Thursday, July 10, 2014

Free Fiction: The Fellowship of the Chicken: or How not to Climb a Mountain

 I climbed Mount Kinabulu when I was twenty-one years young with two buddies from Semester at Sea. The part about it almost killing me is true. The rest is basically Lord of the Rings fan fiction. I laughed out loud while writing this. Enjoy.

Fellowship of the Chicken:
How not to climb a mountain

            We should have killed the chicken.
            Sure, we’d made other sacrifices to climb Malaysia’s Mount Kinabulu, the highest peak in Southeast Asia at thirteen thousand four hundred thirty-five feet. But in retrospect, they were all far too metaphorical and full of empty overtures to abstinence to suit the occasion.
            The gods prefer blood. Otherwise, they’ll take your sweat, your tears, your pride-- even your mind.
            It had seemed like the will of the gods when, after agreeing to reunite my band, The Phat Hobbits on a Japan tour with some old buddies who’d made it big, my Southeast Asia tour book fell off my coffee table and cracked open on my apartment floor to a picture of Mount Kinabulu. As I gazed into the image of Kinabulu’s sharp, other-worldly stone peaks veiled in crimson ghost clouds, my three-man punk brigade watched me grip the cursed gold ring dangling from a chain around my shoulders. We all murmured, “Mount Doom,” knowing what must be done. We were in Seattle, our shire. We had to go to Malaysia, our Mordor.
            Flying from Kuala Lumpur by way of Osaka, we hitched a ride at the Kota Kinabulu airport with a local wearing an old school Supersonics hat. We Seattleites interpreted it as a sign. As he weaved through streets crammed with rickshaws and street vendors, we broadcasted our intentions to conquer Kinabulu (without mentioning the cursed gold ring dangling over my chest). Nodding reverently, he described the mountain’s beauty, its power--and its danger.  Some time ago, three Englishmen climbed the mountain and were never seen again.  Intrigued, I asked for wisdom that would preclude such a fate.
            “You must sacrifice a chicken.”
Nick the drummer and Tyson the bassist shrugged awkwardly, eyes pressing me, their front man, to lead on. I asked if the chicken had to be a virgin in earnest, but my friends snorted. An almost fatal mistake. The warm evening went immediately cold inside the van. The local slammed his brakes, veered onto the grassy shoulder, and scolded us through crooked, angry teeth that Mount Kinabulu is a mystical place, its gods to be respected.
            Go to the sacrificial chicken ranch.  Buy a chicken.  Slit its throat.  Only then could we begin our journey. 
In that moment we became more than tourists. Nodding silently, we looked out the window of the mini-van with our best thousand yard stares.  Blood, sweat, death… it was on. 
Outside the van at the hostel, Nick broke the spell when he suggested just pouring a bowl of chicken Panang onto the ground, ghetto-Shire style; one for the gods, one for the Hobbits.  We laughed. An even dumber almost fatal mistake.
            The gods do not tolerate japes--and will punish the infidels who dare.
            After a long night of dancing, karaoke, and drinking the Malaysian eight-point-five infusion, Anchor Special Brew, we and our hangovers set off on a two-hour bus ride for the hike of our lives, a non-technical but extreme-inclined five-mile ascent we’d been told was more challenging than Yosemite’s legendary fourteen-mile Half Dome hike, which I’d once completed with little difficulty outside of the marmots that stole my summit sandwich.
            The awesomely terrible kung-fu movie blaring on the bus’s TV monitors cut off in mid-spinning-helicopter-death-kick as we hissed to a stop. Peering through beer-soaked eyes out the window, I experienced a species of dread only the gods can instill. Shrouded in slash-and-burn farming smoke, the looming god mountain’s glowering stone head and crouching green bulk suddenly made me nervous about upsetting local deities. Bumping off a chicken seemed within bounds; breaking eggs to make omelets, I reasoned. Even Tyson, a recently converted Buddhist, rationalized it as not killing but cultural observation in an admirable display of moral contortionism.
            At the Timpohon Gate park headquarters we received our mandatory guide, whose unpronounceable name contained a “G” so we called him Gandalf. The lean and quiet man could have been thirty but was probably fifty considering the wise glint in his eyes. First thing, I asked where we could get our hands on a live chicken.
            Surprised, Gandalf informed us in broken English that usually only locals perform the ritual and we were too late to locate and kill a chicken properly. Tyson the Buddhist cursed.
