If you're interested in all things ASJ, be sure to check out these classic websites:
for great fanfiction, http://asjfanfiction.wetpaint.com/
And please visit my friend Joan's website, Reflections, for beautiful fan artwork, including gorgeous ASJ oil paintings and pen-and-ink sketches.
Here are some stories. Heyes and Kid aren't in them...well, sometimes, they're there in disguise, I guess. They seem to sneak into almost everything I write, somehow.
Here are some stories. Heyes and Kid aren't in them...well, sometimes, they're there in disguise, I guess. They seem to sneak into almost everything I write, somehow.
Siward the Hunter The wind was as strong as Thor’s hammer. The blast shoved at him like powerful arms in battle, but Siward was young, and strong, too, and he thrust back against the wind eagerly. The air was icy, but he was warm under his wolf-skin cloak; he wore no armor today, for he was not riding to battle on this cold morning. “Mark my words, you will find no game today,” said the dark-robed monk who followed at Siward’s heels, along with three tall hunting dogs. His black robe fluttered in the wind like a raven’s feathers; his nose was red, but otherwise the tall, thin figure seemed untouched by the cold as he stood in the dooryard of the low, thatch-roofed manor, and leaned into the wind. Siward snorted, and tugged at his yellow beard. “What do you know of game, Brother Ordulf?” he demanded in his over-loud voice. “It’s long since you bestrode a horse and followed the deer.” Brother Ordulf made a polite smile. “Look around you, my lord,” he suggested mildly. “Do you see any signs of game?” The monk’s still eyes watched Siward as the hunter turned to glance across the wide moor. From the dooryard of his father’s house, Siward could see for many miles. No trees grew on the moorland, only brown grass bent flat under the wind; the low hills rolled out of sight, one topping another like the waves of the Southern Sea that he had heard tales of, but never seen. The wind reddened his cheeks and made his long hair stream backwards; it whistled in his ears with a tune he had known since childhood. The wind swept the moor every day, in every season; it came warm from the gentle Southern Sea in spring and summer, pushing the soft gray clouds and fog low over the green hills; but in autumn the wind turned, and came with a rush from the icebergs of the Northern Sea, and brought cruel cold and sudden snow. But game thrived on the moor, deer and hare and moorcock; Siward knew their ways, where they denned and where they hid; he had often followed the deer with his horse and hounds. “You know nothing,” he scoffed again at the monk, who stood with tonsured head bowed, his face hidden. “You have forgotten the ways of the hunt.” Brother Ordulf looked up and met his eyes with a steady look, and Siward thought suddenly of the days not long ago, before the tall man had put on the black robe, and learned the new ways. “It is not wise to go on the moor today,” the monk said softly. “If I have forgotten the lore of the hunter, the holy brothers have taught me the lore of the weather. Look at the sky. Snow is there.” He gazed at Siward, unblinking. “It is dangerous. If snow falls, and you lose your way...” The sky stretched wide over the moor, horizon to horizon, as gray as an anvil. Though the hour was not long before noon, the sun was veiled by clouds. “What’s a fall of snow to me?” asked Siward scornfully. “You fear everything, now that you wear skirts,” he added, and the monk dropped his gaze and looked away, his lips tightening to a narrow line. Siward reached to tighten the girth of his saddle, and the three lean hunting dogs leaped to their feet, following his gesture with eager eyes. “Besides, you’ll not be the loser, either way,” he added, grinning at the solemn monk. “If I return with game, you and your greedy brothers feast; if I die, well, you know my father’s will. My lands go to the abbey, and you monks will feast even better.” “I know God’s will,” said the monk. His voice was as cold as the wind, and Siward, about to mount the horse, paused. Another gust blew down his neck, creeping like icy fingers under his fur robes, and he thought of the warm fire and the good dinner waiting in the rush-strewn hall. The monk eyed him frowning, then stepped close beside him. “Do not go today, my lord, I’m sure it is not wise,” said Brother Ordulf in a different tone, calm and reasoning. “I implore you, be prudent.” He put an icy hand on Siward’s wrist, and spoke patiently, as to a child. “Always you do the opposite of what the monks advise, but for once, be guided by reason.” Siward hesitated, and the monk added quietly, “No man will call you a coward if you stay home today.” Siward’s eyes widened at the word “coward,” and he shook off the cold hand. “You annoy me, priest,” he said in his most lordly tone. “I will stay at no man’s pleasure, or God’s either.” He swung himself up on his tall horse, and the dogs snarled and snapped at each other in excitement. “Out of my way,” Siward commanded, looking over the monk’s head to the wide moor. “You think to keep me soft, to accustom me to obedience to your Christian god. I will not heed your coward’s words.” He spurred his horse, and galloped away through the gorse and heather; the dogs bayed, wild with impatience, and tore off after him. Siward rode across the empty land, the wind blasting tears from his eyes; they streaked down his face in icy trickles, and froze on his beard. He stole a glance over his shoulder, and saw that the straight figure of the monk was a tiny black speck in the arched stone doorway of the manor, already far away. Siward knew that across the barren moor the monk could observe his progress for many miles, and he galloped on, always aware of the sharp eyes of the monk behind him, piercing his back like arrows. He rode on and on across the trackless moor, farther than any hunt he had ever ridden, past all the landmarks he knew. When he finally drew rein and turned, the manor was far out of sight. He grinned with triumph, and paused to let the horse blow, and the panting dogs lie with lolling tongues. The wind was colder yet, the sun lost in the sky. A single bright ray broke through the clouds and lightened the brown hillside to gold. After a moment it was quenched by a cloud that rolled low, dragging fog beneath like a heavy black skirt. Siward felt a cold, soft touch on his face, and started, making the horse sidle uneasily. The thought jumped into his mind that Brother Ordulf’s icy hand had brushed his cheek, and he glared around him. But of course no one was near, he was many, many miles from home, and he smiled at his fancy. It was only a snowflake.
Siward the Hunter
The wind was as strong as Thor’s hammer. The blast shoved at him like powerful arms in battle, but Siward was young, and strong, too, and he thrust back against the wind eagerly. The air was icy, but he was warm under his wolf-skin cloak; he wore no armor today, for he was not riding to battle on this cold morning.
“Mark my words, you will find no game today,” said the dark-robed monk who followed at Siward’s heels, along with three tall hunting dogs. His black robe fluttered in the wind like a raven’s feathers; his nose was red, but otherwise the tall, thin figure seemed untouched by the cold as he stood in the dooryard of the low, thatch-roofed manor, and leaned into the wind.
Siward snorted, and tugged at his yellow beard. “What do you know of game, Brother Ordulf?” he demanded in his over-loud voice. “It’s long since you bestrode a horse and followed the deer.”
Brother Ordulf made a polite smile. “Look around you, my lord,” he suggested mildly. “Do you see any signs of game?” The monk’s still eyes watched Siward as the hunter turned to glance across the wide moor.
