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The Bull on the Mountain

I suddenly found myself very calm. First of all, I had to address myself to the leg. I had discovered that while any movement at the knee was agonizing, and indeed, literally, physiologically shocking, I was fairly comfortable when the leg lay flat and supported on the ground. But having no bone or “inner structure” to hold it, it had no protection against helpless passive movements at the knee, as might be caused by any unevenness in the ground. So, clearly, it needed an outer structure, or splint.

And here one of my idiosyncrasies came to my aid. Habit, more than anything else, made me carry an umbrella under practically all conditions, and it seemed natural enough, or purely automatic, that when I went for a walk in bad weather (even up a mountain more than a mile), I should take my stout and trusty umbrella with me. Besides, it had been useful as a walking stick on the way up. And now it found its finest moment—in splinting my leg. Without such a splint I could scarcely have moved. I snapped off the handle and tore my anorak in two. The length of the umbrella was just right—the heavy shaft almost matched the length of my leg—and I lashed it in place with strong strips of anorak, sufficiently firmly to prevent a helpless flailing of the knee, but not so tightly as to impede circulation.

By now about twenty minutes had elapsed since my injury, or possibly less. Could all this have occurred in so short a time? I looked at my watch to see if it had stopped, but the second hand was going around with perfect regularity. Its time, abstract, impersonal, chronological, had no relation to my time—my time which consisted solely of personal moments, life moments, crucial moments. As I looked at the dial, I matched, in imagination, the movement of the hands, going steadily round and round—the relentless regularity of the sun in the heavens—with my own uncertain descent of the mountain. I could not think of hurrying—that would exhaust me. I could not think of dawdling—that would be worse. I had to find the right pace, and steadily keep it up.

I found myself now gratefully taking note of my assets and resources, where before I could only take note of the injury. Mercifully, then, I had not torn an artery, or major vessel, internally, for there was only a little swelling around the knee and no real coolness or discoloration of the leg. The quadriceps was apparently paralyzed, it was true—but I made no further neurological examination. I had not fractured my spine or my skull in my fall. And—God be praised!—I had three good limbs, and the energy and strength to put up a good fight. And, by God, I would! This would be the fight of my life—the fight of one’s life which is the fight for life.

I could not hurry—I could only hope. But my hopes would be extinguished if I were not found by nightfall. Again I looked at my watch, as I was to do many anxious times again in the hours that followed. At these latitudes it would be a rather lengthy evening and dusk, starting around 6 and gradually getting darker and cooler. By 7:30 it would be quite cool, and difficult to see. I had to be found by about 8, at the latest. By 8:30 it would be pitch-black—impossible to see and impossible to proceed. And though by strenuous exercise I might, just conceivably, last through the night, the chances were distinctly, indeed heavily, against it. I thought, for a moment, of Tolstoy’s “Master and Man”—but there were not two of us to keep each other warm. If only I had had a companion with me! The thought suddenly came to me once again, in the words from the Bible not read since childhood, and not consciously recollected, or brought to mind, at all: “Two are better than one…for if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falleth, for he hath not another to help him up.” And, following immediately upon this, came a sudden memory, eidetically clear, of a small animal I had seen in the road, with a broken back, hoisting its paralyzed hind legs along. Now I felt exactly like that creature. The sense of my humanity as something apart, something above animality and morality—this too disappeared at that moment, and again the words of Ecclesiastes came to my mind: “For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; as the one dieth, so dieth the other…so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast.”

While splinting my leg, and keeping myself busy, I had again “forgotten” that death lay in wait. Now, once again, it took the Preacher to remind me. “But,” I cried inside myself, “the instinct of life is strong within me. I want to live—and, with luck, I may still do so. I don’t think it is yet my time to die.” Again the Preacher answered, neutral, noncommittal: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time….” This strange, deep, emotionless clarity, neither cold nor warm, neither severe nor indulgent, but utterly truthful, I had encountered in others, especially in patients who were facing death and did not conceal the truth from themselves; I had marveled, though in a way uncomprehendingly, at the simple ending of Hadji Murad—how, when Murad has been fatally shot, “images without feelings” stream through his mind; but now, for the first time, I encountered this—in myself.