            “Dudes, the shire leaf has addled your minds,” said Nick, a blonde marathon runner and rock climber. “We’re only twenty-nine. Let’s stick it to this Malaysian mountain god.” Tyson and I glanced at one another’s developing paunches and said, “Hellz yeah,” but with about as much confidence of success as Faramir riding to meet the Orc legions.
            Our fears proved justified. Within seconds of passing through the trailhead we realized that this wasn’t so much an inclined path as it was a suicide run on a stair climber at level twenty. The steep trail quickly transformed into earthen stairs, each step requiring a hop to surmount. Within fifteen minutes I was sucking air, and begged my friends to slow down. Regroup. Reconsider?
            After thirty minutes my legs began to wobble. I paid no heed, figuring they just needed to warm up.  Determined to reach the overnight camp as quickly as possible (fast hikers like we once were could beat four hours) I ignored pain, fatigue and nausea as I’d done on countless northwest hikes up Mount Si and Granite Mountain and around Mount Baker.  Hell, I’d even done Ranier, a god in its own right named Tahoma by the local tribes. Gradually my place in line dropped from leader, to middle, to last--to dead weight.
            Soon, it was not the pain in my quads and lungs that unnerved me, but the boiling sea of Anchor: Special Brew raging within my belly.  Noticing my pale complexion and my hand upon my chest, Nick asked if the Eye of Sauron was upon me.  Turning, I began, “Guys I don’t feel so--” before doubling over, convulsing. 
            Leaning over a wooden rail, I unleashed a flood of acidic Malaysian lager upon the green ferns and bulbous orange carnivorous pitcher plants surrounding the trail.  My compatriots turned their heads respectfully on their fallen comrade.
            “King’s Foil, Fro?” asked Tyson, holding out a bag of salty nuts.
            “We must get him to Rivendell,” said Nick, doing annoying bouncy stretches on the cursed mountain steps. “The ring has taken its toll.”
            I tried to respond, “The fellowship is unbroken--” before succumbing to another yellow waterfall. The Lord of the Rings references were all that stood between abysmal despair, but I wasn’t sure how much longer the idiomatic dam would hold against the flood of F-bombs and goddammits I so wanted to unleash.
            My digestive system emptied itself along another mile of the incline we hobble-hiked up before I collapsed against a tree, chest heaving and sweat stinking of booze and failure. I apologized to Gandalf for desecrating his mountain.  He didn’t seem to judge me.  Sitting down, I wondered what the hell I had gotten myself into as the ring hung heavy around my shoulders.
            Getting up was when things really got ugly.  Hiking’s cardinal rule is to always stay hydrated.  Binge drinking at the discotheque followed by heavy vomiting constitute an automatic violation of that rule.  I quickly learned why as steel braces locked my quivering legs in place.  Attempts to remove them from the cramped position were futile; no such position existed.  My leg muscles twitched and convulsed in grotesque waves beneath my skin, eliciting horrified oohs, aah, and stop that!’s from the Phat Hobbits.
            And two and a half vertical miles still remained to the overnight camp.
            “Maybe you’re more of a dwarf,” Nick accused, performing a few jumping jacks for good measure. “Natural sprinter. Over short distances, very dangerous.”
            I looked to Gandalf for counsel. The man of the mountain shrugged and smiled, sweat-less in his white sneakers and faded jeans.
            “You maybe no die if climb,” said Gandalf. “But getting dark. Go back good idea.”
            My hand went to the ring beneath my shirt. The years in thrall to it had weakened me, but I refused to let it drag me back down to the bottom. Not again.
            Willing myself to stand, I said, “Certainty of death. Small chance of success. What are we waiting for?”
            Unable to speak intelligibly, I tried to make my heaves and grunts sound optimistic as I lurched along like a wooden puppet, jerking my spasmodic legs up the mountain one at a time. The pain was excruciating, but I was starting to feel like kind of a badass.
            Then, strapped into a woven basket stuffed with potatoes and dead chickens with lolling heads, a wispy-haired, ninety-pound porter woman literally jogged by us in sandals for what Gandalf said was her second trip that day to the summit camp, Laban Rata. Before I could ascertain whether my manhood still remained, a British woman with a gray ponytail and her adult son passed us and said, “Sure feels good for an old lady like me to pass a young buck like you!” 
            I groaned. They chuckled. And the gods positively guffawed.
            At a jungle clearing I peered into the smoky green valley from which we’d ascended, drinking cold canteen water and breathing the fragrant ancient wood and the purple and gold and red exotic flowers. It was beautiful. The base of the mountain looked small beneath us. Hope bloomed in my heaving chest. 
