I’m on the side of a mountain. It’s more of a cliff, I guess. Well, it’s between a mountainside and a cliff. It’s dirt, like a mountain, but steep, like a cliff. It’s, like, a 70-degree angle, if that’s a steep angle. I’m no good with geometry.
There’s no foliage or significant landmarks. It’s just dirt, pebbles and rocks of assorted sizes, and twigs and other pointy bits of nature.
By turning my feet outward and pressing them flat against the earth, I can sort of squeeze the surface with my thighs to hang on. It’s Thigh Master: Mountain Edition.
With arms outstretched, my fingers dig into the soft earth. Here or there, a stray boulder or root offers a place to hold on.
The earth is cool against my cheek.
I haven’t moved for what feels like hours. I can see an alcove above, where the steep mountainside levels off a bit. At least, I think that’s what I see. It’s maybe a hundred feet straight up the soft, sheer face of the mountain. With my muscles aching and the unpredictability of the terrain, the relative safety of that little landing seems impossibly far away.
I slowly crane my head downward, dragging it along the dirt. I can feel the clumps of soil collecting in the ridges of my ear, but I can’t lean back without risking losing my balance.
I look down. The wall stretches forever, as far as I can see, into blackness. I can’t see it, but I know what’s down there. Death.
I close my eyes.
After a moment, I open them. I inhale slowly. I cautiously slide my right foot higher and dig it into the earth. A fair amount of dirt and debris slide away, but I’m able to compact enough of it to make a relatively firm foothold.
I reach higher with my left hand. My fingers dig into the dirt above my head, as the earth crumbles in my hand. Eventually my curled-up claw latches on.
I lift my left foot.
The sweat has started up again. The dirt sticks to my forehead and drips into my eyes. I can’t risk losing my grip, so I let it be. I just narrow my eyes to slits and hope my eyelashes do their job.
I reach with my right hand.
It goes on like this.
Right foot. Left hand. Left foot. Right hand. Right foot. Left hand. Left foot. Right hand.
I lose count of how many cycles I’ve gone through, not that it matters. The landing appears just as far away as it did before. If I had to guess, I’d say I climbed 40 feet. But I’m no good at distances.
But I’m moving forward. I’m able to deal with the little things that come up along the way, and I keep moving forward.
As I reach up again with my left hand, the ground beneath my feet gives way. Maybe it’s an unexpected obstacle. Maybe I make a mistake. My face hits the wall and I begin sliding. Maybe someone says something mean. Maybe I say the wrong thing. I claw furiously at the earth, but the dirt just crumbles between my fingers. Sliding, skidding. My legs flail. I can’t get a hold. My heart is racing. I feel my face and arms get scraped and sliced by tiny rocks and prickly twigs. I sense the darkness, the emptiness below. Panicking now. With every bit of strength I can muster, I stab my fingers into the earth, deep, reaching, searching for anything to hold onto.
My fingers hook a buried root. I jolt to a stop and a dust cloud puffs out around me like in a cartoon. As soon as my brain registers the situation, I dig in my feet to create pseudo-footholds. It’s a good thing too, because as soon as I regain my footing the tree root I’m holding onto gives way. But I’m able to maintain my hold and toss the root down the slope.
Once I catch my breath, I survey the situation. My clothes are torn and bloody. The fingernail on my left ring finger has ripped halfway off. My self-esteem is rubbed raw. Above me I see the path of my slide. It’s a long way.
I’ve lost all the ground I spent the last few hours, days, years climbing. In fact, several yards above me I see where I had started my original ascent. I’ve fallen even farther. I’ve wasted my energy, I’ve wasted my time. All for nothing. Why did I even try in the first place?
The blood starts to coagulate. The feeling in my fingers, my feelings, go numb. What now?
I look up. The ledge is still impossibly far away.
I close my eyes, resting my forehead against the dirt. My heart feels tight in my chest. All my muscles ache with exhaustion.
After a minute—or a few minutes, I don’t really know—I open my eyes and lean over to look down.
The sheer mountain side still stretches down into blackness.
I close my eyes again. I shift the sides of my feet in the loose dirt to gain a little more traction. I dig my bloody fingers deeper into the dirt to hold on. I exhale and allow my body to relax, only slightly, just a little.
If I try to climb higher, I’m sure I’ll end up slipping again. I’ll slide lower, maybe lower than I am right now. Maybe I’ll slide so far that I fall all the way down. Into the blackness.
I can’t move anymore. What would be the point? I can either stay planted here, hoping for something, anything, some miracle to come along and rescue me. Or I can risk death. Probable death. Likely death. I’ll die.
I don’t move. I cling to the soft mountainside.
It’s all I can do.
“Very interesting,” says Dr. Van Nostrand, nodding slowly. “Is that how you feel?”
“Yeah. It’s a metaphor,” I say.
“No duh,” he says. “It’s a little on the nose, don’t you think?”
“I guess so.”
I slouch down, pressing myself deeper into the arm chair, and stare at a trapezoid of sunlight on the carpet.
“It wasn’t meant to be subtle,” I say.
“Well, our time is up for today,” he says. “Before we meet tomorrow, I’d like you to think about what’s the top of the mountain. In reality, not metaphorically.”
As I walk down the hall back to my room, I pass another resident who’s curled up on the ground, softly singing the theme song to Happy Days.