A story from the collection, _Doc Fost's Whole 'Nother Tragical History_
The Black Ice of Tussey Mountain
A story by Joe Petrulionis
All rights to these materials are reserved by the author.
----------------------- December 10, 1984 -------------
Begrudging another moment because Gretchen Fost realized, herself, that she was a bit confused; still, she waited.
“Mommy?” The little voice from the back seat of the Lincoln Town Car became more insistent, now a touch alarmed. Gretchen struggled against the seat belt for room to take a breath, her first in quite a while. Closing her dry mouth in an unsuccessful attempt to moisten her tongue, she tried to pitch a confident voice, “Till, is that you darling? Are you back there?”
“Tilde? Matilda, are you okay?” Gretchen began to realize that her hair had fallen straight down beside her face, hanging there now like blinders. Even if she could have turned her head, the hair blocked any peripheral views. The dimming light of first nightfall presented the cracked and fogged windshield in colors of dark slate. She blinked. Then Gretchen remembered the horn.
When had that horn stopped blowing? It had been sounding a solid tone, seeming to last for days. Now, only silence. This is how she began to detect a passage of time. With her return to time came a sudden wave of sadness. Unable to process that emotion, Gretchen chose to think about the horn.
There had been sound. That was before. We’ve been here a while. It’s dark, almost night.
Gretchen could see a trickle of dark substance, blood clotting on the steering wheel and below that, puddling between the dashboard and the windshield. It seemed to come from her own nose, falling through the steering wheel into the cracked windshield. Her right arm, pinned to the steering wheel, throbbed with spasms of what should have been pain but now felt like warm electric shocks. She couldn’t feel or move her left arm at all. It dangled out of sight into the dashboard in a strange position. As if trapped in a hazy dream, Gretchen began to recall her car spinning off the road, then its nose first dive over the steep hillside. After that, only the horn.
“Tilde, are you okay? Tell Mommy if something hurts, Baby. Does something hurt?”
“Mommy, tell me a story.”
“Not now,Sweety. Tell Mommy if something hurts, okay?”
“Mommy, I’m cold.”
“I know, Darlin. Soon as the police come, we’re going to get you a warm blanket and a cup of hot chocolate. Will that be nice?” Gretchen felt it all moving back away from her now. She took her daughter’s complaint of cold to mean the lack of other more serious injuries. Only cold. Gretchen could fade for a moment. All went black.
When she woke again, Gretchen realized that her daughter had asked her an important question. She had to ask it again, though. “Mommy, should I wake up Daddy?”
Gretchen could not see now. The blackness of a moonless night had replaced the slate gray colors of before. Detecting no change in her vision when her eyes opened and closed, she continued blinking like that while the little voice in the back seat insisted. “Mommy! Should I wake up Daddy?”
It took her a few moments to understand what she was being asked. Another wave of sadness threatened, but then an irrational blast of hope made her say, “Yes, Baby. wake him up. Is Daddy here? Tell him Mommy needs him.”
Then there was nothing. No sounds, no sights. Gretchen slept again, welcoming each warm throb of her arm. Shock, that merciful anesthetic nobody ever wants to enjoy, settled over her. All of the matters of the world, the cold, any pain, the lonely feeling of desperation, all of these seemed to retreat somewhere behind the warm throb of her left arm. This time, she woke to the sound of her husband’s gentle voice.
Jonathan explained to their daughter, once again, that the bear they called Rajh Ruhr was not the same bear that had died. “No, you know Rajh Ruhr lives behind our cabin by Simon’s Blue Hole. This was another bear, Darlin. This bear was a stranger bear, She was only visiting Irvingsberg. She was on a bear vacation from way far away.”
“How you doing up there Gretchen?” His voice was tender.
Gretchen felt him place his hand lightly across her forehead. “Just try to rest. The police should be along shortly.”
“Just sleep, Darlin. Quiet now. You’ve been in a little bit of a wreck. We’re waiting for the sheriff's deputy.”
Again she heard Matilda ask him about the bear. Jonathan had been explaining that a couple of hunters found the nearly skeletal remains of a Pennsylvania black bear, a very large one. Oddly, they had found it at the very peak of Rocky Top, a limestone tumbled outcropping that rose from the western shore of Simon’s Blue Hole, that small lake beside their cabin in Irvingsberg. As always, Matilda wanted to know why. “What was that big bear up there looking for?”
Gretchen could hear heavy rustling in the back seat. Jonathan had somehow retrieved his pipe and tobacco. Then despite the high probability of inflammable liquids in the passenger spaces, he had gotten it burning. She had seen the flicker of his lighter and heard the crackle of his first few draws on the pipe. She could somehow smell the spicy smoke which she’d always enjoyed. Now it helped her relax a little.
He was saying, “Cousin Grarhrrrrh got to the top of Canoe Mountain and saw one more mountain that still blocked her view. So she just knew that she had to go to the top of that other mountain, too, just to see what you could see from up there.”
Matilda answered, “The top of the world!”
“Yes, the very tip top of the whole world. Then she looked down and what do you think that bear saw from the very top of the whole wide world?”
“Yes, Darlin, she saw stars. There were lots of stars and she looked at each one of them for a long time. Then she saw the moon. She saw the mountains and valleys on the moon and looked around her feet and saw all of those rocks around her. Then she saw the grass below her and halfway down Rocky Top she saw the trees. Once the sun came up, though, what do you think she saw?”
