Mountain City

Oct 30, 2019 | Fiction

Photo by author.

Discovering the difference between You and you.

My ascent from the underworld complete, I emerge from the shaft into daylight and rejoin the path to Mountain City. The trail is no more than a series of cairns marking a route among the boulders through which I pick my way. With the sun at its zenith, a fortress town comes into view, and I continue in the shadows of its ramparts before crossing the drawbridge at the eastern gate.

I find a flagstone courtyard, ringed by whitewashed walls. The exit, blocked by a portcullis, lies opposite my entrance. Red clay shingles top the adjacent buildings, with their shutters of cornflower blue. In this small space, I find more vegetation than I’ve seen for weeks, months — rich green with assorted blossoming accents. The re-acquaintance with color is like waking from a dream. Is that birdsong on the air?

A great mahogany table dominates this attractive but intimidating setting. A solemn mood strikes me, like what I imagine dominates a courtroom. On the table sit papers, a quill, and an ink pot. The pages contain a greeting:

We welcome you to Rawlston. You have come far and endured many tests. Our community will open its arms to you once you play your role in defining it. You may, instead, return down the path that led here, but if you seek passage to Mountain City, no way exists but through the gates ahead. If you wish to continue through Rawlston to Mountain City, please take a seat and turn over this page.

I sit and flip the sheet. The drawbridge winds shut behind me, somewhat darkening the paper as I read.

We are pleased you have joined us.

We receive two visitors each week. They remain with us for thirty years. Some pass away, as humans do everywhere, but most complete their sojourn and continue upward. The population is 2,802.

Each arrival contributes to the town’s laws by stating their preferences, expressed in the questionnaire you will soon begin, regarding the rules governing life within these walls. It is of the utmost importance that, as you consider your wishes, you bear this in mind: you will no longer be the “you,” the person you take yourself to be, once you pass into the town.

When you leave this courtyard to take up your part in our community, your consciousness will pass to a random citizen. That citizen’s consciousness will then pass to the body and mind of a citizen reaching their thirtieth anniversary, who, in turn, will leave through the town’s north gate toward Mountain City.

The “you” that lives among us for thirty years will have a different body, a different mind — with different memories, hopes, and preferences. Your intrinsic aptitudes and acquired skills will be those of another, not those you have grown used to. Your place in the town’s social structure and its economy will be those of a person you know nothing about. What continues unchanged from the second in which you now consider this scenario, is the witnessing consciousness (We call this “You.”) that lives all that this different person is, does, and encounters. But that which You experience will be distinct from that of the body and mind sitting here, reading these words.

You may also want to consider some statistics about the population from which the new person You will live as comes.

  • Each year, one person in four has a mental health problem. Seventy-five citizens live with a severe mental disability.
  • Eighty-two percent visited the doctor or nurse last year. There were 1,100 hospital visits.
  • The distribution of IQ across our citizenry is representative of the human population.
  • So is the distribution of bravery, work ethic, honesty, willingness to learn, attention to detail, responsibility with money, reliability, sociability, and kindness.
  • Some communicate effectively, some less so, some hardly at all.
  • One hundred and six struggle with a severe drug or drink problem.
  • Some earn impressive money; others are unable to hold down a job.
  • Two hundred twenty-four are LGBT.
  • Some live in houses worth great sums; others own no assets to speak of.
  • Some believe “people should pull themselves up by their bootstraps;” others that anyone who can help should.
  • Some are in relationships, most in friendships, a few alone.
  • Different of us believe in quite different gods, and the behaviors prescribed or proscribed by those gods differ significantly.

The report goes on to give more statistics. I have no idea whether I’ll be a genius, a professional athlete, a plodder, or someone who struggles with multiple disabilities unable to care for myself. In a free-for-all, would I fight to the top or depend on others for my wellbeing and survival? I can’t predict with what degree of kindness and respect I’ll view and treat my fellow citizens nor they me.

The final page gives me the evening to contemplate this information and my resulting wishes for the rules that will govern my years here. I notice a cot in the corner and lie down to rest and think.

In the morning, I awake, express my wishes in the questionnaire’s seven pages, then place the quill back on the table.

The portcullis before me clangs upward, so I pass through. I round a corner into the town, which turns out to be no town at all. Instead, I enter another courtyard, with a parchment tacked to a tree near the west wall. As I draw close enough to examine the poster, I understand that it lists the town’s bylaws.

It decrees the principal principles that would — according to the wishes of the most recent 2,803 travelers — govern Rawlston if it were a center of life:

  • Citizens shall be free to think and say what they like.
  • No citizen may visit physical harm upon another.
  • Citizens shall be free to worship their god.
  • Citizens shall be free to associate with and have sex with any other person who welcomes this.
  • The proceeds citizens gain through their work, trade or risk-taking shall be subject to a redistributive process governed by one principle: to maximize the wellbeing of the worst-off among the citizenry.

At the bottom of the parchment is an invitation to use the table, chair, and cot in this courtyard, so I can dwell upon the process I and others have undertaken and upon its outcome.

This I do, and I find Rawlston’s legal principles follow naturally from my answers to the questionnaire. Does this mean I’m an “average” person passing through the town?

I wake the next morning — or so it seems — to an open northern gate, and I stride across the drawbridge, rejoining the trail to Mountain City. As I round the mountain’s shoulder a few hours after departing Rawlston, Mountain City comes into view, although it remains a day’s walk away.

The incline relents, and the path is smooth, packed earth. Dry stone walls carve the land either side of me, plots sprinkled with olive, date, and lemon trees. Every so often, the path passes beneath the shade of a tree. Each time it does, I find the same gift: a small basket with fruit samples beside a water pitcher. I don’t know who to thank because I see no one on the path or in the plots around it.

