The ledge was impossibly high. He could never conceivably have known how far they’d climbed. The ascent had been made in breathless staggering bounds, week after week for nearly ten months and yet despite all the investment of hope that he and his fellow clamberers, crawlers, strugglers and stragglers had put into scaling the height still they were amazed. And then they fell. The sudden free falling tumble into the apparently bottomless abyss took the breath from their lungs and whipped the understanding from their minds.
It was always going to be like this, he tried telling himself. The fall is as much part of the journey as the climb, the rushing wind which ripped the screams from their throats as they’d stepped into the limitless nothing like a breaking wave crashing from the edge of a flat earth into the howling silence of space was as much a part of this life and this boundless adventure as the pain or joy filled days of their upward march. As he slowly became accustomed to the falling the never ending falling, he tried to find a peaceful place inside himself, a stillness at the heart of the maelstrom. The sheer empty terror of the irresistible momentum that had sent them all over into the void was slowly settling. He began to take stock, to examine the path they’d followed which had led them to this inevitable plummet. The sense of falling sometimes left him and he felt more as if he were floating, buoyed up by some huge turbine many miles below which pushed just enough air up the face of the monolith to keep him in this rushing stasis.
In these moments he wondered at the apparent futility of their shared adventure and he took the time to consider the plight of those who hadn’t been able to maintain the pace, whose bleeding feet had betrayed them when the surface of the mountain turned unexpectedly into a jagged razored nightmare. He had been staggered by the betrayal of some, especially those who had made the journey many, many times before. Men who had previously earned a reputation for helping others less certain of the route, daunted by the apparently Quixotic idea of even attempting such an ascent. Men who had lifted the weak over boulder strewn paths and sheltered them from storms which threatened to pluck them from narrow vertiginous ledges. He had seen even men like this falter and fail. But that hadn’t been the worst of it. It wasn’t that they had turned themselves inside out and questioned the folly of the climb. It wasn’t even the ones who allowed their fingers to release their tenuous hold, their feet to stop taking each difficult step. It was the men who, merely weary of the journey, had plucked out their own eyes so rendering themselves blind to the mountain itself. As they simply refused to see and in so doing denied those very many parts of the journey which were radiant in their beauty. The gentle sweet verdant meadows, criss crossed with dancing ice clear streams where the weather was always benign and the views simply took people’s breath away. What was beyond the pale, beyond understanding and acceptance was that these men, in agonies at their self mutilation, had turned on other pilgrims and tried to convince them that the path was not worth treading.
He could understand if anyone chose not to go on. Life was nothing if it wasn’t about choices but he could never understand nor forgive the kind of man who would insist on dragging others down with him. Deaf to the music, blind to the beauty, these once great men had grovelled in the dirt at the side of the track and begged those who passed them not continue but rather to join them in self flagellation as if in some masochistic penance for ever believing the mountain was worth climbing in the first place. He and his closest companions had left these tormented souls behind and continued the journey, the fire that burned within them undiminished by passing squalls and blazing ever brighter for the attempts of lost pilgrims to douse the flames. They basked together during the long sun drenched days when the path was truly a joy to walk upon and they drew together for comfort and warmth on the rare occasions when the cold winds of winter blew. But no savage storm could daunt them and through their mutual strength they faced down the pitfalls and venomous reptiles which sometimes barred their way.
Two weeks he thought. It has only been two weeks since they’d achieved the summit and plunged into the silent screaming void together. Conversation was barely possible in the onrushing wind and no matter how much he told himself that they would surely gather together soon and set out on the foothills of another climb, he was aware that their fellowship was dissipating. Each man and woman was spiralling downwards as if encased in their own intangible field of memory and distant hope. He caught the odd shouted word before it was snatched away but much of it was speculation about the end of the fall and what would follow. How would they land? Hard or easy? How would the impact affect their ability to face the next mountain, and what could they expect from their next journey together? What lay in store for the pilgrims? What indeed. But he found himself unable to concentrate on their conjecture, their words, insubstantial and without the mass to withstand the force of the savage gale, were snatched away like dry leaves before a hurricane.
And so he found himself alone. Separated from his companions until their descent ended, which he knew it must, as abruptly as it had began. How many times in his life would he make the climb, just to endure the fall, he wondered. And how could such a repetitive experience so surprise him each and every time? Despite these musings he knew in his heart that nothing would stop him rejoining his fellow travellers as the long days began to draw in once more, as Summer turned to Autumn and as, with equal inevitability, their fellowship would be reborn. What had he once told them? ‘Hobgoblin nor foul fiend can daunt his spirit’ for when they walked upon the lush grass in the meadows at the foot of the mountain they would contemplate the climb with renewed relish, with hope in their hearts and a glad song on their tongues.
But that was for the future. Now it was just the endless falling, falling with nothing to do but fall and fall some more. And yet like a burgeoning seed nurtured in that still and silent place he was already beginning to dream of the distant day when they would link arms and stand together on the summit and savour that longed for moment when they could gaze down upon the lesser peaks all around them.