Matilda did not answer. Gretchen moistened her mouth again, took another breath and said, “She saw Simon’s Blue Hole!”
Jonathan laughed. “Right. The bear climbed all the way up to the top of the world and what she looked at from up there was Simon’s Blue Hole. She saw all of the fish in it. She watched the beaver dragging trees around. She could see the cabin and the diner where your Mommy works. She could see that old owl who lives there.”
“Could she see Rajh Ruhr?” Tilde sounded good.
“Yes, but this was still early morning and you know, Rajh Ruhr does not like to wake up early. What that bear saw, the one up on Rocky Top, was a girl. The girl was sitting on the porch with her pretty Mommy and her handsome Daddy who was making piles of delicious pancakes.”
“Yes, Matilda, she saw you! That’s what the bear could see from the very top of the world! And she enjoyed watching you so much that she just stayed up there forever, watching you. And when the hunters found her, the bones were leaning over a rocky edge of the mountain, with her eyes still watching down over Simon’s Blue Hole. Maybe someday we will go up there and see it.”
Gretchen answered with one word, but she had to repeat it to be heard, “morbid.”
“Nah, that’s not morbid. That’s just how good stories go.”
Gretchen’s mouth was still dry. “Jonathan, this is...It’s not...Jonathan, I think I am dying, darling.”
“Now who’s being morbid?
“No...nobody found us. They don’t know I’m here.It’s dark now.But it’s not like I expected. Dying. It’s not so bad. Not alone. You are here with me, Matilda is…””
“Just relax. I hear the helicopter now. See the lights, they are looking for a place to land. They’ll have medics and equipment to get you outa here. Just rest a few more moments.” His voice tapered off.
Another spell of dizzy blackness, then someone tapped at her window with a flashlight. He was saying, “Just breathe slowly, Ma’am and hold yourself very still. We are going to force this door open and then…”
When she regained consciousness again she was already strapped in a stretcher with some kind of inflatable pillow around her ears. Her stretcher was being pushed toward something she could perceive to be a helicopter by the dull thumping sounds. Flashlights and spotlights and some kind of yellow blinking light moved all around her now.
“My daughter and husband. In the back seat. Are they...?”
The medic at her head turned and made a hand motion to someone behind them, “She can hear you.” Someone she couldn’t see patted her arm.
The medic spoke loudly through cupped hands, “I’m sorry, Sir, but the pilot can only take off with the patient and one medic. My associate will stay with you and your daughter. A police cruiser will be here in a minute or two and take you to meet your wife at the hospital. Yes, Altoona, unless the ER decides to route her on to Pittsburgh.” And that was all that she could hear.
At some far distant place, Gretchen realized there were things she needed to say to Jonathan. But medical professionals were in charge now. Things happened all around her and at once she could feel the sudden increase in frequency as the ground dropped out from under them and her first helicopter ride commenced.
Flying up the steep sides of Tussey Mountain, the darkness of the valley gave way to a bright sunrise as they crested. Oddly, with the increase in altitude came the break of morning of a clear day.
Gretchen found that by rolling onto one side she could get a better view of the ride. She knew the dirt roads and highways of these hills as well as anyone and enjoyed tracing their route in the air against the features she could see on the ground. For some reason, the pilot had opted to fly toward Williamsburg. She expected to go straight over Brush Mountain near Frankstown. But this northerly route gave her a glimpse of the river, her beloved Juniata.
As the pilot gained altitude, Gretchen saw the gray limestone quarry that her family had built. From up here, it seemed to be just an oddly shaped and rather ugly gash in the otherwise lush mountains north of the river. She couldn’t quite see her own cabin because of the tree cover. But by stretching her chin out and forcing her eyes to the far front of the cockpit, Gretchen could watch the gray face of Rocky Top, a mountain next to that little lake by her cabin.
The helicopter seemed to be heading in that direction so Rocky Top Mountain grew in the cockpit window. She told the medic that Rocky Top was just a large stack of boulders, that local legend claimed it was held in place by the tree roots growing on the northern slope. The southern slopes were just exposed stone cresting at one large outcropping at the very top. The medic looked out and seemed somewhat impressed. But Gretchen suspected he was just acting interested in order to keep her spirits up.
That was when she asked the medic for a special favor. “Can you get the pilot to fly along the very top of the southern side of Rocky Top? There’s supposed to be a very large black bear up there. I’d love to see it!”
The medic smiled and touched the headphone he wore as he spoke into the mic by his chin. She couldn’t hear that conversation, but she could feel the climb of the helicopter. The medic smiled and then pointed toward the close face of the mountain.
Once the mountain peak appeared in the window of the helicopter, Gretchen could see the couch shaped boulder that hangs there out over the uppermost point.. The pilot said, “We’re putting down right there. Is that her?” He nodded to indicate direction, but Gretchen could not yet see.
As the helicopter settled into a tentative landing near the very top of Rocky Top Mountain, Gretchen pulled her knees up and pushed herself into a sitting position, straining to see what the medic still smiled at. The cockpit door opened and Gretchen stepped out. When the helicopter again took off without her, Gretchen could see her own daughter sitting on the overhang rock, swinging her feet in the sunshine and smiling.