To Die For
by Will Kemp
“Christ, it’s hot,” he’d drawl, lounging by the pool, and Silke would touch his hand in agreement, as if talking was too much effort in the heat, her nodding sunglasses the only perceptible movement for miles around.
The place had taken a beating from the sun that summer. The villa’s lawn had dried up into an old beige carpet, the bushes looked parched and dead. The scrub of the surrounding hills repeated the scene on a larger scale, resembling a spaghetti western – a dusty, deserted place where bandits might take up positions behind the baking rocks to pick off strangers amid ricochets of small arms fire. A tinder-box waiting to go off.
Not that she minded. This was the Crete they’d come for, to explore on their own terms.
They decided to set off at noon in T-shirts and shorts, passing the olive groves above the villa to the tune of the sloshing water bottle in Graham’s rucksack. He led the way, oblivious to a man raising a tanned hand at a farm, though Silke waved back. An old woman in black looked up from milking a goat to give a toothless smile.
Gradually the path gave way to a trail marked by infrequent piles of stones in a no-man’s-land of gorse and scree. After half an hour it dropped down into a sparse area of mixed fir trees, then petered out in the listless grass. Silke’s eyes stung from the leachate of sweat and sun-cream that had started to run.
“Where are we?” She squinted, drawing level to look at the tiny map in his hand.
“Well, we’ve come along here,” he hesitated, tracing a finger along a dotted line that squiggled left from the villa. “But should have passed a cairn...”
She took the bottle out, glugged a few mouthfuls then splashed some water around her eyes.
“We’ve been on a sheep trail,” he realised. “Must have missed the footpath.”
God he was a handsome man, with that gaunt face and dark hair – more French-looking than English – and as intelligent as a doctor should be; “good breeding stock” as her mother had once noted.
She patted her face with a tissue then inspected the map. The villa was half an inch from the entrance to the gorge but there was no scale to indicate the distance between the two points, no contours either to demarcate the terrain, just a photograph of the clear stream at the bottom of the valley.
“OK,” she added, “so which way now?”
He stood with hands on hips, looking uphill at the wild oleander and Corsican pines, then pointed to a blue line curving right like the top of an r.
“See this stream?” He guessed. “If we head north, we must come to it, at some point. We can then follow it into the gorge, and join the walk.”
“Come on, then,” she agreed, “let’s go.”
They headed upwards through the trees. Dry leaves crackled underfoot, Graham held fir branches back to prevent them lashing into her face. Silke was glad of the mottled shade, the bird-calls, the fragrance that permeated the air. And loved days like these – outdoors, panoramic views of mountains opening up ahead, with Graham in his element, heading an expedition into Terra Incognita, unwittingly exuding a mild sense of danger but also that medical corps nous to overcome any disquiet about things going awry.
It had been his idea. A short cut to the gorge, the head down to Agia Roumeli, a few miles due south, to catch the last ferry east to Sfakia at four. Dinner at a taverna then back at the villa by eight. He had it all figured out.
At the tree-line, the air was cool, the sky a little overcast. A lunar landscape of limestone rocks and stones lay ahead, with the mist and snow of the mountains beyond. Silke’s T-shirt was soaked, eyes stinging again.
“Damn,” he huffed, taking off the rucksack to sit down for a drink and study the map. “We should be heading downhill by now.”
“The gorge,” she panted. “Where is it?”
“Dunno. The map doesn’t show any mountains. It must be on the other side of those.”
He gauged the peaks ahead against the map as she slumped against a rock. Even when unsure he had a heroic quality about him: focused, unflustered, intent on getting them back on track.
“Here,” he gestured, handing her the bottle. “But take it easy. Cheese roll?”
She took it and looked at the water. Barely a cupful left. Washing her eyes was out of the question. How stupid to have brought only half a litre, and used most of that already. She took a sip as he unearthed the rucksack’s contents. Cosmetics bag. Newspaper. Banana. Chocolate. After-sun. Passports. Plane tickets. The cagoule and jogging pants she’d forgotten to take out.
“Hurrah,” he proclaimed, handing her a roll.
“So what now?” She questioned, expressionless, wiping the corners of her eyes.
“Well, if we’re going to catch the ferry, we’ve got to go downhill – now. If we head south-westish, that should bring us to the gorge.”
She searched his face, bothered by his sudden certainty – the same certainty that had once resulted in them crawling up Helvellyn in a force eight gale.
“And if we don’t make it?”
“We’ll stay in the port tonight.”
“What about water? Should we go and get some snow?”
She already sensed his answer.
“We don’t have time. Besides, we’re bound to come to a stream, at some point.”
He stood up, planted a foot on a rock in the pose of a Victorian gentleman-explorer and swung the rucksack over his shoulder as she unwrapped her rations.
“Anyway,” he shrugged, taking a bite out of his roll, “we have to keep going.”
He held out a hand to help her up. She took it, chewing with difficulty, her mouth already crying out with thirst.
They descended through the pathless wood in silence, angling across the steepening hillside, toes pressing against her boots, shins hurting from the constant braking. She identified the dry aroma as oregano growing among the dead grass, but was too hot and tired to look, eyes raging with that lemon juice fire, hair an itching mass as if swarming with nits.
