A Book About Afghanistan: Chapter Two, Mountains

The names of things. The father of Ganga who is mother to India. The Indian mountain. The Indian-slayer.

The consciousness of the conqueror seeps into his etymologies and bleeds into the collective unconscious. The black Indians nourished on the white milk of Parvati’s sister, slain, unable to bear the brown slavers’ enforced maternal trespass.

Salerno, a place in North Carolina named after a place in Italy. Salerno, a place in Afghanistan named after a place in North Carolina named after a place in Italy.

Fanciful etymologizing is a persistent means of reconciling man to the world, man whose realism is primordially flat—a featureless map. With age, the finger sliding over graces the globe-maker’s bumps and mounds. The correspondence between multidimensional reality and multidimensional representation suddenly shines. The microcosm and macrocosm reach forth and join hands. Echoing the clasp, vibrations spread and sympathetically harmonize with our minds caught in the dream time where sign, symbol, and reality twine upwards together, spread and bloom into a lotus. Atop the lotus stands a bull, whose back bears the weight of the world. Shiva’s two feet stand astride the Eorþe, graciously mediating divine Ganga’s descent, streaming through the coils of his wild, matted hair.

Onto the mountains.

Whose beauty is terrifying. They are not the subdued block channels of order in a Persian garden, or Appalachian hillocks sprawling into the first yellowing of fall. Their awe traces a line, molding a portrait of rolling tones, filtering into every crag and crevice, flitting from thorn to rock. A rumble wells up in the periphery, then flows back into undertone.

The odd incongruity of experiencing nature in a foreign land. The urban spectacle, while loud and disorienting, is basically the same ecosystem everywhere. Steel, cement, gasoline—the same materials, the same fuel. The world not yet caught up to the human has subtle properties that announce themselves viscerally. The frequency of an insect a microtone off, an herb with no mnemonic trigger. The foreignness is not in the human, and so one’s strangeness sticks out.

From the Earth.

The peaks jut, from the sky they trail down. The bare mountains are a vision of the past, once verdant, now desert. Through millennia of human habitation, a hubristic removal of the leaves that once modestly preserved the humility of man, shielding him from direct heavenly glare. Mountains, chastened though blameless, have housed such divine potencies before: the iron gate forged against Gog and Magog, the stony prison of the rock-demon.

They have taken upon themselves the role of divine chastisers, taken up guardianship of the infinity that must be hidden in a box of mirrors and hurled hidden within. Mediaries and fallen angels, holy behemoths whose power seems barely restrained. Sinais scorched by the face of God, and left bare.

Must we walk barefoot here? Must we fall to our knees? Will our sacrifice smell sweetly, coiling upwards like a hair in the blue vast?


At the pinnacle, just above the horizon, tracking the rolling blackness and the flashes too far off to hear. Subdued and anxious it waxes and passes, floating, circumambulating clockwise, keeping the cosmic axis always to the right, a respectful distance. Enough to be seen by the god.

To sit silently on this mountain, beneath this tree humbled, then, after three days, to look over suddenly and see a goat. Piebald, black and white, nibbling on the brush. To raise one’s knife in sacrificial vein. To focus on my son and this sacrifice. Then with arrested wrist to turn and look up at the moon in the mute ocean of space.

Humility, nearness to the ground. One sees this well from on high. One is compelled to it. Not the petty height of the tower. But here, from on high, the shrinking of objects is vitiated by the mortifying nearness to the divine presence. More inordinate dimensions peak out, more imposing and pressing cold. Omnipotent intimacy.

Weep and pray.

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