The Climb

 

I’m not sure what to call this story. It doesn’t really fit into any of my normal genres, but I quite like it. I hope you enjoy it and have a fabulous Christmas 🙂

 

There is a place, high in the mountains, where the women don’t go. The men claim no woman has been there for a millennia. They boast of their place to anyone who will listen. They speak of it in hushed, prideful tones, ignoring, as men are wont to do, the lack of dust filling the corners and the fresh, cool water that awaits them when they finish the climb.

But the women of the tribe are clever as well as industrious, so Histat remains a man’s place.

The mountains in which the tribe lives are vast places, of angry grey rock and trees that grow tall and majestic. On their slopes, the mountains are dark, the sun kept at bay by the forest. But climb above the tree line, and you find the rock.

The rock sprouts like another plant, stabbing fiercely skywards and challenging all but the most brave of the tribe. More sons than the women like to remember have fallen from those awkward slopes to their death. Edges sharp as razors await the unknowing hands and crumbling shelves invite climbers only to toss them to their doom.

The mountains are not friendly places. But the tribe has lived here since the moon was young and it knows no other place. And Histat is here also.

On this morning, the sun is bright enough to pierce the canopy and wake the paddock of goats. Their bleating drags Terril from his bed and he stumbles out into the cold air. He scoops his stick up from beside his parents’ front door and smacks it against the edge of the paddock. The goats quieten and cast their weary, grumpy eyes his way.

It is a look to which he is well used and so ignores it, marching past them to the edge of the village. It is a short walk. A path winds away, heading up the mountain and, as he has done every morning for the past six months, he peers up it and tries to still the twisting in his gut.

Today, it is worse that usual. But today, at least and at last, the waiting will be over. He thinks of going now, before the rest of the village is gathered to watch, but without the blessing of the headman, his journey would be wasted. So he returns to his goats, gives them water from the gourds hanging high in the trees, then kindles the fire pit.

The village creeps into life as the sun warms the earth. Down here beneath the canopy, the people feel little of it. The shade is constant and the smell of damp and mulch clings to the air. Terril’s mother emerges, ruffles his hair and strolls away towards the women’s place. He wonders, as he has often done, why the women’s place is only a few short steps from the village and not at all dangerous to get to.

His mother is the strongest person he knows, yet she has only to travel to the end of a short path and she arrives. He has seen the women’s place. It is almost as much a rite of passage as what he will do today. It isn’t much, not at all what he has been told of Histat, but the canopy is missing there and his mother will even now be stepping into sunlight and letting it bathe her skin.

There are some in the tribe who climb to Histat on days like these. The warriors of the tribe, for whom the climb means nothing and who know the secret ways up the mountain, go there and lie in the sunshine until their skin warms like an oven and the cool of the shade is stripped from them.

Soon, he will be able to do that too.

One by one, the men of the village emerge from their houses and gather around the God’s tree. They haven’t begun chanting yet, but they will soon. It will take Terril all day, on his first trip, and the sooner he begins, the sooner he is a man.

He scampers back into his house and eats breakfast as quickly as he can. The aching in his stomach makes every mouthful a chore, but he will need strength. He feasts on seeds and berries and the remains of the previous night’s bird, until he knows if he takes another morsel he will be sick.

The chanting begins. Terril looks longingly at his loin cloth, wishing he could feel the familiar security around his waist. Everyone will be out to watch him climb. Aliya will be out to watch him climb and his manhood will be on display. It hangs between his legs for all to see and his face begins to warm, sun or no. It looks pathetic and small.

When he returns to the village, he will be a man and no longer pathetic. He will claim her then. But right now, he is a boy and he doesn’t want to leave the tent naked. He has seen others come out with their cloths on and every time, the elder rips it from them and the village laughs as they try to cover themselves.

So Terril takes a deep breath and marches from the tent wearing only what his mother gave him when he came into the world. That and the stains of berries on his fingers and lips. He notes the nods as he strides to the God’s tree. With a simple gesture, he has won his first respect. Aliya is there and her cheeks colour as she sees him, but she doesn’t look away and when he meets her eyes, she smiles.

He is looking forward to the claiming.

The elder speaks, daubing his forehead in ashes from mother’s fire pit. He has heard the ritual more times than he can remember, but now every word strikes him as a spear, plunged into his flesh. Every word prepares him for what lies ahead, even though he knows every day spent scrambling up the mountain has been preparation, even though there is no real way to be ready for today.

In what feels a far shorter time that usual, the elder puts a hand into the small of his back and pushes him from the circle. Terril glances back at his mother and father and sees only pride in their eyes. He has been a good son and a useful part of the tribe. When he returns this night, his parents will have completed their duty and become part of the elder circle. His pride will mingle with theirs when he sees that.

He strides from the clearing to the beginning of the path and pauses. He will not look back, but he wants to. He wants to see the faces that are his world one last time. He sniffs and walks from the clearing.