From the dooryard of his father’s house, Siward could see for many miles. No trees grew on the moorland, only brown grass bent flat under the wind; the low hills rolled out of sight, one topping another like the waves of the Southern Sea that he had heard tales of, but never seen. The wind reddened his cheeks and made his long hair stream backwards; it whistled in his ears with a tune he had known since childhood. The wind swept the moor every day, in every season; it came warm from the gentle Southern Sea in spring and summer, pushing the soft gray clouds and fog low over the green hills; but in autumn the wind turned, and came with a rush from the icebergs of the Northern Sea, and brought cruel cold and sudden snow.
But game thrived on the moor, deer and hare and moorcock; Siward knew their ways, where they denned and where they hid; he had often followed the deer with his horse and hounds. “You know nothing,” he scoffed again at the monk, who stood with tonsured head bowed, his face hidden. “You have forgotten the ways of the hunt.”
Brother Ordulf looked up and met his eyes with a steady look, and Siward thought suddenly of the days not long ago, before the tall man had put on the black robe, and learned the new ways. “It is not wise to go on the moor today,” the monk said softly. “If I have forgotten the lore of the hunter, the holy brothers have taught me the lore of the weather. Look at the sky. Snow is there.” He gazed at Siward, unblinking. “It is dangerous. If snow falls, and you lose your way...”
The sky stretched wide over the moor, horizon to horizon, as gray as an anvil. Though the hour was not long before noon, the sun was veiled by clouds. “What’s a fall of snow to me?” asked Siward scornfully. “You fear everything, now that you wear skirts,” he added, and the monk dropped his gaze and looked away, his lips tightening to a narrow line.
Siward reached to tighten the girth of his saddle, and the three lean hunting dogs leaped to their feet, following his gesture with eager eyes. “Besides, you’ll not be the loser, either way,” he added, grinning at the solemn monk. “If I return with game, you and your greedy brothers feast; if I die, well, you know my father’s will. My lands go to the abbey, and you monks will feast even better.”
“I know God’s will,” said the monk. His voice was as cold as the wind, and Siward, about to mount the horse, paused. Another gust blew down his neck, creeping like icy fingers under his fur robes, and he thought of the warm fire and the good dinner waiting in the rush-strewn hall. The monk eyed him frowning, then stepped close beside him.
“Do not go today, my lord, I’m sure it is not wise,” said Brother Ordulf in a different tone, calm and reasoning. “I implore you, be prudent.” He put an icy hand on Siward’s wrist, and spoke patiently, as to a child. “Always you do the opposite of what the monks advise, but for once, be guided by reason.” Siward hesitated, and the monk added quietly, “No man will call you a coward if you stay home today.”
Siward’s eyes widened at the word “coward,” and he shook off the cold hand. “You annoy me, priest,” he said in his most lordly tone. “I will stay at no man’s pleasure, or God’s either.” He swung himself up on his tall horse, and the dogs snarled and snapped at each other in excitement. “Out of my way,” Siward commanded, looking over the monk’s head to the wide moor. “You think to keep me soft, to accustom me to obedience to your Christian god. I will not heed your coward’s words.” He spurred his horse, and galloped away through the gorse and heather; the dogs bayed, wild with impatience, and tore off after him.
Siward rode across the empty land, the wind blasting tears from his eyes; they streaked down his face in icy trickles, and froze on his beard. He stole a glance over his shoulder, and saw that the straight figure of the monk was a tiny black speck in the arched stone doorway of the manor, already far away. Siward knew that across the barren moor the monk could observe his progress for many miles, and he galloped on, always aware of the sharp eyes of the monk behind him, piercing his back like arrows. He rode on and on across the trackless moor, farther than any hunt he had ever ridden, past all the landmarks he knew. When he finally drew rein and turned, the manor was far out of sight.
He grinned with triumph, and paused to let the horse blow, and the panting dogs lie with lolling tongues. The wind was colder yet, the sun lost in the sky. A single bright ray broke through the clouds and lightened the brown hillside to gold. After a moment it was quenched by a cloud that rolled low, dragging fog beneath like a heavy black skirt.
Siward felt a cold, soft touch on his face, and started, making the horse sidle uneasily. The thought jumped into his mind that Brother Ordulf’s icy hand had brushed his cheek, and he glared around him. But of course no one was near, he was many, many miles from home, and he smiled at his fancy.
It was only a snowflake.
The Ghost of Maple Street
Skeletons holding bags of candy. Happy, smiling corpses. Humorous epitaphs on artificial tombstones. All the lawns on Maple Street were decorated with Halloween's strange trappings. “When you really think about it,” I remarked, “Halloween has to be the weirdest holiday there is.”
Mandy clung to my hand as we walked down the dark street, her sparkly, Wal-Mart Cinderella gown more than half covered by her snow jacket. In her other hand she carried a plastic orange pumpkin.
“Cinderella didn’t have to wear a snowsuit,” she complained for the fiftieth time. “It looks stupid.”
“Well, it wasn’t twenty-three degrees when Cinderella went to the Prince’s Ball,” I said, shivering. I could see my breath, like smoke hovering in the still air.
“How do you know?” she snapped.
“Well, it was indoors, wasn’t it?” I asked. “They must’ve had central heating or something.” I looked wistfully at the warm, lighted windows that lined both sides of the quiet street. I couldn’t remember it ever being this cold on Halloween.
We walked along, the streetlight casting our shadows ahead of us, stretched out thin. The sidewalk was bumpy and uneven, with brown grass thrusting through cracks in the cement. Mandy's plastic glass slippers kept getting caught in them.
“So, this is where I went trick-or-treating when I was a little girl,” I said. “How do you like it?” She gave me a measuring glance, and I could see she was attempting to envision me as a child, no doubt succeeding only in creating a mental picture of me as a short adult in a Cinderella costume. Imagining one’s parents as children is beyond the scope of the most imaginative child.
I couldn’t imagine myself as a child, either. I remember looking down at my own feet costumed in ruby slippers or cowboy boots, but I can’t recall the child who wore them. I remembered this neighborhood, though, every crack in the pavement, every house and lawn and rusty mailbox, all shrunk, of course, to ridiculously small size during the ten years I'd been away.
We came to a spot I remembered particularly well. It was right in front of Mrs. Katz’s house, the two-story brick house with the bright green door. The sidewalk was cracked and uneven all along the road, but here it heaved up and buckled like a small rollercoaster. “What happened to the sidewalk?” asked Mandy, wobbling in her high heels on the broken cement.
“It’s tree roots,” I said. “They grow under the sidewalk, very slowly, but they’re so strong they push it up. It was always bumpy here when I was a kid. I used to fall off my bike here all the time.”
“But there’s no tree,” she said, looking around. “Not even a stump.” It was dark here, the street lamps were far away, and we could see the stars overhead.
“I know,” I answered. “They had to cut the tree down when they put in the new power poles.” There was a pole in front of us, in the spot where the tree had stood. The pole was straight as a ruler, made of wood so splintery that as soon as you touched it you’d get slivers in your fingers. “It was a big maple tree,” I said.
“Is that why this is called Maple Street?” asked Mandy.
“I suppose so,” I said. “It was a big tree. Mr. Patterson the mailman used to say it was more than two hundred years old.”
“How did he know?” she inquired, eyebrows raised skeptically.
