By Paul Malone
Narrated by Bob Eccles
Heaven is closer now, or so it feels walking The Gap like a bird on a wire, blue sky all around. The Soonday-Yulbrea sporeline that spans The Gap is serpentine smooth, dewy, a rounded chord, all silvery green. It fits perfectly between the balls of Taye’s feet. She walks carefully when the sporeline is wet. Later, when the dew has evaporated, she’ll stride across, barely aware of the empty basket on her back and the empty buckets on the ends of her balancing pole. All being well, she’ll reach the Soonday Salt Mine on the opposing mountain ridge by midday.
Out here she is on top of the world, beyond reach. Each step is a life decider. Anchored in the moment, intensely aware, she is no stranger to euphoria or the unknown terror: the irrational feeling that she will panic and fall. She dwells a moment on Myrell’s death. He was swept off the sporeline by a storm last summer. Thinking about that doesn’t help, but feelings and memories are like butterflies in a flowering meadow, soon lost in the wash of colour. There is no need to go catching them.
Below, the sacred woodlands of her childhood, an arboreal labyrinth bounded by the opposing Soonday and Yulbrea mountains, continue to morph. The restive woodlands are where the trees uproot and change positions to form new mazes where rite-of-passage novice monks go to spend their lives in the monasteries high above Yulbrea village, and it is where the Alooyi, the ghosts of unwise ancestors, haunt the labyrinths. She rarely looks down there. She hasn’t returned home in years and wonders what her people would think if she ever did.
Her muscles are cold, overworked, and her sides ache from keeping balance. Thick calluses have developed on the mounts of her palms from grasping her balancing pole. Her neck and shoulders are so stiff it hurts to look about. Myrell and she used to massage one another at day’s end. They also took care to mix with the other gapwalkers, enjoy the esprit de corp and join in with their beer-fuelled chant: “Bound are we who walk The Gap, to honour those who never came back!” Now she works double shifts and is mostly alone.
Late morning, Taye steps onto the wooden landing of the Soonday Salt Mine. Mine foreman Lynech has been leaning on a trolley filled with rock salt, watching Taye walk the final stretch. He’s a big man, stooped from his years in the mountain’s belly. He squints in the daylight, one hand cupped at his brow in a lasting salute. Taye has only ever seen him dusted in salt. She’s come to think of him as a kindly mountain spirit.
She sets her balancing pole and buckets on the ground beside the mine trolley and slips off her basket, ignoring the pain in her back as she bends.
A battered steel water bottle stands in the shade of the mine trolley. Lynech picks it up, hands it to her. “You shouldn’t be here, Taye. You promised you’d take a day off.”
She slakes her thirst with a long draught of the bottle, wipes her lips with the back of her hand, tastes her own salt. “Don’t recall saying which day. Besides, there is no one else – stomach bug still going round.”
Lynech grins. “Wouldn’t want to be standing under the line if they were working. Not that a runny turd ever killed anyone.”
“Disgusting, Lynech. I’ll tell them you send your best wishes.”
“Seriously,” Lynech says. “I could make you take time out.”
“Will if you don’t listen.” He pauses, gazes east. The horizon is empty. His eyes open a little, deep lines in his forehead softening. “It was about a year to the day, wasn’t it?”
Taye puts the bottle to her lips, guzzles the rest of the water. She harbours a drought that water cannot break. Lynech, perhaps from his years in the mine, robbed of normal sight, can see her desolate interior. His words stir her desert sands, remind her of the emptiness within.
When Myrell died she kept on walking The Gap. Myrell would have done the same. You don’t quit, ever. Anyway, falling is a gapwalker’s final destination. Honour those that never come back.
Lynech came out to meet her on the shift after Myrell had fallen, rested his big hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he said. “He was a good lad.” They hadn’t spoken of Myrell since. She doesn’t want to now; not ever. She clears her throat, hands him back the empty bottle. “How’s work going on the new sporeline?”
