From a certain point on, you forget that you’re walking. Your feet get disconnected from your brain, and they begin doing their work on their own, silently, while you somehow get busy with other things, such as pondering your so-far unsolved businesses, lingering on images from the movie you saw last night, or half-closing your eyes and just relaxing without thinking of anything in particular. The heavy burden on your shoulders is still there, yet you’ve turned comfortable with it, as if the two of you — you and your burden — are now supporting each other, because, when you have the right angle with your upper body, the rucksack turns into a nice propulsion system that helps you move on. Your body keeps making those little steps forward. And the path follows you.
Everyone seemed enthusiastic when they stepped off that little train, shouting and cracking jokes. Now, after five hours, of which the last three meant a constant march up this harsh country road, no one seems to feel like talking anymore. Everyone knows it’s better to try not to stop. If you halt even for a minute, you somehow lose your pace altogether, and your body immediately falls into that sweet state of inappropriate relaxation.
Apart form Pedro, none of them is really used to the mountain. Not surprisingly, Zoe finds it the most difficult to keep up with the group. She is the one who needs to rest often, and she does, and then Emma stops, too, in female solidarity, and in those resting times they chat. Enda refuses to rest, but it’s obvious he has a difficult time. Perspiration flows abundantly off his hair, and grimaces of suffering flash on his face every now and then.
The camping isn’t big. A dozen of tiny wooden chalets are scattered on the left side of the little river among trees and rocks around the central building. On the right side, in a little clearing, rise a few tents.
Two shared rooms in a chalet will be enough, they agree. In the smaller one will sleep Pedro and Zoe — no erotic disruptions forecasted; in the bigger one will sleep Enda in one bed and Emma with Chris in the other. For shower and toilet, they will have to walk to the main building that also hosts the restaurant.
They all have tea in the restaurant, and eat the sandwiches they have bought in town. They revise the plan for tomorrow’s tour: a three-hour walk to The Red Lake, a glacier formation with breath-taking sight, as the guidebook promised. Then they take a nice shower, and go to sleep.
Emma is almost snoring, and Chris steps outside to have his end-of-the-day cigarette. He often enjoys to be alone, but especially here and now in this special place. It’s a bit chilly, yet he sits on the entrance step of the little porch wearing only his briefs and socks, trembling a little. He inhales the smoke slowly and deeply, and a strange peace invades his being. The forest — huge, silent, and black — is everywhere on all sides.
“Dao Khe Dao!…” A rusty, mocking voice comes from behind. When she wants to be funny, Zoe talks like cartoon characters.
“You scared me.”
“Trying out your new Zen exercise?” she says as she sits down next to him, a bit too close, without asking may I join. She starts talking about herself and telling him how she loves sitting alone at night. When she wants to be taken seriously, she uses her low, grave register, like a tired big boy who’s just reported a significant street-fight victory.
“Give us a puff.” She’s probably testing the limits of his personal space. She has her own cigarettes back in her room, he knows that, yet she wants to smoke from his half-consumed fag, like she’s too lazy to go inside and fumble through her luggage until she finds her pack. He hates that, but can’t say no. When he gets it back, it’s wet. Cold saliva has diffused into the filter, and the smoke tastes different. Little pulsations of anger make their way up his stomach and throat. He grins and mimics he’s interested in whatever she’s telling him, and waits for the burning end of the cigarette to move closer to the filter so he can get on his feet and say good night.
At half seven in the morning they are all up and walking to the bathrooms, soap in their hands and towels on their shoulders. Except for Emma, who feels poorly (nausea and fever), and decides to spend her first day on the mountain in the camp.
“Sure you’ll be ok?”
“Don’t worry,” she says, “please go without me and have a good time. I’ll take an aspirin and have a rest in bed till you’re back.”
Sunshine reaches through the light fog. The ground is wet and the air feels like it’s going to be a hot day. Across the river, there’s a faint lane by the tent camp that gets lost in the forest. On the trees, there are several signs, which mark the various destinations that can be reached from that point. The group must follow the red circle. They’ve taken light rucksacks on: just water and food. As they walk, their trail soon becomes impossible to distinguish, and they must find their way only by looking for the markings. Thank God the marking is good. Either on a tree or a boulder, the red circle can always be noticed somewhere ahead. At first, the group is quite compact. Then, as the path becomes more difficult, as they need to jump over fallen trees or climb harsh rocks, their walk becomes rather solitary.
For half an hour, they walk through the forest, going up a hill or down when crossing a valley. At a certain point, they must cross a little river and stop fascinated by the landscape. There’s a small waterfall and, perhaps as a result of some recent flood, several huge stones lay in awkward positions, a few trees are broken and two are just contorted, almost upside down, yet still alive. Perhaps because of the waterfall, the scent of fir trees seems stronger here. Over the valley, far away, one can see now other forests and other rocks.
