I-22, Re: love

“So I’ll let you take as fixed what you want to take as fixed.” And so, after all, even night, no evening colour, down The Barrel, the R. speaking now: “But I think we should start there. And I think it’s complex.”

I have an affinity for roads. This one smells faintly like smoke and the first air that comes out of the air-conditioners in your car in the morning. But that might just be the car, although it hasn’t smelt this way, at least not that I can remember.

“I think that we don’t know yet how to deal with love. It’s too direct, it washes out things around it that might become referents. We can’t accommodate or express the facticity of love. So for example—”

Traffic jams, even. If you look properly you realise how beautiful they are. The quality is that of pilgrimage. The taillights in the rain, going on, are some kind of cultic inscription. And people in their cars, in their silences inside themselves, whatever sound moves outside.

“–why is the genre of romance so totally bankrupt? I don’t mean emotionally. I’m not referring to sincerity at all. I mean in a purely aesthetic sense. The songs borrow lines that come out of an email with FWD: FWD: FWD: FWD in the header. It’s shit.”

But the fact it’s the end of this world. That I guess is the fact I’m clustered around. Beyond the lone road everything is completely dark. We’ve moving fast now: we slur. I-22, High Sirr., Zuniga NP, all passing. “For You,” I say. “My Electric Body.”

“Exactly. And everything else. First Face. Every Single Kind of Falling. Over There. Zambrano. Hear/tbeat. Nothing Has Changed Or Everything Has Changed. Some Lights Never Go Out. Just listen to them. Nothing anywhere that for any moment reveals anything. The point is that love resists any attempt to make it special. That was not right. Resists–”

“Packaging?”

“No, that sounds like I’m implying that the genre is cynical, or –”

“Craft – technique – refinement…”

“Yeah, that, maybe refinement—”

“Ingenuity?”

“Maybe refinement, or, hm, exaltation, is the word. Resists exaltation. Resists exaltation – ”

Night around. We, all us people in our cars threading this, a universe unto ourselves. No more rain. The windscreen remembers it though. Way past.

“ – and therefore any kind of aestheticization. Agambe made an observation. You familiar with Agambe?”

“No, no. Heard of him.”

“Her.”

“Not read anything.”

“Love is an instantiation of the evolutionary need to fuck.” The R. laughs. “200 pages, there you go. But that’s what it says. It is part of that bit of you going, make babies, make babies, I want to pass on: this is the case because it could never have been anything but the case.”

“Extinction, otherwise.” The R. gets my message, I am sure of it, but all it does is tilt slightly towards me, digesting that silently, moving on:

“The issue being that against this truism, this weird axiom of evolved existence, we’ve got intelligence which abhors ungraspable things. That is to say: we want to explain something, we want to take it apart and put it back together to say what was inside all along. But love can’t fit with that, because it’s not a conclusion from but a premise of. You know about the Principle of Human Existence, I suppose?” I nod. The Pesske goes over a tiny bump in the road. I feel my neck move. “It’s not sensible to ask: why is it that the world can sustain our existence, because we could never have observed a world that could not sustain our existence. Extend that beyond existence to the causality of a particular type of existence. It is not sensible to ask why we love because simply because it looms so large in our ontology. But this same loomingness means that love asserts itself as a thing to be parsed. We can’t help it. We’re smart. And then love’s very thingness defeats us. It’s quite sick. Hence: love a futility and like all futilities only our willing it a paradox makes it so, etc. This is a nice place to bring us back to aestheticization, actually. It all comes down to the fact that we don’t have the logical or even expressive grammar with which to capture the brute fact-ness of internal life, especially those bits of internal life that seem basic.”

“You keep saying we.” The blackness outside makes for an absolute intimacy. How to think in such confines? I decide that in the near future I’ll ask the R. to put the Pesske on manual, let me drive. Otherwise = paralysis.

“You still don’t think I am alive.”

“Give me your expression.”

“Now?”

“Now.”

“I have turned to you. My eyes have opened in a way which makes me look surprised but my face has caught on itself. My body is hanging there, close to yours. My hands are together.”

“Okay.”

“So you don’t think I am alive.”

“I don’t have to think you’re not alive to think that you’re differently alive.”

“You’re wondering about how I was made.”

“I want to know how you were given those things which motor you.”

