Saturday the 24th of August started overcast and sullen in the Norwegian village where I was staying a few years ago, but there was promise of fine weather later in the day. I could start my climb early, through the low-lying orchards and woods, and by noon, I reckoned, reach the top of the mountain. By then, perhaps, the weather would have cleared, and there would be a magnificent view from the summit—the lower mountains all around me, sweeping down into Hardanger fiord, and the great fiord itself visible in its entirety. “Climb” suggests scaling rocks, and ropes. But it was not that sort of climb, simply a steep mountain path. I foresaw no particular problems or difficulties. I was as strong as a bull, in the prime, the pride, the high noon of life. I looked forward to the walk with assurance and pleasure.
I soon got into my stride—a supple swinging stride, which covers ground fast. I had started before dawn, and by half past seven had ascended, perhaps, to two thousand feet. Already the early mists were beginning to clear. Now came a dark and piney wood, where the going was slower, partly because of knotted roots in the path and partly because I was enchanted by the world of tiny vegetation which sheltered in the wood, and was often stopping to examine a new fern, a moss, a lichen. Even so, I was through the woods by a little after nine, and had come to the great cone that formed the mountain proper and towered above the fiord to six thousand feet. To my surprise there was a fence and a gate at this point, and the gate bore a still more surprising notice: BEWARE OF THE BULL! in Norwegian, and for those who might not be able to read the words, a rather droll picture of a man being tossed.
I stopped, and scrutinized the picture and scratched my head. A bull? Up here? What would a bull be doing up here? I had not seen even sheep in the pastures and farms down below. Perhaps it was some sort of joke, tacked there by the villagers, or by some previous hiker with an odd sense of humor. Or perhaps there was a bull, summering amid a vast mountain pasture, subsisting on the spare grass and scrubby vegetation. Well, enough of speculation! Onward to the top!
The terrain had changed again. It was now very stony, with enormous boulders here and there; but there was also a light topsoil, muddy in places because it had rained in the night, but with plenty of grass and a few scanty shrubs—fodder enough for an animal that had the whole mountain to graze.
The path was much steeper and fairly well marked, though, I felt, not much used. It was not exactly a populous part of the world. I had seen no visitors apart from myself, and the villagers, I imagined, were too busy with farming and fishing, and other activities, to go jaunting up the local mountains. All the better. I had the mountain to myself. Onward, upward—though I could not see the top, but I had already ascended, I judged, three thousand feet, and if the path ahead was simply steep, but not tricky, I could make the top by noon, as I had planned.
And so I forged ahead, keeping up a brisk pace despite the gradient, blessing my energy and stamina, and especially my strong legs, trained by years of hard exercise and hard lifting in the gym. Strong quadriceps muscles in the thighs, strong body, good wind, good stamina—I was grateful to Nature for endowing me well. And if I drove myself to feats of strength, and long swims, and long climbs, it was a way of saying “Thank you” to Nature and using to the full the good body she had given me.
Around eleven o’clock, when the shifting mists allowed, I had my first glimpses of the mountain top—not so far above me. I would make it by noon. There was still a light mist clinging here and there, sometimes shrouding the boulders so that they were difficult to make out. Occasionally a boulder, half seen through the mist, looked almost like a vast crouching animal, and would reveal its true nature only when I came closer. There were ambiguous moments when I would stop in uncertainty, while I descried the shrouded shapes before me…. But when it happened, it was not at all ambiguous!
The real Reality was not such a moment, not touched in the least by ambiguity or illusion. I had, indeed, just emerged from the mist, and was walking around a boulder as big as a house, the path curving around it so that I could not see ahead, and it was this inability to see ahead that permitted the meeting. I practically trod on what lay before me—an enormous animal sitting in the path, and indeed wholly occupying the path, whose presence had been hidden by the rounded bulk of the rock. It had a huge horned head, a stupendous white body, and an enormous, mild, milk-white face. It sat unmoved by my appearance, exceedingly calm, except that it turned its vast white face up toward me. And in that moment it changed before my eyes, becoming transformed from magnificent to utterly monstrous. The huge white face seemed to swell and swell, and the great bulbous eyes became radiant with malignance. The face grew huger and huger all the time, until I thought it would blot out the universe. The bull became hideous—hideous beyond belief, hideous in strength, malevolence, and cunning. It seemed now to be stamped with the infernal in every feature. It became, first a monster, and now the Devil.
