by S.V. Herkimer
I killed the old man because he talked me into it.
"Back in my day," he'd say, and go on to whine about some inconsequential problem
that was bugging him. No cause for murder, you're probably thinking, and maybe you're right. But I had it up to HERE and so...
"We didn't have these things, back in my day. People treated each other with respect.
You didn't have child abuse. Drug abuse. You didn't have computer games, back in my day. Kids played together. Back in my
day, everyone in the neighborhood knew each other and watched out for each other. You didn't have kids shooting kids. We respected
our teachers. Back in my day, you had to get to church early to get a seat. And you didn't have priests leaving their calling
to "find" themselves. Back in my day."
Back in his day? Who the hell would want to live back in his day? And what's the
point of complaining? You're here, NOW - deal with it. Like I couldn't complain. Like my head isn't full of things to keep
track of. Like we're all not overloaded.
I'll bet that old man's head isn't full now. I whacked it. I took him out. Sent
him back to his day. Son of a bitch.
Now I've got to figure a way out of here. We're still roped together and nowhere
near the summit of Rainier. Not even a quarter of the way. And it's a hell of an ice field we're on, a real glacier. Or I'm
on it. He's in it. I whacked him as he looked into a crevasse. All I needed to hear was: "Back in my day... "
Back? He's looking at a world of ice thousands of years old and he found a context
for his day? Where? How? WHY? This immensity of time frozen at our feet can somehow be put in its place with a false memory
of his? I fed him to the glacier. Hatchet to the cranium; then I dug in and watched him drop. Didn't even need to dig in.
The rope stayed slack - he landed on a ledge within the crevasse. I see him down there. A fish on ice. He's still up where
it's light below me. From there the crevasse bends and drops out of sight. Who knows how deep...
All I've got to do now is cut the rope and wander in shock back to Base Camp -
"God! You won't believe it! The poor old guy you teamed me with fell in a crack! I tried to hold on but he was pulling me
in... I had to cut myself free! Boo hoo!" Then I'll lose my sense of direction.
Hell, maybe I'll climb the mountain anyway. That was the whole point of this. If
I didn't have to spend a day and a night in camp and THEN part of today with Back In My Day everything would be OK. Maybe
I'll give it a shot. If I see anybody along the way, I guess I'll have to tell them about the accident. This might even be
fun - a little added handicap for your intrepid climber.
I rummage in my pack for the knife and unclasp it. I pull the rope taut, the better
to cut it, and the old man, given the slightest lift, slides off the ledge below me and pulls me - 'Oh, SHIT!' - by the waist
in after him.
I fear the knife as I'm fearing the fall. I catch the sound of it clattering to
the ledge just as I land there.
Like taking sledge hammer shots to the head and back, blinding split-skull and
broken-back pain surges through me. My lungs have collapsed... I can't... breathe... Uhhh...
I don't know if I've passed out or not but eventually the light comes back up.
So does the pain. Lying on ice, I feel like one great, throbbing bruise. I wonder about the knife. Is it stuck in me somewhere?
I am lying on the old man's blood. It's a thick cold syrup of red snow. I shift,
disgusted, and slide off the ledge and drop down the curling wall - nylon hissing - until I shiver to a stop against the old
man. We are eye to dead eye on a dim floor of ice.
Despite the pain, with pain barreling through my spine like a freight train, I
crab my body on all fours, my ass bumping ice, away from him. This is bad. But at least the knife isn't in me. It's there,
up against the old man.
I look above to the light I came from. I can't see direct daylight, only what is
refracted around the ledge. A red swipe leads down to the old man. I'm in twilight gloom. The light of the world is a long,
glowing scar above me.
I carefully, methodically unclench my beaten body. Nothing apparently broken but
there is a pain in the center of me, through my back to my chest, that feels heavy and serious. I don’t want to die
There must be a way up, either this way or that. I'll go this way. I retrieve the
knife and cut myself free.
It's an otherworldly floor of ice bumps and ice teeth. I follow the fissure - falling
several times when it narrows and ice crumbs camouflage slick ice. Twenty or so yards from our entrance, the overhead light
ends with the opening. The fissure meanders on under the ice. I pick my way along until I have to work my body through sideways.
Farther on, more than a dozen paces, the crack in the ice ends in solid glacier with the ceiling meeting the floor. I turn
back, inspecting the walls more carefully for a grip, for a leg up. Anything.
All I have with me is an ice axe My crampons are back in my pack. The rope is back
there, too, still attached to the old man. Maybe I can toss them up and catch the lip somewhere, haul my ass out of this tomb.