“Well, it was big.” I looked up at the rigid pole, and the heavy snarl of wires at the top. The tree had been shaped like a fountain, the branches rising in a great curve from earth to sky, towering over the houses. I remembered standing under it and looking up to see the movement of green lace against turquoise sky. And big lemon-colored leaves rustling in the autumn wind, and floating down, lazy as snowflakes. Each leaf you caught meant a lucky month next year.
“Do trees have ghosts?” asked Mandy suddenly.
“No, honey,” I answered. “There’s no such thing as ghosts.”
“People have ghosts,” she replied promptly. “Sister Agnes in Religious Ed says so. Jesus has one.”
“Really?” I asked. I’d never met Sister Agnes.
“Yes, a holy ghost.”
“Um, well, that’s your father’s department,” I said. Religious Ed was only on the weekends she spent at Daddy’s house. “You can ask him about it next Sunday.”
“I don't need to ask, I know, people have ghosts after they die,” she said firmly. “But do trees?”
“Well, no,” I said. “They’re not people, they’re...different.”
“How do you know?” she demanded. “They have bark like our skin and sap like our blood, we did it in science.”
“Well, it’s not quite the same,” I said. “Come on, here’s the first house. It’s old Mrs. Peabody’s house, but I don’t imagine she lives here anymore.” A string of orange lights shaped like pumpkins were strung along the porch railing, and artificial spider webs were draped on the door. Mandy trotted up the porch steps in her flowing gown and snow jacket, and rang the bell as I shuffled along behind. A young woman opened the door. It wasn’t old Mrs. Peabody. “Aren’t you cute, sweetie?” she said, holding out a bowl of candy bars.
“Say trick-or-treat, honey,” I prompted.
“Trick or treat,” repeated Mandy dutifully, eyeing the bowl. She selected a Snickers bar, and turned to leave. “What do you say?” I inquired.
“Thaaaank yooooou,” she said as she teetered down the porch stairs, clutching her gown to keep from stepping on it.
“You’re welcome, sugar,” said the lady. “What a nice costume!”
The same litany was repeated at each house as we made our way down the street. The night seemed to get colder. There was no moon, and in the stretches between street lamps we could see the stars like chips of ice in the black sky.
The house at the end of the street had purple lights strung across the windows, and a life-size witch sitting in the porch swing. When Mandy rang the doorbell, a man wearing a monster mask opened it. “Boo!” he exclaimed, but Mandy didn’t turn a hair.
“Say trick or treat,” I prodded.
“Here you go, sweetie,” said the man, handing her a Kit Kat bar. “Can’t scare you, huh? Did you see the witch on the porch?”
“That's not a witch,” said Mandy, carefully adding the Kit Kat bar to the heap in the plastic pumpkin.
“What do you...” I began.
“Thaaaank you,” she said.
“Watch out for ghosts now,” he warned as she turned to go.
“Where?” asked literal Mandy.
“Oh, all over,” he said, chuckling. “It’s Halloween, you know! All the ghosts come out on Halloween.” We went down the steps as he closed the door.
We crossed the street, hand in hand, although there was no traffic tonight. We seemed to be the only trick-or-treaters around. “Let’s do a few more houses and then call it a night,” I said. “I’m freezing.”
“Okay,” she said. “Let’s do the one in front of the bumpy sidewalk.”
We went back up the street, Mandy watching her skirt swishing around her ankles. When we reached the two-story brick house next to the broken sidewalk, I glanced at the name on the mailbox: Thompson. Mrs. Katz was about a hundred and fifty years old when I was a kid, she’d probably died years ago. The door was still bright green, though. A pumpkin, a real one, stood by the door, and its triangle eyes glowed, flickering as the candle flame twisted in the wind.
A man with a white mustache opened the door. Mandy repeated the obligatory phrase, and he offered a bowl of Tootsie rolls. “Take a handful, honey,” he said. “We didn’t get hardly any trick-or-treaters tonight, and it’s getting late.”
“Thank you,” Mandy intoned, without any prompting, and stuffed the candies in her pumpkin.
“Be careful, honey, don’t trip on that blasted sidewalk,” he said as she tottered down the steps.
“You’d think they’d fix it, wouldn’t you?” I said, following her. “It is a bit tricky.”
“Oh, they fix it all the time,” he said. “Sometimes three or four times a year, but it keeps buckling like that. Just won’t stay flat no matter what they do.”
“Really?” I asked, looking back at him, but he was already swinging the door shut against the cold. We stood on the sidewalk and watched the glowing orange grin of the pumpkin. Finally Mandy looked down at her collection of loot. “It’s full,” she said. “Let’s go home and I’ll eat it.”
“Not all of it tonight,” I said.
As we turned to walk back to the car, she looked up at the sky above the buckled sidewalk. She stopped dead, staring up. “What is it, honey?” I asked, and looked up too.
Above us the night was still and dark. There was a darker shape that rose high over our heads, a curve of darkness in a graceful fountain-shape stretching from earth to sky. The towering silhouette blotted out the stars. I heard a rustling, like the stirring of lemon-colored leaves in the wind.
We stood there, listening to the whisper of invisible leaves, till I couldn’t feel my feet any more, and Mandy’s hand in mine was like ice. We walked back to the car in silence.
“It must have been a cloud,” I murmured, as I started the engine. But Mandy shook her head.
“It was a ghost,” she said. “All the ghosts come out on Halloween.”
The Cliff Path
Mary Ann Wheeler, long skirts a-flutter in the wind, stood on the cliff and peered out to sea for the thousandth time. She leaned into the wind, a tall, thin figure, her brown hair coming loose from its net as she anxiously scanned the wide expanse of water. The gusts that swept across the sea made a pattern of broad streaks, almost like highways: a clear road that could surely lead the fishing boats safely home. But she saw no boats, only an empty horizon where the sky met the gray sea in a ruler-straight line. No sign of Tom.
She turned to go home. She stepped very slowly, because Timothy was toddling along beside her. Since he'd first learned to stagger along under his own power, he rarely would consent to hold her finger; she kept a close eye on him, because he had no fear of heights, and would as happily toddle over a precipice as he would step off their front doorstep. Sure enough, he kept on, straight as an arrow, towards the steep path that led down to the water. She grabbed the back of his little jacket and pulled him away from the edge.
The cliff, known as Allen's Head, was a jumble of red granite boulders piled high above the North Atlantic. Wind-blasted oaks and junipers grew knee-high out of cracks in the rock. Great piles of firewood, draped with gray lichen, were crammed between the boulders. There were two pathways down from the high ledge: one was a rocky scramble down the face of the cliff to the water’s edge, where the tide left a ragged line of black eel-grass and shells every morning. The other was a wide and easy track, trodden by many generations of fishermen’s wives and mothers; it led down a gentle slope, through a tangle of grapevine and catbrier, home to the village.
Timothy pointed back at the water, crowing “Da-da! Da-da!” It was his word for almost anything, but she turned quickly and scanned the wide gray sheet, hoping to see Tom’s small dory. A darkness swerved below the rippled surface of the water, and she realized that the shadow must be a vast school of fish. “Da-da,” Timothy insisted, pointing at the shadow, but she grasped his small hand and tugged him on, glad to turn her back on the wind and the blank sea.
