Orange Feels

by Matt Goldberg

It has been several years since I hiked through Malibu Canyon, but a familiarity resides within me as I ascend the rocky slope to my favorite view in California: a jagged crag shaped like a frog perched above the marine layer overlooking the Santa Monica Mountains as they slowly uplift and submerge from the edge of the Pacific Ocean. I grew up hiking these landscapes; I’ve memorized the trails. Every twist and turn, every rock and tree comes back to me with each step I take, like revisiting a childhood picture book. Yet the visions of nostalgic paths I remember are distorted, as I can’t recall a time when I’ve hiked through the trails during such an encompassing dry heat as this September morn.

Typically, I find myself visiting these hills during the height of spring, when the air is crisp, the grass is green and the mountains glisten with alpenglow in the warm damp April dusk. Now the earth is cracked and dusty, and the oak trees once laden with fruitful acorns and leaves now lay bare like naked arching bones. The trees look like buildings toppled after an earthquake (twisting metal stretching upwards). The peaks and mountainsides once blanketed with dense greens of drenched growing wildlife now show the true beige of sediment, bearded with dying brown husk and stock. The only living color dwells within the azure sky and the yellow painted faces of invasive wild mustard. Even the few leaves and plants that remain zucchini-colored and lush throughout the year are washed in a thin layer of brown dust, brought up from the hills by the harsh east-blowing winds. I clamber up the mountain in the hot dry autumn air as the wind blows me kisses and whispers secrets of a prospect in my ear.

Hiking up the hillside, awaiting the magnificent view I am close to witnessing, and the thoughts that are destined to reach me while alone upon the mountain, I feel an eerie interpersonal instinct to turn back. As if the hot wind herself orders me to stop climbing and return on another day. With only a mile or so to go before I reach the apex of the mountain I ignore my intuition and continue on, forging the hillside like a conqueror.

The heat consumes me. With each step I take upwards, the temperature rises equally and the air gets dryer and harder to breathe. The aridness suffocates my pores until my arms resemble, quite accurately, the cracked earth beneath my feet. The hike concludes with a small jaunt between two crevices and a relatively easy vertical climb to the top of the reptilian shaped rock formation about thirty feet in height where I intend to waste some time simply looking out. I begin climbing the sedimentary rock ledge with sweaty palms and short of breath. The wind picks up speed with my ascension in elevation to the point of having to halt my steps for fear of being blown to sheer death off the cliff side. But the picturesque scenery keeps me going for I know the view will become increasingly more beautiful the higher I climb. From this height I can see eternity in every direction. Endless rolling hills covered in blotchy brown brush like curly hair painted with a dry sponge. Each slope and ridge is exemplified by shadows of contrasting darkness against an otherwise bright and sunlit mountain landscape. Malibu Creek swims, spirals and knees around the base of heavy set bubbling pointy mountains beneath the offshore winds. The horizon is celeste at eye level and gets increasingly darker in hue the higher up I look, then reaches its climax of a palatinate blue and begins a descending cycle into lightness all over again behind me.

A heavy wind blows. A swarm of small grey birds, that I have not acquainted myself with, swoops above me and heads towards the coast. I hear a knocking sound from the other side of the rock like three drummers playing triplets on blocks of wood without much syncopation, followed by a sigh of breath almost human in timbre. Looking out with much curiosity, I watch a family of deer, a doe and two fawns, move with great haste towards the same direction of the birds, their hooves clicking and knocking on the rocky surface beneath. Watching the majestic mammals scurry down the hillside, my eyes begin to water and sting. My asthma picks up; I can’t breathe. A fever consumes my thoughts. A burning smell fills my nostrils and I realize why the deer are flanking down the mountain in such a sprint. I also realize that I need to head in the same direction or I will be in very serious danger.

I climb back down from my perch and gaze west towards the sea, but the ocean is invisible. The coast is curtained by a thick cloud of heavy grey smoke slowly melting with the fog as the accumulation spirals upwards, guided by the Santa Ana winds. The air becomes denser and heavier as I struggle to breathe. My eyes scorch as the smoke mixes with the sweat dripping from my brow, creating a sharp stinging adhesive that blurs my vision. The smoke gets darker and blacker in color as it quickly surrounds me the way colored die diffuses in a glass of water. My vision approaches near uselessness as smoke closely becomes the only visible entity. I keep my eyes on the trail; my white shoes are the only light. I move as fast as I can without running, for fear that if my heart rate gets too high I’ll begin to breathe heavier and possibly pass out from smoke inhalation. My head throbs as if my brain attempts to punch its way out of the side of my skull. There is a heavy ringing in my ears as every inch of my body goes into alert-mode. I tear off my t-shirt and tie the sleeves together in a knot around the back of my head, covering my mouth, hoping I’ll inhale less smoke through a cotton veil.

