June 21st The Andes, Peru
Father Suetonius Graft is no ordinary priest. At present he has his left fist jammed vertically in a horizontal crack that splits the granite face he is ascending. The open seam stretches upward for fifty feet or more tapering to a sliver that is still two hundred feet away from the top of the mountain. His toes nip a two inch ledge, left over from a stone slab that split from the heaving rock millennia ago. His calves, like the rest of his lean body are chiseled muscle, strain from holding the weight of his body on his toes. He has to reach up with his right hand where he needs to find another hand hold; there is nothing he can see. He has to find a position where he can rest soon. He’s been climbing since early morning, stopping only when he absolutely has to.
His fingers search for a grip as he brushes his hand across the flat surface. A familiar feeling of unease touches him, as has since he was a boy. He closes his eyes for several seconds and asks God where his hand should go, he thanks Him for His guidance and if there is no hand-hold to be had then he thanks Him for his life. It has never failed him yet, in the thirty two years since he scrambled up a rock pile when he was five. He had gotten stuck then. A boyish prayer to his guardian angel had given him confidence to find a way back down. He feels the same aura of the presence that rescued him then. He waves his hand over the hard face once more. This time his fingers sweep away ancient debris from an indent in the rock with enough room for four fingers up to the second knuckle. He latches onto the hold just as his lower legs begin to quiver from exertion. He takes most of his weight on his hands and arms relaxing his legs. Semi relief is instantaneous and he hangs there motionless for five minutes, his sweaty forehead pressed against the warm rock thanking the Lord for His benevolence, delivering him one more time.
As he clings to the sheer plate that rises over eight hundred feet from the forest floor, the afternoon sun ricochets off his ebony skin defining the taut musculature of his lengthy frame. His upper body is clad in perspiration that makes thin rills down his back, his chest and under his arms. He wears tattered climbing shorts that cover his dominant thighs to the knees, all four pockets bulging. At his waist along his back, attached to a thin leather belt is a pouch for climbing chalk, its half empty. His legs end in thin wool socks, all tucked into custom, rubber-toed climbing shoes he designed. No other gear is attached to him, no pitons, no hammer, no clips, just his trust in God. Around his neck hangs a polished, golden, curb link chain; a quarter inch wide, an eighth of an inch thick. Between his chest and the stone is a 24kt gold cross that his father gave him when he had been ordained. He never, ever takes it off.
As his arms began to grow weary he looks up trying to see a more appropriate spot where he can rest. The descending sun plays with the shadows creating ever-changing dark graffiti. Suetonius spies an opening about thirty feet above him to his right. A section of the plates that formed these mighty mounds have created a crevice in the face. He hadn’t been able to see it from below, too deep in shadow. From where he hangs it looks like it would be wide enough for him to sit in. He sighs with relief. He concentrates on his next moves sighting an approach to the cavity. Once he is clear of his route he pulls up with his hands, his arms straining until he can reach his foot into the same crack he has a taped fist in. He jams his toes in sideways, pushing up to test its grip. As his body slowly rises he wiggles the wedged hand out and forces it in the same position as high as he can reach.
With deft manoeuvres, risky placement and death defying movement he is sitting on the ledge forty five minutes later. He can stand upright in the cleft, it being wider with more head room than he originally thought. He leans back against the rock that is refreshingly cool. The lip of the outer slab covers him from the sun. He studies the grain of the granite to his left, glancing overhead at the slab at his back, marvelling that the two faces have identical marks and slices. It’s obvious they were one piece sometime in the past. He is in awe at the massive force that would have pushed these imposing mountains from the earth’s crust, cleaving solid rock as easily as if it were wood. He crosses himself in respect for God’s ways, impressed by His majesty, for His designs.
Leaning out over the rough ledge, his feet hang over the edge with his back against the giant slab. The Peruvian landscape poses before him. Mountains, many gigantic, many shorter and greener fill the horizon in every direction. The smaller mountain he is perched upon, east of Ollantaytambo, not many miles from Machu Picchu, is over a thousand feet from the valley floor but was still over nine thousand feet above sea level. The rock face he discovered was obscure, its access hindered by dense forest and abundant ancient scree. He felt led to this particular dome and he relishes the difficult work he's accomplished over the past month to finally get where he is at this moment.
As his body rests his thoughts sweep back to the rocks of his youth, the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, the Appalachians that puncture the southeast states. He climbed for the sheer joy of contact with the stone. It was at those moments when he felt closest to God, when he felt his calling into the priesthood, when it opened his heart to possibilities, to humbleness, to mightiness, to sharing and giving. When he clung perilously to a sheer stone wall, there was never any fear of falling, only a pure sensation of rising above the bounds imposed by gravity, above the bounds of our personal limitations. To this very day, his best sermons are those that come from his moments with the open sky, the silent crags, and the peace that comes from times alone with God. His days off are always spent climbing or scouting for climbs. He grins as he thinks how far away he has come from a dormant village in Tennessee to the mountains of Peru.
Remembering the mountains back home reminds him of his parents; both dead for the last three years, his father went first, at ninety-one from cancer, his mother last, two years younger, same terrible disease. How he had loved them. He was so proud of them, his father the first black fireman on the town of Raven Hollow’s pay roll. He recalled the marvellous sight of his ‘Pap’ in his new black uniform, buttons and brass as polished as his pure black skin.