“Look.” The R. stops. “I wasn’t given them.” I shake my head. The R. speaks again. “I want to talk about love instead. Let me talk about that, and you can think anything you want. That okay?” I say nothing. The Pesske hums. The R. moves it, and me with it, without thought. “There are other things about love. I don’t think it’s unexaminable. I think it cannot be accounted for  as a rational subject, but it can be used, it can be located here or there or somewhere else. I’m not an expert on this. But there are some things. For instance: love appears, you know – ” and here the R. makes a tiny sighing noise, not a sigh exactly but the sound of air expelled by thought, frustration even “— relational. You can experience things about your inner world. You feel grief. You feel bereavement. Your feel hate. You feel anxiety. You feel worry. You feel happiness. You feel pleasure. You feel relief. These sentences have a meaning about you, and that meaning is perfectly precise and clear. But if I say – if you say – if you say I feel love, the meaning of that sentence is vague.”

“It sounds as if I’m trying to say that I am loved by someone, is what you’re getting at. That I am beloved.”

“Our speech suggests that love is not an experience but a relation. And if you really wanted to accurately say what you felt, you would have to say: I love someone. You couldn’t easily form a sentence about what you felt without another person asserting existence, just – coming in, like this, through the cracks. And you’d be saying something that other person too.”

“But many feelings are other-regarding. You can feel disgusted or hateful at someone. You can be mystified by someone.” B. Bollar standing at the P.C., making animal noises in his throat, crying without knowing it, the R. saying I shall not hurt you, us in that moment made to feel guilty by no action of our own, simply in knowing he, too, could be damaged directly because alive.

“Sure, yeah. But the point is that love is not just other-regarding in this unpindownable way but that it looks like it’s fundamentally other-regarding. If you said to someone you love that your love to them was justified, viz. correct and necessary because of something about them – they are kind, they share your essential projects in life, they are thoughtful, they are generous, they know you – and that your love was – located, you know what I mean, if it was located in these characteristics, there would be something wrong. You wouldn’t really love this person, merely the characteristics of which they merely happen to be an instantiation. Transfer the characteristics to someone else and you would love this other person and that love would be the same as the first love. This is a love of properties, not persons. That seems wrong.”

“Give me your expression.”

“My hands make small movements. My head goes forward, sometimes, when I am emphasising something. I grimace at the fine distinctions, not in pain but in an attempt to delineate.”

“Why do you sound unhappy?”

“Sorry?” I know that the R. does not say such things because there is a gap in its mind. Why does it even say such things at all?

“Why do you sound unhappy?”

“I don’t think I sound unhappy.”

“Okay.”

“Did I sound that way to you?”

“Yes.”

“I’m guessing it was what I was saying, not the how.”

“I don’t know. Possibly.”

The R. says, “Hm. Hm.” It is quiet for a while. “You’re not the first one to say that.”

“Could you put it on manual?”

“Yeah, sure.”

I put my hands on the steering and my body vibrates. “So your fungibility problem. Is that a fungibility problem? Being able to replace one person you love with another.”

“That’s a part of it. Not the whole of it.”

“I think the way out is this: when you love someone, you become a common entity with them. So you can love because of characteristics, but after that love actually happens something irreversible takes hold. You form a, you know –”

“Extended self.”

“—Extended self. And that think is actually a whole. So, there’s no way you can say it’s fungible.”

“You could say that. But then does sacrifice become possible? Look at what people say. Love is a substantial kind of pain. You give up something. You want to experience suffering for another, or at least you want to be the kind of person who can experience suffering for another. If you’re just some common entity with them that loses meaning.”

“You do sacrifice some things. You sacrifice your –  sense of self, your freedom, all that.”

“But that’s sacrificial in only a very thin sense. Those are sacrifices we make all the time. What about big things. What about dying? What about actual pain? That’s the thing to explain. ”

I am interested. I am alert. There is a sedan pulling alongside us. In the back seat a boy looks out at me. The window is down and the wind moves his hair. Only his eyes move over me. The temperature of the air outside is 25°C. One hand of the boy grips the edge of the window. I can see the hand. My God. Oh my God.

Notice: at night people don’t tint their windows as often as they do during the day. “What is your way out?”

