Like the road, the sky was grey and greying deeper all the time. Soon it would be hard to see without a light. There was a torch somewhere in the bottom of her backpack, she knew, one of those head-torches climbers use. Her father had left it at her place after his last expedition. She had packed it, knowing it was useful, knowing he’d enjoy knowing she had it on her. “Good in a crisis” was how her father described her to his friends. “My daughter” he’d beam, hugging her narrow shoulders with his long sinewy arm and squeezing, “good in a crisis, unflappable.” and he’d ruffle her messy curls and squeeze her too tight and she’d feel the bones in her shoulders grind against their sockets and her fixed smile would only serve to encourage him. But he was her dad, her father, and she knew he was proud. Sometimes that just had to be enough.
The grey road was taking a new turn to the right, bending into the lea of a stand of trees. Evergreens, red scraggy bark and tall, taller than expected. The tops glowered in the gloom. She could smell their fragrance, warm and sharp at the same time. Bark smells matt, like its texture, the green sap of the leaves threading the whole with its spiked uplifting sharpness. It smelled good and clean, cleaner than the air on the road had been after the last lorry had pounded past. The wafting diesel fumes almost choking. But that was days ago. And here the trees cleaned the air and made up for the darkening of the evening. It was tempting, she reflected, to stop here and sleep under the trees. But she’d never get a bivvy bag up that far, the first branches spread metres above her head. No, she’d carry on. Take out the torch and wear it proudly on her head, remember her dad and the things he’d taught her. Was she good in a crisis? Yes, she realised. Yes.
Another few miles and the road was pitch dark. The head torch beam was enough to amplify the darkness around the one shining patch of gold reflected off the tarmac. There was no sound. The trees were long gone, though she could still catch something of that spiked fragrance on the air if she turned and breathed in deep. There was no sound at all. All the day sounds had subsided with the fall of night and had not been replaced. Not even a cricket in the brush. This place was lost, she thought, lost before I got here, am I finding it? She was musing, she was mixing up the past and the present. Today had come to an end, it was tonight. Night with the consistency of treacle, was what her grandmother would say. Thick, black and sticky. But that was a long time back, before the trees, before the truck, before her father leaving and before the end. The end was a concept too, she decided, even that happened before. After the end, there was this.
The black tarmac was flecked with small stones from the sides of the road. A swing of her head to left or right picked out slight shapes of brush grass down at the verges or of sloped horizon somewhere off in the distance. There would be mountains. Maybe streams and gullies too. Her own water supplies were ample, a couple of rolls of water purification tablets in that backpack of hers. “Good in a crisis,” she whispered to herself. But she’d learned it all from him. How proud can you be of someone who just follows orders? She knows this train of thought goes nowhere but desolation. He is gone, they are all gone. Was he proud? She recalls the squeeze of shoulders again, the crunch of her bones, the feeling that she is a favourite pet. Proud? possibly. They are all gone. It doesn’t matter. But the head-torch was a stroke of genius.
Back when there were lights she hadn’t needed it. Back when there were still trucks and a few cars on this road to light the way. But they had all gone. She was walking out of that place with a pack on her back and a torch on her head, however good she may be in this crisis, there was no-one left to see. Musing, her foot skimmed a small stone and it rolled ahead, her eyes drawn to the motion, its glistening brightness picked out by the torch beam. Stop, then, pick it up. See a pebble, pick it up? Is that an old rhyme of grandmother’s too? Pebbles were lucky, pebbles were good for all kinds of things. This one is round and highly polished and under closer inspection turns out to be quite beautiful. It is pale and flecked with metallic speckles, a piece of the mountains, perhaps? Pocketed, it feels comfortable. Small enough to forget, weighty enough to remind her from time to time. The road goes on. There is darkness. She has a pebble in her pocket and all is ok.
