‘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.’
‘I know, mum, but it’s not just a paper. Well, it is now but after I’ve done this – actually participated in a bullfight – it will be so much more than just another ethics dissertation!’
‘I can’t be there, you know. I can’t stand the sight of you killing animals like that.’
‘I’m glad you can’t make it. I really don’t need another pouting, judgemental PETA-face in the audience.’
‘I love you, Lil, but you will regret what you’re doing now. You’re nineteen and you’ve got your whole life ahead of you. Important as your dissertation might seem now, you will never forget that you had to… kill to write it. It is just a bull, an animal, but we both know how you are. You won’t ever forgive yourself if…’
‘Eat your stake, mom, and let me do what I’m here to do!’ Lilya growled at the phone, ‘it’s not even a proper bullfight, just a novillada!’ she added quietly, after hanging up.
Her capote, muleta and sword resting on the rooftop terrace floor, she realized she’d never felt more alone. The eccentric Finnish girl. The people at home could never understand why she wanted to be part of what they called a ‘barbaric tradition of killing animals for fun’; the local bullfighting aficionados disliked her for being a female and, in addition, a foreigner; the boys she attended bullfighting classes with couldn’t stand her for having to pose in the background while Lilya would be interviewed for TV, magazines and web-sites. ‘She shouldn’t even be here, let alone be famous! She’s not that good at bullfighting – she doesn’t deserve to be where she is! This is just a study for her – she doesn’t care about it.’ Lilya couldn’t help agreeing with these and other countless accusations being showered on her: she knew as well as anybody that a bullring was the last place in the world where she should be. Yet, every evening she stubbornly climbed the stairs to the rooftop terrace, gear in hand, practiced for at least two hours and then stared blankly at the roofs of Seville, the traffic in the busy Jose Laguillo steet, the windows of the hotel next door, the dust on her shoes; very rarely did she dare look into herself. Now, the night before her first real fight in La Algaba, she felt she owed it to herself to do so.
‘Good evening, professor!’ she greeted her dissertation supervisor on the phone, ‘I must speak with you about tomorrow.’
‘Thank you, sir; I’ll see you there in an hour.’
Sitting alone on her bed, barely able to breathe in her stiff suit of lights, de catafalco y oro, Lilya, was staring at the floor.
‘Vamonos, torera!’ one of her bullfighting teachers called cheerfully, knocking on the door.
Lilya’s eyes glistened in the dimly-lit room but didn’t move; her hands were shaking a little.
‘Vamos, mujer! Que llegamos tarde ya!’ Hearing no answer, he carefully pushed the door open.
‘No tienes porque hacerlo, Lilya, si no lo quieres de verdad,’ his kind whisper sounded next to her. Lowering his grey head so as to see into her eyes, he put his heavy leathery arm around the girls’ shoulders, noticeably fragile under the armour she was wearing.
‘Tu no tienes porque hacerlo,’ he repeated, ‘ya has demostrado que tienes mas cojones que nadie!’ She laughed quietly.
‘Tiene Usted razon, tenemos que darnos prisa,’ Lilya said resolutely after a moment’s pause, tension spreading down her body.
She had to hit that exact spot between its enormous black shoulder blades. Banderillas sticking out of the bull’s ravaged back helped her focus and aim. The girl took a deep breath.
‘That’s it, it will never be this hard again,’ she thought, hearing the deafening applause of the audience as a distant, dying whisper. When the black novillo stumbled and rolled in the sand of the ring, Lilya threw her head back and lifted her hands high in the air – like a bullfighter, a real bullfighter –still, all she could hear was the sound of her sword sinking into the muscular flesh of her now dead opponent. ‘Nothing will ever be this hard again.’
‘Well, you did it, Lil,’ her mother’s voice sounded from thousands of miles away, so far away that Lilya could barely hear it, her whole being full of that other sound. It was late in the evening after the fight and the girl was sitting cross-legged on the floor of her rooftop terrace. She listened carefully but couldn’t understand what her mother really meant.
‘It’ll pass, sweetheart! Just finish your paper and come home, and it’ll pass, I promise,’
‘I had known it wouldn’t pass before I walked into the ring,’ Lilya mused in response, ‘and it won’t.’ ‘You see, I forgot I was the researcher, not the subject of the research.’
‘You can be both, Lil. You can be anything you want to be – I think you’ve proven this much today.’
Slowly Lilya got up from the floor and stumbled to the edge of the terrace. Her blank stare wandered among the dark roofs, and cars, and people in the windows of the hotel across the street till it paused on a girl of about fifteen, reading behind the glass.
‘I fear I have proven the exact opposite,’ she replied.
4. 11. 2009, The Everest Region of Nepal. Climbing towards Lobuche.
The trail is going up again.
My head aches so much that the Wonderland around me turns into an all-consuming abyss.
I stumble again, and again, and again.
I choke on icy dust.
Up above I glimpse something not unlike a rainbow in the faraway sky.
Prayer-flags. With rocks underneath.
A memorial to those who died climbing the peaks of Wonderland.
Each rock at this stone cemetery stands for a life.
The cemetery stretches as far as the eye can see.
It is all of Wonderland.
Stones and ghosts.
Which am I?