The line is grown from strands of algal spores. They grow in spiralled vats carved into the rock somewhere inside the mountain. Eventually the strands are extracted and spliced. Sunlight catalyses them and they thicken and strengthen.
Lynech shrugs. “It’ll be ready by winter. Maybe you’ll be on the fitting crew.”
“I’d like that.”
“The old sporeline’s seen too much work.”
“Any idea how many crossings?”
“Something like 90,000,” Lynech says, scratches his chin. “Exact number’s in the ledger. I don’t keep ‘em in my head. Just faces. I could put a name to the face of every gapwalker over the last 20 years.” He fishes into his centre chest pocket, pulls out a tobacco pouch, opens it, rummages with his fingers. “Starting with Sandy Goodwind. Miner’s son. Taller than me, he was. Never would have made a good miner. He wasn’t good on forest transport either. Got lost, or spooked, probably both. A drinker like his father. Probably off his head when he volunteered to be the first to walk The Gap. Miracle he lasted like he did.”
Taye has read the stone plaque dedicated to Sandy Goodwind near the Yulbrea landing: 2920 crossings in eight years. Never missed a shift. No mention of the drink. Taye is about to spout, “Everybody’s gotta go sometime,” when she catches herself; Lynech would take it as his queue to start over about Myrell. Instead, she wipes her brow. “I’d better get moving. They’re sweating on this delivery.”
Lynech helps her load her basket and buckets with the rock salt, carries them for her back to the landing. “Listen,” he says, “you take a break, you hear me? Go home . . . see your folks. They must be worried. There’s more to life than The Gap.”
Taye slips her basket on, hooks the buckets onto her balancing rod. “I’ll think about it, Lynech.”
“I’m serious. You think Myrell would want to see you working yourself to death?”
“He isn’t watching, so it doesn’t matter.”
“Sure it matters. He cared about you.”
“I gotta go. See you next time.”
She walks slower now. The weight of the rock salt in her basket presses on her spine, runs through her legs, is at its worst in the balls of her feet. The sporeline yields ever so slightly under the added weight of the salt. On a full shift, up to a half-dozen gapwalkers might traverse the sporeline. Then there’d be a spring to it. You had to walk with care and out of step so as not to set off large oscillations.
A dark band of cloud darkens the east. Taye observes it, feels the breeze strengthen, temperature fall. It’s coming in fast – a summer storm. She has a long way to go. She could turn back, spend the night at the mine settlement. Lynech once said she could always stay with him and his family. Or she could press on.
In a compartment beneath her basket she carries two essentials: a knife (purpose varied), and a cocoon-shaped bag with a sturdy hook on the end. The bag is known as a stormrider. If you get caught out, you hang it off the sporeline and climb into it and hang like moth in a cocoon. The stormrider clinches it; she will press on.
The cloudbank is upon her within the hour. Just before she is engulfed, she looks back. She’s less than a thousand metres out from the mine now, but she can just see Lynech standing on the landing watching her. Then the cloud rolls in. Taye takes a breath, her lungs fill with moist air. Everything is blanketed in dense grey mist. She cannot see the woodlands below, nor can she see more than a dozen paces ahead. But it isn’t yet too cold or too dark to continue, and the wind isn’t yet strong. She presses on, mindful of the slick sporeline beneath her. The mist seems to affect her mind as well as her vision, for she finds herself thinking of Myrell.
She is resting her head on Myrell’s chest, listening to his pounding heart. They’d just made love. The bedcovers are strewn at their feet, their bodies hot, breath shallow. Myrell gazes up into the darkness. “Lynech says I could work the mine if I wanted.”
“What? Why the hell would you want to?”
“We were talking about Symonds.”
“Ah, get you spooked, did he?”
“Hell no! Symonds had it coming, making that extra large basket. Greed, that’s what that was.”
She runs her fingers through the hairs on Myrell’s stomach, feels the moist heat of his skin. “So why are you worried?”
“It’s not me. It’s you.”
