The Climber

 

An ice goblin pricked his face with needle fingers. Like a demon marionette, the jangling apparition danced around his body, thrusting silver planes and mirrors at crazy angles, its frigid breath encasing him in deep cold.

This is a dream. I’m safe in bed, spinning this nightmare out of fragments of horror movies. Come on! Wake up!

            He tried to open his eyes, but the lids were rimmed with ice. Pain crowded his head as if his skull were too small. With difficulty, he moved his arm although the blood that sluiced through it felt coagulated with ice. Snow covered his moustache and face and swirled around in front of him, white fuzzies merging with the stars. Night, moonless night. Cassiopeia and Cepheus above. He knew the constellations’ names but not his own. Who am I? A sluggish terror oozed through him. Where am I?

            Slowly, he passed a thick thermal glove over his face but couldn’t feel his fingers inside. Bits of icy slush fell from his eyelashes. With difficulty, he twisted his head in the hooded parka.

I’m on a mountain.

            He was lying on a narrow shelf littered with snow-dusted scree, some of which covered his legs, some of which lay under him, jabbing his back. Had a sudden slide occurred, separating him from a perch higher up the mountain? He knew that rain and snowmelt could permeate upper slopes, freeze and expand during sudden temperature drops until sections cracked and gave way. He scanned the black vertical wall above him but couldn’t see where this had happened, but then again, it was very dark and his eyesight was blurry.

            Climbing. I must have been climbing.

            The thought ricocheted through his brain like an echo. He couldn’t remember. Frustrated, he lay there, trying to piece together anything about his life, anything about how he came to be on this ledge. He knew certain things—language and ideas—but nothing biographical. Shivers of fright and cold assailed him, waves of shaking followed by split-seconds of stillness.

            “Help!” he yelled.

            His voice was lost in the weather and the big space of night.

            Loneliness compressed his heart and disturbed its beating. Although he couldn’t recall one person in his life, he doubted that he’d ever been alone like this. Was he married? Did he have children? Parents? How old was he? The answers eluded him.

            What should I do? Part of him wantedto wait but for what? No! I have to take action! Stand up! But he didn’t want to move despite the discomfort of lying on rocks. His feet felt like they were on some other planet, separate from his legs. His mind seemed to be there, too, far off and circling his body as if it were a dying sun with a fading gravitational pull that was prying his physical being away from the rest of him. All he wanted was to float along in the cold ether of vagueness and listen to the wind’s surreal music as it sang wisps of nonsense, its banshee voice keening and quieting in a rhythm that matched the shaking of his body.

            He had to do something. After exhaling a long breath, he crunched forward at the waist, dazzled by the pain and confused by the stubbornness of his muscles. Dizziness assailed him as he watched snow and stones slip off his green parka and matching pants. He was wearing a three-piece nylon harness around his waist and thighs. Attached to it was a frayed section of climbing rope. Had its severance caused his fall? Several feet away lay a pair of broken sunglasses, not goggles, which he would have worn in snow. Maybe the weather had abruptly changed, catching him in a blizzard? Or had he just been stupid, taking foolish risks? Was he that kind of man? Somehow it struck him as profoundly selfish to climb a mountain, risking his own life, but also the lives of anyone sent to rescue him. And surely someone would make an attempt to find him. Perhaps he had a partner who had gone for help.

            “Hello! Can anyone hear me?”

            No one answered.

            He closed his mouth to stop the frigid air swirling down his throat, wishing he could also block the insistent chill that pierced his clothes and skin. He rubbed his arms against each other, trying to comfort himself with his own embrace, but all he felt was cold and overwhelming sadness. Tears squeezed from his eyes and froze. The wind whetted an icy razor on his damp cheeks.

            Planting a numb hand in the snow, he tried to turn and raise himself to his feet, but his strength gave out and he fell face down. Backward snow angel. This was a ridiculous thought, weirdly incongruent with his dire situation. Nevertheless, the momentary sense of being a child flooded over him, filling his mind with memories of playing in the snow. He couldn’t visualize where he was playing or with whom—the recollection wasn’t pictorial. Instead, it came to him in clusters of colorless words, like reading sentences from a book, a book about someone else’s life.    

Why don’t I recall anything?

            Fatigue wrestled with his limbs, settling like a weight on his back.

            “No,” he whispered, “you have to move.” He wanted to admonish himself by using his name, but no name was attached to who he was. A is for Adam. Adam, the first man. “Why not?” he wheezed. “Good as any.” The self-label momentarily infused him with energy. He forced himself to his elbows, then bunched up his knees. “Adam, yes, you can be Adam. Who else is around to be the first man?” His laugh was dry of amusement, choked off by a fit of shivers. When they subsided, he unfolded his body upward, unable to straighten his back. Hunched, he craned his head and noticed that the blizzard had stopped and the sky was suffused with blue starlight. Against it, the mountain glowed, its crest serrated like a wicked pumpkin’s grin.

            On numb feet, Adam stumbled to the edge and was horrified to see that the cliff was sheer: no toeholds or horizontal shelves except for the shallow indentation where he stood. Without a rope and pitons, he couldn’t climb down. His coordination was failing, too, so that even if he had gear, he doubted that his hands could grasp a line or the handle of an ice ax. Soon, he would be incapable of standing. Would it be better to fly off the precipice into space? Take one swift swan dive into eternity? His mind wrestled with the temptation, imagining the beautiful freedom of falling, but Adam didn’t take the three steps to oblivion. It was not that he harbored hope of survival; it was that he harbored fear of death. Teetering on this emotional pinnacle, he stared out at endless mountain ranges receding into the horizon.

