Based on Freidrich at Sea by Fiona Demske

Zenith

Thomas could not remember the avalanche as well as Sophia could. He decided that he must have blacked out before the worst of it, as all he could remember was the sensation of sudden, jolting propulsion and a brief moment of flight, and he was glad of this. He did not want the experiences Sophia remembered: being battered by rocks as she tumbled down the mountain, snow forcing itself into her mouth and down her throat, ice stinging her eyes. He did not want to remember the conditions under which Sophia's leg had been so brutally snapped, so broken as to still appear mangled against the splint. He would instead sit and listen patiently as she sat on a rock and wept, and told him how she bruised such-and-such, and how her clothes were soaked through and her body was wet. She told him that she blamed him for what had happened, that he had been the one to bring her to the mountain, and he had been the one to pick the trail. Thomas knew that it was not his fault, but he stayed quiet and let Sophia release her anger onto him so that she might be able to calm herself down to the point where they could talk rationally. He did not want to think of ways to escape the mountain without conferencing with her first.

On the first day, all she did was talk to him, and he would listen and nod, interjecting with murmured agreements and small grunts meant to sound like pity. By night, though, she was quiet, and the only sounds that came from where she sat were the occasional mumbles of hunger from her stomach. Thomas was beginning, in her silence, to notice how wet his clothes were, and how hungry he was, but he did not say anything. For an hour or so, both of them were perfectly quiet, absorbed in thoughts of sympathy for themselves. Sophia broke the silence when she sleepily stood from the rock on which she sat and moved to unroll the sleeping bag that Thomas had managed to keep with him through the avalanche, while everything she had carried was lost in the torrent of rushing snow. She laid the bedroll across a flat plane of snow and crawled inside. Thomas watched her curiously from where he sat as she arranged her hair around her on the small foam pillow that had been sewn to the headpiece. She looked back at him through glazed, weary eyes.

"It's the only one," she said, and pressed herself to the far side of the sleeping bag to make room for him. "I suppose it's best we share body heat." She turned over so she no longer faced him and did not acknowledge him as he slipped in beside her. Thomas pressed his body as far away as he could from hers, uncomfortably arching his back to avoid full contact with her skin, but it only pushed him closer. He felt as though he were intruding upon her existence, as they had not slept this close in weeks. When he realized that he could not pull away, he released the tension in his spine and allowed their backs to be pressed together by the tightness of the cotton walls around them, feeling satisfied for a moment that the trip had brought them together like he wished it would.

Thomas could not sleep that night, and in his alertness, devoted full attention to trying to ignore Sophia pushed against him, but she would fidget and squirm and make it hard for him to pretend that she wasn't there. She began to talk again as the night wore on and got darker, her voice thin and exhausted.

"Thomas?" She rolled over so that the tip of her nose brushed the nape of his neck and her breath tickled his skin. "Thomas, is there food?" Thomas turned his own body to face hers, and saw that she was looking at his bag, which was propped against a rock behind his head.

"I have a bag of trail mix," he said, reaching into the bag and producing a small plastic sack. "but it's almost empty. If we can save it, though…" he bleakly looked to the bag, abandoning the thought of conservation. "I guess we can eat some now," he said, and poured a small pile of cereal flakes and raisins into her small palm, leaving only enough to feed one of them once more. He rolled up the bag and put it back into his backpack, and listened to the grinding that Sophia's chewing made inside his head.

***

The night was short. Thomas awoke in the early hours of the morning, jolted awake by pangs of hunger which he had previously ignored. He took the trail mix from his bag and, looking grimly at the small layer of cereal and raisins that covered the bottom of the sack, ate only a small fraction of what was left, although even his meager detraction left only enough for one more meal. He thought to himself that he ought to have faith in the men at the lodge to come and rescue them, and that there wouldn't be need for more food than they had, but he was still wracked with worry and guilt. He worried for Sophia and her little body, and how cold she could get, and how hungry. He wondered for a moment what starvation must feel like, and if she could survive it, but he couldn't bring himself to dwell on it for too long, terrified of the images his mind created.

Thomas spent the rest of the morning looking at the snow fields in the mountain's shadow, thinking of how roughly the snow that had been displaced by the avalanche was now spread. In some places, it had piled high on itself like mountains in their own right, jagged and flecked with rocks and dirt that it had consumed, and in others, it refroze and formed small, sharp mounds across the ground that had become slick with ice. Thomas imagined going down there, to the mountain's base so far below him, and how he would stumble as he walked over the snow like pebbles as he crossed the jumbled culmination of the avalanche that had swept him away. He thought it would be worse down there, and harder to stand, but even where he now was, there was not much to hold on to when he felt himself beginning to fall.

