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Photograph by Cheryle St. Onge for Harper’s Magazine © The artist

[Story]

Mount Archer

 
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She didn’t believe in ghosts until her mother started talking to her on Mount Archer in the Pleasant Valley Preserve in southeastern Connecticut. She was stretching her calves in the little parking lot by the trailhead when she heard, clear as day, “Come on, Jessie. Enough now.”

Clear as day? She hated the clichés that crowded her mind when she thought of her mother. Clear as her mother’s voice, gone three years, buried five states away, at the top of no mountain.

The second time it happened she had just started her hike and was thinking about bears. She’d heard that one had been spotted in New London County, and she was trying to remember the protocol for encountering different wildlife. Were you supposed to make yourself big or small? Loud or quiet? Back away or—no, she didn’t think you were ever supposed to stand your ground. Then her mother said, “I never wanted you to be this sad.” That stopped her in her tracks (cliché).

Was this happening because the top of the mountain was closer to heaven? Her mother had believed in heaven. At least she had at one time. That was actually something Jessie wished she’d had a chance to clarify: whether at the time of her death her mother still believed in heaven. The trees surrounding the parking lot made a circle, their canopies framing a dome of sky. It felt vaguely church-like.

The next time she went up Mount Archer she took a friend. This was a test, absolutely, but she was also worried about the bear. Her neighbor’s dog, Minty, had disappeared. There were posters all over town. The neighbor, whose property abutted the preserve, was offering a generous reward, but no one believed the little terrier was coming back.

They arrived in Diana’s car, with water bottles and granola bars, though they intended to hike only a mile or two. What Jessie had told Diana was that she’d been exploring the Pleasant Valley trails lately and thinking of her mom. She had not mentioned ghosts.

She walked over to the map board, but all she heard was the wind through the now bare trees. She touched her toes. One of her knees cracked, but otherwise, silence.

Diana looked over. “You okay?”

What could she say? Do I seem haunted?

“Did you and your mother like to hike?” Diana asked.

Jessie and Diana had been friends for twenty years. They’d celebrated baby and marriage milestones, shared vacations, and helped each other raise three girls and one boy between them. Diana’s youngest, Thomas, was the last one at home. But Diana had never met Jessie’s mother. Diana’s father had died a few years ago and Jessie had never met him. They each had people inside their heads whom the other would never know.

“Oh. No,” Jessie said. “Not really.” Tip of the iceberg.

Jessie read that it takes ten years for a body to decompose in a coffin. Ten years! She and her husband had ten years left on their mortgage. In ten years, all the snow leopards and polar bears might be gone.

Part of the problem was that she thought her parents had planned to be cremated, but in the final weeks of her mother’s grim decline, grief-stricken, trying to think of everything, her father asked her mother what she wanted and her mother changed her mind. He went to the town cemetery and bought two plots the next day and now there were two headstones, side by side, one with the dates complete, the other still waiting.

Jessie thought about all of this far too much. Also, her mother’s lips. When she last saw them they were not right. The mortician had arranged them into an expression she didn’t recognize, which was a shame for an enormous number of reasons, not least because her mother had had a beautiful mouth. She did remember thinking, Oh, but she’s not here. She’s gone. Her spirit was so obviously gone. At the time, it was almost a comfort.

But why had her spirit come to the top of Mount Archer? Jessie resumed her solo walks and didn’t hear anything for some time. Then, on a cold December Sunday, her mother said, “I always loved my birthday.” Jessie closed her eyes. It was indeed her mother’s birthday and she had forgotten.

Her mother did love her birthday. And flowers. And children’s books. She’d been very good at reading them aloud, perhaps because of some theatrical training she’d had in her youth. She could make you feel the pathos of an empty cupboard, a rainy day, a child turned cruel because she was hurt.

“Happy Birthday, Mom,” Jessie wrote with a stick in the snow.

Wildlife that Jessie spotted on Mount Archer: Squirrels, always so surprisingly loud in the dry leaves. Deer, rabbit, chipmunks. Many birds: chickadees, cardinals, the occasional red-winged blackbird although the river was not near. On the wilder end: a coyote, twice, and possibly a bobcat—she wasn’t sure. Never the bear, though several people were reporting missing chickens.

In her last years, Jessie’s mother had been preoccupied with the plight of a series of endangered species. First whales, then snow leopards, and finally gray wolves. She donated to various wildlife charities, and soon it became all but impossible for her to watch a nature documentary; all the hunting, and the abandoning of cubs, was too upsetting.

Jessie’s last gift to her mother had been a donation to a wildlife fund that came with a plush snow leopard. But in her final days her mother clutched a candy-orange stuffed tiger that a nurse had given her instead.

In the spring Jessie was again stretching before a walk, touching her toes, her eyes closed against the tightness in her hamstrings, when she heard a twig snap. She jumped straight up, but it was only a small woman, dressed in an oversize sweatshirt and flip-flops, coming up the trail.

“Sorry to startle you!” the woman called. She held her arms up in apology so that she looked like a flying squirrel.

“I thought you were the bear,” Jessie said.

