The view would have been immense and humbling standing atop of the U-shaped canyon wall and gazing down into the forested valley below. The trail below wrapped around a modest lake fed by an underground spring. A few tents had been erected under the trees that dotted the shoreline. The view below was a stark contrast to the rocky landscape, stunted trees, and sparse shrubs at my high perch. I looked up, shading my eyes from the oppressive Texas sun. I saw a single hawk as it dove into the valley and glided over the lake.
As I said, it would have been an immense and humbling view.
I walked to the edge of the canyon and bent down to sit. I tossed my legs off the edge and just let them dangle in the air. My legs ached. The rocky staircase I traversed to arrive at my perch had been a challenge to climb. I pulled a water bottle from my pack and stared at its corporate label. I let out a low, sarcastic chuckle: brand name water. Everything in this world had to be owned, even the park was federal property. It was also one of the few places where I could wander freely—as long as I paid a fee. I uncapped the bottle and drank a third of the water inside. The corporate water tasted about the same as the filtered water from my tap. I shrugged, it also quenched my thirst the same. Thirst. I was surprised that I was so concerned about being hydrated today. Hell, I had even brought snacks.
As if I would be coming back after this moment.
Even surrounded by natural beauty, I knew I had become a wretched thing, a broken, useless cog in the clockwork mechanism that is humanity. No maker was coming to fix me, and I didn’t see a way to fix what was broken. Perhaps the damage was too great anyway. I had even started to lose the joy in a sunset, good music, and a woman’s seductive smile. These were all hollow ghosts to me, fleeting tortures; pieces of a life that someone else should enjoy. I had no right to any of it. Joy had become a vice, an intoxicating moment that would pass, leaving me empty-handed. It felt like I was left to wander in a thick, humid fog. Even breathing was hard.
My successes were outweighed by my losses. In the grand scheme of things, my losses were no greater than anyone else’s: heartbreak, failure, embarrassment, and doubt. But they were my burdens to carry, and they had grown heavy. My successes were always met with inner voices calling me a charlatan. I wasn’t worthy of the degree that took me years to achieve, I wasn’t worthy of the women who left me, and I wasn’t worthy of the job that I now had. I just wasn’t worthy of even the blood in my veins. Soon, everyone I knew would come to the realization that it’s best to run from me when the getting’s good. I was unworthy to be part of the human experience, and it’s hard to explain how I came to this conclusion. It was a leap of faith.
It was the beginning of a human-like apoptosis. I was a squeaky wheel that needed to be removed.
I glanced at the trees that sparsely dotted the canyon heights. One in particular caught my eye. It was below me on the rocky cliff face. It struggled on a small overhang. Its roots were embedded in a rock. The rock had split in three places to allow the thick roots to grow. There the tree hung, its bulk reaching into the open air. One day, its determination and the relentless rain would split that rock until the perch was unstable. The tree would fall to the ground below, a useless thing. If it knew its fate and could act upon it, would the tree remove its roots from the rock it had sundered and speed its end along? Or would it hold its position ignoring or embracing its fate? Which choice would be the nobler act?
Life is an absurd thing.
Many would call that tree, hanging precariously to life, tenacious. But it’s not tenacious, it just is. A mass of cells, tissues, and organs growing, following the stimuli that evolution gave them. Evolution fooled us. It gave us the ability to perceive its deep, sinister flaws. Evolution was, at best, apathetic to the dysfunction it gave my brain to seek death. I was a joke, the example of unfit. I was soon to be an example of natural selection. I would remove myself from the gene pool. I would serve my final purpose.
I was thirsty. The Texas sun was still oppressive. My body still desired hydration. I drank about half of the remaining water. I capped the bottle and set it aside. I pulled my legs back from the open air and stood. My legs ached. They had worked so hard to get me to the end. I rubbed the throbbing muscles gently: a thank you for not giving up on the climb.
I took one last look along the canyon wall and down into the valley below. The wind blew through the valley and the murky water rippled with white reflections of the sunlight above. The hawk had returned, soaring on the wind, aimless. Maybe he decided to watch. He soon flew passed me along the canyon and descended out of view. I saluted the tree hanging onto its doom and placed my right foot out into the open air.
I closed my eyes.
A powerful gust of wind slammed into my back. I was balanced on my left leg and it buckled as I swayed. Fear bled into my cheeks, adrenaline surged through my legs. Instinct took over, but I didn’t fall forward. My body twisted to the left. My right leg, still hanging in the air, swung with my body and bent unnaturally against a large rock. My left knee slammed into the rock slab. I lost all support as my feet slipped toward the edge of the canyon wall. My hands reached out to the slab of rock and gripped it with determined fear. I was no longer slipping. I even had the strength to pull my wounded body from the edge of the canyon.
My body was afraid to die, my mind was afraid to live. What wretched dichotomy was this? I cried for the first time in days. A tension wire in my mind snapped. I gripped my face and wailed as if the wire had cut my eyes. I turned around to face the open air and the valley below. My ankle screamed and my knee was bleeding. I crawled to the edge and watched the lake below seem to spin and slosh as if I was trapped on a spinning top. My body refused to budge further. I turned to the tree hanging into the air from the rock. I felt it mock me.
And I screamed.
It was like the howl of an angry banshee whose foretold death defied her. It wasn’t just one long scream, but a serious of blood-curdling, sonic rages that grew weaker with each successive inhalation. Exhausted, my head fell on the hard ground. Even that hurt a little. Tears fell to the rock below me. I had to catch my breath. Why couldn’t I just die?
“Life, you are a ruthless bitch.”
My voice was raspy and broken. I had failed at an ending; I had to carry on. Why did I have to carry on? I chuckled through the tears. They were frail trappings of humor, but they grew in volume. I was ready to die, the wind even pushed me along, but I refused. In spite of the deep madness, a sudden need to live battered, cut, and bruised me from the edge. It wasn’t a cruel twist, just an absurd experience. Then again, it was absurd to be up here trying to throw myself on to a hiking path thousands of feet below me. What if I had hit someone?
“Wonderful. You’re making a joke.”
My sarcasm heralded the return of my inner strength. I sat up. I stretched out my twisted ankle and looked at my knee. It was bleeding and small rocks were embedded in the wound, nothing a little scrubbing couldn’t handle. I chuckled again. I had a long, wounded climb down, especially since jumping was now out of the question.
I looked down at the tenacious tree sticking out of the wall. I had my answer to its plight. If it was aware of its impending doom and capable of acting, the damn tree would climb up the wall and join me here on top of the world. It would dare to keep going with a twisted ankle, a bleeding knee, a broken heart, and a shattered mind.
I was still thirsty.
I grabbed the bottle that had remained by my side, and drank a little more. I still had a few more bottles in my pack. My mind had always planned on returning. I placed the bottle back on the rocks and stood out over the valley and felt the wind through my hair. I was alone, but I was alive. I was morose and weathered, but I was alive. That would have to do.
I headed toward the trail to take the long cautious walk back down to the parking lot. Every painful ache became a comical berating. I was hungry too. I had also brought snacks. I probably deserved some chocolate.
But I did leave a water bottle. It looked out over the immense valley below the canyon. It had just enough water in it to keep the wind from blowing it away.
Perhaps someone else who made that climb would be thirsty.
© 2016 C. J. Staryk. All Rights Reserved.