by Joslyn Chase
The scar stands out in jagged relief, a topography of my grief and failure, the shiny pink mountain range trailing from my wrist nearly to my elbow, flanked by faint blue veins like rivers on a map. It is always there, under my gaze, a memento of my guilt, a reminder that I held life in my hands and I let it slip away.
Dag, I was convinced, carried no scar from that day, no physical mark, no emotional stain. And yet, he was the one who suggested the climb, who inspected the equipment, whose subtle jabs spurred Caleb and Isaac to scale higher and risk more. It was Dag who chose the routes and paid out the line. My scar burned, pulling me down under its weight, while he floated out from under, light as a lark.
I could not let this go unredressed.
We came to Spain for the beaches, my brothers and I. But after we met Dag, we spent our days at Tarifa, on the cliffs. When our faces were not pasted against the rock, we looked out over the Strait of Gibraltar to the faint headlands of Africa. Caleb and Isaac were like monkeys, moving over the cliff face with apparent ease, finding every crack, every toehold.
“You’re a natural.” Dag shouted up to Caleb. “Someday you’ll top what I can do.”
“How about today?” Caleb laughed, climbing higher. He and Isaac were fearless, but I worried about sharp rocks cutting the ropes, about slipping, about Dag’s inattentive belaying.
“Watch him there,” I pointed. Dag leaned back, his posture casual, eyes following the clouds or roving up and down my bare, tanned legs when he thought I wouldn’t notice.
“I’ve got him, Chica.” His nonchalance infuriated me. When my brother’s life was in his hands, his eyes should not be on my legs.
But it had been my hand that let Caleb fall, our second week on that rock. He died because I was too weak to maintain that grip, powerless to stop the inexorable slipping as the jagged rock tore my flesh and blood welled out of the gash, oiling our clenched hands. Caleb fell away from me, down the sheer rock. The canyon swallowed him, and all it gave back was the echo of his cry. It was my hand that let him go.
But it was Dag’s rope that had snapped.
For two days, we sat in the darkened room, persianas pulled down to ward off the burning sun. Isaac found a ragged yellow tennis ball and tossed it against the wall in a mindless rhythm like the ticking of minutes. Our neighbor tolerated it out of respect for the dead, but for us it became a numbing salve, a heart that must keep beating.
On the third day Isaac’s arm grew tired and we left the apartment, in search of food. Dag was waiting and in the days that followed, he came over to eat and drink and nothing was different, except the empty chair. As before, he dumped the gear bag in the hallway, where it slumped, full of shoes and carabiners, harness and line. I saw that already Dag had bought a new rope and this one also bore a black mark at its midpoint.
The authorities suggested that had been what killed Caleb, the black mark. They came to question us about the events of the day, the circumstances of the accident. They asked how Dag had made the black mark.
“I used this,” Dag told them, pulling a Sharpie from the gear bag and holding it up.
“You must not do that,” they warned, faces stern with disapproval. “There are special marking pens for this purpose. You must use this particular ink.”
They departed, the questioning finished. They entered “accidental death” into a box on their form and shut Caleb in a drawer, like a pair of socks. I could not let this go unredressed.
Five blocks from our apartment, I found an internet café. The world-wide web yielded a wealth of information pertaining to the dangers of subjecting your climbing gear to chemical damage. Dag had known this, I was certain. I read about incidents in which people had been injured or killed due to equipment failure caused by the chemicals in marking pens, in bleach, in car batteries. I discovered that I could use any number of readily available household fluids to weaken connective fibers, thereby compromising the integrity of the equipment. After careful consideration, I settled on using a hypodermic syringe to inject small quantities of antifreeze into critical junctures of the harness and into the black mark of the rope. A climber should be careful of his equipment.
Each day, Dag arrived at our little rooms, wearing a flowered shirt and sweet-smelling cologne. Whistling, carefree, scarless. And every time, he brought his gear bag, dropping it in the hall by the front door, just like before.
“Will you climb today?”
We always refused. I wanted to spit at him for asking. Isaac and Dag drank beer and played cards, listening to music. I sat quietly in the hallway, dissolving connective threads.
After a week, I decided it was enough. Someday Dag would climb again, and he would fall. I resigned myself to patience and spent the day at the beach, baking under a punishing sun, mixing my salt with the sea. The sun was nearly a golden orb on the horizon when I packed my things to go. They arrived and stood before me, the other climbers, the ones whose names I knew and nothing more. A girl called Gabriella took my hand, folding me in an embrace, stroking my hair.
“Lo siento,” she murmured. “Lamento mucho.”
They had already expressed their condolences to me and I was surprised at this second showing. The sun dipped into the water and a chill passed over me, touching my scar with a burning intensity. Their dark eyes regarded me with pity.
“He didn’t want to displease you,” one of the boys explained in polite English. “But today, with you at the beach—“ His voice trailed off and he stepped away, unwilling to say more.
Eduardo put a hand on my shoulder. “Isaac went climbing with us today.” He paused, giving an expressive shrug. “I am sorry.”
Gabriella collapsed against me, shaking with sobs, and was torn away by a boy with bleached hair. I looked up to see that the Guardia Civil had arrived. I picked up my bag and went with them quietly.
Two brothers were dead as a result of faulty climbing equipment owned by Dag Andersson. Witnesses told investigators how the brothers were overly protective of their little sister, how they wouldn’t let anyone near me. They told the police that Dag had wanted very much to be near me. This time, the investigation had teeth. This time, they found signs of tampering. This time, they made an arrest.
Dag was incarcerated in a foreign jail. He had few friends and no funds. His protests went unheeded, his guilt presumed by all but the most perfunctory of trial proceedings. There is little question that he will be convicted and rot in a Spanish prison.
He will bear scars, but I purchased those scars at far too high a price.
An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and life shall go for life. I chose to give scar for scar, severing connective tissues, carving the jagged rent, once skin-deep, into my soul. It burns there, with acid intensity, a memento of my guilt. A topographical map, but I am lost.