I retained my composure, or a semblance of composure, for a minute in which, perfectly “naturally,” as if turning about at the end of a stroll, I swung in mid-stride through 180 degrees, and deftly, daintily, began my descent. But then—oh horrible!—my nerve suddenly broke, dread overwhelmed me, and I ran for dear life—ran madly, blindly, down the steep, muddy, slippery path, lost here and there in patches of mist. Blind, mad panic!—there is nothing worse in the world, nothing worse—and nothing more dangerous.
I cannot say exactly what happened. In my plunging flight down the treacherous path I must have misstepped—stepped on to a loose rock, or into mid-air. It is as if there is a moment missing from my memory—there is “before” and “after,” but no “in-between.” One moment I was running like a madman, conscious of heavy panting and heavy thudding footsteps, unsure whether they came from the bull or from me, and the next I was lying at the bottom of a short sharp cliff of rock, with my left leg twisted grotesquely beneath me and in my knee such a pain as I had never, ever known before. To be full of strength and vigor one moment and virtually helpless the next, in the pink and pride of health one moment and a cripple the next, with all one’s powers and faculties one moment and without them the next—such a change, such suddenness, is difficult to comprehend, and the mind casts about for explanations.
I had encountered this phenomenon in others—in my patients who had been suddenly stricken or injured, and now I was to encounter it in myself. My first thought was this: that there had been an accident, and that someone I knew had been seriously injured. Later, it dawned on me that the victim was myself; but with this came the feeling that it was not really serious. To show that it was not serious, I got to my feet, or rather I tried to, but I collapsed in the process, because the left leg was completely limp and floppy, and gave way beneath me like a piece of spaghetti. It could not support any weight at all, but just buckled beneath me, buckled backward at the knee, making me yell with pain. But it was much less the pain that so horribly frightened me than the flimsy, toneless giving-way of the knee and my absolute impotence to prevent or control it—and the apparent paralysis of the leg. And then, the horror, so overwhelming for a moment, disappeared in face of a “professional attitude.”
“OK, Doctor,” I said to myself. “Would you kindly examine the leg?”
Very professionally, and impersonally, and not at all tenderly, as if I were a surgeon examining “a case,” I took the leg and examined it—feeling it, moving it this way and that. I murmured my findings aloud as I did so, as if for a class of students: “No movement at the knee, gentlemen, no movement at the hip…. You will observe that the entire quadriceps has been torn from the patella. But though it has torn loose, it has not retracted—it is wholly toneless, which might suggest nerve injury as well. The patella has lost its major attachment, and can be flipped around—so!—like a ballbearing. It is readily dislocated—there is nothing to hold it.
“As for the knee itself”—and here I illustrated each point as I made it—“we find abnormal motility, a quite pathological range of motion. It can be flexed without any resistance at all”—here I manually flexed the heel to the buttock—“and can also be hyperextended, with apparent dislocation.” Both movements, which I illustrated, caused me to scream. “Yes, gentlemen,” I concluded, summarizing my findings, “a fascinating case! A complete rupture of the quadriceps tendon. Muscle paralyzed and atonic—probably nerve injury. Unstable knee joint—seems to dislocate backward. Probably ripped out the cruciate ligaments. Can’t really tell about bone injury—but there could easily be one or more fractures. Considerable swelling, probably tissue and joint fluid, but tearing of blood vessels can’t be excluded.”
I turned with a pleased smile to my invisible audience, as if awaiting a round of applause. And then, suddenly, the “professional” attitude and persona broke down, and I realized that this “fascinating case” was me—me myself, fearfully disabled, and quite likely to die. The leg was utterly useless—far more so than if it had been broken. I was entirely alone, near the top of a mountain, in a desolate and sparsely populated part of the world. My whereabouts were known to nobody. This frightened me more than anything else. I could die where I lay, and nobody would know it.