“That’s absolutely amazing!” Zoe stops and stares at the waterfall. “We need to take a shot.” She immediately starts climbing the rocks to frame herself into a possible picture. She finds a comfortable stone to sit on, and casts her hair on her back. The stones are wet. Chris frames her, and pushes the button right when the sole of Zoe’s left foot loses grip with the slippery stone. Chris thinks of the funny shot, which must have caught her sudden expression of not-yet-panic on her face, then realises this isn’t funny. Her body rolls down towards a large trunk.
“It’s nothing,” she mumbles as he helps her stand up, “It’s nothing, really.” Her clothes are messed up with mud, and she keeps rubbing her left arm.
“Sure?” he says and holds her injured arm, “Let’s sit and have a little rest before we start walking again. Let me see your arm.”
They sit down on a dead trunk, and Zoe unbuttons her boyish red-and-green shirt. There’s a reddish area on her arm where the branch hit her.
“I’ll survive.” She smiles all of a sudden, and her wide breasts get stiff under her singlet.
Chris pulls out two sandwiches packed in aluminium foil and hands her one.
“Thanks,” she says with the mocking voice of a puppet character of hers, “You’ve just saved me, husky lad!” then she bursts into her alert, low-voice laugh.
In lack of a proper joke to answer with, he gives a grin, and takes a bite of his ham-and-gherkins sandwich. She thinks she’s beautiful. She thinks she’s sexy. He knows that. But she’s not. She told him once during a short conversation they had in her kitchen while the others were arguing over musical tastes that she knew she had a special kind of sex-appeal. A year ago, she has stood for a Dutch photographer, and the photos appeared in some international magazine. She knows that her rotund shapes and generous flesh are full of energy and fire, and she could nourish any man’s desire. He understands that, and even feels it in the rhythm of his own breath, yet a feeling of disgust persists at the sight of her somewhat vulgar face and her pale skin.
She falls on her back and starts screaming.
“Let’s do something weird,” she says. “Don’t you just want to do something weird?”
“Yes. Go back to the camp.”
Flummoxed, she watches him for a second. “Ha! Not that weird! Let’s go up the river.” “What?”
“We’ll get to the lake anyway. The river must come off the lake, don’t you think? We’ll reach the others there, you’ll see. You’re the kind of guy who always follows the ordinary path? Don’t you sometimes feel like you need to try something new, like something gross?”
Yeah, but not now and not with you, he’d like to answer.
“Come on!” she shouts, and in a second she’s perched on a naked white stone in the river bed. “We’re gonna see places that maybe nobody has ever seen, do you realise that? Everyone else follows the signs, and never steps away from the safe path. Come on, it’ll be fun!”
First, the climbing is easy, even easier than along the forest path. Most of the stones — some of them incredibly huge — are dry; they just need to step from one onto the other. Every now and then they must jump over a fallen tree or cross it through the forest when the river bed gets really harsh. Suddenly, they find themselves in front of a huge wall, impossible to climb without special equipment.
“We could make it through the forest, and keep it as close as possible to the river,” Zoe says eventually. “The beauty of the unexpected, didn’t I tell you?” she smirkes. “Don’t worry, we’re nearly there.”
“Yeah, right. You sense it in your nostrils, don’t you?”
“No. In my little finger. Besides, we’ve been walking for almost three hours now. They say the lake is a three-hour walk from the chalet.”
“Yeah, on the normal pathway.”
“We’re on a short-cut here, so this should take even less,” she mutters, then halts and stares at him.
“Man, you really are worried, aren’t you?” A drop of water wets her chin. “Shit.” She’s gasping, and he realises that her whole body is wet. She waits for him to come closer, blocking his way. “I didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable.”
“Is it raining or what?” His voice comes from far away, tired and resigned.
Her hand removes a tuff of hair from his face, then continues the movement caressing his head, and stops on his neck.
“You stink,” he laughs nervously. A thunderbolt fills with light the whole clearing they now realise they are in.
“You stink, too. You stink atrociously.” A thunder follows.
“You stink like fish sauce,” he says as he watches her fingers while they unbutton his shirt.
“You stink like ass hole,” she says giving herself in to his hand, which fumbles about her warm breasts.
It’s raining, and they roll down, and twist about on the bed of dead leaves.
“You’re a dirty bull cow.” He pants over her lustful body, and smears her with mud all over the face and chest.
Her legs have clenched around his body, and her fingers are squeezing his flesh. They roll again; she gets on top, reaching with her teeth for his underwear. Another flash of light, and their bodies appear all wet and dirty, covered with dead leaves. The forest is dark and her hair is that of a witch.
“Gotta go back to the camp,” he says all of a sudden, struggling to escape her embrace. She is busy working on his groin, and doesn’t hear him.
