If the World Was Flat
a short story by Hannah Holborn
About the Author
Hannah Holborn is an acrophobe who has crossed the Top of the World Highway during springtime. Her fiction has placed first in the Surrey International Writer’s Conference Writing Contest and in the Cecilia Lamont Literary Contest. In print, her fiction has and/or will appear in Room of One’s Own (issue 24:4 & future), edifice WRECKED, Front & Centre, WORDS literary journal and Sights Unseen: New Writing from British Columbia, published by Ripple Effect Press, 2003.
My father believed that the gap between us began the year I turned thirteen though, in truth, it merely widened then. An absentee parent, he had left me in the charge of an elderly German woman from an early age. Ortrud Randersacker cooked and cleaned with venomous efficiency, never indulged my nonsense and fell asleep in front of the television every afternoon soon after I arrived home from school. When, in my twelfth year, she died of heart failure during the daytime soaps, I waited until The Sonny and Cher Variety Show had ended before I called for help. I feared Ortrud’s wrath more than I feared her dead body. At her funeral, a somber affair followed by booze and polkas, I was the only person who wept.
My siblings had all left home by then and so, unable to find a full-time replacement for Ortrud, my father deemed me old enough to raise myself with the help of a environmental biology student who made extra when she cooked her own vegetarian suppers and slept in the spare room five nights a week. I spent weekends and holidays with my bingo-addicted mother, that is whenever she remembered to pick me up.
And then came my thirteenth summer. Our family reserved this milestone for the coming-of-age adventure, which meant one month alone with our world-famous, mountain-climbing father. His only stipulations were that the trip had to include height, deprivation, and long stretches of isolation. Rented condos in Hawaii and jaunts to Disneyland were out. My brother Theodore chose the Haute Route, my sisters, Carly and Simone, the Italian Secada Alm and the Corcovado National Park, respectively. All three returned addicted to height and glory. All three made my father proud.
When my turn came, I refused to choose a trip.
My father decided upon an easy section of the Pacific Crest Trail for me. In the pre-trip week that he was home, he poured over the map books and beguiled me with descriptions of switchbacks and avalanche-swept valleys. Purchases of green and purple gear were made for me without my approval. Daily, he forced me to circle the neighborhood with a weighted pack on my back and my new boots on my feet.
“I don’t want to go,” I said each time I donned my new purple pack. “I’m afraid of heights. Even elevators make me nervous.”
“The world is your oyster, Judith.” My father would strap me in and herd me out the door. “Go shuck it.”
“You’re not funny.”
“And you’re not wussing out. This is Fellman tradition.”
“But, I don’t like heights. Besides, it’s not like this hike is sacred or something.” His silence confirmed my suspicion. The thirteenth summer held the status of a holy holiday on the Fellman religious calendar, just like a cathedral grove of giant redwoods invited worship.
I thought I had won my freedom when I handed my father my report card. I had failed three classes.
“This must have taken some doing,” he said.
“I have to go to summer school. I can’t go hiking.”
“Failure,” he said, “will make you wiser.”
We were three days, not a month, on the Pacific Crest Trail. Two days of pleasant hiking, a few harrowing hours on a mountain trail, and then a day’s swift march home in bitter silence.
Failed nerve ruined my rite-of-passage summer.
Our first day out we made a late start and didn’t get far. As we ate from our small stock of fresh food, we talked about family, friends, and TV until he stopped me, then weather and the need to grab life by the balls. With a hand over his heart my father recited Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If”. He choked when he reached the end:
“If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds worth of distance run.
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And–which is more–you’ll be a man my son.”
Day two dawned hot and dry. “Pasqueflower, phlox, Newberry knotweed,” my father pointed out as we crossed alpine meadows. “Why do you think hemlocks are so abundant on the northern slopes?”
“I don’t know.” I noticed that seepage from blisters had glued my socks to my heels.
“Why are lodgepole pines abundant everywhere else?”
I batted away a black fly.
By mile five, he’d skipped asking questions and went straight to telling me why or how or when.
As we hiked on a wide, safe carpet of earth, I kept my head down to avoid seeing the sharp peaks that burnt white-hot in the distance.
When we stopped for lunch, gray jays buskered for food which I was forbidden to give them. “Remember, children,” I said in mimicry of my father. “A fed animal is a dead animal.”
That night we camped in a meadow. Animal bodies bumped up against the thin material of our tent. Snouts snuffled against the nylon ripstop. “Go away,” my father said in his sleep. Driven by fear, I snuggled closer.
On the morning of the third day, we arrived at Hopkin’s Lake. A tiny glacier lake glittered at the bottom of a natural amphitheatre coated in ice. The melting glacier fed the placid lake which in turn fed a lively stream. The peaks, now russet, loomed above the dense forest.
“Judith. Look!” My father gently pointed with a tent pole. A doe peeked out from behind an alder. “Watch this.” He gathered a handful of tender bitterbrush and held it out. The doe inched forward with her hind end up and her front legs splayed out on the ground. She tested the bitterbrush with her teeth and then, disappointed, backed away to hide herself sideways behind a skinny pine.