Never had I felt so alone, so lost, so forlorn, so utterly beyond the pale of help. It hadn’t occurred to me until then how terrifyingly and seriously alone I was. I had not felt “alone” when I was romping up the mountain (I never do when I am enjoying myself). I had not felt alone when I was examining my injury (I saw now what a comfort the imagined “class” was). But now, all of a sudden, the fearful sense of my aloneness rushed in upon me. I remembered that someone had told me, a few days before, of “a fool of an Englishman” who had climbed this very mountain, alone, two years before, and had been found a week later dead from exposure, having broken both his legs. It was at an altitude, and latitude, where the temperature sinks well below freezing at night, even in August. I had to be found by nightfall or I should never survive. I had to get lower, if I possibly could, because then at least there was a chance of my being seen. I even entertained hopes, now I came to consider things, that I might be able to descend the entire mountain, with a bum leg, by myself; and it was not until much later that I realized how this, above all, was a comforting delusion. Yet if I pulled myself together, did what I could, there was a sporting chance that I would make it yet.
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!”
I half collapsed when finally I made the other side, shuddering with cold, and pain, and shock. I felt exhausted, prostrated, at the end of my strength, and I lay stunned, motionless, for a couple of minutes. Then, somehow my exhaustion became a sort of tiredness, an extraordinarily comfortable, delicious languor.
“How nice it is here,” I thought to myself. “Why not a little rest—a nap maybe?”
The apparent sound of this soft, insinuating, inner voice suddenly woke me, sobered me, and filled me with alarm. It was not “a nice place” to rest and nap. The suggestion was lethal and filled me with horror, but I was lulled by its soft, seductive tones.
“No,” I said fiercely to myself. “This is Death speaking—and in its sweetest, deadliest Siren-voice. Don’t listen to it now! Don’t listen to it ever! You’ve got to go on whether you like it or not. You can’t rest here—you can’t rest anywhere. You must find a pace you can keep up, and go on steadily.”
This good voice, this “Life” voice, braced and resolved me. My trembling stopped and my faltering too. I got going once more, and didn’t falter again.
There came to my aid now melody, rhythm, and music (what Kant calls the “quickening” art). Before crossing the stream, I had muscled myself along—moving by main force, with my very strong arms. Now, so to speak, I was musicked along. I did not contrive this. It happened to me. I fell into a rhythm, guided by a sort of marching or rowing song, sometimes the Volga Boatmen’s Song, sometimes a monotonous chant of my own, accompanied by the words “Ohne Hast, ohne Rast! Ohne Hast, ohne Rast!” (“Without haste, without rest”), with a strong heave on every Hast and Rast. Never had Goethe’s words been put to better use! Now I no longer had to think about going too fast or too slow. I got into the music, got into the swing, and this ensured that my tempo was right. I found myself perfectly coordinated by the rhythm—or perhaps subordinated would be a better term: the musical beat was generated within me, and all my muscles responded obediently—all save those in my left leg, which seemed silent—or mute? Does not Nietzsche say that when listening to music, we “listen with our muscles”? I was reminded of my rowing days in college, how the eight of us would respond as one man to the beat, a sort of muscle-orchestra conducted by the cox.
Somehow, with this “music,” it felt much less like a grim anxious struggle. There was even a certain primitive exuberance, such as Pavlov called “muscular gladness.” And now, further, to gladden me more, the sun burst from behind the clouds, massaged me with warmth and soon dried me off. And with all this, and perhaps other things, I found my internal weather was most happily changed.
It was only after chanting the song in a resonant and resounding bass for some time that I suddenly realized that I had forgotten the bull. Or, more accurately, I had forgotten my fear—partly seeing that it was no longer appropriate, partly that it had been absurd in the first place. I had no room now for this fear, or for any other fear, because I was filled to the brim with music. And even when it was not literally (audibly) music, there was the music of my muscle orchestra playing—“the silent music of the body,” in Harvey’s lovely phrase. With this playing, the musicality of my motion, I myself became the music—“You are the music, while the music lasts.” A creature of muscle, motion, and music, all inseparable and in unison with each other—except for that unstrung part of me, that poor broken instrument which could not join in and lay motionless and mute without tone or tune.
I had once, as a child, had a violin which got brutally smashed in an accident. I felt for my leg, now, as I felt long ago for that poor broken fiddle. Mixed with my happiness and renewal of spirit, with the quickening music I felt in myself, was a new and sharper and most poignant sense of loss for that broken musical instrument that had once been my leg. When will it recover, I thought to myself? When will it sound its own tune again? When will it rejoin the joyous music of the body?
By two o’clock the clouds had cleared sufficiently for me to get a magnificent view of the fiord beneath me, and of the tiny village I had left nine hours before. I could see the old church, where I had heard Mozart’s great Mass in C minor the previous evening. I could almost see—no, I could see—individual figures in the street. Was the air abnormally, uncannily, clear? Or was there some abnormal clarity in my perceptions?
