Kyra pushed her way through the tangle of vegetation into the brilliant light of the gorge.
She shielded her eyes from the light and the last grasping twigs of the tight-knit tree branches. Few people if any knew about this little game trail on the back of the gorge and the two miles of thick roots and low-hanging foliage made for a hard trek. She stepped out onto the flat, dusty stone at the cliff edge and gasped, clenching her camera tightly to her chest.
The gorge stretched out in all directions before and below her. The canopy rolled in verdant waves over the hills, splitting here and there over the striated brown rock of a cliff edge. The lowering sun poured golden light over the eastern half of the peak in front of her, casting the western slope in slate-colored shadow. A large bird, a hawk or an eagle, circled lazily over the slender blue line the river cut into the valley. It caught a thermal and rose into the sun. Its shadow spread over the valley and darkened.
She pulled her camera to her face and captured the raptor and its shadow in a single frame. Sun glinted off white pinions and the bird’s shadow seemed pinched by the delta of shadows between the far mountain and Kyra’s. It vanished from sight and Kyra sighed with its passing. She lowered the camera and took in her surroundings.
An outcropping of thick black rock, gnarled and wider than a city bus at its base, grew at a forward angle from the cupped and dusty grey stone beneath her feet. She pulled a well-creased piece of printer paper from her orange hiking pack and unfolded it. The same black outcropping appeared on the paper, photocopied from a moldering guidebook from the late 50s. An artist had rendered the outcropping in the bold strokes of a charcoal pencil, hastily shading in the mountains behind and few grey clouds overhead.
Somber, for a charcoal drawing, she’d thought when she’d unearthed a stack of the guidebooks from a locked and rusted storage locker in the resort’s basement. It and dozens of similar boxes of guidebooks had found their way into the locker after the Department of the Interior took over the park in the ‘70s. Federal control meant keeping tourists on tightly controlled and well monitored trails near major roads and campsites. Fifty years later, Kyra had exclusive, if unendorsed, access to parts of the gorge left untouched by humans for decades.
She laid a hand on the black outcropping and found it exceedingly warm to the touch, almost hot. The outcropping, nicknamed “The Talon” in the guidebook, was the eleventh lost landmark Kyra had visited since finding the guidebooks while cleaning out the basement. All of the landmarks were hard to get to, even dangerous at times, but each was more breathtaking than the last. She’d found caves hidden in cliff walls and a deadfall of polished quartz pouring from the side of a mountain like water.
The paths leading to the landmarks were surprisingly well preserved. Kyra rarely found herself at odds with the terrain, save for battling the overgrowth, and never once got lost. The whole experience provided a unique challenge to her as a photographer and self-professed adventurer, and the photographs she’d taken had already exploded in popularity on her blog. She walked toward the sun, tracing the contour of the Talon with her fingertips and imagining herself a few years in the future, hunting for lost pyramids in Central America. Her hand brushed over something strange.
She looked down.
Somebody had spray painted words onto the side of the Talon in iridescent white. Long ghostly trails leaked down from where the paint had built up, ending in rounded gobs. The paint was faded and seemed decades old, but it was still legible. She ran her hand over the capital I at the beginning of the sentence, her hand only half the size of the letter.
I DONT WANT TO FLY NO MORE
Kyra narrowed her eyes and shook her head. People had next to no respect for nature back in the day. None of the other landmarks had much in the way of vandalism. She had found two weathered pull-tab beer cans and an ancient and dry-rotted prophylactic in the corner of a natural cave she’d rediscovered weeks ago. She’d briefly considered putting the items in her bag to throw away later, but decided against it, thinking of paleontologists digging up broken bowls and platters out of millennia-old trash pits. After a few centuries, litter just became another generation’s museum exhibit.
