Here’s a tale inspired by some fairly claustrophobic weather we saw on holiday last week.
You can see the others as you kick at your skis and move forward across the snow. They are there as you are pulled down the slope, pushing your weight this way, that way, this way, that way, feeling the mountain breathing beneath you. They are there as you pause for breath: they answer with muffled words from behind their scarves as you say “it’s closing in”.
Together, you watch the whiteness coming. The piste in front of you narrows; you see thirty feet ahead, now twenty, now ten. If you close your eyes, the world is black; if you open them, the world is white. You close your eyes. You open them. You are alone.
You call out for them but they do not answer. You wonder if they have gone on into the mist or if they are standing beside you, still. You reach out left, then right, letting your ski poles explore the air, waiting for a nudge of resistance to tell you they are still there. There is nothing.
You decide to move on. You know that if you stand still long enough in a place like this, your lungs will fill with icy mist, your blood will become slush, your arms and legs will turn dark, angry. If you stand still long enough in a place like this, you will die.
You push off with your poles, let your skis find the way, let your feet feel the roll and burr of the slope. It is better to move slowly in the dark, you think, even if the dark is made of light.
Gravity draws you down; you feel her underneath you, tugging and releasing as the slope steepens and fades. Gravity is like a lover, now wanting more, now hiding her face. You follow her rhythm, let her lead. She pulls hard. You are drawn down. A quick, sharp gasp of air. You stop.
You breathe, in, out, in, out, great deliberate pulls of air as if checking that you are still alive. You look around at the whiteness. You hold your hand out in front of you, the glove big on your fist. With your arm outstretched, you cannot see the hand you know is there. You bend your elbow, pull your hand towards your face. You feel the fabric of your glove echoing against your skin before you see it.
You remember to move on. If you do not keep moving, you will die. You cannot tell which way to go: gravity, a faithless lover, has deserted you. You experiment. You push forward, feel your skis start to move, then feel them slipping backwards: you have found the route uphill. You turn, ninety degrees, and try again. The same thing happens. You turn again. Your skis move forward, and slip back once again. You turn again: this must be the way. Your skis bring you back to where you started. Every direction that you try, the ground curves upwards. Your lover has abandoned you and left you in a hole.
You think. You should start to climb up one of these walls, regain some height, find a path that draws you back down the mountain. You look around; in the whiteness there are no clues. You choose a way to go, then choose another, then another, and you end up standing still.
A shape emerges from the whiteness. You wonder if it’s them, if they spotted you heading off the piste and into this bowl, if they’ve come with encouragement and a map and a way to get back into a world with shadows. The shape comes closer: it is not them.
The girl is small, half your height, and looks brittle, like she would break in the wind. Her skin is grey against the white that surrounds you. She is wearing a thin dress, dirty with a pattern of flowers, but she does not shiver in the cold. She is there and she is not there, you think. If you close your eyes, the world is black; if you open them, the world is white. You close your eyes. You open them. She is still there.
“Are you lost?” you ask, in a language you do not know.
“No,” the girl says. “But you are.”
“Can you help me get home?”
She looks up at you. Her eyes are wide and grey and hollow.
You ask again. “Can you help me?”
She is silent and it makes you nervous. “Which way should I go? I need to get down the mountain. I need to get home.”
“Are you scared?” she asks.
She steps closer.
“Are you scared of dying?”
“No. Yes. I don’t know.” You feel your breath faster in your chest, the chill of the air seeping into you as you talk. You decide. “Yes.”
She steps closer again.
“Are you scared of living?”
You look at her. Part of you tries to understand her question. Another part of you answers without hesitation.
She reaches up to you and takes the bulk of your gloved hand in her tiny fingers. You can feel her touch through the fabric, like feathers or a spider’s feet. She pulls softly at each of your fingers in turn. You remember a game of fingers and toes, something from when you were her age, her size. You remember a song but not its words. You remember laughing when it tickled and squealing when it hurt.
“Don’t be scared,” the little girl says.
In the grey hollow of her eyes, there is something new, a sadness or a wish. She squeezes your hand in hers then lets it drop to your side. She turns away from you and points. “It’s that way,” she says.
“What about you?” You feel as if you have just woken up. The questions come fast. “Where do you live? Aren’t you cold?”
She points again.
“It’s that way,” she says and smiles up at you. As you try to read her smile, as you think of another question and another, she turns and walks away. A few small steps and the snow takes her. She disappears into the white. You are alone.
If you close your eyes, the world is black; if you open them, the world is white. You close your eyes. You open them. You edge forward in the direction the little girl pointed.
You feel the slope falling away beneath you. In amongst the whiteness now, there is something, a shape, a light. Thin dark poles line the piste like ghosts of soldiers in the snow. In the half-distance, as the whiteness lifts, you can see them, waiting for you. One of them calls you on.
You drift over to them, letting your skis take you, not fighting, not resisting. As you reach them, you look back. The cloud has lifted and you can look across the mountain now. You try to find the bowl where you met the little girl, but you cannot see its shape. The tracks of your skis have disappeared behind you. Somehow in the rocks, though, you see her grey and hollow eyes. And somehow you can feel her tiny fingers on your hand.
You look at them and smile and say:
“Let’s go home.”