"Look, Nando. This means people have been here,” said Roberto, holding up the rusty soup can. "We're close!"
"Who knows?" Nando cautioned. "It maybe could have fallen from a plane."
"Pendejo! Windows don't open on airplanes."
Roberto inspected the pebbled landscape for more evidence.
"And look here!" Roberto exclaimed, pointing to the ground. "Cow shit." He examined it closer, then looked up at Nando.
"You want to explain to me how cow shit falls from a plane, too?"
Although this time Nando was heedful of Roberto's sudden surge of hope, the fact remained that for the last few days, it was actually Roberto who had been wary, even reproachful, of the newfound spirit in Nando's stride. How could he understand that Nando, knowing how restive Roberto could be, wanted to preempt any emotions that might give way to precipitous action? Earlier in the day, when they found solid earth beneath their feet for the first time in months, the once cynical Roberto relentlessly lambasted Nando’s tempered optimism in lieu of such a reassuring discovery. In Roberto’s eyes, Nando had taken the lead along with an imperious disposition that had to be checked. The cold without had made him cold within, until Roberto was as forgiving as the cordillera around them. The previous night, however, had seemingly brought peace to the roller coaster of emotions that drove the two since they embarked on the trek, which caused Roberto to rethink his vitriol towards Nando. He called to mind how much had transpired in the short time since their conquest of “el Monte Sinaí”, and lost himself in reminiscence…
Nando screamed above the wind, "Now I know what it’s like to be a Tuna in my father's market." He wrenched his mouth to make the lips of the iced aquatic craniate, but had little command over the muscles in his face.
"If my nostrils weren't frozen shut I'd tell you that you smell like them, too," Roberto called back.
Allusions to fish weren’t inapt- the men swam and breathed in the cold like fish in water. They were not impervious to its effects and yet, it had so consumed their world, that it was becoming less and less distinguishable from their existence in general.Roberto couldn’t see his churlishness as a symptom of the cold, for what does a fish know about water?
The mountain at this point had been a virtual vertical climb, and so, without any flat areas on which to lie, the two Uruguayans had to sleep almost standing up with their backs pressed against its face, their feet dug into a hard snow-packed ridge. If the meager lip decided they were too heavy to support and gave way, they would have been vacuumed into the ghostly white chasm below. On the third day, Nando reached the summit about a hundred yards ahead of Roberto. Roberto had been using Nando's deep footsteps to more efficiently move through the highly stacked snow, when stopping for a moment, he heard a faint wail that sounded like Nando's voice. His eyes followed the footsteps towards the summit, but a great and piercing light that bled over from the other side obstructed his view of its peak. "No way the sun is that bright on the other side of the mountain", he thought to himself, but quickly questioned his assessment when he began to feel the light's far-off warmth. What Roberto saw next forced him to question his visual faculties, for he thought he could make out a covey of circling birds. The men had only seen two crows this entire time, and now he watched an entire flock of white birds, appearing to be doves, become instantly brighter as they crossed the beam's path. His heart pounded, more heavily from the inspiration spawned by this phenomenon than from the treacherous hike. He called out for Nando as he approached the summit but received no response. He continued to do this as he proceeded up the mountain, increasingly taken over with expectancy. After an hour of rigorous climbing, Roberto finally pulled himself up to the highest point of rock and looked over; he found Nando sitting, bewitched by the cordillera that laid before them. The sun still faced this side of the mountain but Roberto couldn't see how it could have shone so radiantly as he had seen before.
"How about those birds?" Roberto asked.
"Don't tell me you didn't see that whole flock of birds! Doves! They must have been nesting in your hair!" Roberto shouted as he pulled himself alongside Nando.
"No birds, Roberto. The elevation,” he motioned with his hand, “it can play tricks with your mind."
