(I haven’t abandoned this—especially not so near the end of the game! I just wanted to do the entries justice, and well, life’s been busy. There’s one more entry in the game, which I’ll get posted this week, and then I’ll post my thoughts on the game as a whole.)
And a strange whim strikes me. I will myself back to Wonmi Mountain—right to the day before the night that I arrived there, not long after this strange odyssey through time began. I laugh softly, hurrying up the trail—it’s been a while since I climbed here, and it’s strange how good it feels to really be back, to be climbing the slope toward that top. Hikers, with their little backpacks and hiking poles, march past, dramatically swinging their arms for extra exercise, and I smile at them, nodding hello. Some nod back, while others don’t, but I don’t care. I’m not here for them, after all.
I’m sweating by the time I pass the peak, and then climb down the far side a little ways, my legs shaking as I make my way along the trail where once—many years ago, as I remember it, but it was probably not long ago in the here-and-now—I passed by this very clump of bushes and startled a 꿩, a pheasant, and saw it take off from the trees, a blur of panicked noise and feathers disappearing into the canopy. I hear it cluck, in the woods, and smile to myself, giving the shrub a wide berth. As I’m going, I spot a bit of ribbon—the same one I saw before, except that was further up the path.
I follow the ribbon and find that same wooden box, the one I found last time I was here, tucked under a shrub. Baffled, I open it and find two bottles inside, along with two notes.
The first one, I’ve seen before. It’s the one I saw when I found this box later that night. The other, though, says simply, “Put this where it goes, and enjoy the afternoon.”
There was only one bottle, last time… I think, and then, with a smile, I close the box and pick it up, carrying it to the place I remember finding it, arranging the ribbon just so. Then I take a bottle and walk off into the woods, off toward the treeline. Down below there’s a factory, and today—today, I know, I walked right up to it for the first time, to look down onto the road below. The sun is bright, but it’s cool, and the cherry blossoms are blooming out there on the distant slope beyond that factory’s grounds. The mountain is, I realize, beautiful even if it is familiar and crumbling and sometimes too-crowded. Thanks, old friend, I say to it, and laugh. Now I’m back to talking to the mountain again, eh? I think, but it doesn’t feel wrong.
Then I wait, listening to the birds, breathing the spring air, watching tiny, distant cars zoom up the road, and wait.
I arrive maybe an hour later—not I, I mean the younger me. I suppose I should call that person him, though it’s confusing and doesn’t feel right. But he isn’t me, I observe, watching him from a short distance. He doesn’t look like me at all: he’s lost weight, he’s been out in the sun a lot, he’s hiked this mountain every day. Sometimes twice a day, as if the answers to everything that terrifies him and haunts him could be found here.
He pauses at the treeline, looking for the first time down on what I saw earlier. I let him look, let him catch his breath. Then I walk over to him, smiling, the bottle of mead in my hand.
“Hey,” I say.
“W-wait,” he says, and then he laughs.
“You’re not that surprised, are you?”
He shakes his head, laughing again. Not after a lifetime of seeing the notes. I didn’t remember this happening until now, but now I do. “Do you want to sit?” he says, and I realize he’s being deferential, because I’m older. More white hair, worse posture.
Now it’s my turn to laugh, as I say, “Shit, no. Walk with me.”
He nods, and we turn, making our way along the path. On one side of us, there’s a fence made with barbed wire, and on the other, thick brush. It feels for me now, just as it did then, like a metaphor for life: sometimes you’re just stuck between two kinds of pain, and if you falter you’ll have to choose one or the other.
He’s fit: we walk for twenty minutes, back uphill, and I’m out of breath by the time we get to the peak, whereas he’s fine. But I know what that really means: he’s been walking this mountain’s paths alone, lost and desperate for some sense of what to do next. I’m out of breath, wishing I could bring my inhaler with me, wondering if twenty-four hours have passed since I last took a blood pressure pill—what happens to medication timings when you time-travel?—but I have an assurance, a calm in me that he lacks.
We get to the peak of the mountain, and climb up the big grey rock at the top, so that we’re at the highest point on Mt. Wonmi. Then, sitting side by side with him, I pop the lid of the bottle and take a swig before passing it to him. He takes the bottle from me, and hesitates.
“Come on, I’m you! And no, I don’t have anything you don’t already have.” We both chuckle as he takes a swig. I remember now, how that chestnut mead tasted. How energetically he was making stuff like this, how much he cared about the phenols and the esters and the science of it, how much he read about it, how many batches he made.
He passes it back to me, and… it tastes different from how I remember it. Sweeter, richer, a little more bitter. And I’m tasting it with taste buds a little deader than the ones he tasted it with. There’s a lesson about the vagaries of memory there, I suppose. I point to the city below, shining in the sunlight, and say, “I looks different from up here, from this perspective…”
“Cleaner, and better organized,” he says, finishing my sentence. “But if you climb down there…”
“… it’s a chaotic mess,” I say, taking my turn at finishing his sentence. “The long view conceals things, I know. But… things are going to be fine. Not the way you expect, not the way you want. But they’re going to be better than what you expected, in some ways.”
He drinks some of the mead, thinking this over. “Better?”
“Yeah. I promise. Just… keep on climbing this mountain, and keep walking, and trust yourself a little more. You’ll get there. Somewhere. And I’m here with you. You’re not alone. Remember listening to Nick Drake, thinking the world was over?”
He nods, and passes the bottle back to me.
“It’s still here. And so are we.”
He nods, and I know he’s trying to take it in, trying to figure out what to say next, what to ask me. Always trying to complicate things. I take a sip, and look back at the city.
“It’s not all about you, anyway,” I say, smiling enigmatically as I pass the bottle to him. “Watch your step on the way back down.” Then I stand up, climb down the side of the rock, and wave to him. “Good luck,” I say, and I turn to the path, walking off back toward campus. I nod hello to one of the hikers as she passes me by, and then round a bend, disappearing behind some trees.
Somehow, as I let myself slip back out of spacetime, I feel like I’ve gotten more out of telling him what I did than he did. Isn’t that the way?
I allow myself to slip back a few moments, and see another me watching this moment; he almost looks like another person altogether, I barely recognize him as myself. “Hey,” I whisper through the voidstuff to him. “Listen, what I said to him? I mean it for you, too. Listen.”
This younger me, I can see in his eyes he doesn’t know what to think, doesn’t know how to believe me. “Listen,” I say again. He turns back to the tableau in the moment before us, me sitting with my younger self, urging persistence and patience. And before he can look up at me, I let myself slip away along my worldline. It’s to him that I would have gone, if I were to continue this journey, keep slipping from moment to moment of my past.
But I know, now, where I’m going.