This country is too flat, she tells me. Maybe it’s because of all the people—like they’ve trampled out all the interesting dips and curves. Maybe it’s the weather. The weight of all that gloom. She has a point; when you’re used to mountains, meadows look depressed.
Every weekend, I drive her to the coast. With the air conditioning on, our throats grow dry and our eyes grow hot, but then we’ll round a corner and suddenly, instead of endless grass, broken only by the occasional, sad little town, the horizon yawns and then falls away. You remember just how big the sky can be. The tang of salt that makes you squint and want to sneeze reminds you you’re alive.
It was worse inland, in the middle. There, even the people seemed squashed down. She’d come home from classes scowling. How can you expect such people to write poetry, she’d ask, a poem is the moment something stirs, something trembles, waiting to take flight. Here, they’re on firm ground. They want to stay that way—they’re too afraid to take a leap, to step into a space they can’t see.
Since we moved up north, she’s decided she’s a cliff person. I need space and distance, she tells me, I need to know that something’s at stake. We drive to an empty carpark and walk along the edge, taking in the cascading views. From here, the ocean bears no resemblance to a bath, a pool, a lake. It’s a texture, an element, something alive. Sometimes we have to make our way down to the wind-raked beaches. Not just to feel the shadows of the cliffs, the depths looming above us, but to be close to the water, to know it can’t be tamed.
But the light is different here. It comes obliquely through the clouds, and then the sea, the sky, the beach, even the cliffs, all appear the same bleached white. It isn’t like a landscape from another planet, though. It’s familiar, something that might live inside you, something you don’t quite understand. On days like that, we find ourselves walking for hours. Our legs grow heavy but we cannot turn around. The ice cream on the journey home tastes of salt, and for days we cannot seem to lose the grit of sand from between our toes.
Afterwards, I thought a trip down south might make a change. When we crested the final rise and the valley spread before us, she nodded in approval. The buildings feel right, she added, they fit the curves and the drops. From the window in our room the tiers of green stagger away. She sighs over her tea.
It’s moments like this when she reminds me of her mother.
It wasn’t until after breakfast that the atmosphere changed. We walked along the corridors of stone and slate, and she told me what I was already thinking. It’s like walking through a cemetery, she whispered. I wanted to remind her that she didn’t have to keep her voice down, but the words caught somewhere in my throat. Wrapped in this thick mood we bought coffee and hot chocolate. I leant against the bulwark of a bridge, and she watched as the birds floated down the river and launched themselves into the sky.
In the park, the clouds burst. Can’t these people tell the difference, she asked, between shallows and depths? When we visited the baths it wasn’t any better. The water is the colour of glazed pottery, like the inside of a shell, and smells of mud and darkness. She squatted down until the water was at eye level and the steam rolled over her like clouds. She shook her head. It’s just an analogy, she explained. Anyway, this will all be underwater soon. I did not pretend to understand. Still, she bought a bottle of mud at the gift shop that she takes out to smell on occasion.
She wakes me at 2 a.m. with open curtains and a solemn mouth. The moon is too low here, she whispers. Gravity is different—things don’t feel as they ought to in your hand. She needs a story about heights, about the way the world looks from above. Through the window, I can catch the smell of rain.
I tell her about the dive.
You walk for hours through tunnels of green. The leaves are heavy, and the ferns curl up like coy animals, dew glistening on their hair. In the distance, you can hear the sound of falling water. The track dips up and down in little waves and because of this, when you start to climb, you don’t notice the elevation at first. But soon the trees around you change. They’re thinner, more obtuse and, instead of ferns, patches of tussock grass stretch up towards the sun. That’s when you start to feel the height in your legs, swelling and immense. She rests her head against my chest as I describe the hut: the worn wooden panels, the way the wind weaves through the cracks, the smell of dry earth and wet cloth. How the night sky looks when you’re alone. I hear her breathing.
I tell her how I wake with the sun, leave everything behind. The final climb leads up a scar along the mountainside; the earth is loose, so you have to crawl on your hands and knees. The lake is a surprise, though, not just because it appears suddenly, but because you can sense its depth. I tell her how it feels to have the sun against your naked back, to bend down on your knees and launch yourself into open space. By the time I hit the water, and the cold tightens my skin, I think she’s asleep.
Her cheek is pressed against the glass. I see the rain hitting the window, running against the shadow of her face. She woke me early, shaking me as if to raise the dead. We packed the car and left before another soul was up. She’s half asleep but starts to talk to me again about the rising tides. The melting polar ice, she murmurs. Soon it will spill over, wash away the plains. Only the cliff people will be left behind. I’m afraid to talk to her about erosion. The water lapping at the base of cliffs, lapping at the base of us all.
Cliff People is the opening short story from Sam Reese's debut collection, Come The Tide, published by Platypus Press. An interview with Sam, where he will be discussing the collection will be available on our site in the coming days.