 

The path sidles back and forth, moving ever upwards, but taking its sweet time about it. Terril is satisfied. So far, the climb is far easier than he has been led to expect. Indeed, it is no climb at all, but rather a stroll like he might take any day with his goats.

The path steepens and his skin is covered in a light layer of sweat. The sweat draws flies. This is no different from any other day, and his hand settles into its easy pattern of swatting and flicking, over and over. Terril begins to recognise the tiny creatures that assail him, giving them names as they take off and land, take off and land.

The paths steepens further still and he is no longer with his goats. By now they would be bleating a harsh complaint and turning away. But he goes on.

The sun is higher. Not yet above him, but moving closer. Even in the shade, the temperature is rising. His palms are slick with sweat.

The path steepens and he finds it easier to use his hands as well, hauling himself up, digging into the dirt. His toes stick in and his nails are ingrained with the dark soil that forms this part of the mountain. Now he is climbing. Now he is truly on the man’s trail and he can feel it, like a sickness climbing up from his stomach.

There is no turning back. Some have. Some boys reappear in the village by midmorning, shaking their bowed heads and trying to hide the tears streaming down them. Their parents do little to hide their own tears as their son is clothed and driven from the village.

There are other villages further down the mountain. The valley is filled with weak people and it is to those the banished will go. Some find succour, others their end on the tips of spears. Their names are remembered, but as people who were once of the tribe. They are not mourned, except, perhaps, by their parents, who will never join the elder circle.

Something catches Terril’s hand and he is pulled back to the present. He stares at what he knew he was going to meet, yet is still shocked by. Before him lies rock. It emerges from the soil like it’s trying to escape. And it climbs skywards like the trees that now lie behind him.

The shadow still falls here, but as Terril stares up at the face, he sees the sun and knows he will soon be in it. From here, to his left and his right and before him, he can see only solid rock, like the wall of the Elder’s hut.

Terril has asked questions. He has pried and prodded and queried and listened, but none speak of the secret ways. Those ways are known only to those who have climbed to Histat. And so he will climb.

He runs a hand over an outcrop of rock and feels the spikes and sharp edges. He is prepared for this, also. Six months ago, he left his shoes in his house and hasn’t worn them since. The soles of his feet are leather, worn hard by the roots of the great trees. But they twitch and curl up now as he feels the rock.

Rock cuts leather.

He finds his first handhold and pulls himself up. His feet follow suit and as they leave the soil, he gasps. He is climbing. He is climbing for Histat.

Slowly but surely, Terril moves up the face. It is sheer, but the rock offers more handholds than he could possibly need and the ascent is simple. He moves from the shade into the sun and with the glorious warmth, his childhood begins to slough away.

He quickens his pace, energy racing through him at the thought of what lies ahead. They told him the climb was difficult. They told him it would be the hardest thing he had ever done, but it isn’t. He wonders, for a moment, whether they were lying. Is it all a deception to convince the women of their worthiness?

A grin splits his face in half and he climbs even faster. His hand reaches up, but there is no rock. He has reached the top. He hauls himself up to the plateau and over the edge. And stops.

Before him lies a shelf of rock, a hundred metres deep and covered in razor sharp rocks. And beyond it lies another rock face, climbing skywards so far it blocks out the blue. He has not reached the top.

He sucks in the warm air and wipes sweat from his forehead. It is a meaningless gesture, for as soon as it is gone, more appears.

His foot splits moments later. He rests it too hard on one of the rocks before him and it cuts through the skin. He hisses and sits, but the rock is just as unforgiving to his naked buttocks and warm blood trickles down the backs of his legs. When he stands, he feels the light touch of the flies as they gather around his arse and his feet, sucking greedily at his blood.

He takes a breath, closing his eyes and shutting out the yellow sun and the blue sky and the grey rock. But the red blood refuses to go and his breath quickens. This is nothing. He has sustained wounds like this many times over.

He opens his eyes and takes his next step. He finds a gap in the rock and rests on his good foot, giving the wound a chance to relax. But the face is getting no closer. He could spend a day crossing the razor field, but night would throw him from the face as surely as if he threw himself. And he must be home before nightfall, if he is to become a man.

So Terril marches across the razors like they are the soil on which he has spent his childhood. His skin splits again and again and behind him he leaves a trail of crimson footprints. The pain subsides soon enough, though he thinks it might be numbness rather than strength on his part. His feet feel huge and cumbersome, like the wooden mallets they use in the village to drive stakes into the ground.

He is almost at the face when his left leg gives up and he stumbles and falls. His knee strikes the rock and the skin comes apart like the skin of an orange thrown to the floor. He shouts, finally giving voice to his pain as the flies find a new place to settle. He watches absently as the bloody mess of his knee turns black with buzzing insects. He swats at them and they scatter, only to return moments later.

He is sitting, and though putting weight on his arse makes tears spring up in his eyes, he takes a moment to inspect his feet. His leather skin looks like a tomato that has been left too long to ripen, ripped open in strips. The blood has tried to scab, but his movement keeps the wounds open.

