It is 1.45am, and he has gone to bed, but does not feel sleep is near. He has been talking to someone far away, and reading that the US is called Turtle Island by its older inhabitants, a name that seems friendlier than the political description. And useful: perhaps if you know you are on a very large beast of uncertain temperament, you might step more lightly.
The book is by a physicist who points out that there are different kinds of time; that not everyone feels that progress is necessarily progress; that not all are naive enough to think that one can have eternal economic growth without eventually eating the whole planet; that there are greatly different worlds of perception which he cannot imagine.
He is startled to feel these thoughts nudge the world into a different texture, and he is reluctant to submerge them in sleep. He has a painful headache. But the mountain is near.
He did not run earlier as he had meant to; he had not enjoyed the last one, not at all. The itch is now here, though, and the night not too cold and he yields; out of bed, into shorts; a moment to take the portrait of a small green moth. Shoes: – Lacing, get the lacing right.
Then cellphone into one pocket, ultra-light windbreaker and hankie in the other, whistle and keys in the front, thin long-sleeved top over his t-shirt.
And the headlamp. It is new, he has not run with it before.
He avoids looking at the kitchen – must pour out that cucumber. As he leaves, it is near 2am. He walks behind the house, worrying the neighbour’s dogs will erupt but they remain silent.
For once the guinea fowl have ceased their screeched seasonal demands for sex. He is not running yet, getting used to the headlamp. The fynbos and boulders and small trees leap out in the cool light; it carves a small tunnel ahead of him and becomes a misty beam when he looks up. He curves down the shoulder of the kop, over the small stream and heads up the steep path to the nek, now running and walking over the gleaming white cut rocks that have not yet weathered into grey. At the top, at the very moment he wonders about the turn to the left, there it is, a foot behind him. His instinct seems to be sharper in the dark. A short climb, then he is running over flat rock, again finding the path more surely than usual. Another level 150m, then up the steepening path to the peak, the kop behind him.
He cannot detach the word kop from memories of Themba picking delicately at grey cooked sheep’s heads in the back of the kombi.
The path curves upwards, climbing now the cobbled hillside, clambering over large rocks. He is stumbling occasionally, gentle stumbles. The scary ones will come later, when limbs are trembling and mind is weary of calculating distance and trajectory and shuffling the variables of limbs and gravity. It is very quiet, and he wonders how much of the life that was here has been slowly evaporated by our presence. – What is the current temperature of the pot we have built about ourselves; why is the country still infested with large vehicles thumping the atmosphere and leisure estates sucking out the water?
The protea trees are tall here, the climbing is through a shallow forest; then to the bottom of the scrambles.
– Careful now, any incidents must be horizontal; three points secure, move one hand or foot at a time, climb.
There are lots of handholds, the rock curled and hollowed and gnarled. He is grateful for the shorts that were made for him: baggy, loose, they never catch his legs. Up the clefts, the first pitch sandy and grassy, over weathered trunks; next pitch, up, step around the rock, and up; and quickly, on top. The small town lies below him, the line of lights curves away to the left. The sea is not there, only void; the world is now lights and stars and four shades of blackness. He stands for a while, headlamp off, then follows the path along the ridge, running, stepping, stumbling. He loses the path for a moment, then finds it upslope.
The line of cliffs and caves is ahead. The fynbos leaps forward in a multitude of greens and greys, clicking into fractal delicacy.
He is apprehensive. The caves are ominous even in daylight and he hastens over the scree in front of the dark pits. Any noise and he would leap from his skin. At least he’s not getting lost again. Past, past the caves and implausible worries about lurkers.
The ridge opens. He expected to be nervous out here, but feels blissfully calm, though every now and then the long leaves of the watsonias rustle disconcertingly. He looks up, and wonders how long one would have to be here to get starburn. He remembers other times up here. – Here’s the discussion with Sandy about university, here’s Crallan’s umpteenth complaint about the climb.
The fragile, dry white blossoms of the helichrysums, now closed, will open soon, gleaming atop their delicate grey inverted candelabras. Sometimes they loom almost like startling eyes in the headlamp’s beam.