“Me? What’ve you been saying about me?”
“Nothing! We’ve just been talking, that’s all.” Myrell takes her hand in his. “Listen, guys like me, Symonds . . . hell, all of us gapwalkers . . . we don’t have anywhere else to go. We walk The Gap and are happy each time we come back alive. But eventually, no matter how good you are, you’re gonna slip, right?”
“Yeah, well . . . it’s different for you. You’ve got people out there. A home to go to.”
“I told you I don’t want to go back there. The woodlands are no longer my home.”
“Why, because it’s so much better here, hauling salt, a mule on a tightrope?”
“No, because we belong together.”
And that is where they’d left things: Myrell torn by fear and love, or maybe it was conscience and love, and she, determined they’d beat the odds, as if love alone could see them through.
Cold gusts whirl about her now. Without the weight of her balancing pole she would be in serious trouble. It is mid-afternoon, but it is already like dusk – the cloud thickening and darkening around her. It begins to rain cold drops on her skin, soaking though her body suit. She’s only halfway; she can’t make it back without serious risk. Carefully she sets the balancing pole down on the sporeline, allows it to slide to the left until it hangs freely on the right bucket hook. Then she slips the basket from her shoulders. There is a hook at the top of it. She hangs it from the sporeline too. The stormrider billows and twists about in the wind, jerks her off centre. She bends, grasps the sporeline, hangs the stormrider alongside the basket. There is a flap at the top. She opens it, eases herself inside. There is room only to curl up, to hang there, wet, shivering, exhausted. The stormrider sways in the wind. There’s nothing left to do but wait.
Hanging there, thousands of metres up, she falls asleep. When she wakes it is dark. The wind has died. Fat raindrops patter onto the stormrider. It has side openings. From one, she peers out. Smothered moonlight sifts through the cloud like the pallid illumination of some spectral realm. She wishes she had turned back.
Something woke her. She shifts into an upright crouching position, listens to the wind whistling around the sporeline, the patter of rain, her breath passing over her shivering lips. The sporeline suddenly shudders. Taye tenses, breath held. There again, another shudder. Something is moving along it.
She peers into the darkness, can barely make out the sporeline above. The sporeline shudders again, stronger. “Hello?” she says, voice barely a whisper. She clears her throat. “Hello? Who’s there?”
The sporeline shudders several more times. There are footsteps, coming closer.
“Hello?” She reaches out, across to her basket, rummages for her knife. No one sane would be out here. They’d know she was out here, but they wouldn’t send out a scout. They’d wait till morning. And if she had fallen they would abandon her body to the shifting forest.
The wind carries an eerie sound: a string of high-pitched hisses or a drunken titter.
A bird, she tells herself. They often perch on the sporeline. But they don’t fly at night. A nocturnal animal? In this weather? She reaches up, opens the top flap, raises herself to her knees, peers out. “Hey, is anybody there?”
The sporeline shudders three more times. In the shrouded twilight there’s a faint silhouette of a man. His arms are outstretched as if they were the wings of a swooping bird. He is tall, but stooped. He sniggers, body convulsing slightly as though supressing outright hysteria.
She grasps her knife, climbs out onto the sporeline, stands. “Who’s there?”
He steps closer.
Knife held out, a sick feeling in her stomach, she shivers as much from cold as fright. “I said, who’s there?”
“Sistuh shudda stayed home.”
She steps back, wary that the sporeline is slick from the rain. “What do you want?”
He moves like a cat along a fence and stops with his chest pressed against Taye’s knife tip. Even in the dark she sees how pale his face is: the colour of chalk, pock-marked. His lips are missing in a Cheshire grin. Hair, long and scraggly. He’s skeletal, reeks of decay. Most ghoulish are the empty sockets where his eyes should be.
“Sistuh should’na crossed Sandy?”
Taye opens her mouth to scream, but barely can gasp. “Please . . .” she whispers.
