Bewildering Stories

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A Night in the Alps

by Tala Bar

Excerpted from the novel Ella

The snowy peaks rolled around the little car and its two occupants. For hours they had been climbing through the Alpine pass, with the recently cleared snow piled up a meter high on both sides of the narrow road. Everywhere the Alps had loomed in their magnificence, only a few late skiers dotting the partially white slopes; gradually, the valleys and lakes drew further away below them, the houses grew smaller and the toy cows in the meadows tinier. At last, they had all vanished when the travellers finally reached the summit, and the car stopped.

Ella looked round her, curiously. The Alpine peaks were now at eye level. It was late afternoon, and the pale, westerly sun hung listlessly over the cold, empty desert. All around them, dead-white stretches of snow mingled at the distance with the hazy sky to form a horizonless blur. They were miles above any human settlement, the desolation of the place was overwhelming. One thing only broke the monotony; the blue mass of the glacier which, according to the map, was the source of the river Rhone, lay in the lap of the curvy white peaks, glittering under the sinking sun like a myriad of diamonds.

It was Midsummer, the longest day of the year. At this altitude, however, the air was biting cold. Ella shivered, huddling in the coat she had put on halfway up the mountain. Suddenly, this unusual landscape with its silent atmosphere had acquired a sense of a whispering menace.

“Alex,” she said quietly, as if afraid to break the eerie, lifeless silence, “Let’s go down.”

“Down?” Alex did not turn to look at her. With a strangely altered voice he said, “But we’ve just got here.”

“I don’t like it here, this place gives me the creeps,” Ella whispered.

“But it was you who wanted to come here,” he protested, as if accusing, looking outside rather than at his companion.

“I know,” she agreed; “and we’ve come and seen it; now I want to go back down.” She peered out at him over the fur collar of her coat, her green eyes very dark.

“No,” Alex said, calmly, with that trace of obstinacy in his voice she knew so well; “I want to take a look at that place.”

“Take a look at what?” Ella asked blankly.

“At that glacier, I want to see it more closely.”

“The glacier?” she did not understand, he was behaving so uncharacteristically. “Why? You can see it well enough from here,” she objected, her heart pounding. She turned her eyes away from the blue lump, looking at her companion. He had never been a nature lover, he was just ‘doing’ Switzerland, as he had ‘done’ other parts of Europe, in order to add to the vast store of knowledge he possessed. Why all of a sudden he should want to look closely at an ordinary natural phenomenon?

“No, Alex, I think it’s dangerous to get off the road here; you don’t know the terrain at all.” A tinge of hysteria was creeping into her voice and she tried to suppress it.

“I don’t care; I’ll go and get a closer look at it. Just for a minute.”

“Are you crazy? Are you out of your mind? You can’t go there! It’s too risky! There is no way!” She was whispering her shouts at him in a loose, free manner she had never used before, as if a spring had recoiled inside her. All her latest worries — her yearnings, his ignoring of her needs, her clandestine pregnancy — flooded her entire being in the face of this new difficulty, this strange, abnormal circumstance.

“What’s come over you? I’ve never seen you like this before!” she said in a growing alarm, shivering from the cold, from fright, from the panic of suddenly not understanding the man beside her, with whom she had shared her life for the last five years. ‘He’s always been such a level headed man, so rational, so unemotional! Why should he be so different now?’ Everything she had liked about him — his quiet voice, the grayness of his appearance, his gray eyes and hair — even the light gray suit he was wearing, with the off-white shirt and dark gray tie, as if he was going to the office rather than journeying to the high Alps — all these things that had made up his whole personality seemed to have vanished under the sparkling blue aura of the glacier...

Confused, Ella fell silent.

Alex, sitting next to her with his hands lying lightly on the steering wheel, was oblivious to her thoughts and fears; his gaze was fixed on that enormous blue lump of ice, captivated by the mysterious aura emanating from it. Usually, as a scholar of history whose main interest was dry facts, he had no sense of the mysterious; somehow, that blue lump was beckoning to him in a way which he did not understand, but felt no need or will to resist.

The silence in the car stretched long and oppressive. Alex sat as if in a state of trance, his gray eyes reflecting the blue aura, his ears attuned to a distant calling. Ella started talking in a fast, soft, caressing tone, occasionally rising to the verge of screaming. Alex paid no attention to her. Unused to being ignored, Ella put her hand on his shoulder, as if trying to force him to stay; he shrugged it away. ‘I can do whatever I want,’ he thought, ‘if only I put my mind to it. She is not going to stop me!’

She stopped talking at last, seeing no purpose in it. Then, turning to the back seat as if caught in an unseen silky mesh, he picked up his coat, opened the car door and went outside.

“I’ll be right back,” he said, pausing to shrug into his coat with his back to her. With his eyes fast on the blue magic in the distance he started walking toward it, paying no heed to Ella’s desperate cries.

She sat in the car for a long time, looking after the gradually diminishing black speck on the face of the white stretches. As he was moving westwards, the last rays of the sun blinded Ella‘s eyes, making her blink, missing the moment when he vanished behind a fold in the ground. Then the sun touched the hazy peaks at the distance, slowly sinking, leaving behind it a long lasting multicolored twilight. Ella sat there, watching nothing, until evening wrapped the world in dusk and she sank into her seat, burying her face in her coat.

