you see tarspen elia’s eyes first. they are bright and afraid.
the wind whips red dust into your face. you brush it away restlessly. your cheeks are hot; the air is sticky. you can feel your heart pumping through your skin.
only her forehead and the tip of her nose is above the lip of the cliff at first. and her hands: bloodless knuckles, and fingers gripping deep and desperate into the warm dirt like claws. you peer over her and down, at her body suspended above a drop a few metres less than a hundred. she looks up and her gaze meet yours.
“no.” her eyes are wide and clear and violently green. her body is still. “stay there.”
you rock back slowly on your haunches, and give a little whistle of fear. though buried deep inside you, there is still a faint instinct to help. you watch her. she gives a tight smile and looks down again. you start to edge forward, nervous. but then you stop. you have been told to stay. you will.
you keep watching.
tarspen takes a breath and does not take any more breaths for a while as she tiptoes her right hand forward. the skin of her fingers brush loose stones as she edges them closer. her right shoulder cracks as her arm extends fully. her left hand is whitening under the weight of her body. then the fingers of her right hand fondle a scraggly bush. she tugs at it experimentally. closes her eyes and tugs at it again. in the split second later, she is groping for its roots and, tensing herself and her other hand, she gives it a swift and violent yank. the bush is archaic, deeply-rooted and dry. the dirt around it is hard as cement. her cliff face is hard as cement and baking under the sun. the bush will not give.
you nibble at one of your nails. the edges are shredded and you are almost nibbling skin now.
tarspen buries her hand in the bush and coils her fingers around and throughout the spikes until they begin to bleed. then she determinedly raises her left hand and reaches forward until it can be clasped in the roots, too. the bush holds. she breathes. with a slow, snakelike movement, you watch as she wriggles her shoulders over the edge, moving them from side to side until finally most of her chest is on flat ground. the muscles in her forearms strain.
you are not moving but she looks up at you again, and says, “stay.”
then gritting her teeth, she is pulling herself forward. the bush is cutting into her hands and trickles of blood are pooling on the ground. kicking her feet in snapping motions, like scissors, she propels forward until her stomach is pressing into the shards of rock and then her hips are on the knife-sharp cliff face and she is squirming sideways to let her knees kick up and over. the first time she tries, her kneecap smashes into the edge, but she bends and tucks and squirms more the next time and her knee is caught up beside her. she rolls onto it, still gripping the bush, and pushes up, pulling her other leg over at the same time. with one last tug, she is leaping up—legs immediately buckling like a foal—and she is falling forward, spurred forward by the bush, falling over it and away from the drop of death.
she rolls onto her back and she is panting.
then she laughs suddenly, taking you by surprise, and the laugh turns into a whoop at the sky. “thought you had me,” she mocks the clouds.
after her breath stops catching in her chest, and her smile fades somewhat, she reaches up to pat you on the cheek.
“ready?” she asks.
you nod. you like tarspen. there is no other way but forward.