Diamondback Mountain by Tim Weed
Make yourself a stiff Hot Toddy and steal a few moments before a blazing fire to read “Diamondback Mountain,” first published in Tim Weed’s collection, A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing. The setting is exquisitely rendered—the prewar Colorado of wooden skis and alpine lodges. This story will take you back to the aesthetic and mindset of the Greatest Generation, while revealing the natural wonder and might of the Rockies in winter.
The Boston Globe describes Tim Weed as a “skilled creator of a sense of place… each story [in A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing] deposits one definitively into a geography, of mind and map.” December seems a fitting time to reflect on place, on geography, mind, and map. Immerse here in Weed’s “snow-burdened ponderosas that loom out of the blizzard and then fade back like spectral watchmen.” —CRAFT
Henry takes the stairs three at a time, balancing a tray with a pot of coffee and two of the lodge’s signature blue-enamel mugs. An inch of fresh powder frosts the windowsills, and the light slants in to illuminate the framed mountainscapes that line the stairwell. On a normal day he might stop to admire these photographs—shadow and light, black crags and windblown snow, all the danger and beckoning allure of the great alpine summits: Mont Blanc, Wildspitze, Matterhorn, Weisshorn, Dents du Midi—but today he has reason to ignore them. At the Edelweiss Suite, he knocks and waits. The door swings open, and Celia appears in a dressing gown of sky-blue satin. Her eyes are charmingly swollen with sleep. A loose strand of mahogany hair caresses one flawless olive cheek.
“Buongiorno,” he says, doing his best to replicate the pronunciation he’s learned from Benny, the lodge’s Swiss-Italian chef.
Celia laughs delightedly. “Ciao, Henry. Come stai?”
He shrugs, helpless, because his reservoir of Italian vocabulary is already depleted.
“Cos’è questo?” She points to the tray.
“This? I brought you coffee.”
“Caffè,” she corrects him.
“Caffè,” he repeats.
“Molto buono, Henry.”
They stare into each other’s eyes. An odd weightlessness comes over him, the distinct sensation of floating a few inches above the floor. He doesn’t consider himself star-struck—they’ve had half a dozen conversations by now, and a game of checkers in the great hall the night before—but it remains a struggle to believe that such a girl can truly exist in the three-dimensional world. Moreover, and miraculously—if he’s not mistaken—in the brief time they’ve known each other, a strong connection appears to have sprung up between them, a current of mutual attraction that exerts its magnetic pull despite logic and the social and cultural barriers that conspire to keep them apart.
“Good morning.” Her father has appeared in the doorway beside her. An award-winning cinema director rumored to have close ties to Mussolini himself, he’s a handsome, older man, aristocratic of bearing, of medium stature and somewhat delicately boned, with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair.
“Breakfast is served in the Great Hall, sir, whenever you’re ready. Meanwhile, Mr. Peggett asked me to bring you this.”
“I’ll take it, Papa.” Celia reaches for the tray and favors Henry with a radiant smile before disappearing into the suite. Her father stands with his arms crossed in the doorway, a grim-faced sentinel.
“Anything else, young man?” He speaks in a less pronounced accent than Celia’s, a good deal more British than Italian.
“No, sir,” Henry replies, “just the coffee. And the news that breakfast is served.”
“Thank you.” The Italian nods curtly and closes the door.
Henry takes the staircase more slowly on the way down, savoring the aftermath of his interaction with Celia, and mostly undaunted by her father’s forbidding attitude. He’s well aware that the prospect of anything coming from this flirtation is unlikely. Celia is a motion-picture actress—not a household name outside of Italy yet, but a rising star, by all accounts—and he is a low-paid hotel employee. The expense and difficulties presented by an ocean and two thirds of a continent, not to mention the accelerating conflict in Europe, appear to present insurmountable obstacles. And yet, somehow, the future is unimportant. It is the present that concerns him.
In the seconds before awakening that morning, he dreamed of New Hampshire in summer. Warm air currents scented with fern and peat; golden-green sunlight filtering down through hemlock boughs to highlight a ground covered in moss and bare tree roots and smooth gray stone. The air alive with dust motes and gnats spiraling around the half-dozen boys gathered at the edge of the cliff overlooking the deep granite quarry. Lloyd was there, and some of the old crowd from Sugar Glen: hairy-chested Swoop Holcomb, saucer-eared Grinny Miller.
