Hand over rocky handhold, foot over foot on the rough ledges, I had been climbing for so long when I realized a man was climbing next to me.
I only noticed him because I heard him say, “Where’re you going?”
I would at least try to be kind until he left me alone, like I did with the others. “Um,” I looked upward, “toward heaven. This is where they said it was. Up there.”
“How long have you been climbing?”
Another needy, lonely soul trying to make conversation. He’d probably drag me down like the others did too. I breathed in and tried to politely answer, “Well,” I was annoyed to have to think so hard for him, “I guess, since I was a kid.”
The man continued, but to my surprise, it didn’t seem like he was engaging me for what he would get out of it. “You sound tired.”
I knew, by the way he said ‘tired’ that he knew it wasn’t really tired that I felt. But he wanted me to say the word I felt. “I’m not sure I’d say tired. Well, kind of. I guess it’s more…” I tried to think hard again, but hesitated to say it.
He finally helped me. “Angry?”
I clenched my jaw and peered at him. He knew I wasn’t ready to admit that. Did I look angry? I realized my clenching jaw proved to myself that I certainly was.
“Who are you angry at,” he paused and added tenderly, “if I could ask?”
“Oh,” I looked down, and took a quick breath. Why not be honest with this stranger, on this strange pocket of mountain, where no one else would know. I relented and replied, “Just… people.”
I shot him a challenging smile. “Hey, how about you tell me something about you first. What’s your name. Or, what do people call ya?”
He smiled back, entertaining my request. “Oh,” he said it like a joke. “People call me lots of things.” He smiled but then told me his name. What I heard him say was, “Emir.” But after he said it a strange hiss came from the mountain, like a whisper. It almost sounded like it was repeating his name. It must have been a weird echo, or the wind through a crevice or something.
A deep creased smile crawled onto his face, hiding something very entertaining. “Close enough.”
I almost asked more, but he beat me to a next question, “What people are you angry with? You can tell me.”
“Wait you haven’t really told me who you are yet.”
“They might be the same answer,” he said. “Go ahead. I’ll answer whatever question you want next.” He smiled patiently.
I sloughed off the weird comment. But before I began I looked upward and said, “I was thinking of climbing some more. Maybe you’d want to climb with me?”
He nodded and we both struggled through the next sharp handholds. We climbed side by side. It was strange though, the rocks closer to him were warmer, like heat was coming from him into the mountain.
And I thought back, so I could answer him. “What people am I angry with? Um, there’s this guy I was just helping who’s got all sorts of problems. His name’s Patrick. He’s trying to raise a family, but he lost his job. He is always asking for help. He’s dealing with a lot– like he’s sick and his family’s a wreck, and it always seems like he’s asking for something. I give when I can, but I feel like he knows I’m nice so he just keeps asking for stuff. I’m doing my best, but . . .”
“That’s good.” He said it like it was a value statement, not just a polite response.
I continued, “But I wasn’t very patient with him this last time. He asked for half of my sandwich and I actually told him no.”
“Yeah, I saw it.”
I looked at him, questioning, “How did you see me?”
“That was me.”
I was perplexed. I didn’t know what this guy’s deal was.
He interrupted my thoughts, “That’s why you’re mad? Mad at yourself for not helping him?”
“Wow. Um, yeah. Maybe. And kinda mad that I’ve just been doing this for so long, trying to do the right thing, and it just doesn’t seem to be doing him or me or anyone any good. It’s just been like this for so long. It’s like this whole mountain has gone dead. I haven’t seen a tree or a plant or even a bug or bird for ages.” I paused, thinking, debating on what I should say. He waited patiently. I said, “I was told this was the right way, but it just feels like people lied to me and I’m climbing in circles.”
“Are you following the Guidebook?”
“Yeah, I’ve tried before. But, honestly, sometimes it seems pretty useless. I try to read it and it claims all these absurd things that don’t even seem true. It doesn’t even make sense with my experience of life. And anyone can basically make it say whatever they want it to say.” I could feel anger in my voice, though I’m not usually an angry person.
“Oh.” The man seemed suddenly very sad.
“I’m sorry. That’s just being honest. You seem disappointed.”
“Yeah. I wish you knew it like I do.” He became deeply pensive for a moment. “I wonder if I’ve waited too long.”