I move back along the widening passage - it was a good fifteen foot wide chamber
where we fell in - looking for a way out. Already the light above is changing. I don't need to spend the night here. I inspect
between glances ahead for the dark form of the old man to keep track of my position.
The fissure widens yet I see no crumpled old man's form ahead. This isn't right.
Have I taken a turn into a different leg of the crevasse? The light is still a bit brighter ahead. Maybe there is a way out
Despite my caution, I slip and fall several more times - cursing my laziness: the
crampons stored uselessly in my pack - before stepping onto familiar ice crumbs. Even more familiar, there is the swath of
blood painting our entrance. How can that be?
I whirl. The swath ends in the center of the chamber but there is no body there.
The son of a bitch is still alive!
I look around the chamber and at his last resting place. There is a dark blotch
half-ringed with a slight mound of snow where he stopped. No trail of blood leading away. No footprints.
Does he still have energy enough to swing an ice axe? I can't stomach the thought
of the two of us dying together. Two frozen bodies in the ice? No way. At the speed of this glacier, maybe they'd find us
around the year 9005. With choke holds on each other.
So I track him. Or not track him - he didn't leave one. I hunt him in the only
direction he could have gone: the end of the fissure I haven't seen. Who knows? Maybe there's an easy way out there. Maybe
he's out and screaming for help.
I move as fast as I can along this new trench but have to slow down after I fall
a couple more times. Crampons would help but they'd make too much noise. Besides, it's getting steadily creepier in here with
the dying light and bizarre ice formations, like stalactites meeting stalagmites, around me. Slow is fine. I'm picking my
way carefully into the darkening jaws of a great white beast.
I work myself in sideways to get through a narrow bend and come face to face with
the old man. My heart leaps - "UHH!" - and my hands shoot up instinctively to ward him off.
Horrified, I stare at him and then study him. He's as white as the snaggletoothed
ice pillar he's frozen to.
"Dead enough now, old man?" my voice ringing off the ice.
I take a deep breath and collect myself. "Damn!" Then I go back to work.
"You're on ice for the next thousand years, old man. You won't be needing that
I stoop to unfasten it. His frozen hand drops onto the back of my neck and squeezes.
I kick backward and sprawl away from him. His fingers were as cold as icicles -
yet he squeezed!
The frozen hand is limp at his side. Slowly, his eyelids rise over frozen eyes.
His face twists into a terrible grimace. He turns it toward me.
I jump up to run and jam my shoulder hard into an ice column, slide and fall down.
But immediately skittering, floundering and falling, I get away from that... thing.
Back to the blood-streaked wall where I rip through my pack for the crampons while
looking back for... it. The light is going fast and my fingers numb as I fumble with and finally secure the crampons to my
boots. By the time I face the wall with axe at the ready, I'm standing in a dim pool of light. Beyond a few yards of me, the
crevasse is musty black. I'll have no warning when it's upon me. I spend a few seconds listening to my heart pound and my
breath heave. Around me there is silence save for the ticking of very old ice.
I go to work, despite the fire in my chest and back, first hacking a finger hold
as high as I can reach. Then I kick my feet in hard and caterpillar up to that hold. With my free hand I hack in the next
hold, stretch and reach in and I have it but when I reach back to kick myself higher my fingers slip and I slide down the
I hear the first shuffling footstep as I'm rising. Then the next, determined, ice
scratching step. It's coming for me.
I launch myself at the wall to my next step and bash the next finger hole in as
a dark form looms into my peripheral vision.
I kick in and hoist myself but a grip on my calf stops me. The hand is so cold
my legs seem to fill with ice.
I kick weakly and drop onto him - one last chance... the axe wielded hard at his
He gets my arm in that cold grip and I am done. I am lowered into the darkness,
where the cold has me and settles deep into my gut. Then I am on my back looking up at the last light of the day silhouetting
an old man's head. Ice fingers have closed over my throat. The light halo around his head intensifies until all that I can
see is light.
Too soon, the light weakens. My God, I'm dying! I try with all my will to hang
on but I am helpless against the dimming. It comes, driving away the last vestige of warmth.
I am in this cold dark place, my body become part of the cold surroundings.
The dark isn't like it was before. It's there, like a plasma, yet I can see through
it. The old man sits, hunched, across the cavern from me. I can't tell if he's looking at anything - his eyes are cast downward.
Is this it? Am I here, on ice, with this old man forever?!
A horrible, anguished moan rises and hums terribly through the cavern. I realize
after it dies away, echoing down through the dark fissures of the glacier, that it came from me. This is... my final reward.
The old man lifts his head slowly and begins his own lament:
"Back in my day... "
Copyright S.V. Herkimer 2005