“I’ve been keepen thuh count. This is my line.” He thumps his chest. There’s a sound of clicking bones. “You’ve counten too, sistuh. Thinken of beaten ole Sandy.”
She make the only reasonable connection: “Sandy Goodwind?”
His face contorts into a grimace. “Sandy comen tuh get yuh.”
She steps back. Her foot slips. Her arms windmill. Then she falls. She catches the sporeline between her legs, snaps her thighs together, keeps herself from spinning. “Please,” she says looking up, voice wavering. “What do you want from me?
Sandy Goodwind crouches. His face, a macabre mask of rotten flesh. Something is writhing in his eye sockets. “Does 2920 mean anythen to yuh, sistuh?”
She stares aghast into his dark sockets. “Number of times you walked the gap.”
He sniggers. “Too right. Shuddha bin more.” Shrugs. “Night like tonight, it was. Lucky for me yuh come unstuck before yuh got to shaft me.”
2920. It was a number she’d been closing in on. She’d lost count when Myrell died. “You mean . . . I . . .”
Sandy Goodwind scrunches up what’s left of his nose, nods. “That’s right, sistuh. Woulda been 2920 had yuh made it.”
“I didn’t know . . .”
“Too damned bad,” he hisses, and reaches out for her, fingers like claws.
Taye shrieks, leans back, swings her knife-hand round, sinks the blade into his shoulder.
He pulls back, clasps the wound.
His stench makes her nauseous. What horror has brought him back to life? “Please,” she says, deftly swinging both her feet back onto the sporeline. She crouches and faces him. “Let me go. I’ll turn back.”
He lunges, grabs her by the waist. He’s surprisingly light – all sinew and bone – and he has no weight to cause any momentum. She bends her knees, counters his weight, slams the knife into his back, twists it.
He howls, his face contorted in rage. For a moment his focus is thrown and he releases her.
She strikes him in the temple with the back of her fist, knocks him off balance, follows through with a determined shove.
He falls. His screech rises and falls in pitch as he cartwheels down. It goes on and on, too long, as though he were drifting, not falling.
She cries. Her sides sting from where he scratched her. She feels panic, a rising sense of vertigo, and longs for solid ground. A hard rain sets in. She can’t return to her stormrider now; he might return somehow. If she presses on he might try and stop her. He’ll be really pissed now. If she turns back, at least – and this is really stretching things – he might let her go.
She empties the rock salt from her basket and empties half the load from each bucket, leaving her enough ballast to counter the wind. Summoning her remaining strength and shattered composure, she turns back towards the Soonday Mine.
When she left her woodland home, she wasn’t much more than a child, although she didn’t consider herself one. The sunlight, crisp mountain air, the promise of a life less sheltered called her. Her family watched her go. “You aloof child! You belong here,” her mother said.
“I can’t stay,” she said. Life was carrying her in a new direction and it felt right.
“But you must. We are the guardians of the labyrinth.”
“I know. But I’m going anyway.”
Her mother looked shocked. “Taye, don’t leave us. Your people need you.”
But she did leave. That was long ago.
Dawn is close, a smudge of grey-blue light in the mist to the east. Below, the cloud opens fleeting windows to the tree tops. The ground is closer now, steeper. The Soonday mine is close. She’ll go to the mine village, find Lynech. He’ll think she’s mad, but she doesn’t care; she’s just thankful to be alive and wants to keep it that way.
She feels another shudder on the sporeline.
“Please, no,” she whispers, turns. At first she sees nothing but weakening clouds in the gathering light. But then it gathers substance. At first it’s the silhouette of one person, spread-eagled arms, then behind him comes another, and then another. “Hell,” she whispers, turns and walks as fast as she dares.
From behind she hears: “Gunna get yuh fur that, sistuh!”
She runs now, each step an uncontrolled slide. She’s forgets about balance, the rod jangling in her hands, buckets rattling, rock salt spilling.
Sandy Goodwind is close behind. “You’re mine now, sistuh!”
She is vulnerable with her back to him. She stops and turns. Sandy Goodwind slides to a halt a few paces away.