Before realizing the thin and porousness of cotton, I push my way out of the cluster of smoke following a tiny speck of blue skylight peeking through an otherwise deathly grey cloud. With my eyes away from the smoke for a moment, I frantically search the canyon for any possible sign of safety or survival. Gazing as quickly and efficiently as I can at the desert-colored wilderness I notice a small patch of meticulously planted splotchy green trees in the distance—an orange orchard—my life jacket.

I take one step off trail towards the row of living fruit trees when the fire finally catches up with me. With a gust of hot wind the flames surround me as if inviting me to stay. Perplexed and unaware of which way to head, I jump on top of a neighboring rock ledge to get a better view of my path to survival, also hopping that the rock will be fire retardant. I study the fire, trying to find a spot I might be able to run through and down the canyon and towards the orchard without burning to a crisp. The flames rise in height with each passing moment and heavy gust of wind. I try to keep a clear mind and focus on surviving but as the flames quickly approach, the ghastly images that invade my thoughts are so stony and horrid that I couldn’t possibly revisit them in words.

I feel the fire’s overcoming heat and deathliness as tears slowly rain from the corners of my eyelids, caused by a mixture of smoke irritation and fear of being burned alive, alone on a stone with only the thought of the ocean for company. Looking around for some supernatural savior, I notice a peculiar presence nestled near my left foot. The creature’s round shape and speckled fur is camouflaged so heavily with grey ash and dust that I can barely make out its figure and identify it. The shape scurries a few small steps closer to me and gazes upwards at my grandiose figure. I lock eyes with the mouse. His black-pool pupils reflect the glowing orange light as the fire dances around us, choreographed by the offshore wind.

The mouse’s terror lay in his eyes. They look as old as the hills, and as young, and as wild. I cannot look away: it is as if I am looking at a mirror image of my own fears and uncertainties; the sunken eyes, the scared expression is so human in nature that I shout my worries aloud, expecting the mouse to comprehend my command and follow through. “Run!”  

Like a shot from a field gun, my own words kick in a mental obligation to survive as I sprint off the rock and down the hillside towards the fire—the only way out is in—warriors charging into battle. I feel the dominating presence of the fire as it swallows me whole. The temperature rises at an alarming rate as I smell the hair on my neck and eyebrows singeing and fiercely burning off. My shirtless body stings as if thousands of tiny needles pinch and poke their way through my roasting skin like tattoos of fire. Although I’m certain it can’t help, I jump and twist my body while sprinting around the flames, trying to avoid serious burns. With a final leap and coil, I break free from the clutches of fire and tumble down the mountain at speeds I have never reached previously on foot. I look back at my former settle; the hill is completely engulfed in flames.

By the time I reach the orange orchard, my coughing almost distracts the thought of being alive. I stagger through the rows of lush orange trees, heading to the center of the plot, hunched over and coughing my lungs out. Finally, after I feel like I am completely surrounded by trees, and safe, I collapse face down into the spongy soil, awaiting sirens.

After lying unconscious for an unidentifiable amount of time, I feel a tugging and pulling on the back of my arm, followed by a brushing sensation. I wait a few moments before investigating the strange feeling. Shortly after, I feel a light lump slide across my elbow, followed by sharp tingling sensations moving up towards my neck like a walking needle massage. I turn my head slowly in curiosity and notice, resting on my shoulder like a pirate parrot, the sunken black pool eyes of an all too familiar rodent. The mouse stares back at me with the smug look exchanged only among visiting old friends.

