Sadly, after sixteen issues, Prismatica magazine shut down this summer. Since they are no longer keeping up their website, I've decided to move the story I published with them here (as a public post) so it can live on. The story is called "Allegory of the Man," which is about the power afforded to people who are perceived as men. This story was originally published in June of this year.
Allegory of the Man
Brady hadn’t been hiking in three years. That is, before Giselda called him up on a Thursday evening in July.
“Oh, come on, you know you want to,” she begged in that playful tone used by best friends.
“I don’t know if I even have my boots anymore,” Brady persisted, even though he very well knew they were crammed in a box under his bed. “And I grew out of all my hiking clothes!” That part, at least, was true. On T, his legs and shoulders had thickened his body directly into a new wardrobe.
“I’m sure you’ll make do with whatever you have. It’s just six miles. Not too steep. Not very rocky either,” Giselda continued, as if Brady had expressed interest and not misgivings.
“I’ll pick you up at 6:30 sharp on Saturday. Sound good?”
“Um,” Brady began to answer, but the other end of the line had already gone cold.
By 6:45, Brady still hadn’t seen any sign of Giselda’s car. Just as he reached to check his phone again, the screen lit up with a text. Something had come up with Giselda’s job and she needed to stay home and work. Nevermind that it was early on a weekend morning; this startup tech company didn’t seem to understand the concept of a day off. Brady sighed and rubbed his cheeks with both hands. He was just about to put his feet up on the couch— maybe he could catch up on some sleep debt yet!— when three more texts came through: “You should still go though!” Then a photo. “I want to hear how it is!” When he clicked on it, the picture revealed itself as a trail map.
From his spot on the couch, Brady could see his beat-up 1999 Honda hatchback parked in the driveway. He had just put gas in it the other day. By his booted feet sat a faded Jansport backpack filled with a water bottle and two peanut butter sandwiches. There wouldn’t soon be a morning when he’d be more prepared to go hiking. Brady walked to his room in search of his car keys.
The oddity started in the parking area, which Brady reached after driving for nearly two hours. Despite the surprising size of the paved lot, only a smattering of spots remained empty. Once parked, Brady found an old bottle of sunscreen in his glove compartment and began applying it to his pink-skinned face as he sat on the bumper of his car. As his hand worked the lotion around to the back of his neck, Brady admired the jagged ridgeline that towered above the road.
“Excuse me?” At the sound of the voice beside him, Brady’s breath caught in his throat and his bottle of sunscreen clattered against the pavement. He quickly rubbed his face, hoping no rogue white streaks remained there. When he looked up, he saw a middle-aged white man who, unsurprisingly, looked dressed to hike. Sunglasses hid his eyes and a wide-brimmed hat shaded the rest of his expression. Brady continued to stifle his breath until he remembered his current embodiment. It had been years since anyone had assumed he was a woman, and there was no longer any need to prepare for an invasive proposition. But if not to comment on his body, why was the stranger approaching him?
“Yes?” Despite his intentions, Brady heard his tone emerge more defensive than friendly.
“I’m just wondering if you might know where I can find the Middle Ridge Trailhead?” the man asked, his shoulders squared toward Brady and his eyes still gazing who-knew-where.
“Umm, let me…” Brady opened his phone and looked at the picture Giselda had sent. It showed only the sliver of parking lot where the Yelling River Trail began. “No, sorry. It’s not on the map I have,” Brady said, locking his phone screen.
“Okay, thanks anyway,” the man shrugged. “I’ll keep looking.” He walked away, right past a trio of hike-ready women— their laughter boisterous and their faces various shades of brown. Apparently, he didn’t want a second opinion.
After rubbing the sunscreen into his arms, Brady tossed the bottle into the trunk and reached to close it. He froze when he saw what was inside: a pair of metallic-blue hiking poles. He had no idea where they’d come from, though it had been a while since he’d opened the back of his car. Apparently, their owner hadn’t been missing them. Brady took one pole in each hand and tapped the tips lightly against the pavement. The handles rose to a perfect height next to his belly button. Smirking at his good luck, Brady locked the car and started toward the Yelling River Trailhead.
Old-growth trees towered along both sides of the compact-dirt trail, and fungus-covered logs rested between thick beds of ferns. Though he only caught glances of the river through the thick foliage, Brady could certainly hear its fizzy roar. Even with the highway only minutes behind him, out here with his solitary section of trail, Brady felt like he had entered a different realm.
