He had been out of his head for a long time now, and it seemed as if he would never return.
The scent wafting from the undulating grasses made him feel almost delirious, but he pushed on for he wanted to reach the base of the mountains by nightfall, and the narcotic effect of the grasses made him apprehensive about stopping for even a short rest.
The trail he followed thrust ahead like a crooked stick of ebony lightning against the rich creaminess of the veldt. It must have been cut by generations of migrating animals. A vein of hope through this landscape, a portent perhaps of what lay ahead. Despite the glowering purple height far ahead and the track he followed the view was one of unbroken monotony.
He was now in the heart of the country; only a handful of men had penetrated this far inland before. Of these, only two men had ever returned, and they had said little of their adventures- and they only had small pebbles, for which they nevertheless made extravagant claims, as evidence of their journeys.
It was rumoured that these chips of glacial debris, which the scientific media labelled 'the dreaming stones' possessed telekinetic powers. Some had claimed to have seen the stones levitating and passing through walls and persons with no damage occurring to either. Others had heard the stones speak. Unfortunately, most of these apocryphal tales originated from gossip and folk legends and were not given much credence generally. Other men like to keep their dreams to themselves: the two who had returned from The Heartland died with theirs, and the stones were not found among their belongings.
The backpack troubled the hiker, its straps chafing his aching shoulders. He was hot and uncomfortable and his throat tight and dry from the pollen of the grasses. He longed for water but the supply in his canteen was perilously low. Goaded by his own dreams the hiker dragged his weary frame on towards the beckoning mountains.
Eventually he came to a halt, despite fears of the grasses' narcotic effects overwhelming him, and took a mouthful of water with a savoury rusk.
While he rubbed an analgesic ointment into his raw shoulders he looked back across the expanse of the grasslands. The monotony of the landscape was really an illusion he thought now he had come to pause and let his eyes linger over it. Though, apart from the hewn track, there was little evidence of local fauna, the sea of grass had a corporate existence of its own, its own repertoire of sounds- nearby rustlings as individual stalks jostled for position, and a hushed whisper in the background where the voices of the soft wind and a myriad grasses sang together in a chorus of almost infinite numbers in an hypnotically endless song.
And it moved like the fur pelt of some huge exotic beast breathing in its sleep, the soft but persistent winds furrowing illusory paths through the expanses of grass, revealing a muted band of shades passing from off-white to a tawny gold.
The hiker found that the soul of the veldt was getting to him, communicating its euphoric seductiveness, and he felt a lingering contentment.
He heard someone calling to him, a human voice, other voices shouting from a far off place, and there was a shape- not very distinct- coming toward him through the rolling yellow grass. He shook his delirious head and looked again, but there was nothing but the endless veldt, the fierce eye of the sun, and the dreaming wind. And...the mountains. The hiker forced himself to his feet again.
He had been out of his head for a long time now.
He returned to his surroundings, perceiving the typewriter before him and the open window through which floated the aroma of newly-mown grass and woodsmoke from a bonfire, the cup of cold coffee and the burnt out cigarette in the ashtray.
He looked at the photograph of his wife on his desk and tried to blank her out from his thoughts. Her sudden departure two days before had upset his writing routine; his daily quota of words had dropped to about five hundred. The novel he was working on seemed a superfluous thing, the words he laboured over futile sound symbols. Even the threat of unpaid bulks accumulating could not spur him on. He rise to make fresh coffee.
As he returned to his desk the telephone rang. He picked it up and said without thinking 'Jane?'. It was a woman's voice, but not hers. Monica, one of Jane's closer friends. He told her about Jane's sudden flight and asked her to let him know if she heard anything, for Jane had left no message, and most of her clothes were still in the flat. Monica muttered a few reassuring noises before ringing off.
He felt empty- washed up- with the receiver purring in his hand.
Minutes later another cup of coffee was turning cold on his desk.
At first he was unable to recollect where he was but, as his head cleared, he remembered it was past dusk when he has bedded down among the rocks and had been unable to see enough to make out the lie of the land. Besides, he had felt too tired and hazy to care much about his surroundings after the trek across the grasslands.
He took stock of his surroundings- there was scant vegetation, some mosses and lichen clinging to volcanic rocks (probably a rhyolite), yet there was something about their texture that reminded him of granite: a strange hybrid moulded by unknown natural forces. There were straggly clumps of the narcotic cereal in little fertile pockets amidst the rocks but generally the immediate area looked quite arid. Many of the dips and crevices in the rocks were water-filled and, after tentatively tasting the water in one of the rock pools he bathed his face and drank greedily.
The land sloped gently upward toward the mountain for about half a mile before rapidly increasing in precipitation and soaring to about four thousand feet above the plain. He could not see any accessible gaps along the base of the mountain. There was no alternative but to tackle the slope head on. It was a sombre thing to look at, a soaring slab of rusted grey rock like a bird of prey with outstretched wings ready to launch its huge granitic mass into the still, clear air.
After traversing the half mile through that barren terrain he fastened crampons to his boots and pulled on a sweater because he was already beginning to feel a drop in temperature. The first part of his ascent was an easy uphill walk but halfway up the incline became so steep he had to use handholds to pull his body upward.
After groping and scrabbling on the rock face for what seemed an interminably long time he had the fortune to find a narrow ledge that seemed to lead all the way up to the summit.
The ledge stopped abruptly twenty feet from the top and the hiker nearly lost his foothold. He swore in frustration and his legs trembled a little when he looked down the sheer precipice.
He had reached his first impasse. He knew he couldn't go on because his body ached from the last part of the climb, and there seemed to be no way forward. Securing himself to a piton on the rock face he rested on the ledge.
If he had had enough pitons he could have climbed the vertical wall above quite easily, but he only had three which he needed to use again. His only choice was to retrace his steps along the ledge and see if another way would reveal itself.
The hiker's hopes were restored when he found a way twenty yards down the ledge. At that point there was a crack in the rock face wide enough to admit him about nine feet above the ledge. If he could drive one piton in about halfway up then he could hoist his frame up into that crack, where he had a hunch he would find a gap or chimney leading to the top.
Half an hour later he squeezed out of the top of the rock chimney onto the summit.
The view on the farther side at once excited and dismayed him. A vast volcanic crater gaped at the sky like the charred eye socket of a corpse. At its centre lay the silvered lens of a lake, a receptacle for the nebulous threads if waterfalls weeping down the crater wall on the far side. There were no trees or vegetation, but an air of oppression hung over the area, full of the funereal shadows of black basalt. It was a place he thought where men go to die, where souls lie heavy in the crater floor, beneath the water. And he felt as if his bones had turned to lead as he picked his way down the scree-covered slope.
(notes: I like this and can now see ways of spinning this out further. Who is the hiker. How did he get to setting off on this trip. Why are the heartlands relatively unexplored? Why aren't they harvested for their narcotic properties? Are there letters and other documentation to be quoted from. Where does he go to next and who will he meet and what other dangers await him?)