A smack on her head does the job. He jumps up, and starts looking for his clothes. She remains there on the ground, curled on herself, panting.
“This is so fucking boring,” he says, eyes closed, shower pouring onto his face, arms, and shoulders. “We’re lucky now if we find our way back throughout this no-man’s-land.” The warmth and softness of her fat body slides off his skin little by little, taken away by the cold drops of rain. Suddenly, he is sorry because of all this dirt and cold, because of having started this trip without Emma, and because of other things he can’t really pick up now.
“Fuck it. Let’s go back to the camp,” he says, and looks around. He sees Zoe’s clothes littered, crumpled on the ground.
“Zoe! Zoe! Where are you?” His voice exposes his fear, as he begins to realise that he’ll never find a proper way of telling Emma I’m sorry. He’s lost her, and that’s just where he is now. “You, mud-covered, filthy creature!”
There is a beautiful light over the mountain. A sad, yellow-gray hallow filtered by the thin blanket of clouds. The rain has just stopped, and the sun hasn’t broken in yet. On the other side of the mountain, there is a little trail unknown to the human foot. Black goats follow it down to the little river in the valley through jagged rocks and high walls. Right now, there are several wolves in the valley, but the goats had their watering already, and the wolves can’t climb up where the goats are.
One of the baby goats has broken a leg today. He should die soon.
From the chair where she is comfortably seated, Zoe can see neither the goats, nor the wolves. There are a million things she can’t see from that wooden chair where she enjoys her morning coffee, her first cigarette of the day, and the majestic sadness of the mountain. She can’t see the couple of young lovers from the little Bengali village who bathe secretly in a river at moonlight. She can’t see the gracious dance of Shiva who uses his thousand arms and thousand legs to destroy and recreate, every single second, the Universe. She can’t see the microscopic flow of air, atom after atom, getting in and out of the lungs of the tiny ant that is climbing her left foot right now. She can’t see her sister’s face, who’s been sobbing in her kitchen all day. Zoe wonders why anyone wants to believe they all live their lives together when they all know that, in fact, everyone was born alone and will eventually die alone.
First, she wanted to go away. She didn’t want to see Chris anymore, nor any of them. Then anger faded away, replaced by an uncanny, dark sense of peace. She decided to stay. The doctor recommended that she leave the camp for a hospital down in the city, not so much because of the physical damage but the emotional shock she had suffered.
She decided she wanted to stay. Like when you need to give everyone a chance to face the consequences of one’s own actions, and to face one’s own demons. Everyone including yourself.
Today, they’ve gone on a trip to the Green Swamp, including Emma who pretended she was ready for the journey. Initially, Zoe thought about going with them, but then she realized she really needed a rest; she would have the chance to meet all of them tonight anyway.
There is another group of tourists who have arrived today. They seem to be Germans, most of them. Or Swiss. Why would Swiss people go for mountaineering abroad where mountains aren’t even as high as in their own country? Perhaps they are biologists or geologists, and came here for scientific investigations. They seem very shy, like when you enter for the first time an unfamiliar house. They keep looking around, finding their way in and around the chalet. Three of them, two boys and a girl, have just seated next to Zoe’s table, greeting her with their shiny, genuine faces.
That’s funny, Zoe thinks, she’s been here only for a day, but she feels like she’s a kinda veteran, and she’s looking at the newcomers with the eyes of the one who knows too much already. Tomorrow, the German-or-Swiss will start to feel this way, too. They’ll get used to the semi-promiscuous showers, to the old traditional toilets — a set of wooden boxes no larger than a pay-phone cabin located some fifty yards away from the chalet — and to the old man who makes a trip to the closest village every day for supplies, which he brings up here on the back of an old donkey: coffee, bread, meat, tea, toilet paper, vegetables, detergent, cigarettes, and God knows what else people need here.
“Next time you should mention you don’t like sugar in your tea,” Zoe laughs, craning her head towards the table of the German-or-Swiss group. She has heard them saying Zucker several times with a noticeably unpleased tone. “They just assume everyone takes sugar with tea.”
“Yeah, weird habits,” answers the girl a bit surprised, and smiles. “Actually, we should have forseen that, because the same thing happened to us yesterday when we had tea in town.”
She speaks English with a peculiar accent.
“These guys here are Swiss, like me,” Christiane says.
Both young men are cute. Daniel is tall and blond. Andreas is shorter, with Spanish features, and doesn’t speak English, Zoe is told. Their group is on a schedule, and they plan to visit five places, and do their research activities in the following days.
It’s midday and the clouds are getting lost. It’s going to be a nice day for those on a trip. But Zoe must stay in the camp. A whole day lost. There is a lake or perhaps a peak that she will never see, because today she has to remain on the camp.