“Don’t be afraid,” Lloyd said.
“I’m not,” Henry replied, staring down at his toes and the edge of the cliff, and far below, the roughly rectangular pool of black water. But he was.
A breeze picked up, and the shadows of the hemlock boughs skittered over the roots that gripped the granite like bony fingers. Lloyd was down in the water now, so far below that his head was like a tiny cork bobbing at the center of a target made by his expanding, concentric ripples. He was shouting something, but Henry couldn’t make it out. The words reached him, but they were garbled, nonsensical.
He turned to ask the others, but Swoop and Grinny had vanished. Looking back into the pit he was disturbed to see that Lloyd was also gone. The water was frozen flat. Wind whipped ghostly patterns of snow over a surface of dull black ice.
After breakfast, the party assembles on the main deck for the first filming expedition. It’s a clear Rocky Mountain morning, the sky bright blue overhead and darker, almost bruised-looking, over the backlit cockscomb of the Animas ridge to the west. The frozen air smells of woodsmoke and pine needles. Last night’s snow is so fine that the slightest puff of wind explodes it off roof angles and ponderosa boughs in perfectly conserved flakes, creating the illusion of snowfall from the cloudless sky. He notices Celia shivering in her fashionably cut wool jacket, and he wishes he could go over and wrap his arms around her—but of course such a public gesture would be scandalous. She’ll warm up quickly, he knows, once they get moving.
He sets off to pack a trail in the meadow that slopes up into the aspen glades above the lodge. Trail-breaking is heavy work, but Henry revels in it. As he moves up the slope, he appreciates the landscape anew, through the guests’ eyes. The fathomless sky above the burnished-silver aspen trunks. The long blue fingers of shadow vaulting across the unbroken snow. Behind him, the procession stretches back, their cane poles creaking in the snow as in scrubbed cotton fiber. He imagines himself at the head of a party of Vikings, or a squadron of Hannibal’s troops crossing the Alps. The thought of the war getting underway in Europe crosses his mind, but he quickly dismisses it. If people on the other side of the ocean are foolish enough to kill each other for abstract ideas such as empire-building and national pride, that’s their own affair. He wants no part of it.
A little later, cutting a switchback on a steep hillside, he startles a snowshoe hare, which bounds off into the shade of the spruce forest like a white-on-white ghost. Three ravens ride the wind over the black treetops, rising and falling in unison. One lets out a parched kruk, kruk, like two hollow sticks tapped together. For a moment he imagines that the bird is speaking to him directly, though he has no idea what it could be trying to say.
At the first overlook, the party stops to admire the view. Mr. Peggett passes around a thermos of coffee, and Celia’s father sets up his tripod. He wants a still shot of the region’s presiding summit, Diamondback Mountain; of its flanks cloaked in black conifers; of its barren gray crag rising up serene and colossal like the tombstone of some forgotten pagan king.
The party moves on. Henry’s brother Lloyd takes his turn breaking trail, and Henry lingers behind, pretending to adjust his bindings as Celia’s father puts away the tripod. “A good day for shooting?” he asks.
“Maybe the afternoon will be better?”
“Maybe so.” The film director’s eyes remain hidden behind his smoked lenses. His expression reveals nothing of his feelings about Henry, though of course there is no reason to believe that these have softened since the morning.
The party continues along a snow-choked cart track left over from the gold mining days into the perpetual shade of the spruce forest. Dozens of switchbacks and three steep herringbone climbs take them up to the alpine meadows beneath the southern cirque of Diamondback Mountain. Celia’s father sets up his tripod in the lowest meadow, intending to film each member of the party as they ski past.
