Dread, dread, dread. The forest is dark and full of autumn, chewed over by winter frosts and snows. There is a crunch to it as the sun sets behind the traveller making her way up the mountainside to the refuge and a warm, thick stew.
Some wolves are howling far away but still too close. Karen’s mountain hike dips, losing valuable ascent but she pushes on. The day is leaving. It’s getting dark. It’s been 12 hours since she set out from the town this morning. She walked out past the graveyard, the bar, the tourist office and the mayor’s house. Her friend, Jane, was walking with her.
The last time they’d walked together had been on the same hike but a year previously. They’d gone in the winter, in January, because that was the only time they could take off from their jobs: Karen in catering. Jane as a lawyer. They’d walked and talked about their lives. Long, involved conversations fuelled by the rhythm of their breathing, the steady beating of their hearts and the contentment of taking measured step after step with a destination and return planned and available. Ups and downs and winter birds singing around them. The pine trees’ scent, the wind in the needles above and around them.
Finally an ascent regained some of the lost height. They met an hilariously blond Swedish family coming the other direction along the sandy path: mother, father, teenage son and daughter. Tall, slim, smiling. They’d shared information about each other’s routes, drank some water. Apparently there was an ancient monastery carved into the valley side just a few kilometres ahead. A step ladder of sorts carved into the side too. The monks were the jolly kind, happy to meet and feed travellers with a vegetable broth that was absolutely delicious according to the nodding Swedes.
Jane and Karen had time. They decided to visit.
“Some spiritual enlightenment would be just the thing for a lawyer”, said Karen. “Some delicious soup might teach you at least one decent recipe too,” said Jane.
They walked, and a few kilometres later they wandered down into the valley. Looking up into the wan winter sun they saw the monastery and carved step ladder. Steep. Steep. Steep. But the building looked amazing. White, vertical, calm, beautifully simple.
“After you”, Jane told Karen as the drizzle began to slick the steps. “Let’s get in there before the rain really starts.”
As they climbed they chatted about the state of the world and how Jane’s marriage had finally turned the corner after the reality that no children would be born to it had finally become fact. Her husband, Craig – a teacher at an inner city state school – had taken it badly at first and fought hard against it seeking fault and reason then self-blame and self-hate. They’d nearly separated after seven years of relatively untroubled togetherness.
Up they climbed and the weather gods were with them ensuring that nothing heavier than a dampening, slickening drizzle continued to mar the day. Half way up they stopped on a platform and looked over the valley. “My god doesn’t it look brilliant from all the way up here?” said Karen. Jane nodded. She looked up. Not far now. Delicious soup. Maybe they might over night with the monks? “It’s not going to come to us. Let’s go. You first”, Jane prompted. They set off again in good spirits and then Jane fell.
On the approach to the foot of the mountain, on a needless detour to an ancient monastery carved into the valley side. Jane fell.
She fell maybe two metres onto the platform. Where she bounced due to her day pack. She bounced and then rolled, and she saw the platform disappearing in front of her. Terminal velocity in seven seconds. Jane fell and Karen didn’t realise for five seconds. Karen turned and stopped breathing as she watched Jane scrabbling to get a grip on the wet floor of the two metre-square platform.
Jane fell. She died. Right there. Right then.
That was a year ago.
Now Karen walks on with Jane beside her, inside and ahead of her. She isn’t going to the valley. There haven’t been any more pointless detours in the past year. She is completing the hike as they’d planned on the flight over and then the train journey to the small town where they’d stayed the night before the hike, and where they’d intended to stay the night after the descent.
In the left breast pocket of her technical top was a photograph, a piece of cloth, a tealight and a cigarette lighter.
She is going to have a small ceremony, find a memento and take it back: a pebble, a flower, anything, something. Karen keeps walking, thinking about her friend. She walks to the place where they’d met the lovely Swedish family and instead of taking a right turn a few kilometres later she walks straight on. Up and down. On up to the refuge. Thinking of Jane. Thinking of getting home and getting on with life. Not thinking about death.
She loves Jane and she always will. Jane is her sister. Jane fell and there was no reason for it.
Just drizzle and a detour. An accident.