"Hell of a way to go! You never considered just biting a bullet? Probably cleaner for all involved."
I nearly jumped at the sound, but kept my footing. I had thought I was alone in this cliffside clearing, besides the commotion of two boys fighting in the distance and the whistle of an old man on the other side of the crest. But now my last minute of revery was being interrupted by a pale stranger in an olive shirt, worn brown slacks, and no shoes, standing 10 feet away and looking curiously at my predicament.
The stranger continued, "I mean, I get falling in general: it's dramatic, you get a good long while to consider the mistakes you’ve made in life while heading down, and there's something satisfying about knowing the 'you' who hits the ground won't be recognizable as the 'you' who stepped off the ledge - you disappear into Mother Earth herself. But if you're going to fall, surely you go for the showmanship of it? You step off a building in the middle of the city after a bad trading week to make people think the economy is collapsing or something. What's the point of the fall if there's no world watching you from below?"
I teetered. Sweat had been welling along my temple for minutes, and now broke into streams that began dripping to the ground. Surveying the pallid forest awaiting me a few hundred feet beneath my feet, I realized that there was no time for a last moment; I tried to lift my foot to take that one small step into the beyond, but found it glued in place, pinned by the stranger’s gaze.
"Maybe you thought there was less responsibility in doing it this way: no need to pull the trigger yourself, just let the wind pick you up and drop you as a changed man below. Unfortunately friend, the forecast is ‘depressingly and broodingly overcast’ but ‘calm,’ and I don't see any angel on high waiting to blow you along. Gotta accept that responsibility yourself I suppose, Mr… ?"
The fight had started, as so many at that age do, over a weary wooden branch which they had mistaken for the mighty sword of kings. Cal had found it, nestled next to a shrub on the side of the mountain path they had been trudging up, and had wielded it heroically for only a minute before the tussle had begun. The bright sun watched clearly from on high as Cal's brother came up from behind, grabbed the end of the stick, and wrenched it away as his own. The boyhood carousing had started in earnest, with all the expletives boys of their age could bring to bear.
"Give it back Rob, you asshole!" Cal shouted, trying to gain a good grip and pricking himself with a myriad of splinters in the process, "It's mine, go find your own goddamn stick!" Unfortunately, with two more years of experience, and at least three inches of extra height, Rob had him beat. Cal's normally straight black hair was becoming unkempt and getting in his eyes, making his struggle all the more fruitless.
"Piss off!" Rob retorted, "if you know what's good for you you'll let it go!" He gave a great heave, taking Cal off his feet and sending him sailing through the air to land with a hard thump on the grass. Lifting the stick triumphantly above his head with one hand, Rob let out a jeering wolf howl and began tossing it casually into the air while smirking at his slowly rising brother.
Cal looked on, but could only sulk. His palms were turning red and starting to swell from the beating they had endured. He glowered as menacingly as he could, but his brother turned away, still relishing his newfound toy. Cal began to plot as he watched the stick be launched into a great arc through the sky. As it reached its apex his brother whistled, dropping pitch in time with the long descent to mimic the sound of bombs dropping. Then, just before the stick smashed into splinters on the hard ground, Rob snatched it with a deft hand, and Cal charged.
The old man stiffened at the sounds of the boys shouting - it had not been so long since he had made such commotion. He shook himself, and kept his gaze fixed on the young girl seated next to him. She had heard nothing, and was instead focusing intently on the rounded shape of her lips, blowing air carefully through while her whole face scrunched in concentration. He smiled at her earnest nature; the thought of the boys fighting, and what would come after, slipped from his mind.
"Not too hard Lucy!" he chuckled, "You'll pass out without getting a single peep out if you keep that up!" She looked up at him, rounded lips dropping into a pout which looked out of place between her cherub cheeks. Had the sun not been blocked by a thin white cloud above, it would have completed her angelic visage, playing off her golden ringlets with a halo-like glow.
"First you tell me to blow harder, now you tell me to blow softer!" she exclaimed, throwing her hands up and slapping them back down to her sides. "I won't ever be able to do it if you don't teach me the right way!" Her bright blue dress, adorned all over with yellow sunflowers, wrinkled from the agitation.
