The Climb
by Louisa Howerow


If there were other tourists climbing the face of the Mayan pyramid, Harold was not aware of them. His eyes were on the steps, slabs of limestone precisely carved and fitted together. They seemed both too narrow and too high, so that his feet were never solidly planted and his knees were constantly raised.

It was noon and the Yucatan sun raised the sweat on his neck and back. He stopped to rest on step thirty and now on step sixty, but not long enough to dwell on the small aches and twinges that had beset him lately. He continued counting and climbing. At step ninety-one, he reached the top.

El Castillo. The guidebook had provided the dimensions and the history, but nothing had prepared Harold for the excitement of walking across the pyramid's top, like a Mayan noble.

At the temple, he turned to face west, from where he had come, removed his hat and sunglasses, and stuffed them in his pockets. He wanted to see everything below him in sharp relief. The temples, broken columns, wall remnants, the paths of lords and priests. At the perimeter of the site, leaves shimmered in the heat and an immense blue sky anchored the horizon.

Exhilarated, he opened his arms, ready to embrace the flat land, the Mayan jungle and all it contained.

He wished his wife were with him. He waved at a tree where Grace said she would wait for him, but he couldn't tell if anyone waved back. Perhaps she wasn't even looking his way. "I see no sense in it," she had said. "Once up, we'll only have to come down."

"To see the vista," he said. "To walk in the footsteps of the ancients."

She kissed him on the cheek and warned him to be careful.

No sense in it. Well, he saw no sense in her talking to everybody and anybody she met either.

On the excursion bus she had struck up a conversation with her seat mate, a chap in khaki shorts and a T-shirt that listed the perils of drinking tequila. Harold found a place across the aisle but got no more than a grunt from his seat companion, a woman in her thirties who spent the whole bus ride staring out the window and clutching her straw bag against her chest. Harold had tried to catch Grace's attention; he wanted to let her know how uncomfortable he was, but she was too busy listening to Hairy Legs in his short pants.

Harold and Grace had been the last to board the bus. Her fussing about what sunhat to wear and how many bottles of water to bring had irritated him, but he had calmed himself enough to appreciate that it was her vacation, too, and if she took longer than he deemed necessary, who was he to begrudge her. At the beginning of their marriage he saw everything she did as a reflection of her commitment or lack of commitment to him. Later he learned to veer towards a safer, middle route, live and let live.

When they reached Chichén Itzá, he took off quickly down the tree-lined path. Grace had tried to slow him down. "Relax," she said. "You'll get a stroke." She pulled a bottle of water from her bag and made him drink. "We have all the time in the world."

In this she was wrong, he decided. Time had a way of catching up and passing people. His father died when he was sixty-seven and Harold's business partner had died last March. Neither of them had ventured far outside their county. I'm not a traveler, son, his father used to tell him. I got everything I want right here.

But the county did not have everything Harold needed, far from it. He wanted to be in the presence of greatness and there was nothing remotely great in the history of his part of the world. There were no pyramids in Middlesex, Ontario.

As a youngster, he had enjoyed reading about ancient civilizations and looking through the family's National Geographic magazines. He had even imagined himself becoming an archaeologist, but he never wanted it badly enough. Not then. He went to work for a construction company, specialized in cement foundations.

In the year of his retirement the need to visit the places he had once read about surfaced. He chose Chichén Itzá for his first destination because it was the closest and because it had the Mayan-Toltec pyramid, El Castillo.

He was drawn to the pyramid, not simply because of its size or its symmetry--four sides plus a top platform--but because of its stark delineation of time. Each stone side, step, terraced section, ornate panel served a precise function, reflected clear thought, corresponded to a day, month, year of the Mayan calendar.

"Think of it as our discovery trip," Harold told his wife. "Not a going-to-Florida-for-the-sun-trip or visiting family or going fishing." He liked the sound of the word discovery. It fit neatly with words like adventure and wonder. They flew down from Toronto with two bags--full of clothing, sunblock, guide books and medicine bottles.

Now he was exactly where he dreamed of being. At the top. He walked to the edge of the pyramid and looked down. The steepness astounded him. He, Harold, had climbed these steps. But pride quickly changed to apprehension. The guide book had pegged the incline at sixty degrees. Thirty degrees more and it would be a perpendicular drop. He felt momentarily dizzy, stepped back, afraid he might fall.

Grace would be waiting for him to get back. He approached the first step again, but could not trust himself to walk down. He wondered if it would be easier to go down sideways, feet parallel to the stairs. Either way would expose him to an uncomfortable expanse of space, a space without the solid boundaries of walls or banisters. Not that this expanse hadn't been there on the way up, but now he was aware of it and that made all the difference. He was a tall, robust man, too close to the sun, his head too far away from his feet. He knew this fear was irrational, but he could not shake it away. What if he became dizzy again? Slipped? Would he be able to catch himself in time?

He moved over to the iron links that ran down the middle of the stairs. The chain seemed securely attached and he had seen two women holding on to it, descending backwards. He could do the same, but even that thought filled him with unease. What if the dizziness signaled heat exhaustion or something worse? Maybe Grace had been right about drinking more water. She had asked him to take an extra bottle with him, but he had refused.

