Mist floated down from the mountains. It swirled around the flags hanging from the wire stretched between the balcony of Jeffrey Cooper’s hotel room and the building across the cobblestoned street. Three flags, each depicting something different, hung from the wire: a cross, an angel, a key – all of them in red and white.
Jeffrey squinted up at the tallest of the mountains, trying to see through the haze created by the mist. He sighed a sigh of awe, wonder and relief. It had been a long time coming. Three long years of working a nine to five – nights and weekends – interrupted only when Jeffrey let himself dream, led him to this moment. It was all he’d ever wanted since meeting Maria in the vast community of the World Wide Web. Although he hadn’t heard from her for all of three weeks – she’d suddenly stopped writing – they’d planned the meeting months ago and Jeffrey was sure that she would keep her word. She’d wanted to meet him as much as he’d wanted to meet her. She was the woman of his dreams. He had no doubt about that. And now he couldn’t wait to meet her in the flesh, to hold her, to make her truly real.
He’d never seen anything like the little town that wrapped around him, the small city made even smaller by the immense Alps that protected it. The church bell struck six only fifteen minutes earlier and already the streets were empty, not that they’d ever been full. He came from a world bustling with businessmen; a world overwhelmed by traffic jams, billboards and billowing clouds of black exhaust. But here, there wasn’t a car in sight. The cobblestones beneath his balcony were blissfully bare. There was just mist and the magnificent mountains in the distance.
The craggy peaks looked cold and gray. The swollen, silvery clouds swirling around the summits made them look even colder. The white of snow made uneven tracks over the somber stone like meat marbled with fat. The mountains, surrounded by lush fields of green, made up the most beautiful sight Jeffrey had ever seen. Even the simple, yet fanciful, architecture of the fairy tale-like buildings and barns made him smile. Being immersed in the grind at home, he’d failed to realize that places like this actually existed.
Jeffery’s stomach grumbled. Despite the jet lag making his eyelids sag, it was dinnertime. He pushed against the railing of his balcony and staggered back inside his room, one of seven in the cozy little hotel Maria had recommended. Inquiring in the lobby, he learned that there was only one restaurant in town, which made his dinner decision exceedingly easy. He plucked an umbrella from the holder by the door and set out along the cobblestones.
The surroundings were so quiet, the air so clean. Fields of budding wild flowers sprawled around the edges of town. Hidden behind an austere stone wall, away from the timbered houses and the small specialty shops, was a cloister where the nuns who lived inside made and sold authentic Swiss cheese.
Jeffrey took tentative steps inside only to have the silence of the place stop him just beyond the doorway. The air within the cloister was so shockingly still that it made the rest of the sleepy little town seem loud simply because it had a breeze blowing through it. A woman with saggy cheeks, dressed in blue from head to toe, nodded at Jeffrey. He nodded back on his way out of the chamber that smelled distinctly of cheese: somewhat sour, yet remarkably sweet. Sometimes quiet was just a little too quiet. He continued on, tapping the umbrella against the cobblestones with every step he took.
It didn’t take him long to find the restaurant, but when he got there he wasn’t sure that he should go in. The curtains were tightly drawn. The door was closed without a sign upon it. Nor were there any signs in the windows. If it weren’t for a small circular symbol hanging off the side of the building – a dark brown edifice with a small front porch – Jeffrey wouldn’t have known that it was a restaurant at all. Shrugging, his stomach grumbling again, he started up the steps.
“Guten Abend,” a friendly female voice called as soon as Jeffrey passed through the door.
“Hello,” he said, squinting through the darkness to see who had called out to him. “Sprechen Sie Englisch?”
“Yes. A little,” she said, stepping out from the shadows to his right. Jeffrey knew she’d say that. Most of the locals he talked to said they spoke a little English even though they spoke it quite well. He admired their modesty. It was refreshing.
“I was told I could get something to eat here,” he said.