Shaded from the sun, the path’s subtle incline did little to prevent Brady from making steady progress. Even when the trail entered a steep section, Brady deepened his breaths without losing momentum. He had reached the fourth switchback when he heard a pair talking in front of him. A couple of turns later, the other hikers came into view. “Hi there,” Brady greeted from a comfortable distance behind, not wanting to startle them.
“Howdy,” a forty-something white woman replied as she shuffled off to the side of the trail to let Brady pass. Her hiking partner, another white woman who looked slightly younger, followed suit. Like Brady, they both held poles in their hands. Unlike Brady, though, they were outfitted in flashy hiking clothes.
“Thanks,” Brady nodded at them both then turned his attention back to the trail to avoid tripping over a section of exposed roots.
“About how much further to the viewpoint?” the second woman asked once Brady was right in front of her.
“Uh, let me…” Brady began as he leaned a pole against his belly and wiped sweat from his brow. “I think this trail goes about three miles each way, and we’ve probably made it,” he checked his watch and tried to remember what time he’d started hiking, “more than two miles? So, I suppose we should be getting close. A half-mile left maybe?”
“That’s pretty much what we were thinking,” the older-looking woman asserted, sounding sheepish about her companion asking for input. When Brady noticed the map in her hand, he better understood her frustration.
“Thanks,” the younger woman replied before side-eyeing her partner. Brady took his cue and pressed on ahead.
Only minutes later, though, he came upon another duo. He greeted them as he had the previous pair and braced for the possibility of more questions.
The nearer hiker simply said “hello” when Brady passed.
At first, the second just smiled, but then she broke her silence to ask, “How’s the view at the top?”
“Sorry?” Brady asked, looking back and forth between the two strangers, wondering if they somehow thought he had been coming down from the trail as he passed them from behind.
“Oh, my bad. I…” the asker waved her hand in a circle in front of her face. Brady studied the pair as the woman searched for an explanation. She was white with a long brown ponytail emerging from her ballcap, and her partner had dark-brown skin with short kinky hair. They wore matching gray zip-off hiking pants, and drinking tubes snaked out from the water reservoirs inside their packs. Their hiking boots were made by a well-known brand, and they were dingy with use. Nothing about their appearances helped Brady understand why they thought he’d know more about the trail than they did.
The woman finally continued, “You just— I assumed you were one of those locals who goes up this thing every year. I didn’t mean to—”
“Well, we’ll see you up there,” the other hiker interjected, giving Brady permission to carry on.
As he turned up the next switchback, Brady thought back to the years before his physical transition, when he’d spent his summers hiking on similar trails with his friends. He tried to recall any comparable interactions, but he had no memory of ever being asked for information at all. True, he’d been living one state away, but could a single political boundary really account for such a drastic difference?
A few minutes up the trail, when Brady raised his hand to swat away the bug on his forehead, he was surprised to feel a layer of fabric stretched around the crown of his head. Pulling it off, Brady examined the tube of dark green material. It felt light and stretchy between his fingers. Had one of the other hikers given it to him? Could he have both accepted the gift and put it on without remembering? It seemed unlikely, but Brady couldn’t imagine any other explanation. Regardless of its origin, though, he was glad to have something to keep the sweat out of his eyes.
Brady returned the headband to its original position and was about to continue hiking when he thought to check if anything else had mysteriously changed. He looked down at his still-bare arms, then noted the old brown socks slouching above his ankles. His boots remained in place, as well as his shorts, but as he brought a hand to his chest, he felt a smoothness that didn’t belong to the cotton t-shirt he remembered donning that morning. No, this light blue garment certainly had not come from his closet.
Squishing his eyes shut, Brady considered turning around. Something about this trail was destabilizing his sense of reality. It would probably be best to backtrack before things got any weirder. But, as Brady had told the first pair, the viewpoint wasn’t much farther. And he had already come all this way.
Once the trees gave away to an alpine meadow, Brady started to pass descending hikers. They smiled and encouraged him on, which he appreciated. With breakfast was now a distant memory, he was eager to dig into his sandwiches. But, though Brady’s stomach grumbled, his legs still felt surprisingly powerful, especially considering he couldn’t remember the last time he’d walked uphill for hours at a time.
