The Gatekeeper_sizedThe Mountain Climber didn’t like to talk about the accident, but because she alone had witnessed the Skier fall off the top of the world, the press had no one else to turn to. What could she say? Without a word of warning, the Skier had plunged past her through the thin, alpine air and into the abyss. She searched and searched for her friend, but found only a single ski. Later that day, after others spied his body on a dangerous flank, the Skier’s father radioed and said, “Come down, come down,” which was his grief’s translation for, “If my boy is dead, save yourselves.” So the Mountain Climber descended, speechless.

When she came to me for English lessons, she said it was because her language skills were beschränkt—limited, narrow. She could hint at her heart in her native German but when asked in English about the Skier, her feelings were reduced to the vocabulary of facts. If she had to talk about the accident, she at least wanted to use words that would bring to life the Skier’s passion and her sorrow at his loss.

I hadn’t taught in a long time, but agreed to tutor her because, when she asked, the concave drape of her body posed a question: can we ever really say what we mean? We arranged to meet twice a week. I planned to work on the basics—grammar and vocabulary; I prepared strategies—storytelling and mock interviews. I wrote out synonyms for words like tragedy and sadness, and was startled by how quickly the list grew long.

At the heart of the word beschränkt is Schranke, meaning barrier. I see it printed on a white sign outlined in red when I run in the mornings; it marks my approach to a gate that stretches across the road, closing it to traffic. This time, for the first time, it occurs to me that the gate has the potential to not only prevent things from entering, but also from leaving. I think about the Mountain Climber and her determination to extend her use of words, and wonder if she has weighed the liabilities of bespeaking her soul, if she is fully prepared to emerge from the indescribable safety of silence.

Dionisia Morales‘ essays have appeared or are forthcoming in CALYX, upstreet, Blue Mesa Review, Blue Earth Review, and South Dakota Review. When not traveling, she lives and writes in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

Photo by Annie Agnone