“Happy?” my father asked. A yellow butterfly landed on my white tee shirt and probed the loose weave. I nodded. I had never been happier. “Good,” he said. “I want you to see it all. Everything this earth has to offer.”
On level ground, his words made sense. On level ground, I wanted what he wanted. On level ground, I forgot about The Partridge Family and ached to see it all.
After lunch we climbed the series of switchbacks that ran up the northern side of the amphitheatre. I stopped often to shoot close-ups of thistles and beargrass with my coming-of-age present, a used Pentax camera. The warmth of the day lulled any fears.
The world fell quiet as we neared the top with only the thump of our boots on the trail and the moaning of the wind. My father strode on ahead and shouted, “Three Fools Peak” and “The Cascades” as he pointed south and northwest. On the crest, monstrous clouds drifting overhead shadowed tiny earth-hugging plants. As far as I could see, mountains stretched out in frozen, timeless ripples.
“Keep up,” my father said. Eager to see the next vista, he strode on ahead past a fresh landslide area where the trail narrowed.
I stopped to shoot a strange thistle that caught my eye. Minutes passed before I realized my father had passed beyond sight. My camera banged against my new breasts as I ran to catch up. The trail snaked towards a naked slope that ended in a jumble of boulders far below. My old terror awoke. I slowed to a crawl and the trail shrunk beneath my feet into a thin ribbon of dust. When I dug in with my toes, my feet slipped towards the edge. The world darkened. My throat constricted. I threw myself face down on the trail, certain that I would die.
Ages passed before I heard the clatter of my father’s pack, centuries before he knelt over me. “Judith! What happened?” He helped me to my feet.
“Nothing,” I said. “Nothing happened! Take me down right now!”
By the time we reached camp, heavy cloud had arrived from nowhere to sock us in. Soon, drizzle wet my face. Under the cover of trees, my father built a fire. The doe came around, but we ignored her. I poked and probed the heart out of the fire with a stick.
“I’m a chicken,” I said. “I shouldn’t even be a Fellman. If I’m adopted, send me back. Get another sports model instead.”
My father took my cold hands in his and rubbed them. “It’s not you,” he said, “I just started them younger. Tomorrow we can try again.”
I removed my hands from his and then hugged myself. “The day after tomorrow,” I said. “I’ll be home in Surrey, living with my mom.”
He could have stopped me, if he had found the courage.
When my siblings phoned to inform me that they planned to bury my father in Tok, Alaska the following day, it was the first I’d heard of his death. Though I’d lived in Dawson, Yukon for a decade, it had taken them three days to track me down. When they apologized for the short notice, I pretended that I understood.
The only way I could make it to Tok on time was to take the Top of the World Highway, which in early spring was still closed for the season. I surprised myself by asking Larry Goodyle, a loader operator who had climbed Mount Logan with my father in ’69, for his help.
He clicked my glass of rum with his over the burl table in his kitchen.
“There’s one for the record books,” he said by way of an answer. His eyes were red from crying over the news about my father. “Judith Fellman drives the Top of the World Highway all by her lonesome. My word! Kenyon would be proud of you, girlie.”
“There’s a first time for everything,” I said.
“Your father loved you. Don’t you ever forget it.” Larry drained his glass to hide the doubt in his eyes.
“He tried. It made it hard that I’m the one in the family most like my mother,” I said. Larry looked me over. Before her death from a tan-induced melanoma, my mother possessed an outward doe-like grace. With my small eyes, big nose and recessed chin, the animal I most resemble is a hamster. “Hard to love,” I clarified.
Larry’s bearded face wagged agreement. My mother deserted my father, not for another man or a burning dream, but simply to be away from his relentless idealism. She wanted to watch soap operas in peace and bleach her hair without a fight. “Kenyon had the devil’s own time with the two of you,” he said.
“True, but my father wasn’t always right.”
“About as right as a man can hope to get in one lifetime.” Larry stood and took my empty glass to the sink, signaling the end of our impromptu wake. “Your father was one of the great ones, Judith. He grabbed life by the balls and never let go. I knew it. The world knew it. Your mother, bless her soul, didn’t have a fucking clue.”
“He had some fine moments,” I said. “That’s why I need to get to Tok.”
“Sure you can do this thing, kiddo?”
I slipped my arm with its flabby muscle from the table to my lap, but I had nowhere to hide the vacuity in my eyes or the fact that I lived with a man who stocked shelves for a living while I did nothing at all.
“Top of the World’s treacherous this time of year,” Larry warned. In his blue-gray eyes, I saw miles of empty space and the spin of tires. “It’s got to be unflagging.” He tapped his head.
I rose from the table. “I’m not a Fellman for nothing,” I said.
I arrived back home to find things still as I had left them: dirty dishes soaking in a sink full of greasy water, empty cat’s dish, missing cat. I stood in the doorway of the bedroom to watch my lover Stephen sleep. His long-fingered hand supported his face. Red blemishes the size of loonies marred the skin beneath black bristles. His legs and arms claimed both sides of the bed. Earlier, when I’d asked him to drive me to Tok, he’d refused.
