In Bruce’s office in Richmond, Virginia, men and women with shiny badges waved sheets of paper with official signatures, roiling the air, setting the dust motes tumbling. Bruce’s workers buzzed at each other, vibrated at the margins of the office, watched strangers scurry, open file cabinets, collect documents, dismantle computers. Carts rolled through the cubicle space following unpaths of Brownian motion. Bruce stands, leaning, on K2, the mountaineer’s mountain, in white-out conditions at 8000 meters. Snow thrashes the Abruzzi Spur. Except for the jellybean yellow of his goose down suit, bleak snow is all he can see, snow behind snow on top of snow around snow. He has reached the stage in his climb when his world consists only of the minute. His breath stings the back of his throat. He focuses on his right arm, commands each muscle individually to raise his hand and, slowly, wipe the fog from his goggles. The rustle of his suit defeats him as his hand falls back to his side. The ghost of a question drifts through his mind, a question of moving—obligation? ability?—but the idea comes apart and dissolves. He is, ultimately, cold. At the molecular level, temperature is a measure of energy as expressed through movement. Absolute zero, negative two-hundred-seventy-three-point-one-five degrees Celsius, is the temperature at which molecules cease both kinetic and internal motion. Cold is the slowing down and silencing of matter.
In Richmond, the vice president of Bruce’s company, Vincent, was having sex with his sixteen-year-old lover, Esteban. Carboxymethyl cellulose lubricated the slipping of flesh past flesh. The sex was many things—mostly, a last assertion of power before he, Vincent, became powerless. One final, violent taking before he himself was taken. But the sex was also his attempt to silence the voices in his head: self-righteous environmentalists at public hearings, commissioners and City Council members bought and sold, suppliers promising him kickbacks, Esteban’s coyote, talking about a family of fourteen back home, promising him quiet cooperation for a not-insignificant sum. Vincent pounded and pounded and pounded, but the cacophony in his head tasted his fear and would not be silenced. On the mountain, Bruce’s skin has turned the same color as the snow. Soon, hallucinating heat, he may zip himself out of his jellybean suit, lay down naked, and disappear against the mountain. Now, his muscles convulse in the storm. He listens to the tempest as he would the voice of god. The mountain’s heart seethes in molten stone, its body thrust five miles in the air then unmoved since before the beginning of time. The mountain doesn’t want or hate or rejoice. It acts without intention. It kills without malice or joy. The snow shifts beneath Bruce, he falls, and lying in the snow he tastes the wooly storm behind his teeth. He takes comfort in how the mountain disregards the scurryings of the creatures on its flanks.
In Richmond, the FBI, in cooperation with the SEC and the EPA, questioned Deborah, Vincent’s wife. No, she didn’t know about the mining permit violations or the insider deals. She could tell them, though, about the sixteen-year-old in the gilded cage. What, didn’t you know about that? Here’s the address… Yes, she gave Bruce the use of the jet and her pilot. No, she didn’t ask where he was going, although she could guess. You were idiots, she told them, to think he wouldn’t leave the country. Do you know how long it takes, how much money it takes, to put together a climbing expedition to K2? Do you know what happened the last time Bruce tried to climb K2? She showed them magazine clippings. “Resurrected.” On the mountain, Bruce lies in a fetal position in the snow. Breathing is an effort he can manage only occasionally—he inhales, exhales, and then he must rest for a while. He floats between consciousness and un- in a kind of purgatory, his vision cycling in grayscale from leaden snow to empty black, the sound of the wind advancing then retreating into the void. He has been here before, dying on the side of this mountain. Or, he is still here, the first time, and all that churning, convulsing, quaking and chattering back home… That was all hypothermia hallucinations. None of it was real. He is warm with relief.
Did you know, Simonne asked. Bruce was in Switzerland, calling on his mountaineer ex-girlfriend while his plane refueled. He looked out past the patio, to the postcard Alps framed by the French doors. Scylla and Charybdis dressed up in white. Simonne was staring at him; he didn’t look at her. You know I hate the mining, the business. He said it like he wanted to spit. It’s all just noise. She said, you knew. He said, I didn’t not know. I think it started the last time I went to Pakistan. When Vincent thought I wasn’t coming back. He paused. It doesn’t matter. She saw he meant it, and later watched his muscled back as he walked across her yard to the street. Mountaineers don’t talk about the dying, but she remembered one conversation, post-coital, just the once, they talked about dying in a lover’s arms. It wasn’t each other’s arms they were speaking of. The mountain is draining him of movement and noise—the tumbling dust motes, the vibrating office workers, the movement of flesh against flesh, the circling government acronyms, the roar of the jet engines, the rush as the plane takes off. Now, around him, above and below him, there is only cold. The gray-white snow envelopes him while the mountain extracts the motion of his life. He feels the withdrawal like electrons flowing to ground, and he will not move again. When he is finally empty he will be perfect, as still and silent as the mountain itself.
Audrey McCombs is currently an MFA student in creative writing and environment at Iowa State University, and is the Creative Director for Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment. Her creative work has been published in Earthspeak Magazine, Pay Attention: a River of Stones, and Beaches and Parks from Monterey to Ventura. Before going back to graduate school, she worked in natural resources management for many years, and has lived in Asia, Europe and Africa.