“Yes. Sit.” She gestured to a few tables on his left. They were all rustic looking things made of heavy wood. He took a seat at a table by one of the windows. She put a menu down in front of him. Jeffrey stared at the selections. Having left his German to English dictionary on the desk inside his room, he couldn’t make sense of a single one of them.
“Is there a house special?” he asked.
The woman nodded. “Yes,” she said, drawing out the word.
“I’ll have that, please.”
“Beer?” he said, uncertain as to why he’d posed it as a question.
She smiled at him. “Of course.”
It came as no surprise to Jeffrey that he was the only one inside the restaurant. He wondered if the woman doing the waiting would do the cooking as well. While she was off filling a stein, he pushed the curtain aside over the window above his table and swung open the glass. No screen, he noted as a stream of light accompanied by a cool burst of air entered through the open window.
“American?” the woman asked when she returned with his beer.
“Yes. Thank you.” He took a sip.
“Al Capone,” she said, a smile spreading across her pleasant face as she made two make-believe guns with her hands.
Jeffrey nodded, returning the smile. He’d been told that many Europeans still equated his hometown with the infamous gangsters of decades gone by, and now he knew it was true. His eyes drifted from floor to ceiling. Everything in the restaurant was heavy and brown. From the old planks covering the floor to the panels on the walls to the rafters overhead, there was an overabundance of dark wood. Aside from the red in the curtains, color was hard to come by.
“What’s that?” Jeffrey asked, jerking his chin toward another wooden artifact hanging from the wall. The ray of light streaming in through the window just barely lit the left side of the thing.
“What?” she wondered, as though she wasn’t aware of the wooden work of art.
“The carving,” Jeffrey said.
She turned her head to where he was looking. “Oh. The mask.”
“So it is a mask…” he said more to himself than to her.
“You don’t know?” she questioned.
“Don’t know what?”
“About the masks. That’s why you came, no?”
“No,” he answered.
“So you just came for the cheese?” she quipped.
“I came for a friend.”
She smiled again. “A lot of tourists collect these masks.”
“What’s it for?” He took another sip of his beer, then got up to take a closer look.
“Harder-Potschete,” she explained, “the traditional celebration to bring in New Year and a prosperous spring.”
“Harder-Potschete?” he echoed. “What’s the mask got to do with it?”
“In old times many believed evil spirits came down from the mountains. They blamed everything bad that happened on the spirits: cows dying, deadly avalanches, bad harvest…It was all the spirits’ fault. Locals wore the masks to usher in a good spring and free the town of evil by scaring all the spirits back up the mountains. As long as the spirits stayed up there in the snow and everyone else stayed down here, everything would be all right. The tradition continues today.”
“Makes sense,” Jeffrey muttered. The mask certainly was ugly. It nearly sent a chill up his spine. Carved from a solid piece of pine dark with age, its face was twisted and gnarled, making it look something like a troll or a witch with empty pits in place of eyes, and with hair and teeth that looked far too real.
“May I touch it?” he asked.
She took the mask off the wall in response. “The hair is from a goat. The teeth are from a calf,” she said.
“It’s fantastic,” he muttered. His fingertips bounced along the grain. He could feel where the artist’s chisel had dug the deepest to create the gaunt cheeks beneath jutting cheekbones. “Is it expensive?”
“This one is,” she said, placing the mask back upon the wall. “And it’s not for sale. It protects this place.”
“I didn’t mean…” Jeffrey started. He trailed off when the woman turned toward the kitchen. He really didn’t have any intention of trying to buy the mask. He could hardly afford his trip as it was.
“House plate,” she said, setting a steaming platter before Jeffrey upon her return.
“Smells delicious. What is it?”
“Sausage and potato,” she said as though it should have been obvious, which, for the most part, it was. “You said you came for a friend?”
“So where is your friend?”
“I haven’t met her yet,” he confessed as he cut into the sausage. “Tomorrow.”
“She is local?”
“Yes. Her name is Maria….This is delicious.”
“Maria,” she murmured. “That’s my name too.”
