I closed my eyes as I let gravity pull me through the thundering torrent of water, further and further, faster and faster. The shadows from the enormous cliff from which I had fallen blocked out the sunlight and all hope of seeing where I was, or how much longer it would be until I plunged into the deep wet basin at the bottom.
Finally, I hit the water with an enormous splash, my entire body feeling battered and bruised from the impact. As I rose to the surface, I was swept by the raging river across the landscape, struggling to cling on for dear life as I was pushed closer and closer to the next cliff face.
I looked out for the awkwardly placed rock, catching it as it arrived on my left. It was the perfect place to haul myself out from the water, and climb onto the muddy riverbanks where many before me had sat and admired the view of the great valley below as they contemplated their failings. A kindly man sat beside me in a fold-up chair, looking out across the valley with a book in his hand and a happy smile across his face.
"You just fell in?" he asked, as I shook some of the water out from my long, scraggly hair. A tiny splash of water leapt from my hair onto the man's arm.
"Sorry," I muttered. The man wiped the few drops away like they had never existed. "Yes," I continued. "I was trying to…"
"…climb the cliff face," the man interrupted. "Yeah, I know. I lost count o' the number of soaking wet bodies I' seen crawling out of that river and into this spot. I don't blame 'em. It's a beautiful spot."
I examined some more of the valley below. Every time I saw it, the view left me breathless. The sunlight glistened against the mountains in the distance like stars glistened in the night sky, whilst the river crawled around the diverse forest floor like a long blue ribbon.
"What d' you think?" the man asked. "Makes you want to stay here forever, doesn't it?"
I nodded slowly. "It is a sight to behold," I replied.
"But?" the man asked.
"I must reach the top of the cliff," I said, my purposeful expression focused upon my quest.
"Why?" the man asked.
I scowled at the man's ignorance. "Why?" I replied. "Have you not heard? It is said that from the top of the cliff, one can see the sunlight hitting those mountains over there in the form of a glistening silver layer, the like of which simply cannot be observed from any other place. The trees up there, far more numerous than around here, are packed with bananas and mangos and every other fruit you can name, all of them larger, sweeter, juicier than almost any which can be sourced from down here. The grass…" I pushed my soggy foot through the mud-soaked grass on the edge of the river. "…the grass up there is tall, lush and green. So very green." In my mind's eye formed a startling image of everything that I knew about the top of the cliff as I looked out across the valley. "I must ask you, sir, why is it that you don't need to get to the top of the cliff?"
The man smiled and chuckled to himself. "I have no more interest in climbing," he said, looking away from me and out across the valley, before returning to his book.
"But then, how can you ever discover for yourself what lies upon the top of the cliff?" I asked. "You shall never experience it. You shall never know a greater life than this."
"Nope," the man said. "I'm fine with that. Are you?"
"I beg your pardon," I said, startled. "Of course not!" In the rays of the sun, my clothes and my skin had dried out like a sheet draped from a washing line. As I looked up at the shadowy cliff face once more, I considered what it was that I needed to do differently in order to succeed. "Good talking to you," I said, before I marched onwards into the shadow of the cliff, stumbling over an uneven rock as I did so. I scrambled for whatever handholds and footholds I could find, and hauled myself up towards my objective.
Through what little light was available, I could just about see the waterfall-soaked, skinny ledge from which I had slipped and fallen the previous time, a fall from which I had learned. I avoided the ledge like a disease, clambering through a far deeper, drier route than before. As I climbed higher and higher, further and further from the ground, closer and closer to the top, another skinny ledge presented itself, but a short jump would let me get to a much firmer foothold.
As I fell once more, I found myself wishing that the light had been better at penetrating the cliff face, for it turned out that the ledge was barely a whisper, the shadowy ghost of a worthwhile foothold. It was only when I surfaced from the plunge pool below, gasping for breath, when my repeated failure began to sink in.
'Don't jump for that ledge,' I reminded myself, as I sat by the side of the river in the sunlight once more. As I stared out across the valley, I contemplated what the ignorant man in the chair had said. Even at this level, I could appreciate the diverse natural beauty that this valley had to offer. But the more I looked, the more noticeable the distinct lack of the glistening silver layer within the mountains became. What delight could this view possibly have when I knew that by simply climbing up that cliff face, I could appreciate it so much more. I could see even more trees. Even more of that river. And that view of the mountains which had filled so many with so much joy.
I still hadn't properly drip dried when I decided to try again. This time, I didn't jump for the ledge, instead passing it with ease, before the rock in my hand crumbled to pieces, some of it joining me as I returned to the ground from which I came. Still dripping with water, I scrambled for the all-too familiar handholds and footholds by the river, and hauled myself up.
"How many times 'ave I seen you crawling out from that river now?" the man in the chair asked. He had finished his book, and was now most of the way through a new one.
I shrugged, for I could not recall a number.
"Can I ask ye' a question?" the man asked, closing his book and looking at me. "What's so bad about this place that makes you so desperate to escape?"
I scowled, giving him a sideways glance as I tried to comprehend the question.
"Well, why not settle here?" he asked.
"Because…" I said, slowly. "Do you not remember what I have told you about the top of the cliff?"
"Gian' fruit, green grass an' the sun glistens silver against the mountains," he recalled. "Y'know, you ain' the first to tell me abou' these things."