Sophia awoke around what Thomas estimated to be noon. The remnants of makeup clung to her face in vivid clumps and flakes of color, and her hair was tangled and unkempt. She staggered when she walked, as though something inside of her were terribly off-balance.

"Can I have some more food?" she asked, coming to a halt next to Thomas on the ledge overlooking the fields of snow. Thomas hesitated, meaning to tell her that they wouldn't be able to eat three meals a day, and maybe she should wait until later, but he could find no words, and so he fumbled awkwardly through his backpack, looking for the plastic bag. As he looked, she moved closer to the edge of the ledge, so that the toes of her boots extended beyond the solid ground.

"I wonder if they're looking for us now," she said, scanning the expanse before her. "They probably would have sent a search party out by now, and they're probably on the mountain right now, but I bet they're on the wrong side. I can imagine, they go looking for us and never even look over this side." She paused to look at the craggy span of the mountain face around her. "Maybe they just think we're dead, though." Thomas handed her the bag of food without responding. She looked inside, and her face fell.

"That's all there is," Thomas said, noticing her expression. Holding the bag in her hand, she picked out a single flake of cereal and put it in her mouth, turning back to the mountain face and placing her feet so that they hung off the edge of the crag once more.

***

The food had run out within two days, and they were forced to subsist entirely on cakes of mud that Thomas had read were eaten by the people in third world countries, but they did not stop the stabbing of the hunger, only prevented death. Thomas had mostly turned his consciousness inwards in an attempt to distract his body from the cold, and Sophia had stopped talking altogether. Days passed where the only sound to be heard from her were the groans of her stomach as it convulsed in hunger. They spent most days huddled together in the sleeping bag for warmth, having decided that mobility was not worth the price of the cold. They unabashedly pressed into each other with their arms tucked between them, interlocking their bodies in elaborate knots as they attempted to find warmth.

From this close, the shallow concavity of Sophia's stomach as it sank into her ribcage with hunger became more obvious to Thomas, like someone had hollowed out the small muscle under her breast and shaved away her abdomen. Thomas told himself that she could not have lost much weight as fast as she seemed to have, but the way her eyes looked so sunken and her limbs so frail made him wonder if perhaps she had. Her tiny frame would tremble against him like paper in the wind when the sun went down and she grew colder, so small and breakable that Thomas could not bear to look her in the eyes.

As they lay together one night, Thomas looked down at Sophia's small hands folded against his chest and her small, thin face, resting against his collarbone . Her skin had taken on an unnerving pallor, and her thin lips were a pale shade of blue. Feeling his eyes on her, she looked up at him with large blue eyes that bulged out of her sunken face like glass eyes in the head of a doll.

"What?" she said softly , the air catching in her throat and causing her to whine as she spoke.

"You look sickly," Thomas said, moving a hand to Sophia's face. Her skull twitched on her neck to nudge his hand away. "You need to eat." She looked at him with her dull, glassy eyes, her cracked lips slightly parted, exposing a row of perfect white teeth.

Thomas looked down at her for a moment, watched her slowly blink her vacant blue eyes. "You really need to eat, let me feed you." He darted his hand out from between them and pulled his backpack closer, quickly reaching inside and producing a small pocketknife. "Will you eat it if I…" he pointed to his arm with the knife, and made a small slicing motion in the air. Sophia looked at the arm, slowly, calculative, and then back at Thomas's face.

"Thomas, no, you don't need to—"

"Just a little, please. Just eat a little bit." He locked his eyes with hers, pleading agreement. "It won't kill me, and you need food. There's nothing left on you. Please." He looked down at the depression in her abdomen and then, rolling up his sleeve, at the soft, supple flesh of his forearm. For a long while, they both stared at the arm, silent.

"Alright," Sophia said, looking into Thomas's eyes, sadness and shame on her face. "Thank you, Thomas." She looked away.