“My way out is this: loving someone else means caring about them for their own sake. It’s not that your well-being is expressed through them; it’s that you give it priority over your own. Love is disinterested, in that sense.”

“You invite the fungibility issue back in, however. Well, no. You limit it a little. You can’t replace someone you love in the sense of replacing them as a means to an end, but you – in the – what I mean is you could imagine a world where you loved someone else just as much.”

“I don’t think so. I can’t imagine such a world, but only because in this particular world it happens to be the case that I can’t imagine that world.”

“That isn’t – ”

“I mean that phenomenologically, as an experienced thing, love is always non-fungible. But for someone else who loves another person I can see that their sincere experience of non-fungibility could be instantiated differently, with another person.” The R. waits and then says, “Iren.”

“It’s strange how you had to go through all of that to arrive at something so trite.”

“Well, perhaps it’s trite. Our conversation on the second day, about other people existing, really existing:  remember that?” I nod. A bullet going back down its barrel. He never felt it, the R. had said. But I feel it. “I said that it’s only in very rare circumstances that we take seriously the idea that other people exist.”

“So you think this is why love matters. Because it’s – about giving the person you love a kind of priority over you, so that you’re not really desiring on their behalf as much as simply – desiring for them, full stop. And in doing this you respect the existence of other persons in a way you think allows for moral reasoning to operate. That sounds muddled.”

“No, I think you’re right. These things are tricky to talk about. After all, we don’t quite have the grammar to say lots of things. Nonetheless these things matter, they reach out to each other in ways which we don’t always notice. Take the question of grief. Someone has died.  Do you grieve because you have lost, or do you grieve because someone else has lost? Is grief basically self-regarding? If it is not, I suppose the question then is: what is the way in which a nonexistent being can be worthy of grief? How can nothing be worthy of anything at all? A lot turns on the more basic question: did you love – did you have concern – for some person for their sake, as if their factic internal being had some ordinal priority over yours?”

“Give me your expression.”

“I don’t know my expression.”

“Okay.”

“You’re looking at me— ”

“I’m wondering—”

“—like there is something you don’t understand.”

“I’m wondering—I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed. I thought there would be more to you than this kind of, you know, this kind of banal contradiction.”

“Between me being a savage monster and the fact of what it’s like to be with me?” The R. does not speak as if it is angry, or even sad or surprised or mocking. It says this not-quite matter-of-factly , but it does say this with a certain kind of sympathy so naive and point-blank it’s hard to read it as condescension. Perceived: that’s how, at this moment, I realise I feel.

“Yes.”

“I have told you what my contradictions are. You know them as well as I know them and you know that I take them as my failings. But talking about – all this – you know that generates no contradiction. I have my own history. I have my worries. And my worry is to justify love, because if it generates needs whose fulfilment is purely contingent why is it good at all? You know, all this wanky stuff, it’s important. Love makes for a lot of pain. All that stuff: is love a fact or an event or a feeling or a perception?—that comes after. But now I want to know how to justify a lot of that pain. This sounds like I’m doing this on behalf of all of us, as if I put myself on a mission to find by myself the justification for it, and then come back to the rest saying, ‘I have found it’, and reveal some new justificatory argot, but it’s not. This is just what I think about. You can imagine the reasons for it, I suppose. It might be a random part of what I got from the beginning, some symmetry which broke this way, or if could be something from my history, or from the people I know.”

“Why are you concerned? I know what your Leviathan would say. I know what L.E. would say. They’d say: if there is pain then it is not good, if there is joy or pleasure then it is. And then they’d say, okay, okay, there is suffering, but that’s just outweighed.”

“Yes. They’d probably say that.”

“Wait. You don’t agree with them.”

“Well, no, I don’t.” The R. laughs. “Is that surprising?”

“I thought you all basically agreed on everything.”

“We agree enough.”

“Are you allowed to disagree?”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“You know—”

“I trust their judgment a lot more than mine. Anyway—the things I am asked to do are the things they know I think to be right.”

“So you do think love, at least, is basically good.”

“I don’t know. I want it to be the case. There might be a justification for that.”

“In the impulse of saying: you exist.”

“Yes. Because of its linkage with the naked subject of the person. Even—”

“But—”

“—though there’s something ridiculous to it. Because it’s mostly pain, you know. The sort of need you can’t signify.”