In the highest meadow, the party gathers. Mr. Peggett passes out Triscuits and summer sausage while Henry and Lloyd go around collecting the guests’ climbing skins. Henry cinches down his bindings and sets off first, Mr. Peggett having instructed him to wait at a spot halfway down the run to ensure that everyone makes it to the lowest meadow. The hickories cut soaring arcs through the virgin powder. A red-tailed hawk calls down to him from its gyre: a savage, resounding shriek. The clean scent of balsam fills the air. Millions of snow crystals glint in the sunlight like stars in a universe of gently rolling white. Henry’s pulse throbs in his ears, and he’s possessed by an urgent instinct to embrace the beauty of the moment; to internalize it fully before it has a chance to end. He glides to a stop between the middle and lower meadows, at the entrance to a kind of chokepoint between two fir copses through which everyone will have to pass.
One by one, the party flies by: his brother Lloyd, the everpresent cherry-wood pipe clamped between his teeth; the more clumsy but passable Mr. Hermon and Mr. Fish, Hollywood producers who are long-time associates of Celia’s father; and finally the hotelier, Mr. Peggett, Henry and Lloyd’s employer, a compact widower with close-cropped, silver hair and deep wrinkles radiating out from under his smoked lenses.
But where’s Celia? Henry waits, scanning the conifer-populated meadow. The others have disappeared over a roll in the slope below the chokepoint. He starts herringboning uphill, and in the next moment she comes into view, frowning with concentration, skiing defensively but with a graceful, Austrian-style technique. She plows to a stop just above his spread ski tips and he notices that her woolen headband is dusted with snow. “Everything all right?” he asks.
“Oh, yes!” She leans forward on her poles, gasping for breath. “More than all right, Henry. It’s so beautiful!”
He laughs aloud, delighted by her enthusiasm.
“You go ahead and ski down, Henry,” she says. “I need to rest.”
“I’ll wait. I’m supposed to go last, anyway, and I want to stay behind you in case you fall again.”
“How did you know I fell?”
He reaches up to dust the snow off her headband, but she catches his hand. She uses her teeth to pull off his leather glove, brings his palm up to her mouth, and traces a warm circle with her tongue. He gasps, shockwaves of desire surging through his body. Laughing, she pushes his hand away, throws the glove as far uphill as she can, and pushes off with her poles to propel herself down the slope.
It’s snowed all night, and dense flakes continue to fall. The conditions are not good for shooting film, so the party skis in the fields near the lodge, making use of a rope-tow Mr. Peggett has rigged up using an old Model-T engine. Although the run is not long, it can be repeated endlessly. All day the shadowy figures flicker through the whiteout like a company of speeding wraiths.
Henry looks for a chance to be alone with Celia, but her father is ever-present. He finds solace in the powder skiing, which is giddy and exhilarating, like waltzing down a tilted cloud, a precisely controlled free fall through a medium as weightless and frictionless as air. He revels in the muted whoosh of the hickories as they slice through the snow; in the falling flakes that sting his cheeks and enclose him in a fast-moving tunnel; in the snow-burdened ponderosas that loom out of the blizzard and then fade back like spectral watchmen.
Time slows to a crawl. The day blurs at the edges, becoming an indeterminate period of all-encompassing whiteness that could well stand in for eternity.
That night, a lodge tradition: the Masquerade. The guests combine with the hotel employees in a festive group of around a dozen attendees. They spend the afternoon plundering the costume closet and the staff decorates the great hall with crepe paper, linen tablecloths, and a multitude of candles stuck in empty wine bottles. Mr. Peggett brings out his Magnavox and his collection of dance records: Tommy Dorsey and Glen Miller and Artie Shaw. Outside the lodge the snow has stopped, but the wind has become an intermittently savage howl. Inside, the fire crackles merrily, the clarinets and trumpets weave their intricate melodies, and the whiskey flows.
Celia, a gypsy in a bandana and hoop earrings and a long, red flamenco dress, is much in demand. She dances with her father—dressed as Wyatt Earp in a black Stetson hat and sheepskin chaps with fake pistols and a sheriff’s badge—and with Josiah Fish, the Hollywood lawyer, comically overstuffed into an old pair of Mr. Peggett’s lederhosen. She dances with Allan Hermon, the producer, who is dressed like a pirate, and with Lloyd, in a plaid skirt and a blond wig and a well-stuffed bra under his old Dartmouth sweater. She dances with Mr. Peggett, in a black cape and a Venetian doctor’s mask, and with Lloyd again, grinning and whirling in his skirt with the cherry-wood pipe clenched between his teeth. Henry, a Plains Indian dressed in fringed buckskin and a braided wig, sits by the bar under a framed photograph of the Jungfrau and gazes out on the proceedings with increasing gloom. Celia is impossibly beautiful. He’s observed the way she bathes her dance partner in the radiance of her full attention—how her gypsy eyes flash as she laughs—and it makes him wonder if he’s been mistaken all along to assume there is anything unique about the way she’s been treating him. Perhaps it’s her practice to make every man she meets feel as if he could be the one. Perhaps she simply enjoys making strangers fall in love with her.
