The wind slashes against my eyes, drying them. Each gust sends a sharp pain fluttering across the surface of my vision, obscuring it. Wetness seeps across my temple for fleeting moments only to dry up with each burst of air. A dull ache hangs heavy in the pit of my stomach and then vibrates throughout my body.
I am sick.
I told him I would rather not climb today. Not today, not yesterday, not this month, he said. I am feeling ill, I told him. But he would not have it, his will forcing me to the mountain.
The truth is, I have felt ill for quite awhile now. Over the past several months, my health has receded. Throbbing aches resonate through my bones on a daily basis. Food repulses me. I have not eaten a complete meal in three months. The very thought of sitting at a table and consuming anything remotely healthy sends bile up into throat.
My thoughts are a shattered dream, countless ideas broken apart and reassembled by something less than consciousness. I have trouble focusing and my supervisor sent me home last week to see a physician, fearing something may be seriously wrong with me. I am not one to forgive a grammatical error, but the last three manuals I approved were rife with fractured sentences.
The cold mountain air will do you good, he said. You aren’t sick, just domesticated. You have been cooped up in that office for far too long. You need to escape.
I have not written a word of my own in almost a year. I am constipated with thought and now the thoughts I have are not my own. I do not dream. I simply live in the shadow of anxiety and duty and work. The endless paragraphs and numbers and systematic indoctrination haunt me before and after sleep. Sleep is my only reprieve, an escape from the order.
I have lost the chaos. The chaos of my own thoughts; the interminable anarchy of not knowing what to believe and being okay with that. I sold out my intellectual freedom for a desk, a chair and security.
I am sick.
So, I approached the mountain with him. The mountain of lore, of superstition. The mountain where men have died in the futile search for destiny. I approached the mountain with him and now we climb.
My fractured, weakened state renders our climb little more than a crawl. My breath shoots out of my chest in shallow, irregular spurts as the elevation increases. The soft dirt paths that greeted my feet early on in our journey have given way to jutted rocky trails, only marked by the untamed wildness of the land around them. The air is thin and passes through me like blood out of a mortal wound, gurgling away. We move up and into the sky and I feel like I am drowning.
Stop lagging, he says. We left at daybreak and have climbed for nearly seven hours, but, according to his map, we have only moved six miles. I am holding him back, but I am sick. Tangled, sharp bushes scratch at my ankles in the space between my pants and socks, leaving thin bloody lines. Dirt and sweat mix to create a muddy salve on my wounds.
Despite the wind, my body is still overheating. The sun, unencumbered by clouds, engulfs me in its rays. I am swimming in a sea of light and it is killing me. My skin is red hot to the touch. He is pulling away from me. Ten feet ahead.
This is his journey, not mine, I think to myself. But why has he brought me here? I see him ahead of me, immobile now, crouched on the ground overlooking the edge of the trail. The trail drops off vertically into a valley. The drop is straight and true.
When I reach him a few minutes later, he motions down at me with his hand, never turning his head. Get down and look, he whispers. I kneel in the collection of rocks and fine dirt and look down into the valley. It is a sea of yellow grasses, twisted sharp bushes and cacti. The sun lights the valley and everything is visible, I think.
Look at the deer, he says. I look, but I do not see.
There, he points with his right hand. I follow the trajectory of his finger and see the kneeling, crawling creature. The brown and white deer is crouched in the valley, much as we are. The deer is looking at me, watching me. I am watching the deer. It crawls on its forelegs and then disappears into the backdrop of the valley.
They do that to survive, he says. They become the scenery. They fade into the background. My heart is beating fast. A deadness rises in my gut and I lurch. He feeds me water and tells me to move on. We have to cover another three miles before dark.
I travel forward with the backs of his heels as my guide. One foot after the other. I see the light change in the reflections on the rocks. From yellow to orange to purple. We are losing light now, he says. But we are almost there. We have picked up the pace, he says. We are better now.
When we reach the dry, flat piece of ground, I finally look up. We cannot make a fire he says; it is too dangerous. There has not been rain here in a very long time.
The cold is beginning to settle in. Even the desert, especially the desert, loses heat without the light of the sun. It becomes another thing entirely. A cold wasteland. A frigid kingdom of dirt.
I turn to my left and see what appears to be an overgrown agave plant. It’s ripe bloom, curled in long and sharp in its center, is like a scorpion planning to attack.
I pull my sleeping bag out of my pack and unroll it on the dirt floor. I climb inside without removing my boots and lay my head against the hard earth. I hear him eating dry rations and asking me something or another and my stomach aches and my throat burns and I am awake.
I turn my head to the left and see the scorpion plant, it’s tailed curled and ready to strike. I rub my eyes and hear the dirt shift around me. When my vision clears, the scorpion’s tail is upright and straight. I take a deep breath in and remember I am sick. I should not have come here.
I remain in my bag and stare at the plant. Dirt moves in the distance beyond our camp. A hollow, sucking drifts into me. Is he snoring? Is the wind mocking me? I am sick.
I turn back to the two scorpion plants and they are closer now. They are only a few feet away from me. They are black with red eyes. White foam drips from their mouths.
I close my eyes tight, forcing my head hard into the ground. My stomach lurches. I open my eyes and see. The five scorpions have me surrounded on all sides. Their tails curled and sharp. Their beady red eyes train on me. I scream to him, but he does not shuffle. He is asleep. The sucking sound grows louder now. Padded footsteps softly graze across the sand.
I try to get out of my bag but my arms will not move. I try to scream but no words come out. I finally wrench one arm free and reach for my face and feel that I have no mouth, just a nose and eyes staring into darkness. I can feel the heat from the red eyes of the scorpions and I feel the sucking sound pulling at my chest.
The scorpions are almost on top of me. The one in front raises its tail and strikes down. The sucking is pulling at the space where my mouth was. A loud, terrible screech tears through the silence. A sleek, violent beast lands on the back of the attacking scorpion. It’s sharp teeth glisten in the moonlight and it wraps its neck around the front of the red-eyed creature and tears out the scorpion’s throat. I am bathed in rich, black blood.
The mountain cat lands on my chest, breathing. Its heaving breath sucks at my face. With paws the size of life itself, the cat claws at my face, tearing through the patch of scarred flesh where my mouth was. I feel the tension release as the flesh breaks, but I feel no pain. It breaths into me and sucks out again. I feel the weight in my stomach shift and rush out the gaping, bleeding wound in my face.
The cat bares its fangs again and screeches and I am awake.
The translucent blue light of dawn runs across my face. I can still see stars lightly in the distance. The chill of morning floats over me. Vomit covers my chin and sleeping bag. He rushes over to me, smiling. He hands me a water bottle and dry rations. I eat and drink and we turn back in the direction we came from the day before.
And I descend from the mountaintop, feeling the stars fade in the distance. And I descend from the mountaintop, knowing that everything will not be okay. Knowing the chaos, embracing the pain and relinquishing the fear, will save me.
Tomorrow is not something to be afraid of. Tomorrow is something to fight for. Fight for the destruction. Fight for the collapse. And fight for the all-consuming fire. Because nothing, not a damn thing, stays still.
And the longer the truth chases us, the longer it will enslave us. Do not be the direct object. Embrace what you could not possibly imagine, the rocky night told me. Intertwine with the beast until you are indistinguishable. Because you are the beast. Be the animal, it said, and then it faded into the night, taking a piece of me with it. I woke up in the wet, dark earth, feeling hopeful, but still scared.