He faced the temple, knelt down, and gingerly pushed his left leg back till he could feel the first step. He glanced neither behind him nor up, but squarely on the roughened stone. One step at a time. Knees on steps, one hand on the step, the other on the chain. A crab, he thought. I have been reduced to crawling like a crab, and he was glad then that he could not see Grace. What would she think of him now? He felt a great weight in his head.

This time he did not count the steps and fear of falling stopped him from looking up. He had no way of knowing how close he was to the bottom; he knew only that his back, knees and hands hurt, that he should have put his hat back on to protect his head and neck from the searing sun.

Every so often he paused. In a strange way the pauses comforted him. He stayed very still in what seemed a small box cut out of the Mexican sky. It was during one of these pauses that he heard a woman's voice--"Don't stare, Jeremy"--and saw a man's shoes and legs standing on the step directly above his hands. Hairy Legs from the bus.

"What's he doing?" said the man.

"Act of penance." The woman sounded exasperated.

Act of penance, Harold thought. God, just let me get back to earth. He tried not to think of the pain in his back, tried to turn inward, tried to keep on without dwelling too much on anything at all.

Then he was on the last step, ready to rise, but he fell over with a little thud. His body felt stone heavy. His stomach did a turn and he thought he would vomit.

A stroke. But, it wasn't possible. He wasn't ready. Before the trip, his doctor had declared him in good health. An unfit man would not have reached the top of El Castillo.

Grace would ask what was taking him so long to get back. She'd stop whatever she was doing, look in the direction of the pyramid. He was closer to her now and she'd see him. He called out Grace, but no sound came out. The word was locked in his brain, leaving his tongue to flap mutely in his mouth. The plumed serpent head at the base of the pyramid stared back at him. The plumes began to sway back and forth like cabbage weeds and he felt himself sinking into a blue-green void.


It was cooler now. Someone was bathing his forehead with a wet cloth. He moved his hand, touched grass. His thighs hurt.

"Feeling better?"

Harold looked up at his wife's face. "Grace." Saying her name comforted him.

She was sitting against a small tree. "Mr. Salter helped you." Without knowing it, he must have looked bewildered, because she added, "Hairy Legs."

Harold managed a small "oh"; it dropped like a plumb line inside him. "How long have I been . . . ?"

"Twenty minutes or so," Grace said quietly. "A power nap."

Tourists were moving up and down the pyramid. The last thing he remembered was seeing the limestone head of a plumed serpent. "I thought I had . . . " He touched his chest.

"You'll be fine," said Grace.

He was going to protest, ask how she knew, but she stopped him in mid-thought. "Mr. Salter took care of you." She looked past him and waved. "No broken bones. Pulse normal."

Harold cautiously rolled to his side and pushed himself up. In the shade of a small grove, Hairy Legs was standing beside the woman with the large straw handbag. They raised their hands in a salute. He nodded in return.

"He's a paramedic," said Grace.

"Hairy Legs," he said, as if he couldn't quite believe what she was telling him.

"Yes. He brought you here and then you dozed off. Felled by the heat, I think. It's just that--"

Harold waited for her to say, I told you to drink more water, but mercifully she didn't. He felt such love for her for not nagging him, for being here with him. He squeezed her hand and kissed it. "I think I'd like some water, if you have any." She handed him a bottle. Water had never tasted so good.

"I saw you on the top of the pyramid," she said.

"It was beautiful from up there." He was going to add, I wish you had been with me, but then remembered his mortifying descent. "I waved to you, but I didn't see you wave back."

"I did. You looked magnificent." She whispered the last part in his ear.

He smiled in spite of himself.

"I couldn't have gone up," said Grace.

"You didn't want to."

"I couldn't and it was easier to tell you I didn't want to because you would have tried to pooh pooh my fears away."

"Grace!" He said her name so loudly that she nudged him with her foot to hush him.

"Yes, you tend to do that," Grace said. "At least with me. Sometimes it gets tiresome."

Harold wondered if she was going to remind him of something he had done years ago and since forgotten. A tendency could only imply that he had done this often. "I'm sorry," he said and patted her thigh. He knew this would not be enough; the rebuke would worm itself into a small dark corner and he would be obliged to ask her when and where he had dismissed her fears.

Grace looked straight ahead. She was a small woman but she seemed even smaller now. Her cheeks were flushed pink. She held the empty water bottle tightly in her hand.

He felt he should concede, not hide the truth from her. "It was hard coming down," he said.

"Was it? I would have thought it would be the opposite." The empty plastic bottle crackled when she pushed it in. "I didn't see you come down."

"I fell at the bottom."

"Yes, I know. Mr. Salter thought the penance had done you in. I didn't understand what he meant. Do you?"

"No. I can't imagine. Let's not talk about him." Harold drained his water bottle. "What would you like to see?"

"Well, if you feel rested, we could go to the Temple of the Jaguars." She pointed to a set of columns, to the west of the pyramid. "But, only if you're sure."

"There's a stairway there, too," said Harold.

"I know, but it's manageable. For me."

For me, too, thought Harold. He stood up and took his wife's arm. "Then let's . . ."

The sun had shifted, slightly off center.


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