The boy emerged from the car and read the sign: LIGHTHOUSE 19 KILOMETRES. Beneath the sign were the words: Six Hours. The boy spoke, his voice small: ‘I’m nervous, Saba.’
The old man reassured the boy. They pulled on their weighty daypacks and started to walk from the turntable on the mountain. The dirt track was wide enough for a small truck. It sloped away beneath their feet and, despite the lowering sky and the fine wind-whipped rain, the two made good speed in good humour.
The old man said: ‘This is a long, long downhill slope; it will be uphill on the way back. Just when we are really tired we’ll have to fight these hills.’
They looked ahead into immensity. As the path led them lower the slopes towered green and steep before them. The old man saw they’d soon be climbing. The rain stopped and the two felt hot. They peeled off parkas and jumpers and mopped rain and sweat from their faces.
Rounding a sharp bend the boy exclaimed, ‘Look Saba! Look – how beautiful!’ The old man looked and what was beautiful for him was the joy on the boy’s face. ‘Surprised by joy’ – the words floated into the old man’s mind from some half-read snatch of old verse – ‘surprised’ – overcome – as in a surprise attack.‘ The boy’s face, red with exertion, glowed. The old man looked again; he saw no sign of care.
The descent ended in a strange plain of long grasses and thick green ferns between which the pale trunks of gums rose, twisted and charred, like writhing skeletons, reaching for the sky. ‘The bushfires must have raced through here’, said the old man, ‘See how there’s not a single living eucalypt. Just ghosts. And everything else so green.’ To himself, he added, ‘They look like humans whose prayers were not heard.’ The old man had dwelled much in suffering of late. All nature spoke to him of the pain of others.
The boy’s expression was opaque.
Not an hour into the walk the boy’s voice asked: ‘Would we be a quarter of the way there yet?’ The old man doubted it. He couldn’t really say. Mostly the boy walked beside him, now and then slipping behind. At these moments the old man slowed, he hoped, inconspicuously.
The boy’s breaths were loud. The old man announced: ‘Morning tea time’, and they stopped to drink. The old man asked, ‘Apricots?’ The boy took the dried fruits and ate appreciatively. They hoisted their packs again, the boy staggering a little before steadying. The old man took the drink bottle. It felt lighter in his hand. They walked. Between the sounds of footfalls a voice spoke: ’I love you Saba.’
The old man, for all his years, for all his words, could find no words better in reply. ‘I love you too, darling.’
After a time the flat road began to rise and twist. Ahead of them they saw stately ranks of black tree trunks, erect and slim, towering upward, their branches richly green. ‘Look’, said the old man, ‘Every tree has been burned but every one of them here has survived.’ Their eyes drank in the green life, the dense underburden. Walking between the giants the two felt the silence and it did not oppress them. Rather, wonder swept their eyes upward. In quietness they laboured up long hills, around bends that led to yet more hills, working hard but not feeling it as work.
A scream broke the silence. The boy hobbling, whimpered, ‘My foot! It kills!’ The old man took the boy’s pack. ‘Here’, he said, ‘Sit down.’ ‘I can’t Saba, my arse will get muddy.’ The old man saw a tear at the corner of the boy’s eye. He spread his waterproof on a bank, pulled the boy’s haunches backward and sat him down. ‘Saba, my foot doesn’t hurt when I’m just sitting here. But it killed before.’
The old man opened lunch, bagels he’d bought from Glicks at five that morning. The previous evening the boy ordered peanut butter and honey for his: ‘Fifty percent of each please Saba.’The old man made short work of his own bagel but the boy played with his, peanut butter and honey notwithstanding. Reckoning the child needed relief the old man removed the heavy items from the boy’s pack. Bookish like his grandfather, he’d packed a small library.
‘Do you think you can test that foot?’
The boy rose, hoisted his pack and stepped forward. He winced but said nothing. And the two walked together. At first the boy’s gait was diffident, but quickly he established a fluent step-wince-step rhythm. Rounding a sharp bend the boy cried out, once again in delight. A small wooden footbridge led them across a shallow stream. Green ferns dwarfed the boy, the water chattered and rippled, the air was still and cold. The boy glowed. He turned and spoke: ‘Thank you so much for taking me here Saba.’ In the richness of his feeling the old man felt again the poverty of his own words.
