Fast Way Down
11.5.2002 by , every Tuesday.
One day I went hiking in California.
This is the closest I come to realism. Sorry there are no pink hippos and unicorns. I hope you like it.
The blinds are down, but the bright sun outside infuses them with a soft glow. The two double beds are full; in one, my parents are motionless lumps cocooned in the flowery hotel sheets. My sister is sprawled across the second; she has expanded, like a goldfish, to fill her environment. Minutes ago I pulled myself slowly from that bed, taking care to keep the rustling of the sheets to a minimum. Now I stand on the soft carpet and tie my shoelaces silently.
I creep towards the door, wincing as it clicks open. My shoes scrunch on the sidewalk. I inch the door shut behind me; once it clicks I pause. The air-conditioning inside was cold and dry, chemical and artificial. Now I’m hit with a wave of warmth, sweetness, and moisture.
The day is very new. I’m standing in the shadow of a tropical tree, its strange leaves thick with stored water. The sun-washed sidewalks are deserted but for the little birds and the fat brown snails you only see in California.
As I stand in the blue shadow of the tree, I feel suddenly charged. The air smells remarkably sweet and clean and open to possibilities. I feel my muscles tense. I suck in a breath. Then I’m off, sprinting down the walkway, hearing nothing but the swift scrape of my shoes on the sidewalk. The swimming pool rushes by, its surface glassy-calm. Sweet eucalyptus branches graze my head. I dash out of the hotel complex and over the thick wet grass to the road.
Down at the end of the street I see it, rising up, glittering. I vault a fence and scurry across the narrow running path to the sand cliffs. Now I can hear it, too, albeit a little muffled; a long, slow breathing. Breathless, I pause at the cliff edge and drink it in, feeling the sun like a warm hand at my back. The ocean spreads out before me, sparkling as it pushes its powerful blue-green waves to break against the shore.
I need to get down to it. There are paths in the sand cliffs that wind to the sea, and sometimes worn, carved stairs that the surfers scale every day. I wander until I find two such paths and choose the harder one in the name of speed. It’s nearly vertical. I get low and press my hands to the sunbaked flanks of the cliff. As I begin to inch a leg down, I hear the soles of my shoes crunch against the sand. This will be easy, I think, feeling cocky with the power of my youth and my health. I shift my weight and push my right foot forward, bracing myself with my hands, until it strikes a mound of hardened sand. Then I ease my left foot down. I lean over, looking for a foothold. There’s one maybe three feet below, a tussock of tropical grass. My right leg trembles a little as I strain to connect my foot with the hold. Finally, I press the ball of my foot against it, and search for the next foothold.
I begin to doubt my strength about halfway down the cliff face. The only sound is my breathing, fast and animal, superimposed on the deep, assured, and still distant exhalations of the sea. The footholds are fewer, the path too steep and gritty to slide down. Briefly I consider turning back. But I’m too stubborn, and too filled with elation. I slide further down the dusty cliff. My palms are brown now, and my forehead prickles with sweat. Every moment I feel in a more precarious balance. Two-thirds of the way down the cliff, the doubts multiply and swim from my brain through rivulets of sweat to every part of my body. “Shit,” I say to the salty air and the clumps of grass.
Down below I can make out one more foothold. It’s not very large, just a small red-brown mound, but I can see what looks like a bit of a shoe-print mapped on the side of it. I snake my left foot down the path. Too far? I strain harder, stretching my leg, and it begins to quiver. I grimace, my eyes closing slightly, and stretch every part of my body to feel the connection. Dismayed, I notice that my weight has shifted completely towards the reaching left foot.
All at once, the curtain drops, the world goes black, my hold gives, the ground slides past me. Everything slows, and I can feel each individual grain of sand slice into my sweaty skin. For breathless seconds, my mind grasps with the fundamental questions: what is up? what is down?
* * *
The actual strike is instantly obliterated from my memory. When the world starts turning again, I open my eyes. I’m on my side at the base of the cliff. The sand beneath me is burning hot, but I’m scared to get up in case I leave some part of me behind.
Slowly, I push myself back into my muscles, feeling them, thankfully, respond. I pull myself up on one knee. That’s when I see the blood. It’s bright like a flower, and it’s streaming raggedly down my right leg. I peer stupidly at the wound, noting that the sand has torn off a quarter-sized chunk of skin on my knee. It doesn’t hurt yet, but an annoying part of my mind insists it will soon. Bruises darken on my other limbs.
I pull myself to my feet, blinking. That’s when the ocean imposes itself upon my vision. It sparkles like diamonds, and frothy waves paw at the sand. There are little birds pecking in the wake of each swell; their chirps sound distant under the roar of the surf.
I walk towards it, pulling off my dusty shoes. The sun is warm at my back, but the water’s chill bites at my feet. I wade in, feeling the push and pull of the waves on my skin and on the shifting sand between my toes. I stop when the water level reaches my knees, look down and watch the sea draw the blood away.
Seawater is not antiseptic.