These images, and words, and passionless feelings did not, as they say, go through my head “in a flash.” They took their time—several minutes at least—the time they would have taken in reality, not in a dream; they were meditations, which did not hurry at all—but neither did they distract me in the least from my tasks. Nobody looking on (so to speak) would have seen me “musing,” would have seen any pause. On the contrary, they would have been impressed by my brisk and workmanlike appearance and behavior, by the quick and efficient way in which I splintered my leg, made a brief check of everything, and set off downhill.

And so I proceeded, using a mode of travel I had never used before—roughly speaking, gluteal and tripedal. That is to say, I slid down on my backside, heaving or rowing myself with my arms and using my good leg for steering and, when needed, for braking, with the splintered leg hanging nervelessly before me. I did not have to think out this unusual, unprecedented, and—one might think—unnatural way of moving. I did it without thinking, and very soon got accustomed to it. And anyone seeing me rowing swiftly and powerfully down the slopes would have said, “Ah, he’s an old hand at it. It’s second nature to him.”

The legless don’t need to be taught to use crutches: it comes “unthinkingly” and “naturally,” as if the person had been practicing it, in secret, all his life. The organism, the nervous system, has an immense repertoire of “trick movements” and “backups” of every kind—completely automatic strategies, which are held “in reserve.” We would have no idea of the resources that exist in potentia if we did not see them called forth as needed.

So it happened with me. It was a reasonably efficient mode of progress, as long as the path descended continually, and evenly, and not too steeply. If it was not even, the left leg would tend to catch on irregularities of all sorts—it seemed curiously inept at avoiding these—and I cursed it several times for being “stupid” or “senseless.” I found, indeed, that whenever the terrain became difficult, I had to keep an eye on this not only powerless but stupid leg. Most frightening of all were those sections of the path which were too slippery or too steep, because it was difficult not to slide down almost uncontrollably, ending with a lurch or a crash which agonizingly buckled the knee and exposed the limitations of my improvised splint.

It occurred to me at one point, after a particularly sickening crash, to cry for help, and I did so, lustily, with Gargantuan yells, which seemed to echo and resound from one peak to another. The sudden sound in the silence startled and scared me; and then I had a sudden fear that it might startle the bull, which I had completely forgotten. I had a frightened vision of the animal, now furiously rearoused, charging down the path to toss me or crush me. Trembling with terror, and with immense effort and pain, I managed to heave myself off the path until I was hidden behind a boulder. Here I remained for about ten minutes, until the continuing silence reassured me and I was able to crawl out and continue my descent.

I could not decide whether it had been foolish and provocative to yell, or whether my folly lay rather in fearing to yell. I decided, in any event, not to yell again; and whenever the impulse seized me I held my tongue, remembering that I was still in the bull’s domain, where perhaps he maintained a sharp-eared dominion; and I would further say to myself, for good measure, “Why shout? Save your breath. You’re the only human being in hundreds of square miles.” And so I descended in absolute silence, not even daring to whistle aloud, for everywhere now I felt the bull listening. I even tried to mute the sound of my breathing. And so the hours passed, silently, slithering….

At about 1:30—I had been traveling two hours—I came again to the swollen stream with stepping-stones that I had hesitated to cross even when climbing up, with both legs. Clearly, I could not “row” myself through this. I had therefore to turn over and “walk” on rigidly outstretched arms—and even so my head was only just out of the water. The water was fast-flowing, turbulent, and glacially cold, and my left leg, dropping downward, unsupported, out of control, was violently jarred by stones on the bottom, and sometimes blown like a flag sideways at a right angle to my trunk. My hip seemed almost as loose as my knee, but it caused me no pain—unlike my knee, which, excruciatingly, was buckled and dislocated as I crossed the stream. Several times I felt my consciousness ebbing and feared I would faint and drown in the stream; and I ordered myself to hold on, with strong language and threats.

Hold on, you fool! Hold on for dear life! I’ll kill you if you let go—and don’t you forget it!”

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