Outside Amman. One taxi ride to Salt, an old town with little for tourists. Small shops and imported snacks and ten-cent packs of “Arabic gum.” There was a man hanging from the open door of a village bus who had us all get in. And in we went: packed with strangers who found us stranger, a man who gave his seat up for me, thinking I was a woman. I sat down all the same, my hair long past my shoulders, my narrow legs crossed tightly at the knee: soon everyone was staring. We were all so beautiful, I told myself, they had to stare.
They let us off at the top of the small mountain. The street was ending. More shops. Everyone was drinking Pepsi. What should we do now, we all wondered, though no one asked. It was beginning to rain. I pulled up the hood on my teal sweater and started walking. Everyone followed.
Then there was a man in a small car who stopped and waved us in. Come, he said, without question. Here was a man in a car telling us to get in. He offered us cough drops. We all got in, rode down the mountain with him in the rain. Our mothers would not be proud. There were children throwing rocks at a truck and he shouted at them, something in Arabic. All the children stopped, did what he commanded. We felt better about our following his orders, then.
He let us off, back in the town. What should we do now, we all wondered. There was a taxi nearby. Come with me, he said. We all piled in. What else was there to do? Where go? he asked. We looked at each other. Take us to another mountain, I said. And then we drove.
The valley was long and verdant. I looked out the window and tried to gather it all inside me, my heart a repository for the earth’s wide glory. The rain had passed, the clouds too. There was blue sky reflecting in the green and away from the town it had perhaps not rained at all. It’s so bucolic, I said, my eyes still looking out the window. One of you responded: Stop making up words. We drove on and I kept the words to myself. There were no cows in the long pastures, only goats. There was a small river and the goats were drinking from it and we were driving past. They could be drinking forever and I might have never known. Blessings to the man who took us in his cab.
Let’s get off here, one of you said. We paid the man. This road looks nice, you also said, as he drove away and we began our hike. There was a small orchard of lemon trees and I was very hungry. I picked several because you and I like gin and we have done this before, picked lemons from a tree and garnished our drinks that same night with the fruit we stole. I was hungry and wanted orange trees, but I took the lemons anyway. Small harvests for a future bright with gin.
There was another time – I’m telling you this, but you already know – and that other time there were also lemons. Not an orchard, only a single tree in that stranger’s yard not far from the Galilee. You leaped across a small ditch and stole the lemons in the dark. There was enough light from my phone to spot the yellow fruit. You grabbed the lemons and we ran, across the gravel pathway to the room where we were staying. As if that stranger would have chased us for stealing two lemons. All of us were joyful, slicing a new-picked lemon with a borrowed knife in a heated room while our drinks were chilling. Each of us one wedge: and the garnish for our liquid joy was heated still from the blood of the tree.
But lemon trees have no blood, you say. The lemon wasn’t even warm. I’m telling it this way so you’ll remember it the way that I remember it. Like it was a dream, though it really happened. Like we had stolen something from a living thing and the night would not transpire without our giving thanks to it. You sliced into the lemon and I expected blood: but of course this didn’t come to pass. I kept the words to myself.
It was night and we all were in that heated room and the lemon was warm and then our lives were passing out from us while one of us sang. I sang. They said to me: Sing again, something, again. And so I kept singing and they kept listening. You kept listening. All of you. I kept singing and the lyrics were sometimes lost and I’d create my own: Here is a melody for you, my loves, my only loves, and lemons come from trees. And then I stopped and there was silence while our drinks were empty. More, you said. So I went on: A melody for you, my only loves, the night is filled with orchards, every night.
But you know that story. You were there. You all were there. And so when we left the man in the taxi and began our hike it was sunlit and bucolic. There, I said it again, my made-up word. It was all climbing, as though there was no top to the world. Up and up. Then a barbed-wire fence. I called it concertina wire and you scoffed. I admit that phrase is unnatural. Something about writing poems too long and a person forgets what sounds absurd. There’s a hole in the concertina wire here, I said, pointing to a space. And you all were unimpressed. That’s barbed wire, you said. And the hole is too small for us. I was the smallest one, by far, and it wasn’t too small for me. But I suppose I was wrong on both accounts. We kept going, until one of you found a better place. Someone was nervous. The barbed wire is there for a reason, one of you said. We’re in the middle of nowhere, I said. We’ll be fine. And so we all squeezed through and kept hiking. A hillside of olive trees. Quite frighteningly steep. I kept thinking how pleasant it would be to lean back only a little, to fall downward while the mountain stayed unmoving, tossed from olive trunk to olive trunk. But I leaned forward, my hands in the dirt to keep me from falling. You all were ahead of me and not looking back.
