One Night on Coward Knob
A delightful hike turns strange for this group of friends.
Crisp leaves crunch on the ridgeline up to Coward Knob. My friends Jordan and Will rush ahead with Laurel. Kim is just in front of me and I watch her calf muscle flex with each step.
Jordan and Will fight to be first. I’m more concerned with maintaining my balance along the incline. Anticipation pulls me forward. Despite the burning fatigue I refuse to give in.
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When Kim pulls up, I stop alongside her. She wipes her brow and moves strands of black hair behind her ear.
“Steeper than I remembered,” she says.
Ahead of us the colors dance between the trees. Laurel has stopped as well, unable to keep up with the alpha males. Her red hair mingles with the breeze and she waves encouragement.
Soon we catch up to where Laurel waits.
“Those two never rest,” she says. “I guess they assume you’ll help us, Scott, if we need a push.”
Kim stops and our eyes follow the two miniature figures up the mountainside. They remind me of celebratory figures printed on rainbow culture posters. Hands in the sky, hair flowing, wildly jumping. They approach the crest and Jordan disappears first.
“We should catch up,” I say. “Don’t want to miss the show.”
Laurel reaches out for Kim’s hand.
“Come on girl,” she says. “You can make it.”
She pulls Kim a few steps forward. Just before Laurel turns to beckon me on I adjust my camera bag and fall in.
“Hurry up, Scott! The light is perfect,” Will calls from above. Deeper breaths, pushing myself. Soon I join them at the crest.
Laurel lights up as she reclines into Will’s embrace. The April sun radiates across her face like a cherry blossom.
The dense forest gives way to a rock prominence some sixty yards across. It slopes for thirty feet in three varied sections before the rocks drop in steep gaps of air and the forest begins again. Low in the distance is the valley along Caney Fork Creek, which we came up to the trailhead off Tobacco Road. Cullowhee Mountain rises across the open space and the lustrous hills fade into blue.
No one speaks as five minds react to this beauty. Jordan wraps his slight arms around Kim. He whispers something into her ear and she turns to face him. They kiss softly and turn back to the late afternoon.
I take out the camera and move down the rock face so as not to attract attention. Just as I’ve moved a few degrees between the sun and the heat between Jordan and Kim I press the shutter. The weightless light bounces off Kim’s high cheekbones. It plays along the strands of her hair that fall to where Jordan’s chin rests on her right shoulder.
His blond hair is pulled into a ponytail. The sunlight reveals hints of gold and light green in his eyes. His childish smile, one of his many calming features, belies his devilish ways. He’s not wearing his glasses today and so the thick soul patch below his mouth stands out. I’m able to get off one more shot before they realize what I’m about.
“Dude you have got to stop with that camera,” Jordan says. “I’m beginning to think you got something going for my girl.”
He’s smiling as he moves past and guides Kim along the ribbed surface of the knob. Will is reclined on his elbows and forearms. Laurel sits between his legs with her red hair burning against his muscular frame.
“Get used to it Jordan because I think he’s changing his major, isn’t that so Scotty?” Will says. Kim and Jordan fold into the rock and I move around to get the sun behind my back.
Before they can protest I’ve captured a half-dozen more shots.
“I think so,” I say. “It hit me sometime over spring break that I have so many attractive friends and I’m here in this beautiful place that maybe I need to spend my time making a visual record. Why waste all this time and beauty chasing a business degree?”
I put the camera in the bag and kneel beside Will and look back out across the spectacle.
“No eternal reward will forgive us now for wasting the dawn,” I say, quoting Jim Morrison.
“But we came here to see the sunset,” Laurel says, gesturing to the sky.
She means for me not to get caught up in a detailed conversation with Will. So I take a deep breath. I feel the first hint of the acid we each swallowed about an hour earlier. The first tint of amber begins to appear as the afternoon fades.
“I want to get just a few more photos of you guys as the light changes,” I say and slide myself across the rock, moving like a spider on my hands and feet.
As I roll the film forward I look over to Jordan and Kim, still enthralled by the beauty of these mountains in spring. Before Jordan can notice I catch a few shots of their far off gaze, framing them in the late light. I catch a loose rock with my foot and slip. I barely catch myself with my right hand as I raise the camera with my left.
Jordan notices what I’m doing and gives me a dismissive glance.
He shifts Kim to the other side of his body and lowers his face toward me.
“If you’re finished now we can smoke this bud.”
Standing and capping the lens I say, “Yeah, I think that would be good.”
We all move closer together and spend about ten minutes evaporating orange-haired buds into the cooling air.
A few clouds have crept through the sky. The mountains spread across the horizon. A sudden warm breeze wafts across the rock face. I notice a thin cloud floating parallel to the top of the hills with a stem sticking up at a 45 degree angle higher into the sky. It has the shape of a submarine I’ve seen in books about old wars.
Jordan wraps his arms tighter around Kim then points toward the horizon. I think about turning to say something but remember Laurel told me to be quiet.