Until I discerned the granite peak above the tree line. Formidable, mocking: An impossible distance. The gloom of the mountain’s shadow crept into my heart, made darker by the gold ring swinging over it.
            Repentant thoughts pierced my brain. Be merciful, ye gods!  I’ll mock thee not. I’ll sacrifice a wilderness of chickens. Show pity!
            Then I remembered--I’m an atheist.
            Game on, Kinabulu.
            And so I continued into increasingly thinner air, cursing and muttering at the ground, the sky, even a pretty blond passing hiker whose vague familiarity ignited a pleasure-pain burning in the ring.  There was no joy in this push.  No communion with nature, no appreciation of my excellent company, and certainly no productive inner reflection.  It was a battle, vicious and primal: Me vs. the Gods-I-Don’t-Believe-In, winner-take-all.
            At long last I glimpsed Laban Rata at the far edge of my tunnel vision. There, upon that great wooden deck suspended over the misty green jungle abyss nearly eleven thousand feet above sea level, we could shower, gobble Tylenol and nap before commencing the one-and-a-half mile final push to the summit for a fabled Kinabulu sunrise. 
Nearly in tears, with over four traumatic miles and seven excruciating hours behind me, I hobbled up the last few steps towards sweet, level ground. 
Cramping, sweating and dizzy, my body escalated its insurrection to blind vengeance: Take that (spasm)! And that (contraction)! And THAT (spasmspasmcontraction)!
            I collapsed against a boulder, legs rippling as though in mid-electrocution.  Nick poured water down my throat and worked my legs like a corner-man, unlocking enough circulation that they momentarily stopped rolling on themselves like hungry corn snakes.
            Nearby, the graying ponytail lady and her son played hopscotch. They pointed at me, waving. I crutched along on Nick and Tyson’s shoulders to the lodge, somehow keeping my other four fingers extended in my return wave.
            My friends dropped me into a wooden deck chair like a sack of moldy apples.
            “You look freshly violated by Boromir,” said Tyson, wiping his sweaty bush of black curls from his eyes.
            “And micturated upon by orcs,” said fair-haired Nick, groaning at the sudden twitching in my right quad. Walking away with deliberately evil springy steps to the food kiosk, they asked loudly where they could get in on some hopscotch. 
            Unable to bend my knee to remove my steaming Timberlands, I looked up and noticed a tallvblonde lady was leaning against the deck’s wraparound rail and staring at me. We locked eyes. With ginger steps she treaded towards me, staring at my ruined legs. Grave concern darkened her long, angular face, elfish and pretty despite its salty sweat streaks.
            “You alright?” she asked in a pulse-quickening Australian accent.
            “Would you believe yes?”
            “No. I passed you an hour ago on the trail. I’m a Doctor of Physical Therapy. Mind if I look at your legs?”
            Hallelujah! Damn the chickens and the gods they fed, the summit was as good as conquered! And with it my curse, left to wither and die in that cloud of purple smoke below us.  I mouthed a thank-you to the blue Malaysian sky as the Aussie angel pulled up a chair beside my knees.
            But the Gods had been saving their greatest prank for last, I learned, as her name rolled off her tongue and past her straight, white teeth to shake me like thunder in a dungeon.
            Somewhere above I heard chortling, deep and malicious as cracking glaciers. The golden burden around my shoulders sagged as her expert fingers kneaded my flesh.
            Nick and Tyson were questioning my capacities as a hiker and a man when they stopped behind me, dumbstruck. Sally introduced herself, and Tyson’s hand froze in mid-extension, aborting his handshake. Nick dropped his water bottle, and didn’t pick it up as its cold clear liquid bled onto the wooden deck. Sally instructed them to procure electrolytes and bananas. Nick followed orders in a daze, jaw agape, but Tyson narrowed his eyes.
            “All that glitters is not gold, Halfling,” he said.
            “That’s William Blake, retard. Tolkien said, ‘All that is gold does not glitter,’” I said.
            “Stay the path, ring-bearer!” Tyson said.
            The ensuing silence swelled with a life-long friendship’s worth of crippled promises and kidney-punched dreams. And Sallies. So many Sallies. Tyson kept looking at us long after the silence grew awkward.
            “What?” Sally and I said together, as though we’d been doing so for years. Something about our vocal harmony injected fear into my friend’s heart.
            “Not again, Fro. We’re here to destroy the ring, not to wield it.” Tyson marched off towards Gandalf.
            Sally continued pouring electrolytes down my throat and rubbing the vipers out of my legs in my infirmary-like room. A warm, drowsy blanket of helplessness and attention enveloped me as I rested against my pillow, marveling at her. We’d showered off the Kinabulu grit and she emerged beautiful in that severe, calculated way that Sallies always are. There was a knock at her door.