Still, Kyra didn’t think highly of the graffiti. She followed the contour of the Talon until it ended in a small outcropping that curved out over the cliff face. She steadied herself with a sapling and leaned over the edge. The cliff dropped a clean three hundred feet to the green ash leaves of the lower canopy. She felt that bizarre tug in her chest, the weird and sudden urge to just walk right off the ledge, and shook it away.
She looked left and noticed the outcropping had a wider span than she’d first thought. She leaned out a little further and noticed a depression in the forward edge of the Talon, easily deep enough for a person her size to stand inside. She gave the yawning drop past the ledge one more look and then stepped back several feet.
She secured her camera in her backpack, slipped on a harness and tied the harness off to the little tree. Kyra took a last look over the edge and then tested the outcropping around the Talon with her foot. Solid. Covered in some dodgy soil, but solid. Seconds later she had her stomach and face pressed against the warm stone of the Talon as she inched over the outcropping sidestep by tiny sidestep.
She couldn’t find a single handhold in the dimpled, black surface of the Talon. The surface felt carved beneath her fingers, almost polished. She breathed in short, shallow breaths to make sure her chest didn’t push her back over the edge. Hot summer wind blew in thermal bursts up the cliff wall, ruffling her chambray button-up and crawling up her back to dry the sweat dripping down her spine. A salty drop stung her eye and she hissed and blinked, half-blind and clinging to thankless stone. Then she found sure footing and she rounded into the depression, pressing up into the rear wall.
Kyra’s heart beat in her chest. She tucked her face into her arm and rubbed away the sweat stippling her forehead and cheeks. She had to grab her wrist to keep her hands from shaking. She turned in tiny half-steps to see the valley behind her, bent at the waist to keep her head from hitting the ceiling. She opened her eyes and inhaled sharply.
The valley spread out before her in perfect symmetry. The outcropping beneath her feet split left and right over a small triangular point that aligned with the mountain in front of her. To her right, the setting sun hung hazy and golden a hand’s breadth from the horizon. To her left, a waning crescent moon, barely visible, hung the same distance over the horizon on the other side of the mountain. She pulled her camera from the bag slowly, like she didn’t want to disturb some skittish animal, then raised the viewfinder to her eye and took a single, perfect shot.
Kyra sat for a long time in the little cubby formed by the depression in the Talon. She used her phone to take several more pictures, though she doubted any of them would be as good as the first shot with her camera, and then checked the time. She only had about an hour and a half until sundown. Time to leave.
Kyra had little difficulty edging her way back around the outcropping. She stepped onto solid ground and then walked a few paces inland of the cliff. Then, Kyra turned and sprinted toward the ledge, leaping hard and high into the air. She felt the sharp tug of the harness against her chest and heard a sharp snap as the sapling gave way beneath her weight. Wind tore at her face as she shot voicelessly toward the ground, her scream caught deep in her chest. The ash leaves grew closer and closer and then brushed against her eyes. Blinding pain ripped into her shoulder as a branch shattered her clavicle. She caught a glimpse of scattered leaves on the ground and flat expanse of stone before her skull split open against the forest floor.
Kyra screamed and stepped back from the edge of the outcropping, slipping and falling on her butt. Her arms flailed wildly for purchase and she smacked her wrist against the wall of the depression in the Talon. Her camera skittered across the ground beside her. Her heart writhed in her chest, beating so hard it hurt. She couldn’t breathe. Hot tears rolled over her cheeks. The valley spread out before her, stunning and silent save the soft rustle of leaves far below.
She patted herself down, touching her face and shoulder. Nothing. Not a scratch. She cursed under her breath and ran her fingers along the pebbled surface of the Talon. Hot. Immobile. She stood on shaking legs and caught her breath, leaning against the wall. For the first time, she noticed the floor of the depression had a slight downward tilt toward the ledge. The curvature of the depression amplified the sound of her rasping breath.
