The café owner is sitting on her porch watching the sun empty itself out over the western slopes when she realizes that the mountains to the south are, and have been, moving. Nothing dramatic, just a minor stutter-step into the southeast. She lives down in the greenest part of the valley, hemmed in by a ridgeline like stacked tortoise shells. Now those shells are sunlit from all the wrong angles, revealing odd patches of gray rock, blighted spots among the firs. She rubs her forehead, pinches the skin where it gets slack and pruny. A massy woman herself, she knows mountainous regions don’t just carry off overnight. She’s probably just fried one too many eggs at the café.
Later that week, news teams appear up and down Main Street. Helicopters stitch back and forth over the mountains, the tympanic sky aquake with their rotors. Local hotels fill up with geologists and geophysicists and seismologists and biologists who wear brimmed canvas hats and carry expensive words and gauges. The town becomes a sanctuary for -ists, every one of them a leading authority on something or other. Even the local school children don tiny charcoal blazers and beige pantsuits, gathering in Lithia Park to conduct panel discussions or deliver informal lectures on tectonics. The café owner isn’t wild about the –ists. She’s lived here all her life, and she’ll be damned if they know the mountains better than she does.
During the lunch rush, she serves dozens of department chairpersons who’ve traveled from all across the continent or even from overseas to observe what many of them jokingly refer to as “mountain itinerancy.” Lesser quips make the rounds: “The mountains are retiring to Florida, to be closer to the grandkids,” or “Hey, what do you expect with the Rockies in estrus?”
Allergic to sarcasm, the café owner gongs a metal water pitcher with her serving ladle. “Under this particular roof,” she tells the stunned -ists, batting her palm with the ladle, “you don’t want to be cracking too wise.”
The –ists straighten up. They enunciate clearly when ordering from the menu. They drink wine by the bottle, pronouncing their selections with the proper nasal flourishes. They share with the whole table, drinking just enough so that their cheeks will glow when they appear on the evening news to explain their charts and graphs and tectonic theories. Many of the -ists compliment the café owner’s menu, which pays reference to the surrounding landscape: Crater Lake Salmon Bowls, Mashed Shasta Potato Medleys, and Oxtail Soup of the Oregon Trail, a salty favorite. The -ists gobble down their meals with the enthusiasm of professionals who burn calories at a higher rate than most, minds thrumming with obscure calculations. The café owner figures that the –ists are mostly a decent lot, however misguided.
At night, she wonders when the news teams will finally ask her for an interview. She’s lived here all of her life, and can tell you which of the local families really did strike gold during the rush and which ones bottomed out on pyrite. She can tell you which mountain streams have shifted course or gone dry. She’ll definitely point out that the –ists ought to be restoring the topography instead of just measuring its changes. “People come and go,” she’ll say to the camera, “but mountains have to stay put.”
Later that week, the –ists grow fussy. They’ve tried all the fare on café owner’s clever menu, and they’ve drunk up all her wine stock. Old rivalries resurface. A biology professor from southern California flicks a spoonful of steamed peas at a seismologist from northern California. Credentials are thrown into question. Professional jurisdictions are challenged, then mocked. Harsh-sounding names, like “mountebank,” start crossing from table to table. When the insults turn to threats, the café owner closes up the kitchen and drives them out the door by playing her Whale Songs of the Arctic Circle disc at full blast. As they file out the door, two of the –ists become embroiled in a collateral dispute over whether they’re hearing humpbacks or blues.
“Out, out, out!” the café owner yells. And out they go.
From her porch, the mountains appear out of focus. She stares for a long time, but she can’t tell that they’re moving. Later, on the cusp of sleep, she finally hears it: the gentle scrape of volcanic slabs coming unpaired deep underground, fluttery tremors so subtle that she can only make them out between heartbeats. Those mountains are certainly light on their feet.
By the end of the week, all the news teams have packed up their cameras. Runaway mountains might be unusual, but they don’t make for exciting television, and there are wildfires waiting to be covered further north. At the café, the remaining -ists brood over their bowls of stew and pasta. They still haven’t reached any consensus on what causes mountains to wander, and no one will interview them. So they clap each other’s backs and mutter apologies and promise summers spent hang-gliding over the flats of Arizona, winters spent skiing the black diamonds of Snow Mass. They say their goodbyes to the café owner, who hugs their frail necks, glad to see that they’ve made amends. Off they go, with their raw numbers and tabular data.
Each evening, the café owner finds her home further removed from the mountains. Those tortoise shapes have consolidated out on the horizon, like they’ve been stamped from a single layer of green felt. She feels exposed now, sitting on the porch. Where the mountains have come unfooted, the ground is pitted and scarred. There’s no green left, and a hot wind whistles over the flattened soil. She’ll be damned if mountains can just up and leave. In the morning, she’ll ride out into the southeast and talk some sense into the mountains. She’ll find a way to send them lumbering back.
About the Author: Nickalus Rupert has watched HBO's Deadwood way more times than you have. His soul belongs to the Pacific Northwest, but for now, his ass belongs to Florida. He holds an MFA from the University of Central Florida, and his fiction has appeared in Prick of the Spindle and Night Train. Twitter: @nlrupert
Story Song: "Irene" by Beach House
Photo Credit: Elisabeth Clem/Poppy and Pinecone