“Oh, is that real?”

“I heard there was one.”

“I saw some scat on the trail. But I couldn’t identify it. I don’t know that sort of thing.”

Jessie resumed stretching. The disparity in their footwear embarrassed her. The woman’s toes were all chapped and red.

“Enjoy your walk,” the woman said. She waved and went to her car, her flip-flops thwacking.

Then it was summer and the Minty posters were still up, though now faded and torn. Minty had never been found. There was a new notice predicting a bad tick season and an official one cautioning hikers to watch out for bears. Some evidence suggested that one bear, perhaps more than one, had crossed to the east side of the Connecticut River for the first time. The notice recommended carrying a bell. Jessie did not have a bell, but just then she heard one.

“Oh, come on,” she said.

“What?” said her mother. “Don’t overreact.”

“No, don’t say that. Say something else.”

“What do you mean?”

“Say something you don’t always say. We can’t just keep going over the same material.”

“A lot of people think that’s easy, but it’s not.”

“A lot of people.”

“What?”

“Who? Where are they? Do you know a lot of people?”

“I don’t know why you’re so upset.”

“I’m not upset.”

“I never know what will upset you.”

“Nope.”

“Fine. I won’t say anything.”

“Well, that would be preferable. Is it an option?”

Jessie had heard other people say about their loved ones, We said all we had to say. Or, There was nothing left unsaid between us. How marvelous. Jessie was well aware that she and her mother had not said enough.

She joined groups. Read books. Tried meditation and yoga. She wished she could be like the writer who planted white pine seedlings around her cabin when her mother died and believed she heard her voice in the wind through the branches. That seemed nice. She felt more affinity with the man who believed his mother had come back as a cardinal, which was fine until the bird killed itself fighting its own reflection in his kitchen window.

All that summer Jessie hiked Mount Archer. She saw dogs on leads, dogs off leads. Once, a cat in a backpack. Never a bear.

She saw the flip-flop woman again in August. “Hi!” she called as she came up the trail into the parking area. “I’m Bobby.”

Jessie waved. She checked the noticeboard. Another dog was lost, though at least it wasn’t her neighbor’s new one, Honey, who looked just like Minty.

Bobby came over. “Do you usually walk far?” she asked.

Jessie looked at her feet. “I guess so. A few miles.”

Bobby lifted a flip-flop. “I don’t really come to walk. I go to a place near that big boulder on the blue trail? I just . . . it sounds crazy.” She picked a piece of mulch off her toe. “My sister died last year and I feel close to her up here. That’s crazy, right?”

“Oh, well.” Jessie chose her next words carefully. “I lost my mom a few years ago and I would say Mount Archer has been playing a unique role in my own grieving.”

“Really?” Bobby said with enthusiasm. “I’m sorry. I mean I’m sorry for your loss. But can I ask you—do you talk to her here?”

“Actually, she does most of the talking.”

“Oh, god! Same!”

Bobby said that she wasn’t religious, nor did she have any other “woo-woo beliefs,” but she thought Mount Archer was a place where souls paused before whatever came next. “I mean, I just feel like I have the evidence,” she said. “This is the only place where Joy talks to me.” She said someone had told her about Mount Osore in northern Japan and she knew right away that Mount Archer was the same kind of place.

“It’s much taller, isn’t it?” Jessie asked. “Mount Osore?”

Bobby frowned. “I don’t think that matters.”

When Jessie told Diana she’d met a woman who talked to her dead sister on Mount Archer, Diana told her a story she hadn’t shared before. A few days after her father died, she’d been in the car with Thomas when they heard—both of them heard—a few measures of Mozart’s Agnus Dei, which her father had loved. Thomas reached over to turn the volume up, only to realize the radio wasn’t on. They were stopped at a light, but there were no other cars around. They were nowhere near a church.

“I mean, there has to be an explanation,” Diana said. “But we’ve never been able to figure it out.”

The following week, Jessie and Bobby pulled into the parking lot at the same time.

“I wondered if I’d see you again. Hi!”

“Here I am,” Jessie said.

“So, what’s your mother’s name?”

Jessie winced, partly because of the present tense and partly because she knew what was coming.

“Grace,” she said.

Bobby’s eyes widened. “No way! Joy and Grace! What are the chances?” She rubbed the back of her neck.

“I used to tell Joy she had the wrong name because she had none. Ha. Sisters. Do you have any?”

Jessie shook her head. She couldn’t figure out how to convincingly delay at the car, so they started up the blue trail together. At the boulder, she said goodbye.

“Have a good talk, I mean walk,” Bobby said.

Jessie didn’t smile.

“They’re just keeping us company for a bit before they leave for good, is the way I see it,” Bobby added.

Jessie’s mother was quiet until the summit. “You told your friend I didn’t like to hike. Not this new friend, the other one.”

Jessie waited.

“I don’t know about hike. I never liked that word. I loved to walk and you know it. Remember New York? Remember that summer near the Champ de Mars?”

She did.

“We walked around it every night, sometimes three times.”

