On the Mountaintop

The second of two stories I submitted to the Richard Hugo House winter new works contest is posted here.

She lay there on the mountaintop, staring at the stars.

Okay, it wasn’t exactly a mountaintop. It was a pretty big hill, though; one covered in scrub and stones, and she had climbed to the top of it in order to get closer to those stars. She was twelve years old, at the summer camp she’d been going to since she was nine. One third of her life. Damn, she thought. That’s a long time.

The girl blushed a little at thinking the word “damn,” although no one could hear her even if she said it out loud up here on the mountaintop (she decided to think of it that way, it fit her sense of drama better than “hilltop”). Other twelve-year-olds at the camp used words a lot worse than that one, but she couldn’t. Her mother’s presence was too much with her all the time. She tried to imagine her mother’s face if she used the word “fuck,” for example, and the look of horror that loomed in her imagination nearly made her cry.

She’d come up to the mountaintop to decide what to do with her life. It was time to make these kinds of decisions, she knew. After all, she was twelve, so there wasn’t that much of her life left in front of her. Junior high, high school, college, marriage, kids. By then she’d be, like, twenty or twenty-one, and it would be the 1980’s. God only knew whether the planet would even survive that long.

The other girls at camp all seemed to know their futures. Resolutely blond, blue-eyed, and Christian, as if there was no other choice but to be all three. With her dark hair, dark eyes, and Jewish parents, she knew how much she stood apart. Her mother and father chose the camp to help her “assimilate,” they said. Why she needed to assimilate, she didn’t know; she was born here, in the medium-sized town about one hundred miles from the camp. It was her parents who were from somewhere else, having fled places that made it violently clear they weren’t wanted. Her father came from a place called Palestine, or it had been called that when he was born there. Her mother was German.  Her mother’s parents, she knew, had died in something called the Holocaust. Her mother, about her age at the time, had been sent away to England and then to the U.S. to be kept safe. And yet there was nothing about her mother’s behavior that indicated she felt safe about anything, ever. If her mother knew she was up here on the mountaintop by herself, she would collapse with worry.

She did not want to be like her mother, she knew this, and the mountaintop was the only place she could admit it. She did not want to be fearful and quiet and turned inward all the time, like the little plastic ballerina on top of her music box who twirled to the tinkling notes without noticing anyone else. She wanted to be as confident and ready as the blue-eyed blond Christian girls. She wanted a world and a future she could take for granted.

She wanted to be saved.

She’d decided this when listening to the old woman who ran the camp’s kitchen talk about her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The kitchen woman had to be at least fifty, old enough to be wise, the girl was sure. The woman was talking to a small group of campers about being saved. She told them being Christian wasn’t enough. Being baptized when you were a tiny baby, well, that was fine but you couldn’t really choose Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior at that age. It had to be a fully conscious, fully aware movement of your heart. You had to choose knowing you had other choices. Of course all those other choices were really just different faces of the Devil. The Devil would tempt you with hedonism, the love of pleasure; but he would also tempt you with false idols, like Buddha or Mohammed or Abraham. He would even tempt you with priests and ministers who pretended to be Christian, but who relied too much on the trappings of power and ritual to be truly saved. Being truly saved, all you needed was yourself and your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Anything else was a distraction. And once you were saved, all you had to do was listen to what your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ would tell you to do. He would whisper it into your heart, and then you would just do it, and everything would be okay. You would enjoy the Kingdom of God here in His Chosen Country, America, and you would find Life Everlasting.

The girl didn’t really understand why the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ wouldn’t just whisper to everyone, but the kitchen woman was very sure about this part. The Lord and Savior Jesus Christ only took care of those who were saved in their hearts. Everyone else was left to dance with the Devil until they died.

Like her mother, when the bus accident happened last year. Died without being saved, according to what the kitchen woman said.

That night the girl went to the mountaintop to see if she could find her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and ask Him to save her, too.

“Damn,” she said out loud, as a sudden breeze coming up from the dry valley chilled her right through. Even summer nights got cold in this remote place.

“Language!” she heard a voice say in the dark. And for a moment, she thought her mother was with her. “What are you doing up here?” the voice went on, and the girl realized it was the kitchen woman. She saw the woman come over the top of the hill, bundled up in a warm coat. The kitchen woman was also carrying something; a paper bag, and a thermos. She sat down beside the girl’s sleeping bag. “Cookies,” she said, as she put the paper bag down on a flat stone. “And hot chocolate.” She set about pouring a cup for the girl. They sat together quietly for a while, sipping hot chocolate and nibbling oatmeal raisin cookies. Then the girl finally dared to ask her question.

“Can I be saved?” Her voice sounded surprisingly steady in the starlit night.

“Of course,” the kitchen woman answered immediately.

“I’m not Christian,” the girl said. I’m Jewish, she thought.

“The Lord and Savior Jesus Christ doesn’t care about that. After you make the commitment to Him, you belong to Him. He doesn’t care what you were before. He only wants your heart now.”

“My mother is dead,” the girl said. “She was killed in a bus accident last year. She wasn’t saved.”

The kitchen woman was quiet.

“I want to be saved, though,” the girl went on. “I want to be saved so I can be a real American, and have Life Everlasting, and so my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will whisper in my heart, and I won’t have to be afraid of anything.”

The kitchen woman put her thermos down, and pulled her coat closer around her. “Jesus will save you, but only if you want Him. That’s all you have to do. Just want Him.” She looked up. “Do you see those stars up there? They’re beautiful, aren’t they? The stars are there because of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ’s love for all mankind.” Then she looked at the girl. “Don’t seek Jesus for any reason other than you want to love Him. Don’t ask Him for things. It’s not a deal, like swapping your records for your friend’s old bike. All He asks of you is that you love Him. It’s the easiest and hardest thing in the world to do. If you can do it, in return, He’ll give you everything.”

*****

Almost thirty years later, amazingly, the world had survived not only the 1980’s but its wrenching transition to the twenty-first century. The girl, now living in a middle-aged woman’s body, was sitting Shiva for her father, who had finally passed away after a long struggle with cancer. As she sat and prayed, she remembered that night, the last summer she went to the camp; they moved the next winter to another state, her father unable to tolerate the continued reminders of her mother in their hometown.

He’d done such a good job of taking care of her, in his own way, but they’d never had the kind of relationship that would allow her to tell him about the night on the mountaintop, when she was saved.

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