Bag over my shoulder, I turn around once more at the threshold of the crevice: this cave was my last abode. Giving it up is hard, but I don't have time to feel sad: the tide of mist crawls at my heels, stretches its tendrils toward the leather of my boots, flows toward the entrance to my makeshift shelter. By this evening, it will have drowned this hole. I tear myself from the hazy blanket the way an insect extracts itself from a spider web. The fog frays, tries to hold me, twists around my footprint. I climb a rock and then jump toward a narrow ledge, out of reach. It seems frustrated.
This slope protects me from gusts of wind, but I am so close to the summit! I can't resist: I climb up to the very peak. In the middle of a pile of fallen rocks, between the last trailing tufts of bellflowers, I stand on the roof of the world. Yet I've never had such a faint impression of reaching 8,200 feet: the mist-ocean spreads out its cottony horizon in every direction, infinitely. It annihilates any notion of dizziness, concealing my mountain climbing feat. It hides under its rug the remains of our lives.
After appearing one gloomy morning on the surface of all the oceans, it only swelled. It crawled over the beaches and docks, filled the low-lying neighborhoods of Acireal, swallowed up the area around the castle and then the entire stronghold. It flowed into the valleys until it licked the base of all the mountains. It separated us, each on our perches, but none of them were tall enough: the shelter on Mount Bottero, vanished; the Monastery of the Sparrowhawks, forgotten; the famous spires of Zagarise, also lost in the fog. And along with the buildings and stones, the mist dissolved everyone, strangers and family: my sweet Bella and my little Julio, trapped in the fortified town of Cicala, my twin brother Lisandro visiting our parents in the Gliano region. Everyone: relatives, friends, flocks, even my dog. In seven years, it swallowed everything, spat nothing back out, and its appetite remains insatiable. The bit of pebble I'm standing on is all that's left of my country. There is nothing left but me, a chunk of smoked ham at the bottom of my meager saddlebag, an empty goatskin, and a fistful of trembling flowers. The mist will gulp us down just as it sucked up everything else, with its slow, inexorable rhythm. Its level rises about the length of one stride each day: I have to force myself not to calculate, to spare myself this dismal countdown.
The wind slaps me, knocks me around, flaps the bottom of my coat against my ankles. The mist? It barely ripples, moved by gentle swirls. To the high-altitude currents, it releases only a few hazy shoots like jets of foam. Transfixed by the light under the dazzling azure vault, I fall to my knees. I can no longer flee anywhere. Driven away and cornered by a patient predator, the former wanderer has become an islander.
I am trapped.
My bladder tickles, so I turn my back to the wind and untie my breeches. I piss in the mist's face, as I have become accustomed to doing every day. To water this infinite sea of clouds, I send the stream of urine as far as possible. It disappears without a sound, not even a splash: the mist doesn't care one way or the other. It absorbs it, just as it has absorbed everything else. It has stripped me of everything, including my anger. Even worse: I almost love it. At the very least, I can't help but find it magnificent. At this moment, it softens the sun's rays into pastel shades, hooks golden sparkles onto the crest of its waves, hollows itself out into ocher shadows, twists with the grace of the northern lights. In the morning, I have sometimes gazed at it as into a dazzling field of snow, a domain of pristine powder. At the end of the day, it evolves into a landscape of dunes in which I act as the last mirage.
Oh! Just listen to me! It has killed all life on this earth, committed genocide against an entire world, and I find it as charming as a femme fatale.
Considering my situation, at risk of disappearing, why not let myself be embraced by this beauty? I'm curious, and I wonder what difference it would make. When my last companion Arrigo slid down the hill and the mist gripped his legs, he stared straight into my eyes, with a stunned look on his face. He shouted to me: "It's so cold!" and then he vanished. If I hope to find my loved ones in the other world, shouldn't I try to use the same entrance? It's that or dehydration: I have only two sips of water, and I'm as dry as my scrap of ham. Unless I give in to the cold: the weather is still mild, but I have no roof over my head. The next night will be tough.
Why did I persist in climbing when I knew there was no way out? Did I have a little dignity left after all, hidden at the bottom of my saddlebag? A bit of pride? I think it was the only way to score a victory over the mist, to manage to get some semblance of petty revenge. The first one to the top wins. I almost feel like pumping my fists. Almost. For in the cloudless sky there passes a flock of greylag geese that reduces my triumph to what it is: a futile success. My heart aches. I wonder where they're going. On this continent, there exist no other mountains higher than the one I have just ascended. But elsewhere, perhaps, beyond the mist-ocean?
My eyes squinting at the sun, I glimpse something else in the birds' wake. My lips tighten, and it's hard for me to identify what I feel: this flying object, it’s a balloon, or a dirigible. I heard people talking about them in town, before the mist. One day, one of them passed above my pastures: it scared my animals, and my dog had to race all over to herd them. I remember: I swore every oath I knew. Despite the hope of survival that it represents, the machine ties my stomach in knots and I spit into the wind.
Contradictory emotions jostle in my head and shake me up. Dizziness seizes me and knocks me down. With my rear end in the rocks, I feel no joy, that is certain. It's even worse than seeing the geese: I am stripped of my success, of my status as the last man. And then…I realize I am exhausted from this odyssey. I was so relieved just now to be at the end of my journey, so relieved to have finished it! Despair seizes me at the idea of starting to run again. I am already searching for justifications: even if I wave my arm and they come pick me up, what for? How far will we follow the birds? To an even higher peak? The mist will swallow it, just like the rest. Do I want to wait for it with strangers? The answer stuns me: it's no.
No, in truth, I don't want to anymore.
On the expanse of mist, I make out the balloon's shadow, a dark halo on a bronze sea. Above me moves the V-shaped squadron of migrating birds. The sight makes me smile. Between my knees, I open my sparse saddlebag and take out my chunk of dry ham. Using my knife, I cut off shreds of it and swallow them. For the first time in months, this taste of the past brings me to tears. I wash down the last salty mouthful with a final gulp of water. It’s icy.
In the sky, the dirigible comes closer. The time is now.
"Remember, I won," I say to the mist.
These are my first words out loud since Arrigo's death. I throw myself down the hill, and my boots skid along the rocks. I slip down several feet, scrape, and avalanche toward the shore of the misty ocean. The stones jump, ricochet, and turn about all around me. I collapse and roll, stretched out on a cotton mattress, on my back. Swirls of mist gush under my weight, then fall back on me with the slowness of snowflakes. My eyes scan the sky and open wide.
It's so cold!
Translated by Kate Deimling