I meet you at the bottom of the climb, early in the day. Bump into you with murmured apologies, that unexpected familiar face, the friend of an old lover I never thought I would connect with again. ‘Are you climbing too?’ you ask. I nod dumbly, unable to meet your eyes. ‘Walk with me’, you say. So we begin.
It’s mid morning, the sun has lifted to find her place in the sky, the air is fresh and clean – we’ve been walking together a while. The conversation starts easy, casual, but grows in depth as we start to leave the world below behind. The long road rises steadily, filled with talking, whispering and laughing. It was never intentional, but we’re companions in the climb now. Covering more and more distance without realising the miles and the time slip by. Trading stories, experiences, enthusiasm, sparks.
It’s lunchtime now. We stop to eat, finding a beauty spot. We share scones, and as the sweetness of the jam sticks to my tongue I realise I’m comfortable enough now to look you in the eyes. We revel in being somewhere new.
‘Meditate with me.’
Afterwards we start to climb again, chasing each other and laughing.
It’s the high heat of the afternoon now, and the sun is intense. We’re closer. Our hands bump. Our shoulders rub. Suddenly no touch feels innocent. I chance a look at you sideways and find you watching quietly. Before I can figure out what you’re thinking your mouth is on mine. I didn’t realise how good it would feel. The fever pitches. We break away, laughing, and both turn our faces to the ascent. We stay walking close, and climb together. I lose my footing more times than I should, distracted, giddy.
The sun will set soon. Our laughter has started to die with the wind, and the air is still. There’s a subtle shift as you slow your pace, and I notice not for the first time how heavy your pack is. It weighs you down, and yet you are unwilling to even rest it down for a second. ‘Why so?’ I ask. ‘I just always carry it. I have my reasons. It’s hard.’ you reply. You clutch the straps of the backpack more tightly.
I blink and look at you in the fading light. I feel the truth of your words sink below my skin and tug at the gut instinct, the fear I had ignored. I wonder if you can see the strength it takes me to walk with you this closely. My path has been painful too.
If you just looked behind me and squinted into the fire a little you would see the shapes moving in the flames, the black thorns and the sharp stones. See the ghosts of rough hands that sometimes reach to pull me back, the invisible fingers always around my throat, the sharp cheekbones and the cold eyes. There is a reason we were both climbing in the first place, after all. We walk.
My ascent is nearly complete now. I stand on the ridge, looking across the expanse of the land spread before me, the pinnacle somewhere above my head. The the bleeding red sun is perfectly round, submerging slowly below the horizon. We’re losing light. We’re losing time. My chest feels open, raw and painful, but hopeful. I am alight with opportunity. My blood is liquid fire in my veins, an intensity I can no longer quench alone. Somewhere beneath it all my instinct sucks in a sharp breath.
I glance back, desperately twisting my hands, waiting for you to catch up to me – for you to see the view from where I stand – but you do not come. You climb slow. You’re weighed down heavier and I can see the doubt lining your face. ‘Let me help you unpack’, I plead. ‘Let me take some of the weight.’
You won’t let me.
‘Go’, you say. You won’t look at me.
The dim light has almost gone behind you. The only light left is emanating from my path onwards, glowing, beckoning. I know I have no choice, you’ve given me no choice – but I’m paralysed anyway. I reach.
‘Come with me’, I whisper weakly, loudly enough to reach your ears, but too quietly to reach you.
‘I’m just not ready’, you say.
So I turn.
And I climb.
In the dead of the night, I try not to think of you on the ridge somewhere in the blackness below, alone. Unable to go back, unable to climb further.
As the sun rises on a new morning, I feel conviction cement and solidify deep within.
I climb alone.