Michael held back an amused smile, "Well that's the real trick: it can't be forced. It's a nasty thing! I don't know how to teach you to do it more than I know how to teach a sparrow." He fell silent for a moment to listen for birdsong as inspiration, but heard only the gusting breeze hissing through the leaves. Tree branches creaked overhead, transfixing his gaze for a moment. "You have to find that music in yourself, lift your foot, and take the step on your own," he sighed.
I whirled towards the stranger, snarling, "Get the fuck away from me, asshole!"
The stranger's face lit up, "He talks! The road to salvation opens brother! Where shall I go away from you? If I walk off the edge first does that mean you won't follow? If your life is measured in minutes, surely you can spare some seconds for my curiosity? What makes today the day of days?"
I felt my mouth fall agape and couldn't bring any response to bear. Slowly, I turned back to the valley below, staring into the dense overgrowth I yearned for.
"I've made… mistakes," I mumbled.
The stranger let out a slow whistle; I flinched.
After a moment the stranger laughed, tight blonde curls bouncing around his shoulders, "Well I've gotta say, if that's the limit of your creativity, then maybe the ground is the place for you. 'I've made mistakes'? Come on man, we're talking life-and-death here, you've gotta really want it, and so far I'm unconvinced Mr. …?"
I didn't look at him this time, but kept staring into the darkness below. A singular pinprick of rain on the back of my neck sent shivers down my spine: the dark clouds overhead were letting their own dissatisfaction be known. "Blake," I whispered.
The sound of the boys wrestling was growing louder, their play was taking them this way. The voice of the old man grew stronger as well. Were they all here to see me off?
Rob had no sooner grabbed the stick when Cal crashed into him, arms held wide like a linebacker. The momentum took Rob off his feet, knocking his black hiking cap from his head and smashing him into the ground with Cal on top. The stick clattered away, off of the patchy grass and towards the rocky cliff edge. With Rob dazed, Cal rushed to stand and race towards his prize. He made it in time, swiping up the stick, "Mine again!" he crowed, and turned defiantly. Rob was slow to stand while anger and embarrassment suffused his face.
"I'm gonna give you one chance, give that back here… right… now." Rob intoned. Cal's celebration faltered, and for a moment he could hear the sound of conversation and laughter coming from the other side of the bluff. He stood taller, losing track of the voices, and pointed the stick forward like a rapier.
"No. Finder's keepers, and mine is mine." The words felt empty; after casting around his mind he finished self-satisfyingly with, "Find your own if you want, asshole."
Rob drew himself up to his full five foot, four inch stature. A cloud moved across the bright sun, darkening his glowing hair. "Alright then, I’ll teach you that there’s always a price to pay. If you wanna take that step then you gotta be willing to follow through." Rob slowly sauntered forward, and began whistling a somber, unsettling tune. Cal held his footing, `sword` outright.
"There's no 'music inside of me,' it just doesn't work!" exclaimed Lucy, and she squatted down into the dirt. Michael looked down wanly, before crouching to her level.
"Come on now, I don't mean to turn you off it! Let's take a break - enjoy the breeze and the sun" he soothed. Lucy looked up, glowering. Michael couldn't hold the gaze. "Come on," he continued, "this is one of the best views you'll get in the whole world right here!" He reached his hand down, grasped hers, and slowly pulled her to her feet. She acquiesced, begrudgingly at first but soon of her own volition. The two in silence trudged along further up the hill. It was hard going, but the unyielding cane in his left hand, and the girl in his right, helped. As they got within twenty feet of the bare rock, Michael stopped.
Lucy pulled ahead, but was surprised at his iron grip. She looked up, "If we're going to see the valley, let's go to the edge," as she tugged forward.
"View's good enough from here," he murmured, "The edge is slippery. Not worth the risk to my precious cargo I think. What would your mother say if I got a single blemish on you? Wouldn't be invited ‘round much more, I think!" Though he tried to keep a calm composure his voice wavered, disconcerted by the conversation from just over the cliff line. He could feel the words being said.
Lucy looked up at him, then back forward towards the rocky cliffside. She tilted her head. "Well, `precious cargo` may have something to say about that," as she twisted her hand free with a jerk and raced ahead.
"Lucy!" he bellowed, starting after her, his stomach twisting in dreadful agony as he watched her prepare to jump.
"I… I fucked up. Here…" I stuttered under the stranger's imperious gaze. "I… lost something… years ago… over the edge. And nothing's been right since."
"Hm. ‘Lost something’? Did you throw your Dad’s smokes over the side, he left to go get 'em, and then never’s been back? I don't know man, wouldn't just climbing down the hill to look for your bygone treasure make more sense than taking the express route?"