Au Revoir, Willow

by Matt Goldberg

If you ever find yourself in what you are sure to be your last breaths, do nothing more than accept your inevitable fate. Be like the wilderness and be like the tree. Fall when gravity pulls you down to her sister soil and expect nothing. For all that can be done when falling is to stay calm and listen for the thump. Acceptance is everything.

~~~

Although I carry my shoes at easy access, between the index and forefingers of my left hand, I feel an inherent need to never wear them again. Walking on the surface of thousands of globe-shaped river rock, I feel the heat waving up through the sediment like witch potions, bending the light around me and altering my perceptions of reality. I feel the burning reflective rays of the sun rising in temperature with each step I take towards the muddy soup that is the Trinity River. Along with the roasting sun, walking on the rocky beach of the once called, Hoopa River is like walking on skull-sized sharp metamorphic marbles. Each step is a battle between body and mind. My legs take each step my mind tells it to, but consequently my feet wonder why they trudge through the pain (or why I won’t put shoes on). What keeps me going is the ecstasy that comes from stepping on a rock correctly. When my foot umbrellas a rock head that is curved and sized appropriately to the dimensions of my foot, the result of stepping on a pebble is orgasmic; like the long primal relationship between heel and stone. Toe and soil. Hugging. Footing.           

Apart from my shoes, I carry nothing. I need nothing. I like the feeling of nothing. Standing still I can’t feel where my swim trunks touch my legs. I can’t feel the chafing elastic waste band hugging my thighs, I can only feel the still wind caressing my forehead, combing my hair with the clouds. I am mentally naked, my skin toasting slightly in the summer heat as I walk barefoot upriver. Alone and naked… superlatively primitive.

Walking up to the shore of the riverbed, I gaze at the colors from the rocks beneath the roaring current screaming terracotta like pixilated prisoners behind melting glass, resembling pointillism—Vincent Van Gogh, Georges Seurat, 1887. The surface phenomenon known as refraction occurs even with round pebbles. Underneath the water, the rocks, Chert and metamorphic sandstone (known as Sandstone Schists) curve in mysterious ways. Dipping my toes into the water, I find the rocks are much larger and sharper than they appear from brow- view (Chert is a hard, glassy rock that was used by Native Americans to make arrowheads and other sharp tools when they were not able to trade for higher quality Obsidian). From the stabbing sensations occurring at the balls of my feet, I wonder whether the native Hoopa tribe even made arrowheads and didn’t just merely fish them out of the Trinity and fasten them to spears and arrows. My feet ask the same question in pain; they despising me. My only option is to take a shallow dive in and swim my way out of this game of teeter-totter my body is playing with my feet and the rocks beneath them. Looking down I notice a young African Clawed frog ribbiting as he hops his way from the shore to the shallow edge of the river where I stand watching the sparkly amaranthine haze from the sun reflecting off the water; the deep purples and chiseled brick-colored bark of the thousands of century old Redwoods, Madrone and Red and White Alder that line the mouth of the river. Before diving in, I study the frog and take his advice: toss my shoes, spread my legs and leap out as far as I can into the clear water. The heat was eliminated.

Swimming out towards the middle of the flowing water, I find that the current gets stronger and more subversive the further out I swim. A few strokes can keep me afloat, but I spend the majority of the time in ease, floating on my back like an anchored skiff. The sky is cerulean from salmon eyes. The clouds sail by, pirates of the sky. Looking up, the trees wave welcomingly with their hellos and goodbyes. Trees are unaware whether I’m coming or going. Floating down stream, I am not entirely sure which way I’m headed either. I wave in return as if waving to friends I know by name: “Hello Cedar. Goodbye Alder. Cheers Douglas Fir, Au Revoir Willow.” I yearn so deeply to be a tree. I have often sat prostrate on the new life growing out from a fallen Redwood on the forest floor (Spanish moss, sword ferns and wood sorrel) wondering how long I would have to lay still on that dying tree for new life to grow out of me. Perhaps a sloth would be able to point out how long it takes for moss growing out of the armpits to become imperceptible.  

 Floating in the bubbling murky water as the current parades around me faster and harder I feel a sense of apathy emerging. A sense of priority in setting: stop using my arms and legs for swimming and let the river carry me wherever it’s headed. Slowly and without digression, I lay limp and feel the swelling rolling liquid lift me up off the rock-covered ground and take me down river like a waiter carrying a heavy plate.

