This is a blasted landscape. It looks like it’s been broken apart by a giant’s ruthless hands. Small creatures burrow just below the ground, seeking heat but dreading light. Round-bodied moths drift heavily on air currents created by their own wingbeats. The fine powdered rust which coats their wings disguises them as Monarch butterflies. An eagle wheels above us, small and fierce. I can’t tell whether it’s a baby taking its first solo flight, or if it’s just really far away. Clouds threaten but hold, a distant tumble of rain kicking up dust on the horizon.
Before us is the Rock. A natural monument rising out of the dirt, a misshapen sandcastle streaked with orange and gold. Like a sunspot or a Magic Eye picture, I can’t hold it in my sight unless I blur my focus slightly and allow my thoughts to drift. It spreads endlessly to either side, slipping to the edge of my peripheral vision every time I try to turn my head and catch it.
Beside me my brother kicks the ground as he walks, heel-toe in a violent tapdance. Darcy’s cheeks are flushed but coated with a grey suncream sheen. Every time he catches me looking at him, he lifts the heavy camera resting against his chest and paparazzis me. Ch-ka ch-ka ch-ka. I avoid making eye contact, the distraction of that cheeky grin. I choose my words carefully.
‘Is it animal, vegetable or mineral?’ I ask.
‘Animal,’ he says with confidence.
‘Am I a wild species?’
‘Am I, like, a particular individual animal belonging to a species?’
‘Am I alive now?’
‘Have I ever existed in the real world?’
‘Is my species a mythical species?’
‘Am I a fictional character?’
‘Am I from a TV show?’
‘I don’t know. I think so.’ He huffs impatiently.
I mull over this information for a moment. Sometimes I can tap into his train of thought almost instantly. The workings of Darcy’s child brain are not simplistic, though they do often possess a startling clarity. He’s hovering on the borderland between child and teen, a place more complex and demanding than any other life stage. Although I feel far from that place, I can read his thoughts because they follow the same meandering paths as mine. They rush along the same dry riverbeds where they’re allowed to flow unchecked. Or maybe it’s because we’ve already been playing Twenty Questions for two hours as we circumnavigate the pockmarked Rock.
‘Are you from Narnia, Darc?’ I ask him. His answer is suddenly inevitable. It’s like I’ve glimpsed his cards in a mirror.
‘Are you Reepicheep the mouse?’
‘Yes!’ We grin at each other.
‘I don’t know if mice really count as wild animals,’ I say.
He shrugs; we fall into satisfied silence. There is only the sound of our feet scuffing in time.
We carry backpacks with sunscreen and water bottles. For snacks, we have four crumbling apple muffins stolen from the hotel breakfast buffet. We’ve both forgotten how much water we ought to drink, but we settle on one litre each per hour as a sensible sounding amount. Not a quantity which is likely to flood our lungs, we agree, but certainly enough to stave off the delirium of dehydration. We are never more dramatic than when we speculate together. I’m hideously aware of how alone we are in this place. I don’t envy our dad a day filled with seminars and talks, the resort’s posh glassed-in meeting rooms shutting out the desert. I wish he could have wagged the conference and walked with us for just one day. Instead he gave me $100, chucked me the keys to the rental car and told us to enjoy ourselves. I’m pretty sure I’m not even supposed to drive the big four-wheel drive on my probationary license.
Every few kilometres as we walk on, we stop for a rest and a drink at small corrugated iron shelters. They perch anomalous in this landscape, like abandoned bus shelters. There are maps and information signs from time to time. When these point off the track we wander into the shade of the Rock, and gaze awestruck at rock paintings and the daubed roofs of caves. We rest by shaded water holes, sparkling thickly like broken glass. Everywhere, there are written requests not to touch or climb the Rock. The spirits and Dreaming are both orderly and wild. Listen to Country, the signs implore.
Many of the signs forbid photography at a given site. Where it is permitted, Darcy duly clicks the camera once, twice, three times. He photographs his feet on the sand, makes me pose like I’m running against a backdrop of sandstone wall. He takes selfies where the screen fills with his face and white sunlight leaks in the edges. The camera hangs from its lanyard around his neck like a VIP pass, ready to be flashed at any time.
‘You should take some pictures without either of us in them,’ I say. He gives me a pitying look.
‘What’s the point?’ he says. ‘You may as well buy a postcard.’ Der brain, I see him add silently. I don’t know how to explain that I want to remember later how I feel now, present in this place with the physicality of it infusing my senses. I don’t want to remember myself being here; I want to be here.
We’re about halfway around, and suddenly the sun winks out. We lope along in the shadow of an escarpment, shivering in the sudden blinding lack of light. A bursting lushness escapes the deep crack where the Rock’s base meets the ground. Long, ropy grass tufts shoot a metre high, with purple wildflowers poking up amidst them. I grab a fistful of the tall grass as we pass, letting it run through my clenched fist. Its edges are both sharper and duller than I expected and when I unfurl my hand I see fine red paper cuts criss-crossing its expanse. I give my palm a feline lick and wipe it on my shorts.
