Air this thin turns anyone into a mystic. Dulling the mind, it dulls distinctions, slurs the border between abstractions—right and wrong—or apparent opposites—dead and alive, past and present, you and him. The brain, rationing oxygen, quiets to a murmur, like a fine-print clause or codicil. You’re at high altitude for the first time and this mental twilight is a surprise as rewarding as the scenery. This recess from judgment, sedation of the conscience. How your sleep here seems too shallow for the nightmares that await you at a certain depth. You and the rest of the party are basically drunk. Till now you’ve had to treat others for minor problems only, small cuts and contusions, headaches, insomnia, so this intoxication remains a luxury, not a medical challenge. Or a moral one.
To you, right and wrong are not abstractions.
Still, think of the freedom of those summit squads dreamily bypassing climbers fallen in the Death Zone—the strange luxury of that. What Wade Lawson himself has done. You might have thought twice about joining his expedition as doctor, and bringing along your daughter, if you’d known his story when you signed the contract. But at this altitude your numbed mind has to wonder. Camp One. Put yourself in his boots if you can. Now say for certain what you’d have done, or will do.
September 20, 2006, 4:17 p.m.
She sees the trouble coming because she knows her father.
Sophie sits where she has sat for the last few afternoons, on the flat top of a concrete cylinder rebarred into the glacier, her backside in Nepal and her boots in China—Tibet. The seat of her favourite ripped jeans covers the line of Chinese characters inscribed in the concrete. Beside her stands a lightweight aluminum flagpole not much taller than she is and skewed some degrees off vertical. The breeze cooling her back can’t stir the small Chinese flag, because monsoon winds or, more likely, mischievous Sherpas like Kaljang and Tashi have spooled and tangled the flag tightly to the pole. Come to think of it—and the notion pleases her on a number of grounds, playful, political—she is likely seated a dozen steps or more inside China now. Chinese border patrols have to hike up the glacier and adjust the markers from time to time. A week ago, she and her father and Kaljang and Amaris stood at the edge of base camp and watched the Chinese set up a device on a tripod and take readings and untangle and lower the flag and remove the flagstaff and pry out the marker and roll it laboriously upslope and core new holes in the ice and slot it in. Some of the men were in blue coveralls and black toques like a swat team, others in olive down vests over camouflage gear. They trudged from chore to chore and said little. They ignored their audience, though one of the men in camouflage, maybe eighteen or so, waved shyly and blew kisses to her and Amaris. Amaris ignored him. Sophie waved back. Beside her, Kaljang’s eyes narrowed merrily in his brown face and he showed his nicotine teeth. She snuck a glance at her father on her other side, but he too seemed tickled by the scene, rubbing his salt and pepper stubble, shaking his head affably. He seemed almost himself again up here.
The Chinese formed up in a crescent and saluted as they raised the repositioned flag. The red had faded to pink. “There,” her father said. “They just reclaimed the thirty feet of territory the glacier pinched from them.”
By four in the afternoon here the sun sets behind the Himalayas, but a quarter-hour later, the cold dusk already deepening, it finds a nock between two summits and reappears, spotlighting the pass and the valley and dyeing the glacier descending into China, so it resembles a vast, glowing channel of lava running down a volcanic slope. It happens a minute or two earlier each day. Yesterday a few others walked over from base camp to watch with Sophie, but today she’s alone with her sketchbook/journal. Perfect. She was a romantic as a child—a keeper of padlock diaries, a lover of horses, fantasy novels, evenings in the dark of the covered porch on her papa’s or mama’s or yiayia’s lap, hearing the natter of rain on the roof shakes, the nicking of drops off the eaves into the garden—and at seventeen she retains enough of that lyrical spirit to choose sunset over the recreational flirtations of the Sherpas in base camp. Kaljang especially. He’s cute, for sure, and to her surprise they like some of the same music, though on the whole she prefers to hang out with—tag along behind—Amaris McRae. She understands herself to have a bit of a crush on her. What girl wouldn’t?
