Only Space Above
Words By Ben Janse, Art By Enrica Angiolini
Early on in our relationship, as we hiked up and down the many mountains of the world, Zoe and I took to describing our deaths to each other.
“I will die,” I told her, my hand tight on the rope, “choking on a bird that flies directly into my mouth.”
“I will die,” she replied, on tip-toes reaching for a blind hold, “of a rare form of chicken pox that will cause my skin to become iridescent and slick, before peeling away, exposing the muscle layer.”
We were climbing Chimborazo in Ecuador, the Ogre in Pakistan, Xixabangma Feng in China. We were traveling the world, spending every last cent she had inherited to scale these mountains only to turn around and start again.
“I will die of a failure of memory. I’ll forget to live.”
“I will die by looking out a window and seeing my own death, which will be in that instant, myself in the act of looking out a window.”
I didn’t know why we needed to climb, just that we must climb and never stop. That was the deal. We grew legs like tree trunks. We had barrel chests like Andean children. We ate high-protein/vitamin mixes that were specially made for us by a consultant Zoe hired.
Hiking Mt. Diran we fell into a snow-filled ravine and spent three days licking ice off each other.
“I will die being licked to death by a thousand snow-white cats,” she said.
“I will die,” I said, “frozen in a block of ice, only to be uncovered thousands of years later by our cannibalistic descendants, who will feast upon my flesh.”
When the rescue team pulled us out, we thanked them and continued up the mountain. Don’t say we weren’t brave.
“Up, up,” she said.
We had close calls on every mountain. Sometimes I thought she did it on purpose.
“How did the rope come loose?” I asked her, holding both ends in my hand.
“Jagged rock,” she said.
“But this is cut perfectly in two.”
“By the rock.”
“It looks like a knife.”
“I will die with your knife twisted in my guts,” she said. I let it drop.
At night we would continue our climbing and struggling, up and over each other without end. We could not be still. Zoe would always have to win and find her way to the top.
“I will die,” she told me one night as we made love, “in childbirth with your baby’s fingers tearing through my uterus.”
“I will die,” I said, “with your hands around my throat.”
“Your symbolic hands.”
“How about my legs?” she asked, demonstrating.
On Mt. Elbrus, she told me a story of her past.
“When I was younger, I was taken from my parents by a man who told me I was very bad but maybe not if I came with him, so I went with him and I was scared and we were driving and driving and we came to a wooden house in a field with no steps, I had to crawl, and he locked me up in a dark room and said everything was going to be okay, that he didn’t love me but nor did he hate me, he was kidnapping me for a good cause which was to help his grandmother who was very sick and she would need a lot of money to feel better, and as long as I did what he said he wouldn’t hurt me, there were things he could do, but he wouldn’t do them, and didn’t I want her to feel better? So I had to stay in this little shack and he was coming and going and I was tied up, I ate dirt, then a few days later the police found me and I was brought back to my parents and when I arrived they didn’t say a word, no hugs, they were just sitting there eating chicken salad at the dinner table so I sat down and ate chicken salad, too.”
“No hugs?” I asked, and she shook her head, her eyes down.
“No hugs at all.”
I bought her an engagement ring in Croatia, a small diamond set in silver with aquamarine spheres running down the sides like tears. It didn’t go well.
“But you like aquamarine,” I told her.
“I will die,” she said, “when a false lighthouse guides my ship into the rocks.”
I decided to keep it in my pocket, ready.
Occasionally, we would split up and take different paths to see who could reach the top first. I remember doing this on Mt. Rimo. My path turned out to be easier and I could see her struggling far below. I took out my binoculars and watched her face change and change again in determination. But always she looked, over her shoulder, back down the mountain. Was she looking for me? Or was she already thinking about the descent, about reaching the bottom so she could start again?
“I know what’s in your pocket,” she told me, upon arrival.
“Just warming my hands,” I said.
“No you’re not.” I took my hand out of my pocket, off the metal.
“How was your trip?” I said. Her hands were so warm, her cheeks scarlet, but she smelled like ice, like the mountain itself.
“I found something,” she said.
“What is it?”
She led me back along the cliffs until we came upon a dead body, frozen. She had dragged it up behind her.
“How do you think he died?” she asked. He was in a crouching position, icicles dangling from his chin and elbows. He held a pickaxe, but if he had anything else with him he had lost it along with his life. His clothes were made of wool. It was obvious he had been there for a long time.
“The same way I will,” I told her. “A meteorite will fall from space which will have mostly vaporized except for a small portion of pure diamond that will lodge itself in my brain.”
“I think he died of loneliness,” she said. Neither of us spoke for a moment and in that time it was like he’d died again.
“What should we do with him?” I said.
“He could be our mascot.”
“If you want to carry him.”
“I do,” she said.
“I think we should leave him at the peak, victorious.”
“The mountain climber’s dream.”
I touched her body. It was becoming harder and harder, like cement slowly solidifying. I ran my hands down her torso to her thighs. Straight the whole way.
“Be still,” she said one night, on top of me.
“Like I was dead,” I said.
