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There is a presence in Revenant: ancient, powerful and hungry. To continue her endless suffering, she must feed on the souls of the tormented. All she has to do is wait, and they will be drawn to her for a final kiss. Welcome to Revenant, enjoy your stay in the land of the dead.
The name of this place is Revenant. Few will ask the name. Few will have thought of it as an actual site, with a particular geography, a sense of place, and boundaries, entrances, and exits, until they find themselves here. Find or lose themselves.
Revenant is a ghost town. No one lives here anymore but me. Many people come. Most of them stay here, but they do not live.
Revenant is laid out along four streets: Rattlesnake Avenue and Silver Alley north to south, Pine and Aspen Streets west to east. At the intersection of Rattlesnake and Pine is a good-sized rectangle of intact asphalt, a human-made amalgam no less a part of the natural environment than rock made by volcanic activity, sedimentation, or metamorphosis. For much of the length of Rattlesnake, Pine, and Aspen, and intermittently along Silver, the thoroughfares are only darker worn trails across the bright red sandstone and speckled gray granite, bare spots and patches of newer growth through fescue and bearded wheat grass. At the edges of town, the streets have disappeared altogether, though whatever underground alterations have occurred because of them may well still exist in the substrata.
Visible or not, these four streets and their numerous diminishing arteries still carry considerable traffic. People come here, ghosts to the ghost town and their mourners, to tread the paths that others like them have trodden before, and also to forge their own. I myself traverse the streets and byways endlessly, every day and night, afternoon and morning, dawn and twilight, laying down my footprints even when they seem to be leaving no impression, taking away bits of the place on my shoes. Icrisscross the meadows, scale cliffs and mountainsides, climb along and across the creek which is sometimes swollen with white water and sometimes hardly there.
Parts of twenty-eight buildings remain as of today, where once there were more than two hundred and once, of course, there were none. Tomorrow there may be twenty-three, or forty. Not precisely ruins, these are structures radically or subtly altered by the elements, by the passage of time, by the stories they shelter. Most are clustered along the axes of the four main streets, although a few straggle down along the creek bank and higher up into the hills. Mostly gray, with the occasional startling swatch of black or brown, they look as if they have been burned, water-leeched, wind-blasted, pocked by insect and grub; in fact, all of that happens to them, and more.
The General Store is nearly intact, having been restored numerous times. Naturally, though, it has changed over the years to accommodate the changing needs of its customers. It is still open for business. I trade there.
The jail hunkers on a rise overlooking the spot in the creek where a pretty little waterfall forms when there's enough rain or snow runoff. The gapping bars on its single tiny window would not prevent an escape anymore, though they have been thoroughly webbed by spiders and ivy.
Half-walls and foundations, alterations in the color and texture and lay of the land show where houses used to be. Spans of roof and walls meeting snugly to make corners show where houses still are. A steeple, a pew, an altar mark each of the four corners of town. South, across the creek where an amusement park once welcomed droves of summer visitors from Denver, Laramie, even Chicago, there are archways, walkways, fanciful bridges become even more fanciful now that they lead to nowhere.
Mourning cycles. When it subsides and I can bear being alone, I sleep in these houses, one after another. In these churches, when the pain gathers and rises again as it always does and always will, I worship and pray, despair and give thanks. When the pain is at its peak, I fling myself off the bridges to nowhere and tear myself open for the others to come.
The Revenant Valley is high in the Colorado Rockies, near the Continental Divide. Air is thin up here. Thin to the lungs and brain, causing nausea, fainting, hallucinations. Thin to the senses, so that people see vividly, hear without the usual distortion, feel without intermediary. The alpine meadows are green brushed with white, yellow, indigo, chartreuse, or they are golden brown lightly glazed with the gray of seed pods and plumes, or they are brilliant with snow. Rough tree trunks can hurt living flesh; smooth bark peels off like souls. Mountain ranges are green-treed and red-rocked up close, vivid blue in the middle distance, lavender and misty far away.
Grief echoes against canyon walls, making the chasm seem both narrower and wider than it was before. In fact, narrowing and widening it: setting off avalanches, rending rock. A series of variations, the echo is never identical to the original sound. Grief's echoes undulate along the valley and from peak to peak above it, and they remind of its source, remind, remind, until they become echoes of themselves, become echoes.
It is often quiet here, but never still. Something is always moving, some animal or bird, some aspen leaf or spruce branch, water in the creek or particles of soil filtering downslope, the ascent and descent of those who are drawn here to me. I am constantly moving, a spiral, a gyre. I cannot stay still.
