Old Man on the Mountain

He sat alone in the tiny, rustic one-room cabin near the crest of the mountain, looking out toward the higher snow-capped peaks across the valley below. It won’t be long, he thought, until winter takes hold.

Had there been a pane of glass in the opening in the wall, he would have been looking through a window. But his view wasn’t marred by even a smudge; his window was just an opening in the side of the cabin. Most days, rough boards—held in place by cross-members fitted into slots in the surrounding frame—filled the space. On those days, darkness permeated the cabin; the only light came from the small stone fire pit he built in one corner.

The old man hadn’t any experience building houses. Neither did he have experience felling trees, nor ripping logs into timbers. But he had learned on his own, through trial and error, to cut down trees, split logs with an ax, and fit logs and timbers together. He had built the place entirely by himself, with his own hands. The only concessions he made to modernity—save for the ax and hammer and a few other hand tools—were the heavy oil cloths he brought with him up the mountain. He lashed them on top of long, thin strips made from pine seedlings, the patchwork of uneven wood that formed the roof. The oil cloth helped protect the inside of the cabin from the rain and melting snow, though it was an imperfect solution.

He told no one where he went when he made those treks up the mountain to build the cabin. There was no one to tell, really. His wife had left him when she learned of his brain tumor. Their marriage had been a shell for years, anyway. She had lost interest in him. And he had grown to love another woman, someone close, albeit from a distance. The target of his affections never knew he longed for her.

His wife told him she was unwilling to be saddled with caring for an old man she no longer loved. When she left, their mutual acquaintances followed her out of his life, including the woman who did not know he longed for her. He had no close friends. The friends he had lived far away from him; he had told none of them of his diagnosis.

The tumors, the doctors had said, were the slow-growing variety, but had grown before detection to such a size and location in the brain that they were inoperable. The old man had ruled out radiation and chemotherapy from the start. The prognosis with or without radiation was poor, they said, but in either event it would be a moderately long-term progression.

So, two years earlier, he had begun his treks to the mountain. He had long wanted a place in the country, a place to work the land and grow crops. He had dreamed of buying a hundred acres and a tractor, but his wife dissuaded him from pursuing that dream. Instead, he lived in the city until retirement, when they moved to the mountains. That, he gathered, had been her unspoken dream. Though living in a semi-rural area near mountains had never been his goal, he had grown to love the desolation they offered to a man willing to hike.

During many of those expeditions to build his cabin, he had exhibited no symptoms. But in recent months, the seizures had begun, making some of the work on the cabin difficult. In spite of the growing frequency and severity of the seizures, he had finished the rustic structure. He was proud of the skills he had mastered, proud to have learned them on his own.

As he sat on the rough bench, gazing at the valley below, he came to a decision. He had made his last trek down the mountain. He would stay in his hand-made cabin as long as the store of food he’d stockpiled over the course of two years held out. If the food ran out before winter got him, he decided, he would find sources of food on the mountain or starve.

One way or the other, he decided, he would die in his cabin, his one friend, the friend he built by hand.

Time ratified his decision. Early the following spring, a hiker found his cabin and his body. The old man had written a letter to the woman he had secretly loved. But the letter did not name her. She would never know of his love, for the old man on the mountain took answers with him, answers to questions never asked.



About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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One Response to Old Man on the Mountain

  1. Mary Lou says:

    Why didn’t he tell her how he felt? He had nothing to lose.

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