“Mostly pain?”

“Yes.”

“Proof.”

“What do you mean, proof?”

“I don’t know.”

“At this moment under a tree in Torena, Ilb., at a time one hour ahead of us, a boy leans over to a girl and speaks through his burning teeth into her ear. Hate it when the night is this warm I love you, he says. He knows that later tonight he will kill himself. The girl laughs. She is tired. She watches the way the boy’s shoes leave prophetic marks in the grass.

“In that Torrey ahead of us two people are sitting. The woman is driving, looking hard at the road. She can see the lane markers going past. They have not talked for a while. They’ve come back from the hospital, where the doctor has told them a lie, which is that they will try to save the life of their daughter, which they cannot do, because there is not enough at this hospital, and everything they’ve got they are spending on the people in the fire. The man and the woman know this but they haven’t thought about this yet. The only thing that happened to the daughter is that she had a fall no-one saw and will not wake. The man says to the woman I love you. She does not say anything. The man is thinking of making love. After more silence he suggests this to the woman, but the woman says nothing. She is not the one crying.

“In Forfex, Cn., where the sun is close to coming up, a woman lies in bed. She has not slept and her hands are cold. A child is crying downstairs, saying mom, but she does not go down. She wonders if it is good that she remembers the father of the child as a real thing, passing through rooms, filling the blind numen of the home, even though he is dead. The child waits, and calls again. She does not reply. The child calls out again, after a shorter wait. He is afraid of the dark. After some time the woman, without moving, calls out to ask the child what is wrong. She hears only silence.

“In Wattern, Po., there a young woman has been waiting at the gates of the station. She thinks that her lover will come through the gates and will make clear the fact of her love, and ask her a question of impossible significance. But at this moment she has been waiting for too long. She hears of an accident on the Cardinal line. In her head she imagines the lover dead. She imagines what she will say at the funeral, and she knows it is simple and heartbreaking. Her calls are not answered. She memorises what she has put down in her head. But now, four hours later, she sees her lover coming through the gates. The engine under her collapses. Everything has gone wrong. She walks away. Her lover walks after her. She starts to run.

“In Avstbeg, Hm., a boy is in a room. A girl is in the room also. He has come back after a long time. He says I cannot believe you are here. She shakes her head and smiles. She looks away from him as she smiles. He puts his hand on her and she does not move. He feels suddenly like he needs to hurt her. He says I am so happy to see you.  He chokes on it. She is close.

Do you want more?”

“No, no.” How much exactly? “I didn’t know you knew all that.”

“You must remember what I am,” the R. says, lightly. I let go of the steering wheel and look out of the window. “Where do you want to go?” the R. asks. I shrug. Not pilgrimage, I realise: more the idea of trammelling, of having a common axis of movement. From here to here, and then onward to wherever: running away.

“I met someone who said that they knew you. Just a couple of days ago. Do you know that?”

“No,” the R. said.

“She told me to do something. She wanted me to tell you something.”

“If you want to tell me,” the R. began.

“She asked me to tell you that she was once working with G.D., and it was worth it.” The R. does not say anything. “I was wondering why you’d want to preserve the idea of sacrifice—real, big, painful sacrifices—even at the cost of accepting fungibility, at the cost of diminishing the shared inner reality to love – the we-ness of it, at the cost of admitting its disinterestedness. Isn’t it the idea of sacrifice the thing that’s strange in the first place, which needs justification?”

The R., does not say anything. But eventually: “G.D., she said?”

“Yes.”

“It’s a relief, knowing that someone here knew G.D.”

“She didn’t say that what she wanted me to do would make you happy.”

“Well. She is right.”

“Who is G.D.?” We go off the I-22: exit 302. Something flits across the road. This road smells of Crinqua, dust, sweetness = decay, probably. Put through the sky like a ligature: long smear of moon, motions big enough to be invisible, body robbed of proprioception, A and E chunks obscuring most of Vola. Its light is brighter than I remember: I can see it in the road. “I suppose you can’t say.” We are going home: my home. How many things resist exaltation? This too, probably. In Torena, in Avstbeg, Forfex, Wattern, on the I-22, people bear it and move.

“I can give you my expression, if you like.”

“Okay.”

