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Mountain Holds the Buddha


by Sean Meehan

December 29, 2001

I believe Pamela Lee was the Buddha. Not because she had ridden her bike across Tibet. Not because she had a shrine with the bronze statue and scarves and prayer wheels. Not because she had once hugged the Dalai Lama in Kathmandu. Not because of her flat topped, flop-eared hat, embroidered with the all-seeing eye, or her prayer bell. It was because she told me she had forgiven the world, and I believe she had.

She was thin, a vegetarian tenuity, no fat at all. Breasts she could hide with a t-shirt. Black hair ran thick down to the middle of her back, loose when dancing, braidedwhen climbing or running. Her mouth was wide, full of straight white teeth behind round berry lips that pulled tight when she spoke. Always moving, not frantic; flowing, rhythmic, as if a soundtrack were constantly playing below her conversations. Green eyes, half-dollar size, always wet, bright. Lashes, dark and long, flashing like awnings below thin cords of brow. She was pointy of nose, chin, knees and elbows, but curves filled in pleasantly between. When she moved she would feather her hands across whatever was around, door handles, table tops, the lip of a vase, my shoulders. Caressing her way through the world. She terrified me.

She was happy to wait in the cab of the truck. Wind gusts rocking us, snow piling up on the hood and roof. The windows wet from our breath. She was happy. I had called her, invited her to ski up Hummer Peak. Trying to break into me for weeks, she knew she had. She knew that later, after we had stomped through snowy woods, across sifting slopes and slid back down again, we would go back to her house and make tea and rice. She would put on piano music. I would take her hair out of braids, my hands would brush her neck, falling towards her. She would pull me over her and we would make love. All waiting would unbuckle and drain into a delicious bath of touch shot through with light, as eyes drifted open, then closed, then open again. She would break in. She was very happy.

She leaned over, took my hand off the steering wheel, kissed me. In charge, laid her head in my lap. My breath reached deeper into my lungs than it had in a year. Wanting, hesitant, I traced her forehead, then cheeks, then lips. "That's good", she hummed, " that's good." Snow fell harder.

"I can feeling you bracing." She noticed everything.

One hand back to the. wheel, yes bracing, twisting, recoiling. A wolf with one paw in the trap. What comes after this, these grazing collisions, these dense breaths, these looks that flicker like match flame. Pain: Nancy gone a year now, parents remote and silent, daughter gone. The cab became humid with loss, betrayals, disappointments. "No, my leg is asleep, " I lied.

Changing the subject: "What about you and Neil?" Neil, my stem brother, climbing partner, trainer. Finished my sentences, probed my mind, drove me hard on runs, on climbs, on long cross country drives, through books. Ravagers, together we had dug in dumpsters for food, slept in dirt, bitchedhiked through Wyoming winters, lived on nothing, relishing any ridiculous difficulty. She loved him ferociously, like a bonfire. Still did. He was an ice cube in her frying pan. Neil, Germanic, glacier hearted, severe, couldn't stand the heat, left her. She would love me in that same unbridled way.

I knew.

I feared.

"I love that lonely man." Relieved, I probed further, "You angry at him?"

"No, not anymore." She paused, eyes drifting closed. "A few weeks ago I was riding my bike to school trying to beat the rain. Suddenly right above me there was a brilliant sun break. Just one ray cutting through like a lazer. The rain broke like a wave. I stopped. I realized I was really angry, breathing hard. I had been thinking about Neil and a girifriend of mine. I felt betrayed and shut out by both of them. When the-rain hit me, I realized that Neil and that girl and all the other people in my life that I have ever been angry with, were just trying to do their lives. They were doing all that they had to do and nothing more. They are innocent of my hurt, of my anger. I felt light and free. I got off and walked my bike. I cried really hard. Not for loss, but for how free I felt ,how wrong I had been. How clear and good it was to learn. The rain ran through me, washed it away, all of it. Neil, that girl, my parents, all of it. It was my baptism."

"Did it stay? That feeling, I mean. You feel that way now?" Eyebrows cinched, fingers drumming the dash, disbelief. I stared down at her face, searching for the falsehood, searching for the weakness in the facade, an eye flick to the corner, something. Her eyes flipped open, catching me, arms swarming around my waist, pulling tight. Her face came up to mine. A breath away.

"Believe it!", she beamed, back lit by snow through the windshield, then whispering," I do."

I was cornered. Caught in her light. I looked away, wiped the steam off the window, "Let's go climb this peak." She popped up and out the door into the fray. Instant anxiety. Did I offend? Too late. I followed. Stepping into skis, shouldering packs, slipping on gloves, we were off. Climbing the first steep hill, tooth and nail, right in the face ice blasts. It never occurred to me not to go. Caught up in the missing characters of the past year. Caught up in the evening's tingling promise. Caught out in the snow.