‘What’s this flower?’ Darcy says, cupping a red bulb in soft hands. I’m annoyed with him for asking and with myself for not knowing.
‘It’s poisonous,’ I say viciously. He drops it. I push down encroaching paranoia. There are no malevolent serpents waiting to strike. The hidden sun is still high and we have plenty of water. I can take care of Darcy. And he can take care of himself.
We walk on, the path twisting around at odd angles and almost doubling back on itself as it obediently follows the contours of the Rock.
At this proximity, I’m surprised by how irregular its form is. From afar and in all the pictures I’ve seen, it looks as uniform as a gold ingot. Up close it’s like a maze with only one path, deep vertical channels and dark alcoves chopping its surface. I’m drawn to it, I fear it, I want to touch it, but I’m not sure whether that’s just a consequence of being near something so impossibly big. It exerts a gravitational pull on me that makes me swoon. It’s dizzying and entirely unscientific.
We approach a row of mottled iron plaques embedded in the Rock’s surface. They are placed just slightly too high to be read from the ground, and we both bounce onto our tiptoes and crane our necks like we’ve heard a dog-whistle.
‘Can you read them?’ Darcy asks.
‘No,’ I say. I take a step back and look even further up, and choke a little on dust and surprise. ‘But I know wha—who they’re for.’
Embedded in the spine of the Rock are a series of iron railings. A thick chain drips between each pair, linking them to create a long, dizzyingly exposed path. On the incline several hundred metres above, two tiny figures are halfway toward the peak. The sun behind them turns their figures into black silhouettes. They heave themselves forwards like they’re playing tug of war with the Rock itself. The wrongness of this sight makes my posture crumble. My instinct is to cover Darcy’s eyes before he sees their transgression, but it’s too late. We exchange glances, mutually appalled. We are both remembering Gulliver’s distress when he awakes on the island of Lilliput and struggles against hundred of tiny ropes binding him to the ground, as the Lilliputians subdue him by shooting sharp arrows into his exposed skin. I pushed Gulliver’s Travels on Darcy last year, and if we were to play a game of Twenty Questions now, we would both think of Gulliver.
I push my brother gently in the small of the back.
‘Let’s go,’ I say. ‘Don’t stare.’ The climbers’ presence seems obscene.
We walk on, but I can’t help glancing up every few seconds. I feel a sort of reverse vertigo; I both do and don’t want them to fall. I can see it already, a dreamlike premonition: one climber missteps, the toe of his special climbing shoe slips on loose rock. He loses his footing and the Rock shifts angrily beneath him. He clutches at the edge of his comrade’s shirt, but it slips between his fingers and his arms windmill uselessly. He falls in slow motion, infinitely, but also only for a few seconds. Then he hits the ground in front of us and the weight of his own impact spreads him flat like cartoon road kill. One more plaque to be embedded in the rock.
I lick my lips and squint against the light. The shadowy figures have almost reached the pinnacle. A muffin sits heavy in my gut. I gulp too much water and burp. My muscles burn quietly with a zing of fading adrenaline. Darcy’s brow is furrowed and he is staring at the ground with purpose. The camera hangs around his neck like a dead thing. He stumbles on nothing and hits the ground before my fear has moved out of my stomach. Time both expands and contracts. I see his fall in vertiginous tunnel vision.
‘Darcy!’ I drop onto my knees beside him.
‘I’m fine.’ His cheeks are red with heat, pain, embarrassment.
‘Darcy, you’re bleeding!’ Blood beads his knees, and his palms are scraped where they caught his fall. I’m shrill, hysterical, fighting back tears. I berate myself for forgetting to bring Band-Aids. In my mind, I still see the climber flat and pulped on the ground beside us. Darcy looks at me with wonder and disdain. His hair is streaked with gold where the sun hits it, and his glowing cheeks are as smooth and lightly fuzzed as a ripe stone fruit.
‘I’m fine. Relax.’
He stands up, and when I remain in an anxious crouch he pulls me up. His grazed palm meets mine where I sliced it on the sharp grass before, and our blood mingles. He grabs a water bottle from his pack and lets the water run over his grazes. We’re both embarrassed by my overreaction. He gets worse knockdowns in an average footy game.
I take a shuddering breath, and we keep walking. The sun is high overhead, and the Rock looms beside us. Darcy walks close beside it, trailing one hand alongside its surface like he’s mapping a labyrinth by sensory memory. He maintains a gap of just a few inches between his fingertips and the sandstone, as though to touch it would burn him. I grab his other hand and squeeze it tight, and in a rare indulgence of physical affection, my almost-teenage brother holds my hand as we walk.
‘Alright,’ he says. ‘Alright. I’ve got one.’
‘Animal, vegetable, mineral?’
‘All of them. And other.’
Ah. ‘The Rock,’ I say. I’m confident, and proud of him.
We both smile. I don’t know if we’re doing this right, but we’re trying. We’re opening ourselves to this place, not bending it to our will. There are raw wounds on our skin, but we’re out of the shadows. There are fewer plants around us now. Hot wind and sharp light cut through the air and we walk on in silence, listening.