The pair of them, born under Gemini in two different continents and yet here they were, together in a tent that was perched quite precariously on a mountainside out in the Cairngorms. The natural darkness of an evening made them sleep far earlier than they would’ve at home in their busy city lives. Ariel suffered perpetually from bouts of insomnia and the sound of the crickets humming kept her awake, even here in the stillness. She crawled out around midnight, leaving her sleeping bag in a shrunken ball, and decided upon a miniature hike up to the crags of their chosen mountain.
Only yesterday Aidan had said to her, By god you’re weird. He meant something about the way she crumbled her food into bits before she could eat it, or how she had to comb her hair 33 times each night, or how she wouldn’t stop singing that old Tim Buckley song, ‘Song to the Siren’ at all hours of the day. Ariel couldn’t help it; it was a damn fine tune and a treat to hear her voice in reverb, soaring out across the valley and shivering in the pines.
They had met at a business conference in Edinburgh only a year or so ago. Aidan worked for an old-fashioned company who made money from burning coal; Ariel for a startup who sold trendy mineral water at what Aidan considered an extortionate price. His whole brand was money to burn, while hers was clean and pure. They’d become good friends by ripping into the hypocrisies of their mutual employers while sneaking coffee breaks behind the corporate screens; after the interval for lunch, they sat next to each other and he’d scribbled funny notes on her ring-binder. When the day was over, they exchanged Outlook accounts and spent the next few months writing hundreds of urgent, enthusiastic emails to each other. They gushed about a mutual love for the wilderness, their craving for air and light and the shelter of mountains beneath sunset skies. Aidan quibbled with Ariel’s definition of the sublime. They argued about music: she was a ballad girl with a heart for folksongs and lost shanties passed down through her father’s radio; he liked fiery punk rock, the kind where the singer had to spit frequently onstage as if the words had congealed in his mouth.
Now they were here. By some miraculous alignment of mystical equations, they found themselves cooking pasta together on a cheap stove and taking long, leg-killing walks over burns and hillsides. The weather had at least been intermittently kind. Ariel and Aiden had gotten on so well, talking incessantly about their respective lives and admiring the scenery; but things had changed as of yesterday, when they visited the Wells of Dee. It was almost dark by the time they found the treasured landmark, neither of them being particularly adept with maps – in the city, you could just trust Google. All afternoon, they had traipsed for hours through boggy terrain, the land around them smelling of coldness and snow and pale sweet heather. It was summer, but they suspected that here it would always smell of snow. At the Wells, the dusk rose its lilac shroud around them as they stood before the river’s source, its outflow splashing off the mountainside in dramatic ripples of silver. There was a deep sense of mystery contained in that lake of water, an opaqueness of grey that would not give up its secret even as one broke the surface with a boot or a stick or a finger. Standing by the water, Aidan observed a change come over Ariel. She shook out her French plait, which had gathered considerable dishevelment from three days of hiking. She pulled off her socks and shoes and rolled up her oil-black leggings and waded into the pools. Come in, it’s lovely. He shook his head and just stood there, watching, an impenetrability suddenly coming between them.
In a sense, this was the zenith of her being before him. She was purely, utterly in her element. She splashed the freezing water on her face, arms flailing playfully. Later that evening, cooking her soup on the stove, he burnt the back of his hand quite badly.
She had felt for the burn in the dark of the tent. Its tender red tissue was swollen; it felt like touching the mulch of a distant planet. She unravelled her body and entered the night alone. The crags found her as if by instinct and soon she was sitting in her night slip and cardigan knit, bearing her body to the moon.
She knew that soon he would wake at the sound of a kestrel bursting from the forest, its firework snap following rumbles that shook the bristled tops of trees and spread like a spell across the mountains, like the promise of some imminent eruption. She knew that he would open his arms and there would be a gaping space where she was supposed to be. Then the igneous lump of his heart would incur its first melting. Until then, what else was there to do but study the constellations?
/ Maria Sledmere
(fff prompt: zenith)