Despite his excitement, Jeffrey slept soundly. The cold breeze coming in through his open balcony doors made for perfect sleeping conditions. Waking up to a mountain view was something he could get used to. With his arms wrapped around his chest, Jeffrey stepped out onto the balcony and peered up at the Alps. From what he could see, they looked as cold and steely gray as they had the day before. Heavy clouds obscured the uppermost peaks. Cloudy or not, his day wouldn’t be ruined because somewhere among those mountains his Maria was waiting for him.
After a shower and a shave, Jeffrey took the train to Lucerne where he walked the short distance from the railway station to the shore of Lake Lucerne. There were more people – tourists – in the city than in the tiny town that surrounded his hotel, which meant there were more souvenir shops and kiosks as well. Jeffrey saw a number of masks that looked like the one he saw in the restaurant the night before only they weren’t quite as large or carefully crafted. The chatty tourists gawked at the masks; they had a way of stealing some of the looming mountains’ majesty, but as loud and obnoxious as they were, they couldn’t completely strip the scenery of its splendor.
Jeffrey bought a sandwich from a street-side vendor and nibbled it alone along the shoreline as he waited for the ship that would take him across the lake to the base of Mount Pilatus. There were swans in the water and they gathered around him in hopes of a handout. Too nervous to eat, he threw them pieces of bread. His stomach was a mess of wriggling and writhing nerves that made it impossible for him to stand still. Over and over, he thought about what he would say when he saw her, what he would do. More frightening than that was thinking about what she might say and what she might do when she saw him.
The ship pulled into port two minutes earlier than expected and pulled away one minute later than the ticket stub said it would. Jeffrey opted to sit out on the deck even though the weather was cool and cold drops of water kept splashing him from over the railing. He leaned over the side to watch the water. More than that, he watched the reflection of the mountain in the water, wondering if Maria was already waiting for him.
The crossing of the lake passed slowly, but the reflection of the mountain got bigger, and eventually it was so big that the ship was practically on top of it. It wouldn’t be long now.
The ship let him off in the town of Alpnachstad where the world’s steepest cog-wheel railway waited to escort him up the side of the mountain. The railway sat at a forty-six percent gradient, which didn’t sound all that impressive to Jeffrey until he actually got inside one of the railway cars.
“It’s cloudy at the summit,” the conductor said to Jeffrey. “Visibility’s low. You won’t see much up there today.”
“That’s okay,” Jeffrey said, settling in his seat. The view wasn’t what he was looking forward to seeing.
With a creaky groan, the cog-wheel train began its clunky ascent, seeming to strain up the steep slope. For a few minutes there, despite his anticipation, Jeffrey was able to think of things other than Maria as he spotted sublime fields at awkward angles along the lower region of the mountain, which didn’t deter the brown and white cows grazing upon them. Large bells hanging around the cows’ necks created a symphony of pitches ranging from tinkling tolls to clanging knells. Jeffrey shut his eyes to listen until the gentle peals and the quiet mooing faded away on the mountain beneath him. When he opened his eyes again, all the grass was gone, replaced by the rugged gray of irregular rock formations dusted with snow. All thoughts turned back to Maria.
In her final letter to him, Maria had written that she’d be wearing edelweiss in her hair. He was to wear a flag like one of the three hanging beyond his balcony pinned to his lapel so that she’d know it was him. In the three years that they’d been writing, they never once exchanged a photograph. Maria hadn’t wanted to. She liked the idea of creating him in her head. She was convinced that when they finally met face to face they’d be exactly what each other envisioned because they were meant to be. The edelweiss and the pin were just a backup plan in case their imaginings were a little off.
Jeffrey reached inside his jacket pocket and pulled out the pin he’d purchased at a souvenir stand inside the train station. It was red with a white cross in the center. Affixing it to his lapel, he felt his heart skip a beat as though he’d pricked himself although the pin never penetrated the fabric of his collared shirt. For a split second his arms broke out with gooseflesh. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. It was an odd reaction; not one that he’d ever had from being excited before. It passed almost as soon as it started, leaving Jeffrey to shrug it off without trying to analyze what it could possibly mean.