A mistake to have kept it so long, not to have tried a bob. How brave the girls back in London were with their cropped hair. Hair longer on one side than the other. Hair dyed white or pink. Hair artfully tousled for that sexy punk look. But that wasn’t her, not now at least, the wrong side of thirty. Or any other architect. Besides, the kudos would last a day before the self-loathing set in. All made worse by Graham saying it suited her.
He spotted the line of a trail below, hugging the contour of the hillside. It had to be the path they’d missed. Uplifted, they took it. But in no time it dwindled out above a rock-face – only to start again at its base, some five metres below.
He clambered down the near-vertical face, feeling for ledges, then sprang off to jump the last two metres with a parachute landing fall. She threw the rucksack down then began the descent, trying to ignore the drop as he directed her foot placements and hand-holds, then jumped as he’d done, rolling over on hitting the ground. Silke stood up, astonished; she’d never done anything like that before – and probably wouldn’t again once they started a family.
They took the new trail down into a glade of rugged oaks and outcrops until it too disappeared, then continued west, a sharp slope below on their left. At a clearing, a distant ridge presented itself, pine trees speared against the sky. It had to be the gorge.
She walked briskly, leaving Graham behind, then scrambled up the incline to face a huge void with some thin clouds of mist below. She was standing on the edge of a sheer drop. A dead sheep lay on the rocks some 200 metres below. She stepped back at once, hollow inside, then squirmed – one more step or a slip and she’d have fallen headlong to join that sheep.
She returned to sit on a rock, staring at the grass thrust up between the stones, head in her hands, as if about to be sick. There had been no sign, no warning.
“Hey, what’s up?” Graham grinned, as if about to tell a joke.
“I almost got killed, that’s what,” she snapped, struggling to speak with such a dry mouth.
She outlined the void, the drop, the dead sheep.
“We’re lost, Gray. Completely, utterly, fucking lost. We’ve barely got any water left, we haven’t seen a stream all day. We’ve missed the ferry, and now we can’t even make it to your damned port. We don’t know if the ravine over there is the right one – and look, everywhere is too steep to climb down.”
She gesticulated towards the opposite hillside bathed in a rich green-blue shade.
“But we have to keep moving,” he urged, “manage our pace and energy. If we stop we’ll get stiff.”
“Not as stiff as if we fall down one of those bloody ravines!”
She turned to him with a mixture of anger and disgust, her sense of adventure gone.
“You’re not doing a triathlon now, Graham. This isn’t some orienteering jaunt with your drinking mates. And anyway, what’s the point of running around like headless chickens?”
He sat down at her side to rummage inside the rucksack then broke the bar of chocolate in two, handing her half. It had melted but she didn’t care, eating it in silence before sucking the wrapper and licking her fingers like a child.
“We have to go back,” she determined. “It’s our only chance.”
“But Sil, it’s at least six or seven miles away, we’re knackered –”
“Look, I’m not carrying on in the blind hope that everything will be all right just around the next effing corner. Because it isn’t. Just go up there and take a look for yourself.”
“But if we go back we may have to spend the night on the mountain.”
She got to her feet and extended a hand to help him up.
“Well, we better get a move on then, hadn’t we?”
Silke had never seen so many stars. The snowy mountain tops in the distance were jagged, rotten teeth, framed on either side by dark purple hills that dropped into the fjord-like chasm below. That oregano scent everywhere. A sheep-bell clonked across the valley. The sound might have offered hope that civilisation was nearby, were it not for knowing they had no idea where they were. No compass either. No proper map. No energy.
It did not feel cold. They’d stuffed dry leaves and newspaper pages into their shorts and T-shirts for the night, like tramps. Silke also had the cagoule and jogging pants. But she was still warm from the walk; the clear sky meant the temperature would soon plummet. She closed her sore eyes, only for the precipice with the dead sheep to shriek back at her like the stairwell in Vertigo.
The day had been a disaster. She’d become a walking machine pounding across the arid terrain – over-heating, running on empty – with no interest in anything other than how to manage her yelling eyes and plant her swollen feet. She didn’t know which was worse – the exhaustion, pain or dehydration. If they still had water, had stumbled across a stream, a pool, anything, it would have given them such a boost.
And what about tomorrow? Would – could – they make it back? The answer had to be no. The geology all around was limestone. Waterless, unrelenting. And they were too lost, too weak. As good as dead. The thought seemed far-fetched for an intelligent, educated woman like her. Yet it was true. Their corpses would be found in time, eyes pecked out, identifiable only from the passports that would have a use on this walk after all.
She’d never see her mother again. Her father. Her brother. Her dog Rollo. Everyone she knew. The little Grahams she’d so wanted. She envisaged her mother’s worry at the unexplained absence, her stricken reaction to the news, her grief-laden journey from Copenhagen to this spot. She turned onto her side, and began crying into the hard ground.
Graham extended a paw across her forearm, and pulled her closer.
Graham. If she had to be stuck on a mountain-side with anyone, she could do worse than him. Medical researcher, ex-Army – man of action, survivor. Right to save the water, the banana, to use the newspaper for insulation. A man for a crisis, but he generated them too.
