Amongst Mountain Goats
By Lyle Scott Lee
Tatyana, a two-year old nanny, is my current rival. She reminds me of my younger sister – her namesake – quiet, yet stubborn. She has tried provoking me for days, part of the stirring of spring. Once I have whipped her into shape, I shall continue to be the dam, so to speak, in control of the herd. She tosses her stiletto-sharp horns in the direction of my left thigh. I slap my gloved hand against the top of her neck as I sidestep her attempt to skewer me. She has picked a ledge the size of a modest table to lay down a challenge. No matter. After five full winters of roaming, grazing and climbing, I too have become adept at defying gravity. She begins to snort and makes another attempt at me. She is predictable and simpleminded like her predecessors. I quickly grab her horn and provide her with a swift, solid kick with the hard toe of my climbing boot to her underbelly. Startled, she winces from the contact. Just like that it is over. She turns away and steps down to the ledge below.
I move on as well, leaping across a five-foot chasm and on to an even narrower ledge, and rest in a cliff side-notch. I watch as Levin, the last kid to arrive this season, follows his mother, Maria, on to the ledge I have departed from. His young legs challenge his balance, but we are not so high, maybe three meters. His wavering reminds me of my youth, of my old life, when chosen to join the elite National team, and I began practicing on the balance beam at the People’s Gymnastic Center in Moscow. I was all together brave and afraid like a fledgling snapping its wings as it’s nudged toward the downward pull just beyond the rim of the nest. Since then, my bravery has swelled into indifference toward my future and animosity toward the Apparatchik and proletariat alike. For me, Russia is but a withering bitch lost in its own corruption and godlessness.
My adopted tribe is mineral licking, a spring ritual, on the southern ridge of Logan Mountain. This is not one of the better spots for nutrients. The billies usually control those. It is the one luxury we females afford them. Even so, it is not so crowded here under the warm sun. The herd continues to grow with each passing spring. I am overwhelmed, so much so that I am unable to give them all names. At times, when I am recollecting my old life, I sometimes feel human, like a simple goat herder. Then I realize these slow-moving creatures are not interested in the controlling nature of humans, but rather the protection of an alpha female to guide them through the mountain passes and into promised grazing territories. I have managed to fit the bill quite nicely.
The season brings with it a new round of strangers upon my tribe. I could barely make them out this morning just to the east, three or four dots moving like wolf spiders over the crags. We would normally move across the vastness of Chilkoot Pass, where the melting glaciers and the spring meadows meet, paying them little mind. But over the past three days, I have grown troubled by the persistence of this group.
Little Levin is playing with Mikhail. I think of them as cousins as they prance and romp, climbing over their mothers as they lay at rest. They are young and fearless. The campfire illuminates their newborn coats in contrast to their mothers’ patchy and dirty ones. They will soon play themselves out and fall into a deep, long sleep while the stars watch over them.
I begin to wonder if KGB agents have tracked me down. I can’t understand why. After all, I am no longer a thorn in the Kremlin’s side, self-exiled to a fate similar to Pyotr’s, at least in climate. That aside, I am still able to embrace personal liberties. Here we cherish our freedom, simple and granted by God. Have they come to take it all away again?
There is much undergrowth this spring. The blooming of heather and moss allows everyone their fill as the daily sun slants across our slow migration. Regardless of even the bitterest of winters, we are still free to gather and roam, unlike my Pyotr rotting in a far-off gulag. The circumstances surrounding his fate convinced me I could no longer bare to exist in a country denouncing, among other things, the love between a man and a woman. Pyotr, an outspoken liberal to be sure, had dared to challenge the invasion and subsequent occupation of Czechoslovakia. Even our celebrity, built on a number of combined Olympic gold medals, was not enough to dissuade his deportation in the face of charges of treason and public incitement. After a year of fruitless appeals, denied visitations, and threats against my own personal safety, I departed from the motherland with great contempt, deciding never to look back.
It has begun to snow. This should provide some cover from my pursuers. I will kill the fire shortly. We will make an early start of it in hopes of losing them.
The herd is now unnerved. Selfishly, I had begun to fear for my safety, thinking it best to keep a perfect distance from our pursuers by continuously moving forward, but now I have led the herd out into the open. We are now easy prey for the wolves whose early-season hunger has yet to be satisfied. I have provided them with a smorgasbord.
I spent the better part of the night keeping the wolf pack at bay with torchlight while it circled the herd. Even so, we lose little Vasily to a pack of wolves. He was a favorite of mine as I had helped his dying mother bring him into the world last spring, pulling long on his hind legs with rope bound to driftwood, blowing into his nose, and finally watching him stir to life. I was then able to convince Sonya, a childless doe, to nurture him his first summer. I miss him already.
This morning, we began to slowly veer north and far from the thawing dangers of Seward Glacier. Now we are making our way up a talus slope. The climb is nearly a hundred meters to the cliff face. The herd begins to spread out in search of undergrowth. After a brief rest, I begin the climb, peering back toward the herd hoping they will not follow. Now my movements are methodical. Do I imagine I can outrun my pursuers? I have no choice.
I now see Levin following me with his mother close behind. I would prefer he kept pace with her, particularly as he is becoming reckless in his efforts to keep up with me. For his sake, I soften my ascent.
Startled, I clearly hear my name from afar, like the echo of a ghost from the past. Is it possible? My spirit begins to sore. It has been so long since I have felt this way. I turn round to look off in the direction of my pursuers but the sound of rumbling overhead distracts me. It is a familiar, yet frightening, sound. I quickly gather Levin in my arms and fall back against the wall. Not one hiding-spot in sight. He begins to kick as I watch his mother standing helplessly only a few meters away. What have I done?
What have I done? My thoughtless action – shouting where shouting is most lethal – will haunt me forever.
I don Larissa’s heavy bearskin coat, the only thing of hers I do not allow my guides, Chote and Baytoch, to burn in her ceremonial pyre. They tell me with solemn-filled voices and windburn-etched faces how much the people, up and down this vast wilderness, both revere and respect the woman with the heavy heart, who dared year after year to live among the mountain goats. I decide not to tell them of the lithe, spirited woman who seduced me all those years ago as she danced across the balance beam wearing only a white ribbon in her auburn hair.
Though half its original size, the remaining herd has taken to me. It must be the coat, I conclude. I can see bewilderment in their eyes, but also well-placed contentment.
Someday I should like to return to a free Russia, there to spread Larissa’s ashes.