I looked over at him. He looked back. His eyes were so– sharp. Crisp circles with intense, layers of brown in them. Something about them looked really similar to Patricks’. The same weight of life, gathering in the corners.
“What do you mean?” I asked, and then smiled. “Now it’s my turn to ask questions.”
He shot me a glance, the knowing of something behind it caught me off guard. His smile said, ‘I know what I’m doing. I’m in control of this.’ I suddenly realized this man needed no help from me. In fact it might be the reverse.
“The Guidebook is supposed to be more like a person than a book. It doesn’t make sense sometimes . . . like women don’t make sense to you, you know?”
I nodded. It seemed strangely correct. I had begun to learn lately that there was something mysteriously inefficient and illogical about a relationship with a woman but it was still good.
“If it made sense easily, you would not have to pursue it and know it– like you do a woman.”
It seemed he knew I had been learning this recently too. He was using my words.
He said, “It really is wholly ‘other’ in its way and that is why it challenges your ways. Otherwise you would only know more of yourself, and only climb straight up.”
“Isn’t that the best way to do it?" I retorted. "I feel like no one else understands that we have to always be climbing up.”
He didn’t speak for a few minutes. But then he said, “Maybe you should rest and let it teach you. Stop climbing for a little while, rest and just listen. Here, why don’t we pause for a little bit.” He found a ledge to seat himself against. He pointed to one across from him, by me, and I sat. He reached into his bag for something as I settled. He pulled out some trail mix in a plastic bag. “Here, you can have my trial mix.”
I smiled, “Don’t you mean trAIl mix? you said trIAl mix.”
He winked at me and nodded. He knew what he was doing. He was playing with me. I liked this man very much. Who was this guy?
“The reason I was sad, brother, was because I wrote the Guidebook. It was years ago, when there were different languages and stuff, so sometimes it’s hard to translate it the same, but my voice is still in there, you know? It’s basically me in there.”
I tested his eyes. He wasn’t trying to impress. And it didn’t seem like he was lying. No, he wasn’t lying, I was pretty sure. “Wow, you wrote the Guidebook?” I tried to sound flattering, like I always do to encourage people. But by the last word, my voice had changed to wavering uncertainty because I knew he could see through my flattery.
He just looked at me, with sadness again.
“Why–?” I thought about all the questions. “Why is it so hard to understand? Why does it feel like it’s contradicting? Why haven’t you been here all these years?” They started falling out of me, like a levy was breaking, “I don’t even know if I’m doing this right. And you never seem to answer– I’m sorry, I don’t want to be rude. I just want to be honest. Where have you been?!”
“Yeah. Let’s be honest.” His eyes stayed at the rocks at my feet. He waited a moment more to see if I was finished. Then he responded, “Well, this is where I am now. With you. I’m here.” The mountain whispered again, the same words it had before, almost like an echo surrounding us, I’m here. Then the man said, “Tell me more. Be more honest. I want to know.”
I struggled with all the resentment in me. I realized all of my anger came back and ultimately pointed at him. Where had he been? They said he wrote the Guidebook for me, but the guidebook meant next to nothing to me these days. Just a heavy weight I had to lug with me. In fact I had felt so heavy lately. It felt like I was carrying so much weight for him, for other people, for the sake of duty and what I was supposed to do to be a good man.
I was mad and for one moment it slipped out. “Where have you been?”
His eyes were filling with tears. He whispered, “I’m here with you now.”
Then, as if my anger had been slipped to him in an envelope, we closed the envelope and continued, more politely. “Okay. Well, for one thing– just want to be honest here, it’s just what I’m feeling–” He nodded that I continue, that he was ready to hear it. He kept his eyes downward, making it easier for me to tell him these things.
And I talked for something like an hour. Until nothing else came to mind. Then he asked, “What else?”
I said, “I think that’s it. . . except. . .” And I remembered more. “I do things, when I’m hidden in little crevices when no one is watching, I think and say things I would never let others hear, and I eat these little plants that I know aren't good for me, but I feel like you’re disappointed with me because I can’t stop. And you blame me for that?! And . . .” I continued. I finished and he asked me ‘what else?’ several more times and I told him more until, after what seemed like two more hours, he said, “What else?” And I could only respond, “You know, Lord.” I knew he remembered more of my history than I did. I knew he knew all of it.
