"You could go up a few feet and practice going side to side," said Carl to his older brother Abe, who was showing signs of restlessness. "I'm going to try some climbs on the other side. I'll be back in a few minutes." For twenty minutes, Abe, with the relentless critical eye of an older brother, had been standing at the base of various rock cliffs, watching Carl climb. Climbing looked easy.
More than one person had wondered how much blood the brothers shared. Abe was solidly built, blue-eyed, the very picture of an All-American athlete, while Carl, just two years younger, had sad brown eyes, a gaunt face, and a thin scraggly build -- as if Abe had always beaten Carl to the food. And maybe he had, for Abe was quick and assertive, and it was not his nature to hesitate. He sought boldly and took on life with the confidence of a young man who had not yet known failure. His gift -- and shortcoming -- was a quickness of mind and narrowness of vision; Abe always found his way to the top.
There were jagged rocks on the ground at the base of the cliff, big sharp-edged boulders that must have been torn off by glaciers thousands of years ago. As Carl walked around the hill, Abe climbed over and through these rocks and up onto a particularly big one that rested against the cliff wall. He could climb.
On the other side of the rock hill, Carl stopped and stood in a dreamy trance, feeling an elation rare to his usually gloomy disposition. For twenty minutes, he had performed for Abe, climbing difficult fifteen foot cliffs, sometimes swinging a leg up over his head onto a ledge or clinging to the underside of rocks that sloped out, demonstrating the skills he had developed in hours of lonely practice. Abe had watched silently, but Carl had sensed approval, an approval that filled him with joy.
Until eight months ago, Carl had only known life with a successful older brother ever casting shadows. He had grown up as "Abe's little brother," struggling to do better than him, at soccer, tennis, hockey, and baseball, and never succeeding. It wasn't until last September, when Abe went away to college, that Carl discovered car mechanics, cooking, and rock climbing. He built a VW engine from spare parts, wooed girls by serving them sugar crêpes, and again and again returned to the cliffs to climb.
It was a girlfriend, Julie, who introduced Carl to rock climbing. She had learned on a survival course in Colorado the year before. At first, Carl, typically glum and unfocused, had disliked the intensity of clinging to a rock face. But Julie had coaxed, cajoled, and finally seduced his attention. When she broke up with him two months later, making the single remark, "You don't care about anybody anymore," Carl had hardly heard. He was thinking about climbing rock.
Carl made a climb, loving the solitude, lost for a moment in passionate concentration. Alone on the rock face, he might make a mistake, fall the few yards to the ground, and nobody would know. He never climbed higher than he dared to jump. If he fell, he got up and tried again, and again, until he had mastered the route and was ready for yet another, more challenging climb. Climbing alone, no one saw his mistakes; no one laughed when he fell; he felt free to try.
Growing up with Abe had conditioned Carl to seek solitude for practice. Abe would practice sports with friends, but when they weren't around he would ask Carl to play. Carl would never do well enough to satisfy Abe's craving for keen competition, and growing bored, Abe would tease Carl, make fun of his failings, until Carl would lose his temper and throw an insult or a fist. Then Abe would pounce on him, wrestle him down, pin him on his back, and lecture: "Pay attention, be decisive. You're not focusing. You'll never succeed if you don't get sharp. Think ahead. You got to be quick. You got to know you're going to win. You got to be sure." Carl, unable to struggle free, would give up and cry.
Still, Abe's dominating power also reassured Carl. After all, only Carl could brag that Abe was his big brother. When the bullies at school picked on Carl, Abe taught them a lesson they remembered.
Carl was about to try another climb when he remembered that Abe was on the other side of the giant rock hill. Forgetting was common while climbing; it was one of the things Carl liked best. But he had promised Abe that he would return in a few minutes. Now he walked back around.
"Carl, listen, do you think you could help me get down?"
Abe was clinging to the rock face fifty feet about the ground.
"What are you doing up there?"
"Listen, Carl, just help me get down."
Abe's legs had been trembling uncontrollably for the last few minutes. His hands were sweaty and his fingertips sore. When he looked down he felt dizzy.
A sudden thrill went through Carl; his big brother was in trouble.
"You shouldn't be up so high without a rope."
"Listen, buddy, see if you can guide me down from here. I wasn't thinking when I climbed up. Now see if you can guide me down." Abe tried to smile down at his little brother, as casually as he could. Inwardly, he cursed himself for climbing into a trap.
He had started at the bottom, edging back and forth, and had felt it to be too easy. So he had climbed ten feet higher and edged around. And then he had seen a way to go higher. And another. It was as if his conquering spirit had taken hold of him. He had to go higher. And then there was a challenging ledge, up and to the side. He knew he was already up too high, that if he fell he might break his neck on the boulders below, but he had such absolute confidence in his coordination that he hardly worried. And besides, here was a challenge -- to get to the next crack he would have to leap.
On the way to the cliffs, Carl, driving his VW bug, had explained some of the theory behind rock climbing technique. All moves, Carl had explained, are either "passive" or "dynamic." A passive move is one in which contact and security with the wall is retained. It's the kind of move used most of the time, especially when climbing without a rope. A beginner, Carl had said, should only use passive moves. A dynamic move, on the other hand, is a move in which contact or security with the wall is lost, as when one jumps or lunges. Dynamic moves are often risky and difficult.
