"We left early the next morning. My host had given me an enthusiastic send off and instructed me in painstaking detail on a message of praise I should deliver to Keiter. My driver waited impatiently in his seat while these elaborate proceedings continued in front of him.
"Just as the sunset takes the life out of the world, the sunrise was something that feels like the very birth of existence. The evening fog that had settled over the mountain ridges and valleys began to burn away like malicious spirits being chased by the golden, dancing light as it spread its fingers across the horizon. The death-like cold that had settled on the earth at the moment the sun disappeared suddenly was vanquished. Life was breathed back into the world immediately by the coming sun. With this spectacle in front of us, we continued toward Keiter's site.
"I don't believe I have ever seen anything like it. The natural wonders that surrounded us where something to behold. Dew had collected on the wild, chest-high grass that grew on both sides of the narrow dirt path. The rays of the rising sun played off the tiny droplets. As the cart rolled on, I noticed my companion looking off into the fields where blood red poppies grew in flocks next to meandering sheep. The clouds floated lazily overhead.
"'Beautiful!' I shouted at the man next to me. He simply grunted in genuine affirmation. You cannot understand how few words can mean such deep sincerity. It was a simple formula, I noticed. The more these people talked at you, the more they disliked you. Long, elegiac speeches were the deepest form of insincerity in this country. A terse word, expressed with direct and deliberate annoyance was a profound expression of love. I thought back to the tavern. To yell at someone was to love them here! It embraced you like a hug from a brother that had been gone for years.
"'Da,' my man grunted. We sat in an intimate silence.
"At the foot of the mountain, we met with a strange sight. In the distance, I thought perhaps it was a truncated tree sitting alone in an open field. As we came closer, the mysterious shape slowly formed into an old man. He sat on a chair, facing toward the mountains. I looked around for a flock, assuming he was a shepherd, but there was nothing. Nor was there a house as far as I could see. The driver pulled up next to the man and dismounted to give his beast a rest and feed it. The man in the chair didn't move.
"I dismounted the carriage and as the rocks crunched beneath my shoes, the sitting man finally turned to me. I pulled a bottle of water from my bag and took a swig. I extended my arm to the man in the chair.
"He nodded and clicked his tongue. 'I don't want.'
"I took another drink and placed it back in my bag. 'I'm old,' he whispered. He had returned his gaze to the mountains in the distance as he spoke. 'I am 73.' He resembled the living dead, to be honest. His cheeks were sunken and the skin hung off his frame like a poorly assembled tent.
"'I'll be dead soon,' he said after a long silence. I was at a loss for a response. 'I am old,' he repeated. 'I must wait to die now.'
"I offered him the bottle of water again, but he failed to even notice this time. He simply repeated the words, 'I must wait to die.' I waited silently, listening to this solemn chorus. Gosho fed the mule and then whistled to indicate that it was time to leave."
Mack paused in his story.
"You just made that up," someone in the cabin interrupted. "There is no way that happened."
"I swear to you that is exactly how it happened," Mack insisted. "I didn't believe it myself."
"Fine. Finish the story."
"We continued along the path. The man in the chair remained at our backs as we went into the mountains. The sun had disappeared behind black clouds and the cold returned.
"I think living in the mountains, life takes on an unassailable timelessness. Wars and empires sweep over you like so many winter storms. As the bitter cold edge of winter eventually melts away, so too do the many soldiers and passers-by disappear. The vast, uncaring mountains stand as a testament to our own transitory smallness. The villages seemed to sprout out of the side of rising walls of rock. They are no imposition or incongruity, blending into the black forests. The houses, red-tiled roofs, mud-brown bricks seemed to have roots as deep as the pines that shield them from the harsh winds. Buildings and trees huddled together in the shadow of the never-changing mountain face, protected by these natural fortresses.
"Snow began to fall, dancing around my head like a lazy afterthought. The black clouds behind us promised harsher weather very soon. Gosho goaded his mule into a faster pace and we continued to the next volunteer's site."