The river and I stampede our way out towards a whirlpool at the other side of the river from where I started. What began as something carefree and lively, soon turned into an unsettling fear for survival. I try to stand up but the river floor is out of reach. I try swimming against the river but the current is too strong. Even when swimming at full strength it appears that I am only swimming in place. Trinity’s stair-master. Like so many before me who have perished in the Trinity River, students, hikers, children and parents, I now know the mental feeling of drowning… of dying.

Floating downstream at the mercy of the Trinity, I gaze towards the mirage of spiraling currents that snake and ladder in every direction. Each color slithers among the glassy fresh water above an endless sea of mosaic metamorphic prisms as if I were looking at a kaleidoscopic image of my own inevitable fait, the way broken mirrors reflect distorted splendor. I float at the mercy of this dashing river wondering how on earth I would ever escape such destiny, or if I even wanted to. Surprised with how often I considered giving up, how often I accepted death, came to terms with my fait and myself, I began to appreciate the life I lived and was somewhat eager to trade it for a new: to be reborn with wildness. Never have I considered the notion of death more honestly then in those few minutes, sailing downriver towards the spiraling deathtrap of a drowning whirlpool. I will stay here forever. Forever is my final decision.

Rivers are often associated with having smooth flowing water, except when it comes to some object blocking its path. The water flows around the object and this causes the water to lose its flowing properties and thus creating a whirlpool. For this case, the object is the fallen branch of an old Willow tree that most likely fell some hundred miles from this point at sometime during its hundred and ten year lifespan, probably as a result of heavy wind or lightning strike. Now it lives here: stuck between two granite slates, damning the river like a beaver sculpture.

The whirlpool takes me around the Willow, around again, and around once more like a flushing toilet as my heart sings in fear and serenity. Fear for the uncertainties of death and serenity for the acceptance of such journey. With my eyes closed, I lie submissive, floating in circles around the black hole of death singing the first thing that pops in my head:

“Well I taught that weeping willow how to cry cry cry
Taught the clouds how to cover up a clear blue sky.
Tears I cried for that woman are gonna flood you big river
And I'm a gonna sit right here until I die…”

I will repeat this verse over and over until the breath in my lungs is replaced with water. Only will I give up when my voice is stripped from my mouth and exchanged with liquid, my oxygen, added to twice hydrogen.

Suddenly, everything stopped. I am no longer spinning and turning around the whirlpool. The noise seized, the trampling water is no longer carrying me above its head like Gulliver. Now the water flows around me the way it flows around my fallen Willow companion. Opening my eyes, I notice the edge of my swim trunks are caught on an accumulation of worm-sized Willow roots sticking out from the edge of the branch like an outstretched arm. I tug and tug at my shorts but they won’t budge. I am stuck. Looking out on the precipice of death, I imagine if I stay here long enough a branch will grow out of my legs. Then I too would be a tree. Like this fallen Willow, stuck here in the flowering streams of the Trinity River, slowly growing as I wilt. Knocking on the pearly gates for eternity only to find out nobody is home.

After sitting and pondering the importance of existence, I feel the propensity to live. I am not meant to die here, alone tied to a dead Willow. I need to live for as long as I can. Forever, that is truly my final decision. I unbutton my shorts and pull them carefully off my naked body. I climb to the top of the fallen Willow to whisper thank you and give the tree a proper greeting. I gaze down river for a few moments before diving back into the waves and swimming my naked body to shore. Before I dive, I give out a yell. My final farewell echoes throughout the canyon: “Au Revoir!”

 

Only Nothing

by Matt Goldberg 

I awoke at 8:30pm. Although there is no trace of the light that once illuminated these hills, I could tell we are in the desert now. The road is as black as the earth surrounding it, stretching as far as the eye can see.

“How long was I out?” I asked my father while rubbing my eyes.

“A couple hours.” He replied.

“How much longer?”

“A couple hours,” he repeated again, this time with a smirk and slight giggle under his breath.

I reached down below the glove box and into the backpack blanketing my bare feet. My hands blindly searching between the McCarthy novel and the bag of stale corn chips for what was surely my only hope for passing the time, my iPod and headphones. I thought I’d listen to some music for the rest of the drive. I had nothing else to do. My plan was to let the music be my soundtrack and the windshield my movie screen.

