He opened his eyes and saw stars. They were falling down the side of the canyon, landing softly on his skin. He was covered in them. He must have dislodged them as he fell. Above him, he saw the walls of the canyon. They glowered down at him, those bitter old rocks, hunching their shoulders, dark moss growing in the grooves of ancient grudges. The sky was absolutely silent.
Shifting a little, he tried to gauge where he was. A ledge about twenty metres up from the bottom. Too overgrown to be seen from below. Too dangerous to be viewed from the top. His skin felt odd, disconnected and wrinkled, and the back of his head was very wet. Vaguely, he registered his limbs. They seemed to be firmly attached to his body, but whenever he wasn’t looking at them, they seemed to sigh and float away.
Exhausted, he laid his head back on the rock. The stars on his skin were soft and light and he began, idly, to slit their stalks, to peel them from his damp skin and to string them together. Estrella de Montagna. Stars of the Mountain. The little blue flowers that dotted the hillside, twinkling in the movement of the restless grasses. They were a mirror of the sky in the hillside. And they whispered to him, of the approaching night.
Even so, he lay for a while, just looking upwards at the frowning rock face above him, oddly peaceful. He wasn’t sure how he had managed to fall at all, knowing this countryside the way he did. Knowing every split rock, every crevice, every rolling grassland, all those places where the crafty ground lay in wait for him, poised in readiness to fall, sharply, away. He should have known better. But he must have forgotten.
It was Mayu who had named the flowers. Who had looked at a wet hillside and seen only stars. Back when they were barely more than children, both of them, holding hands, stealing kisses, going bare foot in the grass. They had spent so much time up there on the mountains. They had darted and flirted, held each other, sat on that restless grass and talked. Long conversations, earnest promises, and that deep, purpling darkness on the evening when he had first spilled his seed into her, urged onward by those bright blue flowers. Those bright blue flowers that outshone the stars. Eventually it wasn’t simply that they reminded him of her. It was more as though the flowers and she were the same.
The night around him was quiet and expectant. He woke from his thoughts with a start, and noticed it. Saw the clumps of green-yellow foliage which whispered and watched him, rubbing together with excitement. The self-satisfied smile of the great grey rock face. The still clouds in their darkening canvas, staring down at him and holding their breath.
The night expected him to die.
But the Mountain Stars were stirring in his fingers. Whispering to him of gentle memories, of tender moments long gone but never lost. Skin touched, hearts swollen. Desires met. Desires born.
And he knew, as the stars did, that the night was mistaken.
His hands were more alert than his mind was. They reached up, without permission, and they grasped at the cracks of the grey, gnarled rock, lodged their bleeding knuckles in them, gripped and stuck, and hauled him upright. He rested a moment, and then pulled again, grunting with the effort, until he was standing, hanging really, feet resting on the rock terrace, arms up, sinews stretched and raw and gasping.
The rocks griped at him irritably. But still he held. He had rested enough now. He had to get back. To return home to Mayu. She’d be worried now, stirring rice over the fire, hand on her aching back, peering out of the window at the near forgotten sun. The feeble white moon doing its best to look blameless. His hands were crimson. He shifted his grip. The rocks muttered just a little louder.
The fact was, being upright had made the world swivel, and he wasn’t quite sure which way was up and which down. His limbs seemed askew, and even lighter, and the rock face seemed to swim in and out, as though the whole canyon were pulsating and wriggling, trying, with all the great hard malevolence of the mountain, to shake him off.
He realised the flowers were still in his hand. Mayu. Painstakingly, hanging by one arm, he looped the Mountain Stars into a circle – more than a circle, a kind of crown – and he placed it, determined, onto his head. It felt cooling there, healing. He felt the blue of the petals sinking into the wet red depths of his wet black hair. Then he stared back at the grumbling rocks, and dared them to try that again.
Doggedly, he lifted one weightless leg, finding to his surprise that its floating quality made it all rather easier on his arms. He lodged a foot in the rock face, pulled with one arm, lodged the other foot. Pulled again. Lodged. Pulled. The whole canyon was angry now, restless and moaning, but the flowers whispered encouragement and he kept on upwards.
He was about four metres above the ledge where he started when his sweat soaked body seemed to reconsider. The fist of his fingers on one hand unfurled and hung suddenly, slack and mutinous, jolting his body so that half of it hung. He would have fallen, would have been finally defeated, if it wasn’t for the clump of long yellow green grasses which he grasped with all his strength and hauled himself back with. The grass, rusty streaked and wrenched at, shook and shrieked in indignation, but there was nothing it could do. If it let him go it would only fall down with him.