She felt he was to die for when they’d met, with his English humour and Alain Delon looks, but a fat lot of good either had been on this abject frog-march of a walk. And good breeding stock or not, if he loved her, then why hadn’t he taken more care of her than this?
It started to get light around four. By five the sun streamed through the trees, lighting on the pine needles and cones around them. Neither had slept much on the hard, cold ground, and both now gawped sullen-eyed at the vapours rising from the glacier of mist covering the gorge below.
Graham got up with difficulty, limped to a tree and slid his back down its trunk to sit right knee jacked up, arm outstretched. Silke followed, solid-stiff, weak and sun-burnt, mouth hangover-dry, then slunk down beside him. They sat in silence for some time as if waiting for their blood-flow to start like lizards in the morning sun.
“What about our pee?” she croaked. “Should we drink it?”
“No,” he contemplated. “It’d only speed up the dehydration. Like drinking sea-water. The body can last four days without water. We just have to get going.”
Four days. That was all that remained of her life. Unbelievable. She pictured the snow the day before. What fools they’d been not to get some. They could have had a feeding frenzy, filled the bottle. Instead, she didn’t even have any spit to swallow.
Their only hope was rain – a huge, sudden monsoon – to stand under the trees, mouths agape like baby birds, capturing every drop. But the sky was cloudless. In an hour or so the day would be an open oven.
They finished the last of the water and banana, then set off into the centre of the sun. Silke staggered forward, as if walking in a suit of armour, but it was too much. Her feet were blistered, shins sore, unable to bear any weight. Worse still, she had no impetus – after hoping a fresh start would be invigorating.
“I can’t,” she wept, sinking to the ground, alarmed that the lack of energy was so debilitating. “I’m just shattered.”
Graham knelt to massage her aching calves. She tried again, but to no effect.
“Try crawling,” he suggested. “We can’t just stay here.”
He helped her down. After twenty metres on her hands and knees, he took her through some stretching exercises. She tried walking again, using him as a crutch. Slowly the stiffness began to ease, but everywhere looked the same. Hard. Featureless. Oppressive.
What an idiot not to have checked the map at the start, to have placed her life in his hands. If she ever made it out alive, never again would she rely on anyone so completely.
They’d only gone another hundred metres or so when Graham spotted the rock-face from the day before. It seemed fantastic news, presenting a way back, a way out. But they could barely walk, let alone climb.
He stood at its base, scrutinising the cracks and fissures, then delineated a route to scale it. She stared at the silent behemoth. One false move would result in a broken head or limb, halting them forever.
“I don’t know,” she wailed, apathetic to how pathetic she sounded. “I just don’t have any strength.”
He looked for another way up, but on either side the rock deepened into tall cliff-faces.
“Just try,” he coaxed. “We’ve no choice. I’ll go first. Watch where I put my hands and feet. Then I’ll guide you through it. And pull you up over the last stretch.”
The plan sounded so simple, logical. But what if she fell? What would he do – begin the precarious descent and stay with her, or carry on to save his own skin?
As he neared the top, a loosened boulder flashed past, grazing her arm. Now it was her turn.
“Keep your body against the face,” he coached from above. “And don’t look down. Make sure your hand and foot holds are secure before you push off. And don’t rush.”
She had to concentrate now like never before. Use the very last of her energy reserves. She placed her right foot on the half-ledge as he’d done and felt for his first hand-hold, brushing away some loose pebbles. Then pulled herself up by the finger-tips, in slow-motion it seemed, and planted her left foot on the same ledge. She was now completely off the ground, trembling a little, frisked against the scarred rock-face.
“That’s it,” he coached again, “you’re doing great!”
Maintaining the pressure in her fingertips on the narrow ledges, she repeated the sequence, gaining another half metre. Then another, and another, until she could feel a strong grasp of her left forearm. He hauled her onto the small plateau where they lay panting, as if having just made love. She then rolled towards the shade of a tree, and closed her eyes to the moistureless air.
There was no sign of him when she came to, head throbbing, only the distant sound of voices before some footsteps quickened across the brush. A dark, middle-aged man with a craggy face and thick black moustache knelt by her side, glimmering in and out of focus. He held a water-pouch to her lips.
“Nero,” he insisted in a husky voice. “Mikros.”
She raised her head, making out a leather game-bag strapped across his camouflage jacket, a rifle in the nondescript grass.
“Little,” Graham instructed, somewhere nearby. “I think he means drink a little at a time.”
She let the water trickle into her mouth and swallowed, painfully at first, then took some more.
“Than you,” she murmured, breathing in the stranger’s tobacco breath.
Graham helped her up as the hunter waved both hands several times to the east.
“Zkromos,” he stressed, “zkromos.”
“Efharisto,” Graham acknowledged, supporting Silke from the side. “He must mean that’s the way back.”
The man helped Silke to more water. She took a mouthful, then another, until it dribbled down her chin. Already her body was recharging, like a garden surging back to life. She guzzled some more then closed her eyes, picturing the clear stream in the photograph from the day before.