She is overcome with the stench of decay. She gags, holds back her heaving stomach.
Sandy Goodwind glares at her with his mad grin. Behind him there’s a troupe of cadavers with macabre grins and bodies in various states of decay. They leer at her and shout, some with withered black tongues that spit maggots.
“Now, where were we?” Sandy says.
Taye screams, heaves her balancing pole at him, turns and runs.
“Bitch!” he yells. There are other voices too, a chorus of moans and snarls.
Ahead, the landing looms in the mist. There is someone on it. “Lynech!” she cries.
He raises his arm, waves it. In his other hand he holds a rod.
Sandy Goodwind closes behind her, his breath rasping from a porous chest. “Gunna get yuh, sistuh. Gunna teach yuh respect.”
“Lynech!” she cries. She cannot focus properly as she runs, but notices there is something about the way he stands. He’s stooped like Lynech, but shorter, and his stoop has a weariness unfitting of Lynech. She clasps her knife tighter, clenches her jaw. No slowing now.
A rasping, gravelly voice, familiar, comes from the man on the landing. “Taye!”
“Oh God!” Taye cries, and feels Sandy Goodwinds fingers swipe against her basket. She lunges, slips, catches herself, slides – arms outstretched, knees bent – the remaining metres onto the wooden landing.
Myrell stands before her, steel rod in his hands, twisting it pensively in his grip. His face has decayed: once blue eyes now slate, bulging; lips withered and black, that awful cadaver grin. But she senses he isn’t smiling. Tears blur her vision. “Myrell . . .”
“Taye,” he says as if struggling to find meaning in her name, draws the rod back over one of his shoulders as though it were a sword.
Sandy Goodwind slams into her, grabs her basket and yanks her back. Her feet slip out from under her and she falls onto him, hears the cracking of ribs.
She rolls over, casts off her basket, gets to her knees. Sandy Goodwind springs to his feet, his collar bone jutting through blackened flesh, head tilted at an unnatural angle. He hisses, and wriggling maggots spill from his mouth. The troupe of cadavers circles in, stare down at her with their lifeless eyes.
Body trembling, pulse racing, she stands. “Please,” she says. “Let me go.”
Sandy Goodwind lurches over to Myrell, who seems to be collapsing under the weight of the rod in his arms. He rests his hand on Myrell’s shoulder, leers at Taye. “Bound are we to walk thuh Gap to honour those who never cum back.”
Myrell moans, lowers the steel rod, uses it as a crutch to keep from falling. The other cadavers step closer, moaning, snarling.
Taye trembles so hard, her voice comes out in a stammer: “Please . . . let me go.”
“Taye . . . run,” says Myrell, his wavering voice a gravelly whisper.
Sandy Goodwind cackles, slaps Myrell on the shoulder. “When he said he’d love yuh forever, he meant it! Now, sistuh, its time to show your undying love.”
Her mind races and makes new connections. There is something familiar about Sandy Goodwind, Myrell, all the other dead gapwalkers. They remind her of the Alooyi whose dark spirit is pure avarice. She’d never come across a possessed body, but remembers childhood stories. Gotta burn the dead. Showing fear to the Alooyi was fuel to the fire. She straightens, glares at Sandy Goodwind. “Leave me alone, Alooyi.”
He hisses, opens his cadaverous mouth, curls out his withered tongue.
The other cadavers move in, moaning, dead eyes, foul smelling, arms outstretched.
Cold fingers touch her back. She cringes, steps forward, face to face with Sandy Goodwind, shoves him hard.
He stumbles back, shrieks.
He tries to lunge at her, but Myrell steps in front of him. They both collapse onto the ground. “Run, Taye, now.” Myrell grasps Sandy Goodwind in a shaky embrace.
She turns, takes three running steps into the ring of cadavers, tries to smash through. But they close in on her, their collective weight more than she can move. Arms close around her. She is enveloped in rotten stench, decayed flesh, brittle bone, all writhing. She screams.