She knew what the empty surface of the ocean covered. Not only fish were in those cold depths; there were fishermen, too--generations of fishermen drowned in sight of land, still buried in the blackness of the deep water. A sudden gale sweeping from the northeast could catch boats off-shore and destroy them like a child smashing toys; lost in the blackness, the boats capsized in the howling winds and men drowned yards from shore. There was an unpleasant tightness in her chest whenever she thought of Tom. “Bobbing about in one of those tiny washtubs, and an inch of planking between him and the water…” She muttered wrathfully to Timothy, who toddled on, oblivious.
Mary Ann had known when she married Tom that fishing could be a dangerous business. When she’d first come to the village, she had assumed that the many tombstones in the Old Burying Ground near the tall white church must mark the burial places of the town’s lost fishermen, but of course that wasn’t so. Fishermen who were lost in the deep cold water off Cape Ann stayed there for ever.
The waves broke at the foot of Allen’s Head like hammerstrokes on an anvil. A big wave surged higher and higher, till it exploded with a boom against the rocks, and spray spattered over her head. Timothy laughed as drops of water fell around them like an icy rain. “Come away from there, we’re going home,” she snapped, and turned away. The wind pushed her down the slope like angry hands.
Timothy protested at being left behind, and hastened after her, head down. He looked absurdly adult-like, with heavy eyebrows drawn together in a frown. His little hat had blown off, and he carried it clenched in one tiny fist as the wind ruffled his fluffy baby curls. She smiled and slowed to wait for him, her shawl drawn tightly around her thin shoulders.
She followed Timothy as he stumped past her, feeling the gusts lessening as they went down the hill. Out of the wind the trees grew shoulder high, then reached over her head to form a green tunnel. She looked back over her shoulder for a last glimpse of the sea. Still no Tom.
Timothy led the way, occasionally tripping over a rock and crashing full length on the path. Each time he fell Mary Ann picked him up and he would set off again undaunted, his legs moving continuously like a wind-up toy even when she held him in mid-air. Rounding a corner, Mary Ann came in sight of the town, a little cluster of cottages perched like barnacles on the rocks overlooking the bay.
She picked Timothy up to hasten him along, but he protested instantly, squirming and ordering her to put him down in his own peculiar language, which had the meter and rhythm of speech but no intelligible words. Although thirteen months of age, Timothy had spoken no words yet, but as her husband Tom often remarked, “He’s a lad that has plenty to say for himself.” Mary Ann walked quickly, carrying him under one arm, and he kicked with vigor as they approached their small house.
Her neighbor, Mrs. Tarr stood in the doorway of her tidy cottage. She was waving a broom at a scrawny cat, who leaped off the porch, then turned and hissed, fur bristling. “Filthy thing,” the old lady said, poking with her broom at the stoop, and Mary Ann saw the headless body of a mouse on the immaculate doorstep. Mrs. Tarr swept the mouse off the step, her mouth puckered as though she had tasted a lemon, then turned to shake her head at Mary Ann
"If you carry that child about all day long, he’ll never learn to walk properly," Mrs. Tarr said, in her rusty voice. “He still isn’t talking, is he? My great-nephew can recite the Lord’s Prayer all the way through, and he's three months younger.” Mary Ann gritted her teeth and smiled with as much politeness as she could muster.
“It’s getting late, no sign of young Tom?” Mrs. Tarr went on, and shook her head mournfully before Mary Ann could reply. “Ah, he’s a reckless one, always was from a boy. Always took his boat out too far. Just like my Bill. He ought to be more careful, with a family to care for now.”
“He’s often out two nights, Mrs. Tarr,” said Mary Ann brightly, but the tight feeling in her chest squeezed tighter still. Mrs. Tarr eyed the struggling Timothy with a frown, and Mary Ann put him down, his little dress much disheveled.
“Ah, but with the winter coming on….” Mrs. Tarr let her voice drop. “You farm folk don’t know what the winter gales are like.” She wore the black dress of a widow, as did half the women in the town.
Mary Ann smiled with grim determination. “I'm sure he’s fine,” she said, jutting her chin out.
Mrs. Tarr made a tight smile. “You’ve grown up inland, dear, you have no idea how fierce that wind can be...” she began, then suddenly broke off. “For heaven’s sake, watch that child!” she shrieked. Mary Ann spun around to see Timothy clutching the dead mouse and studying it with interest. He raised it, opening his mouth to take a bite, and she shook it out of his grubby fist just in time.
“We must be going,” she said hastily, and hauled him off down the path, as he protested vehemently.
“Spare the rod and spoil the child, you know,” her neighbor called, and then the door closed with a snap behind Mrs. Tarr’s black skirts.
Mary Ann put the baby down a few steps from their own door, and he toddled towards the house, muttering indignantly. He clambered over the doorstone, using hands and knees, as she held the door open for him. She sighed as she went into the empty house. There was no sign of Tom’s seaboots, no mud tracked across the floor.
The kitchen held two chairs, a table, and a shelf with an assortment of pewter plates and spoons, wooden bowls, and Mary Ann’s prized coffee grinder. A fireplace made of granite chunks took up most of one wall. High on the narrow mantel were piled candlesticks, crockery mugs, and plates--it was the only place in the house Timothy couldn’t reach.
The kitchen was damp, as always; she did battle with the dampness all year long. Here in the stone cottage a few yards from the water, the dankness and the smell of seaweed were always present: wood swelled, doors and drawers stuck, bread invariably had a fine blue coating of mildew on it, and the bedclothes always felt clammy. The October weather was chilly, and she hadn’t bothered to start the fire at breakfast time, so the room was even colder than usual.
Mary Ann raked the ashes from the back of the fireplace, sending up gray powdery dust. Timothy, clinging to her skirts, sneezed loudly. There wasn’t a spark anywhere in the hearth, and Mary Ann sighed. She could go over to Mrs. Tarr’s to borrow some live coals, but she didn't want to hear any more about the weather. The fire had to be started again, from scratch.
On the occasional mornings that Tom was home, he would start the fire before he headed out for the day’s fishing, making what Mary Ann considered to be magical gestures that had a blaze roaring immediately. But these days, as times grew harder, he was away on overnight fishing trips, two nights, even three, and the fireplace had become her own personal enemy.
After a dozen unsuccessful tries with flint and steel she managed to light the tinder. But the kindling was damp, as usual, and the newborn flame faded. Mary Ann added another log gingerly, and the whole pile fell over. The flickering fire went out.
She threw down the kindling with a sigh, and stood up to stretch her aching back. She glanced out the window, where a thin line of ocean was visible through the wind-stunted trees. Timothy’s voice sounded quietly as sat on the floor, absorbed in some private game, and she heard, as always, the sound of the waves on the rocky length of Allen’s Head. “It’s quieter tonight,” she said aloud.
She glanced down at Timothy to see what he was up to. He had arranged his own little shoes and several of Tom's wool socks in a row, and now was uncoiling a piece of string. She knew, having seen this game countless times, that the old string was a fishing line and the shoes and socks were fish. She snatched the shoes up, ignoring his squawks of protest. He’s never been out of the sound of the waves since the night he was born, she thought. For Mary Ann it had been the first thing she noticed, straight from the quiet of moonlit nights on her father’s farm. She sat down with the baby on her lap, wondering if she’d ever get used to the life of a fisherman’s wife.