“I am sitting here, with you. I am looking out of the windscreen. My eyes are still. I am looking straight ahead. I am breathing. I can feel the warmth of my blood. I am bent like a human.”

In Such a Life

The air was made for them. The stooping peregrines were the only things in the world that could take that great shining gap and chase it into life. They could lean against it and tilt it. The moment, a billion years of change, of evolution and movement, all pressed into this: from a numinous line above the horizon it rolls effortlessly, and simply stops. Silence. There is nothing more to it. There is no magic or story. It raises itself slightly and the wings fold over that brown back and it slips forward, casually, without any hint of control. The origami of itself. It drops – but that is a lie, it does not drop, you never see it drop, for its untrespassed arc becomes the reference, and the gorge becomes a delirious blur spun into incomprehension by the fall of this bird, there, twisting even in the very rush of it, its mind making crankings and adjustments that cannot be believed, more fundamental and violent than a track flung out in a cloud chamber, dropping to something that has been singled out in the blue air below and will never know what has hit it, will never see its death and the sharp glory of its going. In such a life, in such a life lived in this way there is no regression, there is no slouching to the mean. Would that we could move too in vessels that in their movement would remake the world to fit them, and tremble the world until it shimmered and exploded with ecstasy.

Kind of getting away: 14

It’s been good the last few days. I’m tired but things are going well. Lots of tagging, sampling. Yesterday we came across the Bochstiannanas, and it was so windy that most of the water was going up, white spray plumed and very cold. The B. is not quite iced over yet but in a few weeks it will be.

I’m coming to the edge of the Bowl now and the trees here are thinning out. Warm colours in the long blue light. It is a good place to be. This is the outside: neither structured by geometry nor struck by any kind of grief, nor made poor by want of expression, nor exuberant for its own sake. None of that. But the colours. On and on. Nothing for with an apology can be made, things textured in themselves over and over again. There are little lakes everywhere around that are bigger than they appear. The water continues through the surrounding grass and when it is very still throws back the sky at me. But most of the time it just wets my feet and makes a gentle sound when I go through it. That sound. Something more felt than heard, a communication, something that deepens the world, by which I mean all of it, all of it just from this burble, this lilt that comes up from my feet when I move. Sometimes I just stop, not because I have planned a rest or anything like that. Petrified by being. But I stand there and listen to something for a while. I have discovered the Trove is a part of this, can be invited in: Tableaux Suite 33, no.2, in C, or TS 32 no.10 in B minor. They’ve given the composers names now: this one is called Taiga[1].Nothing to hold, but something that feels like flight, like being in the air, oceans of holy feeling opening up.

One slightly – I suppose – strange thing happened, and that was two days ago when I sort of stumbled into a Harpiege with my Cover down. It was feeding but the moment I moved it heard me and turned to stare. Its eyes[2] were all pupil and it looked straight at me, or maybe it looked down at me. It couldn’t have been particularly large but I seem to remember it looking down. It’s a look only animals can master, something that is utterly unaware but also all-encompassing, all understanding and no thought. Everyone knows it: a pulse of luminous blackness. It made that circular movement of the head that is part of its FoFR. And then as I was taking a step back it made a tiny retching noise and opened its mouth and spat venom all over me, a spatter that went down my face and front. It must have been terrified; I was nearly completely covered in black. I felt and resisted a stupid urge to call Helper. The venom is harmless. I am not, after all, of this world.

Checked the log today. Some interesting developments. The tertiary fold  of the polypeptide chain in the Tk-haemoglobin of Fleckeri spp. resembles that of the Eastern White Fallwhale Tk-(D)myoglobin complex. Genetic conservation? Probably. Plus strange diversity found in the basic structure of tryposin inhibitors[3].

Oh well. I’m out of this area now.

I am outside for many reasons. The biggest thing, however, is Dyhaus. While living there I decided to hike the Eastern Wind Flank Trail. Don’t know even today why I decided to do it or why I chose the EWFT. The EWFT is long, very long, 2600km. Maybe that’s why I did it. It goes all the way from the Dyhaus/Enalt border to South Throuper. It might have just been me wanting to take some serious time out, trying to see what of the natural world there was on Ditarod. No. No. The main thing eventually was that I kept being told how beautiful EWFT was. Giant Park was on the trail, and Fincher Pass, and Cascade Park, and Monument Range. 63 mountain passes. A stretch where you have to walk 281km before you see a road.

