Bewildering Stories

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chapter 7, The Range
part III

by Tala Bar

Gaia began in issue 88.
Part II appears in this issue.


Without the sun in the sky, and with no watches to tell the exact time, Dar assumed they had reached the actual mountain at about noontime, when the ground sloped up abruptly. The wanderers had to stop to catch their breaths, while adjusting their bodies and mental attitude to the new hardship of climbing.

There was a partially visible path they could follow on the uneven, rocky slope; it was too narrow to walk two abreast and, as the rain had eased up for a while, they no longer needed to cover their heads. It was not possible in any case, because they had to resort from time to time to supporting themselves with arms and hands on the difficult ground. So, they rolled up the sleeping bags to be carried on their backs, and fell into a single file. Lilit took her place at the head this time; Nim and Zik followed, Dar and Nunez bringing the rear, acting as support whenever necessary.

Gradually, as they climbed higher and higher, the air grew colder. A layer of low clouds had come to rest on that part of the slope, and after a while the travellers found themselves immersed in a flurry of snow. The world beyond their immediate surrounding had vanished, there was only the harsh, irregular ground, and the foggy, cold, wet air. Every now and then they paused for a short rest, without eating or drinking, only moistening their parched lips with bits of snow, warming it to water inside their mouths.

Toward evening the snow thickened, blurring even their closest images. Sky and earth had long vanished, all that was left was a mass of dancing shapes, which played tricks on their sight. Dar imagined the hard lines of the rocks smudging and melting in front of her eyes, joining the fluttering body of soft chips. She became wary of leaning on them to help in walking, lest they give way and she fall inside. The memory of the spongy rock she had encountered at the bottom of the lake sprung into her mind, and she had to halt, close her eyes and force the harsh reality on her brain.

At last evening fell. Visibility reached zero, the travellers could see no path to follow. After a short search even Lilit had to give up looking, even her ancient instincts were not keen enough to lead the group in the right way. They had to stop on the climbing ground for the night, for there was no flat ground anywhere even if they were able to see it at some distance. There was nothing for them to eat, and no way to make fire, so they used the snow again to quench their thirst; then they opened the sleeping bags and huddled up in them as close together as the steep ground allowed. Sleep was induced by their weariness and depression.

It was an agitated slumber for Dar. In her disturbed dream, rocks and boulders had come alive, taking the shape of rough, savage looking people, looking very different, either from the mild-natured dwellers of the Amazon forest, or from the wise globules of the lake. They actually looked very much like the rocks around her, squat in shape, with extremities ending with sharp edges. For some reason, these rocky people were attacking the wanderers, using stony missiles and icy shafts, blocking their way up the mountain as if wanting to prevent them from getting to the other side. Not knowing how to escape the attack, Dar moaned in her sleep, rolling almost to the edge of the cliff; she was stopped by a strong hand whom she later assumed belonged to Nunez. She was very happy to rise up from that sleep, only to find that the snow, which had had lightened up at night, was renewed in full force in the morning.

The white curtain of snow-filled air had thickened to a heavy mass and the climbers, even after shaking the night’s snow off their bodies, were unable to move, not knowing where to go. They stayed standing in place, not being able to sit on the freezing ground, as if waiting for either death to take them, or some miracle to save them. Even Lilit, it seemed, was at a loss. It happened then, all of a sudden, as it had happened again and again before. Out of the heavy white screen blocking their view from the world, a sharp crow burst, black dots appeared above their heads.

“The crows!” Nim called out as the thought passed through Dar’s mind.

“Crows?” Wondered Zik.” Where have they come from, and how? And what good are they to us?”

“I suppose they’ll show us the way, as they have done before,” Dar answered quietly, her hope picking up.

“But why should they? Who are they sent by?” Zik insisted.

Nobody answered. None of the travellers had shown any sign of being religious in any way. Nunez, who had started his life with some sort of belief in a cosmic, omnipotent being, had long lost his faith with his wife’s progressing illness. Zik, during his stay at the orphanage, had been forced to take part in a kind of faithless, nameless organized religion, which was supposed to supply the inmates with a spirituality they did not feel. As soon as he left the Home, he had also left the practice behind him, never to return to it. Not even in his worse state, after the horrible death of his comrades and his resulting fear of fire, did he resort to praying. Nim, on the other hand, had been exposed by her mother to various sorts of cults, enough to make her inherently doubtful. The apparition of the ‘witch’ had answered some deeply seated instinct, rather than any rational thought or even hope or aspiration. Dar had always believed in human beings rather than in any superhuman entity.