They climbed. The old man, remembering walking as a child with his father, described how hard it had been to keep pace. He said, ‘Every few paces I’d fall behind. I’d have to run to catch up. I think that’s what started my life as a runner. It’s what prepared me for running marathons.’ The boy replied, ‘That happens to me too, Saba.’
The old man, a package of memories, told the boy about the time he ran a marathon in Melbourne. ‘It was springtime, quite warm. The sun shone and warmed the asphalt. I could feel the heat through my shoe every time my foot hit the road. I realised I had worn the soles too thin. Actually I had trained hard here, at Wilson’s Promontory, on tracks like this. I had run fourteen kilometres, only one-third of the marathon distance. I anticipated feeling pain with every step of the remaining 28 kilometres. I felt full of gloom. Then I did something really brilliant: I talked to myself. I said, “Every time your foot hits the ground remember you have one les step to run. Every time your foot hurts it’s a reminder – you’re getting closer to the finish.” Guess what – after about ten metres I stopped noticing my foot altogether.’
They passed a sign that read: HALFWAY HUT. Unfortunately whatever ’halfway’ meant it did not refer to the lighthouse walk. They walked on a good while and the boy asked, ‘How much further do you reckon we have to walk, Saba?’
‘Maybe ten kilometres, perhaps a bit less.’
The boy absorbed this. He picked up a straightish stick, about 1.3 metres long and tested it. A few minutes later he discarded the stick, saying his foot wasn’t too bad now. He added, ‘I love you Saba.’ ‘I love you too, Mister Pie.’ (When he was a baby family members called him ‘Sweetie Pie.’ After twelve years the remnant was ‘Mister Pie’).
The two came to a fork and another sign. To the left, the sign read: VEHICLE TRACK 9.5KM.
To the right the sign read, WALKING TRACK 8.5KM. The old man recalled the briefing from the Ranger Staff, warning them off the walking track ’because it rained last night – could be soft underfoot.’ He chose the walking track, being the shorter and possibly the softer. ‘Maybe too soft, perhaps marshy or boggy.’ He misgave but he did not reveal his uncertainties to the child. The decision proved decisive. Time and again as they clambered over steeps, scrabbled on uneven footing, wound around sharp turns and twists, the boy exclaimed in delight and wonder. At every corner a vista, at every peak breathtaking verdure. And at every pause the song of falling waters. They panted and sweated and never stopped smiling.
The old man, marathon man, always prided himself on his doggedness on hills. But these slopes, so steep, so long, so numerous, for these he needed to dig deep. Head down, bending forward to bring the pack over his centre of gravity, the old man, ploughed dourly on; while the boy sailed ahead, never slowing, never weakening, not ever quailing at the next hill and the next that unfolded in unfeeling succession at summit after summit. The old man marvelled and rejoiced.
The walking track was no bog, simply a way up and into a southern Himalaya. Abruptly the climb ended in a series of steep declines. ‘I’m scared I’ll fall’, said the boy. The old man held the back of the boy’s pack and pulled gently backward at every descent, the traction a felt message that the old man would not allow a fall.
Around a bend and suddenly the dense bush ended at a wide cleared space. The walking track had rejoined the vehicular. A short walk brought them to a further sign announcing: NO THROUGH ROAD. Rising from their left a walking track led into bush. Leaning on some rocks three men in their late thirties sat eating dried fruit. One asked, ‘You heading for the lighthouse? It’s up that way.’ A thumb pointed backward over the speaker’s shoulder indicated the walking track. The three might have been planted in that spot, so comfortable was their seat on earth, so fixed and settled their attitude.
The old man asked, ‘Have you ever walked to the lighthouse?’ Heads nodded. The man with the thumb looked at his bag of currants and said, ‘It’s mainly downhill from here. All except the final three hundred metres, which are the steepest in the entire National Park.’ The boy pointed out a smaller notice behind the men: LIGHTHOUSE 3.2 KMS. He and the old man had been walking for four hours. With a relatively short descent ahead of them both understood they’d arrive in good time for the sunset and the start of the Sabbath. That knowing, not spoken aloud, relieved the worry, also unspoken, of walking in darkness and arriving to cold and dark.