He pours himself another whiskey. The liquor settles like embers in his gut. The seconds tick by at an alarming rate, but he’s helpless to do anything about it.
Lloyd appears beside him at the bar and pours himself a tumbler. “You okay, Sitting Bull?”
“Never better,” Henry replies.
“We’ve missed you out on the dance floor.”
Henry grunts, taking another swill of whiskey.
“Want to get some air, brother?”
“Sure.” He follows Lloyd out to the deck. The wind has swept the remaining clouds from the sky, leaving a brightly spattered canopy of stars, and the frigid night is bracing after the close heat of the great hall. Lloyd reaches down under his skirt for his tobacco pouch and fills his pipe. He strikes a match to light the bowl, and the flame flares up to illuminate his handsome face.
“God, you make an ugly woman,” Henry says.
“Don’t I?” Lloyd grins, puffing on the pipe. “Celia’s something else, isn’t she? Don’t worry,” he adds hastily, responding to Henry’s sharp glance. “I’m just making an observation. I appreciate her the way a man appreciates any masterpiece: avidly, but from a cordoned-off distance.”
Henry sighs, leaning against the trail. “I can’t remember the last time I felt this way about a girl, Lloyd. It’s almost as if…” he trails off, embarrassed.
“Yes? Come on, spill it.”
He shakes his head. “It’s silly. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter anyway.”
“Come on. Have you forgotten who you’re talking to?”
“Okay. Let’s just say there’s this animal, the last one of its kind. The only living remnant of his species. Are you following me?”
“Sure.” Lloyd suppresses a smile, and Henry presses on.
“All right, so this animal lives among the other animals in the forest, never quite understanding what it is about himself that’s unique. But then a new animal comes into the forest, a female, and she’s very beautiful, but that’s not the main thing. It turns out that he recognizes something in her. He understands that for the first time in his life he has met another animal from his own species. This comes as a surprise to him—because remember, he never really saw himself as different. But now he sees that he is different. What’s more, he feels that the connection he has with this new animal has always existed, and always will, no matter how much time passes, no matter what happens to the forest or the other animals. Do you see what I mean?”
“Jesus. You’re pretty far gone, Henry, aren’t you?”
Henry colors. His words sound ridiculously naïve in his own ears, especially after the revelation of watching her on the dance floor.
“Well, my condolences.” Lloyd taps the pipe on the railing, leaving a pile of red embers that blaze for a moment before flying away in the wind. “But don’t tie yourself in knots over it, okay? This may be hard for you to hear, because you’re in the grip of a powerful infatuation. I know how that feels; believe me. But in her own country she’s a movie star. You, brother, are an underpaid hotel worker. And she’s only here for, what, another three or four days? Then it’s off to New York City, and from there, back across the ocean to Europe. Where, in case you haven’t been paying attention, there’s a big war in the process of breaking out.”
A blast of music reaches their ears as the doors to the great hall swing open. It’s Celia, exquisitely flushed from the exertion of dancing. “I told them I was going to have a cigarette. Why are you being so cold, Henry? Why won’t you dance with me?”
“I thought you—that is, I didn’t know that you—”
Lloyd shakes his head, smiling, and takes out a box of Choward’s Violets. Out of politeness he offers it to the couple, but they don’t notice, and he judges it best to leave them alone.
The new snow has restored the upper meadows to their virgin state, an unbroken expanse of sloping fields guarded by the snow-blanketed figures of sleeping conifers. Henry breaks trail up to the base of Diamondback Mountain’s horseshoe cirque, where the party unloads the gear and prepares for the morning’s motion picture shoot. He takes off his skis and postholes through deep snow to help Celia remove her climbing skins. She smiles fleetingly, but there is a sadness in her dark eyes that brings an aching constriction to his throat. He drops his gaze and kneels in the snow to peel the climbing skin from the bottom of her ski.