Difficult, risky, not for beginners, right away Abe had known he would try a dynamic move.
"Try going back down and to the side, onto that slanted crack," suggested Carl.
That was the way Abe had come up. But he had done so with a dynamic move, a leap up and across. And now he knew the trap: on the lunge up, his body had slowed and hung for an instant, making it easy for him to stick his fingertips into a crack, but the lunge down would be different. He could not leap back down and expect to cling to a crack -- his body would gain speed as it fell and the crack would slip from his grip.
"I can't reach that crack without leaping," said Abe, "and then I doubt I can hold onto it."
"It looks like your leg is shaking," said Carl, shading his eyes with his hands. "That's called sewing machine leg. In the old days, before electricity, people used to pump sewing machines with their legs." Carl felt a vague sense of well-being, a rare authority while speaking to his big brother.
"Listen, buddy," said Abe, "save your stories and try and figure out another way I can get down."
Abe could feel the edge of a dark void -- panic. He had felt it before, once when lost in the woods at night, once when his canoe capsized in white water, and of both times he prided his ability to keep self-control.
"I don't see any other way down," said Carl, "unless you jump."
Abe glanced down at the jagged boulders below and fought off visions of his body battered and broken. "I might die if I jump."
Carl, staring up at Abe, felt annoyed; he sensed for the first time his big brother's fear.
"You might just break a leg. It's not that high."
Abe didn't answer. He was trying to imagine lunging down and across to the crack he had come up from. This was a sports technique he often used. If he could imagine an action, see himself do it in his mind, then he could do it. But every time he imagined the lunge, he slipped and fell to his death.
"A cat could jump from that high and not get hurt," said Carl. "A guy at school dropped a cat from that high and it didn't die."
Abe wished with all his might that his brother could be like one of his competent athletic friends, someone who got sharp under pressure and talked to the point.
"Oh, shut up, you moron. I'm not going to jump and kill myself."
Carl looked off into the woods and watched a squirrel run up a tree trunk. He felt the old humiliation, the sense of failing that his older brother so often induced in him. Looking back up at Abe, he was about to protest again that the fall might not be fatal when sadness held him back. His brother clinging precariously to the rock face high above suddenly seemed small.
"You could go on up to the top," said Carl.
Abe looked down at the rocks below and then up to the cliff's edge. Fifteen feet higher, he realized, wouldn't make any difference. Either way he'd die if he fell. Climb on up, that's what he'd do. Why, he wondered, hadn't he thought of that before?
Slowly, following the directions that Carl shouted up to him, Abe climbed higher. But soon he had his own idea of the best route, and Carl, seeing his directions ignored, fell silent.
Finally, Abe was but an arm's length from the summit. There he paused, his arms aching, hands sweating, legs shaking. The cliff's edge had a slight lip that arched out over his head. He would have to make another dynamic move, reaching up and back to get over the lip. He would have to feel blindly for a handhold on the top, a crack, a lump, anything to grab on to. And he would have to find something before he fell backwards and down.
"When you reach up over the lip," shouted Carl, "don't think about anything but finding a handhold."
Abe reached up and back, curving his hands over the edge and touching the rock surface of the top. His weight shifted as he reached, and he felt himself swaying away from the rock face. Through his mind roared a torrent of thoughtscommands, images, calculations. He would push out with his feet when the rock on top finally slipped from his fingers, and maybe then he would sail out beyond the jagged boulders on the ground below. He would twist in the air so he could roll when he landed, like a bandit jumping from a boxcar top. The thought flashed through his mind to aim for a rockless area, and he almost looked down to find one. Maybe then he wouldn't -- no! Just as he was about to look down, he felt it rush through him; it forced all thoughts of falling from his mind. He closed his eyes, searched with his fingertips, and found, in the flat rock on top, a tiny crack. And then there was nothing to life but holding on, a single purpose, also without thought or feeling, beyond calculation, competition, brotherhood, or fear. Abe dug his fingernails into the crack, clung with his fingertips, and became oblivious to all but the purpose of that one timeless moment of life.
For a long while, Abe lay shaking on the safe flat summit, thinking about when he had felt it rush through him, how life had been when there was nothing but holding on. His will to live had been incredible, and yet blind luck, finding that crack to grab, was what had saved him. He sensed the limits of his will, felt how vulnerable he was to his own ambition, and he could not stop his shaking, even when his little brother approached.
Carl, who had climbed up a gentle path on the back side of the rock hill, found Abe lying on the rock summit, shaking. "That's a tough climb you just did," he said.
Abe closed his eyes.
"People don't usually try that climb without a rope."
Abe turned his face away.
"That's okay," said Carl. "It sometimes takes a while to calm down."
Carl felt strange. He felt giddy. He felt stronger than Abe. With his legs hanging over the edge of the cliff, he sat and waited.
R.H. ANDREWS grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, with a brother who became an NOLS instructor and four sisters. After college he attended the University of Virginia creative writing program and traveled some of the world. New Hampshire College Journal published one of his short stories, and New Hampshire Public Radio selected another, which he read on the air. (In case you're curious, he's up first on the Small Town Life show.)