Until Only the Mountains Remain

By D Bruton

We are up in the mountains, only they are like no mountains that have ever been in the living world. They are like something painted, something I saw once in an old book, all smoke and brown and jagged, and as though maybe they are painted in coffee grounds. There is no blue or mist or silver in these mountains.

The air is warm and dry, and not the least bit wet, and we are dressed in summer dresses as we might be were we on a beach in high summer. Nor is the air so thin as air is in the mountains, nor so chill. Like I said, it is warm and easy. And there is music playing somewhere, just faintly. It’s all strings and straining and soft, like something in a film.

It’s a dream of course, and I know that even as I am dreaming it. It is a dream I have dreamed before and so it is familiar. Maybe there’s more detail this time, as there is with each revisiting of the dream. I am sitting and my dress is the pink one from years back. I have the dress still, wrapped in cellophane and draped over a wire hanger. It is in my wardrobe somewhere. It does not fit me now, nips spitefully at my waist and strains across my breasts so I can scarcely breathe. But in the dream it fits.

Alice stands behind me. I can’t see her exactly, but I know she is there – she’s always there. Perhaps she wears the blue dress from that summer from years ago. And a straw bonnet maybe, for she was always fond of summer hats. I know she is there, even without turning my head. It is a feeling at first and then I hear her voice and she is saying it is beautiful and she means the view and isn’t it just. Alice puts one hand on my shoulder, light as birdwing and warm. I want to turn my head to see her. I want to look into her eyes, all blue mist and silver. I want her to look into mine. But in the dream I can only stare at the broken-toothed smoke-stain mountains.

‘It’s ok, Honey,’ Alice says, her words all whisper and breath so that I can feel them on my cheek, words like blown kisses.

I want to say something in reply, but this is a dream and I am not in control of what happens. I sit, silent, the dark coming slowly down, and all my words are just thoughts in my head. I want to tell Alice how much I miss her these days.

‘I like the dress you are wearing,’ she says ‘It’s such a pretty colour and the buttons all made of pearl. So pretty.’

And Alice’s fingers are fiddling then with those pearl buttons. Picking at them, one after the other, till they undo. And that takes my breath away. I can hear my heart beating, like the wing-beats of frighted birds when they take to the air, like the startled owl at the back of the barn when it escapes the night-stalking cat.

‘There now,’ says Alice, and ‘Don’t you fret none.’

And it is like the first time, and because it is a dream, it could be the first time, lived over and over, and a little more to be lived each time I am dreaming. And I feel Alice kiss the back of my neck and her hand flat between my shoulder blades – ‘Just where your wings should be,’ she says. She is so near I can smell her. It is violets I smell, powdery and elegant. She wears Balenciaga Le Dix. Sprays it in the air and walks into it so the scent on her is gentle and not overpowering. I have a bottle hidden away in a drawer and some days I take it out and pepper the air with the smell of Alice.

Her hands reach round me and hold me, tight as never letting go, so it is like she is a part of me – briefly it is.

‘Always,’ she says.

‘Don’t say that,’ I want to tell her, for I know the dream will end with that ‘always’.

‘Always,’ says Alice.

And everything begins to dissolve around us, until only the coffee-ground mountains remain, and then not even the mountains but a suffocating black-smoke darkness.

I wake and catch my breath, as a swimmer might on regaining the surface after a deep dive. The night is all about me and I hear the sudden owl screech somewhere beyond the barn. Beside me the bed is empty and already grows cold. He is up by this time and dressed. I can picture him downstairs, hunched in his chair, his brow lowered and scowling, and he is drinking strong coffee, black with two sugars. I can picture the cup in the nest of his two rough hands, dirt ‘neath his bitten fingernails, his lips thick and pursed, kissing the stained rim of the cup, blowing and sucking.

I should get up and see him out. He deserves that, at least – any man deserves that. But then there is Alice, or the absence of her and the memory of her – which is the same thing. I breathe through my nose, breathing deep, filtering the air for the thinnest scent of violets maybe. But I smell only sweat and a staleness to the air that is sour. I say her name, over and over, as though Alice could be conjured up again. But there is only the darkness and the stillness, and the choking air, and the missing her these days and all days.