She waited, and waited, while evening slipped into night, hiding the glacier under its black blanket. Large, cold stars shone harshly in the sky, and the dull, pale snow lay like dead. A dull heavy stone lay in Ella’s heart and at last, weary with intense emotions, she closed her eyes...

Eerie howlings raised her from the deep slumber she had fallen into, piercing the night with strange yearning. Shivering from apprehension and from the cold, Ella groped in the dark. “Alex,” she said, softly. There was no answer. She looked around, vaguely remembering what had happened. Outside, a waning moon hung over the pale peaks; in their lap, the glacier’s aura glowed in a blue fire.

A light wind lifted the soft layer of snow, driving the flakes in a frenzy of a fanciful dance veiling the world. Primeval masks, white-painted faces, were dancing in a circle among the flakes. Red eyes glowed above mouths gaping like black holes, emitting blood-curdling howls. Pointed, red-tinted breasts protruded bellow the masks from the void of unseen bodies...

Terror gripped her heart, mingled with fascination. Held by the magic of the dance, Ella was horrified to notice a familiar figure in the midst of this frightful circle: Alex, dancing to its beating rhythm.

‘He’s come back, thank God!’ was her first thought. It was soon discarded. He had not come back to her; he was immersed in a strange frolic among strange creatures, oblivious of her existence. ‘Funny,’ she thought’ ‘I’ve never considered his dancing so free and wild.’ It was grotesque, it was terrible. Ella wanted to call out to him, but no voice came out of her throat; she wanted to get out of the car, but the handle was stuck...

The dance was changing shape; the circle opened, snaking around itself with Alex in the middle of the meandering row. One end then started to move away, the rest following behind. ‘He’s getting away, he’s getting away and I shall never see him again!’ Ella cried in silence. The black, half invisible horrors carried the suit-clad dancing man with them, vanishing into the snowstorm toward the beckoning glacier.

For a long time Ella sat, stunned. Was it a dream, or had it really happened? She did not know, could not tell. Suddenly, she found her voice, started screaming, screaming into the emptiness. There was no one to hear her. She tried the door, the handle submitted easily and she got out of the car. The storm had died down, all was still, as if the world had held its breath. She looked around, saw nothing but pale peaks in a faint moonlight. She looked at the ground, expecting to see nothing, and was horrified to discover some traces, blurred marks of bare feet in the soft snow...

Ella shivered, her hair bristled. She realized it was very cold, got into the car thankful for a little warmth. Huddled in her coat, the only thing she was able to think of was that Alex had gone. Where, how — to that she had no answer. Would he come back? She was very doubtful. A feeling of desolation gripped her heart and cold tears sprang from her eyes. She grimaced to herself. All this restlessness she had been feeling lately — had it changed his attitude toward her? He had gone now, broken free from their life together, setting her free at the same time... Did she want to be free of him? Almost ashamed of the idea, she sank back into her seat...

The thoughts buzzed in her mind, weighing heavily on her heart. Her eyelids grew heavy, her head sunk to her chest and she fell into a fitful sleep, confused. The glacier’s blue aura flickered fitfully like her sleep, bursting out with clumps of light, dying down, shining out again, until at last it started to dim, gradually...

Ella woke up to a glittering bright day. The white, rolling peaks shone in the rising sun, shining a new feeling inside her. The emptiness around her seemed to be awakening to a new life, filling her heart with new energy and awareness. Alex had gone, she realized after a moment, but there was no reason for her to abandon life; and there was that new life growing inside her, for which she had to make an effort to go on on her own. Transferring herself to the driver’s seat, she switched on the engine.

‘How easily it’s come to life!’ she mused, putting her hands on the steering wheel...

Getting down the mountain was not an easy task, but it had to be accomplished. Some time after noon, Ella drove into a small hamlet at the foot of the mountain, collapsing at the wheel after she had stopped the car at the center of the village.

“He’s gone, I don’t know where,” she murmured to the villagers, curiously gathering around her. A sole woman coming down the mountain was not a usual sight.

She was led to the tiny police station and told the two men manning it what had happened. While a connection was being made with the main town, and a posse was organized to go up the mountain to search for the lost man, the women surrounded Ella, supplying her with hot coffee laced with brandy.

“There is something in that glacier, something strange, you know,” they said to her, comforting her while nodding their heads in understanding. “People have vanished there before, you know; there is something mysterious in that glacier, which can be quite dangerous...”

* * *

Alex was never found. Leaving the rented car behind, Ella ordered a taxi to take her to the airport, and flew back home. She was still restless when going to visit her old friend Rinna, with whom she had shared accommodations and many long talks before moving in with Alex.

“I can’t for the life of me understand what he thought Alex was doing, going off like that,” she complained, rejecting the mystery and trying to go back to thinking in realistic terms.

“Well,” her friend answered in her forthright way, “he was doing you a favor, wasn’t he?”

Ella twisted her face. She was not sure she liked that kind of favor.

“Still, you have your child — his child — if nothing else to live for,” Rinna added.

Ella looked hard at her friend. “I don’t need an excuse to go on living!” she said harshly.

“Good!” Rinna answered; “so let’s go have some ice cream!”

Copyright © 2003 by Tala Bar

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