I thought of a dream related by Leibniz, in which he found himself at a great height overlooking the world—with provinces, towns, lakes, fields, villages, hamlets, all spread beneath him. If he wished to see a single person—a peasant tilling, an old woman washing clothes—he had only to direct and concentrate his gaze: “I needed no telescope except my attention.” And so it was with me: an anguish of yearning sharpened my eyes, a violent need to see my fellow men and, even more, to be seen by them. Never had they seemed dearer, or more remote. I felt so close, watching them as through a powerful telescope, and yet utterly removed, not part of their world. If only I had a flag or a flare—a rifle, a carrier pigeon, a radio transmitter! If only I could give a truly Gargantuan yell—one that would be heard ten miles away! For how could they know that here was a fellow creature, a crippled human being, fighting for his life five thousand feet above them? I was within sight of my rescuers, and yet I would probably die. There was something impersonal, or universal, in my feeling. I would not have cried, “Save me, Oliver Sacks!” but “Save this hurt living creature! Save Life!,” the mute plea I know so well from my patients—the plea of all life facing the abyss, if it be strongly, vividly, rightly alive.
An hour passed, and another and another, under a glorious cloudless sky, the sun blazing pale-golden with a pure Arctic light. It was an afternoon of peculiar splendor, earth and air conspiring in beauty, radiant, suffused in serenity. As the blue and golden hours passed, I continued steadily on my downward trek, which had become so smooth, so void of difficulties, that my mind could move free of the ties of the present. My mood changed again, although I was to realize this only later. Long-forgotten memories, all happy, came unbidden to my mind: memories, first, of summer afternoons, tinged with a sunniness that was also happiness and blessedness—sun-warmed afternoons with my family and friends, summer afternoons going back and back into earliest childhood. Hundreds of memories would pass through my mind, in the space between one boulder and the next, and yet each was rich, simple, ample, and conveyed no sense of being hurried through.
Nor was it a flitting of faces and voices. Entire scenes were relived, entire conversations replayed, without the least abbreviation. The very earliest memories were all of our garden—our big old garden in London, as it used to be before the war. I cried with joy and tears as I saw it—our garden with its dear old iron railings intact, the lawn vast and smooth, just cut and rolled (the huge old roller there in a corner); the orange-striped hammock with cushions bigger than myself, in which I loved to roll and swing for hours; and—joy of my heart—the enormous sunflowers, whose vast inflorescence fascinated me endlessly and showed me at five the Pythagorean mystery of the world. (For it was then, in the summer of 1938, that I discovered that the whorled florets were multiples of prime numbers, and I had such a vision of the order and beauty of the world as was to be a prototype of every scientific wonder and joy I was later to experience.) All of these thoughts and images, involuntarily summoned and streaming through my mind, were essentially happy, and essentially grateful. And it was only later that I said to myself, “What is this mood?” and realized that it was a preparation for death. “Let your last thinks all be thanks,” as Auden says.
At about six, rather suddenly, I noticed that the shadows were longer, and that the sun was lower in the heavens. Some part of me, Joshua-like, had thought to hold the sun in mid-course, to prolong to eternity the gold and azure afternoon. Now, abruptly, I saw that it was evening, and that in an hour, more or less, the sun would set.
Not long after this I came to a long transverse ridge commanding an unobstructed view of the village and fiord. I had attained this ridge at about ten in the morning: it had been about halfway between the gate and the point where I fell. Thus what had taken me little more than an hour to climb, had taken me, crippled, nearly seven hours to descend. I saw how grossly, how optimistically, I had miscalculated everything—comparing my “rowing” to striding, when it was, I could now see, six times as slow. How could I have imagined that one was half as fast as the other, and that the ascent from the relatively warm and populous low-lying farmland, which had taken four hours or so, could be retraced in just twice that time, bringing me within range of the highest farmhouse by dusk or nightfall. I had hugged to myself, like a warm comforter, in the long hours of my journey—interspersed with my exalted but not cozy thoughts—a warm, sweet vision of the waiting farmhouse, glowing softly like a Dutch interior, with a dumpy, motherly farmwife who would feed me and revive me with love and warm milk, while her husband, a dour giant, went to the village for help. I had been secretly sustained by this vision throughout the interminable hours of my descent, and now it vanished, suddenly, like a candle blown out, on the chill clarity of that high transverse ridge.