The inland farm she had grown up on, twenty miles from the sea, had been so predictable. You sowed seeds and you knew where they’d come up in the spring. She still wasn’t accustomed to the way Tom and the other fishermen hopped into a heaving little shell of a boat and rowed miles from land to pull fish from the cold water. And such a wealth of fish, cod and halibut and mackerel in such abundance that they were fed to the pigs; the cold salt water was more fertile by far than Cape Ann’s rocky soil.
“When will you be back?” Every time Tom’s small boat melted into the dusk as he rowed away from the dock, Mary Ann wanted to shout the question across the water, but she knew better by now. Fishermen came back when the boat was too full of fish to hold any more, when the fish were piled so high there was hardly room for the men in the boat, hundreds of cod and pollock, hake and mackerel in silvery heaps. “Fishermen just say ‘goodbye’ when they leave, and ‘Here I am’ when they get back,” he told her, the first time she had watched him go out. “There’s no good in women’s worrying. What the sea wants, she’ll take.”
Timothy’s head soon sank on her shoulder, and he fell fast asleep. She rocked him back and forth as the sun went down and they were slowly surrounded by a tide of darkness. In her mind’s eye she saw Tom’s boat following the wind-streaked ocean highways, farther and farther out to sea.
She put Timothy to bed, and started preparations for supper, for Tom would surely be home tonight. She filled her apron with a dozen muddy potatoes from the root cellar, and washed them hastily in cold water. In the basin, last night’s chowder dishes mingled with bowls crusted with breakfast porridge, and there really weren’t any more dishes left to use, so she needed hot water for dish-washing as well as cooking. The fire would have to be started, there was no getting around it.
She broke some of the sticks in the woodbox into small lengths for kindling, but some of them were so damp that they bent instead of snapping. She would have squandered even some paper for tinder, if she had any in the house, though Tom would be outraged at wasting something so expensive for kindling. “Like burning money,” he’d grumble.
By the time she had a hesitant trace of flame going, it was pitch dark outside. As she knelt coaxing the stubborn fire, she became aware again of the muffled wailing of the wind. Usually the evening breeze merged with the sea’s murmur to lull the baby to sleep, but tonight the sound seemed harsher.
She went into the bedroom, and checked on Timothy in the trundle bed. He was sleeping in his usual pose, bottom in the air, snoring slightly; she had bundled him in layer upon layer of clothes, since he never stayed under the covers. Mary Ann tucked the quilt over him, knowing that he would be uncovered the next time she checked.
Back in the kitchen, she put the potatoes on to cook for chowder. Pulling up her thick quilted petticoats, she let the warmth seep through her woollen stockings. She put another log on the fire, and watched it suspiciously. She still felt unsettled, for no particular reason that she could put her finger on. The kitchen was the same as always, though, dimly lit by the smoldering fireplace. The murmur of the wind was rising.
She filled a kettle with cold water from the bucket, and put it on the hob to heat. She sat down waiting for the pot to boil, then jumped up a minute later, and checked Timothy again, covering him and watching him immediately wriggle out from under the quilt in his sleep. She started with the dishes before the water was really hot enough, and the rock-hard chunk of soap wouldn’t lather properly. She swished the plates in the gray water energetically, trying to drown the mutter of the wind.
The front door suddenly flew open and hit the wall with a bang that made her bite her tongue with fright. Timothy began to wail, and his cry blended with the howl outside. She ran to the door and pushed it shut, shoving the wind back outside. She rattled the latch into place, and ran to soothe the baby.
When he was snoring again, she went back into the kitchen. She could no longer see across the room, and the small windows were black squares in the grayness. She lit a candle and set it on the windowsill. Drafts came through the cracks in the window frames, and the candle flame jumped and wavered. The wind roared, prowling around the stone walls of the little house, seeking a way inside.
A banging noise made her glance fearfully at the door. It almost sounded like someone knocking wildly. She had a momentary fancy that the sea itself was pounding to come in, and was glad the latch was drawn.
She caught the sound of a faint voice, shouting. There really was someone outside. Running to the door, she unlatched it, and the wind immediately tore the handle out of her hand. Mrs. Tarr stood on the doorstone, her usually neat bun of hair streaming out over her black shawl.
“Oh, what is it?” gasped Mary Ann.
“What is it?” Mrs. Tarr stared at her. “What is it? Don't you farmers know anything? It’s a gale, that’s what it is, a gale that will send all the boats to the bottom. Can’t you hear it?” She paused, panting, and they heard the voice of the storm, like a wolf howling.
“Came up of a sudden,” Mrs. Tarr went on. “And the night’s as black as coal and there’s no moon and they'll never find their way back to shore, never, never…” Her quavering voice was almost drowned by the roar from the ocean.
Mary Ann felt a chill, colder than the freezing wind, run down her back. “What... what...” she stammered.
“Don't stand there like a ninny!” Mrs. Tarr grabbed her wrist and pulled her out into the cold.
Mary Ann felt numb. “Where are you going?” she cried.
“To make a bonfire, of course, you fool! How else can they find their way home?” Without waiting for Mary Ann to answer, the old lady turned and fled up the path that led to Allen’s Head. Mary Ann stood rooted, staring at the amazing spectacle of prim Mrs. Tarr flying up the path with no hat and her black skirts flapping in the wind.
As the darkness swallowed the running figure, Mary Ann realized where her neighbor was going. She ran out into the night, leaving the door open, but after a few steps she skidded to a halt. She ran back inside, and hastened towards the door of the bedroom, where Timothy had slept though the racket. Then she shivered in a blast of cold air from the icy night outside, and ran out of the house again, slamming the door behind her.
She was soon as much of a scarecrow as Mrs. Tarr had been, her hair torn by the wind, and her skirts tangling around her legs. Tears ran down her cheeks, leaving icy tracks, as the wind almost froze the water on her face. She tripped over a rock, banging her toes painfully, and stumbled to her knees.
As she crouched there, trembling, she seemed to hear Tom's voice, as she had heard him as he rowed away from the dock, while she stood watching in the evening mist. Bring a lantern next time to see you home, sweetheart. Her eyes widened in the dark, as she realized what had been forgotten in her blind haste.
She rose and stumbled her way back to the cottage, and entered the haven of the warm, quiet kitchen. The lone candle was burning where she had left it on the table, and she snatched it up. Tom had left a lantern near the door, and she tried with shaking hands to light the wick, but only succeeded in putting out the candle.
She stopped and took a deep breath. She re-lit the candle at the kitchen fire, then held it steadily to the lantern wick, and watched the small flame catch and grow. Closing the little door of the lantern, she fastened it carefully, then went out into the gale, quietly shutting the door behind her.
She walked cautiously, holding the lantern low to light her way. She went more quickly now than she had in her stumbling run in the dark, the lantern light pushing the blackness aside. She soon met Mrs. Tarr, stumbling back down the path.