Jessie’s knees went weak and she sunk to the ground in a crouch. Weak in the knees. Maybe clichés were there to rescue us from the strongest emotions.

“Is this a haunting or are you just remembering?” her mother asked.

“Is there a difference?” Jessie said to the forest floor.

Mount Archer was hardly a mountain. It was called that simply because at 450 feet above sea level, it was the highest point of elevation for miles around. Mountain or molehill, Jessie suspected there was not a lot that she and Bobby had in common off of it.

Her mother seemed to agree. “She’s a lot younger than you,” she said one day. “And you saw the bumper sticker?”

“I did. It’s disappointing. But I don’t mind her.”

“Neither do I.”

Bobby seemed too thin, almost undernourished, as though she might not have enough money for groceries. She never wore anything other than the same giant gray sweatshirt, she had a discolored tooth on the upper right of her mouth, and her hair was poorly cut in layers that looked like they had once been dyed pink and purple.

Her sister was a suicide. That’s the way she said it one day, a suicide, not that she had committed suicide, which is how Jessie might have said it.

“Shot herself,” Bobby said.

“Oh, god. I’m sorry.”

“In the chest. The coroner told me that some people who try it that way miss and just end up with a collapsed lung.”

“How was Mount Osore today?” Jessie’s husband asked.

She put her forehead in her hands. “Please don’t call it that.”

“Sorry. Mount Olympus?”

“There are no gods up there. Just two women and their ghosts.”

He came over and rubbed her back. “I’ve lost track,” he said. “Is this a fairy tale or a ghost story?”

“I wish I knew. Both?”

Was there once an archer of Mount Archer? A Diana, goddess of the hunt, of Pleasant Valley? Was there a story that could explain what was going on? Jessie went to the town archive to look. From the town’s founding in the seventeenth century, the land had been part of a farm that was owned by three families before it was given to the trust. No story of a heroic local archer; no part of the mountain shaped like a bow. A dead end.

Afterward, she went to a café in town and while waiting in line, she noticed Bobby and another woman having coffee. She grabbed her cup and went over.

“Hi,” Bobby said, not smiling. “How are you?”

Jessie had never seen her so quiet and formal. “Oh, good. I just wanted to say hi.”

“Hi,” Bobby said again, then looked nervously at the woman she was with. It was clear she didn’t know how to introduce Jessie. “We walk together sometimes,” Bobby finally explained.

Jessie smiled. “Yes, actually it’s good to see you somewhere else. I was starting to doubt you were real.”

The woman looked down and Bobby made a face. “This is my sister Amanda. She doesn’t think I should walk on Mount Archer anymore.”

“Do you also talk to ghosts?” Amanda asked.

“Yes,” Jessie said, at the same time that Bobby said no.

“How great that you have each other,” Amanda said.

“Oh, dear. I’m sorry.” Jessie waved goodbye and backed away.

The next time she ran into Bobby, Bobby had bear bells, two of them, one red and one blue. She gave the red one to Jessie. “We should be more careful,” she said.

She’d also gotten herself a pair of sneakers. They were white and scuffed, certainly not new, possibly not her size, but better than the flip-flops. This time when they got to the boulder she stayed by Jessie’s side.

“Do you mind?” she asked.

Jessie shook her head. “Sorry about the coffee shop. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

Bobby laughed. “Yeah, that was awkward. But no worries, we’ll figure it out. How’s Grace?”

“Oh, fine. And your sister?”

“We’re still going over some stuff. One good thing about talking to ghosts, though,” she said. “You can’t misread each other’s faces! Joy and I did that a lot.”

“Sounds familiar,” Jessie’s mother said.

“What about you and Grace?” Bobby asked.

“Go ahead,” her mother said. “Tell her we argue all the time. Tell her you’re still trying to solve the mystery—answer the riddle, find the fleece, plant the magic beans, anything!—that will fix us.”

“She’s been quieter lately,” Jessie said.

At the end of the walk she and Bobby exchanged numbers and started planning to meet on Mount Archer instead of leaving it to fate.

It’s a cliché that bad things happen in threes, and yet that fall Diana lost her son. Thomas collapsed at basketball practice, taken by a heart defect no one had known was there.

A week after the funeral, Diana told Jessie that she wanted to come to Mount Archer. Just to try. Just because maybe. Just because she would do anything to hear his voice again. Jessie texted Bobby and Bobby was waiting in the parking lot when they arrived. The two had never met, but Bobby opened her sweatshirt arms and wrapped Diana in her flying-squirrel hug.

They took the blue trail, Bobby in the lead, then Diana, Jessie bringing up the rear. There was an unusual number of red-winged blackbirds that day, their calls piercing the air. Jessie’s mother was quiet and, from the expression on Bobby’s face, it seemed Joy was, too.

Near the summit, Jessie stopped. “Did you hear that?”

“What?” said Diana. “Where?”

“Is it the bear?” Bobby said.

The three women reached for one another, not to make themselves bigger or smaller, not to stand their ground or retreat. But because it was instinct.

 is the author of four books, including the novel Rules for Visiting.


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