Authors: Jeff Long
Hugh stabbed around with his headlamp beam, but the trees were ranked like a fortress wall. Joshua had escaped again.
“You’re dead,” Lewis bellowed at the forest. “You got the curse on you now, Joshua.” He gasped for air. “The devil’s loose. The birds and the squirrels, and the bugs, they’re his eyes. You just stepped in the deepest shit of all time. Hear me? He can see everywhere. He’s coming for you.”
Bent over, catching his breath, Hugh glanced over. “A curse?” he said.
Lewis leaned his hands on his knees. “Psy-ops, man. Fight him on his own ground. He believes in the devil, give him the devil. See how long he can live with that.”
“Is that blood? Did he cut you?”
It was only axle grease. Lewis wiped the smears with handfuls of dirt. “What the hell was he doing?”
“Trying to kill me. I don’t know. I doubt he knows. He’s got voices in his head. He kept talking about her.”
“Her, yeah, the girl. Who else?”
Hugh picked his way barefoot down the slope, searching among the rocks.
“Here it is,” he said. The obsidian blade was eight inches long, its edge meticulously chipped, sharp as a scalpel. It had a handle made of antler. “He must have spent months on it.”
“Loot,” said Lewis. “You vanquished the bastard. You earned it. Keep it.”
They went back to their haul bags.
“Now what?” said Hugh.
“Now what, what?” said Lewis.
“You know. What next?”
You could talk a climb to death. Climbers did it all the time, magnifying the risks, spooking each other until it seemed crazy to leave your own kitchen. But he had to give them both the chance to think it through. Things were moving fast.
Lewis shrugged. “He didn’t hurt us. We’re still whole.”
“We could go down and make a report,” said Hugh.
“Except we weren’t supposed to be camping here in the first place.”
“What can we tell them that they don’t already know?” Hugh said. “There’s a basket case loose in the woods.”
“We disarmed him. We put a few dents in him. All they have to do is pick him up.”
“Not our job.”
They shined their lights on the food and gear lined up in neat rows.
Finally Lewis said, “I’m good for it.”
“You know I am,” said Hugh.
“That’s that, then.”
Sleep was out of the question. Dawn was probably only a few hours off. They decided to put their adrenaline to good use and get another early start.
“It’s our own fault,” Lewis said. “We never should have come down for the night. Once you go, you got to keep going. We made ourselves vulnerable. It’s the nature of gravity. Earth sucks, all that. I can feel it right now, like a wasting disease. Inertia. Quicksand. Before you know it, you’re trapped flat on your ass in the La-Z-Boy chair watching shadows on a tube. It’s a fight for the real reality, Harp. Every breath, every heartbeat, total combat. We’ve got to get out of here. Immediately.” He went on like that, riffing to beat back the night and get traction.
Hugh pulled on his pants. They stuffed their sleeping bags inside the haul bags. Hugh wrapped the knife, a trophy straight out of the Stone Age, in some socks inside a stuff sack.
It was dark as coal. They humped the two “pigs” full of supplies and gear up to the fixed line. Hugh spotlighted the wall of trees along their right, half-expecting to see Joshua’s eyes and face painted with auto grease. But he never appeared.
The bottom of the fixed rope was dangling in midair. It rose out of sight, as if magically attached to the night. They donned their harnesses, and Lewis his helmet, and fled from the forest and its troubles.
As Hugh climbed
the ropes, something like respiration moved the trees. Timber squeaked. He heard the sound of wings, very large wings. A twig broke in the high branches. Hugh imagined an owl gripping its perch.
Spinning in a slow circle, he cast his light at the treetops. On second thought, preposterous as it was, fearing a spear or an arrow or whatever might be left in the caveman’s arsenal, Hugh turned off his headlamp.
He continued up the ropes. The moon had sunk, and the sun was still well away. It was like tunneling into the underworld.
In a sense, they were entering the subterranean, or a piece of it. El Cap was a plutonic formation made of superheated rock that had bubbled up from the earth’s interior like a massive upside-down water drop. Ice ages had sliced through the valley, sculpting what now stood as the largest homogeneous structure on earth.
Hugh kept his headlamp off as long as he could stand it, chasing the stars until the feeling of free fall became unbearable. Then he flipped the switch on and reentered his tube of stone and rope. His light beam wiped out the stars.
Below him, the blackness gobbled up his light. He felt hunted, though not by Joshua. Joshua was already a fairy tale. They’d made their dash through the ogre’s woods, and crossed his border. There was no way he could ever touch them again. By the time they reached the summit, the boogey man would be locked in a cage.
And yet Hugh couldn’t shake the sense of pursuit. He was out of Joshua’s range, completely alone with the wall. But the darkness wasn’t empty.
Hanging in place, he swept the light between his feet. His legs threw shadows on the stone, like twin columns of a gateway. He was passing into himself. There was nothing more to fear but the common fears ahead.
Dawn began breaking while he was midway up the fourth and final rope. The stone took on the colors of slow fire. Instead of hurrying his pace, Hugh slowed it. They were entering wall time now. From here to the top, El Cap would govern their progress.
