Ontyre, like all my writing, is a product of me, good and bad. Its origins are my origins. Its vistas are a product of my vision. Its characters a remix of my experiences. Its heartbreaks and joys come from my heart.
*I will be referencing Childhood PTSD. If that’s a trigger for you, please stop reading.
This is also, in the end, a story of finding a part of myself where I’d have least expected it.
As a writer, having a phobia is about more than the fear, it’s about the experiences that go with it. It’s also about other people’s reaction to the fear. My earliest realization that I possessed a fear of heights was when I was a preschooler, my parents already divorced. It came while ascending the spiral staircase in the Statue of Liberty. I don’t remember the view, but I remember the climb.
Several years later, my father, who’d enjoyed hiking in the Catskills and Adirondacks of New York, took up rock climbing, mostly in the Shawangunks. I might have been as old as eight years at the time (everything changed for me when I was eight, it seems).
Given my age, I was considered to have no value as a climber. That didn’t exempt me from having to accompany him, though, especially when my mothered deemed discarding her youngest as an opportunity to enjoy life.
I actually have a couple of guidebooks to the area. My father believed those were books I should have.
My fearless, much older brother, was my father’s climbing partner. Either I was left to entertain myself where the descent route was located at the Überfall or passed the time where they were climbing.
The Überfall was right beside the carriage road. There was a tiny, perpetual pool nearby located beneath a low overhang. My young imagination viewed it as a cavern. I required no imagination the day a climber fell there while descending. I remember the sound. I remember other climbers rushing to his aide. I remember his body jerking in the moments before he died.
If their climb was farther north I had to wait at the base of the cliff amidst mixed forest, brush, and boulders. The wait would often last half-a-day or more. Once they reached the top I was allowed to make my way down the slope to the carriage road and back to the Überfall. It was up to a couple of miles and sometimes I walked it in the dark.
Even though I wasn’t climbing, I wasn’t allowed to bring a book while an important ascent was taking place. Instead, there was only my imagination, my escape. Ignorant of the dangers, the setting became an adventure in my mind.
The bitter irony was that I loved hiking, even backpacking. It was exploring. Each step on the trail would reveal a new wonder. When I hiked up tiny Mount Sentinel seven years ago it was again that burning curiosity that drove me to the top.
My father, though, refused to believe my acrophobia was real. Standing near an edge, even at a moderate height, my body wants to tip. I’ve flown, though I avoid it. Each minute is a white-knuckled battle to maintain my control. (That experience, from a humorous perspective, is portrayed in the short story, Taking Flight, which is on this website.)
Eventually, real climbing came to call when I was about ten. Clutching with cramping hands. Unable to stand on vibrating legs. My father jerking on the rope because I wasn’t moving. He kept, literally, forcing me up easy climbs convinced the phobia would go away. It didn’t. Eventually, he gave up on me, but it took years.
Do I bury those experiences? I used to try to. Eventually, though, they became a part of my writing. I gave my phobia to Kasaria in the novel, Torment Surfacing. Not to say I didn’t shake while I wrote each of those scenes, and each time I edited them.
Forcing more steps, her hip sliding over the uphill side, she directed her attention up. It didn’t help. It was impossible to un-know what was below. How close to the edge would she have to go before he’d admit the trail went nowhere?
Except, it did go somewhere.
The path was replaced by steps cut into a cliff face, the way disappearing around a buttress. Wet stairs. Each, maybe, three feet wide. No wall to prevent someone from plunging over the edge.
It was beyond comprehension. Who’d ever want to take such a path? It was suicidal. It was insane.
It was also too much.
She stopped, eyes unable to track the swirling world before them. “No. I won’t.”
If she took that first step onto a stair she’d plunge over the edge. A dozen feet from the ledge wasn’t far enough. Falling was a magnet. It wanted her, was pulling her. Balance, moving too fast to track, was everywhere she wasn’t.
She clutched at the last tree before the cliff face with both hands.
When my father discovered climbing in the Rocky Mountains I was equal parts enthralled and terrified. I became the group photographer. I reveled in the hike, but knew what awaited me at the end. Why, I always wondered, wasn’t who I was good enough?
As I said, despite my phobia, I loved backpacking. I’ve seen wondrous locations I’ll never forget. My mind has tapped into that store of experiences time and again in my writing, though mostly in the Carrdia novels.
Pannulus more often touches on other childhood traumas.
Am I crazy to access these moments? For me, the answer is, no. No therapy has ever come as close to helping me address the bad. Meanwhile, story enhances the good. It’s how I can look back and remember that, yes, I loved hiking (and still do). Writing has helped the good to surface, allowed me to rediscover the mountains I love, and helped me to find purpose.
When I drafted Riparia’s Bk1, Trust in the Forgotten, I knew right away that the beauty I’d witnessed would help soothe those old memories.
Water trickled from an outcropping on the uphill side of the trail. Cupping her hands, she drank the frigid glacial runoff, wet her bandanna, and wiped her face. Rewetting the material, she tossed back her hat, lifted her hair, and mopped her neck.
A stone skittered past and rolled down the trail as Eyyse stopped. “This isn’t the most convenient location to stop.” Maniff pointed ahead. “We could descend and take a proper, shaded rest beside the stream down there.”
She motioned Doppla to the water and, shading her eyes with a hand, squinted. “I may not be an experienced mountain traveler, but I still believe water is fresher the higher you find it.”
The air moved out of the west, tingling her wet skin with its passing. The days were warm, the nights breeding snowflakes. One week remaining in Autumn Moon Season meant it was past time to leave the mountains.
Not to say those surroundings lacked beauty. The narrow mountain valley below hosted a picturesque stream meandering through lush grass, massive boulders, and dwarf firs and pines.
Were the frozen peaks passing judgment on the petite courier who dared to enter their domain? Might they be kinder than the fates at play since Coving?