The going was not difficult but the land did not make it easy either. An hour passed. “It’s further away than it looks,” Ary said. They continued walking in silence. After more hours John stopped.
“You can almost see the sea from here.” He was looking out over the vast plains. A flock of small white birds passed like a respiration of the land over the dry grasses.
“Yes,” Ary said.
“Although it is difficult to tell where the sky becomes water, exactly. Sort of blur.”
“I don’t know,” Ary said, smiling.
And almost as evening came a bird fell down the plane of the mountain soundlessly, wings syncopated into the body, wide symmetrical Vs. It went over their heads and disappeared very fast around the edge of the bulge in the mountainside. Ary and John watched it. It was strange to see something so small move so fast over such a mass of basalt. The speed of it was such that they turned while following the bird from looking at the sky to looking at the mountain and the lands beneath its shadow so quickly that there was a moment of disorientation when it disappeared and the rock and the soil became unbearably still. Not a moment of disorientation. That was wrong. Rather realignment. Of knowing more clearly, this is a mountain.
“Pretty late. Shall we eat here?”
“As good a place as any,” John replied.
“It’s quite cool.” You couldn’t quite see your breath in the air.
“I’ll get the thermo going.”
“I’m okay. Really.”
“We’ll be better with it.”
They ate in silence. The sun was very yellow and great gouts of it came through the clouds.
“Do you hear that? Hissing?”
“What?” Ary paused. “No.”
“Hm. I can’t hear it now either.”
“Wait. There it is.”
“Yeah. What is it?”
“It’s over there.”
Several feet from them in the dimming light something moved among the stones and the short plants.
“Does it have the ridges?” John asked.
“No. It’s got these big brown lines down its side. Kind of blotchy.”
“It looks young. Juvenile maybe.”
“I don’t think we can tell.”
The squat scaly head raised itself and the forked tongue quivered and flickered in the air. The pupils like black channels did not move. Did it blink? No, no. The snake has one transparent scale over its eye, to protect the delicate sclera. This specialised scale does not move. The eyelids at the top and bottom of the eye are fixed. They also do not move. The sudden pale cloud that comes over the eye is the nicitating membrane, a third eyelid drawn horizontally across for moisture, to keep the eye clean. This is all known.
“It’s still hissing,” Ary said.
“Is it angry?”
“It certainly sounds angry.”
“Maybe we’re in its territory.”
“There’s a lot of space around here.”
“It’s really angry, isn’t it?” John reached out to grab it, crush it. There was a rule about these things.
“It’s not going to hurt us.” Ary brought his head close to the ground, to peer at the snake. “Is it? You know what they always say which is that these things are more afraid of us than we are of them.”
John looked at Ary and sighed and leaned back and flopped into the wet grass. A stream burbled nearby. The snake hissed again, loudly, not a metre from John’s face. It made as if to strike and then settled back down. A long pyritic gleaming glare. Well. At least looked out at them with those unreadable eyes and did not blink.
“I think it came because of the warmth.”
“We should switch to internal heating.”
“I don’t think anyone will see us.”
“I’ll see them before they see us, at least.”
John sat up. The snake lay in dark coils near him and made no sound.
“You’re a strange person.”
“Never mind,” John said. He looked at the sun. He looked at the plains. He reached out to touch the snake, and it did strike this time, arched up and stuck him with a strange flinty noise. John stared idly at the spot on his suited elbow where it had struck. It was dry. “We’ll let it stay the night with us, I guess.” He made something like a dry smile.
Ary was thinking. He thought, a person could live all his life studying this world and yet for all his knowledge and time he would never guess that things like this live in it. He could not imagine the flight of a mountain bird or the unblinking recoil of a snake that lies in the grass. Such is the mystery of things. Ary tried to tell John this.
“Who would have expected this?” he said.
“Us being here, stranded, walking up this mountain.”
“All the deployments are scrambled.”
Ary wanted to say no, that’s not it, but then thought that was truth enough. He fell asleep running through the names of things: Crotalus, Sistrurus, Bothrops. He remembered they signified things but not what the signified were. The sounds were strange and made him think of movement. More he could not say.