I have lived here a long time. I have no reason to believe I will not live here forever. By now I am both ghost and mourner. It is my grief which populates this town, which fills this mountain valley and will never be satisfied. My pain, forever uneased, which walks and crawls the streets, flies through the thin, clear air to nest in high places, furnishes buildings and razes them, collapses roofs and seals them over, chars the earth where a cookstove once stood and mounds it where there was an altar and furrows it to record the trace of fence or ditch or interior wall.
Grief has long ago become my life. The cycles of it are my seasons. This place is my home, and tending it my life's work.
In Revenant the difference between form and function is obscured. Everything is in the service of keeping my grief alive; I must not lose it. Walls here are broken down randomly or, randomly, still stand, predictable patterns interrupted. Windows and doors lead nowhere that matters, let in light, frame air. Sills and thresholds shift into ledges, walls into cliffs, floors into slopes, steps and sidewalks into canyons. Mountain mahogany grows like a chair in a rubbled corner. Clouds could be curtains. The shaft of an abandoned silver mine could be an artery no longer drawing anything from any heart.
Supplying my heart, though. Sustaining my pulse.
At its peaks, the power of my grief draws ghosts and their mourners to Revenant from everywhere and by all means. The tangle of pathways is wide at the upper rim of the Revenant Valley and then spirals downward more and more tightly. Revenant goes both very high and very deep.
Sun spirals along this valley. Fog spins, pulling in sorrow from all over with a violent and ponderous force that I set and keep in motion. Rain comes in torrents or in gentle showers, each drop collecting layers as it falls through the charged atmosphere, each layered drop spinning. Snow falls hard as hail, hail soft as snowflakes spinning perpetually inward.
If my lost ones were restored to me today, I would not receive them. I would not know or claim them. Pure, without referent, it is the grieving itself which nourishes me now and tells me who I am.
Sometimes I take the form of a woman so old as to be ageless. I wander and keen. I screech at windows when the night wind blows, or when there is no wind. Eternally, stubbornly, I mourn my lost children, the parents who orphaned me, my lost lover. Then I am called simply Dona, the title without a given name.
Sometimes these mountains are my broken heart, red and gray strata visible in the lifted cliffs and known to extend under the town, under the peaks, roots down to the molten core.
Sometimes I am fog in the valley, or glaciers that move imperceptibly but make profound changes in the landscape, change what grows there and what is buried.
But even myth does not come near to telling the story of my grief. Even legend does not contain the meaning of my loss. Even metaphor, simile, symbol do not express my pain.
I gather others: The widower. The orphan. The mothers whose children were killed, the mother whose child was never born. The wife whose husband is no longer her husband; the father whose son is no longer his son; the lover whose beloved never was what he imagined her to be.
I wait for them in Revenant. In the hollows of the churches and the jail. In the streets that have held footprints and wheel ruts for centuries. In the cobwebbed corners of the dance hall and General Store.
I have no need to hear their stories. I am not interested in whom they have lost or how, only that they have. But they tell, obsessively, and those who stay in Revenant with me never believe that they have told their stories all the way through.
Call me Mother Grief. I am the wellspring and nurturer, source of the sorrow of the world.
Others come, ghosts and mourners. Human life being what it is, the supply of both is unending. Again and again I have called them to me, when the mysterious rhythm brings the anguish round again, as though my loss had happened yesterday, as though it had happened at the beginning of time. This exacerbation is the worst in years; I really cannot bear it alone. I must surround myself with others whose paltry pain has become all time and all space to them.
Again and again, when the cycle of my grief demands it, I welcome them, and I bitterly resent their intrusion. Their pain is nothing compared to mine. Their sorrow is not nearly so beautiful or profound. Their grief is not holy. No one has lost what I have lost. No one hurts like me. Nobody knows my trouble.
The nearly unbelievable centrifugal force of mourning, whirling outward, threatens to fling fragments of the mourner off the face of the earth. But I stay, because each time I come round again I draw others in to me. The nearly unimaginable centripetal force of mourning, whirling inward, threatens to crush the mourner at the core. But I withstand it, I expand in the face of it, because my grief consumes the grief of others, and I am never satisfied for long. Grief has become an end in itself, the only reason for existence that means anything and will not die, and I am intensely gratified, though not for long, each time it is renewed.
Avidly I watch them come up my valley now, a panoramic view. Like mist swirling around the peaks, gray and lavender and silver blue. Like the movements of the earth, rotation and revolution, the uplifting of more mountains around valleys that were already there.
This time promises to take me higher and lower than I have gone in a long time, wider and deeper. I can hardly wait.
Here they come.
Copyright © 1994 by Melanie Tem