I’m sitting on rubble on the top of the mountain. It’s as if this is where the world ends. The sky is within reach. Where I’m sitting was once a castle, that’s what the sign on the hillside says. That it was built by the Persians. Such a high-up, sheltered place… You could probably see your enemy coming before he had even left his house. This, I think, is the great tragedy of our times; you can’t spot your enemy from afar, nor even when they’re close. You’re used to waging war in far off battlefronts like they did in the old days, but nowadays the bullets come from near. From a closeness you didn’t expect. It’s not possible to fend off the danger on a single front anyway. Especially if you’re a woman.
If all that’s left of the mighty Persian Empire is a few piles of rock, what significance could my existence possibly have for the world? No idea if all of the pain and hardship will have been worth it. But this also gives me a sense of hope; the fact that everyone and every age will come to an end, that time favors no one person, that everything will eventually be defeated by the hand of time, that everyone in the end will be given their due…
I’m looking down on my city from the mountaintop. Together the houses look like a crowded cemetery. I’m trying to make out which one is mine. The house with the kitchen window that looks out on the mountain I’m sitting on top of. The house from which I would stare at it for hours on end, during breakfast on weekends. One day, I asked my aunt, “What was your biggest dream when you were a child?” She pointed up at the mountain across from the village and said, “To look on at our village from up there.” The village sat on the slope of one of the two mountains separated by a river. It was just a stone’s throw between the two mountains, but to my aunt, the fact that there was a river in between them made the other mountain seem like the other side of the world. Her entire world consisted of these. There was nothing past these mountains, no beyond. My cousin and I made fun of this dream for years. My aunt did not know what a big place the world actually was. It took me years to realize that the world isn’t the same size for everyone.
No matter how hard I try, I can’t make out my home. This cemetery has grown so fast. How beautiful this mountain used to look from my kitchen window. It was definitely more colorful than my life. First white, then turning brown, green, yellow and then white again, whereas my state of weariness and tedium always seemed to stay the same. Going to work, shopping, spending time with people, raising children: none of these ever made me vibrant or colorful. Yes, the world is big. But it’s hemmed in by borders, ones that I cannot cross. While people in the 13th century were able to travel from Genoa to Mongolia, from China to Spain and see the planet they lived on, in the 21st century -in an age of planes, high-speed trains, ferries, automobiles- I have almost no room for maneuver. The job I have to hold down, even though I never seem to be able to get ahead. The pandemic, economic crisis and the political atmosphere, and all that’s left to me is that mountain standing before me. I couldn’t believe there’d come such a time when not only would a person have to retreat into their shell, but one in which those who even have a shell to retreat into would be the lucky ones.
If nothing else, I wanted to at least have this mountain from which I could look out at my life, like my aunt had. I set off before breakfast. I had spent so many years facing this view that I already knew exactly which trails lead where, which trees stand along which roads. For someone who walks uneasily in the city, I somehow walk freely on the mountain and hillsides. Maybe this sense of ease is why I can find refuge in nature whenever I feel overwhelmed. Or at least whatever nature is left after so much plunder. The little left that we could still lose at any moment.
My daughter escapes to my parents’ house when she feels exasperated. She finds refuge in the house where I never could. Of course, I’m happy that it can be a refuge for her. Perhaps the reason why I always imagined the refuge I yearned for to be someplace far, far away is because I’ve been withheld what is so generously given to her. I’m not resentful anymore. I’m old enough now to empathize with my parents. And I’m glad I can do this while they’re still alive, because I couldn’t bear that extra burden on my conscience.
Even though I had dreamt of running away from everyone and everything from time to time, my first and only time running away from home was when I was eight years old. My sibling and I, along with three of my friends, had poured a bucket of water over the whiny girl who always bothered us while we were playing and being afraid of her mother and ours, we decided to run away. We ran away to a tiny village three miles away. They knew who we were and they were surprised to see us. What were five little kids doing there? I said, “We’re here to pick thistles.” “Not in July you aren’t,” said one of the women. She gave us cold yoghurt soup. “Go back home once you’re done,” she said. We did what she said because we didn’t know what else to do after running away. That night was my aunt’s wedding. Nobody even noticed we were gone. My aunt moved to a city by the sea. I don’t know if she ever wondered if there was a beyond, if there were other shores across the sea. When I finally felt the need to ask, she was no longer alive.
The years after that I often thought about running away. But I’ve never been as brave as I was when I was eight, brave and free. As we get older life takes us hostage – with what little we have and with the things we don’t have, with our boundless hopes and dreams. I get up from where I’m sitting and walk around. Spring is newly emerging from underneath the earth, but I don’t know if I’ll let myself be fooled by it. The trees are not yet green, and I can clearly see the other slopes of the mountain. I can see a river when I turn around, it flows down to two different cities. A little sliver snaking its way downhill. One of the most beautiful sights in nature is a twisting river and you can only see it from a certain height. Even when no other place and no other person can be, nature’s still a refuge. Well, at least for me. Now I should go down and make dinner. I’ll come back again whenever I feel overwhelmed.
Image: Becky Kolsrud, Three Women, 2017.