“It’s no use!” the old woman cried, as Mary Ann approached. “No one living could start a fire tonight.”
Mrs. Tarr grasped at her skirt to hold her back, but Mary Ann yanked it away. “Shut up, can’t you?” she shouted, and Mrs. Tarr’s wail ceased abruptly. “Go watch the baby,” Mary Ann ordered, amazed at her own rudeness, and hurried on.
“It’s no use,” she could hear Mrs. Tarr calling behind her. “They’ll never find their way back to shore, never, never…” Mary Ann could hear the thin wail following her down the path, till the wind blew the sound away.
She reached the great heap of firewood piled on the highest point of Allen’s Head, made ready by the fishermen’s wives for nights such as this. Here the wind ripped furiously. Mary Ann put the lantern down and wedged it behind a rock. Then in the little circle of light she began to build a fire.
Swirling gusts threw her hair in her eyes and tore the kindling out of her hands. She crouched with her back to the cliff edge, trying to pile twigs with numb fingers. Disconnected snatches flew through her mind as she worked: Tom waving as he set off in the boat: Bring a lantern next time to see you home, sweetheart… She opened the lantern door a crack and set a twig alight, but the tiny flame died as soon as she withdrew it.
She groped through the dark for another twig, hearing the fiddles at the country dance where she had first met Tom: lines of girls and young men skipping back and forth in time to the music, and Tom in a stiff new collar. Good evening, Miss, might I have the honor? She tried again to set a handful of kindling alight, but the thin twigs blew away. She closed her eyes and saw a funeral, the grim face of the Reverend preaching hellfire and damnation over a new-made grave.
She grabbed a handful of moss and lichens from a crack in the granite, and the dry bits crunched in her hand as she touched them to the lantern flame. The moss flared up. As she withdrew the tiny flame from the lantern, the wind seemed to lessen. Hastily she stuffed the moss under a pile of twigs, then snatched back her burned fingers. Small edges of flame grew from the branches, standing upright in the suddenly abated wind, then spreading upward.
The wind had indeed lessened, and glancing up, she saw why. Someone was approaching the fire, blocking the wind. At first she thought it was Mrs. Tarr, but she realized that the figure wore no skirts. It must be a man, since she could see the growing light flicker on trousers and seaboots. She couldn’t imagine who it was, since virtually all the men in Sandy Bay were out with the fishing fleet--only a few ancient shop-keepers and the Reverend stayed ashore during the fall herring run, and she couldn’t imagine the Reverend getting out of bed on a night like this. She peered into the darkness, but the man’s face was hidden in shadow.
“Reverend?” she called. He made no answer, at least none that she could hear, but the figure was taller than the short, plump minister. It doesn’t matter who it is, she thought.
“Come nearer, block the wind,” she shouted into the gale. The man made no reply, but stepped closer. “That’s it, stand just so,” she ordered. The wind gusted fiercely, and she bent to add more fuel.
She heard the scrape and scuff of booted feet, climbing up the steep cliff path from the sea. Another tall figure stepped in front of the fire to block the wind. “Thank God,” she murmured, and fed the flame with more twigs. The light was leaping higher now, but the faces remained in shadow. Folk from a nearby village perhaps, she thought, and then forgot to wonder about them as the wind battled the fire, making the flames stream horizontally over the red rocks.
Two more figures came up the narrow path from the sea, pacing slowly. They joined the others. Standing close-ranked, shoulder to shoulder, they formed a wall that fenced out the wind and let the fire grow strong.
Mary Ann sat back on her heels, and watched the light grow. The silent figures did not turn. “Can’t you help me get more firewood?” she pleaded, but there was no answer. They stood with backs to her, staring out over the invisible water.
She rose and stood with skirts flapping. She could feel the sea’s vast presence, stretching away below the cliff, black water churning under the fog. The wind cut through her thin dress.
The fire lit the red boulders and gnarled trees, and gleamed on the heavy boots of the men who surrounded the fire. Water dripped onto the ground from their sodden clothes, and the wind blew droplets of moisture sizzling into the flame. They must have gotten wet in the rain, she thought. But there was no rain, only the terrible wind.
The flames stood tall now. The men moved aside to let the red light shine out. The ocean blended with the sky in one unbroken sweep of darkness, but the fire shone like a star, the only sure landmark in the trackless night.
In the first light of an ash-gray dawn, the boats came home. Mary Ann saw them, bobbing specks slowly moving on the brightening sea. She watched till she saw Tom’s little rowboat, and recognized him by the red scarf she’d knitted for him. She was too cold and exhausted to feel anything but relief that now she could go home.
She stood over the ashes of the fire, her chilled limbs aching, her hands scratched and torn from hauling the firewood. She remembered the strangers who had stood to block the wind, and looked around to thank them; but they were gone. Gone home without a word, she thought, shrugging.
The smell of charred wood was strong. The wind still blew briskly, but the horizon was clear, and the ocean stretched bland and unruffled. Mary Ann thought, shivering, that she had never seen the water so calm, as innocent of waves as the millpond back home. The mild, blue surface bore no sign of the drowned men it covered, drowned in sight of land, who were buried in the bitter water that was as cold and clear as ice.
She turned to go home, and as she did so her eyes fell on the steep seaward path. She noticed footprints, deep tracks of sea-boots, leading away from the fire, down the cliff path to the beach. Puddles of seawater were pooled in the footprints, that led all the way down; down to the ragged line of black eel-grass and shells that marked the water’s edge.
“The Sherpas say they’ve seen it again,” Malcolm said, breaking the long silence. Each word made a cloud of frost that puffed from his lips in the bitter air. The walls of the tent sagged around the two climbers, giving a chill whenever the cold fabric touched the skin, like the clammy hands of an undertaker.
Jed grunted, and turned his head away. He couldn’t stand any more conversation on this ridiculous subject. In fact, after three weeks together in a tent in which there was no room to stretch full length or sit upright, he could hardly stand to look at Malcolm’s face: the cracked lips, the pale skin, every pore as familiar as death.
“They say they saw it clearly,” Malcolm added, taking three breaths to the remark, gasping in the thin air. Jed growled wordlessly, immersed in the vast achievement of pulling on his left boot. His brain felt sluggish, mired in mud. His elbow jerked the low roof of the tent and a cascade of icy needles descended on their heads. Malcolm muttered a string of filthy words as slivers of ice melted on his neck.
“Get in gear, and never mind the Sherpas,” Jed snapped. “It’s almost midnight.” He tugged at his boot while Malcolm fiddled with the tiny camp stove, coaxing it for a little more heat. A weak blue flame flickered under the pot of snow he was trying to turn into boiling water.
“It wasn’t Ang this time, it was Nan Dasang.” Malcolm drew air into his lungs with a familiar snort that made Jed’s toes curl with hatred. “Claims it was Mallory, for sure. Ice axe, hob-nail boots, and everything. Can’t have been a real climber they saw.”
“If Ang was translating, he can say exactly what he wants to say. He’s a nut on this Mallory thing. Mallory’s been dead for decades, you know that.”
“Yeah, but all the details--Mallory’s thin face and dark hair, and his eyes…they say they’ve seen him up at the summit, too.”