He can’t feel much beneath his knees, and he knows that to climb again he will need to. But he has no choice. The sun is high above and beats down on him like an angry mother. But when it is gone, the cold will use scorn and shame instead, and he would always rather the beatings.

Terril stands and approaches the face, looking for his first hand holds. But there are none. This cliff is as flat and featureless as the last was rugged. As his eyes acclimatise, he finds tiny ledges, no wider than his fingers, and it is to these that he goes.

The first lift is the hardest. He sets his toes on a ledge low down and pushes up and every wound splits apart. He screams and finds no shame in it. Inch by inch, he lifts himself off the floor until he is holding himself up with arms and legs. He raises a hand to the next ledge and pushes again. This one is easier, if only by the tiniest margin. He looks down and realises he could have jumped this far from the floor.

A sob escapes him, so he puts his hand up and pulls once again.

The ground slides away beneath him, but it is like watching the sun move in the sky. It happens, but the movement is so slow and so torturous, that at times he doesn’t believe it is happening. But he has seen something that gives him hope.

Terril has found blood, caked into the ledges. The others came this way. Perhaps, mingled in the dusty red mixture, is his father’s blood, from his ascent twenty years ago. It is this thought that sustains him.

He speeds up. He can do this. The pain is now a dull ache that has reached his thighs. Of his toes, he knows nothing, but somehow they cling to the rock and propel him upwards when he asks them to. The sweat runs in tiny streams, down the small of his back and pooling in the holes made where his arms meet his shoulder blades.

He longs for the shade. He longs for his bed. He longs for Aliya’s eyes, gazing into his as they promise one another all the things they will do once he returns from Histat.

His foot slips and in that moment, all the promises are tossed into the wind to fly away down the mountain. His body jerks as his weight slams through his wrists to his fingers.

He is going to fall.

The wind tugs at him, as greedy as the mountain for his blood. The razor rocks wait below, patient as ever. He didn’t see the blood on them, but then his eyes were trained upwards. Time stops.

He knows the blood is there. He isn’t the first who won’t return. The mothers break, some of them, and their husbands send them away to the lower villages. But the fathers are broken sometimes too.

He will not see his parents break.

He will not have to sit above, in heaven, with the failed warriors of his tribe, and watch them crumble. His fingers are iron, locked into the rock and his feet are once more finding holds. He pushes up and somehow, he is moving again.

One hold after another. The wind fades into the background. Aliya fades into the background. The world fades, until it is just Terril and the rock, in a battle that has existed since his people first climbed.

His hands are bleeding now. He didn’t notice when the skin first split, but the sweat is red and caught beneath his finger nails. He holds on with one and shakes the other. Tiny drops of himself flutter away and are caught by the wind. He is sharing himself with the mountain, but it will not take him.

One hold after another. The sun is turning his back to leather and the salt is drying on his shoulders, cracking anew with each foot he rises.

One hold after another.

His hand lands on air and the shock almost sends him tumbling down. Then it strikes flat rock and his fingers find a hold. He pulls and his belly slides across the edge of the rock face. Then he is lying flat, the sun welcoming him to the summit. He cannot let go.

The laughter builds inside him and peals out, snatched away by the wind. He does not miss it, it carries more than a hint of madness. He cannot let go, despite being flat on the ground. He will not fall if he lets go, but still his fingers cling to the rough stone.

He is at the top. He blinks and stares at his hand. One by one, his fingers release their hold. It is harder than the whole climb, but finally he takes his hand away and waits to fall.

Gradually, like an old man rising from his death bed to greet his final day, Terril stands. The wind buffets him, but he will not fall. He is a man now.

He stands atop a plateau, far larger than he’d have believed. To both sides lie rock, but straight ahead of him is a building. His first thought is to wonder how they got the materials up here to build it. His second is that there might be water in there.

He starts to run and his legs laugh at him and send him tumbling to the ground. He picks himself up, oblivious to the blood running down his knees, and stumbles into the building. It is small, made of the same yellow brick as his home, and within is one simple room.

In the centre of the room is a table and upon it is a jug and a wooden cup. Terril fills the cup and drinks deeply. The laughter that bubbles up is far saner and he lets it comes, bathing in it until his mind is washed clean. A cloth sits behind the jug and he uses it to wash his knees and then, with eyes slitted closed against the pain, his feet.

Eventually, he drops the blood-soaked cloth to the table, takes a final sip of water and steps from the building. The sun is well past the roof of the sky and looking to its bed. He nods. He has time. He is a man, now, but his village will not know, if he is not back before the sun sets. His father promised him an easier route down. Now he must find it.

There is dust up here that the wind, despite its best efforts, has failed to scour from the rock. His feet are soon caked in it and the blood is soaked up. By the time he finds the path down, they are barely bleeding at all.

 

I’m taking a few days off from the blog, but will return on January 1st with a video and my exciting plans for 2015. It’s going to be an amazing and busy year. Watch this space. 🙂

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