Kyra gathered herself together and tried to shake off the fear and the memory of the bizarre incident. She couldn’t. She closed her eyes and could smell the loamy musk of the earth in the split second before her head shattered against the flat valley stones. She wet her parched throat with a bottle from her pack and pushed herself up against the rear wall. She stood as the shadow on the eastern side of the mountain thickened to a deep umber. The night sounds began.
Kyra walked to the edge of the cliff and down at the darkening green. She felt a pull in her stomach and the uneasy tilt of vertigo slushed through her mind like syrup. Her heart pulsed. She stared down and raised an uneasy foot over the ledge. Unsteady dirt crumbled beneath her feet and fell without a sound. So easy. Just take a step.
Spread your wings and fly.
Kyra pulled herself out of a swoon and placed a steadying hand against the Talon. She reached down to grab the harness, to feel the reassuring weight of the tether in her hand. Nothing. She looked down at her waist. Nothing. She peered out of the depression and saw the tether still tied to the sapling, the harness swinging from it languidly ten feet down the cliff face.
The harness couldn’t just fall off, and it took minutes to remove. She touched her hips and waist where it should be, as though it would appear if she willed it hard enough. It didn’t. She stared at the empty harness, the gnarled fingers of the leafless sapling casting cobweb shadows over her face. Then she looked down at the gathering dark at the base of the cliff and the tiny outcropping she’d sidestepped over to get to the depression.
Kyra was going to have to cross back without the harness. She didn’t have a choice. The little outcropping was going to get cold once the sun went down, and she didn’t have the gear she needed to survive a night out in the woods. She also didn’t tell anyone where she was going, in order to preserve the secret of her lost trails.
She swallowed on a dry throat, then steeled her reserve and took the first step onto the outcropping. It held her weight. She shifted inch by inch, the crumbling dirt beneath her hiking boots crunching in rhythm with her steps. She pressed her body against the Talon like a lover, pushing her face to the hot rock and not daring to twitch her chin an inch to the right, not daring to take a full breath until the flat and dusty stone beyond the Talon was beneath her feet.
Kyra stopped. The Talon pulsed in rhythm with her heart. She pressed her chest against it, caressed its coarse stone with her cheek. She pushed herself back, standing tall for a moment, then softly kissed the black rock. She spread her arms and fell back into the void.
The wind rushed past her fast, faster and faster still as the Talon shrank into the sky. Kyra felt the fall in her stomach. It clutched her lungs and her heart and held them still. She didn’t breathe, didn’t scream. Adrenaline and dopamine flooded her body, making her feel almost giddy. The cliff rushed upward in a blur of brown and grey. The trees flew up to meet her and her fingers brushed through the leaves and branches, her body ripping them to pieces with a horrid crackling noise.
Her body struck the ground with an incredible thump that she never heard and she felt herself bounce into the air. Bones shattered throughout her body and numbness flooded in from her skin, crawling up her ruined limbs, through her chest and into her mind. The evening sky shone through the gap she’d left in the trees.
Kyra caught a glimpse of the eagle and slipped, barely catching herself on one knee before she went tumbling over the cliff. Rough stone scraped at her shin and the bone howled in protest. She screamed. She looked around frantically, eyes begging for an explanation and hands slapping the dusty rock for a handhold.
She found a one between the outcropping and the Talon and grabbed it just as a chunk of rock crumbled away beneath her leg. Her own bodyweight pulled her slowly over the lip of the cliff until only her white-knuckled hand kept her from sliding into the abyss. Her forearm burned from the effort.
Kyra screamed for help. The wind rustled the leaves of the trees beneath her. The sun crept down the sky and grew fat and bloody on the horizon. Her grip weakened. She slapped frantically at the cliff for a handhold. Her hand relaxed involuntarily. She clawed at the cliff face with her feet for a notch or crack. Her fingers slipped painfully off the rock. She screamed and no one heard and she fell.