The ground was dirt and rocks. Difficult to hold. Now there was another fence, this one made of stones: you all were standing before it while I struggled far behind, far below. I heard you speaking to each other: I can’t believe it. You looked at each other. Who knew this would be waiting for us? What could it be? I was slipping on the rocky soil and you were looking farther up than I could see. My vision was the slipping ground and the rocks falling down below me through the orchard that we should not have been traveling through. It’s so beautiful. There were clouds beginning to approach and I wondered if a storm would send us all rippling down the mountain like myrtle leaves in a river. Such a shocking color, after all this climbing. I imagined what it might be, so far behind you all, trying to reach you. I can take a picture, but it won’t ever come out. What could it be? A hillside of diamonds, hanging off the boughs of an emerald tree? I almost don’t want to take a picture, you said, so I’ll be forced to remember it better. Take me to your diamond-growing slopes, my friends. Lift me up while I am falling. The rocky soil and I are falling.
At last I was upon you. You were taking pictures anyway, in silence. A stone fence. A field beyond, flattening out. The climb was over. The same rocky soil, only now there were a thousand thousand yellow flowers growing all among the fallen olives. A small miracle: yellow flowers brought by the wind as our reward. There were too many olives to be tended and they lay throughout the field like patterned soil. You were amazed. It was beautiful, believe me. But what I found delighting was your delight. Pure animal repose. Beauty in the hidden earth and you were its believers. I wanted to sing again how much I loved you.
That other night, near the Galilee. We tried to see the stars, but the lights from Tiberias across the sea were too bright. It was cold and we were straining our heads to see what constellations we remembered. I wonder, I said to all of you, where is Ursa Major? You scoffed then, too. Just look for Orion, you said, like everybody else. And Orion was there, of course, stable and confirmed. There were dark blue-gray clouds in the sky and they were moving very fast. I had taken oranges from another stranger’s yard and you were holding the stolen lemons. It was February and we saw our breath pooling in the still air above us and our hands smelled of citrus. Somewhere, our gin was waiting.
On the walk back one of you tried to take a picture of the sky. The rest of us wanted to laugh, but you were too earnest. We kept our laughter to ourselves. Why take a picture of the sky? Your lens is too small. Our irises are too small. Why bother with futility? Accept these things, my loves: we are too far removed from the bright center of the galaxy to ever know the real color of the stars. We have only their pale approximations in a winter night. They are the creators of light itself: we must believe in them, must understand we are unable to capture in a few moments what they have spent a billion years producing.
We went back to our room and it was heated. This is where you sliced the lemon and I wanted blood. But all of you were joyful. The night was cold and there we were, together, warm.
After the yellow field we kept walking, now through many trees that were not blossoming. Before long the yellow flowers turned to violet. The mountain had flattened out. One of you asked: Are these the colors on every mountain? Maybe none of us had ever seen a mountain. Or a hillside. Or a pasture filled with flowers. It was like a new thing altogether. The violet flowers surely had a name already, though one that none of us knew. I wanted to name them myself, but I had promised you I’d keep the made-up words to myself. Maybe something vague: Field flowers. Flowers of the ground. Or something a bit more precise: Fallen olives’ blooms. Trespasser’s reward.
I was tired but you wanted to keep climbing. The mountain had flattened out, but only for these flowers. It started up again quickly. Or was that a new mountain? That is, a different mountain? Who delineates the boundaries of the earth? Did someone come along, like us, approach this field with wonder, kneel to name the violet flowers, then declare the mountain ended? Or did someone come along and say: This is a single thing, a discrete unit that continues? I would have named the flowers and sat down, as I actually did, and declared the mountain ended. This is what I actually did. You wanted to continue climbing and I said: One mountain a day is enough for me. You turned to look at me, still behind you as before. The mountain isn’t over, you said. But I named it first, gave the words out to the sky. That’s a new mountain, I declared. I’m finished.
