The Cemetery of the Elephants
As soon as he started the uphill walk he realized he was too fast again, a habit he had not been able to control despite years on the slopes. There was no hurry though. There never was, and definitely not this time. He slowed down and forced himself into a slow pace. Even so he was short of breath after a few steps.
The path was meandering through pine trees. The soil, still gorged by the rain, gave a rich smell of humus. Patches of sun had found their way through the tree cover, warming up the shoulders of the old man.
As always he resisted the temptation to look back and measure the ground already covered. He knew he would be disappointed. He had hardly passed the first bend in the path when his panting became more than he could sustain. As always, he gave himself the excuse of looking at the scenery to catch his breath. He could see the other side of the valley through the branches; the light green of the grass, the grey rocks, the blue sky and the white, white, lonely clouds. Birds were singing. His heart rejoiced briefly as the breath came back to normal. The pain in the chest was still there, though, ebbing back and forth with a life of its own. Funny to say that this portent of death had a life. He had a tired smile at his wit. He started walking again, making sure to maintain an even slower pace.
It took him an hour to get through the pine forest. He had stopped only four times to catch his breath and rest his aching legs, which he considered a success. The place he wanted to reach was now visible. Above the grassy slope, rocky outcrops looked like the towers of a timeless citadel. There was a crag up there, with a crevice facing the sun. That was the place. Another hour to go.
Out of the shade of the trees, the sun was stronger and he discarded his windbreaker; he would not need it from now on. He drank the rest of the water and, still conscious of the uncorrupted mountain, wrapped the empty plastic bottle in the abandoned garment. From above the tree line, the eye could catch the distant ranges, some still capped in snow. He felt his soul breathing, much better than his chest. He moved again, careful to be slow and save the last sparkles of his energy. The pain ebbed forth and he waited a minute to let it pass. He considered sitting down but fought back the temptation. He may not have been able to stand up again. He put a foot forward, and then the next. And again.
There was perspiration on his forehead, the drops unhurriedly following the wrinkles of his face. The slope was steeper now and the puffing got out of hand. He stopped, his legs trembling under him, his head spinning. He sat down, facing the sun. A red veil descended on his closed eyes. The world shrank into the bright screen on his eyelids, the warmth of the afternoon sun on his drying face, the unrelenting pain and the approaching peace. His mind drifted back to the crack in the rocks, up there, tranquil and peaceful, waiting for his body. He suppressed the appeal of lying down; here or there were not the same thing. The choice was there, not here, on this empty slope.
From his sitting position, he turned to one side, half kneeling, trying to stand again. The pain was now blinding him, a grey veil canceling all other sensations. He made a last effort, his confused mind jumbling old beliefs. Tough guys donâ€™t dance. Nor do they cry. Nor do they give up.
Still on his knees, he placed his hands flat on the ground. The pain reached a new level. A bright flash in his eyes obliterated any remaining determination, and his body rolled in the soft grass.
Michel Gauthier is an ageing construction engineer from Belgium, living in Dubai. He writes short stories for fun. He has not been published previously.