After a short climb the track truly did descend. Underfoot, leafmeal and twigfall covered the soft sand. ‘This sort of footing is my favourite’, said the old man, ‘It comforts your soles. My feet love it.’ At every bend gaps in the bush gave way to glimpses of sea. One gap, wider than others, gave onto a view to the east of a long climbing pathway of exposed rock. At the far end of the path the two saw a white structure, phallic in shape – the lighthouse! It looked beguilingly close.
The two pressed on, half racing now. They tumbled around a bend almost falling into the arms of a human who stood on a granite elevation, tall and slim, a statue. The statue had a young woman’s face, a woman’s voice: ‘Look there: Orca.’ She pointed over a shoulder at the sea. ‘Look carefully, you’ll see the water break as they near the surface. When you arrive at the lighthouse would you please tell the lodgekeeper; there’s a pod of four playing here.’
The water broke and mended itself, broke and settled. Was this whale action? The same small disturbances were seen in every direction the man and the boy looked. Hopeful then doubting, then self-doubting, they fixed eyes, solemn and reverent, upon the sea. The old man had seen whale in these waters in years past but this time he saw no purple-black bruising the surface. After a decent interval the two hastened on. They’d seen no Orca yet they tingled with the closeness of greatness.
A voice rose from the bustling shape of the boy. He spoke of self-doubt, of fears, of haunting thoughts of his own grave unworth. The old man, filled with quite opposite thoughts of the boy, listened. He ached for the boy. He wanted to say something useful. ‘I know those feelings, Mister Pie’, was all he managed. He wished he had some infusing strength such that if he but held the boy close, the child would grow and know his worth. The urge to seize the child, to crush doubt from him bodily, was strong. But the old man knew such truth is the daughter of time. A daughter not yet ready to be born.
Meanwhile, simple exertion, the actions of fast walking seemed to make the child lighter as he gathered momentum. The words spoken, the hard thoughts disappeared in air, leaving a small body busy and complete in its plunging passage through bushland.
The old man followed behind, carrying his pack, the boy’s books and the boy’s discharged cares.
A rock lay in their path, its northerly aspect coated in delicate mosses of brilliant green. The boy stopped to explain, ‘In the bush you can use mossy rocks as a guide, like a compass. The moss grows on the sunniest side. In our hemisphere that’s north.’
At one bend the lighthouse would appear only to disappear at the next as they corkscrewed their way down to sea level.
Now a right angle turn marked the last of the bush. They emerged to an exposed path of surpassing ugliness. Blocks of weathered and stained cement set end to end formed a series of plaques that rose and rose, ending three hundred metres further on at the Light. This, the old man recognised, must be the ‘worst climb’ mentioned by the currant muncher. He looked up. The boy had not paused. He’d opened a lead of twenty metres as he attacked the awful slope. The old man hurried after him but the gap did not close. Half way up the boy approached a welcoming bench, set at the path’s edge to relieve exhausted climbers. The boy ignored the bench and steamed past and the old man, shaking his head, followed. When he reached the top the boy was grinning, his face a fairground of many pleasures.
Before they set out the Ranger had estimated the walking time from carpark to lighthouse at six hours. The man and boy finished in under five and in plenty of time for sunset and the Sabbath.
The lodgekeeper welcomed them. He said, ‘We’re expecting eleven in your cottage tonight. You two are the first to arrive. We expected an old – pardon me, I mean older – man and a child. Amazing that you beat all those grownups, young feller. Congratulations! Your reward for arriving early is the room with the best view. See – there’s the Light just outside your window. You’re overlooking the ocean. You’ll see any whales without leaving your room.’