Little by little he crept, onward and upward, as the sky grew darker and the canyon more angry. Mayu. He felt the Mountain Stars whisper her name.
He was dogged, gripping and pulling, methodical and patient, closing his ears to the rising chorus, the hiss of the grasses and the low, guttural mumblings of the discomfited rock. He took care not to notice the muttered expletives, and, when the canyon, goaded into action, shuddered and opened its great mouth to howl, he saw, not the black expanse of death, but simply a place to put his foot.
Finally, he reached an overhang – a cold grey protuberance above him, blocking his path. The overhang temporarily distracted him, so that he paused, leaving the mountainside, humiliated by its self-betrayal, to hunch there, mouth open. It growled, a noise the villagers heard later as thunder, but he didn’t respond to it, he had other concerns. The jutting rock above him had made him look up, and in doing so, the clouds had seized their chances. They joined with the canyon to thwart his progress, moving like ghosts in the distance, so that his view upwards loomed and lurched towards him, becoming an echo of the view below. For a moment he stepped outside his body, observed it, a little match stick broken, clinging to the side of an impossible drop.
“Give up,” spat the grasses and, in the same instant, one of the tiny green parrots that were such a draw to the tourists, and such a pest to the villagers, flew fast past him, its high voice cracking in shrill surprise,
“You? You’re not supposed to be here.”
He felt his legs for the first time, and they tore at him. They hung like leaden weights from his screaming torso and he was certain his whole body would rip in half, bloody tissue and string and sinew cascading downwards like the green waterfalls at the canyon’s dark base.
He thought of those moments again, his hand in Mayu’s, and then of her hands now, wracked and trembling with age. He remembered his glamour, the beautiful arrogance that comes hand in hand with the uncertainty of youth. What was he now? What were they? A couple of old crones stirring pots at a fire. And his job as a guide? He was only a bit of a picture, torn up and crumpled and redrawn from the eyes of the tourists, themselves smooth and young and arrogant with youth. They saw something twee and pastoral in his village, saw something ‘pretty’ in a landscape which groaned heavy with danger. They were amused by his rough heels encased in his sandals, his use of the sunlight in place of a wrist watch. He and Mayu were no longer a courting couple. And the landscape that he knew so well was beginning to reduce into shadow. The disease in his old eyes had grown and spread, and now the black didn’t retreat any more when he blinked. It wouldn’t be long now before he looked at Mayu, and could see only a beautiful shape in the dark.
GO,” shouted the Mountain Stars.
And the stars were Mayu, waiting for him in the moonlight. Touching his old skin with fingers that were gentle and warm. The passion may have become a bright memory, fading, but the heat of it lingered. One by one, he lifted his hands, flexed his fingers, adjusted his hold. Then, urged on by those bright blue petals, he lifted his gaze once more to the sky. And it seemed that the clouds had thinned and retreated, and that the stars were no longer quite so far away.
He pulled, reached, missed.
Let his heart finish thumping a route through his ribs. Then again. Pulled up, aimed with one arm for the edge of the outcrop above him while the other gripped still, and red sweat wept from his pores.
And this time he caught it. Brushed it with one thumb before he fell back, readying himself even as he did so, to re-try. It was enough. He grinned into the sullen dark shape of the mountain.
“That’s it,” he said, “I have you now.”
Then jumped and pulled in one and the same motion, unaware as he did it how exactly it worked. He was stood on the outcrop. He was eyeballing the grasses. Stood just under a metre from the top of the canyon.
He allowed himself one little smile. Before finally, with a heave and grunt of exhilaration, he reached with his weightless arms over the top and pulled himself, rolling over and over until he rested, finally, crushing the grimly muttering grass.
He grabbed a stray branch, used it to stand up. Then he stood, one little stick man on the top of the mountain, threw back his head and roared with triumph.
“Yahh!” he yelled to the glowering canyon, and he drove the stick deep into the squealing soil.
Then, nearly running now, he was so close to home, he made his way back towards the lights of the village, tearing his jumper on the furious brambles which tore and clutched at him, allies of the canyon.
“You shouldn’t be here,” they hissed, but he ignored them. And the Stars of the Mountain joined with their silvery cousins in bright shouts of victory, cheering him on.
They found his twisted, broken body a few days later, lodged on a rock terrace at the foot of the mountain. They were sombre men, wondering how to tell poor old Mayu. They were busy with stretchers and pulleys and so they didn’t see the stick in the soil, poised like a marker at the top of the mountain. Nor the strands of familiar blue wool jumper, suspended in spite in the brambles at the top.
And they missed the starlight in his fading footprints, leaping and bounding in his glee to be home.