across the field of stones – loose rock tilted at that horribly steep angle. But he keeps moving with excruciating slowness – still putting one foot in front of the other – the scree so steep now that he has to put one hand in front on the ground, crawling, to climb up at that angle.

Then, without realizing it, he is on the snowfield. It is easier climbing that across the rocks even though every few steps he breaks through the crust and sinks up to his waist in the soft, rotten, wet ice beneath.

The slope was less and he realizes he was nearing the summit. By now, all the animals had given up following him and his only companions were two huge buzzards slowing circling high overhead. He wonders at how that much bulk could be supported by this thin air and look so free and graceful.

The world opens up around him as he reaches the apex – hundreds of miles of snow-capped peaks arranged in rough rows above hidden valleys stretching to the impossibly distant horizon.

Beyond the mountains, towering high over them were the mushroom clouds. Some were still rising, their orange hearts still glowing. Others were now gray and drifting in the high altitude jet stream – ragged – dissipating.

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