On the seventh day of my journey up the mountain I met a sage, with dark, storm-cloud eyes that looked calcified and all-seeing, like Tiresias on a hike. He seemed to move with the snow, a wavering, white-cloaked figure with his hands in his sleeves and a face older than the rocks we stood on. He took me into a hollow, a kind of cave, lit up by a roaring fire which I presume he had crafted, from a bundle of wood that had been sheltered from the weather by a stony precipice, and thus was dry and grey. We sat, cross-legged, across from one another with the fire between us, and he handed me a bowl. Immediately the steam covered my face in water, only kept tepid by the heat from the fire, and I basked in the warmth we held in this pocket of the mountain. On the seventh day, I would only be half-way to the top, or so the guide had said. The sage watched me sip the liquid, drawing circles slowly on his knees with two long, grubby fingers. Old man’s hands on an old man’s body. He grunted when I finished the bowl, putting it down to revitalise my freezing hands by the fire. The drink had been like a savoury juice. I knew it was hallucinogenic as soon as I sipped it. The sage undressed himself as he stood, throwing his cloak off to reveal his old, crumbling body. He stepped into the fire and stood, his papery skin crackling, but holding strong to keep his organs in. I sat and watched as the nymphs caressed my neck and sang a song that I had never heard before. It sounded like the wind in the rafters of an old building, whistling and anthropomorphic. The sage writhed around in the fire, throwing his hands up and dancing with the flames. He was like a stripper, wanting to seduce the cave into sharing his light and vivacity. Suddenly, he locked his eyes on me as his hips continued to sway, the fire softening a little, as though the extra flames had transferred to his pupils, and I felt as if two lit cigarettes were dancing in front of my face, their butts making circles in the air – a little too closely.
“Why do you climb?” The sage asked, his voice oddly camp and weak for such an auditorium as that cavernous crook. He sounded genuinely curious.
“To reach the top.” I uttered, still a little aghast and distracted by the ethereal beings that whispered behind me.
“Yet you know not what lies there.”
“I climb to find out.”
“You should not continue.” Suddenly the sage sat to my right, his face too close to mine, his wrinkles crawling with grease and dirt, his eyes bobbing side to side like a charmed snake.
“I should not climb to the top?” I said, incredulous.
“If you climb to the top, you will see the Thing You Most Desire.” I laughed at the sage, trying to edge away from him.
“Then why should I stop? Surely that is all I could ever wish for. I don’t even know what it would be!” I scoffed, watching the shadows curl around us and lift us effortlessly so we were squashed against the ceiling. The sage lowered his voice – booming and harsh – and screamed in my ear:
“BUT HOW WILL YOU CARRY IT DOWN?” I laughed at him and ran from the cave, leaving the nymphs and the shadows and the crazy sage behind, and the rest of the mountain seemed easy to me. I scarpered up sharp rock faces, I clambered over six foot piles of treacherous stone as though I weighed the same as the winds, I resisted sleep’s clutches for four nights and five days and eventually I reached the summit. The light was blinding, the winds buffered me and the cold was a moribund man’s final breath. Here was death and blight. Here was the Thing I Most Desired.
In the haze of reverential bliss that washed over me, I remembered the sage’s words as I looked on this magnificent Thing, catching the light as though it were a diamond monolith, and it was everything I could have prayed for. Yet, the old wrinkle had been right – I could not have carried it down the mountain, even if I had constructed a kind of sleigh or draggable bag. I was at a loss. The unfairness of the situation melted my joy and I stood, staring at the Thing, my left ear filling with snow and the drowsiness filling my sinuses. I staggered towards the Thing I Most Desired and I clasped it. I held it and forced my chest to it, hoping that its outer layer might be warmed by my heart, pushing electrons out of my blood, sternum, skin and clothes to spark the Thing into life. But it needed to be carried down the mountain, and I was losing sight in my right eye. My hands began to slip from the sides and I could not make them stick to anything anymore. As I fell to the floor, I heard the Thing creak a little, and realised slowly that I was the heaviest thing in the universe at that moment.
(TV News Station, with BREAKING NEWS, 24th September, 2017 running along the bottom. The camera focuses on a blonde woman, smiling proudly at a desk)
“Sherry Calder and her team have become the first Australians to reach the summit of Mount Salpo in Antarctica since the successful expedition of the British Lord Rudder in 1907. Having come home to her family this evening, we asked Sherry how it felt to have achieved something so significant. Here’s what she had to say:”
(The live footage of a young, fit woman comes on, her skin tanned, her eyes a little too widely open and her speech is fired out like fast, Aussie bullets)
“There’s a person on the top of that mountain. Someone…and a telephone box. A red one. There’s a little inuit person, sat outside a telephone box on top of that mountain. They’re frozen dead, they’re solid – we tried to wake this little person, tiny… and grey with the frost! Someone was up there – ”
(Here the footage cuts off, and the blonde woman comes back on, smiling peaceably)
“Sorry about that folks, the real interview can be seen tomorrow at 10. Make sure not to miss it!”