My whole life I have gone away
into the hills to pray,
as when I was a boy
and went and sat beneath a trinity of trees
on a mount overlooking my home-town,
by night or by day it did not matter
in the shade of these
alone except for the wind,
the deer, little bugs in the tree-bark,
once or twice a wild hare,
always the teeming thousands in the grass,
and unknowable things deep down beyond the wooded hillcrest,
and the trees themselves
with their knowing whispering rustlings to themselves,
“we’ve seen the likes of him before” no doubt,
respectable in their way, comforting even
in their certain superiority, their detached affection, their
hair-ruffling branches and their always-leaf-falling
even in seasons when no leaves should fall.
I was at peace there:
I was at home with my self there,
I heard the voice of God there,
but only if He condescended to whisper.
And I would have stayed there
if not for another mount of communion
and another Trinity
who made the earth and all that it contains,
even grandmother-trees and wild hares and
all the more unknowable
deep down things.
They came trudging up the face of the hill, their lightsabers held in sweaty grips at their sides. One was breathing harder than the other. He had taken the brunt of the beating in today’s duel, and his shoes, ill-suited to the terrain, slid haphazardly in the loose dirt. The other darted ahead, trying to project an image of surety. “Just here,” he called back over his shoulder. He was speaking in short sentences to disguise his own labored breathing.
They crested the ridge and came upon an unlikely grove. The grass, too green for the season, was long, but not unkempt; if it looked wild, it was not the wildness of a lawn that had gone too long without being cared for, not the wildness of that which had been tamed and was no longer. It was the noble wildness of that which had never known a civilizing hand. The grass swayed languorously toward them in time with the breeze, and the long fingers of the trees shifted almost imperceptibly. Their branches hung so low as to almost brush against the ground.
“Just like Dantooine.” Austin panted a few times, settling against the nearest tree’s incongruously wide trunk.
Matt smiled, in what he inwardly hoped was an enigmatic fashion, and sank down to his haunches, looking out at the city laid out below and beneath and before them, like a set of toys. “Yeah.”
That seemed to just about sum it up.
After a short time passed, he crossed his legs and closed his eyes, savoring the wind on the back of his neck. “Recite the Jedi Code.”
His friend, a year older than he but still eager to play along, cleared his throat. “There is no emotion,” he intoned. “There is peace. There is no ignorance; there is knowledge. There is no passion; there is serenity. There is no chaos; there is harmony.”
There was a pregnant pause.
“Is it true?” Matt asked him.
“Of course.” Austin’s tone was not so much defensive as stating the obvious.
“Maybe it’s something we have to strive for,” Matt acknowledged, not quite correcting him. “But is it true? I mean, look at the world. Is there chaos? Is there ignorance?”
Austin’s silence was guarded. He was waiting to see where this was going.
Matt sighed. “What if I were to say, oh … ‘There is no injustice; there is balance.’ Is that true?”
“Yes,” his friend acknowledged slowly, drawing out the vowel while he thought about it. “I guess…but what is balance?”
This was a valid question. Matt looked for the words to express the concept he was simultaneously trying to teach, and teach himself.
He opened his eyes. “Think about the taijitu,” he tried again. “You have two sides. Black, and white. Both pushing against each other. Only neither one will ever win, right? Here the dark side is pushing back the light, and if you only look at this one part, it seems like the darkness is winning…but if you look down, you see the light is pushing back the darkness just as forcefully. And if you look at the whole picture, neither one is ever winning. One might put more force in here, and push back the other, but only because the other is concentrating somewhere else. It will never all be one color. If it were, it wouldn’t be the taijitu.”
Austin was nodding slowly, but his wide brow was furrowed, as if troubled.
“I think the universe is like that,” Matt said, reflectively. “I think everything is like that, really.”
“But then what’s the point? If no one is ever going to win?” Austin had a look like he was trying to solve an equation. “There has to be some way…”
“Even if there was, it wouldn’t be winning.” Matt looked back out over the city. The sun was beginning to make its long descent behind the hills. “Maybe that’s the point. After all, if there was no white pushing back against the black, that wouldn’t be the taijitu, either. We have to push, for anything to mean anything at all. And the universe…will sort itself out. That’s balance.”
They sat in silence, until the sun was low enough that they were starting to shiver, and by unspoken agreement they began to head home. Matt’s voice drifted back over the hill—a sudden “en guarde!”, a grunt of surprise, the sound of clashing plastic blades, and then laughter, boyish laughter—”I wasn’t ready!” “A Jedi must always be on his guard, young Padawan.”—until they became just two shapes in the distance, one short and thin, one tall and wide, distinct silhouettes that merged and disappeared at the top of the road.