I subdued the urge towards violence by returning to the living room where I made a nest of coats on the couch.
The alarm raised hell at five a.m., an hour I rarely witnessed. I abandoned my make-shift bed, brushed my teeth and then left a note for the cat, apologizing in advance for its desertion. I packed a lunch and a thermos of coffee. On my way out, I slammed the door twice.
Early morning, though the identical twin of the previous night, seemed more raw. Larry had been by while I slept and had loaded the bed of Stephen’s truck with sandbags. I sprayed the lock to thaw it and then climbed into the musty cab. During the five minutes it took for the thermometer to reach the lowest reading of warm, I whacked at some other woman’s garter that hung from the rear view mirror. When we met, Stephen had made it clear that all such mementoes of his prowess were sacrosanct.
I spit on the garter and then drove down Front Street, turning north over the frozen Yukon River. The lights from Larry’s loader guided me in.
Larry had punched a hole through the last of the snow that blocked the highway and now parked his loader like a fly on the edge of the cliff to let me pass by. I clapped to feign enthusiasm while he grinned and patted himself on the back. The winter exile of Dawson, Yukon from Chicken, Alaska had unofficially ended. Impatient for his cozy fireplace and fluffy slippers, Larry waved me on.
As I navigated the first hairpin turn, there were plenty of trees to hem me in and make me feel secure. The wide road meant I could hug the cliff side and have space between me and the drop-off. With all of the extra weight in the back, the truck handled well. I merely had to stay in the present and wipe away the tears whenever they clouded my vision — it was not so much to ask.
My siblings said that my father died of an aneurysm while lecturing on environmentalism to high school students in Tok. Before that he had lived a life of uninterrupted bravura. According to witnesses he clung to the lectern as though it was the face of a mountain. His last words, delivered to a hushed audience in a voice that boomed before it broke, were, “If the world was flat, I wouldn’t give a damn.”
Everyone thought my father died lamenting unconquered mountains, but I knew the truth. Those words were a cry of despair that referred to my crippling fear, not of heights, but of life. Even in death my cowardice plagued him. He had tried with me occasionally over the years, tried and failed.
Too soon, naked precipices replaced the comfort of trees. I slowed the truck, but didn’t stop. In the deep slush, starting again would have proven difficult. My breath grew ragged. I tried to regulate it as I fought off the wet blanket of panic that strangled me. It’s okay, Judith,” I said. “It’s okay. Breathe in. It’s okay. Breathe out.” Sweat from my palms slicked the steering wheel. I knew that any moment my hands would slip off the wheel, and I would hurtle over the edge of the cliff down, down, down to a swift and gory death. I checked my watch. Any second, my nerve would surely fail.
The welcomed sight of a spacious rest area offered a reprieve. I parked as far from the edge of the road as I could. With stiff limbs, I made a sandbag sofa in the box of my truck. Peace snuck in as I sipped hot coffee and devoured a baloney sandwich. The place seemed hallowed, and I felt the allure of my family’s religion. I verged on belief until I remembered that I was alone on the top of the world.
Still, I was halfway there, and I hadn’t driven off of a cliff. I felt sudden strength. Somehow, I knew that I would make it. I stepped on the gas, prepared to continue. My tires dug into the mud. I got out of the truck and found the boards and shovel that Larry had provided along with the sandbags. If he’d have me, I decided, I’d dump Stephen and marry the man out of gratitude.
As I dug a trench in the slush at the base of a tire, I imagined my sibling’s reactions when I told them what I had done to get to Tok. They would pat me on my back and ask me all about it. “Any close calls? Were you frightened? Good Heavens, Judith! Whatever possessed you?”
“A few,” I’d say. “No big deal. Nothing possessed me, I just came.”
“Dad would be so proud of you,” one of my sisters would gush. Sage Theodore would nod. Tears would flow.
They would signal looks of agreement before they asked, “Are you free next summer? Come raft the Amazon with us. We talked of climbing Mount Logan as a kind of memorial to the old guy. You up to that?”
“I’m up to anything,” I’d say. “Just not with the three of you.”
My truck still wouldn’t budge, so I climbed back out. The rotten boards were broken under my tires: Damn that cheapskate Larry. Tomorrow they would bury my father. My siblings and their families were gathered already, heroic in their mourning. A banner probably read, Tok Welcomes the United Fellmans of the World.
My back tires had dug two holes to China.
As I shoveled muck and slush, a mound formed behind me. I resisted the urge to spread it flat. The upheaval of the earth, a mountain in miniature, would remain when I was gone. It would act as witness to a pact.
“If the World Was Flat” Copyright ©2005 by Hannah Holborn.
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations for the purposes of critical reviews or articles. Educators who wish to print or photocopy in part or whole this story for classroom use, or publishers who wish to include this story in an anthology should send inquiries by email to the author.