He was above on a perch clinging to a bush. He smiled warily. “Careful. Go slow.”
If I slipped my job was to keep my body into the cliff, to tuck my feet into my butt and press my forehead into the rock. We were a hundred feet up without a rope. It was stupid.
My foot held.
The next move was a big downward step. I said, “One more tough one and the rest is easy.”
You could see the fear on him, surely as you could see it on me. Regardless, we stayed calm. I looked down.
It was exhilarating to look at. It was a perverse feeling. I was not seeking death, instead seeing if I was ready.
I eased down. My foot held. I blindly reached over flaky rock and found a finger-hold. Quickly I made another move, and the tough part was over. I said, “Do you see where you have to go?”
He lowered himself onto the vertical section, facing the peak. I slid over in the fall-path. If he slipped, either I arrested the slide or we went as one. I asked him, “Do you see it?”
“Take your time.”
His leg shook. It was part of him I had never seen before. He had a wonderful ability to push through pain. He never exuded weakness. I thought the shaking must be uncontrollable, for he kept his composure. I said, “If you slip lean into the rock.”
The leg trembled as if it was separate from the rest of his body. Then he peered down and his face was stern, and the leg stopped. It was another taste, not long awaited, of his indestructibility.
I braced myself against the incline. It felt unstable, that my feet might slip at any time. “Do you see it?”
“I think so.”
I was ready to catch him but then he made it look easy.
It was nice to be on the flat of the plateau. Gray cloud curled over us. I told him good job. He replied, “I was dizzy for a second. I took codeine this morning. I shouldn’t’ve been up there.”
We ate lunch on a buttress of black stone. The wren ate out of our hands. We lobbed globs of bread into the abyss and watched the little gray birds dive after them, swooping underneath the bread and gobbling it out of the air.
A week later the snow lay thin and fresh on the slope. I watched light flutter down on dust-like snow. The sky was changing and blue was coming through.
On the trail, the conifers were populous and rose straight up off the terrain. The trunks were thin and gray and limbless at eye-level. We had been at it an hour, he and I. “Pretty isn’t it?” I said.
“Yeah.” He was stalking the trail. I knew he hurt. He had to hurt. The trail turned and steepened. I felt bad for talking. For spoiling it. I tried not to think about him, but I could not help it. Why was he going so hard?
When I came up on him he was retching. His head was hung over his knees. The snow at his feet was red. I asked if he was alright though I knew how he would answer.
“Yeah.” He kicked dirt and snow over the blood and resumed. I thought he probably liked the pain in his lungs and legs, for it was distraction.
It was not long before I had lost him again. When I found him he was resting on a jut. He was peering at the freeway in the valley. I stood next to him. You could hear the traffic. Watching the succession of cars made me feel lousy. I hated being a part of it. Turning away he said, “We drove two hours to get here.”
It was good to be where it was quiet. The soul might fix itself out here. A man can howl and bark at clouds and cry and argue with himself.
What was he thinking now as we came out of the woods and upon the mounds of granite black and slick and piled as if it was a quarry? Was he wondering if he had been dumped from above? Does it matter what I do? You know the one and she is gone and there is nothing you can do. Craving escape, to be present. It will be too late when you finally make it.
I smelled scarf. I was warm inside a sweater and fir-lined corduroy coat and acrylic socks. I asked him how he felt. He was more comfortable than last time. He wore a small yellow backpack now and had tissue in the nose of his boots.
We climbed over pillars of rock leaning like great growths of crystal. Clean snow lay like drapery in the creases. We wanted to look at the haystack.
Getting close I asked why. I thought that it was you heap up a bunch of responsibilities and then have to prove to yourself you are still free. You need to know you have not slid into cowardice with all you have to lose.
“I don’t want to die in a hospital,” I said to my friend.
“I know,” he said.
“I feel I could die right now and be okay with it,” and I stopped myself from saying I had lived a full life, for that belief will bring out the coward too.
“I am not ready to die,” he said. “That’s what I figured out last time. I am not ready and don’t want to. Dying is selfish.”
We crowned the mountain. The sky was all blue, and the sun was soothing. We paused just a moment and then found our way to the haystack.
“It doesn’t look that scary from down here,” he said. “Should we try it?”
I laughed. We returned to the same projection of rock and spent time with the birds.
“Look at the city,” he said. It was like looking at Seattle in a glass ball. It looked quaint, unobtrusive, there in the flat environed by the biome.
“Are you ready to be a dad again?” he asked me.
“Now I am,” I said.
“You needed what happened last time.”
“I think so.”
“Me too,” he said.
Halfway down we rested. We lay back on the snow above the trail. It felt wonderful to recline. I thought of what I had read in some Vedic text about Krishna admiring men who live well.
We broke once more near the bottom of Mount Si. We trudged off trail and knelt beside a creek and lapped water over our faces. I swished some and it was cold and delicious.