Just Below Timberline

Nothing worthwhile comes but by winding paths.

Glen and I had been hiking and camping for five days in a chain of mountains above a small Colorado town. On a particular day we had soaked our shoes and pantlegs in the dew-heavy weeds of the trail in the morning, dried our feet, socks, and clothes on a sunny boulder, enjoyed a trail snack on a high windy pass at midday, whimsically scrambled up the scree to a minor summit, and descended the rocky path to fish the fresh alpine streams in the pine-scented air at timberline until we could roast our freshly caught trout in crackling butter in a saucepan over a small campfire near a grove of lodgepole pines with dark green branches looming over our heads against the deep evening sky. We forked apart the cooked fish and tasted its vitality cultured from the snowmelt and raw minerals of the upper meadows. A peach glow rose over the west ridge then sank behind the rocks. The sky deepened to prussian blue and a few planets and bright stars quietly assumed their posts. A chilly breeze started falling from the high slopes in long sighs. It was the most peaceful and deeply satisfying day of the trip so far. We banked the fire and crawled into our bags when the rest of the stars dusted the sky.I lay for a while listening to the purring snore from Glen’s tent. We needed this day. We needed a lot of days like this. Back in college the two of us had explored the high country together, rejoicing in our health and our friendship. Then we hadn’t seen each other for a while, for several years, actually, and today felt a little like the old days.

The next morning when the first light grayed the walls of my tent I crawled out into the crisp, still air of what promised to be another gorgeous mountain day. I stirred the white ashes up to expose a few shimmering golden-red coals, tossed on some twigs and a few pine sticks, and prepared to go to the stream for water. The still-greasy saucepan, dusted with gray and black ash, lay beside the stones of the fire ring. I lifted it and discovered, perfectly centered in the bottom, two oblong feces about the size of jelly beans.

They were beautiful, brown-black and oily-slick and gleaming with flat blue highlights under the broad pre-dawn light. I raised the pan to my eyes and tilted it to the brightest patch of sky. Tiny bones, from a mouse or a very small bird, poked through the glossy surface here and there. Leaning forward I saw fine gray-white fibers, maybe fur, maybe downy feathers, dulling the shine here and there.

Something hit the back of my head. I reached back and pulled from my hair a third black, shiny turd with its own little bones and tufts of fur. I looked up.

Thirty feet over my head something disappeared from the pine branch and left it waving gently for few seconds, silhouetted against the dim early sky. Then everything was still. I walked around the tree, scanned it all over, and found nothing.

It was something I couldn’t identify.

I looked at the saucepan again. I had never seen scat like this. It wasn’t from a bird. Obviously a carnivore, not very large. Just large enough to weigh down a pine frond.

Glen snuffled and stirred in his tent, farted, and groaned a yawn.

“Glen, get up and check out this scat.”

Another groan, almost a whine: “Check out this what?”

“Scat. Turds. Feces, droppings.” No movement from the tent. “Poop.”

I heard his sleeping bag zipper and then his tent zipper. He emerged awkwardly. “Keep a decent tongue in your head,” he muttered. With considerable difficulty of effort and balance he stood up and walked to me. “What are you talking about?”

“What do you think this is?”

He looked in the pan. “Breakfast?”


He looked again, more carefully. “Not bird. Pica? No, there’s bones. And… fur? Predator or scavenger. Maybe a large snake?” He wandered off and opened his pack, came up with a tin cup and a small plastic bottle.

“Maybe, except while I was looking at these two, this one hit me in the back of the head.” I pointed to the branch overhead.

He came over, glanced at it and grunted.

“Black snakes climb trees back home,” he said, “but there aren’t any black snakes up here, and what kind of a snake rests on a pine frond?”


He shrugged. “Is that the pan you were going to get water in?”


“Here’s some detergent.” He handed me the plastic bottle.

“Good idea.”