"Ah, so it appears you did listen," I said. "But while there are some such as yourself who have no interest, no motivation in making this climb and realising their wildest dreams, for they feel as though it would be too great an effort or too much strife, or perhaps that they would be unlikely to succeed, there are others, such as myself, who wish to rise with the sun, and persistently try to reach the top until our dreams become our reality."
"I' seen you persistently trying t' reach the top," the man said, calmly. "I finished a book and got most o' the way into the next one while you kept falling off the same cliff."
"Indeed," I said, struggling to contain my seething anger enough to avoid throwing him off the cliff before us. "But every time I fell, I discovered a new secret. Every time I try to tackle the climb, I have a greater understanding of what I must do if I am to complete my quest. Should I return to the exact same place upon my next attempt, I can still say that I have traversed somewhere. And you, sir, have not."
"Fair 'nough," the man said, with a smile. "I'll leave you t' get on with it."
"Yes, I suppose you must," I muttered under my breath.
"Good luck!" the man called after me, as I walked towards the shadow of the cliff once more.
I kept well away from the slippery, skinny ledge.
I knew well not to jump for the shadowy platform.
I kept my hands far away from the crumbly rock.
The higher I climbed, the more ledges and handholds and footholds I passed from which I had fallen, each one a crystal-clear reminder of a different fall, a fall I knew how to avoid this time. As I continued to climb, I began to see an end to this enormous cliff.
The warm sun glistened against my face as I hauled myself up onto the flat, dry ground, butterflies flapping around my stomach as I spared myself a celebratory leap into the air.
The green, green grass was like a lush green carpet underneath my feet. I picked an apple from the nearest tree, and tasted the sweetest, juiciest apple I had ever known. The fresh water from the river glistened like well-polished armour in the sunlight. The more I examined the local scenery, the more I discovered that my dreams had been realised.
On the other side of the river, a beautiful woman sat contently in a chair, reading a book as she faced out towards the view, her hair flowing over her shoulders like a golden waterfall. She looked at me briefly and gave me an acknowledging smile, before returning to her book. I crossed over the river and walked towards her across a cushion of green grass, glancing between her and the silver layer against the mountaintops in the distance.
"Hello, climber," the woman said to me, closing her book. As she turned around, I saw an enormous scar which stretched from her forehead down to the bottom of her cheek.
"Greetings," I said. "Did you climb all the way up here as well?"
"I sure did," the woman beamed. "A long time ago. I failed so many times before I made it. And I've been sitting up here, enjoying the view ever since."
"Good for you," I replied. "For you have earned it." I could not stop looking at the startling silver sunlight against the mountains, complemented by the additional rows of trees at the bottom of the valley, or the sublime waterfall in the distance, none of which had been visible from the bottom of the cliff. "This is incredible," I added. "It is my wish that I shall remain here forever."
The woman smiled knowingly, before an alarming splash sounded from the river behind us. Another woman crawled out from the water and stood up on the dry land, urgently in need of the sun's drying capacity which was greatly improved from this altitude, her scraggly brown hair a tangled mess as she walked towards us.
"Did you just climb up here as well?" I asked.
"Climb up here?" she responded. "Well… no. I have fallen once more in my attempts to complete my quest."
"Better luck next time, my friend," the golden-haired woman said, before returning to her book.
"Fallen?" I asked, curiously. "From where?"
"What do you mean?" the brown-haired woman muttered. "I fell from the cliff."
I looked at her, confused. "But I just climbed the cliff," I said.
"Not that cliff," she said. "The cliff." Her pointed finger indicated the dark cliff face which stretched upwards from the river in the distance, casting a long shadow across the ground in front of it.
"What is it that can be found upon the top of that cliff?" I asked, nervously examining the enormous monolith before me.
The brown-haired woman scowled at me. "Why?" she replied. "Have you not heard? It is said that from the top of the cliff, the sunlight hitting those mountains does not simply fade into silver like it does from down here, but fragments like a rainbow into an entire spectrum of colour. The trees, far more numerous than the trees down here, are lined with bananas and mangos and every other fruit you can name, all of them larger, sweeter, juicier than what we have available here. The grass…"
"The grass up there is so tall, lush and green," the golden-haired woman interrupted. "Very green." She smiled. "I've heard it all before."
The brown-haired woman glared at the woman in the chair. "Sounds like you know all about the top of the cliff," she said. "What could possibly prohibit you from needing to discover it for yourself?"
The golden-haired woman smiled and chuckled to herself, pressing her finger against her scar. "I have no more interest in climbing," she said, looking away from the other woman and out across the valley, before returning to her book.
"But then, how can you ever discover for yourself what lies upon the top of the cliff?" the brown-haired woman asked. "You shall never experience it. You shall never know a greater life than this."
"No," the golden-haired woman said. "I'm fine with that. Are you?"
"Of course not," the brown-haired woman said, startled, before turning to face me. "How about you?" she asked. "Will you be wasting the remainder of your days down here like this fool beside you? Or do you have ambition enough to climb higher?"
I looked out across the valley. The sunlight glistened against the mountaintops. The forest was greater, clearer than I had ever seen it, and the river ran through a more complex, more intricate path than I could ever have pictured. Everything that I had ever dreamed about lay before me. And yet I could not appreciate what I saw when such wonder lay at the top of the cliff.