S H O R T S T O R Y
b y j a n e t a. w e l l s ~ b e r k e l e y, c a l i f o r n i a
IT IS a high Sierra morning: cool, crisp, the end of summer in the air, the smell of sun-baked dirt and sticky pitch, the whisper of water flowing far below. Chunks of granite are scattered at my feet. I look up, taking in the whorls of color, the splashes of green and gold and pink on the massive rock face above.
My blue shirt, gray pants and green shoes are camouflage for the cloud-studded sky sweeping over Tuolumne's granite domes and pine-strewn forests. My hair is pulled tight, small silver clips holding back wispy strays. I step into my harness, cinch the black webbing around my waist. I bend down to pick up another length of webbing, this one sewn into a circle, weighted with cams, chocks and carabiners. I sling it over one shoulder. The gear clanks together, heavy and metallic.
I look up, the sound of a human voice jarring.
Rob leans in to kiss me, as he does before every climb. His face looms large. I close my eyes just before his lips brush against mine. They are chapped, windburned and rough, but warm.
"Do it up. I'll see you at the top."
This is a climb I have been thinking about, dreaming about, training for. I followed Rob up the route a year ago, hanging three times, calling out for him to keep the rope tight. At one point he had taken a long, arcing fall, then pulled himself back into the wall, greeting me at the top with a wide laughing smile. I had thought he was crazy brave for leading the route. This time I am going first, on the sharp end of the rope.
I dip my hands quickly into a small pouch clipped around my waist, dusting my fingertips with powdery white chalk. I rub them together and reach down, grabbing the end of the rope piled at my feet, loop it into a figure-eight, and tie it into my harness. My hands dip again in chalk, a ritual. I look up at the cliff. Like vertical chess, I plan my moves, search for indentations, ledges cracks.
Then it happens. I am outside my body, looking in. I see a woman, standing, erect, but so young and soft, newborn in these ancient mountains. It lasts only an instant, then I am back, the blood pulsing in my fingertips, my eyes foggy. I shake my head to clear the blur. I have no way of knowing what that moment holds in promise, what is to come.
I look at Rob, see the rope threaded through the ring on his own harness, his hands lightly poised on the diamond-patterned sheath. I tip my toes up against the rock to stretch my calves and take a deep breath.
"Am I on?"
I narrow my focus to the rock, rub my hands together for a third time, for rhythm, for completion. Fingers against cool stone, formed by a thousand centuries of ice and wind. One hand rests lightly, palm open and relaxed. The other, my left, crimped into a fist, the pads of my fingers gripping a horizontal edge the length and width of a pencil. I move my feet, one, and then the other, onto milky quartz crystals that limn the rock. Balancing on the outer edges of my toes, I stand, suspended.
I move, spider, crab, lizard-like. It feels choreographed, the movement. Hands. Feet. Breath. Smooth and flowing. My hands in the cracks, intimate, fingers inside stone veins smoothed by gnawing wind, rushing water, the ancient pulse beating against my skin. My own pulse slows, cools, until we are synchronized. I stop only to place gear in cracks, to clip my rope to the pieces, the ping of a closing carabiner echoing through the trees.
I am forty, seventy, ninety feet up. I have not spoken, at least out loud. But I find myself conversing. The words flow through me, from head to fingers and toes to stone. Where? I want to know. How? What have you seen? I feel with my fingertips, trying to unlock a secret language.
Now I am under a roof, a bulge of rock split down the middle, jutting back over my head. The crux. I feel a familiar jagged tightening. The rhythm is broken. I call out, my voice strained and tight.
"Got you! Go for it!"
Rob sounds small and far away. If I don't make it, how far will I fall? Will I hit anything? Did I bring enough water? Are those storm clouds? Why won't the wind stop blowing? I force myself to push away the words, the thoughts, to concentrate on only what is in front of my eyes.
I move up, place gear in the crack, then move back down, onto a cramped ledge, where I can rest, shake out my arms, one, then the other. I dip into my chalk bag, move up again, jamming my hands into the crack, pulling, lever-like. It feels like a violation, like battle, my hands groping, grasping, slapping, scrabbling for purchase. I strain, move a foot, start to pull with my arms, then give in. To gravity, to the rock's unseen ally. I feel my shoulders cave, my knees begin to buckle.
I slump back to the ledge in retreat, rest my cheek against the rock, feel the mica, the lichen, the quartz digging in. I listen for the pulse. I hear nothing. No rhythm to move me. My heartbeat throbs in my head. I do not want to fall. I know from experience that the terrible silent weightlessness will last only a moment, sometimes two or three, before the rope goes taut, leaving me swinging in the air, breathless, but safe. But ropes break, gear fails, cables snap. I am always wondering, always dreading. What if what if what if.
I look down, see Rob's face, the sun glinting off his pale skin.
My voice crashes through the silence, loud, braying.
"Shit! It's steep. The jams suck!"
Rob yells back, encouraging, cheerleading. I try to focus on his words, but I know he can't help me. I try the crack again, but retreat as soon as my left foot skitters out from under me. I crouch under the roof, my face against the rock. I breathe in. A flinty smell. I close my eyes.
It happens again, a second time. I see a small warm creature nestled against rock. The tip of a tongue reaches out, flicks. A snakelike exploration. Then I am back in my body, the taste of metal and soil and sun in my mouth, the rock inches away from my eyes. What looks smooth, even slick from afar, has deep creases, flakes, lumps. I want to bury my face in the folds, as if it was flesh, warm and forgiving. I feel my blood pulsing, feeding muscle and tendon, straining against vein, artery, skin, flowing, beating, rhythmic. Suddenly I understand.
I take the gear sling off my shoulder, leave it tucked away on the ledge. I untie the rope, let it fall free, watch it twist and shimmer in the air and hit the ground. I unbuckle my harness, ease out of the leg loops. I hear Rob calling, calling, the anxiety in his voice floating past me, through me. I no longer understand his words. They are a part of the wind.
I put my hands into the fissure above my head, swing my legs into the air, hanging for a moment from only my arms, free, untethered. The strength of stone pulses in my veins. Feet push, arms pull, hands solid, surging higher. I feel strangely rooted, as though I'm not moving. Am I being climbed?
Hands, feet, quartz, mica, feldspar, breath, the rhythm coming from deep within. Fragile papery skin becoming hard, layered, streaked with lichen. The silence and stillness of a thousand millennia wash over her. She disappears above the roof, feet the last of her to be embraced.
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