And so I move my focus back to the now wine red sky. My cloud remains submerged in the light sea. Its bow takes shape with a raised tip, like a rhino horn cutting through the air. A beautiful apparition floating in the sky as the light fades.
Only the mountain tops remain, with the lower reaches dark and still. The sunset lifts through crimson to light rose and my cloud moves toward east’s darkness. My eyes are adjusting when I hear movement behind me.
Laurel moves down to my level.
“It must be interesting,” she says.
“Whatever it is you’ve been staring at silently for 20 minutes,” she says and rubs her hands together. She takes the light fleece jacket tied around her waist and slides it over her shoulders. “Having a good time?”
“So far yeah. You?”
“I decided not to drop after all. Will’s mad at me.”
He’s walked over to Jordan and I think he motions for him to bring Kim over to us.
“He’s mad that I won’t trip with him. Upset that we won’t …” she hesitates. “You know … be in the same frame of mind later.”
She is sitting beside me now. I’m cross legged with my camera bag in my lap. The disappearance of light seems to have sucked what bit of warmth there was in the air but the heat remaining on the knob is comfortable.
Laurel’s face is next to my shoulder. I know she’s only one person but the fractals have started and I see several of her. Each one is outlined in black marker and the movement of her head and extended hands as she speaks is mechanical, robotic even, as if she’s a video game with a glitch.
She’s given the last two years of her life to Will but lately I’ve noticed an edge of tension between them. She’s taken to voicing her fears to me.
“Things will be ok once his trip settles in,” I say. “We’ve all been down this path before.”
“Yeah but each time it is different you know.”
There’s sadness in her eyes that I’ve not noticed. I think she regrets coming out here with us. I think she regrets more than just that.
I’m wondering where Will is and why he’s left Laurel here with me and so I look over and Jordan and Kim and Will have disappeared.
“What in the hell,” I say.
“Huh?” Laurel asks.
“Where did they go?”
“I don’t want to know,” she says.
Movement at the edge of the woods. In the rising moonlight three bodies joined as one.
“What the fuck.”
Laurel buries her face in my chest. My arm around her heaving body before I realize what’s going down. Kim, Jordan and Will melt into one over by the tree line about fifty feet up the rock. This I did not expect. And the suddenness of it is the strange part. Laurel is crying. A whimper on my now damp chest. Not a wail but a muted suffering.
I caress her shoulder, finding the soft fleece and her nearness adds warmth to the suddenly cold night.
“Do you want to head back to the car?” I ask her. She raises her tear filled face to me. Her helplessness stirs my heart. I wipe away a stream of tears with my left thumb and lean down to softly kiss her cheek. Pulling her head closer to my chest I wrap my arms around her and hold her to me.
“He’s leaving me Scotty. He’s going back home and not coming back. He said it’s over and he doesn’t feel committed to me anymore.”
“Don’t cry Laurel,” I say. “Come on. Let’s get out of here.”
I’m about half-way standing when the camera bag goes tumbling down the face of Coward Knob. I try to dive for it but only land on my chest as my chin splits open when it hits the granite. I hear the bag bounce a few times before a period of silence after which it lands along the slanted forest floor.
“I can’t believe that just happened,” I say and roll onto my back and begin to sit up. Laurel kneels beside me and a warm trickle covers my chin. I wipe at it but the sting in the middle lets me know I’m bleeding.
“Here,” she says and hands me a small athletic towel. “Will has a few towels and an extra shirt in his bag.”
Pressing the towel to my chin my mind is on that camera bag God knows how far down the mountain side. The calculation is how and when I am going to find it.
I’m working this over in my mind when I remember my friends have disappeared in the darkness up the hill. I recall seeing Jordan and Kim do this twice at parties. They’ve never approached me about it and honestly if they did I’m not sure I could.
I pull the towel back and touch my finger to my chin. It’s still bleeding.
I try not to look to where they are but my eyes go straight there anyway. Three people in rhythm silhouetted by moonlight against the trees.
“I cannot believe Will is doing that,” I say. “Let’s get you out of here.”
“What about your camera?”
“Nothing I can do tonight. Maybe I can get back out here in the morning and find it.”
We walk gingerly to where the path down to the road opens up.
Walking back to the car I swear I can feel eyes following us. A creepy sensation glides up the back of my neck. What began as just another afternoon of rolling with it has turned into chaos. There is also sadness. There is a delirious sense of guilt. A sense that I deserved to have my camera smashed, my trip shattered.
We’re making decent time down the back side of Coward Mountain despite the darkness. The rocks and trees I passed on the way up serve as a guide and a brace against the gravity of the earlier sunset.
Near the point where Kim and I paused to watch the race to the crest, I hear the dogs. I sense that our paths will cross. I hope we get to the car first, but I remember we came in Jordan’s car. I only hope he left it unlocked.