The air grew increasingly colder the higher the cog-wheel car climbed, but it definitely wasn’t the cold that had made Jeffrey bristle. He noticed he could now see his breath spreading before him in large white plumes. He hoped Maria had brought a jacket to keep herself warm.
“Pilatus-kulm,” the conductor announced as the car came to a sudden stop at the top of the alp.
Jeffrey got out and, casting a glance backward, realized just how steep the railway was. It was a wonder the car didn’t slide backward down the mountain. Even in its stationary state it seemed to be struggling. But that really didn’t matter now. Maria was close. Although he’d never met her in person – never felt her physical presence – he felt her now almost the same way he felt the bitter mist whirling around him.
The conductor was right: there wasn’t much to see atop Mount Pilatus other than the swirling white and gray of the thick clouds obscuring what, according to pictures posted all around, would have been the most marvelous view of the Alps had the sun been out and shining and the clouds been nothing more than fluffy wisps. In some spots, when Jeffrey squinted really hard, he could see the mountaintops through the clouds, but only their silhouettes and never for more than a few seconds.
With the visibility the way it was, the tourists were at a minimum. Still, an old fellow wearing a traditional cap standing near one of the railings overlooking the imperceptible mountain, had his lips pressed to the mouthpiece of a very long, wooden alpenhorn that extended at least ten feet in front of him, its base resting against the ground. Drawn out notes, sounding warm and somewhat like a bugle, floated on the thin air past the curved opening of the instrument. Hand painted along the outer rim were delicate flowers much like the ones Jeffrey expected to find in Maria’s hair.
He walked past the man and his horn, who hadn’t a crowd or even a jar for collecting tips, straight into the whiteness ahead. The misty fog was so thick – thicker than smoke or the exhaust that choked the streets back home – that Jeffrey could barely see six feet in front of him. As curious as it was to him, he couldn’t help but be tickled by the thought that he was actually walking within a cloud even if it would make his meeting with Maria harder to manage.
Somewhere in the distance, harshly clashing with the soothing sounds coming from the alpenhorn, came the raucous cries of what sounded like crows. The sound took Jeffrey aback. Nowhere below had he seen a crow. Their coarse caws wouldn’t have mixed with the lazy mooing of the cows. But following the caws, Jeffrey found the source of the sound. Sitting on one of the railings, jet black against the overwhelming white of the mist with water droplets glistening against their glossy feathers, were four blackbirds with bright yellow beaks and orange feet. Jeffrey didn’t have very much time to observe the birds because standing next to them was a woman with flowers in her hair.
“Maria,” he gasped.
“My Jeffrey,” she said.
Barely a heartbeat passed before they were in each other’s arms. Jeffrey held her so tight and so close that he thought his arms might go right through her.
“I knew it,” she said. “I knew it was you without seeing the pin. Did you know it was me?”
“Yes,” he said. “I knew. I saw the flowers, but I knew.” She was almost exactly how he imagined her, maybe a little less rosy in the cheeks, but everything else was the same.
“Welcome to Switzerland,” she said when the embrace finally broke, although they held onto each other’s hands for fear that letting go might mean losing each other within the mist. “How was your trip?”
“Couldn’t have been better. It’s lovely here.”
“I knew you’d like it,” Maria said and then frowned. “If only you could see.” She motioned toward the space beyond the railing where a wall of white was all there was to witness.
“You’re all I wanted to see,” he assured her, dipping his hand into one of his pockets. “I brought this for you.” Dangling from his fingertips was a gold locket at the end of a gold chain. He opened the locket to show her that he’d already put his picture inside.
“It’s beautiful,” she said, bowing her head so that he could affix the chain around her neck.
“You really like it?”
“I really do.”
They fell into each other’s arms once again. This time Maria’s lips grazed his cheek. The kiss made him tingle all over inside.
“Come,” he said. “Let’s go down the mountain.”