Roberto would have been sent into a tantrum of disbelief, but now he was looking hard at Nando's face from the side. Nando had his sunglasses off and something gleamed in his eyes that Roberto had never seen before. Although overworked to the point of debilitation, even in the midst of the impossibly vast cordillera, Nando's presence seemed to take up an exceptional amount of space. His once lethargic body sat perfectly upright, and his cracking, sullied skin shone in the sun fair and glowing, which drew a reluctant Roberto in. He finally took his eyes off of Nando's and onto the subject of his gaze. Before them stretched snow-covered mountains for miles- leviathan peaks that barred the horizon and stabbed passing clouds, relishing in their bleeding moisture. They had, for three days while climbing el Monte Sinaí, dreamt of this moment when they would behold the emerald sea of rolling hills, with its golden crests and virescently shaded troughs, but no green expressed itself here, only black... a cold Stygian black at that, and a whole lot more white- a white that blanketed the perilous landscape with smooth gentle folds and seamless continuity, hugging the mountains and valleys, making of their rough sides and broken ridges, polished plains and rounded ends. The glossy cloak was only sparsely interrupted by its own absence, exposing that arcane black and its contrasting corporeality lying underneath. The rock corroborated as bone to its overbearing white icy flesh... like that of the icy flesh they kept in their pockets.
And while they looked on in mystified reverence of the polar yet complementary geology, they stood in further bewilderment of an even deeper paradox: this grand and masterful beauty was their death sentence- for this was the same forbidding white that swatted their plane from out the sky, that ripped through their wrecked fuselage in the form of an avalanche adding denigration to disaster, that buried the tail section of the plane where food and batteries for the radio could be found, that imprisoned the men in a Marianic trough like cockroaches in a bathtub, that eluded their grappling hands upon their upright climb while flooding their boots with ice water, and simultaneously tugged at their heavy backpacks, yearning to swallow them whole into its own infinitude. They made no mistake, this was the same white they once associated with purity like everyone else, but now recognized as purity without virtue, it was pure, just pure- pure terror. A terror that played games with one's depth perception, and made of things miles away seemingly only at yards length. Absent of discernible features by which to reference (which in turn, removed ones own point of reference) its blankness slighted perspective, and made of oneself: no-body, no-thing, floating through an endless milky space forever. No this was not drapery, nor was it flesh and bone- this was frozen desert. The hopelessness of such a consequential undertaking amidst the grandeur of this dead and heartless nature gave rise to numerous conflicting sentiments: alluring horror, all-encompassing estrangement, ungodly piety, daunting resolve- all simultaneously felt within the heaving chests of two men who sat and thought, absorbing the situation in disquieting silence.
"Mierda. We're done. We might as well be those market fish. We're done," Roberto decried.
Nando put his hand on Roberto's shoulder, and with the other, pointed to the bleached offing.
"See those two right there?"
"Yes, the tits. The valley that runs through them- it branches like a “Y”. Looks like it might lead to those far back mountains dry of snow."
"So, we go through and then what? Guess our way through Borges' garden of forking paths?"
"Yes. Once we get down there, we'll have a better perspective to choose which way to go where the valley splits. If we choose the right way we won't have to climb another mountain before we reach dry land."
"Even if we choose the right route, that will take fifty days, Nando. We don't know how far west Chile is- it could be miles upon miles- we don't have enough food. We're dead."
"We are sure to die if we stay," Nando responded matter of factly, but then abruptly changing his tone he declared more defiantly, "I'm not going back, Roberto."
Roberto shuddered, the directness of Nando's voice was sobering. As if made up of opposing charges, their lines of sight converged, their eyes locking. These two cosmic beings, pulled into alignment by the gravity of the situation, poured themselves into each other through their now amalgamated gaze, awed by the circumstance that was so greatly beyond them, yet encased and beheld them, and furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, depended upon them. They would keep true to the situation, not by shaping their own destiny, for they had no choice in the matter, but by seeing it for what it truly was, thusly accepting it. And perhaps that's all that should ever be expected of anyone. Roberto felt an immense external softness being absorbed through his skin and warmly sinking into his core, all the while a fiery zeal arose from within his heart and pumped to the ends of his body. What lay before them was suicide but somehow, at that moment, death by movement made more sense than death by waiting. Roberto, free of his typical impulse to reject Nando's buoyancy, looked at this man he had known his whole life and found himself having incorruptible faith in his foolishness.