We swished along the road to Reflection Lakes. The lakes were hidden in mounds of snow and clouds that huddled at tree tops. Mt. Rainier loomed above us, invisible but for the fury it had magnetized. We left the road, turning into the forest. Up the long traverse to the open slopes below the saddle separating Pinnacle and Hummer Peaks. Knee deep in the white silt, we pushed each leg forward heavily beneath trees dressed like Russian border guards. I broke trail, dumb as a mule. Quick glance over my shoulder, Pamela right behind, smiling from inside the tunnel of her parka hood. " Who is really leading?", I wondered.

My faced ached from cold, teeth clenched. Pushing down hard on poles, finding no bottom to the snow. What a contrast, Pamela slipping along, smiling like a March dolphin off Cabo, me battering each step into the virgin white, half there, half historic, grinding and thrashing.

The universe loved her, not that she hadn't suffered. The Chinese caught her talking with buddhist priests in Tibet, unauthorized contact. Dragged her off to a grey block dungeon, took her bike, stuck fingers in her ass and vagina. Looking for what? Left her in a cell naked for days, threw her out of the country. On a pass in Kashmir, bandits crushed her partner's legs with a big rock, took all the money, while she was off peeing behind a boulder. She had to drag him on a sled of sticks, listening to his gags and wails. Three days, over two passes, before finding help.

Then there was Neil.

He had wooed her for months, making bird-like gestures with his head over slow sipping cups of chai. Making gifts of found flowers and cassette tapes, melodies dripping of honey and lavender. All those long aching back rubs, just friendly. Yeah. Threading her hair through his short sausage fingered hands, softly, as she purred. Giggling as he tried to hide hard-ons beneath a blanket. I imagined him blue-balled, straight backed, eyes glazed. Frozen with wanting. When she turned toward him, full tsunami, gale winds, mojave hot, he fled. Just like him. Surrounded by poets, meditators, wicka women, diesel dykes, climbers, admiring professors, she was blessed, invincible. "His loss", I thought.

Now here she was dogging me, hot on the trail, closing in. And this message, this challenge. I was convinced. Forgave them all! How did she do that? What continent had she moved inside her?

Out on the open slopes, a cluster of small trees, huddling like refugees, I stopped to catch my breath. She pulled up behind. Blowing cotton, couldn't see twenty five feet ahead. First doubts crept up. I stomped on the snow with my skis, felt skittish. "Turn back?"

"Let's go to the pass and eat, then decide". She said. Upward for twenty minutes more to the saddle.

I never sit during storms. Standing with skis like outriggers, legs apart, locked kneed, resting on bone. Pamela slipped in between. Bare-banded, hood to hood, we chewed peanut butter on drywheat bread and drank steaming cocoa out of a thermos. Sharing one cup. The ridge beckoned, only half a mile to the summit. The dry snow, promised a velvety ride down. Exactly what we had climbed for. We had to go. "I'll break trail for while", she volunteered. Strange worry cloud flitted in. Gone wind-whip quick as I slipped into her tracks, laboring upwards. Wallowing in molasses, draft horse work. Not thinking. Ahead, she cut first one, then two, and then a third switchback up the lee side of the ridge. I followed, thankful. Through the blizzard gauze the crest appeared fifteen feet away. A midget cedar pointed toward me, groomed for a hundred years by Pacific winds. "Wrong side of the ridge," I thought and looked up. Ahead of me, Pamela lifted her ski and slapped it down on the snow.

Shotgun blast, dry oak cracking, wrecking ball, smashed bricks. The fracture ran right between our legs, one safe, one caught in the churn. Tire size blocks popped up between my legs, crashing into my knees. I went over, head first, screaming, "Avalanche!" Half second gone, I heard Pamela scream, "Sean!" Then hissing like a train pulling out, blocks exploding around my head.

There was no time and all time. Pictures from training books and slide shows swirled. Coaching myself, urging myself, "Swim, swim, head up, paddle hard, keep face clear, breath." White everywhere, in my eyes, behind my head, under my chest, over my back. Huge endless hissing, steam off an angry kettle. Then pressing down, head bowed, then lifted, then bowed again, harder each time. Humiliation speared my chest, and under that, a stupid, resolute trust. Mind present, electric close behind closed eyes, "This is dying, how strange, simple." I remembered stories of drowning. The hissing slowed to a small leak, more pressing. Heavy like bodies stacked on canvas. My hands in front of my face, I was still breathing. White filling in like poured lead. Setting up, solid.

Silence, finally, and not dead. Hard to breathe, but breathing still.


Eyes open, there was light. I wrestled frantic for eternal minutes then stopped, exhausted. "Breathe, breathe, relax." Check list, what next, yelling, that's right, yelling.

"PAMELA, HELP ME, PAMELA!" Then waiting. How long? Check list again, next?