Something bit into Kyra’s crotch and thighs and pitched her sideways against the cliff. She smacked her face against the rock and her vision went screwy as she twisted slowly in the wind. Hot blood trickled over her eye, leaving uneven polka dots on the right breast of her shirt. She cried out in pain and tried to catch her breath. Half blind, she reached between her thighs and felt the taut line of the tether stretching up the cliff.
Kyra shifted and rocks and thick chunks of dirt showered her face and neck. She thought of the sapling’s moorings and froze. She reached up with her forearm and wiped the blood and sweat from her eyes. She told herself not to look down. She didn’t. She reached out a hand and found a solid chunk of root snaking in and out of the rocks by her head. She grabbed it and slowly pulled herself to the cliff face. She felt around with her feet and found purchase on jagged lip of rock.
Kyra fought her way out of the gorge as the sun sank in the distant hills. Its last light fell as she scrabbled over the lip of the cliff, pulling side arm at cracks in the stone until she collapsed on her back, staring up at the cobalt sky and shifting to get her pack out from beneath her spine.
It took her hours to get back to her car. She used her phone for light, and when that died, she blindly felt her way forward with her toes, prodding at the path and hoping not to fall. She pulled a bottle of water from the car-heated pack in her trunk when she arrived at the vehicle and sucked it down in a single gulp. She had two more bottles on the drive home. She rode in silence, windows down and the wind pulling at her hair.
She stripped inside the front door of her apartment, not bothering to hit the living room lights and leaving her dirty clothes in a trail behind her on the floor. She watched the water until it steamed before stepping into the shower. It cascaded over her face and chest, washing the crusted blood from the gash in her head and all the brown dirt into a ruddy stream that swirled and disappeared into the plughole. She sighed and rested her face against the cool wall tiles. The hot water pounded against the skin of her back. She finished and turned off the shower and reached for her bath towel. Her fingers brushed the light switch and accidentally doused the lights.
She cursed and stepped out of the shower and fell into darkness. Wind wicked the water from her body and sucked away her breath. Her stomach rose and twisted in her gut. No way of telling when she’d hit, how far she’d already fallen. The smell of the gorge, sunbaked rock and green things, flooded her nose.
Something hard crunched into her abdomen with a pistol crack. Another thing hit her face and splintered, filling her nose with the stench of blood and covering her face with smoldering needles of pain. Then her arms and legs and torso, all splitting and cracking and exploding into numb and writhing pain.
She hit the flat stones of the valley floor with her leg first. A choked scream caught in her bubbling throat. It hurt terribly, and then it didn’t hurt at all. She couldn’t breathe. Spasms rocked her chest and she coughed up a mouthful of coppery sludge over her chin and down her cheek. She couldn’t suck in another breath, and her chest filled with a cold fire that spread through her body and up into her face.
Blue moonlight lit the cliff through the gap in the trees above her. The Talon sat in the center of the gap, thick and black against the night. Her eyes lost focus and her body relaxed and the night slowly faded to black.
Kyra’s bootlaces came into focus as she blinked away the dryness in her eyes. Her leg burned with exhaustion. She looked around and cursed softly, not believing her eyes. The evening sun hung over the horizon, painting the mountain in front of her half in gold. A long blue tether hung from the harness fastened to her hips. She put her fingers into her hair and shook her head. It wasn’t possible.
She cursed again, louder, and then screamed into the devouring quiet of the valley stretched out beneath her. She screamed again and again, screamed until she couldn’t scream and the echoing silence became all the sound in the world.
Kyra huddled back against the depression until the sun sank. She watched the moon rise over the distant mountain and then follow the sun behind the horizon. The Talon stayed hot through the night, keeping her warm. She stood and walked over to the cliff edge. The first golden rays of light peeked out from behind the eastern mountains. She held a single booted foot over the precipice and thought of the wind in her hair. Of falling. Of that urge you get sometimes when you’re up high. Of old words painted on the side of the Talon in faded white.
I DONT WANT TO FLY NO MORE
The sun rose.