“Bullshit,” Jed grunted. “Anyway, you don’t seriously think Mallory made it to the top, do you? Hillary was the first guy up Everest.”
“Well, Hillary was the first guy to get back down, for sure.” The blue fabric of the tent reflected the anemic glow of the battery-powered lamp, giving Malcolm’s thin face a livid, corpse-like glow. “Mallory’s still up there.”
Jed ran over the route in his mind as his stiff fingers wrestled with the crampons on his boot. The distance had looked so small, when he and Malcolm had stretched out the map on the bar in Katmandu, where they had planned their summit assault. Only two miles total from Base Camp to the summit of Everest, that’s all. And it was only a half mile from Camp Four, where their tent was pitched, to the top. A half-mile up, a half-mile down. A Sunday stroll.
Malcolm doubled up with a grating cough, and his elbow jabbed Jed painfully in the ribs. Jed couldn’t stand being in the tent one more second. He struggled onto his knees, and the low roof of the tent touched the back of his neck, sending a shudder down his spine. He unzipped the tent door, and a chill breath of wind entered. He grabbed his pack and crawled out of the tent.
The hot intense blue of the midnight sky hit his eyes like a hammer. After the dimness of the tent, the white glitter of the moonlit snow was painful to look at even through eyes squinted almost shut. Peaks and valleys of silver glittered against the burning blue.
“Get moving,” Jed called over his shoulder to Malcolm. “It’s time. I’m not going back to Utah and tell everyone I spent my time on Mt. Everest squatting in a tent.”
A dark form emerged on hands and knees from the gray triangle of the Sherpas' tent. Ang Parbat rose stiffly, and crunched through the knee-high fresh snow, the dry crystals squeaking under his boots. He paused next to Jed and gazed up at the mountain. The round white moon over the peak was surrounded by a glow of silver that faded at the edges to the blue of midnight.
Ang was a young man, or at least young-looking--it was hard to guess how old he was. In some lights he looked twenty-five, and sometimes, when his face was shadowed, he could be seventy. His dark face, with a maze of weather-drawn wrinkles around the eyes, looked out of place in his twentieth-century climber's get-up, neon green parka and red hat.
“Sure you’re not coming with us to the top?” Jed asked. “Sherpas who summit make a lot more money, you know.”
The hood shadowed Ang’s face when he lowered his gaze, and his chuckle came from a dark hole. “There is nothing on the top,” he remarked placidly. “Everything is down here. Only more snow up there. I have heard.”
Jed studied the pile of sleek silver oxygen cylinders stacked near the tent, squinting at the tiny gauges to make sure they were full. “Don’t you want to see the view from the top of the world?” he asked absently.
Ang turned to look at the sweep of mountains and valleys beyond the tiny ledge where the tents were perched. Moonlight touched the peaks of Makalu and Daulagiri with pale gold and diamond. Far below swirled the tops of cloud banks. “The view is just as good from here,” he said.
“Oh, yeah?” Jed retorted. “Says who?”
Ang smiled patiently. “Mallory.”
Jed snorted, and turned away, the Sherpa nonsense immediately fading from his mind. He carefully fitted on the oxygen mask, and the cool whoosh of rubber-tasting air from the hose swept the cobwebs from his brain. He felt light and powerful, so full of energy he could hardly stand still.
The luminous numbers of his watch glowed: 12:13 a.m. Past start time—way past time. He shook the tent pole with wild impatience, careless of the avalanche of ice crystals he released within. “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s rock and roll!”
In the tent he heard Malcolm’s habitual cough. Jed bent to look in the doorway. Malcolm was lacing up his boots, painfully threading each hole with the shoelace and pulling it tight, then threading another hole.
“I’m coming, I’m coming. You bloody Yanks are always in a hurry, rush, rush, rush.” Malcolm coughed again, and put a hand to his side. He finally crawled out of the tent and picked up the oxygen gear. Ang helped him swing it to his back and adjust the mask and regulator, while Jed shifted back and forth from one foot to the other, sidling and fidgeting like a racehorse at the gate.
Malcolm straightened, moving as slowly as if he was underwater. “Right,” he said. “Let’s go.”
The snow ahead was unbroken. Seventy years of climbers had scaled the world’s tallest mountain, but their passing had left not the slightest trace. This morning, Jed could imagine that he was the first to head to the summit, the first to gaze out from the world’s tallest mountain. He waded across the smooth field of white, not looking to see if the others were behind, and started up towards the narrow ridge called the First Step.
Jed knew he was climbing well. As the slope increased he leaned forward and kicked with vigor, feeling the sharp crampons on his boots bite into the ice. His body moved without thought, in effortless rhythm. His body moved without thought, in effortless rhythm.
He had thought that he was far out in front, but when he paused, his breath rasping heavily in his ears, he found that Ang was right behind him. The Sherpa was examining an odd formation: a series of foot-sized recesses in the rock-hard ice that looked almost like a flight of stairs. Ang pointed with his mittened hand. “You see?” he inquired smugly, as if he had proved a point.
“Yeah, what?” Jed asked, panting.
“Mallory,” Ang said.
Jed fought down his annoyance, and tromped on, smashing his crampons into the steps. The indentations were a natural formation, some quirk of the eternal river of ice that flowed down the side of the mountain. No one chopped steps anymore.
In the old days, he knew, climbers used ice axes to chip out step after laborious step up steep ice inclines. He thought of those quaint 1920's climbers, clad in woolen shirts and mufflers, bending to chop steps with wooden axes, and shivered in his Dacron Gore-Tex Ultra-Light climbing suit.
The three climbers continued in a row, Malcolm starting to lag behind. Jook the lead, following the route he had read and dreamed about for so long. They crossed a slope of tilted rock swept clean of snow by the blasting wind. He felt strong, filled with a swelling optimism that hardly noticed the grinding labor of lifting one foot up and setting it down, then lifting another foot. His breath, rushing in and out through the hose like a waterfall in his ears, was the only sound. He fell into a rhythm: step- breathe- breathe. Step- breathe- breathe.
Time blurred. He couldn’t tell if it was an hour or a minute before he thought to look back. The oxygen gear prevented a quick glance over his shoulder; he had to turn around bodily. Ang was still right behind him, but Malcolm was just a speck in the distance, his blue jacket a dark dot in the grayness.
Jed looked around, trying to regain a sense of time, as though he had just woken from a doze. The glittering moon had vanished, and the sky was pale gray. Ang moved his hand in a slow, dreamy gesture, indicating that they should wait.
Jed stood, tense as a drawn bow. A thread of coldness seeped through his body. Standing still was harder work than climbing. He tried not to pace and fidget; even though he felt he could climb forever, he had a finite amount of strength, and any energy squandered here he might regret on the way back. Sitting down in the snow, he wriggled his toes and flexed his fingers to keep them from getting numb, and counted the seconds.
Finally Malcolm inched to within hailing distance. Jed took the regulator from between clenched teeth. “Get a move on!” he shouted.
“Carry on,” Malcolm called back, his voice hoarse. “You don’t need”—he paused to pant—“to wait for me.” Ang stood like a rock, and Jed willed his feet to stand still and wait.