I could see now, what had been shrouded in mists on the way up in the morning, how far away, unattainably far, the village still was. And yet, though hope had just expired and died, I took comfort from seeing the village, and especially the church, gilded, or rather crimsoned now, in the long evening light. I could see straggling worshipers on their way to evening service and had the strangest persuasion that the service was for me. It came to me once more, and overwhelmingly, how I had sat in that church only the evening before, and heard the C-minor Mass, and so powerful was the memory that I could actually hear it in my ears—hear it with such vividness that I wondered, for a long second, whether it was again being sung below, and wafted up to me, miraculously, by some trick of the air. As I listened, profoundly moved, with tears on my face, I suddenly realized that it was not the Mass that I was hearing—no, not the Mass, but the Requiem instead. My mind, my unconscious, had switched one for the other. Or was it—again that uncanny acoustic illusion—was it that they were singing the Requiem, down there for me?
Shortly after seven the sun disappeared, seeming to draw, as it did so, all color and warmth from the world. There were none of the lingering effulgences of a more temperate sunset—this was a simpler, sterner, more Arctic phenomenon. The air was suddenly grayer, and colder, and the grayness and coldness seemed to penetrate right to my marrow.
The silence had become intense. I could no longer hear any sounds about me. I could no longer hear myself. Everything seemed embedded in silence. There were odd periods when I thought I was dead, when the immense calm became the calm of death. Things had ceased to happen. There was no happening any more. This must be the beginning of the end.
Suddenly, incredibly, I heard a shout, a long yodeling call which seemed very close to me. I turned, and saw a man and a boy standing on a rock, a little above me, and not ten yards from the path, their figures silhouetted against the darkening dusk. I never even saw my rescuers before they saw me. I think, in those last dark minutes, that my eyes had been fixed on the dim path before me, or had perhaps been staring unseeing into space—they had ceased to be on the lookout, constantly roving and scanning, as they had been at all times in the course of the day. I think, indeed, that I had become almost completely unaware of the environment, having, at some level, given up all thoughts of rescue and life, so that rescue, when it came, came from nowhere, a miracle, a grace, at the very last moment.
In another few minutes it would have been too dark to see. The man who yodeled was just lowering a gun, and the youth by his side was similarly armed. They ran down toward me. I needed no words to explain my condition. I hugged them both, I kissed them—these bearers of life. I stammered out, in broken Norwegian, what had happened on the heights, and what I could not put into words I drew in the dust.
The two of them laughed at my picture of the bull. They were full of humor, these two, and as they laughed I laughed too—and suddenly, with the laughter, the tragic tension exploded, and I felt vividly and, so to speak, comically alive once again. I thought I had had every emotion on the heights, but—it now occurred to me—I hadn’t laughed once. Now I couldn’t stop laughing—the laughter of relief, and the laughter of love, that deepdown laughter that comes from the center of one’s being. The silence was exploded, the quite deathly silence that had seized me, as in a spell, those last minutes.
The men were reindeer hunters, father and son, who had pitched camp nearby. Hearing a noise outside, a movement in the undergrowth, they had come out cautiously with their rifles at the ready, their minds on the game they might bag, and when then peered over the rock they saw that their game was me.
The huntsman gave me some aquavit from a flask—the burning fluid was indeed the “water of life.” “Don’t worry,” he said, “I will go down to the village. I will be back within two hours. My son will stay with you. You’re safe and sound—and the bull won’t come here!”
From the moment of my rescue my memories become less vivid, less charged. I was in others’ hands now and had no more responsibility to act, or feel. I said very little to the boy, but though we hardly spoke I found great comfort in his presence. Occasionally he would light me a cigarette—or pass me the aquavit his father had left. I had the deepest sense of security and warmth. I fell asleep.
It was less than two hours before a posse of stout villagers arrived carrying a litter—onto which they loaded me, with considerable difficulty. The flailing leg, which had lain silent and unnoticed for so long, objected loudly, but they carried me gently, rhythmically, down the steep mountain trail. At the gate—the gate, whose warning sign I had ignored!—I was transferred onto a sort of mountain tractor. As it jogged slowly downhill—first through the woods, and then through orchards and farms—the men sang softly among themselves, and passed the aquavit around. One of them gave me a pipe to smoke. I was back—God be praised!—in the good world of men.
June 28, 1984