They emerged from the treeline at the top of the hill, blinking at the sunlight from which they were no longer shielded by layers of leaves and branches. One led the other confidently down the slope, following the curve of the land, here drifting left around an outgrowth of thorns, there right, angling toward a fallen tree that had settled long ago into the earth—long enough ago that grass had grown up all round it, and it seemed a part of the landscape that had been there all along—longer, certainly, than mere human memory of this place could contradict.
No words were needed between them here. The one knew that the other would follow, that if he turned around he would see him matching his progress step for step. The other knew the one would want to stop before he knew it himself, knew he would be led to the fallen tree even before the one knew where he was leading him.
Matt settled into a bend in the tree trunk with a contented sigh. They were low enough again to be covered by trees, and the sunbeams filtered down to them between branches, landing haphazardly on the grass and covering their world in a light spray of gold. Marshal sat beside him, staring pensively into the middle distance.
“Do you ever feel,” Matt began, and stopped. He swung his legs up so he was lying parallel with the tree-trunk. All he could see now was the blue sky and the tops of trees and the back of Marshal’s head, long messy brown hair parted in the middle and swept back behind his ears.
“Do you ever wonder,” he said, and stopped again. Marshal said nothing. His was a patient silence. He knew that, like a rainstorm in the tropics, his best friend’s words would come in great, rolling bursts until all of them were said.
He sought in vain for the words to describe concepts that Marshal would not, could not understand: vocation, and obligation, and sacrifice, and love of someone greater than oneself.
In the end, he settled for asking, “Marshal, do you ever wonder if you’re doing the right thing? I mean, how do you know?”
The silence continued unobtrusively until it became clear the words had, in fact, run out, and a reply was now to be expected. The wind whispered in the leaves, but neither of them was listening.
In the end, Marshal quietly said, “I don’t.”
Matt sat and waited, but his was an uncomfortable silence, because he knew that, like rain in a desert, his best friend’s words were rare, and precious, and the mere fact that a few fell from his lips was not a promise of any more anytime soon.
After some time, Marshal stood, and stretched, and walked a little distance away, indicating that the conversation was over for now, and Matt obligingly rolled off the log into the leaves and dry grass at its base, stretching out his legs and staring at the sky. “Remember Steubenville?” he wanted to say. “Remember kneeling face to face with God?”—but he knew that even if the answer were ‘yes’, it would be a qualified yes—perhaps ‘yes, I remember being in that auditorium, in the dark, with the lights, and the music, and all of us with our arms around each other, and love so thick you could feel all of our hearts beating in time,’ but not ‘yes, I remember meeting Jesus’ eyes and knowing that He became flesh and died for me, and hearing Him whisper He loved me, and feeling my heart burn so strongly with love for Him that I felt like it might consume me’—and anyway, no matter what Marshal’s answer might be, he didn’t know what he would say next.
He listened for the voice of God on the wind, but he never quite knew how to distinguish that from the voice inside his head.
Marshal sat down again beside him, and thought thoughts that were entirely his own.
In the end, they went home when the clouds rolled in, and the water was all gone.
They ran up the side of the hill—not hand in hand, but the option was there. Behind them and before them and around them, the world was frozen, a photograph, a captured moment. The streets were dark and lazy rivers, little eddies of yellow light pooling beneath their street lamps, and the sky, mostly void, veiled pinpoints of starlight singing softly from another world.
They crested the ridge, and Ellen breathed out, shakily. “I can’t believe this place exists. It’s like a little piece of Middle Earth, right in the middle of the city.”
Matt grinned, spinning beneath the trees. His sneakers crunched over dry leaves and skimmed the dewfall off the grass. “I know.” It was strange how this place could be at the same time a part of it all, and above it, and separate—much like the stars, he was quick to point out—like the only living land in a winterlocked world.
He pointed out the trees, which grew in clusters, three sets of four each—or were they in fact only three trees, all having mysteriously split at the bases of their trunks into four distinct sections, reaching up to heaven separately, but together, each of them one tree in four persons, reaching up to touch the outstretched hand of their triune Maker?
She pointed out the lights on the horizon, between the mountains, how they could form a castle—torches burning on the turrets, the parapets, lamps in the windows—a fairy tale castle, they decided, or a college of sorcery. It belonged to another world, all of it, a world on which they were privileged, for a brief and timeless moment, to intrude.
They skipped up further, following the curve of the hill, until they were above the downsweep of the branches and could see the lights of the city laid out before them in full. Then they laid down on the grass and ignored it completely. He held her in his arms and they gazed at eternity.