            “Hey Fro, lights out. We’re summiting in a couple hours,” said Nick, poking his head into the doorway. Tyson joined him and they entered the room.
            Sally nodded at me with the stern prompt of a nurse, and I said, “Guys, I’m done. Dr. Sally says it’s too dangerous. Bad things could happen to me. Things with lots of syllables.”
            “Is Dr. Sally staying bedside?” asked Tyson.
            “Yeah, I got some wicked blisters.” Sally wiggled turgid pink bubbles on her big toes. “Go on. I’ll take care of your friend.”
            Awkward silence, then, “What?” Sally and I said in unison.
            They chanted, “Come back, come back, to Mordor she’ll take you.”
            And they wouldn’t stop chanting, not when I threw my pillow at them, or my shoe, not until I threw a half-empty Gatorade bottle that bounced against the door frame did they leave.
             “You’re a lot more mature than your friends,” Sally said (as Sallies often do), straddling my knees to rub my thighs. “Is Fro really your name?”
            I groaned at the exquisite pleasure and pain of her touch.
            “Sort of. It’s Fernando. Long story short, we’re Lord of the Rings dorks. Hence, our band name, The Phat Hobbits. We got kind of quasi-big locally back in the day after high school. I’m the front man so people started calling me Fro. Oh, and I’ve got a pretty sweet afro if you didn’t notice. Anyhow, we’re reuniting to dive head-first into early mid-life crises. Kind of lucked into a last-minute gig opening for some old friends around Japan. Could be our big break.”
            “I admire you artistic types. Never had much imagination myself. But I find that fantasy stuff kind of stupid. Here, how’s that? Does it hurt when I press here?”
            Of course it didn’t. Like her predecessors, she knew nothing would hurt until my final, inevitable amputation from her life. Then the pain would explode all at once.
            Each Sally--all four of them since middle school, like some many-headed preppy serpent, each my older, smarter and wealthier better--nursed me after a bizarre injury. The last Sally--Professor Sally, seven years and three university degrees my superior--rushed to the stage after Tyson knocked me out with an ill-advised samurai-bass-chop.
            The timing was catastrophic. We were opening for a band whose label promised to sign us after the tour. Tyson had quit his cushy video game programmer job and Nick had left his neuroscience lab. Saying adios to Starbucks wasn’t exactly tearful for me.
            But within a month, Professor Sally and I were innocently saying “What?” in unison to questions like: You’re not making the tour? And you’re leaving the band? And you’re moving in together? You’re getting married? And moving to Boston? And going into Sally’s father’s real estate business?
            She’s leaving you for a divorced tax attorney with three kids and a hairpiece?
            I lied when I said I was an atheist. I believe in goddesses, and their names are Sally. But like Galadriel, with a ring they’re Beautiful and Terrible as the Morn: All shall love them and despair! Well, me at least. Tyson and Nick tried repeatedly to bludgeon me back to my senses with foam swords, but I just blabbered, “She’s a professor you jamokes! She knows what’s good for me!” Gives us the precious!
            “Ever been to Sydney?” said Dr. Sally, unwinding the piano wire-tight IT bands stretched between my knees and hips with her strong thumbs. “We’ve got an ace music scene. I’m heading back in two days to move into my new place. You should come. Here, how’s this?”
            “Oh. Oh, wow. That’s good. Why would a girl like you be moving into a new place alone?”
            Dr. Sally began confessing things to me, many of which I’d heard one Sally ago, concerning fatigue of academic types and of men being intimated by her brains. Then it progressed to deeper insecurities, like how Dr. Sally had started wearing turtlenecks to cover up the deepening wrinkles on her neck. Wrinkles she was pulling down her shirt collar to display, allowing a glimpse of the white pink wonderland beneath. I understood this signified her intentions to wear me for similar purposes for at least two years, maybe five. The glands of failed musicians are renowned amongst Sallies for their anti-aging properties. Grinding our guitars into paste yields a potent aphrodisiac.
            “Down under?” I said, eyes closing, submitting to the power of the massage, the glory of her will. “Never even thought of it until now. But… Maybe?”
            Part of me knew that things would go south soon after going down under. That I would feel compelled to explain why her taste in music, movies, and art was so shockingly awful it precluded friendship with cool people. She, in turn, would castigate my dreams while milking dry my own urban insights until the night when, years or months later, she would regurgitate them at a gathering of shiraz-drinking pseudos that would include an older, established, unattached professional standing inappropriately close to her.