The first light of the dawn is grey too. Not unlike the grey of the road, though soon the pinks and golds begin to flood upwards from the line of the blank horizon. The road is empty. The landscape is easier to observe in the morning. There are mountains off to her left, they are in shadow still, though the peaks are beginning to catch the tinges of the sky as the sun begins its climb.
At some point she notices the sounds are back. It isn’t like a switch being flicked, not quite, but an awareness returns that there are creatures around her making sounds again. Small sounds, some far off, some closer by. Waking sounds of creatures that sleep away the fear of night and return to live another dawn.
There’s nothing visible yet, no movement in the grass, nothing flying overhead. The sun is getting warm, though and shelter will become urgent soon.
The decision to leave the road is a tough one. How many times must a person be told that straying from the path is not a good idea? Well, that is until the option is to blindly follow a road that goes on into an intangible distance or to trust the looming shade of a mountain to protect you from the beating ferocity of an unrelenting midday sun. The mountains are cool and shady, her father taught her this. His head-torch batteries are still full of juice and his knowledge of mountains has always been a source of consolation even after he was gone. This fact remains: A mountain is cold and hard and may even have caverns in which to hide. The brush to her left is not deep. The grass has been worn or eaten down to ankle height. There are no signs of snakes or other hazards. She takes a stick and tucks the ends of her trouser legs into her socks in case of ticks, though, because it is better to be safe than to be sorry.
The mountains look purplish in the morning light, they fill up the landscape as she begins her trek across the brush land. As she steps it becomes clear that what looked and appeared uniform at first is uneven. There are holes and roots of small bushes and the bushes themselves loom up and trip you as you go. Her eyes are sore with the dust that releases with each step. She wraps a scarf around her face and wears shades as protection, but the dark lenses make it harder to see where she is treading and she stows them again. She makes do with a peaked cap and a little water on a tissue to clear her eyes from time to time.
Although she walks for an hour or more, the mountains seem no nearer. The brush is dense and tussocky. Not obviously treacherous, but easy to stumble. Her stick is sharp and helps her to locate any holes and so she makes her painstaking way. Good in a crisis is a mantra now. The road is long behind her, the grey-purple of the mountains still chasms of time and miles away. The ground beneath her feet is uncertain. Her breath is heavy and hard. Her water supply is her friend as is the sticky date and walnut mix she peels from the plastic bag and chews thoughtfully as she stops to rest on a banked edge.
The mountains loom. They are grey-purple and hard. They are a source of sanctuary and survival. Her shoulders crease together as she remembers her father’s arm tightening around them, squeezing her together, propelling herself forward under the spell of this embrace. His legacy, she is good in a crisis. Now there is a crisis, but she is doing everything right. Calmly walking to where she can find safety and security in the mountains. There is nobody else left to make proud. She has nothing left to prove. What does anyone need to prove to granite? She thinks as she stares at the rocks so far still, so grey and speckled. Granite sits there just being hard and rocky and sometimes pebbles roll down its sides and does it care? No, it just sits there and lets those pebbles roll away.
They roll so far they reach roads and stray surviving women can pick up those pebbles and carry them safely in their pockets. Those pebbles are reminders of the solidity of granite and of the impermanence of life. The mountains haven’t moved, they are still a long way off. But she is good in a crisis. It will all be fine. She will make the memory of her father proud. He squeezes her shoulders and the bones shift and roll and she hears them crack and somehow she knows it is too late but the smile she wears is wide and true. She is good in a crisis, she remembered the head torch, she has water purification tablets in two neat rolls at the bottom of her pack. In the mountains there will be a stream and shade and they are still there in the distance. Hard and cold and solid and real. The pebble in her pocket reminds her to put one foot in front of the other. The stick in her hand helps her keep her balance. From somewhere she catches the faint, far-off spiked scent of tall, tall trees.
Arwen is a London-based writer, special education teacher and mother. She writes poetry and fiction and sometimes writes for freq.org.uk about music. More of her work can be found on her blog at http://curiouslittlebooks.wordpress.com
© 2014, A X Bennett