“Dangerous Cliffs!” by Ross2085

It’s early and the air is still cool. They’d been in France for two days. The campsite was comfortable. They’d explored vineyards, tasted grapes, and drank wine. Now they were hiking.

Alan holds the map steady, traces the line that marks the path. The hills are steep, mountainous in places and they’ll have to scramble; but it’s a well-trodden route and they’re both experienced hikers. Helena shivers beneath her thin waterproof jacket.

Alan peers over the map at her.

“You’ll warm up once we start walking,” Alan says. And he’s right: the forecast is good too. Helena’s eyes pass over his face. It’s lined by middle age and a love of the outdoors. She clears her throat.

“Yes, of course,” she responds. Except she’s not worried about being cold. She’s worried about the slippery rocks, the loose stones and scree underfoot, and the narrow paths they’ll be walking on the trail. Alan takes a drink from his water bottle and then slips it back in to his red rucksack.

“Come on then, let’s not dawdle.”

The incline is steep and soon they’ve left ground level behind. It’s not mountainous exactly, but a soaring, hilly landscape. The path weaves through tall rocks that are slate grey. To their left is a canyon. Helena notes the precarious edges of the narrow path, the softness at the edges, the long drop down. Trees grow at perilous angles from the shady canyon below in search of sunlight. Off in the distance she can see a navy ocean now, misted at the edges where it touches the sky.

Helena pauses for a second and raises her hand to shade her eyes as she looks out to sea.

“Wow, what a view.” Alan is a few steps ahead of her and stops at the sound of her voice.

“It sure is, isn’t it,” he replies. He takes his phone from his pocket and snaps a photograph. Two other walkers approach them from behind and pass with a brief hello. They spoke in accented English, but she can’t quite place where they are from. Helena takes a deep breath of fresh air and they begin to walk again. The air smells sweet, like pine trees and like the day is going to be hot.  

They’ve been walking for over an hour now. The path narrows and the compacted soil gives way to more rocky terrain. The rocks are smoothed by the footfall.

Alan is a distance ahead of Helena. He’s impatient to get to the end point on his mapped trail: to reach the waterhole so they can swim and eat lunch before it gets too busy.

Helena quickens her pace. She doesn’t have a map and doesn’t want to lose him. The smooth rocks are slippery and in places there is loose gravel lying on their surface. She’s walking fast now, faster than she should, and then her right foot slips and she loses her balance. She can feel her left foot slip too and then her whole body lurches and she is falling forwards, towards the ground, towards the rock and the gravel.

She lands hard. Her open palms slap the ground and the sting shocks her in to crying out. Her knees land hard, too. But the momentum of her fall and the loose gravel beneath her means she doesn’t stay still. For a few split seconds she continues to slide along the path. She can feel the sharpness of the grit, the heat of skin tearing, and then she stops.

Alan is above her when she looks up.

“God, are you okay?” he asks. “Weren’t you paying attention?” He pulls her up by her elbows. Slowly she hobbles over to the side of the path and sits on a tall outcrop of rock.

Streaks of grey dust cover her legs and there are ribbons of blood bubbling through the skin. Dark grit sits in the soft wet layers of newly exposed flesh. She has a purple peony tattooed on the thigh of her right leg. The wide deep green leaves are now covered with a layer of dust and slowly seeping blood. Helena peers closer and hopes that the wounds are not deep enough to scuff the colours of the flower.

She has a bandage in her bag.

“Alan, can you open my bag and find the first aid kit please?” Alan is hovering impatiently beside her. She knows he won’t be happy about this accident, how it will delay progress. He takes her bag.

“What a mess,” he says looking at her legs. The worst parts are her knees and her tattooed thigh. She opens the bottle of antiseptic spray and spritzes it over the wounds. Next she looks at her thigh. The wound is bigger there: a larger surface area. She doesn’t want to look too closely and so she sprays the antiseptic and winds the bandage quickly around her thigh.