But either the detergent wasn’t enough, or there was something in the water I mixed it in. Both of us had bad diarrhea by early afternoon. Neither of us was walking anywhere that day. We stayed at camp, took turns fetching and boiling water, and did our best to keep ourselves hydrated. We were bored out of our minds. We couldn’t get comfortable, we were weak and constantly occupied with the most tedious chores of camping.

Glen returned from a short rest break in the woods. “I recommend boiling all our washwater from now on.”

“No shit.”

“That too. That too.”

On one of those expeditions Glen discovered the collapsing logs of an ancient miner’s cabin. Against the inside of a yet-standing wall was a wooden cabinet with two latched doors. Amazingly the cabinet, though bleached by a century of sun, was still tight enough to keep most of the weather out, and the latches on the doors, though rusty, would still open.

He opened one of the doors and found a moldy mess of broken glass, probably ancient jars of preserves that had burst in the winter and decayed in the summer.

He opened the other door and discovered a tin box about a foot square and six inches tall. Its lid was on snug and rusted in place. He carried it back to our camp to open it.

“What’s that?”

“There’s an old cabin back there. I found this in a cabinet.” He set it before me and sat on the rock next to me, looking from it to me, from me to it, as if waiting for praise. “Shall we open it?”

What else would we do with it? “Sure. Looks rusty.”

“It’ll come open.” He unfolded the screwdriver blade on his bulky Swiss Army knife and pried gently and carefully around the edge of the lid. As he worked the lid he began to expose a seam of bright orange rust. Then the lid shifted and it was loose. He lifted it.

Inside was a book, bound in brown leather and gleaming gold along along the black leather spine. There was an impression of some kind in the front cover. It was in remarkably good condition.

Glen carefully lifted it out, turned it to read the spine. “Shakespeare’s Works.” It was Volume IIII. He opened the cover and winced at the crackle of dessicated paper and leather flexing after a hundred years of rest. More slowly he opened it further.

He turned a page. Another, and another.

“Okay, we got here King John, Richard the Second, Henry the Fourth part one and two, and Henry the Fifth.” He carefully opened the book near the back. “That’s all,” he said. “Five plays. But at least it’s something to read.”

“Sounds like fun,” I said. “Well, I gotta see a man about a horse.” I left him with his new treasure and headed for the woods.

We were losing the race with dehydration. We didn’t have much time to read. Between fetching water, fetching wood, feeding the fire, boiling water, and heading for the woods, we were getting exhausted. We couldn’t sleep long because of the diarrhea and cramps. We were ravenous but afraid to eat anything without cooking it almost to a crisp. We caught a few fish but expended more energy getting them than their nourishment could offset. We were getting weaker.

“Giardia?” asked Glen as we were trying to sleep. We’d taken to sharing one tent to conserve heat.

I laid the book down against my chest to rest my hands. “Maybe, or another parasite. Maybe something in the feces, like hantavirus or something. Some kind of… well, whatever it is, it’s wrecking my gut.”

I looked over at him. He had fallen asleep during my answer. I turned back to Richard II.

Ha, ha! keep time: how sour sweet music is,
When time is broke and no proportion kept:
So is it in the music of men’s eyes.

I laid the book on my chest again and closed my eyes. Glen slipped off to sleep so easily. He never gets sick, I thought, and when he does he doesn’t seem to suffer much from it. I don’t think he suffers much from anything. His snore had assumed its usual monotous purr.

I set the book aside and threw open my bag, zipped open the tent and went out. Better take care of it now and maybe I can sleep a few hours.

I think it was giardia.

In a week or so we were pretty sure we were never going to get down off the mountain.

Glen was a bag of bones. He couldn’t stand up any more. I was slightly better, but I was losing ground fast because I had to fetch all the water and wood and tend the fire and the pot. I was also changing the layers of tent fabric under Glen’s hips several times a day, washing them the best I could, no longer worrying about parasites but only about smell, and hanging the cloths over the branches of that lodgepole pine. Once a day I gave Glen a sponge bath with warm water. Once a day I took a dip in the brittle-cold creek to save hot water for Glen.

