This flash story (650 words) initially appeared in The Penn Review Vol. 71 in May 2022.
They’ve both been waiting all morning.
The man wrestles with the steering-wheel, his body straining forward in his seat as the jeep lurches over the last boulders constituting the trail. He’s palpitating, as if he’s run up the mountain. ‘Well, the muscles might be the jeep’s,’ he thinks, ‘But the nerves are mine.’ Pinching his sweat-drenched shirt off his chest, he chuckles. Any man would be proud of this drive: he a novice, the jeep untested. There’re birds up here, and he has lots more to show her. He checks his glove compartment.
Easing his cramped back, he gazes at the woman sitting beside him. Surely now she’ll acknowledge his achievement. Following her gaze over the valley pine-clad below, the sky dream-blue above, he feels king of the world. A word of praise from her would be the crown that belongs on his head. He’s definitely off to a good start. Finally, a woman who will see him as he really is.
The woman gazes away from him, over her shoulder at an ibex. The sturdy-bodied, claw-hooved goat is magicking its way up the boulder they’ve just manoeuvred over. Following her eyes, the man admires the sleek-horned gymnast. Impatient now, he waits for the woman.
The jeep’s diesel fumes and groaning and sexual lurching, all afternoon one wrong move away from the precipice, have made her ill. She’s waiting for the man to crest the summit and let her out. She’s waiting to balm her churning stomach with the pellucid air, to feel the ground under her own two feet, to stand listening to the silence looking down at the world. Why has she put up with him? He’s taken her places, but she could’ve gone alone. This was going to be her year alone.
She wanted to walk up here. He said, ‘We won’t make it up there if we walk all week.’ She said there was no need to go all the way up, they could just stroll up a bit, then rest. He said, ‘The jeep will be much quicker.’ She said there was no rush. He said, ‘The view from the top is splendid.’ She opened her mouth, but closed it wearily. It’s been an exciting week, but he’s turning out like all the others. Weary of arguing with them, she shrugged at him. So they drove. Now she’s waiting to get out, and he’s waiting for her to say Well done! Both buried in their own wants, they’re oblivious to one another’s.
“With all our big ugly machines,” she muses aloud, laying back her throbbing head and gazing at the ibex, “We’ll never beat nature.”
The man watches the woman’s white throat lolling on the seat’s neck, nerveless in pleasure and in pain. He sees her now as she really is: self-absorbed like all the others. The jeep crunches over small rocks where a fountain once flowed. The two last silver firs part like curtains from the view, breathtaking. But neither is watching. He laughs.
The woman’s gazing back the way they came, for she’s been left behind again. She admires the goat: perched statuesque atop the final boulder, its curved horns golden-brown stark against the sky, preparing to hop off and trot behind them. Though the last relicts of their species, these goats are innocent of anxiety or pride. Astutely they follow people, prodigal with food and other edibles. The man saw one mouth a woman’s purse and, as she shrieked and stamped, stand stoically chewing the sequined leather.
The man gives up waiting and chuckles again. The woman’s eyes still yearning after the goat, he whisks out another ugly machine. But this one’s tiny.
Thunder splits the woman’s eardrum. The graceful gymnast falls lifeless off the mountain, victim to two humans stumbling through the darkness, each waiting for the one who never comes.