Well, nobody stops her actually to make a trip on her own, it’s just that the doctor recommended her to relax for a while. Who knows, maybe a short trip on her own would relax her even better than a boring day here. To go alone for a three-hour walk isn’t probably the best idea for someone with no experience in mountaineering, but the day looks really fine and there’s no real danger if you stick to the marked route, and avoid the difficult places. There is a big map on the wall of the chalet with the the important destinations and the main lanes that start from here. Quite easy to read. Each lane is marked with a different sign: a yellow triangle for Peak X; a blue circle with a red border for Lake Y; a red square to Camp Z. The forest is just a few feet away from the building. You can easily spot the sign that you want.
Then you walk. You just walk and keep following your sign, and the path follows you. At first, it’s painted on tree trunks. After an hour of walking or so, fir trees disappear, replaced by junipers, but you can still find the sign painted on rocks. It might occur to you to miss the sign; you can’t always spot it right away. Then, in a second, you feel like you’re somewhere else, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of a foreign and unwelcoming world. The feeling doesn’t last more than ten seconds, because the sign invariably appears in front of you, and the forests and the mountains around become friendly and protective again. When you walk in a group, it’s different. You don’t have to pay so much attention to the path; you just follow the others. But when you’re alone in these huge distances of wild landscape, you know that those little signs are as vital to you as the air that you breathe.
The junipers remain behind, and the path keeps along a river that seems to become thinner with every step that she makes. There’s only grass here, scattered little flowers, lichens, and rocks. More and more naked rocks. Then new hills and new walls rise up at distance. Which one should be the destination? The only thing Zoe knows is that there must be a lake right before the highest peak in the whole area, but she can’t see any lake yet.
And she knows the trip is supposed to take about three hours. She’s been walking for two hours now, so there’s still a good way to go. She has only met other people once: a boy and a girl coming the opposite way.
Then, all of a sudden, the lake appears in front of her in a large crater atop of the mountain. The sun is burning, and the wind is strong, and her cheeks hurt. She remembers she has a white hat in her rucksack. She can have a break by the lake, drink some water, and eat her sandwich, before the last part of the journey. The peak is right there, near the lake, some twenty minutes of walk from the lake. There’s not even grass around. In the shade of a rock, lies a large patch of snow.
The last part of the walk is the most difficult. The rocks are sharp, and at times Zoe needs a good sense of balance; she avoids looking down, or she risks breaking all her bones by falling over that rugged ridge.
Eventually, she finds herself right on the peak. The mountains are endless, and there’s nobody else around. She’s in the centre of the universe, the light is strong, and the wind is hot. She could stay here for hours. Or forever. Loneliness can be so beautiful.
The baby goat is dying. He tried to make a quick jump, but his little hoof stumbled, and his body rolled downwards.
“No, let me guess. You can’t pay your rent, and your landlord’s at your door.”
“It’s not that.”
“You’ve broken a leg or something, and want me to buy groceries for you.”
“Some ugly boy must have broken your heart, and you need a shoulder now to cry on.” “Uhm. No.”
“Then what the fuck is it?”
Kelly is the same old bitch. Nobody would believe they were sisters. They haven’t talked in two months or so. Not because of some fight or anything — in fact, they haven’t had a real fight since they were little girls — , rather it’s that, most of the time, both of them felt they didn’t have much to share and to talk about.
“I just wanted to know how’re you doing.” People say mobile phones have no signal in the whole area. Except for the peak itself. “Oh.”
“So how are you doing?”
“Uhm. Fine. I’ve just landed home from Tesco. And you? You’re all right?”
It’s not environment-friendly at all, but it feels so good to have a cigarette on the top of a mountain.
“I’m great. I’m on the top of a mountain.”
“Oh. I thought you’d given up dope.”
The smoke levitates and flies away before Zoe’s eyes, blurring her reality and taking the shape of her thoughts, and guiding her thoughts to unexpected directions.
A tiny red creature has appeared down there, by the lake. Another solitaire walker.
“Kelly, I have to hang up now. Take care.”
On her way down, Zoe croses the creature. It’s Andreas, who wears professional Swiss equipment. His red coat pops even if he’s very far away.
“Hiya. Stunning landscape, isn’t it?”
The young man watches her in bewilderment. “Hallo,” he answers eventually, an she finds his voice very sexy. Obviously, to have a conversation with Andreas should be no easy job.
“Well, enjoy your trip!”
“Ciao,” he says without returning her smile, then begins climbing again.
After a few minutes of walk downhill, she notices the spot.
A few steps off the marked trail, and she’s there. The perfect spot. From there, she can see both slopes of the mountain, and she notices that they look surprisingly alike. Both of them enticing, both of them threatening.
She always knew that, if she ever wanted to take her own life, she’d fly off a high mountain peak.
She drops her rucksack, takes a few steps back, then starts running to gain momentum. She flies over the slope of the mountain where, a moment ago, a baby goat with a broken leg has just stopped breathing.