The Ritual

(from The Soup of Something Missing, but first appeared in Quarterly West, University of Utah, No. 50, Spring/Summer 2000.)

The Ritual


On the first day of spring, two men struggled to ascend a steep cliff. The depth of their muscles tested the distance of up. Fear and balance has as much to do with climbing as it does with life; ask a wild dog or fish or a man who fell. The angle of the cliff never changed, neither did the sky’s. When a man kicked a foothold into the rock the dust of another’s sweat rose in a puff like breath on a cool morning. One of the men thought about his fingernails for the first nine minutes, the other spent more time thinking about nothing. A mattress was lashed to each man’s back, depending on his strength it was either an obstacle or a promise. The mattress strained against the rope, the thin line of suffering across the stomach and shoulders.


A beautiful woman stood silhouetted on the edge of the cliff. She pledged to marry the first climber who reached her. From the bottom of the mountain she resembled a bride on a wedding cake. She would untie the mattress from the first man’s back and consummate her pledge as the second man continued up the face. Cool mountain air swirled between her thighs. Dozens of men gathered below to watch. Heads tilted back, hands shielding their eyes from the sun; wind brushed across the shadows in their faces.


When the second climber reached the cliff, the woman also freed him of his mattress. He immediately tossed it to the ground below as if it were an old worry being discarded then jumped, hoping to land on top. Most often he missed. Those who previously envied him carried away the broken body, now lighter without the weight of suffering. The mattress -- stained in the ascent, soiled by the fall -- was cleaned for use in the next contest. Few mattresses, after all, were suitable for such a struggle. It had to be light enough to allow a man to climb as fast as desire, yet thick enough to save him if he was not lucky enough to win but fortunate enough to land on it after he jumped.