"What's down… what's down there can't be found now. Couldn't the moment it… it went over." The boys’ tussle was louder now, and approaching fast. Time was drawing near.
"Ahh… well…. how many of us can say we've had that honor, `to be found`? Seems a pity to throw your life away in agony over the `found` when we're all right in the middle of the `finding`," The stranger sauntered forward, gallant, and peered over the edge. "Do you really think you'll have better luck in the search down there than up here?"
Cal's resolve broke when Rob got within ten feet, and he promptly turned and ran. Rob broke his saunter into a sprint after his little brother. Heart pounding, Cal hurdled a series of large rocks, fiercely gripping his stick all the while. He dashed through a cleft in the rock, arriving in a small clearing closed off on three sides by high rock walls, and open on the other to the world below. He stuttered to a halt, looking for a way out, but finding none. He spun, as Rob came walking through the opening.
"Nowhere to run now, little brother. No help here," he chortled. Cal trembled, but held the stick out once more.
"I don't want to play Rob, just let me keep it!" Cal screamed.
"You don't get it," Rob sneered as he swiped at the end of the stick, "this isn't a game. No do-overs." He made contact and wrenched with all his might, but Cal held fast. The piece of old wood, once part of a kingly tree, violently twisted and creaked in protestation. The tug-of-war was unsteady, both boys struggling to keep their footing. They whirled in place, and Cal could feel the branch yielding.
He watched as, with a thunderous crack, it snapped in two; he watched as his brother teetered backwards, triumphant; he watched as his brother lost his balance, curly blonde hair billowing; he watched as his brother rolled over the stone at the edge of the cliff, careening out of sight. But not out of sound - a high pitched whistle and shriek accompanied his disappearance. The primordial, empyrean screech at being abandoned by the terra firma he had relied on for so long.
The stranger turned, whistling once more. "Listen friend, maybe that's the best way: walk your own path, play the game by your own rules in your own time, make your own life, and death, so to speak. Live by your own creed, be your own angel. But," he pulled a black hiking cap from a pocket, and donned it over his golden locks as the thin mist became a more proper rain, "all I can say is if you’re going to do it, you play it alone. And a sorry way to go that is."
He looked at me for a moment longer, before turning and walking back around through the cleft which opened into the cliffside clearing. I stood, unable to think of any possible reply. Just as he was about to disappear from view the stranger paused, and looked me straight on, "We all fall eventually. Life is in the getting-back-up." He gave a curt nod and disappeared from view, leaving me alone on the cliffside once more listening to his whistling fade through the rain.
Michael sprinted forward, dropping his cane and crying bestially, but upon reaching the cliff's edge, he looked down to see Lucy sitting peacefully in a cliffside clearing just below, staring up at him bemused.
"Thought you'd catch me sooner, you're not very fast," she remarked.
"Out of practice I suppose…" he wheezed, gingerly climbing down the rock side she had scampered across a moment earlier and stepping somberly into the cliffside clearing. Slowly, he walked over, reached out his hand, which she grabbed once more.
"Who's Robert?" she asked, sending ice through his veins. Heart pounding, he stared at her. Tilting her head to one side at his silence, she pointed towards the edge, where a small bronzed plaque had been pounded into the stone, reading:
"There below lies Robert Blake, survived by his father George, mother Sarah, and brother Michael. The wind carries his music ever on."
Michael looked beyond the plaque, surveying the lush, teeming forest below and the horizon beyond. The thin cloud shielding the sun gave way, bathing the land in warm orange hues. "He was… a guide." He tried to think of something more to say, but the words would not appear.
He started at the sound of a whispery note coming from his side. Looking down, he saw Lucy had regained her concentrated, earnest look and a faint sound was blowing through her lips. She looked up, eyes widening in shock and awe at the wavering tone. He smiled and, rounding his own mouth, added harmony to her budding song.
They held for minutes, or hours, or days, or lifetimes, before their breath ran out and slowly faded to subservience of the wind's hissing call. He squeezed her hand tight, eyes creasing and letting free a stream of tears which fell on her head. She looked up, golden curls shifting around her shoulders, "What's wrong Grandpa?"
"Nothing; I've found you." They looked at each other a moment longer, before they both turned away from the edge and exited through the cleft in the rock, whistling together.