Her head went forward. Her hair covered my face. Her head went back.
“And bulge your eyes out a little,” she told me.
“Uh-huh, and stick out your tongue.”
“Uh-huh, and try not to breathe.”
Our first climb was an ascent of Mt. Trivor. We weren’t lovers yet, just acquaintances with a mutual interest. Zoe said she wanted to climb the north face.
“It’s unclimbable,” our guide told us.
“Nonsense,” said Zoe, but it turned out he was right. I broke two ribs and an arm. Zoe broke both legs and cracked her skull. We fell in love in the hospital. “Oh Charlie, Charlie, Charlie, let’s never stop climbing,” she said.
“Both of your legs are broken,” I told her.
“Not for long,” she said.
We climbed sixty-three peaks in just our first two years together. We broke a Guinness World Record and never told anyone. Our faces became permanently red, our fingers raw, our thighs bulging. Our eyes directed ever upward.
“Charlie, are you daydreaming?” she asked me on Gasherbrum IV, as we hiked through a field of boulders.
“Yes,” I told her.
“What are you dreaming of?”
“I don’t think that’s an appropriate daydream,” she said, swaying her hips. “Today, instead, let’s daydream of Olympus Mons.”
“That’s the one.”
I was the first to speak. “Faulty spacesuits,” I told her. “Asphyxiation. We die watching each other also die, powerless, slug tongues, exploding eyes.”
“We walk straight off the peak,” she countered. “We fail to distinguish the apex in all that dust, all that red. We walk straight into the volcano’s caldera.”
“Are we crushed or are we burned?”
“Both. But we still don’t die from that. The fumes drive us mad and we murder each other in cold blood.”
This is what she said, but I felt like all the time she was thinking of something much larger, grander. She was daydreaming of the largest mountain in the solar system. She was fantasizing of a climb that would never end.
“The north face is rocky,” she said, “but the south is all sand.”
“I’d take the north up,” I said, “but I would ski down the south.”
“I would take the south up,” she replied, “tunneling through the sand.”
“But what about the dune spiders?”
“I’m not worried,” she said.
“You’re thinking of vulva again,” she said. “My vulva.”
“I told you not to walk in front of me.”
She set new challenges for us. One afternoon, free-climbing on Nanda Devi, she removed her harness.
“This is the new plan,” she said.
She took off her shoes, her wick-away climbing shirt, her wick-away socks, her wick-away underwear, and detached the rope that connected us. We climbed with nothing holding us up, our fingers and toes our only lifeline.
“This isn’t safe,” I said. Our breath caught. We hallucinated. We made love at high altitude, leaving the oxygen behind, the cold burning into our skin, the whole world beneath us, the clouds beneath us, the sky beneath us, only space above.
Another time we had to climb without ever touching the mountain with our hands. “The mountain is sacred,” she said. It was impossible. We laughed. She told me a story of her past.
“On the day I moved into my first house after leaving home, I turned on the cold water tap in the bathroom and a screw fell out of the handle and went down the drain before I could catch it, then I tried to put up one of the windows in my room and a pane of glass shattered and blood fell on the carpet, then I opened the closet door and the knob came off in my hand and I couldn’t go to class because, how could I, so I spent weeks fixing and cleaning and making everything perfect and my roommates didn’t help, they didn’t speak to me, they thought I was crazy, and when the landlord saw what I had done he raised the rent. My parents died in a car crash the next month and I received my inheritance.
“Now you tell one,” she said.
It was hard to know what to say. It was hard to know what she wanted to hear.
Sometimes I would imagine Zoe dying for real. I would imagine living in a cabin, alone, suddenly old. I would perversely enjoy this, having to throw away all our old climbing equipment, the carabiners, spring-loaded cams, stick-clip attachments, climbing harnesses, gaiters, ice picks, crampons, dynamic ropes, wired nuts, each with its own memories. I’d take deep breaths, climb the stairs, unpack the winter clothes, go back down the stairs, feed the chickens, scrape in the garden, drive to town, get drunk, dream. Dream of mountains.
I’d imagine conversations between myself and the locals. “These mountains you got in these parts are nothing compared to what me and Zoe used to tackle,” I’d tell them.
They’d say, “Who?”
I’d say, “Zoe always used to say that mountains were exactly like people, except better.”
They’d say, “Who?”
I’d say, “If Zoe were here I wouldn’t be. I’d be somewhere else.”
“There.” I would gesture above our heads, above everyone’s heads.
I would dream of Zoe falling and falling. I would want to give her things as she fell. Hang gliders, parachutes, wings, the ring. It would take forever. I would forget she was falling and then remember.
“How did she die?” they’d ask me, and all I’d be able to do is shake my head, my hair turning white, my skin contracting, my breath shortening, my eyes clouding over.
We climbed Manaslu next and it was not one of our best climbs. Zoe forgot one of our packs which held most of the food.
“You’re becoming lackadaisical in your work,” I told her.
“We’ll survive,” she said.
“But it shows a lack of care.”
“Oh and you care?”
“I’m not the one who let go on Masherbrum.”