“But you just got here,” she objected. “Stay.” She dragged him to the railing, putting herself between him and the four birds perched there; they didn’t ruffle in the least at her presence.
“Why are they here?” he asked.
“This is their home,” she answered simply. She put her head against his shoulder. “I can’t believe you’re finally here.”
“I feared this day would never come,” he admitted. She agreed. For the better part of the next hour they told each other all the things they’d always wanted to say in person. There wasn’t a moment of tension, no awkward pauses, not a hint of doubt that they were meant to be.
“I’m hungry. You must be too. Let’s go and find something to eat,” Jeffrey said once they’d made every declaration there was to make.
“No,” she said. “Let’s wait.”
She motioned to the mist once more. “For the sky to clear.”
“It doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere,” he said, speaking of the mist.
“They’re,” she said in return.
“They’re?” Jeffrey questioned.
“It doesn’t look like they’re going anywhere,” she clarified.
“What are you talking about?”
“The spirits,” she said. “It’s more than mist we’re looking at.”
Jeffrey stared off at the swirling mist. With little imagination he could see phantoms in the fog. “Evil spirits,” he said, remembering what Maria at the restaurant had told him about the purpose of the carved mask the night before.
“Not all of them are evil,” she replied.
Jeffrey chuckled. It was all he could do to fight the chill creeping along his spine for the second time that morning. “I’m cold,” he said. “And hungry. Come now, you can show me around town.”
He pulled her away from the railing and through the wall of white to where there were cable cars descending the mountain. They looked all the more dreadful than the cog-wheel train since they were just hanging there by a cable that looked no thicker than a laundry line. But the cog-wheel was just for coming up, and the cable cars were for going down.
“Wait,” Maria said, but by then Jeffrey had already climbed inside the waiting gondola. “Can we stay just a little longer?”
He stretched out an arm to assist her, answering her question without saying a word. There was nothing she could do to make him stay. Her only choice was to get inside. Reluctantly, she did.
The gondola was small, capable of holding no more than four people. Jeffrey couldn’t stand inside without hunching over. He sat on one of the benches and Maria nuzzled close beside him. As the cable car left the boarding station, leaving behind solid ground as it did, Jeffrey felt his stomach flutter. The gondola glided into the cloud, and within seconds Jeffrey couldn’t see the mountain below him or the boarding station behind him. It was just the ashen atmosphere in all directions outside the gondola windows, a few visible feet of the cable car cable overhead and Maria beside him.
He ran his fingers over the flowers braided in Maria’s hair then caressed her cheek with a few furled fingers. She was shuddering.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she whispered, forcing a smile.
“You seem nervous,” he said.
And it was true. Her cheek was as chilly as the icy outside air. “You’re damp too,” he said. “Take my jacket.”
Jeffrey squirmed to free himself from his jacket and draped it over Maria’s shoulders. She smiled at him again, a bit more genuinely this time, and burrowed into the deepest part of his chest.
“Maria -?” he started, but silenced as the gondola came to a sudden stop. “What’s happening?” he wondered.
“Why are we stopped?” she asked, lifting her cheek from his chest.
“I don’t know,” Jeffrey grumbled. He turned every which way in his seat, but all he could see was white through the windows. “I’m sure everything is all right. We ought to be moving in no time at all.”
But other than gently swaying side to side on the cable, the gondola didn’t move any farther down the mountain.
“We’re still pretty close to the top,” Jeffrey said. “Maybe they’ll hear us up there.” He slid open the pane of the gondola’s upper window, letting a whirling wisp of the white mist inside, and cupped his hands around his mouth. “Hello!” he hollered. “We’re stuck! Can anybody hear me?”
He waited, his ear searching for something—anything—but there was only silence.
“At least we’re together,” Maria said, her voice betraying a slight quaver. She eased him back in the seat and buried her face in his chest once again. “We’ll just have to wait.”
He sighed, letting all the tension out that had built up inside. After all, there were worse things than hanging in isolation with the one he loved. He let his hand play up and down her back.