A walker approaches from the direction they were walking in. It’s a youngish woman with two silver hiking sticks. She notices Helena on the rock and her bloody legs and she stops.

“Is everything okay? Is there anything I can do?” Before Helena can speak, Alan responds.

“Oh, thank you so much but we’re fine. It looks worse than it is.” The walker looks at Alan, his reassuring face, and then back to Helena who nods her head to confirm.

“It’s fine, honestly. Thank you.”

“Okay, if you’re sure.” She continues on her walk and in a few seconds, she’s disappeared behind the curve in the path.

“How embarrassing,” says Alan. “Trust you to cause a scene.” He’s wearing knee-length teal shorts. They’re an unusual colour and she remembers that he’d been pleased with them when he’d bought them before their holiday. He’d paraded in front of the bedroom mirror, puffed up his chest in the way that some men did.

His black t-shirt was dusty from the walk and damp with sweat. It was getting hot already.

“It was hardly deliberate, Alan,” Helena quietly responds. He doesn’t answer but raises his hand and strokes his growing heard. He hadn’t shaved since their holiday began and she knew he loved himself with facial hair.

She finishes wrapping the bandage and knots it. Then she stands. Alan turns and continues on the path. The bandage pulls tighter as she walks and she feels the blood rushing to the surface again.

She doesn’t want to cut the walk short if she can help it. She imagines Alan’s sullen face when they get back to the campsite. How he’d set his jaw, sulk all evening, refuse to speak to her because his plan for the day had been ruined. He would drink the good red wine they’d got from the vineyard, stuff the cheese into his mouth, and stare silently across the campsite, ignoring her for being clumsy and irritating. Though if a neighbour came over to say hello and asked them where they were from, she knows he’d chat, laugh, be the charming man everyone thought he was.

They walk at a slower pace now, Helena following Alan a few steps behind. After a long ascent, there’s a flat, open expanse at the crown of the trail. They’re very high up and the view of the sea is beautiful. It’s bluer than it was earlier in the day, and flat and calm. She watches birds gliding close to its surface.

“The watering hole is on the other side,” says Alan. He points to an outcrop of rocks at the end of the flat expanse. Helena moves closer and sees the steep descent to the other side. It’s very close to the precipice and the drop to her left is huge. She can see the water below, in the centre of the canyon. It’s a long way down. To get there they’ll have to scramble through the gap and carefully descend the steep, narrow slope.

She knows that it’s passable, that she could carefully get herself down the steep path without losing her footing and tumbling over the too-close edge. Lots of people do it. But her leg is throbbing now and her muscles feel weak. She thinks of her flayed skin oozing beneath the bandage and her eyes start to swim. She feels dizzy. Maybe she’s going to be sick.

“Let’s go then,” says Alan. He folds the map and puts it back in to his pocket.

“Actually, I don’t think I can make it to the watering hole, Alan. I’m not feeling well now. I won’t be able to swim anyway with the wound.”

Alan holds her gaze for a second. She says nothing and his nostrils flare. He walks over to the other side of the flat and hovers at the edge.

“So that’s it then, the walk is over?” He jabs the toe of his trainer at the ground, kicking the scree across the floor. She hears the loose rocks skitter over the soft, crumbling edge of the flat expanse and then there is silence as they plummet with nothing to break their fall.

Hannah Stevens

About Hannah Stevens

Hannah has published short stories, flash fiction and creative non-fiction widely. She writes on gender, domestic abuse, LGBTQ+ issues and complicated relationship dynamics. Hannah has a PhD from the University of Leicester and has taught creative writing in universities, the community and NGOs across the world.

Hannah has published short stories, flash fiction and creative non-fiction widely. She writes on gender, domestic abuse, LGBTQ+ issues and complicated relationship dynamics. Hannah has a PhD from the University of Leicester and has taught creative writing in universities, the community and NGOs across the world.

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