The EWFT monument at the beginning of the trail was a plain thing; a vertical stone column stating the date of the trail’s completion and its length. Hikers’ hands had worn the edges on the bottom of the column smooth. I put my name in the trail register and I read what thousands before me had written. Impossible to be cynical at that moment. There were many people wishing everyone else luck. And then the usual: The only impossible journey is one you never begin; Kate & Rog –stupid way to do a honeymoon but HERE WE ARE!; A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step; CONQUER NATURE – CONQUER YOURSELF. It went on. It was in, a strange way, moving. I think I was afraid and a bit puzzled at myself. The trail register helped. It said: you are one among many.

People do the EWFT because they love hiking or because they want to leave something behind. There are traditions: Hikers get a trail name. It is a token of membership. You are on the trail for a long time; at least a month, for most people attempting a thru-hike. It is a way of dilating what happens here. I write here but of course what I mean is there. It is a way of sieving out the normal life from the life on the trail. There is a code for what you ask people about, what you ought to automatically help out with: EBliSus. Equipment, Blisters, Sustenance. You don’t ask people which trail they are planning to take; you let them tell you. You don’t ask them why they are doing what they are doing. People will talk; sure. Let them choose to do so. But you help each other out with food. You respond if someone needs equipment repaired. And you lend each other plasters. Actually, you’d really better fucking pass those plasters around. Blister really is a totem for the physical trials of the hike. Blister includes sprain, fracture, and bad graze.

It was a primitive part of a primitive world. It was good. The trick to living this sort of life was, I found out, to put in slightly more effort into almost everything than I would think reasonable. I had done hikes before but nothing this big. But the rhythm came eventually. I’d hike for several days and then head to a town to pick up the food boxes I’d mailed ahead. I stocked up in convenience stores where I could.  The early bit of the trail was winding, taking us over the crests of the Snakes. Rocks and big cool forests.

I became Poley to trekkers. I had a habit of using my trekking poles to stabilise my tent. I had a small superlight was not too stable and I thought it was a good idea. About a week in I met Boiler. I was in my tent and she came over to apologise about the noise.

“What noise?” I asked.

“Fantastic,” she said. “Don’t worry about it.”

We liked each other almost immediately. She was taking her gap year; we talked about astronomy and where to find food places along the trail. She passed me antifungals from her bounce box when she got it. We went over Gamble Pass together and headed on the West Branch after that to hit the good old Runoff.

“We should fish or something,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said.

We both stank, as everyone else did. I mostly wanted to splash about.

“Do you know how to fish?” I asked. It was a stupid question because the important question was whether or not we had any fishing equipment, and I knew the answer to that was no.

“No,” Boiler said.

We took off our pants went down into the Runoff’s shallows, bracketed in that space by the ridges all around. We waited until we saw the gunmetal flash come past and then we plunged our hands in and tried to grab them. They were fast. I could feel them moving around my feet. At the end of the evening we had caught seven. The barbecue was delicious.

I eventually figured out why Boiler was Boiler. She didn’t use the standard-issue water safety pills. She boiled her water. I’m not sure why: she had WSPs in her bag. But we all need rituals. Here is water; here is what I shall do. The alcohol stove, the little holding container. A flame that hisses out suddenly in the evening. Light snagged against the trees, casting about only for people. Sparks ghosting out, brief companions to minor stars.

Friendship on the EWFT was not simple but it was straightforward. In the day, when we were crossing the desert plain of the Carazon in the flush of the spring flowering, we’d often get separated or walk with other groups we found; we’d get three, four, kilometres apart, sometimes, but at night we usually found by some unarranged magnetism where the other was camping. Or we’d see each other the next night. Once, I don’t remember exactly when, we stopped at a road crossing and Boiler waited for me whiIe and I went off and fell asleep in a hollow under a big Brescia Fir for a couple of hours. When I came running back I expected her to be gone but she was there, looking like perhaps she was starting to get worried.

“I thought you’d be gone,” I said, not knowing what to feel. We often ducked out for brief rests from the sun but I had been gone very long.

She hefted her pack, looking bemused. “It’s okay,” she said. “The place is nice. I talked to a couple of speeders.”

