He was worrying about the water he'd bought from the old woman at the station. The cap came away too easily. He didn't want to be taking tap water here. This was the last bus of the day. There were only two other passengers: the boy at the back in formal, shabby clothes, reading his textbook, and the woman at the front in a headscarf – unusual here. But with the steep ascent the air was rapidly cooling. He could leave his thirst until he'd arrived at the mountain.
Black smoke appeared ahead, between breaks in the mist. They'd risen extremely quickly from the humidity at sea-level and now they closed all the windows to seal their vehicle from the cold green air of the hills. Their greasy city sweat chilled them. The rain began to fall in sheets, degrading the road. The driver slowed. There was little traffic but they had their path blocked several times by tankers crawling ahead as great black slugs.
The student kept scratching at his skin.
The mist cleared some more. The blackness above them wasn't smoke at all but the upper rock of the mountain, where nothing grew. A mineral lump. Now that he'd settled the issue of the water, he worried about checking-in at the rooms. The forms didn't make it clear when the curfew was. He'd tried phoning to give notice of his arrival in the evening – later than he'd expected – but he hadn't been able to get through. It had been a panic even making the last bus; he hadn't anticipated this closing-in of time.
The bus stopped. Its engine still ran. It was the last few moments before night. He got off, took his rucksack from the back, and said goodbye.
He brought mud with him into the sparkling reception floor, dropped his rucksack and then began arranging his crumpled sheets of paper. A group of teenage Chinese were loudly harassing the young man at the desk. They laughed at the receptionist and mimicked the accent he used for English. The receptionist waited for the boys to cease and then issued them their keys. As they left, dragging their sandals, the receptionist slowly turned his head.
“Hello sir, and welcome to mountain lodges.”
Checking-in was a smooth process. He encountered no problems or hostility but found himself abashed by the courtesy of the receptionist. This was high-end accommodation. He had had no idea. He had paid a lot of money but that was to be expected, given that the company had bought exclusive rights to the mountain. He had been confused by all the information. He'd thought you had to stay two nights - the night before the climb, and the night mid-climb.
“And the other guest has arrived, sir?”
“Your fellow guest, sir? Your companion?”
“What do you mean? It's only me.”
The receptionist went to say something, but closed his lips.
Part of the service was to insist on arranging transport to his room.
“It's nothing. I'll walk.”
The jeep took him. It was now too dark to make out much other than the near trees and plants and the few buildings by the side of the road. The road dipped suddenly several times. He stood outside before going up the steps to his room and tried to make out the mountain. After a while he felt he could sense it standing over him, a pressure. But he also felt that beyond the road, in the same direction as the mountain path, was a kind of absence – a quarry.
The lodge was a large brick dome split in the middle to make two residences back to back, mirroring each other, he assumed. He muttered as he turned on the light; the place was extravagant. There was air-conditioning. The bed was huge, with a thick duvet and several layers of sheets and rugs, folded open on one side. The temptation, he knew, would be to have the air-conditioning make the room cold; to work on a feeling of refuge, bundled up and enclosed within the wrap of the sheets and rugs. A covered glass and a sealed bottle of water were placed at each of the bedside tables. There were masks to cover your eyes, ear-plugs and wrapped biscuits on the desk.
He realised midway, not at the beginning but some way into it, that he was talking to himself.
He packed away both of the courtesy shampoos and one shower gel and bundled his dirty clothes into the bottom of his rucksack. Before he became completely naked he checked the lock on the front door. The door swung open into the night. Insects horned.
His dirt continued to flow after fifteen minutes' scrubbing. To his surprise and shame he saw hand-prints on the pale shower curtain and foot-marks on the tiles. He would need to wash those, too. A dark sketch of colour appeared on the towel. He was shocked. He went back into the shower and washed again but to the same result. They would have to throw away the towel. Footprints he barely recognised were all over the bathroom.
Who said that?
There had been a noise, he's not quite sure if it's himself who had spoken or if he had only spoken after, saying 'who said that?'
He is very tired - there was all that travelling to get here, and then there had been the hiking in the forest, and he fell, and now he is irritable and on edge, and perhaps, he said, he is imagining things.