I rearranged the position of my body, getting more comfortable, and as I reacquainted myself with the surroundings as well, we all do, I saw nothing but black. The car interior blended perfectly to the nothingness that is the California desert like the defense mechanisms of a color-changing chameleon. The only light was the dull green glow of the dashboard, and the bright headlights reflecting the perfectly painted lines on the road below. These lines predict the future. Each bump and turn, snake and ladder, gives me no surprise of the direction I’m headed. Although the distance of my sights remained the same, with each hill I pass over I felt a bit more accomplished. Looking to my right, as I leaned my head against the cold hard glass, I could see nothing but a slight, more blurred version of my legs and the lights of the dash reflecting back at me. Even when I placed my hands on either side of my eyes and looked closely, I could see nothing but a colorless empty graveyard of dust and dying desert brush. Even the sky was dull. Not a single star managed to expose its luminosity through the thick heavy clouds below them. I turned to my father and he was a floating upper body in a sea of black; the upper half of a captain steering his vessel through dark undiscovered waters. With nothing else to fix my eyes on and having no idea of the future that was ahead of me, I placed the headphones over my ears, looked onward at the endless stretch of road ahead of me and pressed play. 

I adjusted the levels accordingly, fitting the mood to my current situation. It was a good volume; the type of volume that makes you concentrate on what you’re hearing, the type of volume that really puts you in the world the artists intended. Looking around I noticed I couldn’t hear the puttering sounds of rubber wheels gliding across old tar or the old man muttering to his best friend in the back seat; I was completely engulfed in sound. And that was the way I liked it.

Gazing onward, in a daze created by both the sounds coming from my headphones, as well as the boring repetitions of driving through the desert, I noticed something different. A small drop of water hit the windshield, and then another, and another. Three more drops splattered their guts in a matter of seconds. The rain hit the windshield like torpedoes, dying as they dripped slowly down the glass towards the hood of the car. Each drop was quickly replaced by the other like soldiers in the front lines of a great battle. Rain slammed against plate-glass as their size in number increased as well as their size in shape. Beginning our clamber up the mountain, slowly liquid became solid as ice fell from the sky in incredible numbers. The rain became sticky, no longer dripping down the windshield; it simply melted away upon contact. Then I saw one, a small white ball hit the top left corner of the windshield. Rain turned to snow the way a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. The headlights projected an amazing contrast between the white snow and the lifeless black desert. Taillights are the eyes of a great wolf peering sternly into my soul from deep inside the ragged wood. I was trapped in the follicles of a white wizard and fervently swimming through his beard, I gasp for air. The road ahead supported the never-ending spill of a million white gumballs, as if falling from a counter and bouncing every which way in chaos all over apartment floors. The road slowly changed its shade from black, to grey, to white. Blanketed by soft powdery snow.

It was clear that our travel was nearing an end. The smell of pine made its way through the air conditioning and up my nostrils. Altitude is not just the height of an object- it’s a feeling. Like a fever or a sickness, it starts in your head and eventually makes its way to your entire body.

 Watching each imperfect movement of the car as it glided across the icy and snow covered concrete; I felt a lump in my throat. I started thinking about my childhood, the smell of fresh cut grass before a little league game. I remembered jumping in a freshly raked pile of leaves in the middle of October. Laying on a hilltop turning clouds into animals and various shapes in my mind. It was a feeling unfamiliar to me, like everything from that moment on was going to turn out for the best. That’s when I saw it. It was brief, a second maybe (a second that lasted a life time). A shadow appeared in the middle of the road, dancing as it did. As we got closer, the shadowy figure became clearer and for a brief moment, the creature and I were one, both feeling a sense of danger as the lights became bigger in its big brown frightened eyes. Before I could say it, my father jerked the wheel forcibly and abruptly to his left. The car slid on the icy road back and forth for moment before it was uplifted from the back tire and flipped over. The calluses on my hands turned to blisters as I clinched the door handle for my life. The car rolled for days, each bounce and skid was the powerful fist of a great giant punching me from every direction.

When the car finally stopped rolling, it had landed upside down and facing the wrong direction on the road. I slowly opened my eyes, looked out ahead and saw the shadowy figure. It looked around for a moment, gathered itself and then scampered off into darkness as if nothing had happened. I’ve heard of deer often doing that. They find themselves in the middle of a road and then freeze when they see lights. Maybe they do this because they see their own fait and have no way of avoiding it, or perhaps they’re just fascinated by bright lights. I don’t think I’ll ever know.