BY FRANCES TATE
Copyright is held by the author.
I CAN’T hold on much longer.
The narrow ledge, eroded by my scrabbling Doc Martens, is half as wide now as it was when I reached it the first time, climbing up from below. Then there was room for the soles of both boots. But that was before I slipped, and my impact dislodged a thousand years of silt deposits in a second. Sending shale skittering down the cliff face like tumbling dice, forcing my feet onto tiptoes and my hands into small, sharp crevices.
I press my forehead against the rock. Force my lungs to exhale. Inhale. Panic may be a perfectly reasonable reaction to my situation, but it’s a killer.
Rain patters on my head. Slides down my hair and under my collar. Slicks my skin.
As if I wasn’t deep enough in shit.
Either I climb and maybe fall again, or I stay here until the ledge disintegrates.
I suck in a juddering breath. Assess the area of rock between my hands and feet looking for footholds. A bad decision will kill me.
Because being stuck like this is indicative of good judgement.
Climb now, recriminate later.
I kick into a promising niche. It takes my weight.
Okay . . . you can let go now.
Nothing happens. My hand is cramped into a numb claw. The ledge crumbles like a wet digestive biscuit. My feet have nowhere to go but up.
I rip my right hand from its sarcophagus, leaving skin and nail behind . . . and I don’t fall! I’m one step closer to the summit.
I’m tired but my focus is narrowed to piano wire. Taut. Strong. Nate always said I was intractable.
Gull shrieks fill the anxious silence. And the rain.
Left hand. Right foot.
Pause. Blink away water dripping through a wiry root.
Right hand. Left foot-
LEFT FOOT. . . surfing scree, I lurch for a handhold. Some combination of working limbs and stable geology propels me upwards. I lean my cheek on the tangled roots and sharp stones. Re-learn how to breathe.
There’s a steam hammer in my throat. I can’t use the air I’m gulping. I feel sick. Lightheaded.
Left hand, self-preservation slaps me hard. LEFT HAND. The thought does the heavy lifting, drags me from the edge of exhaustion. Gets me moving again.
Just like Nate got me moving when he threw me off this cliff.
Right hand. Left foot.
Left hand. Right foot.
I grab a handful of the long tough coastal grass even goats respect. Unlike the possible memory that just teased me, it doesn’t slip through my fingers. It stays firm. Dependable. I don’t remember the final haul and crawl over the edge of the sea cliff.
Rest. Just for a little while.
A woman’s shrieking, “Oh, my God! That’s a body!”
Does she mean me?
I struggle to my knees from sprawled on my front. I must look like shit, but I want to show her I’m alive. Stop her screaming. I need to think. To remember. Too many questions bubble through my head. We were on a weekend in Cornwall. I thought Nate was finally going to pop “the” question. Did he? I don’t remember. I’m sitting on the cliff-top bruised, scratched and soaked, and there’s no sign of him.
“I’m not —” I state the obvious, but she’s not looking at me. She’s rummaging in her pockets. Pulls out a phone.
“There’s a body,” she yells over the vocal competition of gulls.
“No —” I try, but she’s not listening to me.
“A woman’s body. On the beach.”
I make it to my feet and look down. Her eyesight’s better than mine. All I can see is a black blob lying on the boulder-strewn sand. It could be anything. I rub the naked bridge of my nose. My glasses didn’t make the climb with me.
I turn towards her. She doesn’t react.
If her sight’s so good, why?
She walks through me. Gasps.
We’re eye to eye. Hers are summer sky blue. Stretched wide. Her jaw’s dropped. She’s cozy inside her thick coat. I taste marshmallow topped hot chocolate.
Am I inside her . . . or is she inside me?
I know one thing; she sees me now.
She tries to retreat from this fucked-up state we share.
“Get out!” She shoves towards, through me. “GET OUT!” Two outstretched arms, palms raised . . .
The image is familiar. Nate pushed me over the edge and now I’m —
So how can I feel my broken skin stinging in the rain? My long hair whipping my face — Long hair?
My fingers flex. I am not going over that cliff again.
I push her back, and unlike Nate when I tried to toss him over the edge after he told me we were over, she’s too shocked to save herself. She sails backwards, arms flailing, blonde hair reaching desperately upwards for a lifeline. My will is stronger than hers, my approach more direct.
Her body is mine.
She doesn’t make it to the rocky beach. Her spirit? Fades halfway. I take a step closer to the edge and look down.
I can see my body lying like a string-less marionette, limbs bent in impossible angles.
Not only is this body alive, younger and fitter, it’s got 20-20 vision and a stranger’s face.
This time Nate, you won’t see me coming.