He should have liked the low-light and thick comfort of the furniture, but a feeling of loss nagged at him. Had he forgotten something, or someone? The room was clearly not prepared for him. Other things were going on. Furniture was being moved; in the other room, perhaps, the mirror of here, where there were two. Chairs screeched. But a murmur is going on in here. He goes to speak, but cannot hear himself. He cannot catch himself – catch himself in the act. The act is not happening. He is in the wrong place. None of this is nature. The mess he made of the bathroom was a collision with the space. Maybe that, he thought, is the reality of a haunting: strain of a body where that body was never meant to be.
Past the headboard, beyond the wall, was an exact replica of this room mirroring him. There were movements on that side – voices, steps, and the sound of furniture being used. He could not hold the dramatic feeling that the other, mirrored room was the real room, and in here was only shadow or undercurrent. He sensed the creak and strain of the bed – the other bed. The light would be stronger there, the surge of water more powerful, the doors more secure. This was the other side. They could sense him, though, moving about, and speaking, if he did so, to himself.
The lamp on the low table drifted its light in slivers, interrupted by shadow. He remained exactly where he was and tried to listen in to voices, to people he had never seen and whose existence he doubted. He put his hand out on the table. The colour and texture is similar from here.
“I am genius.”
“What? What's that? You're genius?”
“Genius by name.”
He showed the ID badge hanging from his neck: Jennius.
“Jennius by name,” the guide repeated, and laughed.
They shook hands. A farmer in his early thirties with an aged face, a quick grin, a pair of donated Reebok trainers and a practiced private air, Jennius spoke all the English his job required. He said you set the pace and I'll go with you.
Would he point out the interesting plants? Rafflesia?
“Wrong season,” Jennius said, “but we will see pitcher plants.”
They pressed on quickly, stopping often for short periods. Jennius could see him tiring; he was struggling to catch his breath and was talking less.
“Are we the first?” he said.
Jennius didn't seem to understand.
Six kilometres up the path moved into rock and rubble that pressed into his ankles and knees, and caused a thrumming, vibrating sensation across his body.
“How are we doing, Jennius?”
“Very well. Very fine. Laban Rata is not far.”
It grew colder, and mist floated between them and the rocks, a similar colour.
Jennius never seemed to tire. He hadn't even noticed Jennius take a breath.
By the time they reached the huts of Laban Rata it was cold. The mist moved over them. Jennius wore a sheet around his neck.
“Now we rest, and eat. At 3am we met meet here, ok?”
There was no heating. The meals were to be provided in the evening. He had arrived too soon. The mist broke rarely, so the views were brief. He felt light-headed, but pleased he had not suffered from altitude sickness. Two other travellers were sitting also in the dining area, and this annoyed him - he had assumed that he and Jennius were the first.
The front door was kept wide open and the mist drifted in. He walked to his room, intending only to secure a top bunk. Arriving there he lay down, put on his hat, and went to sleep.
When he awoke it was dark. The space was very small. He remembered he was high up. A small man slept in the bunk across from him. He also wore a hat, he was shivering, and his blanket was pulled up to his chin. His boots pointed out from the bottom of the blanket. He heard the man shivering. His eyes opened.
“Hello,” he said.
“Cold,” he said.
The man shivered, pulling on his blanket.
“You are going up?”
“I have been up,” the man said. “Very cold, very tired.” He resumed his sleep.
It must have been the noises from the corridor that woke him next. The gasps and shrieks of the Chinese boys, the spraying of water. He lost sense of time. He hadn't built things yet – hadn't received information for space yet, or time. Mist was present in the air, rising in the room. The sleeping breaths, clouds of live effect. He half-closed his eyes again. He felt that this was a cottage; he cast the image out. It was a good image, an image from old times to harbour him from cold.