“Everything all right?”
“It’s just that I hardly know you. And we have to leave soon.”
He doubles the skin on itself and stows it in his rucksack. “Don’t think about that, Celia. Not yet. Let’s make the most of the time we have.”
“I can’t help thinking about it.”
He peels off the second skin and folds it slowly—once, twice—crouching over her boots in the snow. Perhaps later in the day they will find a way to be alone together. Her departure still seems abstract to him, as if it doesn’t matter; as if the entire universe is made up of the lodge and the wild Colorado landscape that surrounds it; as if nothing exists outside of it; no politics, no economics, no war, no ocean, no differences in their lives and social positions, not even time. Just these few days: nothing before, nothing after. It’s a crazy thought and he knows it, but it nevertheless strikes him as, in some way, undeniably true.
The party spends a few hours skiing and shooting in the meadows. At midday, Lloyd, Henry, and Mr. Peggett boot-pack a flat area and spread out the lodge’s oversized oiled-canvas tarp. They unload the rucksacks and assemble a picnic of cheese, summer sausage, canned peaches, Hershey’s Bars, and four bottles of fine Italian wine from the Lodge’s cellar.
During lunch, Celia’s father becomes intrigued by what he says is a natural ski run bisecting the central bowl of the horseshoe cirque. He offers to film Lloyd and Henry skiing down it. The brothers gaze apprehensively up at the bowl, but after a moment’s hesitation, they agree to give it a try. Celia looks alarmed, and Mr. Peggett shakes his head.
“We don’t generally go up into that sort of terrain this time of year,” he tells the Italian director. “It could be unstable, especially with all this new snow.”
“As you say,” Celia’s father replies. “But these young men seem eager to try it.”
Henry catches Lloyd’s eye. “Eager” is not the word he would use, but the truth is that Celia’s father has issued a challenge, and for his own part, he doesn’t feel like he has much of a choice. “You could send the footage to the newsreels,” he says to Mr. Peggett. “If it’s good enough, this could put the lodge on the map. After all, when it comes to the scenery, Sun Valley has nothing on Diamondback Mountain.”
In the end, Mr. Peggett agrees to let them go. Henry and Lloyd attach their skins and start breaking a trail toward the cirque. Glancing back at the tarp, he waves to Celia and smiles in a way that he intends to be reassuring. She puts a hand up to her mouth, her face pale with worry.
The slope steepens at the foot of the bowl, and the brothers shoulder their skis and use their boot-toes to kick a trail. It’s a slow and difficult climb in the deep snow. The plan is that when they reach the top of the bowl they’ll put on their equipment, and when they’re ready to go, they’ll signal Celia’s father to roll the Cine-Kodak.
The sun pierces the high clouds in such a way that the light is both bright and flat, making it difficult to distinguish contours in the snow. But on the laborious journey up the bowl, there’s no mistaking the steepness of the pitch, and Henry becomes increasingly nervous. As they mount the final cornice, he experiences a knee-weakening attack of vertigo. The slope beneath them falls away so abruptly that their boot trail is hidden from view. Dread hovers around the edges of his consciousness, shadowy batwings flickering in sync with his pulse.
Lloyd presses onward, up along the ramp-like ridge. He’s heading for the most photogenic spot, a high point in the cornice above a broad, funnel-like chute. Because of the light, he’s begun to look slightly unreal to Henry, like a ghost image in a double-exposed photograph. A strong westerly wind funnels down from the mountain, peeling off a sheet of snow and sending it sifting down into the bowl. Beyond Lloyd is the summit crag, rising up out of the snow-covered saddle. It looks especially sinister from this angle, a colossal shelf of barren, charcoal-gray bedrock.
They boot-pack a platform for themselves a few steps back from the lip of the cornice. Far below they can see the dark brown picnic tarp, like a postage stamp in the middle of a white plain fringed by the ant-like bodies of the filming party. Squinting, he can make out Celia—just a hint of that bright white headband—and two dark figures standing a little away from the tarp, which must be her father and Mr. Peggett with the tripod.