Finally Malcolm joined them. Ang nodded placidly, then handed them both a Snickers bar. They had agreed that he would descend at some point after the First Step, to go back and wait for their return. This was apparently the spot, and the Sherpa turned to leave.
Jed raised his mask. “Sure you want to go back?” he asked. “We’re looking good, it’s a sure thing.”
The Sherpa shook his head, smiling.
“Probably smart, Ang,” Malcolm wheezed. “You’ll be having a cup of tea while we’re freezing our bums. It’s a tough climb.”
Ang shook his head. “The climb is not tough.”
“No?” Jed swung the pack to his shoulder. “Mallory tell you that?”
“Not the climb,” repeated Ang. “The descent. Most climbers die on the way home, you know.” He smiled his usual cheerful smile, and unwrapped a Snickers bar as he strolled down the slope.
Jed continued up the tilted rocks into deeper layers of snow. Step- breathe- breathe. Step- breathe- breathe. He couldn’t hear any sound behind him, but he assumed Malcolm was following.
The sun peeped over the edge of the horizon and flooded the world with crystal light, and the expanse of gray snow turned to a field of diamonds. Jed felt only annoyance. Sunrise meant it was 7 a.m.; they should be farther up by now. The sun cast his shadow, long and hard-edged on the snow beside him. Another shadow moved, and he smiled, glad Malcolm had caught up. But when he turned clumsily, Malcolm was still far behind.
He looked up at the mountaintop, and his heart jumped with a strange pang of recognition. He’d never been here before, but he recognized the scene that he’d seen so often in pictures—the sharp-toothed ridge outlined against the deep blue sky. The Second Step.
Did Mallory climb up there? he wondered involuntarily, gazing at the famous cliff. Up the Second Step, and then--where? He never made it back down, anyway.
The cliff seemed a fingernail’s length from below--up there it was ninety vertical feet. He shook off a tiny trickle of fear, and trudged on.
He began a long traverse along the top of a ridge, as steep and narrow as the roof of a house--except he would never be crazy enough to walk along the crest of a roof, just wide enough for a boot, with a thousand-foot drop on either side. Clouds hid the fathomless depths below. He was glad there was no wind. It was calm, but very cold, and he felt the seeping chill as he inched along, trying not to look down.
The ridge seemed to go on forever. He couldn’t turn around without risking his balance, so he kept going and hoped Malcolm was back there somewhere. Step-breathe- breathe. Finally the ridge widened into snow-blasted rock formations, like weird, swollen mushrooms and stalagmites of white. He stood at the bottom of the Second Step.
The Second Step. He’d spent so many hours staring at pictures of it, trying to make out handholds, planning a route up its steep face. Tattered ropes left by generations of previous climbers festooned the wall, blown in rigid arcs by the wind that was beginning to whistle through the sharp rocks.
Could Mallory really have made it up here? Seen in real life, it looked even more forbidding than in the photos; a tough climb for a guy in hobnailed boots. Then Jed shook himself, and banished Mallory firmly from mind. He had himself to think about, and that was more than enough.
He glanced back. Malcolm was coming up behind slowly, pausing every few steps to bend over his ice axe and pant. Suddenly he sank down on one knee, shoulders shaking as he tried to suppress a cough.
Jed turned away, and looked back up at the sheer face of the Step to plan his route. But his shadow fell on the rock face, and he raised his eyebrows. The shadow wasn’t as sharp as it had been before; the outline was blurred. He looked up at the pale sky. It was clouding over, and veils of white discolored the pure blue of the morning.
The sun was high overhead: almost noon. Two more hours to the top. The sun would set at 7 p.m., and the night would close down like a vise. He remembered the dreadful fingers of cold that pried their way into his sleeping bag.
Malcolm had come up behind him and leaned against the rock wall, shoulders heaving. Their eyes met through the reflections on the oxygen mask.
Jed turned to examine the sky with a nervous intensity, searching for clues like a doctor diagnosing a patient. Puffy clouds, below in the valley, were hurrying along, pushed by a rising wind. Swirls of snow blew overhead, blasted off the top of the Step by the rising wind. Jed squinted at the gauge on his oxygen tank, and checked his watch again. He could feel the inevitability of failure coming towards him, like an avalanche that couldn't be outrun.
There was a pain in his chest that had nothing to do with the lack of oxygen. He closed his eyes, but they burned as tears formed behind the eyelids. He ripped off his goggles to brush the tears away, but they froze on his cheeks instantly.
He took a deep breath. “It’s not gonna happen today,” he said to Malcolm, replacing the goggles to hide his face. “Let’s go back down.”
Malcolm stared. Then he leaned his head back against the rock face. “You’re probably right,” he gasped. “I need to go back. But you go on. You can do it.”
Jed stared at him, feeling a surge of joy. Two more hours to the top at his own pace, and a quick descent. He knew, without pretense, that he could surely do it. Summit Everest.
Then he looked back at the way they had come.
The wind was already covering over the marks of their ascent, like the inexorable waves that wash footprints off the beach at high tide. There were no signs to point the way back, just the unbroken expanse of snow, and the narrow ridge. Most climbers die on the way home, Ang said quietly inside his head.
Jed looked up at the Step, planning which handhold to start with. There, and there, and then right foot just there, and so on to the top. He could do it, he was sure. There is nothing up there, said Ang. Everything is down here. He took a deep, shuddering breath.
“I’m going back,” he said, without looking at Malcolm. “You coming?”
Jed turned to head downhill, and Malcolm grabbed his shoulder. “Go on!” he shouted. Jed yanked himself free and shoved him off.
“I’m going down,” he shouted back. They glared at each other, hardly able to see each other’s faces through the oxygen masks.
Suddenly Jed felt exhausted. He turned to descend, and watched his boot sink into the snow on the downward track. The first step downhill was the hardest one he’d ever taken.
It was almost dark when he saw the little blue tent, perched on the stony, flat ledge that was Camp 4. The waiting Sherpas asked no questions, just helped them off with their packs and oxygen masks, and poured steaming tea from a thermos. Jed felt his knees like rubber, and sank down on the snow, clutching the warm mug. He looked up at the summit, shrouded in darkness.
Ang was staring up, too, high at the jagged summit. There was a strange look on his ageless face that Jed couldn’t quite define—a look of recognition, perhaps? Ang nodded into the darkness, as though an old friend approached.
Jed was so tired that his mind ran slowly, each thought seeming to circle round and round in his brain like water spiraling in a basin. Mallory heading for the summit…anything seemed possible in his state of drunken exhaustion. “You see him?” Jed demanded in an involuntary whisper. Ang nodded, and lifted his hand as though to wave.
“Is he almost there?” Malcolm asked. The mountain was grey against the cold, empty sky.
Ang turned and stared at him. Then the Sherpa began to laugh, a rusty, wheezing laugh like that of a very old man. He shook his head. “You do not understand,” he said, still chuckling. “You climbers never understand. Often we see Mallory, but he is not trying to reach the top. There is nothing on the top.”
“No?” Jed asked. “What’s he doing, then?"
Ang Parbat sank his voice, and they had to lean close to hear his whisper. "He's trying to get down."