It was just as he had described. The twin rocks were as high as her chin, and the space between them narrow. Carefully she used her hands and felt the surface all the way down each one, to make sure there would be no rough places to scrape and injure her as she squeezed herself between them in the dark. Then, arching her back to accommodate the lumpy pack—it would be a disaster should her water gourd be crushed—she slid through.
The next rock was what she expected, a sharp upward slant with jagged outcroppings. She mounted it inch by inch, avoiding the daggerlike places that might gash her soles. She used her trained toes like fingers, feeling the way. It was slow going because she took such care. It was what he had taught her to do. Finally she reached the top of the slant, the sharp edge where he had instructed her to plant her feet for the jump. She balanced there, took a deep breath, recalled in her mind the feel of the distance she must cover, then made the leap into darkness with certainty. She landed on the flat granite, balanced perfectly. It had been her first challenge, really, and a small one. But even the small ones could be disastrous if they went wrong, and it was satisfying to have it behind her. She took her water gourd from the pack, sipped, and rested there for a moment, thinking through the next part of the climb. On the horizon, looking out across the sea, she could see a thin pink line of dawn emerge.
Midday. The sun was directly overhead now. Claire could see, below her, that the tops of the trees were moving slightly. So there was a bit of a breeze. But it didn’t reach here. She wiped sweat from her forehead and pushed her damp hair back. She retied the cord that held it bunched at her neck, then wiped her sweaty hands carefully on the woven cloth of her garment. She could not afford the least slip of her hand on the rock face of the cliff. Earlier, farther down, she might have recovered from a falter or stumble, might even have bound up a twisted ankle and continued on. But here, now, an instant of missed footing or a lost grip on a handhold would mean certain death. She blew on her hands and dried them again.
She was balanced now on a narrow ledge. Einar had told her she would reach this place at midday and it would be safe to stop here and drink from her gourd. She had done so already, once, at dawn, on the lower rocks, when it was still easy to stand and rearrange her pack. Here it was much more difficult. The hours of learning balance were helping her now. Turned sideways on the ledge that was no wider than her two feet side by side, she wriggled the pack around so that she could reach in and grasp the gourd. She held it carefully with both hands while she drank, then replaced it and withdrew the gloves from the pack. She would need them next.
If she had needed her arms for balance on this precarious perch, she would not have been able to drink. But her body needed the water, and he had prepared her for this. After she moved the pack again to its place between her shoulders, she stood with her legs steady and firm and pulled a glove onto each hand. Then slowly she uncoiled the rope.
It was amazing, really, that having made this climb only once—then down again, so perhaps that counted as twice; but he was injured then, and could hardly have been memorizing the ledges and grasping places—Einar had been able to recreate it for Claire. She imagined him alone in his hut, all those years, making the climb again in his mind, creating the map of it night after night.
Here you must stop and look carefully ahead and slightly up, for the next hold.
At this place there is loose rock. It deceives. Do not place your foot on the ledge here. It won’t hold.
A gull has nested here. Feel under the nest, through the twigs. There’s a place to grasp.
Use the rope here.
Feel with your toes now.
Don’t look down.
She was now at the place where he had said to use the rope. She must find the spot up and ahead where a gnarled tree jutted from a slice in the rock face. There would be a small ledge beneath it. Between here, where she stood balanced on this ledge, and the one below the tree, was nothing she could grip or hold. So she must capture the tree with the noose of her rope and use it to get across the wide expanse of vertical rock.
She formed and knotted the noose. Across and above, she saw the stunted tree. She measured it with her eyes, to know how large the noose should be. Einar had said it may have grown in the years since he had done this. She might have to make a large noose, he had told her, to whirl it over the crooked branches, then tighten it around the twisted trunk.
But she could see from here that it had not grown at all. Instead, it was blackened, and one of the branches hung crooked and dead, split from the trunk. Lightning, Claire thought. It has been struck by lightning.
She tried to see where the roots emerged from the rock. Were they split as well? Would they hold? But they were hidden from her sight by a thick knob on the trunk itself.
He had warned her not to look down here. She was tempted to do so, in order to know what would happen if the tree failed her, if it broke from her weight and she fell. But she could hear his voice: Think only on the climb. Think on what you control.
She could not control the tree, or its blackened, split trunk. She could not control the strength of the gnarled roots that held it to the cliff.
But he had taught her how to control her body: her arms, her hands, her fingers, her feet and legs. And with them she could control the rope. She let it out, looping between her gloved hands, until it seemed the length was right. Then she began to twirl the noose. She had practiced this with Einar so often.