Maria closed her eyes, allowing her sightless senses to take Jeffrey in all the way. While her imagination could create his image so perfectly in her mind, it couldn’t create his touch, his scent, his essence.
Jeffrey let his body slump against hers. Together in the gondola they were almost as one. “Maria?” he quietly asked after some time, thinking that she might have fallen asleep.
“Hmm?” she hummed.
“Why didn’t you write for all those weeks? I thought something might have happened to you.”
“I wanted to,” was all she said. She lifted her head and kissed him on the mouth. The kiss was long and passionate, and yet Jeffrey felt it ended all too soon. He had to pull away, though, when he saw something strange outside the gondola. And it was something that gave him such a fright that he banged the back of his head against the glass behind him in a futile attempt to recoil backward.
“What is it?” Maria gasped.
“There,” Jeffrey said, pointing at nothing more than mist. “There was something there…something terrible.”
“Shh,” she shushed, reaching for his face. “It’s all right.”
“There it is again!” he screeched, throwing himself backward against the gondola harder than before, causing it to rock fiercely on the cable. “Look and see!”
But Maria didn’t look. Her trembling fingertips tapped over his face, longing to hold onto him forever. In his eyes she saw the horror of what was haunting him. The evil spirits had manifested themselves as blood-hungry monstrosities, miasmal in appearance and so gluttonous that they snuck down from the slopes on days when the mountains belonged to the mist. Days when the locals kept an extra careful eye on their young, their livestock and their yield.
“You mustn’t look anymore,” Maria said. She eased his eyelids closed and pulled his head against her breast. “You mustn’t look…”
Jeffrey awoke with a start. His back was aching and there was a crick in his neck. He didn’t remember being tired or feeling himself slip away, but somehow he’d fallen into a deep sleep inside the gondola. Aside from the pain in his back and the pinch in his neck, he immediately noticed that the clouds had cleared. In the distance he could see the ant-sized village at the base of the mountain.
“Maria,” he said, turning his attention her way to wake her with a smile. “Maria?”
She wasn’t there.
He twisted and turned, easily inspecting every inch of the gondola, still dangling at a standstill high above the mountain, in search of her. All that he found was his jacket in a heap and her locket on the seat.
Jeffrey’s heart sank. He unlatched the gondola’s door and hung his head over the side, searching for a sign of his lost love. She was nowhere in sight, and yet, just like when he first stepped foot atop the mountain, he felt her all around him, as though she was still clinging to his chest.
He panicked, he reeled. For a moment he considered jumping.
“Maria!” he screamed just as the gondola kicked into gear and started down the mountain again. “Mariiiaaa!”
The next night found Jeffrey at the same restaurant near his hotel.
“Did you find your friend?” asked Maria the waitress, when he sat down,
Jeffrey nodded and twitched uncomfortably in his seat. He wasn’t really interested in food, but he wasn’t interested in being alone either. Having bumped up his flight, he only had twelve hours left in Maria’s homeland until the depressing journey returned him home with not much more than what he’d started with. Resting in the palm of his hand was the gold chain attached to the locket.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“It was for her,” he said.
“Where is she now? Your Maria?”
Jeffrey let out a long sigh that sounded like a sob. “She couldn’t come down the mountain,” he said. His angry eyes glared at the unsightly mask on the wall. “It’s not just the evil spirits they keep away.”
Maria paused. She stood silently for a while then walked to the mask to peer into its empty eyes. “Or maybe she’s trapped,” she finally said. “Maybe the good spirits are all the evil spirits are able to hold on to.”
“Maybe,” Jeffrey said. “I guess she tried to get away…Do you want this?” he asked, offering her the locket with his picture inside.
“No,” she said.
“I guess she couldn’t keep it,” he muttered. In some weird way he could still feel her, though; stuck up there, scared, damp, cold and loving him as much as he still loved her. He opened the locket. It was only his face that looked back at him. His stomach turned at the realization that his imagination would forever have to fill in the rest. He could only hope that he would forever haunt her as much as she would haunt him.