Daniel couldn’t see the summit, couldn’t see his back trail. He could see wet bunch grass and agave and rain-slicked rocks. Clouds and mist shrouded everything else, including the summit of Mount Tlaloc.
Daniel sighed and turned his feet downhill.
Several steps later, darkness loomed — a wall of rock thrusting upward out of the side of the mountain. On one side of the wall, a narrow path. Next to the path, three flat stones rested one next to the other. A fallen cairn.
That someone, sometime, had known where they were going was enough for Daniel. He was lost, out of food, his legs shot, his lungs burning. He wanted to puke. Altitude sickness? Probably. Was he bonked? He was stumbling, he didn’t care, so yeah, he was bonked.
The apathy helped keep the panic in check as he followed the path downhill to a narrow gap in the rocks. He entered a ring of stone sheltering a perfectly round tarn, the still water doubling the shifting curtains of mist and cloud above it.
As he walked along the path tracing the edge of the tarn, the clouds let loose. Rain shattered the surface of the small lake, soaked Daniel’s pants, ran down his legs into his boots. Daniel shivered and pulled his sodden windbreaker tighter. He needed shelter. Halfway around the small lake, half-hidden behind a large, withered agave with a broken stalk, he spotted a dusty crevice with just enough overhang.
Daniel was too wet, too cold to worry about snakes. He shucked out of his backpack and pressed himself into the dusty crack at the base of the rock. A trickle of rain found its way to the back of his neck. Daniel forced himself deeper in and shoved his pack into the gap. The trickle stopped.
Before long, Daniel stopped shivering. Eventually, he was something close to warm. He watched the rain pound down, run across the sandy path, and drain into the lake.
He didn’t sleep, exactly, but he drifted.
The approach had been uneventful, pleasant even. Birds sang when the sun peeked out from behind puffy white clouds and fell silent when it hid. He hiked through a mix of sloped fields prepped for sowing — maize, he assumed — and pine forest, with the forest slowly taking over the further he climbed. He passed a boy and three dogs herding sheep from one meadow to another. The boy waved. The dogs, intent on their work, raised their hackles and growled softly.
Daniel climbed on, doing his best to find the trail that led to the summit among the many crisscrossing the mountain. The navigation app showed a bright green line on his phone. The real world showed tangled footpaths disappearing and reappearing like lightning bugs winding their way through the forest on a summer night. Here and there a shiny ribbon had been tied to a tree. Sometimes the tree had been blazed. Sometimes the ribbons led in the right direction. Sometimes a two-track appeared, only to disappear where a creek jumped its banks and obliterated the road.
Daniel did his best. Over and over again he stopped, fired up his phone, and checked the app. More often than not, he backtracked to the green line and then shut the phone off. His phone’s battery indicator dropped as he moved further and further up the mountain.
Five hours after leaving the town of Rio Frío, Daniel glimpsed the summit. Twenty minutes after that, the mist closed in. Then the rain drove him into the crevice in the rock.
Daniel told himself he shouldn’t have been surprised: Tlaloc was the Mexica rain god.
The rain stopped not long before dark. Exhausted, warm, with nothing to do and nowhere to go, Daniel slept.
The ladybug on the broken agave stalk carried seven black spots and a water droplet on its back. As Daniel watched, it climbed out of the shadow and into the morning sunlight.
Following its example, Daniel shoved his pack onto the path and crawled out of his shelter. He stood and brushed dirt and mud off his clothes. The sunlight on his back felt like nothing less than divine love.
He stooped to pick up his pack. Behind it, resting on top of the packed dirt where he’d slept, he spotted an arrowhead. It was as long as Daniel’s palm was wide and made of flawless, jet-black obsidian. He picked it up and straightened his back with a groan.
He was turning the arrowhead over in his hand, marveling at its perfection, when he heard the voice.
“Buenos días.” The newcomer stood a few feet away, downhill of the tarn, watching Daniel curiously. He was tall, twice Daniel’s age judging by his graying hair, and very fit. A spotted dog stood at his side, head cocked, tail wagging.
“Buenos días,” Daniel said. “Me llamo Daniel. Ayer me perdí. I slept — dormí aquí. Acá. Whatever I’m supposed to say.”
“I’m glad you speak English,” the newcomer said with a laugh, “my Spanish sucks.”
Daniel grinned. “Mine too. Especially after sleeping in a crack in the mountain.”
“You slept here? Seriously?”
“Yeah, got turned around yesterday when the rain came in, found that crack, and crashed.”
“Coulda been a lot worse. I’m Daniel by the way.”
“Keith. This is Spot, but I’ve started calling him Manchas. He doesn’t seem to mind.” Manchas wagged his tail harder.
“He seems to like it,” Daniel said. “You don’t happen to have a granola bar or something I could bum off ya, do ya?”
“Sure, bud.” Keith snaked an arm behind himself into a side pocket on his pack and tossed Daniel a ClifBar.
Daniel caught it one-handed and opened the package with his teeth.
“You find something there?” Keith had come to stand beside him. Manchas trotted a short distance up the path.
Daniel showed him the arrowhead. “Found it when I crawled out of my bunk this morning.”
Keith whistled. “It’s a beaut. You gonna keep it?”
Daniel bit off another piece of ClifBar. “Don’t know.”
“I was you, I’d keep it,” Keith said. “My friends here would say it was a gift from the mountain.”
Daniel thought about that a moment then bent over and replaced the arrowhead under the narrow overhang. He sifted some dirt over it. “I think Tlaloc has already given me enough. If this crack wasn’t here…”
Keith shrugged. “Suit yourself. You make it to the top?”
Chewing, Daniel shook his head.
“Wanna come with us?”
Manchas barked as if urging Daniel to accept.
Daniel’s turned and looked uphill. They were much closer to the summit than he’d thought. Even better, there wasn’t a cloud anywhere near it. He hefted his pack. From the weight, he guessed it carried a liter or so of water. “I’d love to.”
“Right then, let’s go.” Keith moved off, uphill, with Manchas running ahead, nose down, tail up and wagging. Daniel headed uphill, sunlight beaming down on the three of them from a cloudless sky.
Jim’s Taco Fund (Trying not to be a starving artist)
If you’ve ever tossed some coins to a subway saxophonist or a juggler working a stoplight, please consider slinging a few bucks my way — $5 covers a day’s worth of tacos. Or, for $3, buy me a coffee!
Prompted by JKL.
Leave a comment with a living thing, an inanimate object, and a location and I will write a story based on your prompt and tag you when I publish it.
Photo by Aurore Compère on Unsplash