Lewis was still cooling off when he reached the anchor. The smell of raw sweat was starting to override the last of his deodorant, and his whiskers were coming in black and white. The haul bags were tied off one below the other, like big sausage links.
“Don’t you look proud,” Hugh said to him.
Lewis grinned and patted one of the bags. In the space of two hours, he’d manhandled a combined weight of two hundred pounds up fifty stories’ worth of stone. As the days passed and they ate and drank through the supplies, the bags would lighten. By the top, burdened by mere ounces, they’d be flying.
They entered a collection of dihedrals, where long, vertical blocks were stacked side by side like a cubist jungle. Cracks ran up where the squared angles met at the wall. When one crack pinched shut, Hugh simply moved sideways to the next dihedral.
He felt shielded among the dihedrals. They closed off the sense of exposure. For half the day, he exploited the cracks, zigzagging back and forth, and taking a relatively easy gain of over three hundred feet.
At every stop, they ate Met-Rx Big 100 meal replacement bars, which Lewis swore by. They were lighter and easier to eat than their old mainstay of granola mixed with nuts, raisins, and dried apples, and their Slim Jims, and beef jerky. One thing hadn’t changed over all the years, the green or red Jolly Rancher candies they sucked on through the day like recovering alcoholics.
Shortly after noon, the dihedrals ebbed away. The big open books of stone got smaller and finally flattened back into the wall. Hugh set an anchor and called for Lewis to come on.
While he hauled the bags, Hugh tried to spy the ledges he knew lay several pitches higher. The dihedrals had given him hope that they might actually reach the Archipelago, as the ledges were known, by nightfall. But now, faced with this thread of a crack, he remembered how slow things were meant to be on Anasazi.
The hours passed. Hugh watched the play of shadows across the stone. A few clouds appeared in front of the sun, and suddenly great herds were sliding across their vertical Serengeti. An undertow of wind stirred the forest, and sea serpents swam among the treetops far below.
They came to a small ledge where they’d sat side by side through a sleepless night long ago, with Lewis rapping nonstop about ascent as a moral act versus an aesthetic one, and what is art, and what is moral, and shouldn’t love have something to do with it?
They might have used the two-man seat again tonight, but to their disgust, it was so fouled with human sewage they could barely breathe. Lewis cursed the perpetrators and all their generations, and finished by declaring, “We’ve got to move, Glass. We can’t stay here one more minute.”
They kept going, slowly, slowly, driven away by the sewage, whipped on by the sun. Lewis panted like a dog, sweating by the pint. The walls could hit 110 degrees or more on a summer day. It wasn’t nearly that hot now. Even before transplanting to the Arabian deserts, Hugh had always been better with the heat than Lewis, but found himself wishing for shade, and a cool breeze. And more water. And for evening.
The wall was starting to ingest them. Hugh sensed his vision and hearing changing in the vast suspended fields of stone. Mirages—great, long, plastic mantles that steamed out from the granite—bent the distances. Towers and roofs slipped in and out of focus. Reaching out his hand, a giant, faraway flake became a nubbin six inches high at his very fingertips. He tried touching an ear of stone, and it was a behemoth hanging a quarter mile off. Human scale simply didn’t work up here.
As the day went by, Hugh imagined tiny dots of climbers where there were none. He didn’t worry about his sanity. He and Lewis used to see the exact same phantoms, sometimes even waving to them and having them wave back. In the Himalayas, above the classic eight-thousand-meter level, he’d shared tea with imaginary climbers, a phenomenon known as the third man on the rope. Here, Hugh wrote the illusions off as magical thinking.
El Cap was a trickster. To Hugh the nonexistent climbers were just another of the pranks the walls used to defend against trespassers, like water stains disguised as cracks, and roofs that circled back upon themselves. And forest animals masquerading as humans. The mountains hid inside your expectations.
Lewis had his own take on the phantoms. For him, El Cap had always been one vast alternate reality. The unreal climbers were real, just not real at that very moment. They were vestiges of climbers who had passed earlier, like echoes still lingering. He cited Freud about the unconscious being “freely mobile,” alive and autonomous and capable of shaping itself. It wasn’t the human unconscious he was talking about, though, but El Cap’s.
We’re no different from them, Hugh. Imaginary climbers. Think about it, we’re just the Captain’s dreams. We wouldn’t exist without this.
And he would slap the stone as if it was the flank of a sleeping whale.
Hugh wasn’t fooled. He’d read a lot of the same stuff Lewis had, from the Taoists to Borges, circles within circles.
So if we’re just a dream, maybe they’re us. They wave when we wave. They call when we call. What if we’re looking at ourselves over there? Or we’re over there looking at us over here?
Lewis would suck his teeth, thinking hard. Then he’d see Hugh was mocking him.
Get a job, Glass. This is serious business.
Now you’re talking to yourself, Louie. Has that occurred to you? I’m just words inside your head. Projections of the unconscious.