Giving a man a sponge bath is an intimate act. I don’t know how the entry-level aides at the nursing homes do it. They aren’t paid nearly enough, and they do the most unpleasant, and the most necessary work. To give a man a sponge bath you have to care about him very much. It can be any kind of caring. You might have a long history with him and love him and want to see him comfortable. Or you might have a long history with him and hate him and enjoy seeing him uncomfortable. You might not even be sure which.

I went back to finishing Henry IV part 2, reading Hal’s rejection of Falstaff, a bitter tragicomedy for those of us who had learned to love the fat knight’s style and wit and had begun to hope he might make an interesting courtier, or at least maybe a clown in King Henry the Fifth’s retinue.

All that was over. Falstaff was history.

Glen is history.

Fal. My king! my Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!
King. I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers:
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!

I buried him in his clothes under a pile of rocks down the hill a few hundred yards, pretty far from the stream. Far enough, I hope. I kept his sleeping bag and his Swiss Army knife. I may need those.

Now for Henry V. I love this play. The chorus challenges the audience’s imagination. He asks you to move the whole scene from England to France with nothing but your mind.

For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; …

And we do, we do, on the wings of Shakespeare’s rough magic.

I just wish Shakespeare’s rough magic could carry me down this mountain to a hospital.

And I want him back, I want him alive. I have to go see a man about a horse now.

Glen, I forgive you. Roll away the stones.

It wasn’t such a bad time. It was a good life. We had a good friendship and the rest of it didn’t really matter, after all, very much, did it? We were all friends.

Who defines these things? Who writes the rules? And why do we play by them?

What could they do to us if we didn’t play by their rules?

Glen, it’s such a pretty morning. Roll away the stones. Get up and walk up the hill. Walk right past me and on up the mountain.

© 2012 Greg Bryant under the Creative Commons

Postscript: This story came out of an assignment I gave to my creative writing class. The first sentence of Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is “I owe the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia.” So I gave them the Borges Challenge: “Imagine an exciting, mentally stimulating new development in your life. Describe it in a noun phrase. Flip open a dictionary to any page and record the most interesting word naming a concrete and familiar object. Turn to another page and do the same. Fill in these blanks with that phrase and those two words: ‘I owe _____________ to the conjunction of a ___________ and a ____________.’ This is the first sentence of your short story. Finish it. Later you can delete the first sentence if you want to.”

My phrase was “my love of Shakespeare” and my words were “pine” and “feces.”


About Greg Bryant

I teach writing and literature at Highland Community College in northeast Kansas.
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One Response to Just Below Timberline

  1. bryonc says:

    That’s a great story. I think I enjoyed it more the second time I read it than I did the first.

    I don’t know much about these characters by the end – I’m assuming they’re both men, but I think it’s a safe assumption – and yet I can see them and understand things about them. You neatly telegraph things about them to the reader.

    I rarely read anything with so much description, with so much effort put into setting the scene. Normally that sort of thing bores me, but here it is vibrant. “Dew-heavy weeds,” “purring snore,” “Glen snuffled,” the detail of the “ancient jars of preserves.” And given those careful word choices, I’m sure it would sound even better read aloud than it does in my head.

    Little things that stood out:

    * The third sentence is 105 words long. I’ve never written a sentence that long and that was packing so much activity. I’d have broken it up into two or three sentences, but that’s just the newspaper editor in me.

    * Feces described as “beautiful.” That’s novel.

    * “a few planets and bright stars quietly assumed their posts.” I like that line.

    * “Volume IIII.” The four I’s aren’t used much these days except on clock faces. That was a nice hint to the reader that this is not a recent edition of Shakepeare.

    I’ve gone on long enough. This story was wonderfully well done, Greg.

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