He nodded and said, “Yes, I do know all of you.” And then he said, “Do you know my other name?”
I nodded hesitantly, feeling like something ominous was approaching. Like an incredible essence was about to show itself before us and everything around us was tensing for the approaching power. He continued, “If you ask me, I will take all that away. I can break every chain. But you must use my other name.”
My ears were burning up. I flushed. Heat poured up from my collar. I felt like I wanted to throw more hurt at him in resistance. I had earned this pain, this excuse to be angry. But I realized I had nothing left inside of me to throw at him. He had asked for it all, and I had thrown all of it at him already. And he had taken it.
My eyes began to water now. This was the moment where I could hold onto it all, every excuse to punish him, or I could surrender them, and lose all of my ammunition against him. I breathed a deep wavering breath and looked down. I had learned something deep in my life. As I had watched people I had made quiet heroes of the humble, and I had told rumors to myself about those who were prideful. And this lesson was all over in the Guidebook. It was this:
Surrender is the most saving virtue.
So I swallowed, took a deep breath, slowly crumpled to my knees, and I whispered, “Please take it away.”
He tested me, “You said you know my name. Use it.”
The tears flowed. I could already feel the eminence of freedom approaching. Something heavy and beautiful was overtaking me. “Please, Jesus. Take it–” a knot caught in my throat. “Jesus, take it all away from me. I’m sorry.” And tears flooded my eyes. I put a hand to my face and sniffed. I desperately whispered, “Jesussss.”
The rock beneath my other hand cracked as did the one where I was sitting. Like lightning had struck from my hands. My tears now streamed like a spring would have from the opened rocks. I let them flow. He let them flow. He seemed to want them to flow.
After a few moments I felt his hand on my shoulder. He had risen and stepped over to me. I felt his lips touch the top of my head. He kissed it, like a father to a baby. And he said, “Be free.”
And this time it was me that cracked. Like a shell had built itself around me. And the husks of it had been jarred loose. I shifted and things dislodged from beneath my old layers of clothes. I had been carrying all sorts of things I had forgotten about. I felt bags of idealized memories unstick from my side. And scrolls of proud wisdom I had lodged into my belt. A multitude of other things. A house was being lifted from this crawlspace of my soul and it was being opened to sunlight and fresh air. And as I shifted all the dusty, mildewy things tumbled away. I looked down and saw them crumbling and flailing as they tumbled down the mountain. And then I felt the guidebook start to fall from where it was tucked under my arm. But I reached and caught it.
I looked up and Jesus was smiling. “You want to keep it now?”
“It’s not the book I want to keep close to me.” It had suddenly struck me that his work on me was almost done and he might leave soon. I said, very quietly, “I don’t want to lose you.”
“When the nights come and you cannot see me next to you. Read by the light of the moon. I know it feels so dark sometimes.” He said it like he really did know. “And listen for my voice in the words.”
“Well,” he asked, “why don’t we continue climbing together while there is still daylight?”
I didn’t answer right away. I didn’t want to leave this moment and he could see that in my eyes. He smiled and all the weight he carried in his eyes was suddenly overtaken by compassion for me. “Oh, you want to just stay here for a while?” Now his eyes watered. His lips quivered and then smiled.
He settled down next to me and said, “Good. Me too. You are finally learning the more mysterious side of truth.”
And we sat there, sometimes talking. Sometimes just quiet. He put his arm over me like an older brother as we looked down the mountain. At how far we had come. At all the world laid out before us. We just sat there, the creator of it all, with me. He was happy to be with me.
Eventually night fell and I fell asleep. In the morning he was gone. But it was enough. And on the days when I found myself asking, “Why do you seem so far away?” I tried to recall that day and a smile that only he and I shared would come. I would lean into the mountain and whisper, “Emir.”
“I’m here,” the mountain whispered like an echo skipping across its hard edges, disseminating across the world, just loud enough to be heard by anyone who knew it to be true, anyone who was listening for it. It knew his real name. “I’m here. I’m here.”
“Close enough,” I said. “He’s close enough.”
Raw Spoon, 6-19-16