            “Help!” he screamed, but the scream was more inside than outside of him. No one would be around after a storm at this time of night. Who even knew he was here? He didn’t know why he was here or where he was.

            Thinking that a clue to his identity might lie in one of his pockets, Adam tried to locate them, but his hands balked at the task. He removed his right glove and stared at his fingers. Frostbite. He couldn’t remember his damned name, but he knew what frostbite was. Take stock of your situation. He brushed his hand against his nose and couldn’t feel anything. More frostbite. His head throbbed, and his eye sockets ached. A concussion. Amnesia. From the fall or because he was freezing to death? Using his teeth, he replaced the glove, then turned and lifted one heavy leg after another, trudging the twelve feet to the vertical rock wall that formed up behind him. There was no way up and no way down.

            This exertion was too much. His legs buckled, sending him crashing into the snow and debris, cutting his chin, though he knew this only because he saw red blood. Since he felt little sensation, for a minute Adam dissociated from the bright color. Then, with great effort, he turned onto his back and lay there, his glove staunching the wound, as violent shivers pulsed through his body. He stared up at the stars and wandered the celestial heavens like he had been shot from Orion’s bow. Sometime later, he slept.

            When he woke, it was still night, but he vaguely recalled that a day had passed. His shaking had ceased. His heart rate seemed slower and more irregular. Whether Adam felt this or knew this, he wasn’t sure. Knowledge had become a hazy entity, lodged in a brain that was slowly freezing. I’m dying. This was the only fact he could grasp, a fact that bore down with the terrible weight of mortality. His existence would soon end, an existence that he couldn’t remember or relish or honor. Whether he had left any legacy—an invention, a work of art, a page of history, children—Adam had no notion, and not knowing made his death feel unbearably cruel. He wanted to shout and rant against the universe, to cry oceans of tears, but he was too lost, too far gone.

            Helpless to stop the pain, he let it seep into his being like the snowmelt that had permeated the mountain. He felt the anguish expand and press against the fragile containment of his body until he thought he couldn’t tolerate it any longer. Then, slowly, all his suffering abated and a strange languor suffused him. Adam let his heavy eyelids close—for how long, he didn’t know—until a vision materialized, a view from the mountain’s peak or from the eyes of a high-flying eagle: on a narrow strip of stone lay a tiny man wearing dark green clothes, his face indecipherable except for a brown moustache.

            What an insignificant creation a man is compared to a mountain! Adam thought this, but the thought was dissociated from himself, as if he could be either the mountain or the man or bird. He flew high above and rested.

            A shriek of wind disturbed his hibernation. Had another day passed? He forced open his crusted eyelids and saw a white ball blaze an arc in the night sky above him. A sign. He searched the blackness, joining the star-dots until a message appeared out of the astral combinations.

            Listen.

            He did. At first, he heard nothing, and then words tumbled into his consciousness.

            It is time. Time as you know it on Earth.

            Your life is dividing into nothing. One into zero.

            We will guide you through. Let us who have gone before bring you forth.

            Adam wondered if this was a voice falling from the sky or arising from his mind. Was he hallucinating?

            You are ours. But first, you must remove your human clothes.

            A last vestige of sense vied with this instruction, but Adam couldn’t resist its enticing imperative. Although he could hardly move, he struggled to sit, letting the weight of his shoulders carry his upper body forward. He bit the edge of his gloves and pulled them off. He cuffed the hood away from his head and then inserted his numb hand in the space under his chin until he wedged the nylon zipper down to the edge of the coat. When the two halves separated, Adam slid his arms out of the parka. He didn’t have the strength to untie his boots or unzip his pants despite the powerful compulsion to do so. He lay back against his jacket, praying that he had done enough, and whimpered for the wise voice to return.

            After long minutes or hours, Adam heard more:

            Escape into where you are.

            Fall against the snow. It is warm.

            It will rescue you from coldness.

            Adam contemplated this, absorbing the message and accepting its wisdom.

            Believe that inside the night, the sun shines.

            Whiteness has turned into blackness, and blackness will once again turn into whiteness.

            Suddenly, Adam felt heat suffusing his body. Golden rays molded his chest, caressing his face with tender warmth. The stars were breathing light into his soul.

            Do not fear.

            The voice was kind. This wasn’t God speaking to him—he didn’t believe in God. Though he was convinced of this, Adam couldn’t identify the source of the words. Was the message coming from him? The voice sounded like his or perhaps he had a twin who was whispering to him, a twin who was out there in space.

            You climb. Why?

            Adam didn’t know the answer because he didn’t know who he was. The question assumed self-knowledge. He didn’t even possess identity.

            Mountains. Climb higher and higher.

            “I will,” Adam promised. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t. He understood.

            Until beyond.

            “Yes.” His face collapsed into a faint smile.

            Past everything, farther than the future. Always.

            Adam tried to see the future, but his vision fragmented into clouds. In and out, the world appeared, pulsing with illumination. He was dazzled by fiery bursts of light.

            Time is a twist that doesn’t exist.

            This seemed infinitely poetic. He rolled the words around like dice. The serenity of the sounds consoled him.

            Come to yourself and go through. To forever.

            Adam closed his eyes and followed the words. They were pond ripples emanating from his own central truth. Life was complex, but dying was easy. He was returning.

            His body curled to the side, his bare head tucked against his chest, his legs pressed to his crossed arms. Although he didn’t see the sun pink the horizon, it did, and then, with graceful slowness, it transformed the snow into a rosy white. A southwest wind blew, warming the air.

            As Adam’s heart stilled, the new day was born.

 

- Laury A. Egan