“Do you wish to see your father as bad as I wish to see Laura? It’s never going to happen again...”
In fact, Roberto felt somewhat relieved that survival was out of the question, for up to this point, survival had weighed far too heavy on the mind, body, and spirit.
“I’ll go. But I'm going so that our families will find that we died out here, climbing and plowing and thinking of them. I’ll go for Marcelo and Carlitos and the rest of our brothers back there, who sent us. I'm going because I'm not going back to watch another die, only to become our next meal. And more than anything, I'll go because fuck these mountains.”
Something happens to a man on a mountaintop that cannot be put into words, yet man will never cease to try. An array of concurrences unfold: the open space loosens his attachment to things, his survival mechanism relaxes without so many things of which to be aware, while the utter massiveness of earth pushed up into the sky pushes down time. He stares the oddity of the human condition in the face, he sees the hollow sham of security man creates in response to such oddity, and instead of feeling like an accident- a foreigner to a natural world, he feels to be not only part of it, but chosen to be a part of it- maybe even a manifesting conductor of it all. Such open space opens one to the Void within, and he sees that for all the open space that is outside of him, just as much exists within him- he not only sees it, he plummets into it and swims. I know these things because I’ve stood upon a mountaintop. But have I ever stared death in the face? I have not. Although I have some ideas as to what happens that I’d like to think to be true. Quite simply, having nothing to lose, the ultimate attachment, the attachment to life is relinquished, making him courageous yet superhumanly focused, for with no fear comes no obstacle. Roberto and Nando found themselves many times on the rugby pitch in a game in which they were sure to lose and so playing with the utmost audacity, throwing everything forward, they watched their attempts meet their mark with such exactitude, that if they had played the entire game in the same manner, with the same courage, they wouldn't have been losing in the first place. They invoked that spirit now, except this wasn't a game. On a mountaintop during sunrise with nothing to lose- man, if aware enough to see the situation for what it is, is perhaps at his best when he is fortunate enough to find himself at the rare intersection of these three happenings... these three pathways to Himself.
The hair on Roberto's neck awoke, and now the liquid feeling inside his newly limber and soft body was overflowing, spilling out of his eyes. Overtaken by a rush of compassion, a love for his life before this mess, a love for this mess, and a love for Nando, Roberto extended his arm. In the face of the white abyss, monstrous mountains, searing cold, grueling exhaustion, and sure awaiting death, love had persisted.
"Okay Nando," Roberto said staring at him through his brackish tears. "I will die with you. Let's go die together."
They hugged as if it were their last, for at least Roberto knew that it would be.
On the backside of the mountain, the two men found going down much easier than going up. Nando sought to take advantage. "Hasta luego, Roberto."
Roberto looked over to see Nando sitting on his sleep-cushion with metal walking stick in hand, ready to launch himself down the slope.
"You're mad." Roberto's voice contained both his disbelief and disapproval.
"Let go, and its nurturing hand will come forth," Nando declared.
And like that Nando was off, hooting and hollering, and accelerating down at a dangerous rate. With what had taken them three days to climb, Nando traversed an eighth of it in seconds. He slammed into a snow bank and disappeared within it. There was no telling just how deep the tunnel ventured within the mount, whether Nando was hurt, and most unsettling of all, whether the snow above would collapse upon him. Roberto's compassion suffered a quick death and anger now fully resurrected itself. A chuckling Nando was only just crawling out as the running, cursing Roberto approached.
"You think I'm going to carry you if you break your leg! I'll use your broken limbs as-"
"Now, now Roberto- just having some fun,” Nando consoled through his smile, swiping the snow off himself and adjusting his gear. "I'm fine. Let us carry on."
Upon his first steps Nando looked back and saw that the hole he left in the wall of the mount had kept true to his shape upon entry.
