Echo and I were in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia and going from one Couchsurfing host’s house to another. Google maps told us it was a two mile walk through the streets of Tbilisi. Doable, and easy, but the satellite view also showed another option. The two apartment buildings were only a few blocks apart. On the map, in low quality, a lightly populated forest beckoned.
We left as the warm summer sun crept over the horizon and headed to the shortcut. It wasn’t a forest. It was an extremely steep, chocolate-brown hill, covered in a sprinkling of trees and bushes. I asked a local if there was a way up and he said he remembered a path up the slope. He told me where it was and we went looking. After scaling a fence and jumping a ditch, we didn’t find his path but we did find a rock laden, dry streambed.
Echo in slippers and me in sandals, both worn by hundreds of miles, we dashed up the ravine. We slipped and ejected rocks into the air as we climbed higher and higher. Sweat dripped then chilled as wind whistled over our necks. Halfway up the hillside the streambed vanished as a worn, sandy path crossed it. I stepped on the path. My sandal jumped forward. I fell, my left knee dig into the soft streambed, holding me upright. I tried to crawl over the path, I failed. Even with both hands and feet in contact, the dust and loose soil made the inclined path as slippery as wet glass. We couldn’t go up it. We had to go back.
I looked down. The drop was far and full of obstacles. In our wild rush up the gully, hundreds of micro-avalanches stripped away the stones, now loose sand with the occasional scattering of well embedded, jagged rocks, marked the way down. My teeth clenched as my mind ran over all the horrible possibilities. I could roll down and crash on the stones, lacerating my arms and legs, torso and head then come to an abrupt stop at the bottom, dead and unfeeling. Or I could slip down the mountainside smacking into shrubs and saplings and make it to the bottom, mostly intact and able to call for help. I tremored as fear articulated through my raging mind. The metallic taste of cortisol, the flavor of anxiety and stress, tormented my taste buds.
I thought about calling for help, maybe have a team of rescue workers come and get us out of this mess. I shook the idea from my head. Not only would it be embarrassing, it would be costly. I looked over to Echo, her eyes locked onto mine, waiting for my decision, trusting that I knew what I was doing. I didn’t, but I’m not often one to admit that.
I glanced up the hill. There were two paths of vegetation. On the left, sparsely populated with hard bodied trees and on the right, a trail colonized by densely packed bamboos. We were going up, it was safer that way.
I told Echo my plan then laid my chest on the slick earth, and stretched my body out like a wire, threw my limps out and slithered to the right. I made it to the canes and dove in. They crackled, their dry corpses splintered under my weight. I turned around to take the path back.
I slipped, plummeted and threw my arms into the canes. My arms sliced them, ejecting slivers in an explosion. I slowed, I stopped. My heart roared.
“Are you ok,” Echo asked.
I lay there, watching the sky. The hanging moon, only days from being full, was watching us. I sat up. Echo’s sharp curves silhouetted under the silver light. Her anxiety throbbed in the darkness trying to elicit a response.
“I’m okay. I’m okay. Don’t worry.”
I ran my sandals over the worn path. The sound of sand, rolling between me and the world rumbled through the quiet night. I couldn’t go down. I couldn’t move and be certain that I would live. The possibility of falling, of death and eternal darkness, were only a step away. Terror bathed the world in a fog that caused the jagged hillside, the inky canes, and the cityscape around me to fade away.
My jaw shivered, grinding my incisors together. My lip quivered, as did my stomach. I rolled saliva against my teeth, bitter, hard, sharp. I swallowed trying to overcome the rising taste of panic. My tense arms, nervous legs shook, and the nearby canes all shook in unison.
Echo balanced on rocks in the streambed, supposing I knew what I was doing. Assuming I was just lusting for another adventure. She had no clue how afraid I was, not till I asked for help.
“Echo” I said, looking her over. The moon had turned her skin into a grey sea, moving shadows like captured waves across her skin. “I’m stuck, I can’t get across.”
“Huh” she said, her voice rising. She tested me with her eyes. “What should I do?”
She wore a tiny Nepalese backpack made of tightly woven hemp. “Grab that tree near you and throw me half of your bag” I explained.
Without hesitation she slid off the pack, clutched onto one strap, tossed me the other and hooked her arm around a miniature hardwood nearby. I took the strap and with slow firm pulls, and steady legs, I crept over, always keeping my body in full contact with the ground. Pebbles slid off the edge, tumbling, crashing and raising a trail of dust to the bottom.
I wrapped Echo in an Eric Cocoon, joining us, allowing our hearts to synchronize and souls to merge. We stood there, letting the stars and moon pass over head. The charged atmosphere cooled.
Echo pulled away from my arms and looked into my eyes. In a cheery voice “Are you trying to kill me? If we survive I want double ice cream.”