Now, as small figures, distinct in the sun’s spotlight, inch toward her up the glacier, she thinks not only of her father but also of Amaris. Amaris will want to be here, to see and film this… this what? It’s no border patrol, even at this distance she can tell. She glances over her shoulder at the slopes of Kyatruk, where Amaris, with Wade Lawson and the rest of the summit team, should be back at Camp One after an acclimatization run and a night at Camp Two. The sun in her eyes shuts them hard. She turns back and looks down the glacier. She stands up. The figures, of varied sizes, children, adults, some in brilliant maroon garb, some in parkas, are in hurried, jerky motion, a few coming at a tottery jog. Clawing at the thin air as if pulling themselves up a fixed rope. She catches sight of other figures some distance behind them—the blue swat team and soldiers in camouflage gear. They’re yelling, the cries coming small but emphatic, caroming off the valley’s steep walls. Then another noise she can’t identify—small popping sounds, like someone stepping on bubble wrap. She pulls back the hood of her fleece. A few of the soldiers are halting and falling to one knee, as if resting. More of that popping sound. An awful thought occurs to her. She turns around to base camp, gets a faceful of sun. Visoring her eyes with a hand, she opens her lips to call out. Her father, though—he will probably be first to respond.
Kaljang is slouching among the tents at the edge of camp, smoking a cigarette and watching her. It’s becoming a minor annoyance, how she always seems to be on his GPS, but now she’s relieved. He waves, flips back his hair and with the cigarette clamped in his lips he trots toward her on short bowlegs packed into tight jeans. Maybe he hears the faint shouting from below the pass—it’s growing clearer, along with that other noise—or has he just read her anxious posture? “White people are easy to suss out,” he said once in an untypically tentative way, and at first she guessed that he must have heard others, maybe British climbers, use “suss,” and he wasn’t sure he was using it right. Then it hit her—he felt awkward because he didn’t mean all white people were easy to read, just Sophie.
She turns back and looks down. The amber light on the ice is shearing to one side. In the widening blue penumbra, one of the lead group has fallen, others stopping to help. Some glance back over their shoulders. She herself edges back from the border stone. Her father will be angry at her for not calling him, but he will hear the shots soon enough and he will come. Kaljang, winded, reaches her side, tosses his cigarette, takes a look down the glacier and clutches her arm through the fabric of her hooded fleece.
“Sophie. Come on.”
“What? We have to do something.”
He pulls her toward a crop of rockfall boulders, another of her sunset lookouts. When the expedition first arrived, Mingma Lama and his nephew Tashi strung ropes between the boulders and festooned them with white scarves and prayer flags in navy, white, scarlet, green, and yellow, and she and her father helped them. Mingma Lama said the flags and prayers would go down with the glacier into China, a gift to the Tibetans. The colours seem weirdly lurid now, hyper-bright. She tugs her arm free. She is taller, maybe even heavier than Kaljang, but he’s always foisting his chivalry on her—helping her over obstacles, grinning as he grapples with her pack, trying to wrench it off her body and lug it himself—and this pushy helpfulness bothers her most when in fact she does require his strength and expertise.
“I think the one is shot,” Kaljang says. “Tibetans.”
A housefly, by the sound of it, has just whizzed overhead. That’s strange.
“I’m okay,” she says.
He grips and pulls her more firmly and her legs lag, numb and clumsy, as if the tendons are severed. Again she yanks her arm free. As if in refusing his help she might conjure away the situation that has caused her to need it. In air this thin the brain slows, so when things happen quickly, your thoughts straggle—the climbers tell her it’s a prime danger up here, and far worse higher up.
“Here,” he says. “Stay.”
He tries to push her down behind the nearest boulder, whose grey face in the last of the sun radiates dry heat like a sauna stove.
“Dr. Book!” he yells toward base camp.
“Don’t call him yet! I need to think. We need to think what to do.”