"Look Roberto, just like in cartoons."
Roberto silently kept his back turned never abandoning his languid walking rhythm.Eventually the two Uruguayans made it down the mountain and pressed on toward the two smaller peaks they hoped the ravine led to. "I always knew chasing tits would be the death of me."
After a moment of silence Roberto continued.
"Laura, how I miss her. She made the best-"
"Milanesa- I know."
"I told you?"
“That she used eggplant or that her secret was baking it instead of frying it?”
They both smiled.
“I don’t know if you know what it’s like though, Nando.”
“Maybe not. Do I miss the little things and the people that made them so? Of course. As for love, I never fell in love with anyone. Women were frequent but I never gave any of them a chance."
"Well, the situations can be quite precarious."
"Yes, the effect women have on a man's life is much like this cordillera: soaring highs that look down even upon heaven, but many more lows that run constant and seem to plunge the depths of hell. I’ve always strived to live my life on the level.”
"Fear of what might happen ruled a lot of my actions. Not any longer."
"You're a little late my friend," said Roberto.
"Well, its in God's hands, and God makes no mistakes."
Roberto batted the sky as if Nando's philosophy had taken the form of a pestering fly.
"Pffff- god. After all this you still believe in god? What god would let this happen to you and the rest of us. I saw the pilot bless himself when the plane took off. I’d like to remind you that we ate the pilot. We don't even know his name. Was that god’s response to his prayers? ... If god exists, he’s an asshole.”
“Don’t believe in any of it.”
"Sure you do."
"No, I don't."
"You don't believe in a man in the sky."
"Yeah, like I said I don't believe in god."
"Roberto, God is not something to be believed in or not. God simply is. You have seen through the charade of a father who rules from the heavens. You believe yourself to be a realist, so much more willing than everyone else to accept truth because you see past the top layer. But the thing is, you're just as confused as those typical god-fearing believers because you have bought into the same conception of God as them- as a man in the sky. You dug only a few inches saw no treasure and quit, and now mock those with shovels."
"You've been talking to Arturo, haven't you?"
"If you dig deeper you'll see that there are infinite number of interpretations of what God is, not just a man in the sky, and that's because God is an infinite number of things, because God is in everything."
"Yes, God is in that too."
"Don't peeve me... god is in everything," he contemptuously repeated to himself under his breath. "If god is in everything: that rock, my shoe, your stupid grin, then god is nothing."
"Now you're learning!" Nando exclaimed with this finger in the air.
"See all you say is idiotic- pompous, self-pious non-sense. It makes me sick. He’s in everything…”
Roberto, now furious, "Then where has god been the last three fucking months!?"
Nando remained silent. Unmoved by the shriek, he stood still and merely gazed at the cordillera around them like he had done when Roberto found him at the summit.
"Well what do you say?" Roberto badgered.
"The breeze is much softer on this side of the mountain."
"You avoid the question."
"No Roberto, it is you who avoids the answer."
"Pfffff." Roberto looked around with an incredulous expression as if to find a witness who could attest to the insanity he was hearing.
"You want to know the answer. We left it back there." He pointed back to the crest of the mountain. "I still say that line I saw from the other side was a road."
"The road again? Let us stay present and deal with what is before us.”
"There's nothing before us but these goddamn rocks and this goddamn snow. From here on out all we have is the past: our memories we will die with, and others' remembrance of us.”
"These rocks, this snow... we can pick up and hold in our hands. Show me a memory, Roberto. Even if you could, it would only exist presently."
Saving face Roberto put forth an over-the-top exhibition of mockery.
"Senors y senores! Here I present to you with grace our lord: El señor Gandhi!" He applauded then chuckled to himself, mumbling expressions of incredulity like, "Absolutely ridiculous. What a class act...”
Roberto continued in an unmellowed manner, "Anyways I refuse to listen to someone who carries a single child's shoe across the Andes."
"I bought them before our flight for my nephew, and I will present them to him. I will pick-up the other one at the crash site when we come back to rescue the others."
