Starry night sky above golden trees lit by campfire light

Second place, Autumn 2022

Picture by Heiko Otto at Unsplash

The antiseptic aroma of eucalyptus is the first thing you notice. It’s just before dawn, the light gossamer, ground spongey underfoot. You follow the Leader until you arrive at a clearing; there are tables, benches and noticeboards made of wood, wooden stakes (for tying up dogs?). Would ya, could ya, should ya. It’s understandable to be nervous, the Leader says.
The scent of antiseptic is the first thing you notice.

The tree is enormous, 58 metres; giant, titan, a behemoth. Your neck crackles as you lean back to see the peak; it’s hidden by a canopy of leaves, its secrets safe for now.
The forest seems silent but, listening closely, you hear the scattergun of rodents in the undergrowth, the skittering of birds above. You listen more closely and now you can hear your own internal music – the hammer of your heart, the riptide of blood, the white-noise of your breath, in out, in out.
White-noise breath, in out, in out.

Your group have begun to climb, and you follow, ant-like, until you’re at the base, and the spiked spiral is before you. There are 153 pegs and the first you grasp is cool as you begin to climb, round and round, like a record baby. It reminds you of the spire in Chesterfield yanked crooked by the devil’s tail, as you twist and dislocate your way upwards. Your shoulder brushes the bark, callused and desiccated, cadaverous and grey.
You’re quite far from the ground now and the drop is dizzying. You imagine letting go, falling backwards, tumbling like an acrobat towards the forest floor. You begin to shake imperceptibly and hold the pegs more tightly as you continue to climb, continue to tremble, continue, continue, continue.
Callused and desiccated, cadaverous and grey.

Last night in the hostel, amidst the farts and snores of the group, you studied the tree’s history in a globe of torchlight. The first climber took six hours to reach the top! You wonder what he thought as he toiled, hand over fist, a pioneer, an explorer.
After that the tree was tamed; pegged, tidied and topped, used as a fire lookout. You wonder how it would feel to see cylinders of smoke, ash in your mouth, charred meat taste at the back of your throat.
The tree’s retired now, put out of service, decommissioned, redundant.
Mouthfuls of ashes and charred meat.

Only twenty percent of climbers reach the top. You feel as if you’re climbing to heaven and maybe, when you finally reach the platform, Mike might be there, and he’ll say, how long you’ve been, I’ve been waiting for you, and your last memories of him won’t smell of antiseptic and the taste of ashes, his hand won’t feel desiccated and cadaverous, you won’t be surrounded by the white-noise of a ventilator breathing for him, in out, in out.
You pull yourself through the gap and then you’re standing amidst scudding clouds. In the distance the sun yawns above the horizon.