Over the ridge and down the other side to the top of the small valley. The headache has eased. He wishes he could go faster, but does not dare. Not alone. Here’s the first small metal junction plate, clinging to a rock. Often he’d turn right down here, back down to the harbour. But not tonight, further tonight. On up, through the open sandy clearing at the next junction of paths, on up the next boulder-broken ridge, and now the path branches again. He does not know this one. ‘Warning, scrambling,’ says the junction plate.
– What the hell.
On up, and now there are lovely smooth sandy bits, lots of running here. The headlamp is acquitting itself well. The last one kept switching itself on in his bag and running down the batteries. A scam, he had realised, one should not buy a lamp made by a battery manufacturer. Now the easy scramble down, as warned.
– Where’s the path? Ah, to the left.
His limbs are warm, moving like liquid that could run forever. On to the next ridge, then a great flying misstep and he feels sick in a fraction of a second as the rock rushes at him, but manages a lurching recovery. He is heading back towards the sea, boulders overhanging on the right like bus stops.
Here is the prow of the peak, high above the sea.
He turns the headlamp off. The great bay is sketched before him by prickling lights, then opens to the truculent ocean that stretches all the way down to Antarctica. He can see two, three, no, four light houses, turning like timid pulsars in the dark. He watches.
Now down again. – Legs must lift quicker, avoid stumbles; float like a butterfly, spring like a flea.
The path is heading away from home. He’s not entirely sure he wants to head away in that direction and seizes at a small path that branches off and turns back, but it only goes to another overhanging boulder.
There ahead of him now is a rock black with water. It is split horizontally and the water is creeping from the split, this naked spring a wonderful thing to behold. He climbs up carefully; again his pathfinding seems surer in the blackness than in the day. Down again to the water. There is a tiny palm-sized hollow on a ledge, and as he bends towards it the world contracts with an almost audible whoosh and he is in a tiny garden of water and grey stone and moss and delicate branched orange lichens. Tiny red sundews sparkle amongst the tiny thin reeds, all bright in the confined light.
A small striped cockroach hurries away. Old friend. It belongs here, unlike the invaders that infest kitchens. This may be one of the few places the US does not have permanent military bases, but they do have outposts of roaches.
He stoops and sucks in half a mouthful of water, and some grit, then turns reluctantly from this tiny world. Back to the path, running again, down, down, sandy stretches, leaps over treacherous rocks. – Try not to dislodge rocks; a good runner leaves no tracks, said Lao Tzu, they say.
Then he is on the jeep track that is the beginning of the way down and of persistent running. Yet another stainless steel junction plate points out the directions, it reflects the light of his headlamp sending another beam shooting back across the path.
Down: the path is shored up with the bones of half-burnt proteas and periodic and carefully constructed run-offs.
He hesitates momentarily, then drinks from a faster stream. The banks are high and he must stoop between his own feet to reach the tea-coloured water.
– When does a trickle become a gurgle and a gurgle become a stream and a stream become a torrent?
Going faster he leaps over the cut stones and the branches, past the short stolid spikes of the suurvye, flying down the red earth track, legs working well.
– Be careful, this is when you fall, when you are nearing the end; no more somersaults.
Down, down and then the path is familiar; the rocks now muddy shale. Now there is grass again, heralding people nearby. The stream is pushing hard, intersecting with the path and the rocky steps, wetting the small wooden bridges. A foot goes oops on the slick planks. A down jump turns out half a foot further than expected. – Whoa!
The uneven steps lead onto the road above the houses above the sea. Not a car in sight. Down several flights of stairs into the village and onto the main road. There are two men putting fishing rods in cars. He turns right and runs fast past the small harbour, onto the curving stretch back around the foot of the kop. The rocks almost glow on its slopes.
He musters some easy pushes, past the abandoned railway station a few feet above the sea where the signal lights glow red in the dark. The trains are not running yet. Now down the short hill to the parking opposite the beach. Turning left, he walks across the railway lines, past the modest dunes and across the sand.
He takes careful note of the alignment of the dune grasses to mark the spot. He removes all his clothes. The black waves surge forwards to meet him. He walks into the sea.