Content Warning: Death
There is little distinction between night and cloud cover these days. Both coat darkness over soil and stone just the same. Ahead of me, Sophie pulls herself up a steep rock. She makes it look effortless, but my feet ache.
This far up a mountain, clouds begin to look like a broiling sea. Looking above, I expect to see a serpent writhe its way through and land on us, crushing us both. My cheeks itch, the urge to smile supressed by a wind-battered face. A serpent would be easier than this climb, I reckon.
‘Hey, Soph!’ I yell up to her, but my voice is snatched into the air.
Maybe some poor bastard below will hear me.
My boots squeak as I jog between the jagged rocks. Once, they were brand new. Now, nearly a decade later, they’ve become dirty and battered. I gave up on cleaning them a while ago. Duct tape has bound the soles on since they began to split a few years ago.
Reaching the rock Sophie conquered earlier, I sling my pack up first. It lands with a clatter. As I tuck my toes into a foothold, my fingers grasp the ledge above me. My other foot scrambles against the rough-hewn stone, and pebbles slide off, rolling down the incline at my back. When my shoe finds purchase, my eyes tear up with relief. Or from the wind, maybe. That’s what I’ll tell Sophie, anyway.
Putting my weight on that foothold turns out to be a mistake.
The rock beneath my worn boot crumbles away, leaving me dangling from the ledge. I’m only a metre from the ground, but I want to make it up. I need to.
‘Hey, jackass.’ Sophie’s voice is warm and clear, like fire in the night. Without looking up, I grab her forearm and she hauls me over the ledge.
I sprawl out over the uneven ground, nearly landing on my pack.
‘Christ, do I need to help you up the whole way?’ Sophie moans. Hiding my teary eyes, I can’t see her, but I know that she’s smiling.
‘Well, come on. We’re nearly there, you lazy fuck,’ I say, not making an effort to move. A sharp jab in the ribs serves me right. ‘Hey! Don’t you kick me.’
‘Dad wouldn’t want our nice shoes going to waste, would he?’
I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry again.
Sophie kicks me again.
‘Come on, lazy bones. Let’s finish up so you stop complaining.’
Climbing through clouds is weird. A strange quiet hangs over us, the sound of wind absent for once. Droplets of water cling to my skin and my clothes. I reach instinctively to pull off my glasses, but I’m not wearing them.
‘Aren’t you fucking freezing?’ I yell up to Sophie, who is metres ahead of me and sending pebbles down like rain.
‘Just keep moving!’ she yells back. ‘Distract yourself, I don’t know! It’ll be worth it when we get through!’
‘How the fuck am I meant to distract myself?’ I yell back.
‘Remember when dad took us hiking? When we saw that snake?’ I can barely see Sophie now as she yells to me. ‘Remember what he told us then? Go slow and-’
‘Go steady, yeah! I know!’
‘We inched our way around that stupid snake, right? One by one, step by step, dad coached each of us to step quietly around its tail. But when dad went, he wanted to be cool. He walked around the other way, sneaking past its head.’
‘That was pretty cool.’ I don’t know why I say it. I just like remembering.
‘Cool until it saw him!’ Sophie laughs. The words sound almost like a jeer. ‘His expression when the damn thing reared at him was something else, wasn’t it?’
I try to remember, but it slips out my ears like mercury. I can barely picture his face these days. Sophie doesn’t keep waiting for me to remember, either.
‘Stupid snake got punted off the cliff pretty quick after that,’ she shouts, laughing again.
‘I thought he ran away like a wimp,’ I call back to her.
‘Either way,’ she says. Something in her voice shines. ‘The swearing was pretty funny. Welcome, by the way.’
As she says it, my fingers curl around the top of the cliff. Sophie pulls me up again, and I huddle close, shivering and rubbing my palms together. I pull my puff jacket down over my knees and look up. Outstretched in front of me is an endless vista of clouds, as far as my eyes can see. From above it looks even more like an ocean, the clouds moving like waves.
Sophie dips her hand into a cloud and scoops out a handful of water. She drinks from her cupped hands. Her lips stretch into a wide smile and her eyes widen.
‘Oh, that’s the good stuff.’
It’s the simple things with her.
‘It’s beautiful,’ I say. The cloud sea, accompanied by a starry night like I’ve never seen before, are among the most beautiful things I’ve had the pleasure to look at.
‘It’s alright,’ Sophie says nonchalantly. She has another handful of rainwater pressed to her lips. ‘You ready to head down?’
I can tell she’s only half joking.
‘Fuckin’ hell, Soph. No. I want to stay here forever. How come you don’t appreciate this? Honestly, why do you even get up in the morning if not for this kind of view?’
I lie down on my back to stargaze. It’s as wonderful as my books promised.
‘Did you read any of dad’s old books?’ Sophie asks. I raise my eyebrows in surprise.
‘I didn’t know you could read.’
‘In one of them, there’s this dude. Sisyphus. And every day he pushes a boulder up a hill, only for it to roll all the way back down after.’
‘Exactly, it’s a punishment. Like in hell. Only the book says “no”. Sisyphus has to enjoy pushing his boulder. Because struggling, every day, to make it ‘til the end? That’s what life is really all about.’
‘That…still sounds miserable.’ I say harshly. Regret stings quickly, but when I look over, Sophie is stargazing too.
‘’One must imagine Sisyphus happy’ is the line. I can never forget it. I’ve pictured that boulder-pushing dude smiling every day of my life since. If it doesn’t help you, that’s fine. It helps me, though.’
‘So you enjoy…struggling?’
‘I try to. It’s why I prefer climbing mountains to sitting on top. Frankly, I don’t see the appeal.’
I trace the lines on my palms. Wreathing them all are hundreds of tiny little cuts. I really should have worn my gloves.
‘Do you remember what dad said when Benny died?’ I ask.
‘No. I was staying with my mum, I think.’
‘Well, he told me that dead people aren’t really gone. They go there.’ I point above us to the brightest star in the sky. ‘They watch down on us from there.’
‘I didn’t think you were religious.’
‘I’m not. But it helps me. If it doesn’t help you, that’s fine.’
Sophie sits in silence, pondering what I’d said.
‘Is that why we made such an effort to see the stars?’
I smile wryly.
‘For god’s sake,’ she says. I can hear her eyes rolling. ‘Alright, dork. We’ll stay as long as you like. Then we’ll climb back down.’ She smiles at the thought. ‘It’s gonna be so difficult.’
‘You’re a fucking maniac,’ I tell her.
‘And you swear like dad.’
However long we stayed, it wasn’t long enough.
Author: Brock Scholte is a writer focused on creating weird and unexpected things in weird and unexpected places. His work is often based around Australian locations and history and can get…weird sometimes.
Artist: Sarah McLachlan is a third year Bachelor of Creative Writing student who likes to draw in her spare time. She wishes to combine both her art and writing skills to create a webcomic of her own one day, but she’s also open to illustrating for books and book covers. Sarah is also a major The Legend of Zelda fan and can be found drawing a lot of elves. You can find her at @hideriame02 on Instagram.
Editors: David Farr and Hannah Vesey