The buzz of overlapping conversations told Brady that he had just about reached the viewpoint. He pushed himself up three final steep steps to arrive atop a small plateau. Around him, six small groups of people sat chatting and snacking, occasionally glancing up from their discussions to take in the view. And, shading his eyes with a flattened hand, Brady began to appreciate what a spectacular sight it was. A glaciated peak dominated the middle distance, and another similarly-massive mountain lurked in the hazy background. Green-toned ridgelines framed the scene, a few of their valleys still clinging to narrow snowfields. Turning around, Brady noticed the highway occasionally peeking out from between the trees. He could hardly believe he’d been down there just two hours before.
“Hey!” Yet another stranger’s voice reached Brady’s ears just after he’d dropped his backpack and found a flat rock upon which to sit. He lifted his head to see a trio of fratty-looking young guys eyeing him. All three wore backwards ballcaps and sloppily-modified t-shirts. The holes where the shirts’ sleeves used to be plunged low, exposing the taut flesh atop the men’s ribs.
“What’s up?” Brady answered, subconsciously lowering his voice to match the asker’s register.
“You know what that second mountain behind Tahoma is?”
“Umm,” Brady searched his brain. “No, I don’t think so,” he admitted.
“I guess we’ll just look it up when we get home,” his friend said. “No reception up here.” He held up his phone as if Brady might not have known what he meant. “Thanks anyway.” They quickly turned away and redirected their conversation to summer internships.
Brady was about to reach behind him for his pack when a group of white women, all older than his mom, walked between him and the frat guys on their way back down the trail. “If you want to know, that mountain out there is called Klickitat,” the one in the back stopped to say. But the frat guys weren’t listening. She shrugged and met Brady’s eyes briefly before departing the scene.
“Hey,” Brady attempted to project his voice to get the guys’ attention. Two of them immediately turned his way. “It’s Klickitat, by the way,” he pointed out at the view.
“I told you, man,” one guy slapped his friend on the arm. “I fucking knew it!”
“Yeah, well, at least I had a guess, unlike someone.” The speaker looked at the third friend, who just shook his head.
Brady was about to interject that he was just relaying someone else’s information, but the group’s attention was already gone, and he decided to let himself slip back into silence. Anyway, he was desperate to eat his sandwiches. When Brady’s hand made contact with his bag, however, he could not find the zipper. He turned his head and recoiled. The pack beside him was not his own. It was much bigger and fancier, probably belonging to a backpacker. With a panic-inspired quickness, he stood and cast his gaze across the area. He lifted the strange pack. He rolled it over. There was no sign of his bag, or— a glance over each shoulder revealed— the owner of this one.
Gingerly, Brady pulled open the zipper of one of the small pockets. Inside, he found a wallet that looked identical to his own. He unfolded it and found his ID as well as his credit and debit cards. With the rate of his pulse only accelerating, Brady’s fingers next latched onto his car keys. Someone had been trying to steal his stuff, though they hadn’t done a very good job, just leaving it right here for him to discover. No longer feeling concerned about raiding the thief’s pack, Brady unbuckled two straps to access the main compartment. At the top sat his two peanut butter sandwiches. The pieces of white bread were squished and soggy, though apparently still appetizing enough to be stolen.
Huffing out an exasperated breath, Brady turned in a circle, looking for anyone he could reasonably accuse of playing this trick. The other hikers, however, were simply carrying on with their conversations. Not eager to be teased by the frat boys, Brady approached a young pair of brown-skinned women who had been there since he’d arrived. One of the women was passing the other the remnants of their lunch to be stowed away.
“Hi there,” Brady greeted.
“Hey,” they both said as they turned toward him. With matching close-set eyes and narrow noses, they might have been sisters.
“So, this is gonna sound weird,” he rubbed the back of his neck, “but I can’t find my backpack. It’s green and about this big.” He held his hands about a foot apart. “It’s the strangest thing… the one I found over there has some of my stuff in it, but it’s not mine. Did you… I don’t know, see anything?”
The maybe-sisters looked at each other for a moment before the one on the left replied, “I’m pretty sure that’s the pack you came up here with.” She bit her lip, probably to keep herself from laughing at him.
“Oh… okay,” Brady said, already turning away.
Back at his spot, Brady bit into a sandwich as he rifled through the remaining contents of the pack: a sleeping pad and bag, a tarp-style tent, a few freeze-dried meals, two ziploc bags of instant oats, five fruit and nut bars, two squeeze-packs of peanut butter, a tiny stove with a butane canister and a pot, a water filter, a rust-orange down jacket, a first aid kit, a few toiletries, and a bag of neatly-rolled toilet paper. Nothing about the pack’s presence made sense, and yet Brady’s fingers, his eyes, and his ears all confirmed it was real.
