At the first they only had to walk, once in a while stumbling where the path had been worn too smooth. But the slope increased, and their feet began to slide out from underneath them. It occurred to them—they couldn’t get their footing. It was a beautiful word, and it was beautiful to have a chance to use it. They said it to each other: “I can’t get my footing.” It soon became necessary to find footholds in the rocks and grass off the trail and use the trail as a guide, the way lost people in stories will follow a river. They continued, hunched over and dirty now from the dust, trying not to imagine scorpions at their fingertips, interrupting the silence now and again with the occasional “This is hard!” and gasped-out “Yeah!.” The blonde led, in her element, reaching one hand over the other swiftly. The black-haired one moved more carefully behind.
The youngest child crept slowly, slowly. The slope felt too steep, like it was tipping her backwards, like she was an insect clinging to the shoulder of a human being. She threaded grass through her fingers and hugged her whole body against the side of the hill. For a minute she tried wriggling up this way, with her belly in the dirt like a snake. She rotated so she was sitting against the side of the mountain and tried crawl up backwards, like a crab. But then she saw the sea of grass falling away again and again below her feet and she couldn’t move. She was stuck, clutching at the side of the world as if it might spin away from her and send her flying into the dark, utterly alone.
She tried to relax and watch the sky but the stars only made her think of ancient days when no one could be safe. She pretended she was a brave in a time before history and she was stopping to gaze at the stars at the end of a long journey, but she just thought to herself, “I am a coward.” If this were one of her fantasy novels, if she were running from ring-wraiths or riding a polar bear to the North Pole or battling zombies with a fabled Welsh sword, she wouldn’t last two pages. She was the soldier falling off the battlements from the first black arrow. She was Ulysses’ man overboard, forgotten sailor, no-name faceless fish-nibbled floater.
“I am a coward, I am a coward, I am a coward,” thought the youngest child, pressing the back of her skull hard against the earth, trying not to cry. She couldn’t climb down. She’d die here. Or they’d have to call a helicopter to save her, and the whole town would watch, her mom standing next to a policeman at the bottom, yelling curses.
She realized she had always secretly believed she was better than the blonde child, who had been fat all her life and whose father drank too much, and better than the black-haired child, to whom gold-toothed men proposed in the parking lots of supermarkets, and who had no father at all. They were already at the top now; she could hear them exclaiming at the view. Now they called down to her, was she all right?
“I’m afraid!” she yelled, straight out into the darkness, knowing the other children could not hear her. There was no one at all on the road that wound around the bottom of the hill.
The air in California takes on a peculiar quality at certain times and places, a richness one only finds in old oil paintings, and life becomes both more and less real. Where and when does it happen? It happens when the mist hides the sea on a Big Sur midnight. It happens among the oaks and dry light in Los Osos. It happened there when the youngest child reached the top, crab-crawling, scurrying, knowing that each foothold would only support her for a second, holding her breath for luck like cunning children do in fairy tales.
She didn’t look down again till she reached the top and could stand on the flat head of the hill. The little car below was lost in the sea of dark. The two other children had wandered to the far edge of the hill top, and she jogged a little to join them. To the north the three children could see the lights of the valley where the oil was drilled, the bobbing wells like horses watering, the orange lamps and flares like smoke signals. It looked like a battlefield of the Napoleonic wars; it looked like some evil orc-mine of Mordor. It looked like sorcery and sadness.
In this town you either drilled oil or refined it or machined the parts used to drill it or drove a truck that carried it somewhere else. Or you did taxes for the companies that drilled or refined it, or engineered better and cheaper ways to drill and refine it, or treated the broken backs and minds that came of it. The children, though, had nothing to do with all that. To them it just looked solemn and beautiful.
The youngest didn’t know it, but things like this happened all the time. After that she got stuck in the ashy branches of the walnut trees she climbed, and in hollows of desert rock on cliff faces she scaled like a lizard. She got stuck on the peaks of roofs and at the edges of diving boards, at unprotected left turns and airplane departure gates. She got stuck, coming and going, in doorways of rooms were men were; she got stuck in the sheets of her bed and underneath layers of makeup and at the tops of long flights of stairs.
But at night she dreamed of flying, always of flying, and in dreams she was brave and swift and left her feet like mercury. She flew at airplane height and speed and watched the patterns of the earth thousands of feet below her; she flew so high she saw stars like complicated flowers of sparkling blue smoke and was afraid of losing the earth’s pull and falling towards the sun. The air was as heavy as summer pool water, and in dreams she put her hands together before her like a diver or a saint, parted the air, and rose.
© 2005-2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
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