Upon reaching the city walls in the next day’s noon heat, I find a fountain and drink. Lifting my face from the water’s surface and peering into it, I see another person looking back at me — I suspect it’s my unknown mother, for the age difference can’t hide the resemblance.

I speak to the face, asking whose image this is. It answers, in a familiar voice, that it is but my reflection.

“But you appear and sound as a woman, and one a generation my senior at that. Have my travels reversed my sex and done the work of decades on my appearance?” I ask, surprised that my curiosity isn’t alarm.

“Our travels paused for thirty years in Rawlston, leaving the decades on the mountain to do their own work,” replies my image.

“But I left, as a man, the morning after reading the town’s bylaws.”

“No. It was as the instructions said; we lived thirty years under those bylaws, although we have no memory of the person we were or the life we lived there.”

“But,” I argue, “the Rawlston papers also said I’d leave as a third person, not as my original personality.”

“Yes, that was a partial untruth, for to vote purely on our arrival, we had to harbor no hopes, fears, or plans for what we took to be ourselves, even looking thirty years to the future. Make no mistake, though, that which is now conscious in us was for those three decades conscious as another. Our memories include neither that other’s sensations and thoughts nor our original person’s feelings and perceptions as it passed its days in Rawlston. Our inability to recover the past thirty years’ memories, alongside our transcending gender, perhaps validates the partial truth that we are now a third person.”

“Transcending?”

“If you examine your body, you will find your equipment is as male as ever. Yet, you can easily see and hear yourself as a woman in this reflection. You have not changed sex, but you no longer identify based on it — one way or the other.”

“If there was some purpose to this exercise, what am I to take from it?”

“What we are to take, we have taken. Perhaps a thirty-year chasm between one’s present and any past personality serves as a baptism. Maybe it has allowed the view beyond gender that we now experience. This cleansing may be necessary for our final step. The central question is not what we are to take, but rather, what we are.”

To this, I have no response. Quenched, I move on from the fountain to the heavy wooden door at the southern entrance to the city. I open it with a twist and a pull of its wrought-iron handle.

As in Rawlston, I enter a space that serves as an anteroom. On the swept dirt floor lays a cushion, before which I find a scroll. I sit, cross-legged, noticing the honeysuckle and Virginia creeper on the walls around me, the sky open above me, but for the shade of several trees. I begin to unroll and read the wound parchment.

The scenario into which you stepped in Rawlston was a gross simplification of reality, and it is reality that waits in Mountain City. You will enter the city, should you choose to, on the morning after tomorrow.

As I continue to read, I wind the paper from its lower tube, through the sunlight, then into its upper roll. The document’s full contents are in my hands, but I see only the portion between the rolls at any one time.

There is important information for you to consider until tomorrow morning. Know that once you (the person called Pilgrim) pass into Mountain City, You (the witnessing consciousness that experiences the person) will live, one after another, the full life of the city’s every inhabitant. More than seven billion people live beyond this gate, and You shall experience — as them — every event, internal and external, of their lives, in the same way You did the person You “lived” in Rawlston.

Memories in any of those lives will not reach beyond that life; You have no facility or capability to recall or compare lives from “outside” them. The knowledge of this anteroom briefing will not move with You into any life in the city (although some scenes in those lives may suggest its truth). Dreams may reach across lives, but only in the indistinct, puzzling way dreams do. Every high and low, each boring period and shocking instant, every sight and sound, each thought and act, every pain and pleasure, each birth and death will be experienced by You — only You — and only one life at a time.

Consider how you wish this world to be.

I reach the scroll’s end and set it down. The permutations of possibility, the moments saturated by experience from all perspectives, the aggregation of years lived — each is beyond my capacity to fathom.

The scenario produces a very different response in me than the Rawlston one had. Whereas the earlier one had appealed to a conservatism in me — and apparently in most others who had traversed the town — this one leads me to contemplate and appreciate the value of extremes. If I’m indeed to encounter every moment of each person in the city, then anything less than the widest breadth would be monotonous, boring. If I’m given both the opportunity and the requirement to face everything, then I want everything to encompass a vast expanse rather than to rattle within a cloister.

I wonder how others met this scenario. These thoughts take me into the evening, into sleep, and through dreams of floating and flying into the morning. I wake in the same position, on the straw mat beneath the trees, having never stirred.

Rising and stretching, I notice a new scroll in front of the cushion, so I sit and read it.

The Rawlston world was a thin shadow compared to the panorama depicted in yesterday’s scroll. Now, in your final day before passage into Mountain City, you will see how pale, how limited was the realm of yesterday’s scroll, the mere speck it was in Your vast reality.

For when you pass through the gate tomorrow morning, if pass you do, You will experience the lives not only of the seven billion current citizens but also of every citizen who has lived or will live.

Beyond this, You will experience every possible life any citizen, indeed, any sentient being — past, present or future — could live. Everything that is not impossible, You will face.

Moreover, each instant of each and every possible life will arise then pass, but each also abides eternally. Every breath, each heartbeat, every decision, each action exists without beginning and without end. And each moment in the infinitude of possible moments will be manifest solely by virtue of Your experiencing it.

I close the scroll, free from alarm and confusion. Atop the world, on the threshold of Mountain City, a waft of lavender reaches me from the garden’s corner; the sun’s warmth, even buffered by the shade trees and the heavy stone walls, bathes me. As I recall my adventure since arriving as the Traveler in The Village, among the People, I imagine the majestic, frightening, limitless world beyond the gate before me.

I consider the scroll’s language, understanding now how different its “you” and “You” are. I note that the designation for self, “I,” is always capitalized. Coincidence? Day fades to night, the night I know to be my last.

This is an excerpt from Phil Grimm’s Progress — A modern myth for anxious times.

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