Jigme and Lobsang are strolling toward them. They hiked down here from Camp One this morning. Jigme is in cargo shorts and a parka and wearing earbuds, wires running down to the MP3 player in his hand. Kaljang flaps his raised palm at them: go back! Jigme shrugs and they keep dawdling over. Kaljang plucks his two-way radio from its holster with a flourish of manly competence—courting her, even now—and crouches down beside her. She’s unaware that she has crouched down. A sweet juniper whiff of sweat, tobacco. “Hi there? ” he says into the radio. “It’s Kaljang.”
“Oh my God,” she says, “how did he get here? ” Wade Lawson stomping through base camp with what looks like a machine gun slung on a strap over his shoulder.
“Get the Dr. Book now,” Kaljang says into the radio. “We need him.”
One time when she was ten, her father charged out the front door as if on an emergency call. She’d called him, shouting from the front window to the kitchen where he was making spaghetti and meat sauce, drinking a glass of beer, humming off-key. She’d never seen him on an urgent call but she guessed that on his foreign postings—the long stretches when he was away—he must race around like this all the time.
Across the street, two high school thugs were performing the ritual preliminaries to an assault. Their victim was the street’s most conspicuous target, a timid, chunky clarinet prodigy who always carried his instrument around. Matters had just reached the shoving stage—one attacker shoving from the front, the other from behind, the kid’s head bobbling. Her father moved with an oddly stiff, lunging gait, slippers slapping the icy pavement, and she in the doorway, watching him go, hugging herself to contain the trembling. He wasn’t a big man (now, at seventeen, she’s as tall as he is, and even then he didn’t seem paternally huge), though he was fit and gristly and had a focused gaze of the kind she associated with predators who could render prey catatonic with a glance. He was a karate expert, too, she told herself then, on the freezing porch, as he rushed toward the bullies. Had she told herself that? Anyway, it was something she believed back then, later discovering it wasn’t true—he had one of the lesser belts, had only taken a couple of courses, years back, before medical school.
The bullies turned toward him and took a step back each. Her father, seen from behind, standing in the gutter, looked small, while they, big guys in inflated parkas, were elevated on the sidewalk above the curb.
“Hey, relax, man. We were just fooling around.”
What her father said next she didn’t hear. Short jets of white breath huffed up from him, like comic strip word balloons with brief expletives. Simon, the clarinet boy, recoiled his pudding face and rounded his eyes at her father, as if reconsidering the source of his peril. Her father stepped up on the curb. The bullies looked at their boots, wagged their hooded heads lamely and splayed their gloved hands as if dropping weapons on the snow. Then turned and slouched off.
And then? The radiance of the remembered crisis had overexposed what followed. Her father, she knew, would have comforted Simon, his hand on the boy’s shoulder, head tilted as he looked him firmly in the eye—You sure you’re all right?—and maybe chucked him under the chin.
Hours or days later, dinnertime, still scared and thrilled, she asked him what he’d said to those guys. Her mother set down her fork. Her brother, Pavlos, looked up from the broccoli floret he was trying to atomize with his stare. Her yiayia, who viewed domestic strife as a form of entertainment, slid her glance expectantly from face to face; her son-in-law might be an Anglo, not a Greek, but at the table he was seldom lost for words.
“Never mind,” her mother said shortly, though her eyes flicked toward her husband with a wry, impromptu fondness. “Never mind what Papa said.”
“Pass the wine, love,” her father said.
“Papa should learn to be a bystander sometimes. Or call the police.”
“There’s no such thing,” he said.
“As what? ” Sophie asked.
Her mother filled her own glass, then yiayia’s.
“Bystanders.” He said the word quietly, as if embarrassed to find it in his mouth.
With both hands Sophie took the bottle and poured her father some red wine, sorry for him, painfully proud, still unable to see how her mother might feel: that by making his care, his very life and limb, equally available to all, he deprived them of an exclusivity they had a right to expect.
“Bystanders” is adapted from Steven Heighton’s novel, Every Lost Country, published by Knopf Canada.