The room had high ceilings, bunk beds, large windows and plenty of room for two and their possessions. The ‘cottage’ was formerly a lightkeeper’s dwelling, large enough for his wife and their eight children. Outside the wintry gale blew up a four metre swell. Inside the cottage was snug and the showers were hot. Both man and boy stank of sweat. They peeled off their steaming clothes and showered. The boy headed off to the reading room where he met the incoming walkers, adults all, and held court. The first to arrive was the trio of dried-fruit eaters, blokes in their thirties, friends since their schooldays in the Blue Mountains, revisiting old haunts and shared pleasures. After them came a family of four, rich in geography and history, which encompassed Scotland, Southern Africa, Denmark and a touch of Jewishness. The sole female was the Dane. The boy introduced himself and she replied, ‘I’m Astrid.’ This name was new to the boy who remembered her as Asteroid. Following the arrival of that heavenly body from Denmark a lean schoolteacher in his early thirties turned up. He’d sighted the boy in the carpark before setting out. Admiringly he said, ‘You walked quicker than I did’.
Darkness fell, the windy world outside moaned and window frames rattled, while inside their room the man and the boy had lit the candles. The old man placed his hands on the boy’s head and slowly, as in a fugue, recited the old words of blessing of the child. Then the two sang the Sabbath Dedication before breaking bread and feasting on packeted food brought to piping in the microwave.
Afterwards the boy beat the old man at Scrabble, much to the admiration of the last two to arrive, a bushy-faced pair who materialised from the darkness, unfussed by their final hour of moonlit hiking.
The man and the boy slept eleven hours that night.
The next day – Saturday – was a true Sabbath, a day of rest. The boy accumulated a series of hurts – his back ached, his right sole was bruised, his left knee seized in spasm. When the lodgekeeper invited all guests into the lighthouse museum for a tour, all pains were put to the side, and soon – or sooner – forgotten. The boy asked most of the questions, good adult questions, as the lodgekeeper later confided. They spent the rest of the day and the evening in the heated common rooms, reading, playing Scrabble, chatting. It is fair to say the nine adult males found the sole female and the sole child the most memorable of the company.
Early Sunday the boy revisited his wounds: his bruises padded with multiple bandaids, his knee now moving without pain, his stiff back tolerating a (lighter) pack, he said, ‘I should be able to walk.’ The old man said, ‘The stiffness and soreness will probably disappear once you warm up a bit.’ Before they left the lodgekeeper insisted on taking photos of child and man standing with the lighthouse in the background. ‘To prove to everyone you actually made it’, he said.
The walk back was just as beautiful, just as long, just as tough as the walk out. After an hour the old man asked, ‘How’s your back, Mister Pie?’ ‘I haven’t been noticing, Saba.’ The boy greeted every new vista with delighted recognition. The top of every rise, each mossy stone, every leafy dell, every rugged prospect, he claimed them all as new old friends. He owned the track, his by conquest. Every so often the boy would turn to the old man in his train and repeat, ‘Isn’t this wonderful, Saba? Thank you so much for bringing me here!’
Over the hours of the return hike the boy never asked, ‘How far have we walked?’ Pressing hard on the hills, the boy asserted a sort of mastery: he had done this walk before, he’d do it again now. There was no doubting his ability.
Ahead of them rose the final four kilometres of unrelenting hills. Between the two and the hills a pair of colourful shapes moved in and out of focus. The boy said, ‘Asteroids. There’s a couple of asteroids ahead of us.’ Neither spoke it aloud but both decided they’d overtake the colourful figures ahead. It took them seventy minutes but they did so. The boy declined the old man’s suggestion of a break for lunch. A quick stop for drinks and fruit and upward and onward they went, again tacitly resolving they’d beat the asteroids to the carpark. As on the outward walk the boy attacked the closing uphills. Cruelly illusory, every late bend offered promise of an end. Time and again a tough slope led the eye upwards towards a seeming opening, as one would see at trail’s end. But time and again the boy ploughed on, leaving disappointment behind, his head down, breathing hard, with the old man following in his wake.
The sun found its way out of cloud, the greenery took on a lighter shade, the day gleamed. Sweat beaded the boy’s small face, the pink of his cheeks overlying a strange circumambient pallor. ‘Take a break, Mister Pie. Let’s drink.’ The boy took the bottle without words, sucked, passed it back and climbed wordlessly on.
One of the illusions of an end turned out to be the fact of the end. The boy strode into the clearing, staggering a little now on the flat asphalt. His grandfather went to take a snap to record the moment of triumph, but the boy, sickly pale, waved him away, gasping: ‘No photos, Saba.’
A little later, in the car, the boy said, ‘I’ll take my son on this walk one day – or my grandson.’