His Spanish speaking mother was Cuban. She was originally a domestic, had shown a natural dexterity for numbers, working for the same employer all her life. First as his wife’s personal maid when she was only fifteen, but when she was twenty she moved into the owner’s offices to learn bookkeeping where she retired forty five years later as office manager. They’d taught him and his five siblings to persevere, never give up on your goals. He misses them so much.
With that last thought, he rises from his seat thinking to scale the final stretch to the top, not too worried about time. He still has five or six more hours of sunlight. He wants to check the rock overhead looking for his best route up and backs into the crevice so he can see past a jutting scrawny branch that is trying to grow in a narrow, dirt covered ledge just above him. He didn’t look behind him because the inner slab looked to be still part of the outer slab that formed the walls around him but when he steps back he feels a weak breeze stirring behind him. Looking several feet in where it tapers past the back wall he discovers an opening that rises the thirty feet of the split but is only ten inches wide. He isn’t a caver, a spelunker, so openings in the rock face hold little fascination for him. As he attempts to ignore it, a shiver that prickles his skin tells him to take a look.
He turns back to the opening, removing a small flashlight from his pocket, clicking the button to expose a sharp, straight beam. He pokes the ray of light into the darkness where it is swallowed twenty feet away. The walls appear to open, moving apart from each other. The ceiling is nowhere in sight, too high and too dark for the penetrating glare. The floor is littered with rocks small and large, the rocks with cobwebs and guano. The spooky emptiness is oddly inviting, like an entity that calls to him. An aroma of cold dust and aged memories wafts through the black passage. Suetonius tries to ignore his inner prodding, about to give up on the cave when his sweeping light falls upon something familiar, the skeleton of a human hand.
The bones are projecting from the base of a large boulder the size of a small car, as if still reaching for freedom. The curled finger bones are still intact, tarsal and meta-tarsal pointed to the roof. Suetonius stares at the dreadful sight for many moments never having considered that perhaps he’d not been the first to climb this face. His curiosity urges him deeper. Behind the boulder, the skeleton continues, two sets of tibia and fibula with feet attached complete the scene. The man or woman had been crushed by a falling rock. Who it was would never be answered. What the person may have possibly been doing here would soon become evident.
Father Graft sweeps his light in a pendulating arc across the floor. The cavern is widening out, narrow cracks punctuate the floor that he realizes is too smooth and level to be natural. He watches carefully where he walks. Stones of every size litter the passage, a reminder that the mountain’s insides are unstable, probably not safe. Shortly the ingress takes a sudden turn to the right opening into a wider grotto. He continues several feet where the point of his torch touches upon something recognizable on the floor to his right, a crude hammer. Its stone head is attached to a wooden handle, with curling strips of dried leather binding the two. He holds the light directly on the hammer as he stares at it for several moments; its obvious antiquity stuns him.
He finally lifts the light up the right wall close to the hammer discovering a stone shelf that runs along the wall disappearing into the pitch. It is about three feet high. The width varies with the roughness of the stone it has been carved out of. It’s cluttered with many more hammers of different sizes, with metal chisels clothed in a greenish patina. Odd implements he doesn’t recognize and loose rock fill the space. The spider’s traps are abundant. As he scans the collection he tries to estimate the historical significance of what he has uncovered, he can see they are very old. How long have the tools been here, are they Incan, Quechan, Chanca? Why here? What were they building? The discovery provokes so many questions. He checks his watch seeing he has only been in here for fifteen minutes; he decides he will look around another half hour before leaving.
He directs the beam across the floor checking for cracks when off to the far left a stone berm is revealed. The delicate and precise crafting could only have been made by the most skilled of artisans. It is obviously Incan stone work. He has been in Peru for almost three years; Inca history has always fascinated him. He visited the ruins, listened to the lore and devoted much reading time to their history. Their skills with chisels and wet sand are impressive. As he thinks of that, he detects this is the same work that he saw at Machu Picchu, it may be over six hundred years old. He directs the sliver of light upward.
There is a stone pedestal on the berm that holds what appears to be a tremendous slab almost like a wall rising into the bleakness above, ten or twelve feet high, he estimates. He flashes his light briefly inside the cavern ahead of himself to see berm, pedestal and slab continue unbelievingly beyond the reach of his hand light. Returning the light back to the wall in front of him as he slowly steps through the debris to move closer, he lifts his light up four or five feet. The shock at what he sees forces him back several steps. Even through the dust of ages, through the fine patina that masks the surface, he can detect, carved ornately into the façade of the flat wall, a huge warrior with battle axe raised above his head. Fine detail riddles the fitted helmet upon his head. The figure stands with a fractured shield, armor dressing his lower limbs. One leg is raised with the sandaled foot resting on a fallen foe. The body of the fighter’s enemy lies at his feet, the severed head a foot away. Father Graft wheezes into the gloom, "Oh my goodness, it’s a wall of war.”
Than you for visiting. This novel is 90% complete and will be ready for several beta readers in the near future. Anyone interested in being one? All comments welcome.
Please stop by next week to read an award winning short story by new contributor and distinguished author, Susan Toy.