We talked it over, and in our newfound optimism, decided that even though things hadn’t gone as planned, we could make it to the top.
On the path to the left the trees were small but firm. They grew from the hill perpendicular, but soon changed their minds and rose straight into the sky. Their bark was raspy like natural sandpaper. We climbed the hill with grace, skipping from one tree to another like monkeys through a canopy. The trees feared me, they shook and trembled as I grabbed on, their needles and leaves falling like tears. It was peaceful, the fear evaporated as quickly as it had come and progress was swift and entertaining. In such a good mood we ignored the small briar bushes that regularly bit and clawed us. They plucked threads, and caught our hair. They even jerked long ribbons of fabric off my shirt. I made a mental note to buy a new shirt and continued. The worst of the brambles scratched bloody trails over our arms, legs and face. We smiled and pressed on.
Once the path split, I scouted ahead only to find myself stranded at a barren cliff face. I scooted back down, step by step, digging my sandals and toes into the earth side and flaying myself on saplings. I made it down and found another path, which was more eventful and soon we were almost up the hill, our hearts celebrated in preemptive victory. Excitement rushed, we would defeat this yet. I looked down, the bottom invisible for the thicket. I felt safe; I knew we would soon succeed.
We continued on and the trees that once supported us began to pull from the earth, dried and dead. We plucked more and more corpses and soon ran out of living trees. Without vegetation to help, we were marooned. With my jaw set firm I fought off my panic and revamped our plan. There were more trees, plenty of them, just none in reach. Just above us, only a bit further then my reach was another tree. Even in the thick darkness, the lush leaves and fresh nutty fragrance, told me it alive and vibrant.
With delicate focus, I rose myself and peered below. Tunnel vision exploded, sharp jagged outcrops zooming from me to oblivion. My adrenal gland burst into action. Adrenaline surged through my body, torrents of oxygen and sugars fed my drained muscles. The balls of my feet tunneled into the soil. Calves constricted, teeth clenched, jaw locked. My animal instinct thundered. I threw my weight on the nearest sapling and shot up the hillside. The tree was too far. I seized the mountainside, locking every inch of my anatomy onto it. With wild ferocity my claws sunk into the incline like meat hooks. My eyes narrowed and focused, my feet pushed and kicked. I scrambled.
I threw my pained hands around the sturdy trunk, launched myself up and sat with it between my legs. A long, slightly less than vertical drop was below me. The hideous plop I would make if I fell of rung through my mind. I gulped away the horror. I took a bottomless breath, filling my lungs, and released. I’ve made it this far, only a little bit left, I told myself. Another breath, another. I relaxed.
I looked down at Echo, a delicate quiver broke across her lips. She bit them.
“I can’t climb like that, is there another way?”
I hugged the tree, and lowered the bag. She understood. She grabbed ahold, wrapping her arms tight around it’s straps. I pulled, my fatigued muscles screamed. The sound of her feet beating against the earth boomed. The iron bark ground into my skin, roughing and attacking it, shredding my shirt further.
She came closer. I threw an arm and latched onto hers. I could feel her fright, racing through her body, rushing through her heart and tensing her muscles. I pulled her up and she joined me on the trunk. A thought crossed my mind, like our adventures before, dangerous and not so, if we both lived, it would only bring us closer. We embraced with soot smothered lips.
After that, the trees were livelier, boosted by a sprinkler system that cascaded much of its water down the hill. Through sand and muck we climbed the trees to the top. Hastening to victory I stormed up the path without looking back. Over the horizon was a tree. Thick, stable and horizontal. It wasn’t the very top, but it was near enough to signal the end. I threw my body down beside it, relaxed, and waited for Echo.
“Eric” Echo moaned, her voice calm yet pleading for me.
“Stay, relax, she can make her own way up” my burnt muscles told me. Maybe she could make it, but I couldn’t betray her, not after all we had been through, not after she had saved me only an hour before. With a heavy sigh I pushed my body up and slothed back to the hillside.
Sitting on a boulder, just over the edge, was a tired and worn Echo. Her arms flaccid noodles, her head held up by bones more than muscles. Her breathing deep and deliberate. I slid down the embankment and joined her.
The brutal savageness of the land that had caused so much fear and pain juxtaposed by a twinkling city full of towering apartment buildings. Story after story we had forced ourselves up ridge. What would have taken us 25 minutes, had taken us hours. We sat, overlooking the city, watching the tiny cars, marked only by their headlights, cruse down the minute roads and wait at specks of gleaming traffic lights.
She laid her head on my shoulder “mmm, double ice cream,” she giggled.
What do you think of my story? Find any typos? Like it? Hate it? Give me advice because this story might make it into a book I am working on 😀