            As Dr. Sally massaged my thighs with her palms, I knew I would sacrifice everything for her while guzzling a Mickey Finn of admiration, sexual gratification, and deep pity for the frozen hole in her core. Gradually, my testicles would vanish and I’d shrivel into a hunched and spiteful thing, religiously polishing the ring to which I would be bound. But who am I, a Phat Hobbit, to refuse my fate as ordained by a Goddess? 
            “I live alone in that big house. And my dad always needs top salesmen for his mining equipment business…”
            My name is Fro, and I am a Goddess addict. Each drop of suffering on Kinabulu obviously represented the final stages of Goddess withdrawals. I’d heard those can be deadly. Perhaps the expedition--the whole tour even--was merely the cruel joke of a divine bully with a magnifying glass atop a mountain. Perhaps this Sally would be different. This Sally was my savior. This Sally was my fate.
            My finger ached for the ring. And the numb relief it promised.
            Dr. Sally removed her shirt. Crawled into my bed. Her door blew open. Drawing the covers to her chin, Dr. Sally screeched as Nick and Tyson entered, followed by Gandalf, who was holding a plucked chicken carcass wrapped in ketchup packets like a profane suicide poultry bomber.
            “Come on Fro,” said Tyson, tall and hefty. “I can’t carry it for you. But I can carry you!” He pulled me thrashing feebly from Sally’s arms.
            “Kill the chicken, Fro,” Nick said, handing me a metal butter knife on which he’d scribbled in black marker, Sting. “The mountain demands sacrifice!”
            As Sally hollered, Gandalf solemnly laid the naked avian offering on the plastic bedside table. Holding my eyes with ageless Malaysian wisdom, the man of the mountain nodded while my band chanted like Elmer Fudd: Kill da CHI-cken, kill da CHI-cken, kill da CHI-cken, killdachicken!
            I raised the butter knife, but paused when Sally screamed beside me, “Your friends are idiots! You can’t reach the top! Come back to bed you moron!” My hand wobbled.
            I drove the knife deep into the chicken’s ketchup-packet heart, over and over, splattering red upon the white walls, over my face, even on Sally. I stopped when I heard no more screaming or chanting. Only my ragged breath. The chicken resembled a slashed and battered red heart with a ludicrously grinning beak.
            Gandalf nodded as my friends dragged me from the room. Sally made to get up, shirt or no shirt after me, but Nick held out the mangled chicken carcass like a talisman, stomped his foot, and bellowed, “None shall pass!” Sally stared on, pulling the white sheet back tight against her chest. Darkness filled the expanding space between us like the rush of ocean between a freed sailor and his siren. The pain returned to my legs as I hobbled back to my own room.
            Exhaustion clubbed me into dreamless space.  Waking up sucked. Every cell in my body--my very soul--begged to stay in bed.  But succumbing to such trivialities as altitude sickness, sleep-deprivation, alcohol poisoning, severe cramping, chronic dehydration, depression, and, quite possibly, post-traumatic stress and a re-fractured heart was no longer an option.
            My friends hauled me into my stinking boots as my quadriceps bubbled and writhed in protest. Gandalf led us on, pensively chewing on grass. 
My memory of that final climb is vague.  Thin, elusive air. Some ropes; slipping on bare rock; surprising cold; a sensation of floating high above other living things.  For a few hours we were suspended within the stars, our chorus of labored breathing the only indication of things besides the mountain and the gods. 
            And then we reached the highest peak in Southeast Asia for sunrise.  As the eastern sky reddened in crisp flame, a full moon descended on the opposite horizon.  Silhouetted against the rising sun, Mount Kinabulu cast the shadow of an ethereal pyramid directly beneath the moon, a geometrically precise rendering of the all-seeing-eye on dollar bills.  The Eye of Sauron, come-to-God. Staring into that big silver orb, I stopped cursing.
In that superimposed image of setting moon and rising sun on the eternal mountain, all of us climbers intuited cosmic balance, a truth. The English lady shared her M&Ms with me, laughing. I casually removed my old gold wedding band from around my shoulders and flipped it to Gandalf, who smiled and playfully punched my shoulder for the gift, worth roughly his year’s salary. Nick and Tyson just breathed with me in synchronicity.
Every cramp, every humiliation, every drop of sweat was forgotten in that moment.  Sitting in the freezing winds at the peak, I did not feel cold.  I hated no one, nothing.  For a brief moment I was at total peace, humbled before the eyes of the gods.

            And somewhere in the heavens, I heard laughing.


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