You could get us killed with that shit, Harp.
Dreams can’t die.
That’s what I’m saying,
Lewis would say.
That’s what I’m saying,
Hugh would echo.
Lewis would bite his knuckle or flip him off, and brood. Hours or days might pass before he’d try it out again. That was the old Lewis. So far on this climb—except for the peregrine falcon striking at his contempt for Trojan Women, which was how he had chosen to interpret it, as an omen—his mysticism was parked in some rusting junkyard.
Hugh missed the rapid-fire, nonlinear, deep bullshit. It had meant something to be able to talk such talk on top of climbing through the thresholds. It had made ascent more than a simian urge.
By late afternoon, tired from the climbing and hauling, they gave up on reaching the Archipelago before night. From directly below, it was impossible to see the ledges, but Hugh and Lewis knew from memory that only two pitches separated them from spacious, level quarters. At their rate, though, the two pitches would consume another three to five hours, and it was too soon to be stretching their days into darkness. The weather was excellent. They were well stocked, on schedule, and in command of themselves. It didn’t get better than that.
They came to a halt in the middle of nowhere. The thread of a crack they’d been following since noon faded to nothing here. The southeast bowl of El Cap that contained them had gone blue with shadow. The stone was cooling in a hurry, and their climbing had slowed, like a clock winding down. Hugh pulled on a sweater while the warmth was there to take, and they began setting up for night.
It had been a long day. They were now roughly eleven hundred feet up, a little more than a third of the way, not quite the height of the Empire State Building. Minus a ledge, they assembled a portable platform, or portaledge. They fitted together the aluminum tubes of the frame, and stretched the nylon mesh taut for a floor. It was a one-man ledge, barely large enough to hold Lewis, who owned it. Hugh hung a hammock several feet above.
As night fell, they sat on the platform and watched the valley deepen with shadows. Hugh felt his age tonight. Thirty years ago, they would have had tired muscles and thirst that overruled their hunger, but not this deep weariness. Hugh’s hands throbbed, as if he’d slammed them in a door. He didn’t mind. It felt honest.
Lewis said, “I can’t believe they shit all over our ledge.”
“I heard it was a problem. All the ledges. Blame it on population explosion. We used to do it, too.”
“We didn’t know better.”
“So our shit didn’t stink?”
“You know what I mean. The world was still pure. We were innocent.”
Hugh glanced over, and Lewis was slumped against the rock, staring into what was left of the forest. “I do know what you mean,” he said.
“I thought we could get it back,” said Lewis.
“We can,” Hugh declared. “We just need to climb higher.”
“Yeah,” said Lewis, but without enthusiasm. It was Rachel again. She was going to eat at him all the way to the top unless Hugh put a stop to it.
“I’m serious,” Hugh said. “The trick is to never look back. What’s done is done. Screw utopia. Screw the days of wine and roses. Forget the infinite highways, and the infinite stone. And the women.” Their glorious hippie goddesses.
“But they were our women.”
“Resurrection is the game,” Hugh said. “It’s a job. We climb. Then we climb more. That’s what we do. That’s who we are. Summit animals.”
“And when your fingers get tired? I mean totally worn out. All crooked and bent and useless.”
“No straw death,” Hugh said. That had been their battle cry, or one of them. The bluster of youth.
Frogs began their nightly chorus. They sounded huge, but were quite small and lived in the cracks. Every now and then, car lights streamed by on the road far below. Stars winked on, one by one.
Hugh crawled into his sleeping bag in the hammock before it got any darker. They spent another half hour handing water and food up and down in their little settlement, waiting for true night.
Their passing of items had a slow, gluelike exaggeration to it. It was a wall instinct, a bit like a game of tug-of-war, but with a purpose. You held on to the water bottle or the can of mandarin oranges a little tighter, a little longer. Your partner had to pull that much harder before you released it. Nothing got taken for granted.
“You want to sleep?” Lewis said.
“I’m halfway there,” said Hugh.
“I mean sleep like a baby.” Lewis rattled a plastic bottle and handed it up. “Sleeping pills. One tablet and you’re out for the count. No hangover in the morning. That bottle’s for you. I brought my own. Get yourself all tucked in before you take it. This stuff works fast.”
“No doobies? No Coors? No Gallo?”
“You’re the one who said no more days of wine and roses. On to the pharmacy.”
Hugh checked his knots one last time. He ran his light over the anchor just to be sure. Then he opened the pill bottle and downed a tablet.
Lewis was right. One minute Hugh was gazing up at the black cutout of the summit. The next he was gone.
Annie was waiting in his dreams. She was clinging to the ropes and slings above his hammock like some desert chameleon, only beautiful and young again. Her hair drifted in the breeze. She was watching him, nothing more. Not watching over him, he didn’t get that sense. It was colder than that. She was examining him.
He murmured her name. Abruptly she fled across the rock. He woke.
The hammock was rocking gently. Beneath him, Lewis’s portaledge scraped back and forth, an inch, no more. The slings were creaking. The frogs had stopped.