To his dismay, by the time Brady had finished eating his sandwiches, the strange pack and its contents still sat at his feet. Apparently, it wasn’t just a hunger-spurred hallucination. He set to repacking everything he’d pulled out, and when he was done he noted that the original crowd had been entirely replaced by new arrivals. Whoever had swapped out his pack was gone, leaving Brady to decide what to do with it. He wasn’t thrilled about having to carry all the gear back to his car, but he didn’t like the idea of leaving it up here either, especially considering its contents must have been worth at least $500.
Brady’s head was hung down in thought when someone again addressed him. “You doing the whole loop then?” A tall and thin white man who, with his squared jaw and lumbering stride might have been Brady’s long-lost uncle, hovered next to him.
“Um?” Brady questioned before he noticed a map in his own hand. A moment’s study showed him the Yelling River Trail was just one section of a much larger oval. Notes penned in a familiar cursive indicated two planned places for camping. When Brady looked back up, the man was smiling and awaiting his answer.
As many times as Brady had been hiking in his life, he had never backpacked. He had never filtered water from a stream, never set up a tarp-style tent, nor forded a knee-high river. And yet, he knew to avoid collecting water from silty glacial rivers in favor of clearer creeks. He knew exactly how to use his hiking pole to give the tent its height. He knew the necessity of leaning into the current to avoid being pushed downstream. Or, rather, Brady’s body understood each of these procedures and carried them out while his conscious mind looked on. This power was frightening, that is until time faded his awe into acceptance.
On Monday morning Giselda was on her way to the trailhead. As Brady’s emergency contact, she was the person his boss had called when he unexpectedly failed to show up for work. Even before the call, Giselda had been worried. She hadn’t heard from Brady since early Saturday morning, and they typically exchanged at least a few texts each day. She was starting her car before she had even finished reassuring the boss that she’d get to the bottom of her friend’s absence. When Brady’s roommate answered the door, he informed Giselda that he hadn’t seen Brady around the house since Friday. Giselda swallowed her panic as she thanked him and rushed back to her car.
Though the lot wasn’t as full as it might be on a weekend, Giselda saw it would take some time to search for Brady’s Honda. She walked up and down the rows, dreading the moment when she might find the car. At the end of her serpentine lap, Giselda breathed a bit easier. It appeared that Brady either hadn’t actually followed through with the hike, or had made it safely off the trail. Still, a pulse in her stomach protested the finality of her conclusion. Giselda decided to double-check the lot.
At the start of her second pass, something caught Giselda’s eye: a familiar string of numbers and letters. She stepped closer. And closer. She rolled the letters over her tongue and out her lips, feeling and remembering their rhythm. Yes, she was sure it was Brady’s license plate. Though why in the world was it attached to a shiny new Subaru? Giselda was almost able to convince herself she was mistaken when she recognized the string of red and blue beads hanging from the rearview mirror. Tapping her open palm against her forehead, she paced in front of the strange car, frantically trying to figure out what to do. Was Brady really missing on the trail? Or should she admit to herself that she was losing her grasp on reality? Then again, did the two have to be mutually exclusive?
She wasn’t sure how long she’d spent agonizing over her next step when she heard a familiar voice call out to her. “Giselda? Is that you?” Brady asked, stashing his hiking poles under an arm and holding his palms up and out in surprise. His face, clean-shaven when she’d last seen him on Thursday morning, was now covered by a thick blond beard, and sweat stains bloomed out across his shirt from under the straps of a bulky backpack.
“Brady!? What happened?” She stepped toward him and reached to touch his shoulder.
“What do you—” Brady’s voice stopped short when his friend’s hand landed on him. In the next instant, he collapsed onto the asphalt, his flimsy Jansport pack empty next to him, his face sunken with exhaustion and hunger.
Dropping to her knees, Giselda repeated her friend’s name and rubbed his face, trying to keep him conscious. From her purse, she grabbed a bottle of water and dribbled a little into Brady’s mouth. He swallowed weakly. “Help!” Giselda raised her head to cry out. A couple of strangers turned their heads. In her periphery, Giselda saw Brady’s old car waiting for its driver.