"You're an idiot. You're disillusionment is growing greater by the minute. You think there's any chance of living out here!?"
"Either way, we are living now. Death is dead to me Roberto. Death only exists in our fears, but I am unbound."
"Well if your so at peace with death then why do you trudge on?"
"I don't really know, Roberto. The easy answer is that I wish to see my father, to do all the things I've lacked the courage to do, but deep down I know that's only the surface. I figure that I've been so close to death for the past three months- I've felt its hands around my throat every night since the crash, I even saw it just before you removed the snow from on top of me after the avalanche- a great converging of lights swiped away by your hands- my God, I've even tasted it, literally, and yet, here I am. If it hasn't happened by now, then it's simply not my time to die, and to fail to recognize that, and to give up now would be against fate's will."
"We are sure to die, Nando," Roberto assured, unmoved by his speech. "We don't belong here. Look- no life anywhere."
They carried on in silence until they found a small snowless patch to sleep on for the night.Nando was situating the sleeping bag while Roberto sat and stared at him.
"What happened at the summit?"
"What do you mean?"
"Something happened to you at the summit. I can sense something happened to you- you're talking like a rabid priest. Tell me what happened."
"I don't know, Roberto."
After a long pause, Roberto pressed, "Well?"
"I'm telling you, Roberto, I don't know."
The glow from the descending sun dimmed and with duties now finally being fully handed over, night officially begun its shift.
"Nando this is too much. Besides we're about to sleep, we should save larger portions for the mornings."
"Well, that's my portion in there, too."
"What? But you must eat... oh, I see what's going on. No thank you, Mother Teresa, I don't want your charity."
"Charity? You've been behind me this whole time. It's not charity my friend, you're slowing me down- it's more for me than it is for you. Eat."
"You're telling me this has nothing to do with your sermons today?"
"I gave some of my portions to Pancho back at the plane once we knew he was stealing them."
"You did what?"
"So that he could see he didn't have to steal."
"Yeah, and he probably took you for an idiot. How dumb you must have looked."
"If it teaches, if it offers something good, then what do I care about how I look. The point is surviving."
"That's good and great, but one must live moderately, not self-destructively. If I always considered the needy before making a purchase, I wouldn't have anything."
"And you'd be better for it."
Roberto didn't acknowledge the response and not a word was spoken for the rest of the evening.
Later that night they lied together, hunched up in their one makeshift sleeping bag. Though this was the only time of day in which they allowed themselves a decent rest, the night was always a dreaded thing. Besides the moon and stars, very little about night in the cordillera was familiar; they didn't even have fire, which would be just as helpful for morale as it would be for warmth. Without the sound of insects they couldn't even imagine themselves to be camping- not that the men still retained much of their imaginative faculty at this point. The crux of the cordillera's dominance seemed to lie in this design: after the body received its pummeling throughout the day, the night would strip the mind of its creative power and devoid the spirit of any remaining vigor. Whatever victories that were scored throughout the day, the night took back. It instilled and cemented skepticism by pulling the curtain on positive thoughts, exposing them as illusions. And yet, the morning always seemed to restore just a little of one's faith- having endured the night and witnessing the nascent of day, one had to water and feed this little seed of hope throughout one's waking hours, and make of it a fortified tree that did not waver in such a blustery environment. It was as if the night knew this, and intent in garnering the men's defeat, would make of its final hour, just before the ascension of the sun, the coldest. The night would get in its last punches, as a bully does to a trounced victim just as he being pulled off of him, indulging in itself, in a final hurrah before its eminent departure, thusly shocking the mind into paralysis and making of the body a quivering manifestation of misery. And so, a game plan became everything for anyone intent on staying alive, and although cultivating a strategy to survive might take the entire day, any and all efforts were of energy best spent.
"Roberto," Nando whispered.
"I don't want to die."
Roberto softly pulled him closer.
"Its going to be alright, Nando," He said sincerely. "It's in God's hands now. He makes no mistakes."