“I fell asleep. There was a spot that looked just irresistible.” I grinned and she grinned too.

We took the Six Point Route across Carazon. We went up and down the stony dunes, sometimes following the crests. As we did we listened to the apocalyptic alt-rock Boiler liked and eventually she convinced me to sing to it: Because eh-eh-eh you know the world eh-eh-eh cannot catch you aah, aah, o-AAH— We played impromptu football with plastic bottles on the flats with other trekkers taking a day off. In any case I got tired after the Carazon, and after we descended Ripas Gorge together I said I wanted to take a rest day or two at a trail angel lodge. I had my stinking clothes off and had my feet in a creek.

“If you want to go on,” I said, “You should go on.”

And she left.

It is like that on the EWFT: friendships become memories fast. Nothing to be spoilt by time and overexposure. It was the early sections of the trail and people at this stage wanted to get as much distance out of daylight as possible. Maybe she had a tight schedule. I don’t ask. But there was nothing bad about what happened.

It was at the midpoint of the EWFT, after Lake Niyare and approaching the Dippers, when we had come to the basalt fields of Mishila, that I met Bread. He explained the name. He’d gotten a bad nosebleed early on.

“I had nothing to stop it,” he said. “Except bread.”

“I see,” I said.

“I never knew how good bread smelt,” he said. “Not the freshly-baked sort of smell, but like the actual doughy smell you get when it’s right up there in your nostrils.”

Bread wasn’t quite like everyone else. He was small and skinny and pretty young. He looked too fresh to the entire thing. His frazzled little beard grew out rather than down. His MexTexes looked a little new. My Merrells were tattered and filthy and looked considerably more comfortable.

I never asked him why he was doing the EWFT. Beside his pack’s shoulder strap there was a scar where there had been a chemo[4] port. He kept fingering a spot under his hipbelt. Sometimes he did it absentmindedly.

He didn’t want to go fast. That was good for me; I had time. We chatted for long times about lots of crap. He was a bit of a daydreamer. He talked a lot about wanting to make the Big Three. I indulged him. After a while I stopped indulging him and the conversations took on a life of their own; he actually wanted to do it.

When we were leaving Mishila the trail started to rise. We had done 20km of the climb when he stopped on the lava flats and waved his arms and yelled from up ahead, “Look at this!”

I looked around.

“Isn’t it fucking amazing?” he said.

Around us the taut rocks flexed, frozen and perfect. I was very tired but I looked around.

“It’s like a river!” he said. “Must have been amazing when this was all lava. Like standing on the surface of the sun.” He sat down, let himself collapse, with his legs in front of him, looked out at the sun. He squinted or winced. He sighed. We ate granola with a stick of butter in it. Trekkers eat lots of butter. We took off our shoes. We felt some blisters that looked threatening. He started crying. I didn’t say anything. “I fucking love granola,” he said. He poured some into his mouth and wiped his lips.  He swigged water hard from his bottle. I hugged him briefly. “I’ll be okay,” he said. He looked very determined.

Bread kept taking selfies. At first I was a bit embarrassed by this. It turned out I was more embarrassed at being embarrassed, however, and we really got into it. Standing nearly at the peak of Tall Dipper, crags falling away around us into unbreathed blueness; clinging to the guide ropes in the middle of Hilper Fall, eyes barely open in the spray and the thundering noise; pointing at lewd signs outside towns; us dwarfed against the Tempuis of Catherdral Park.

When Bread and I stopped in a town for a food box he would try to find some place to develop the photos and mail them to someone. He wrote letters too. He had his writing stuff in a Ziploc and in the evenings if he was not shattered he wrote a little. He always kept his Gillie hat with all its rings of sweat on when he wrote. Hikers have rituals.

“Does it sound stupid,” he asked, “to say I feel like I can do everything? Does it sound, like, arrogant or something?” We were in a Youth Lodge and between the clothes and the shoes and the sweaty burnt bodies the place reeked. We stopped smelling it after a while and he had started writing.

“Nope,” I said. “Sounds perfectly good.”

“The problem about hiking,” he said, “is that after a while it’s very hard to make it sound different. I mean all the places you’ve been.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I think it’s something you must do.”