As she was looking at crows now, a shape started forming before her eyes, below their flight. Its vibrating outlines mingled with the falling snow, standing out of its white background only as a dark, shifting silhouette. Gradually, it took the contours of a woman, dancing among the flitting flakes, making incredibly fantastic movements with its body and limbs, mingling with the natural phenomenon as if it was one with it. After a while, it vanished.

“You know we should follow the crows, wherever they fly,” Lilit said, as calm as can be, starting plowing her way through the thick layer without hesitation. She was almost up to her waist in it, but some how she was advancing, as if a ray of warmth was emanated from her slight body, clearing her way. Forced by her mere strength of personality, the others came in a file after her.

Climbing did not get any easier, even though they seemed to be led better now. Their feet sank deeper and deeper in the settling snow, which continued to fall and its layers became higher and higher. Although by following the flight of birds they knew the direction they should go, the path itself was still hard and full of pitfalls. Their climb was slow and cumbersome, the rocks on the side of the path, which they sometimes tried to lean on for support, felt like hardened ice; they were slippery instead of supportive, and the cold burned the skin on their palms. The climbers’ progress up the mountain was halting and painful, advancing a great deal across the slope rather than up toward the summit.

The progress of the day itself had seemed to have halted. With the lack of sun, the travellers had no idea what hour or part of the day it was at any time. They continued to march on, regardless, but so slowly as they rarely paused for rest. While walking, they continually sliced pieces or gathered flakes of snow to put in their mouths and revive themselves with moisture. They did not know when evening came, and when night fell on them suddenly, they just stopped where they were, huddled together and fell asleep out of sheer exhaustion.

Morning rose bright and clear. The sky was glowing blue-white, reflected in the great lumps of snow piled up among the black, sharp edges of the rocks. The air was very cold, penetrating the layers of the travellers’ clothing including the sleeping bags’ quilt.

“I can’t understand how Lilit doesn’t feel the cold, in those silk veils and sandals she’s wearing,” Zik said with a hint of a grudge, wrapping himself tight with the open bag; “My — excuse me — are frozen stiff.”

Nim giggled, then suddenly cried out, “Look, the crows are gone! How can we find our way without them? Have they left us here, to die in this endless snow?” She was visibly shivering, her teeth chattering for anyone to hear.

Lilit turned to her, grasped the girl’s hand and held it fast for a while. Nim breathed deeply and her shiver stopped. “Oh-h-h,” she breathed out, “that was good. What did you do?”

“It’s only a little thing, and perhaps you can learn to help yourself with it. Now, we should take advantage of the clear day and reach the summit. We’ll stop there and eat, then we can see our way further, beyond the mountains.”

“But, can you find the way without the guidance of the crows?” Nim asked, still trembling slightly, out of fear rather than cold.

“It’s clear enough now, don’t worry,” the old woman answered, starting on her way.

The others, as if pulled by an unseen cord, followed her automatically. Lilit, it seemed, had a notion of the right direction, even though it was not always accurate in its details. The clear day had its both advantages and disadvantages. The climbers were able to see where they were going, thus avoiding visible pitfalls like a protruding rocky tips or the edge of a cliff; but the piling snow could cover unknown obstacles like rolling stones or a chasm between boulders. The snow itself was not everywhere soft and penetrable; in some places, it had hardened during the night and turned into dangerously slippery ice.

The greatest advantage Dar found of the clear day was that it helped to clarify her mind. She had always preferred the clarity of the day, being able to see the world around her, rather than darkness or foggy landscape. Now, every time they paused, the splendid view of the lake and the country beyond it was spread before them at the foot of the range, with the glowing volcano still sending its mixture of dark smoke and ashes with occasional flicker of fire in its midst. The far shore with its ravished remnants of human habitation was shrouded in blue mists and did not disturbed the beauty and cleanliness of the view; it was innocent of any man-made effect. She was beginning to understand the idea behind her troubled travels, as she was unable to remember having ever seen a landscape free of high-rise buildings, smoking factory chimneys, or the long, treeless farrows of cultivated land. Compare to the Amazon forest, where her sight was always limited by the density of standing trees and thick undergrowth, the present view before her presented a world which expressed a sense of freedom she had never known before...

They had to spend another night on the slope, which had become more gradual as they neared the top. The air was very clear and very cold. Finding a flat top of rock, they cleared it of snow and used the last fire pack to get some semblance of warmth. They put a handful of snow in the pot, dissolving dry soup in it. After that short meal, they huddled two in each sleeping bag, using each other’s body for warming up before going to sleep. The last thing Dar noticed was Lilit burying herself in a layer of snow for cover.

To be continued...

Copyright © 2004 by Tala Bar

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