So you kept on. A new mountain waited. Or the same one, if you prefer. (You do prefer.) One of you stayed with me. We waited on a rock while you others climbed on. I watched you for a while but then got tired of it. Always the same thing: up and up. One of you gripped the earth as I had done while the other moved easily ahead. Will there be another field to reward you at the top? Every mountain has only one reward. If there is a field for you at the summit, we’ll know it was a different mountain.
On the rock with one of you, I sang. This time I kept to songs I knew the words to, since no one had asked me to sing. The one of you that waited with me was eating. I was singing. I had stopped watching you others climb and was looking down the mountain. That yellow field was too far away, but the violet one I could see. I wished I knew a song about violets, or about mountains. Foolish, really: there are a great many songs about mountains. The thing is, when you’re on a mountain, it’s hard to think of songs about mountains. I can think of them now, but it’s of little use. Who wants to sing about mountains?
And then, like a promise, there was a man walking up the mountain toward me and the one of you that had stayed. He had a thermos and a single cup. He was bringing us coffee. The one of you that had stayed knew a little Arabic and explained that we were hiking. Our friends had gone on, and we were waiting. We all drank coffee from the same cup, no sugar. It was hot and very strong. The clouds I’d noticed had moved away. The valley was green and we sat on a rock with a Bedouin man while we waited for you to come back.
We sat some time, and the man stood. You come with me, he said. You come to my home. Who were we to refuse? His house was very near. It was a tent. I would sit outside in my teal sweater and you would see me on your descent. So we followed him.
Before you stole the lemons, we drove to an overlook. Below us was a great field descending: on the right was an apple orchard; on the left a vineyard. The apple trees love this cold weather, said a guide to a nearby group. We all hovered near to listen to his comments, though we had not paid. What you see in the distance, he said, is controlled by the U.N. There was a long gray fence just visible beyond the vineyard. A lonely watchtower looked unmanned. And beyond it, he said, is Syria. It looked peaceful, the village in the valley, the large reservoir reflecting the orange of the setting sky. On the other side of the mountain, he said, not very far away, is Damascus. We all listened then. Were there bombs beyond the mountain, too? Gunfire and rebels and explosions? If they climbed the mountain, what then would be their reward?
The Bedouin man’s children were all waiting for us when we came. They brought us hot tea with honey. We were unable to say much. January, February, said one of the boys. March, April, May. His mother cheered him on. I nodded and smiled. June, July, September. He paused and looked at us. You forgot August, I said. August, that magnificent month. Thirty-one days of summer. Let’s never forget August. My friends, my beautiful ones: let’s never forget summer. Let’s never forget that every mountain has its reward.
The boy stopped reciting months then. He had a new idea. He ran across the yard in front of their tent and found a baby goat. He came in a hurry and set it on my lap. It stayed with me for another hour then, silent and still, its goat-heart beating furiously as though it were only just learning how to be alive.
You came down the mountain and we all spotted you. One of you ahead, the other behind. You came down and found us with this family and it was your reward. A new mountain, then. You drank tea with the family and the children pressed a goat also into your hands. Bless the keeper of these goats. Their goat-hearts kept up their silent frantic beating and the valley shone green and resplendent underneath the cerulean sky. They were all of them smiling, seated in a semicircle around us while we talked among ourselves. It was beautiful up there, you said. All of us are mountains, I believed. All of us are carrying fields of violet flowers in our hearts. I wanted to sing again of how I loved you all. We all are mountains, I would sing.
This piece of non-fiction appeared in Indiana Review 34.2, Winter 2012.
Jacob Newberry is pursuing a Ph.D. in Creative Writing at Florida State University, where he holds the University Fellowship. Winner of the Ploughshares Emerging Writers’ Contest in Nonfiction and the Southwest Review’s McGinnis-Ritchie Prize for Best Fiction, he has also been awarded fellowships and scholarships from Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Camargo Foundation, and the Fulbright Foundation. Three essays have been listed as “Notables” in Best American Essays. His nonfiction, poetry, and fiction have appeared in Granta, Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, The Southwest Review, Best New Poets 2011, Poetry Daily, and Out Magazine. Originally from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, he received an M.A. in French Literature in 2009.