"DIG!" I rolled my tongue around in my parched mouth to form a spit ball, squeezed it up and over my lips. It fell away. I was face down. Survival, freedom, life, was up. Hand shot out in that direction, finding air, arm's length away. Started with small pushes, snow collapsed back, choking panic. "Stop, regroup, calm now." Pushing out handful after handful, like wads of wet clay. Arm width tunnel opened into storm grey. Relief, "Today was not my day."

Time passed in handfuls until my head was clear and I could sit up, still buried from the waist down. Gnawing thoughts, "Where the hell is she?" Pictures of the ridge came back clearly. The fracture, the small pointing tree, Pamela standing a ski's length away from me. She must have skied out, stayed on the ridge, stepped high, got to safety. For a minute I enjoyed the relief, she had made it. Glad that rangers with heavy furred dogs and hot tea would meet me on that lonely ski out. Standing finally, one pole missing. I ran for the trees, dragging skis behind. Fell down, weary. It felt the same as when I had run the Seattle marathon back in September. Breath came back; so did dread. The clouds lifted just enough to see the slope. The fracture ran for three hundred feet. There was the small cedar, a marker. Pamela was gone.

There were no tracks, no cheery voice, no figure waving from the ridge top. I didn't want to go back out on to that slope, but I had to search. Her only hope. At the bottom of the slide, ten feet from my tomb, a pile of blocks and debris. Directly below the small tree. She was there. Stifle fear, stuffing down into deep recess of gut, just above my balls. Keep it there.

I checked my watch. Darkness in fifty minutes. An open slope in front of me and on the other side of the ridge. The way home, a rolling carpet of white fear. I ran to the pile calling her name. "Half an hour, that's all I have, half an hour and she'll be dead." I imagined having to cross oceans of white caps. Trembling, heart hammering in my chest. I probed, first traversing, then climbing. Punching down to elbow, then shoulder with one mateless pole. Again and again in one foot squares, a cross-hatch pattern. Knowing I would hit the firm mass of her, somehow. Frenzied certainty. Half an hour gone, then forty minutes, then fifty. I stopped heaving for breath. Staggered. I had to go for help, for the there to be any chance, I had to go. I retreated to the sanctuary of the trees. Sweat started to freeze beneath my jacket. The grim foot race had begun, home was far away. The battered, grey hull of evening pitched over into the first breakers of night.

Silently," Pamela, I have to go now. I'm sorry, if you are here, I'm sorry, but I have to go. I'll come back with help, I'll come back tonight, I will, I promise."

With that, I made a thin peace with conscience and strapped on my skis. Dizzy, stretched thin, bent over with exhaustion, I reached the saddle in last light. No choice: to live was to fight, to fly. I plunged over the other side of the ridge, slamming into each turn. Throttling images of another slide, no time, just go, go hard. Island of trees, familiar. Barren, hungry slopes above and below. Rest, two breaths and then on again, one turn, then thunder. Below me the slope gave way. Not seeing was a blessing. I lept uphill and scrambling like a scared dog, face down in the snow Breath like a knot of fishhooks, frozen face, frozen hands, frozen thoughts. Ahead, ahead, just go. Finally trees, tall tree out of the darkness. First friends seen. I flew to their cover, a cold child among elders coattails. Behind me the wind licked poised slopes and snow fell heavy as gravity.

I raced the road and the steep slope above the parking lot, manic holla hoop turns, joints crunching, legs buckling. Finally, lights, cars on the road. A man with skis in his hands walking just ahead. I opened my mouth to speak, no words. The first small breach, a cat fight whine. I caught it and stuffed it down. No time for that now.

" I need help, my friend has been buried up on Plummer Peak".

The night blurred on. Screeching drive for help, for contact. Sleepy rangers in green wool waving duplicate forms and wagging red fingers at me. Piles of snowshoes and packs, radio static, search dogs yelping in headlights, straining against tethers. A candy bar from nameless hand, black coffee. Fending off comfort and sleep. The too slow ride in a green truck, back down the hill. Marching back out into the dark, knowing, "Too late, too late." Defeat came finally; not my call.

" The slopes are loaded. We can't make it in there tonight. Too dangerous."

"Thank God."

Later, no tea and rice, no piano music. In a squeaky government bunk, sleep took me like death. Snap, head drop, gone. Dreaming of walking across a meadow where a circle of people stood holding hands.

Strange voice, strange hands shook me awake in the cold room.

"First chopper goes in fifteen minutes, you're on it." Pulling on frozen boots and gloves, stumbled out into a clear morning. The storm was gone, no trace. Rainier stood there, firm as God. Another truck ride, ushered around like a dignitary, no one looked at me. Someone threw me a flash suit. "Just in case we crash, this fuel goes off like a bomb."