The ice-shower was a game for them all, and a test. He was stunned at the shooting sensations travelling across his body, a rippling local effect, his form existing one piece at a time. And then it finished. Still wet, feeling that he was coated in an outline of freezing water, he put on all his layers of clothing, including his hat, and went down to the dining area, thick with the babble of many languages and the smells of people and mud and food; soup and meat and fish and coffee. Still the doors were open, the cold night air fizzing in. People wearing Gore-Tex had their headlamps out on many of the tables. At first he was not sure what meal this is. There was supposed to be dinner, and then another meal at 2am. But people were wearing their lamps, readying themselves. Where is Jennius? All the groups were meeting with their guides. Soon enough there was only him and the kitchen staff sweeping up around him.
Jennius entered the room smoothly and quietly, as always. He didn't even notice Jennius was there until he was sitting at the table.
“Jennius, we are late.”
He looked at his watch. “3 o'clock,” he said.
“But everyone else left long ago.”
“Don't mind them,” he said. “We go fast.”
They attached their headlamps and went outside. It was cold, silent, and dark. He found the initial steps a big effort, and wondered how he was going to manage. They would be using ropes soon. It all seemed hopeless, a venture into nothing, free space. The presence of the path continuously surprised him – an architecture. He turned off his light: nothing. Nothing above or below, the lights of Laban Rata covered over. Jennius whistled, sensing his lack of integration. He turned on his light again, and Jennius pointed upwards.
Jennius ran up around those who were vomiting on the path verges. Jennius wandered more in the dark, but always his whistling would bring him back from a distance.
“Where is your guide?” a man with a badge asked him, shining his torch.
“He is over there,” he pointed. “If you wait a minute you will hear him whistle.”
He moved on.
They had not seen any people for a time. Jennius stopped. He shone his torch. For the next hundred metres, he explained, they would have to lift themselves up the rock, holding to the fixed rope. Jennius instructed him. He removed his gloves to have a better feel of the material. There was no use in having light now, so he turned his headlamp off. There was the attraction of arching your back, of feeling the loop of the rock, the lilt of a simulated fall. He held with one hand, bent his back and stared down past himself into nothing. The cold on his cheeks came from space. He pushed on again, up. Now he was scuttling on a lunar greyness. Above them were small moving lights, disembodied heads that had turned around. Afterwards he lay and faced it, that spinning cold.
At the summit, somebody noted the pattern of lights below them, marching – headlamps. He turned away. It was apparent that the cloud cover would persist. The strong wind rippled through their clothes as they waited, exposed, for the light. Others slowly came up. Everybody was disappointed in their own way. He was eager to begin their descent. The sooner they started the sooner Jennius could go home to his family. And he was excited by the bare rock in the light and the thought of rushing down it.
Jennius indicated. He nodded.
Everything was pale. The grey mountain was packed in by the clouds, a floating island. “Jennius, can we run?”
Jennius demonstrated by running horizontally, first to the left and then the right, along the rock. He tried it. It was ridiculous, prancing on brittle legs.
Immediately after Laban Rata it was warmer. They took away a layer. There was vegetation again. He was weary from lack of sleep and from the sense of recurrent collapse. He had had a heavy bowel movement; he felt empty. The steepness of the path meant that instead of walking you continuously threw yourself down. He was overlapping. He moved at an unnatural pace, halting and lurching. Every movement was a thump, a tiny crash of bone on rock. There was no other way of doing it. This was down. Jennius gestured slowly, slowly, but he understood. His bones were being pounded by the impact of repeated vertical falls.
It was the same into earth – hard earth. The sun was bearing on it now, but the plants were wilder, greater, more fertile here. He smelled it more strongly than he had in climbing, now walking into the plants of the mountainside. He staggered. Pieces of him came away on the ground. Then his body jumped, looped ahead, and he could see, for a fraction of a second, his body ahead, could see his own back before he merged again and resumed his position. He saw himself from behind, from the past, saw what he inevitably did and then became that thing doing it. He was being sucked into a present he could do nothing to stop. He wanted to run; to run from side to side again, like on the bare rock where nothing grew. But here the living things were abundant. He kept turning around, expecting to see something.
There was a hut ahead with a tank of rainwater and a toilet. He was sitting on a wall, holding his head with both hands. Then he would look at his hands, then he would shake his head. Then he would get up, after a time, and continue the descent, occasionally drinking from his bottle. Then he would not be seen.