‘Stay,’ he said – the last thing he ever said.
‘How can I stay with you when you are leaving?’ she asks quietly, but already she is being pulled away from him. The storm is close and there is no time to waste. ‘I don’t understand,’ she whispers, but she isn’t fighting her rescuers; she lets them lead her away. The moment is strangely peaceful and the storm is peaceful, too: those other people, they are fighting for their lives while she simply glides on the wind down the ropes towards what the rescue team of Sherpas call ‘safety’. Their safety is nothing but a small tent, its yellow fabric stretching, folding, filling with gusts of wind like a sail about to slip into the sea of clouds raging around it. She watches the scene, mesmerised.
‘Stay… How can anything stay here?’ she asks one of her Sherpas while she is being shoved into the tent and told to rest. ‘I suppose I could go back once this storm is over. And then, I could still stay, right?’
The climber, his face flushed, looks at her with strange eyes, as if she is out of her mind. She smiles at him and he smiles back with an expression of pity. Why pity? It shouldn’t be too hard to get back to him: there’s fixed rope, she’s strong enough to climb back up and she has everything she needs to stay until he lets her go – she has love and the determination to keep it. So she sits in the tent and waits, and secretly dreads the moment when the storm and her rescuers go to sleep, the moment she’ll have to crawl out of ‘Safety’ and go back… to stay.
‘Tell me, how did you mean, ‘stay’?’ she asks him when, late in the morning she reaches the site of the accident and finds a comfortable position on the vertical ice face to wait for a response. ‘Mmm? Tell me?’ She looks for his face in the broken and twisted mass that is his corpse and touches his mouth lovingly. ‘Stay…’
When they drag her away from him again, she doesn’t take it quite as calmly as she did the first time. She fights back with what little energy she has left but it’s not nearly enough. She shouts, and hisses, and tries to bite, like an animal, but they are too many and she is only one, with just one word going for her: ‘Stay…’
‘We’ll bring him down after you have descended safely,’ one of the faceless men with mirrors for eyes promises her. ‘Please, Madam!’ She doesn’t believe him. And so she fights him like he fought against the storm the day before.
It’s a cold day in Lukla. The clouds are low, heavy, burdensome. She is at the airport again, waiting for the rescue helicopter with his corpse on board. As it arrives, the rotors whip the mist into thick cream. She wants to run to the helipad but, instead, turns away from the window and walks to a tea stall.
‘Madam, the helicopter…’ someone reminds her, their voice so utterly unimportant.
‘I’ve seen it. Thank you,’ she replies. The small book kiosk by the tea stall sells postcards – many of them with pictures of the mountain where he wanted her to stay, and she didn’t stay.
‘But he said ‘stay’,’ she explains to her friend who is trying to prevent her from returning to the mountain several months after the accident.
Surely, the friend says, he didn’t mean it in that way. He must have simply wanted her to be with him to the last. Because he loved her, surely. Surely, he would never have wished for her to stay with him and die, too. Surely, he would have wanted her to go on, and be happy, and, yes, remember him but not, you know, surely, not…
‘How do you know? How do you know what he meant? Or what he wanted? All he said was ‘stay’’.
It is impossible for someone who truly loves you to wish harm, even death, in this case, upon you, says the friend.
‘Love is selfish,’ she counters.
Then, you must be selfish, too, says the friend; you must think of yourself and stay where you belong – with the living. Sometimes you must leave even if they ask you to stay, even if they mean it when they say ‘stay’.
‘Stay,’ she muses, smiling sadly, as other climbers pass her on their way to the summit while her summit is right here.
‘Come, Madam, we are close now,’ the Sherpa guide she’d hired at base camp shouts above the wind. She doesn’t know him, he doesn’t know her: she won’t ask him to stay.
‘No,’ she replies, ‘this is it; this is as far and I wanted to go. You’re free to leave now, thank you.’
‘You can’t stay here, Madam!’ he insists pulling at her sleeve, ‘Come on!’
‘They can,’ she points at the mountains all around her, ‘and so can I – somebody wanted me to stay here.’
Her guide looks at her incredulously, like she is mad, like she will be trouble on the way down. Yet, to her surprise, he bends towards her and says patiently: ‘Do not envy mountains, Madam! They can stay but they cannot leave, even if you beg them. Where would a mountain go?’
‘Where could I go?’ she asks, her eyes becoming tears.
‘You can go anywhere. But you cannot stay, no matter what anyone asks of you. It is impossible to stay.’