Softly, he whispered stories in her ear. The hours he had spent higher in the hills, among the woods. The perpetually startled deer who would dart out from the underbrush at his approach. The times he had walked up the gravel road marked “Private Drive,” ducking around the padlocked gate marked “Keep Out,” running across the open green expanse, over the narrow creek and up into the trees, where the sun was bright and the colors brighter. The times he had come and sat beneath these trees on the hillside as a boy, looking out at the world through the safety of their branches, which held all things at bay.
Hiking all the way to the top of the highest mountains with his dad, to where the woods fell away and the ground was bare and there were radio towers, feeling tall and proud and in some, inexplicable way, as though he had proven something. Playing among these trees with Austin, pushing the boundary between fantasy and reality, in this forest where the boundary was already stretched so thin. The philosophical discussions, blundering at God like blind men grasping, unsure what they were feeling—here a brush with ethics, there with beauty, unable yet to grasp the whole. Long conversations with Marshal about nothing very much, tramping through brush and bramble, stopping in every clearing to marvel at the beauty.
“I can feel it,” she said softly. Her voice had a quality of wonder, like the voices of the stars just at the edge of hearing. “If a place can love somebody,” she told him, “this place loves you.”
He smiled, and held her closer. Somewhere out in the darkness, a car with a faulty muffler split the silence obnoxiously. They giggled about narrative causality and felt the borders shiver between worlds close enough to touch.
They went home when the cold air had got past their skin into their bones, and their noses had so little feeling they might have wandered right off their faces to explore. They were reluctant, but the night air hummed with promises of memories yet to be made—”another day, another day,” the wind insisted, caressing their bare cheeks.
The hills watched them go like doting grandparents, for whom time is at once too short and too, too long, watched them go with tears brimming for love and sorrow and youth, sweet in its length and bitter in its ending, for night and day and stars and eternity—watched them go with a parting brush of a branch, like a weathered hand brushing back a child’s hair to rest lightly on the back of his head, to pull him into one final embrace, to whisper, “no matter how far you wander, this will always be your home.” Watched them go, until they became just two shapes in the distance, one tall and thin, moving at oddly fluid angles, as though perpetually wandering, and the other slender and beautiful, even in the dark, stepping lightly, as if she were especially conscious of her presence in the space around her—watched them go, two distinct silhouettes, until they merged and disappeared at the top of the road.
He came around the last bend in the old gravel road, boots crunching over the twin blankets of snow and silence which veiled the whole hilltop in wonder. The sun was huge on the horizon, and it all seemed somehow delightfully warm, even though he could see his breath. He laughed, and his laughter turned into a great whoop of joy as he ran on past the radio towers to the edge of the hillside and threw himself down in the snow, shrugging off both his jackets, reveling in the chill and the brightness and the muchness of the moment.
This bare peak had not always been his favorite place out in the hills. It was the easiest to get to, for one thing. All you had to do was follow the path. There were many other spots more hidden than this: the trinity of trees on the slope overlooking the school, or the little clearing on a hillcrest far back off the path, or the big knotted tree with a hollow in it, so deep into the woods that you could never find it by looking, only by wandering. The little pond which he had glimpsed from the road, all frozen over and glittering.
There was a time not so long ago when he had equated mystery with hiddenness, complexity, difficulty. When it seemed all that was really important were the deep down things, unknowable and inexpressible, but which he nevertheless had to struggle to express.
Before that, there was a time he’d thought there was no great mystery at all. He had been about twelve, he smiled now to remember, and he’d had it all figured out. But even then, he had caught it in glimpses, and it was the glimpses that wakened his longing.
He longed for it still, and more deeply—yet here it was, at the heights, in the great openness and the sunlight and the crisp winter air, and the tops of trees crowned in white, and the sun dipping even now below the horizon. Only this, only love, only Love was enough!—and a greater mystery than all the others which could never slake his thirst.
The silence didn’t seem disturbed by his high spirits, nor the snow by the tracks he left in it. It was all apiece, he thought, not for the first time: the silence, the laughter, the snow, the footprints, the numberless past moments, and this present one on Mount Rose, Mount Angel, Mount Carmel.
After a while, as the sunlight faded gradually to twilight and he began to feel the chill of the snow, he opened his breviary. “How wonderful creation is, the work which you did bless,” he sang, and his hills listened expectantly. “What then must you be like, dear God, eternal loveliness!”
A bird sang with him, or back to him, a little soaring melody as it alit somewhere above and behind him in the trees.
“Most ancient of all mysteries, before your throne we lie.”
There was something else besides the snow and the silence which settled, brooded invisibly over the hilltop and all it contained.
“Have mercy now, most merciful, most holy Trinity!”
And when he had finished his prayer, he set off again down the road, still singing this or that as it came to him. It was not the end, exactly. Everything was grace then, every moment a glimmering of love.