From Whinge to Wings

There was once a woman who found herself at 16,000 feet in a fabled mountain range, hiking a rocky track that barely clung to a steep slope, and failing badly with the altitude. Her companions, two men, were hale and happy and stepping out, but the woman felt herself to be ninety-six years old, with rubber bands for knees and elbows, and gasping lungs and a stagger in her slow, slow gait. She felt that she would soon be defeated; that she would be unable to go on. She sat down on a stone in a wide place on the path, a little sort of circle flatter than the rest, and hung her head and breathed great sobbing breaths, and mourned, and explained aloud that she was tired, tired!

In fact, if truth were known, four months before that day a fine polished surgeon had operated on her right knee, and pronounced the effort a failure, and said that she would never walk in the mountains again, nor even be able to squat down nicely upon a floor, come to that. But here she was – her walking stick beside her, her shoulders slumped in her thin jacket; at the end of her strength.

Her lover, for he was one of the men, and a tall, strapping fellow he was too, with the blond gleam of the best sort of ski instructor, strode about the little area waving his long arms and snarling in rage and frustration, for he did not like to be slowed: “You don’t take responsibility! You don’t take responsibility!” For when he had shown her a map before the trek began, she had not really looked at it, and so had underestimated the difficulties that she would face. (Her lover’s intention, you see, had been to descend to a lake that had called to him from the map – an uneven, inviting puddle of blue – but the slow pace of his partner had made that plan impossible if they were to be out of the valley by dark. For this was a day-trip only. And so bitter was the disappointment of the adventurer at having to forgo his dream. Too, he did not like seeing weakness.)

But they went on; away from the distant lake and in the direction instead of a planned meeting at dusk with a driver they had employed. The distance to travel was still ambitiously great. And so the leader took big strides forward on his long legs, his merry friend and colleague coming after; while she, a woman of only thirty-nine summers, came gasping and staggering behind, and stopped often to sit and open her mouth and try to take in enough of the thin air to sustain her.

They proceeded along that vertiginous path, with its view of colossal peaks and looming cliffsides, steep drops and further, random enormous hulks of rock – for a considerable time, until they descended a field of scree and came thence to a series of meadows, like broad stairs between two peaks, and connected by small waterfalls; and trampled upon by sheep.

Finally they sat beside a clear stream wherein stones glowed in lucent, subtle colours like agates – carnelian and cream, sage and gold and lilac; seeming to breathe in magical collusion with the high, clear and radiant blue of the sky. Here the trekkers ate a modest and delicious lunch of oiled paranthas and imported remoulade from a tube; and drank water from their flasks. And then they made their way across the stream with difficulty, removing their boots first and then balancing upon the rocks, and, after putting on their socks and boots again, climbed a steep grassy bank to another portion of the trail.

The woman was dejected, frightened; she felt she was in a half-living state, a frantic and yet somehow banal effort to keep walking, keep breathing; using her stick as another leg and putting much of her slight weight upon it. As she set out upon this new trail along another steep slope in these mountains the scale of which awed and terrified her, the unthinkable volume of them turning all she had ever known to beetle-size; something peculiar occurred.

As she stood up straighter for a moment, leaning though on her stick – she felt a great in-rush of something through her back. It was as if some deity of the place, seeing her distress, and not wanting her to capsize here, just now; had invaded her body with a great soundless whoooosh, and then brought in after it some great power of the mountains – a female power it was, a wild, tameless dark and yet brilliant and fearless capability. The woman stood up straighter still, and lifted her stick from the ground and strode out again…supported now by this unknown force. A smile stretched her face, her head went back to take in the awesome scene…and she began, as it were, to fly.

For hours still they three walked on and the woman did not need her stick, and her knee was healed and painless, and the moon showed itself as afternoon fell towards evening; and she felt that she could hike to that moon and back and never tire.

While the men flagged now, and walked more slowly, and pushed themselves; and while the third man stayed cheerful – for it was his first trek in the mountains that lay in the north of his own homeland, and he was claiming his birthright as he strode – the blond lover himself grew more and more doleful, and angry and unable to keep up…as they hiked along that narrow rabbit-trail through those vast edifices, massifs, cliffs and valleys – towards the rendezvous at a pass. And dark came falling, they had to hurry; and the woman glided beaming, her stick poised horizontal for balance like a tap-dancer’s, her teeth shining in the blue dusk.

And they made that rendezvous, and clambered into the jeep with much huffing; and all the time that woman knew, as she had known from the moment of the invasion of Help from somewhere: that she could receive that help, could wholly allow and embody and make use of it, because she had complained so much and been so whiny and sad and forlorn and exhausted and unashamed to gasp and groan and be miserable…that was what had cleared the space in her body for the dark Goddess to come in and lift her up and take her away along the mountain…flying, flying with joy.

Her lover never forgave her, and they separated during the next year; and the lady was much bereft – for what had she done wrong?