Now. She sent it loose and the loops unwound between her gloves as the rope shot out like a snake she had once seen unwind itself in pursuit of a mouse frozen in terror. The snake had killed the mouse in a split second. Claire’s aim was just as accurate, but she had made the noose too small. It caught the end of the tree but didn’t encircle it entirely; it was caught in the Y of a small forked branch.
She jerked at the rope and to her relief the twig on which it was caught snapped and the rope fell loose. She brought it in, hand over hand, and coiled it again. She remade the noose, slightly larger this time, and looped it for a second time between her gloved hands.
She called back the image of the snake: its eyes, its aim, the swift accuracy of its strike. One more time she twirled the rope and sent it out. This time, snakelike in its precision, it encircled the tree.
Claire tightened the noose, pulling it in close around the trunk by its base near the rock wall. Then, still balanced on the tiny ledge where she stood, she knotted the rope around her own waist. Her next move must be to leave the ledge, to steady herself with the taut rope and walk herself across the expanse of vertical veined granite, feeling for tiny protrusions to grasp with her bare toes. If the tree uprooted and fell, she would fall with it and die.
Think only on the task. On the climb.
She reached out with a foot, pressed it into the wall, and anchored it there. She tightened her grip on the rope and lifted her second foot from the ledge. For a breathless moment she dangled there in space. Then she placed her foot on the wall and steadied herself. The tree was holding. She moved her first foot an inch, then another. The tree still held. She tightened the rope, moved her second foot, and then the first again. She took in more rope through her gloved palms as she moved herself slowly across.
When at last she reached the small ledge below the tree and felt her feet firmly in place there, she took a deep breath. From here she would go upward though a diagonal crevice, but there would be footholds—she could see the first ones just above her—and at the top, another resting place. With difficulty she pulled the rope loose from the tree and rewound it. There was no way to return her gloves to her pack here on this tiny precarious place, so she fixed them under the rope on her shoulder. Then she reached up for the first wedge of rock and lifted herself by one arm into the crevice.
It was cooler here in the shadows. She realized she was getting tired. And it was only early afternoon. There was still a long way to go.
It took Claire longer than she had expected to make her way through the narrow shadowed tunnel that the crevice had formed. It was not life-threatening, as the rope-assisted passage across the cliff face had been. There was no sheer drop here. She was moving upward at a slant between two walls of rock. It was cool, which helped, for it had been very hot on the cliff face, and the sun had made it hard to see at times, shimmering as it did on the granite. Here, it was hard to see for the opposite reason: the shadowy darkness that made it cool. But it was like the night climbing at the bottom. She did it by feel.
The chill had also made it wet. Snowmelt had seeped into the rock tunnel, and the small opening had not allowed the sun in to evaporate the water. So the rock walls were damp and slippery. Twice Claire’s fingers slid loose from their holds and she went backwards, sliding down into the space she had just climbed through. She wiped her hands firmly again on her clothing, but the fabric too was now soaked through. Finally she thought to put on the gloves that she had wedged under her coiled rope. But when she pulled at them, there was only one. The other glove had slipped free and fallen someplace. For a moment she despaired. Then she remembered what Einar had told her: When something went wrong—and it’s sure that something will, he had said—you stopped to think, then found a way around it.
She lay at a slant in the tunnel, holding herself there with her legs taut against the walls, and thought. Then she put the remaining glove on her right hand, turned, grasped the next handhold, the one she had slipped from, and held herself there. The glove made it easier. It was thick and coarse. Even damp, it held fast. So she was secure for the moment. She worked her legs up an inch at a time, on either side, until they held her.
Then slowly, carefully, she took the glove off, put it on her other hand, and reached up farther for the next handhold. She grabbed, held on, and began again to inch her legs up. In the darkness she felt the wall with her ungloved hand, trying to find the next holding place; when she had found it, she carefully switched the glove again so she could hold fast. It was painstakingly slow, but she was moving upward instead of sliding down. Far up and ahead she could see the sunny opening where she would emerge back onto the side of the cliff. This, she remembered, was where she would find a large nest. She was to reach under the thick twiggy construction for a place to grasp. From there she would move onto a series of outcroppings that formed something almost like steps.
“Nest. Steps. Nest. Steps.” She began to murmur the two words, giving them a sort of rhythm that helped her move upward and forward. It gave her something to focus on as she continued the agonizingly slow ascent between the dark, damp walls.
Emerging from the tunneled cleft in the cliff wall, Claire was once again faced with the sheer drop of it, the certain death if she were to fall. Just in front of her, she was reassured to see the large nest that Einar had told her she would find. She caught her breath, then stretched forward and pulled loose some dried seaweed that formed part of its construction. She used it to dry her perspiring hands, then tucked it into her sleeve.
Reach under the nest, he had told her. There’s a place to grab on to, there.
She began to follow his instructions, leaning against the cliff toward the nest. Nest. Then steps.
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