Thomas brought the knife to his flesh, laying the blade flat on the skin below his elbow. He pressed down and began to pull the knife forward, slicing into his flesh. For an instant, all he felt was the warmth of blood running across his arm and the thick resistance of the flesh to his knife, but it took only seconds for the pain to set in. His breath hitched in his throat and his eyes widened, and clamping his teeth into his lip was all he could do not to scream. The blade burned and stung and throbbed as it stripped away the flesh, and he pulled it through his muscle with excruciating difficulty, his breath coming in rapid spurts from his mouth and tears running unchecked down his face. He could not cut any more without fear of fainting, and so he left the flesh attached to his arm by a piece of skin, bleeding openly on to his shirt and in Sophia's hair. As he choked on his own breath, he felt Sophia's small, chapped lips and warm, flicking tongue against the wound, her saliva burning on his exposed muscle. He saw her jaws close over the cut flesh, but he could not feel it, and for a moment he watched in wonder as she tore off small pieces of his raw muscle, blood running in neat lines down her chin and painting her lips a brilliant shade of ruby. She lapped at the blood that ran from the wound and picked with lissome fingers at the fibers of his muscle as he tied a ripped shirt around his arm like a bandage and covered his carved limb so as not to bleed on their clothing and in their sleeping bag.

Sophia held in her hands a small morsel of flesh that she had taken from his arm before it was bandaged, and she put it in her mouth slowly, chewing and swallowing carefully. She raised her eyes to look at Thomas, the shame and fear that had permeated her features before slowly returning to her face. She raised a bloodied hand to her face and wiped the blood away, only succeeding in streaking it across her neck and in her hair. Bringing her fingers to her lips, Sophia began to take deep, slow breaths, looking nervously around her. Thomas could feel her quivering against his chest as he heaved heavy breaths and squeezed his watering eyes shut, his teeth gritted against each other. He did not have the energy to reach out and pull her closer to warm her or comfort her, and so he let her tremble against him and touch his chest nervously as he thrashed his head about in pain.

***

Once every two days, Sophia would have a piece of Thomas, and Thomas would toss about as he always did and clutch at his damaged limbs, and Sophia would lie there, filled for a day, and try to comfort him without speaking. Bandages and tourniquets were applied on his arm and both of his calves, and their clothes, hair, and skin were stained with his blood. After each time she ate, Sophia would look at Thomas's clenched face and thank him, not knowing if he could hear her over the sound of his own anguish.

During the nights after Sophia ate of him, Thomas would put his arms around her and pull her closer, carefully shifting so that his injured limbs rested on top of hers. Her head would move so that it rested in the crook of his neck, and she would put her hands in between their bodies for warmth. As the pain subsided, Thomas would realize how close they were, and wonder to himself if this could be what married couples feel like. He slept easier thinking of this, and it dulled the stabbing pain somewhat.

Sophia had not spoken to Thomas for days aside from thanking him. She had developed the habit of feigning sleep for many hours each day, or of looking vacantly over Thomas's shoulder to the distant hills covered in evergreens when she showed herself to be awake. Thomas began to worry that he was making her unhappy, and would try to talk to her and make her feel better, but she never responded or acknowledged his attempts, making him nervous and miserable. In him all the time now was dull pain, either from his wounds or the cold or his own hunger, as he only survived on the same cakes of mud and pieces of fabric or wood from various items that were in his bag with him. He felt a strange dizziness when there was light.

As the days stretched on in with quiet sameness, punctuated only by the brief flurry of emotion and adrenaline of creating a new wound, Thomas began to feel heavier. All of the functions of his body felt labored; even breathing requiring some degree of effort for him. As he looked at the blood that was blotted on everything around him, he wondered if perhaps he had injured himself too seriously, and if he was going to die on the mountain. He looked under his bandages for infections, but saw no obvious discolorations or growths, and could not tell if there was anything wrong. Sophia would watch him while he did this, but as soon as he finished, she would look away once more.

After almost a week of silence and staring at his own open wounds, Thomas began to feel lonely, although Sophia was right where she always was. She seemed to him like a mannequin, like something had been taken out of her and all that was left was her fragile body and her blank eyes. He tried to remember what she had been like before the avalanche, so he might pretend that the personality still existed there, but he could not remember how she had been. She had not loved him for so long that her personality had faded in his mind. What they were now, Thomas could not say. He thought of his flesh, decomposing in her stomach as she lay there like a lifeless doll, and wondered if it made them closer. The glassy emptiness of her eyes as they looked past him upset him and made him question himself, and he placed a hand on her shoulder, causing her to look at him. Her expression did not change.

"Sophia," he said, breaking the silence that had hung in the air for so many days, "What do you think of me?" She continued to stare at him with her lifeless eyes, a tinge of confusion permeating the monotony of her features.

"You've been kind to me," she said, and looked away from Thomas, back to the snow dusted evergreens on faraway hills that glinted in the light of the sun.