“Want me to go first?” he asks, shouting to be heard over the howling wind.
“As you prefer,” Lloyd calls back.
Henry raises his hand. After a moment’s delay, one of the stick figures repeats the signal. Henry adjusts his glacier goggles and lowers his hand. The figure below lowers his hand. Lloyd gives him a thumbs-up, and Henry pushes off. The hickories slide across the wind-blasted snow, gaining speed as they approach the cornice lip. The ski tips find empty air, and he plummets.
After a moment of imbalance, he finds his center. The hickories become precise instruments on a slope this steep—gently flexing extensions of his feet—and the snow yields to them, hissing and billowing over his chest and face as he floats downhill in rhythmic sine curves across the fall line. The footage will be excellent, he thinks. The bowl is protected from the wind, and other than the hissing, everything is dead silent. The snow is as light and airy as smoke.
Faint shouts from below reach him. A quick downward glance catches the figures around the tarp, jumping and waving their arms, their enthusiasm oddly excessive, almost hysterical. In the next moment the snow all around him shudders and ripples like a bowl of milk on a shaken table, and that’s when he begins to understand.
Adrenaline shoots through his limbs as he stops turning and points the hickories down the fall line, reasoning that if he can gain enough speed, he may be able to outrun it. But he’s too late. With a thunderous crack, the entire slope dissolves in a field of careening white blocks.
It’s strange how slowly it all unfolds. The initial sensations are almost pleasant. The snow is soft at the beginning, and he’s buoyed along in the middle of it as in a cataract of dry whitewater. But as the avalanche gains momentum, it compresses, becoming a force of surprising brutality. It plunges him into darkness. It pummels his ears and rips off his woolen cap. It punches the breath out of his lungs and bends his body into impossible positions, like a child experimenting with a doll. He tries to swim up to the surface, but the hickories act like sea anchors. Twice he reaches daylight—quick glimpses of a wildly whirling sky—but each time he’s snatched down again into the punishing depths. His left ski comes off, but the other remains attached, twisting his right leg until the knee gives out with a sickening pop.
The avalanche grinds to a halt. He finds himself suspended in an airless darkness that is like a womb of frozen concrete, with an immense weight pressing in on him from all sides. At first he is frantic, but he can’t move more than a twitch, and gradually a feeling of serenity washes over him. When he thinks about it, he’s known for a while that this or something like it was coming. In a way, the pressure of the snow is soothing.
A dream or a memory comes into his mind: he and Lloyd at sunset, standing on a hill above the lodge, gazing up at the alpenglow on the summit crag of Diamondback Mountain. The peak glows like a massive, red-gold ember against the black conifers on the mountainside that cradles it. The dying sunlight illuminates every detail, every crack and fissure in the stone.
A blue-black Steller’s jay stares down at them from a ponderosa bough. Its sidelong glare feels strangely familiar, and it opens its heavy beak to utter what sounds for all the world like a phrase in English. Henry feels that he should know the words, but their meaning escapes him. The jay repeats the phrase again and again, and Henry feels that he’s right on the verge of understanding. But he never does.
The next image is of Celia stepping down off the train, hands plunged into the pockets of her wool jacket. Her face is vaguely troubled, as if she’s lost track of something, but can’t quite remember what it is. Her eyes search the platform until they come to rest on his, and then she smiles.
“Diamondback Mountain” is included in A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing by Tim Weed, published in 2017 by Green Writers Press.
TIM WEED’s short fiction collection, A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing, made the 2018 Eric Hoffer Book Award Grand Prize Shortlist and was a finalist in the short story category for the American Fiction Awards and the International Book Awards. His first novel, Will Poole’s Island, was named to Bank Street College of Education’s list of the Best Books of the Year. Tim is the winner of a Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Award, and his writing has appeared in Literary Hub, The Millions, Talking Points Memo, Colorado Review, The Daily News, The Writer’s Chronicle, Fiction Writers Review, and elsewhere. He teaches at GrubStreet in Boston and in the Newport MFA in Creative Writing. He’s the co-founder of the Cuba Writers Program and works as a featured lecturer for National Geographic in Tierra del Fuego, Spain, and Portugal.