When they are gone and all is quiet, I stay frozen where I am, feet planted on the cliff and hands clinging tightly to the rope. My heart is racing frantically at the close call, and despair starts to hit me as I squeeze my eyes shut. The journey has barely started, and we’ve already faced a rockslide. How can we possibly make it to the bottom?
A tug at the joining rope makes me open my eyes. I look over at Li Wei, and his face is strong and calm as he meets my gaze. Although he can’t speak, the conviction in his expression tells me what he would say: We can do this. I need you. You are still that brave girl who climbed the shed.
I take a deep breath and try to force calm. He does need me. Zhang Jing needs me too. After several more tense seconds, I give a short nod to let him know I’m ready to keep going. He smiles encouragingly—one of those rare, wonderful smiles that transforms his whole face—and we continue with our descent.
It is slow, painstaking work. We have to be careful of every move we make, and more rocks follow those initial ones. Some are avoidable. In some cases, we find it’s best just to freeze and cling to the side, waiting for the rocks to pass. We work out a system of tugs with our adjoining ropes and head gestures to help us determine what to do.
When we take our first true break, I’m unsure how much time has passed. But the moon has gone, and sunrise is now lighting our way. We come across a relatively flat piece of rock jutting out and leading to a shallow cave. Li Wei tests the rock ledge and deems it safe for us to sit on and rest as he gathers up excess line and prepares for the remainder of the climb. I exhale and stretch my legs, surprised at how tense my muscles have grown. The top of the mountain, where we started, looks impossibly far away. Glancing down, though, the bottom is farther still, hidden in mist. For a moment, I am dizzy as I contemplate my position here, suspended between heaven and earth. Li Wei’s hands move in my periphery.
Don’t do that , he says.
He gestures around. That. Looking up and down. It will overwhelm you.
You talk like a seasoned climber , I tease. Like you do this all the time.
I’ve done similar things in the mines—nothing on this scale. After a moment, he gives me a grudging smile. You’re doing well.
Better than you expected? I ask.
He looks me over, his gaze lingering a bit longer than it needs to. No. I knew you could do it.
I nod in acknowledgment and glance around, trying to do as he says and not focus on the top or bottom of the climb. Here, on this small perch, I’m struck by how still everything is. Back in the village during the day, there was always an abundance of sound. Here, there is very little, and I enjoy the small respite. Is this silence? No, I decide, thinking back to the writings I read. Silence is no sound—the way I lived before. This is merely quiet, because some noises still come through to me. The sound of my feet shifting on the rock. Faint wind blowing past us.
What is it like? Li Wei asks, his face solemn once more. Being able to hear?
I shake my head. It’s too hard to explain.
Why? he asks.
Even describing it . . . well, it uses words you wouldn’t understand. It’s like another language.
Then use words I do know , he suggests.
I think long and hard before answering. Imagine if everything you saw, your entire life, was always a shade of gray. Then one day you blink, and suddenly you see the world as it is with all its colors. Blue, red, yellow. How would you react? How would you handle literally not having the words to describe what you’re experiencing?
Some things don’t need words , he says after a moment, and I wonder if he’s still talking about sound.
Everything needs a word , I insist. We need to know how to describe the world. Otherwise we’d fall into ignorance.
Spoken like someone who spends her days organizing and cataloging everything. Sometimes it’s enough to just feel. You don’t have to label and articulate all that’s around you.
I roll my eyes. Spoken like a barbarian.
He laughs at that, and there’s a warmth in it that makes me smile. We split one of the lunch packs and then begin climbing down once more. There are a few more close calls as small stones skitter down the cliff. I’m able to warn him with tugs of the rope, but our system is cumbersome and delayed. A couple of times, when he clears his throat or coughs, my attention is immediately drawn to him by those sounds. It gives me new appreciation for how our ancestors used to communicate with their mouths: speech. The concept was always foreign to me when I read about it, but now I see how much simpler it would be if there was a sound I could make to warn Li Wei of the next avalanche.
Morning gives way to noon, and we see a huge plateau jutting out of the mountain, promising another break. Beyond it, I can actually make out the ground at the mountain’s base. Hope surges in me that we might pull this off after all. Then I hear the sound signaling another avalanche. I look up, and it is not a small scattering of stones like we’ve encountered before. Large boulders are tumbling down toward us. They create vibrations in the cliff face that even Li Wei can sense, though he doesn’t immediately ascertain the direction.
I have no time to tug and point. Clinging to my rope, I push off with my feet and swing toward him, knocking him off the cliff face. He loses his footing but keeps hold of the rope. For a terrifying moment, we are both swinging in the air, with only our grip on the ropes to keep us from falling. A cascade of rocks begins tumbling beside us, far too close. The sound created is soft at first, almost like an exhalation of breath, but soon grows into a roar as the stones increase in number. One of them strikes my head, and I wince. The instinct to shield myself with my hands is overwhelming, but letting go means certain death. Both of us scramble for footholds, trying to move out of the way of the growing rock fall.