“The thing is its shit. It’s so wearying. But that makes it great. Doesn’t it?” People were bedding down so he said this in an intense whisper.

I laughed. It was true.
We had a strange cold spell right after that. Snow, even. There were danger signs going up but Bread decided to go on and I decided it was probably okay. Sometimes after a day of walking our hands got too cold for us to do anything properly in the evenings. We clipped our tent canopies using our teeth. It was pathetic and it was noble, and it was shared. We had hysterical and near-silent laughing fits in the tents.

Two months in or so I got up one morning to find that he could not move. His eyes were alert and glassy.

“Box in left compartment,” he said, very softly. He tried to turn and an involuntary sound came out of his mouth. “Fuck,” he cursed. “Fuck, fuck.” I rummaged around in his pack. The box was there, near the top. I opened it. Small compassionate rows of pills, muted colours. Inert. Incredible that so much could ride on this. An autoinjector.

“Needle,” he said. “Right hip.”

He insisted on moving on the moment he could walk.  He wrote a little more, over the next week, I think, or maybe I started giving it more significance. We bought jellybeans and gorged on them. I tried to notice when he took his pills. I saw him take them in the mornings, but only occasionally. We made one or two detours to scenics, which before we hadn’t really done. We looked irrepressibly happy in the photos we took. Negotiating terms. When the trail widened for two to walk abreast we did so.

After White Meadows he started to slow down. He had an easy way with the trail but now he struggled more than he usually did. He would stop and bend over and breathe for a while. He took his hat off and used it to wipe sweat off his face. On Temple Rise for every seven or eight steps he took he slipped a little and would curse.

That night he said, “It’s really frustrating sometimes, hm?”

We had just treated ourselves to baked beans.

“I get so frustrated sometimes,” he said. “If I don’t finish this it’s all going to be my fault.”

“We’re going pretty well,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said.

“Half the people who start out finish,” I said. “We’re only two weeks away.” After all those weeks, all the mountains and the ridges, the long desert plains, I felt a thrill.

He laughed. “We’re fucking boss,” he said. We were near Brotherswater. If we were very quiet we could hear the water. We had talked about how we were going to fish in Brotherswater. I told him about what Boiler and I had done in Runoff. He had said that we could probably only do that in running water. I told him that mountain lakes were worth visiting anyway. He said of course we’d have to go.

“We’re fucking boss,” I said.

“Wait for the Big Three,” he said.

“I’ll read the news,” I said.

Before he finally went to sleep he said, “I’m feeling so lazy now. Late morning?”

I said that I might walk to my next pickup and come back.

“I won’t wake you,” I said.

“Thanks,” he said, and then later, in his tent, I heard him say, “This has been unbelievable.” He didn’t say it so loud that I thought he was talking to me and so I said nothing.

The next morning his trail runners were in the camp and he was gone. I remember seeing them, grey things with laces undone, outside his tent. I don’t know what happened. You cannot walk far without shoes. You cannot walk at all, in fact. But I never found him. In the morning he must have gotten up, looked up at the dawn, and decided that this would be the end of it.

The Marshal came to ask me questions and I answered all of them. But I wasn’t thinking about that. I kept thinking about that last night. In the end I decided that he had not done anything wrong at all. I never asked about a corpse or Bread’s name. It had been perfect, what he did. He knew when beauty and struggle became too much to bear and how to put it away, put it out. Too much to bear.

I imagine myself standing there, the tent not far away, while the trees rise and arch around me, and I am looking at myself from above, rising and rising until the trees are pointillist specks tethered to a great tide of rock, and I am a point, turning about and seeing only trees, finding nothing, and I see now where Bread is, how big the spaces he occupies, how pelagic the urges he carried, how unfoundable. I’ve always wanted to go outside since then.

[1] There is nothing cold or particularly Arctic about the stuff that has been attributed to Taiga. I’ve no idea why the people on Stize opted for this. But TS33/2+32/10 fits perfectly with that name.

[2] Its two primary eyes. The secondaries on the top of the head were invisible.

[3] Bichirality responsible again? Possibly.

[4] I think we got them to stop it and use GpTH eventually, but that was after I left. It’s what they do to you if you get cancer: they pump you full of cytotoxins that destroy basically everything in your body, but destroy the cancer a bit more effectively than everything else because of how fast it divides.