“Taye!” It’s Lynech’s voice.
“Lynech, oh God, help!”
She hears shouting. Feels the mass of dead bodies jerking around her. They fall back, and she sees Lynech and several other miners fighting their way though, throwing the cadavers to the ground.
“God’s name!” Lynech says, grabbing one of the cadavers by an arm, snapping it off.
Sandy Goodwind, shrieking, arms outstretched, runs at Lynech, leaps onto his back, sinks his teeth into his shoulder.
Lynech cries out, drops the arm, whirls around, tries to shake him.
Taye rushes over, grabs Sandy Goodwind from the waist, wrenches him off.
A shaft of pale sunlight finds its way thought the cloud and touches Sandy Goodwind. He opens his mouth, cries in pain, smoke gouting from his eyes.
“It’s the Alooyi,” Taye says, glancing at Lynech. “They don’t like sunlight.”
Flames flickering from Sandy Goodwind’s eyes, he faces Taye. “Next time, sistuh.” Then he turns and runs, head lolling to one side, back to the sporeline. The other cadavers fall in behind him.
Myrell, too, is lurching back to the sporeline. “Stop!” Taye says, runs down to him, grabs his shoulder, spins him around. In the strengthening light, his decayed face is hideous. “Oh God, Myrell.”
Myrell moans, brings his hand up to hers, lifts it from his shoulder. “Don’t ever fall,” he says, turns and lurches back down the sporeline.
“Myrell!” she cries, makes to stop him, but Lynech has her, holds her fast.
“Don’t be crazy, Taye. Let ‘em go, for God’s sake.”
“You don’t understand. It’s the Alooyi. They’ve possessed Myrell’s dead body.”
The Alooyi walk out along the sporeline. Sandy Goodwind is out front, directly above the forest. He jumps. The others follow. Myrell is last, smoke rising from him. He wails as he falls.
“Hell, it looked like every damned one of the poor souls,” Lynech says. He turns to her. “You ok?”
The sun is level with the eastern mountain peaks. It’s warm, going to be a hot day. The sound of rattling mine carts and the call of miners at work boom from the mine entrance. It would all feel like a dream if it weren’t for all her scratches, bandaged now, stinging all the same. Lynech is gazing out at the sporeline. A gapwalker, too distant to make out who, approaches. Taye watches too.
“I have to find them, burn their bodies,” she says.
“What? You already forgotten what happened? You’re damned lucky to be alive.”
“It’s my land down there. My people. We can deal with the Alooyi. You did tell me to go see my folks.”
“Hell, that’s hardly what I meant.”
“I can’t leave Myrell or the others, not like that.”
Lynech shakes his head. “There’s gotta be another way.”
She takes a long-disused track, mostly covered in dense vegetation, leading down from the mine. Lynech watches her. “You sure about the Alooyi? Hate the daylight?” he says.
“With a passion. Remember – curfew and harnesses. No exceptions.”
“They’ll hate me for the harnesses. Against the Gapwaker spirit, right? Hey, when are you coming back?”
She senses she won’t. Strangely, she can’t ever imagine coming back. She might grow old looking up at the sporeline, watching the gapwalkers walk The Gap. She will remember Myrell, young love, dreams of what might have been, but there are pieces of her past that need to be gathered in the labyrinth. And the current of her life is carrying her on.
AUTHOR BIO: Paul is an Australian writer based in Austria. “Walking The Gap” was inspired by Paul’s numerous trips to Hallstatt, Austria, where salt has been mined from the mountain for over seven thousand years. Originally the salt was carried down the mountain in packs not unlike the one Taye uses to walk The Gap.
PHOTOGRAPHER BIO: Eleanor Leonne Bennett is a 16 year old internationally award winning artist. Her photography has been published in the Telegraph , The Guardian, BBC News Website and on the cover of books and magazines in the United states and Canada. See more of her photography at www.eleanorleonnebennett.zenfolio.com