We come to a broken elevation in the path and I make the slight drop over a fallen tree and around a boulder. Only the trunk of a small tree keeps me from falling. With my feet on level ground I turn back and step one foot toward Laurel.
Her step is uncertain and she begins to waver. Laurel comes to rest in my arms and I hold firm. I take a deep breath and can smell the sweetness of her hair. The fullness of her body sends electricity across my chest. We breathe together for a moment.
“I am glad you are my friend, Scott. You’ve been a great friend,” she says and is now looking up to me. Her eyes are brilliant in the night air. I hear the dogs again, less faint than before, and she hears them this time. “What is that?”
“I’m not sure,” I answer her. “A pack of dogs I think. We’d better get to the car.”
The path makes itself apparent in the darkness. It’s an easy decline from here. Just a few minutes to the road where Jordan parked his car. I remember the road leads up from Caney Fork and that we passed one or two homes set back into nooks in the mountains around us. I didn’t bother to notice much more than that.
I feel the watching again. But my senses are fused and it’s hard to separate bliss from fear. I try to pass it off as excess psychedelic energy but that trip has faded. I wonder if they are still at it or if they’ve reclined across each other and are smoking a joint in peace. I stop and look back to see if the watching I feel is just the trio coming up on us. There is nothing but darkness.
I hear the sonorous cries of hound dogs growing less distant. What at first sounded like one or two dogs barking in the night is now a symphony of yelping.
The trees form a stockade along the edge of the forest. We emerge from the tree line and into the road, leaving behind the tension of the hike. But up the road I see a dark figure moving toward us. The absence of light prevents me from discerning exactly what it is. We move closer to the car and I take Laurel’s hand.
The dogs seem to be just over the crest of the road in a faint glow. We move around the front of the car to the passenger doors, relieved to find them unlocked. I try not to act delirious or frighten Laurel. But she catches the shock on my face as I hold the door.
“What’s the matter, Scott? What are you looking at?”
“I .. uh … I’m not sure,” I say. “I … I must be tripping out, you known, seeing things. Let’s just get in the car. I think it must be hunting dogs coming.”
I pause and look back up the road as Laurel slides across the seat. The figure is upright now, like a man, but its girth is incredible. Rounded shoulders backlit by the growing light coming over the crest. It stands seven or eight feet tall. If I was sober I’d swear it wore a crown of feathers but was part bear. It raises one arm and in the moonlight I can make out the claws.
As the vanguard of the dog pack comes over the hill followed by the floodlights of an International Scout, the figure darts into the woods just behind us. I’m in the car next to Laurel and pulling the door shut in an instant.
“Are you ok Scott? You are whiter than a sheet.”
“I think they are hunting a bear. I just saw it before it went into the woods. I can’t believe I don’t have my camera. It was the biggest bear I have ever seen and it stood up and sort of like waved its claws at me.”
Laurel pulls close to me and takes hold of my arm. The road is flooded with Plott Hounds of various sizes and as they pass there are a few men walking among them. One of them stops by the car and looks in. He’s carrying a scoped rifle.
“You’uns all right in there?” he asks while pushing the brim of his Stetson back off his forehead. I lean over Laurel and crack the window as the Scout rumbles past.
“Yeah mister, we’re fine. Been hiking up the Knob and we are waiting on a few friends to come down.”
“Well not smart to be up there after dark this time of year. Bears are coming out of hibernation. Real hungry. We been tracking one all the way up from the creek.”
“Yea, I think I saw it just ahead of your dogs. It moved into the woods.”
“They’re smart creatures for sure. But we got some dogs with a few years on ‘em too. They’ll sniff him out. You’uns take care now. We’ll be seeing you.”
I close the window back as the man walks off toward the Scout that’s stopped about twenty feet up the road. The man gets in the truck and as it pulls off I see Jordan coming across the road. He’s leading Kim by the hand. Will gets in the front passenger seat as Kim opens the door next to me.
“Can you make some room Scotty?” she says. I move over to the middle as Laurel scoots to the driver’s side. Jordan starts the car and gets it turned around to head back down toward the main road. I think about telling them about the bear, or whatever it was that I saw, but no one is speaking and for once I think I should just keep quiet.
I can’t see anything seated in the middle of the back seat and so my eyes fix on the gravel road caught in the whir of Jordan’s headlights. Will stares immovable out of the passenger window and I notice Laurel doing the same next to me. I wonder what thoughts connect them in this moment. I wonder what desires separate them from their shared past.
We bottom out of the gravel road and Jordan pushes a cassette into the car stereo as he picks up speed on Caney Fork Road. At the end of a straight stretch we pass Johns Creek Church and shoot right with the creek as the road snakes. The music in the car grows from a clean arpeggiated mood to a frenzied, hypnotic rhythm. Layered distorted guitars with a man’s high pitched voice dancing across the landscape:
Erotic Jesus lays with his Marys.
Loves his Marys.
Bits of puzzle,
Fitting each other.
Oh my Marys!
Night is shelter
For nudity's shiver...
All now with wings!
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