Rotors whirled and the pilot pushed the stick forward, just like that, 200 feet above the ground at a seasick angle, mountains filling the windows. I spotted the second slide, the one darkness hid. Debris pile as high as a house, one thousand feet down the ripped slope. I looked away. The first slide came into view. The chopper set down on the ridge where the small cedar stood waiting, my only witness. Ducking the rotors I was back, too quick. No time to mull or steady myself. The search dogs and handlers came in on the next flight. Dogs eager to go to work. There at bottom of the slope was the heaved pile, a raw burial mound. The dogs got her scent and found her in fifteen minutes. Hunters, pawing and baying. We dug, twelve feet of snow. Pamela was face down, her hat still in place, eyes closed. Her mouth looked thin and set, peaceful, as they turned her over under that blazing morning sky. They said she didn't suffer; that much snow would just crush the breath right out of a body. She would have loved that morning, the mountain on guard, the snow light as salt. Sun gold splashing every peak beneath endless blue canopy.

They would not let me touch her. Not until days later at the morgue, just before she went to ash. They held me back, unfolding the black bag, dumping her in awkward, frozen hamburger in a ziplock. Fat zipper sound as bag closed out the motionless air. So very final. The two slides, great, jagged claw marks on the mountainside on the flight out.

Work was over, no defenses left. The press descended. Channel five cameras, microphones in my face. I slumped against a truck bumper. Bleary, longing for sleep, forever sleep. Rangers stood guard, "You know, it's treated as a homicide until the coroner's report comes back. You knew that, didn't ya?"

I rode home with Pamela's friends. Silent, staring straight ahead, no safety. Flung straight into a house full of vigilant people. Pamela's sister, Neil, her writing friends, everyone she knew, it seemed.

"We're glad you're here. We're glad you lived."

Touched by a hundred people, not trusting any. Thinking, "The wrong one was lost, the wrong one." Telling the story in front of two hundred eyes, drilling.

Then her mother. Parents burying children bends the mind, shatters a covenant, breaks a dam, torrents surge down endless choked canyons. Never right again. I told her every detail once, then a dozen times, then a hundred times. She wouldn't let go of my hand. I had seen her baby pass, I had been there when her little girl left.

Let down didn't come until home. Joel at the door the of the house. Big as a grizzly, he held me until I broke and wailed against his chest, no escaping his safety, this friend, this giant. He carried me to bed and held my hand for hours. Finally, morphine sleep.

A week passed. Strangers stopping me on the street, bugging me. Crying on me. Dutifully telling the story to anyone who asked. Over and over. And stranger things, women plotted ambush seductions, long forgotten acquaintances appeared bearing odd gifts. I heard penance, apologies for her, missed connections, unread letters, collected imagined debts. Becoming some kind of touchstone. A living shrine to her. To some, a pariah. I'm sure. They kept coming, laying hands on me, asking dittoed questions, nodding empathetically. Some just came and sat, wordlessly staring, no affect. Calls from friends across the country; Boston, New York, DC, LA. "We read about it in the paper. How are you?"

Nancy called, should she come back, did I need her?

Stranger still, the light around bodies, how sentences or gestures would resonate for hours, shedding layers of meaning, like mining tunnels passing through bedrock. Many appeared as children, frail birds with voices of glass and paper. Always peering, wide eyed, looking for something. Sometimes a black shadow over the head, warnings. Dreams of killers, old lovers returning, walking on solid ground, bare dirt path under tall firs. I sat still often. Not moving, not thinking, just sitting. Needles of blame and, was it envy, stuck in skin, constant tucking and pulling.

Tuesday, one week to the day, the wake. One thousand people showed up. Walked by pictures, read Pamela's poetry, fondled her embroidered hat, her pack. Rang her prayer bell. Hours of eulogy. I stumbled to the microphone. Expectant hush fell. Still on duty. Reluctant, still serving their need to hear, to know, to get as close as possible. I delivered her message:

"I didn't know what to think once I dug myself out. Where did you go Pamela, where did you go? You told me we are all forgiven. Whatever it was we thought we owed you, that unsaid thing, the phone call never returned, the touch or trust we kept and did not give. You said it's Okay. Let it go, be free now. We're all innocent.

Maybe when a person reaches that point, steps into the light, breaks out, maybe then, they just rise up and go. Maybe she had to, maybe forgiveness is too big for flesh and bone and hair and spit. Maybe only mountains hold that much. Mountains and ash."

They seemed satisfied. Like in my dream, we drifted outside into the meadow, gathering in a circle. Threw our hands in the air. Said goodbye, yelling rooftop loud. The circle dissolved.

Left with razor thoughts. How did she do that, forgive the world? Did she forgive me? Maybe her good, her open heart was not meant for this world. Barren wondering in the face my need for it, my need for her. For along time after, I stayed in valleys, walked along sea shores, lay down on wet lawns, kissed dirt. Keeping myself low, feet pressed down firmly on unmovable earth.

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