“Charlie, I fell.”
“No, you didn’t.”
She turned around. “You saved my life. You were magnificent.”
The climb was fast and steep, pine forest giving way to glaciers giving way to sheer cliffs of snow.
She told me a story of the future. “In the future, I don’t exist.”
We began to reminisce.
“Remember that time we watched our entire route avalanche from the peak of Mt. Nuptse, and on our way down we saw a vision out of the fog, three Frenchmen holding onto each other’s thighs, caterpillaring down the mountain, riding the waves of snow?”
“Remember the time there was a rockfall on the north face of Mt. Jannu, and we had to improvise another route, and you read the map wrong, and we started climbing circles around the mountain?”
“Remember the time when you went crazy with oxygen sickness and started climbing back up Mt. Trivor, and I had to catch up with you and convince you that we had already summitted and needed to go down?”
“Yeah, I remember,” I said. “Listen, let’s not fight.”
And then my foot fell through a patch of snow, then weightlessness, pulling Zoe behind me, something hard hitting my face, a roughness beneath my gloves. All was white light, but diffuse. I reached back for Zoe but felt nothing. I opened my eyes. Was I snow-blind?
“Zoe?” I called.
“Below you. Look down.”
I looked down and saw an open space in the snow. We had fallen through into a hollow that had formed around a tree. We were in its branches. Sometimes that would happen, the snow piling up, covering a whole forest. You’d never know it until you fell.
“Come on down,” Zoe called, already standing on the frost below.
“On my way.”
Crystalline branches stretched above us, filtering prismatic light. Small drops of water ran across frozen leaves. At the base of the tree, there was a small moat with a layer of ice on top.
“It’s not safe,” I said.
“No, it’s not,” she replied, then tested it with her boot, which with just a touch slipped through and into the water.
“It’s a thaw,” she said. “Let’s swim.”
“We’ll die. Hypothermia.”
“Our eyes frozen open,” she said. “Our hearts slowly ticking down to zero.”
“Our neurons flashing to silence.”
A cloud moved overhead and everything brightened for a second, a glow through the ice.
“Or,” I said, “maybe this time we don’t die. Maybe we live.”
She shrugged ever so slightly, looking down, and began taking off my clothes, button by button. Then she turned around and pressed my hands to her zippers, the velcro, lifting up her shirts and undershirts, her pants and underwear, as we both shivered, keeping our feet on the fallen clothes, until we were both naked. “On the count of three,” she said, taking my hands in hers. “One. Two.”
We jumped. The water was deep, cold. We found each other and pressed our bodies together, the parts touching feeling like a dream, the rest like fire.
“How long do you think we have?” she asked.
“About twenty seconds,” I said.
“Hold me. Make them count.”
“Five, six, seven.”
“Eight, nine, ten.”
I held her close. Her eyes were closed so I opened them with my fingers.
“Zoe,” I said. “Marry me.”
“What are you doing?”
“Zoe, hold still.”
“Put that away. Stop it.” We struggled for a moment. Our legs and hands locked in combat. “All right, Charlie, you know what?” she said. “Give it here.” Her arm went forward. Her hand opened. Light glinted off the silver and turquoise as it fell into blackness. “There,” she said.
I pushed her away and climbed out of the water, shivering numb.
“You will die,” I told her, “horribly, torn apart by coyotes wearing radio collars. Scientists will hear your screams.”
She didn’t speak. Her eyes were closed.
A stalactite of ice fell from a tree.
“Zoe, get out of the water,” I said. “Come on.”
Her head disappeared and I went in after her. I found her, limp, and dragged her out onto the ice. I couldn’t tell if she was unconscious or just had her eyes closed.
“Zoe.” I felt her chest. She was still breathing, but slowly. I opened my pack and removed the towels, dried us both off, set up the tent, fumbling with everything, numb. The water had filled up my head. I pulled her in. I broke open the heat packs. I got out the blankets. It was taking so long. I rubbed her body. I rubbed it over and over, everywhere. I covered her with myself, the heat packs all around us.
“Zoe, I know you’re faking,” I said.
I kissed her lips.
“Zoe, I know you’re faking.”
I kissed her eyelids.
“Zoe, I know you’re faking.”
I kissed her nose.
“Charlie,” she said, opening her eyes. “Charlie, I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay.” I touched her face with my hand. “You’ll be okay.”
“No, I mean. I mean, I’m sorry. I’m sorry about,” she said, her arm gesturing behind her. I turned away.
“I’m worried about us,” I told her.
“Me too,” she said.
Other times I would imagine it was me who died. I would fall into a deep black hole. Zoe would try to save me. There would be creatures, skeletons, a large man descended from yetis. Zoe would become distracted. I would fall into a deep black hole. Zoe would lower a rope. There would be figures carved into the rock face. Bats, skeletons, fresh-water crabs. There would be something very interesting just beyond my range of vision. A large man descended from yetis, who could climb any mountain, overcome any obstacle. I would catch myself on a ledge. I would fall into a deep black hole. Zoe would become distracted, the rope would drop.
I would be replaced.