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In High Places

Fiction by Bill Noble

If there's perfection in this world, it's embodied in graceful women . . . and granite. Granite, holding and reflecting the mountain light, solid and eternal. The perfect rock for climbing. And that's what I was doing on a perfect summer day.

I perched halfway up the towering east face of Cathedral Peak, chewing raisins and gazing out over mountains that seemed to stretch to the end of the world.

Not a sound but the wind-or so I thought at first. But then my ears caught faint scrapings and even, slow breath. I peered over the brink. Could someone else be here, in the midst of such solitude? Someone else was. What I saw was beyond anything I might have imagined. It made my heart leap.

Fifty feet below me, a sunbrowned, lithe woman was freeclimbing the near-vertical face, straight toward my ledge.

At first I saw only unbound golden-brown hair, slender, muscled shoulders, and two chalk-whitened hands playing the rock surface like a subtle instrument as she worked her way up the rock. She paused between moves and looked upward; I saw calm gray eyes in a wide-boned, quiet face.

She smiled up at me. "Gets pretty thin here. Did you climb to the right?"

"Yeah," I said, smiling back. "Head for that crack system, and then move onto the big flake."

"You bet." She stretched, fingertips straining toward a small nubbin on the cliff face. My breath caught at the courage and skill in the move, but I gasped aloud as I saw she was naked-naked except for a small hardware sling, a chalk-bag, and a pair of slim rock shoes. Muscles in her hip and leg rippled like music as she spidered across the rock.

She caught the nubbin and swung, a bolder move than I'd have dared. She aimed a toe into the crack I'd pointed out and, pivoting, swung her upper body over in a single, breathtaking gesture. This woman was *good!* She swarmed up the crack and segued into an effortless lieback on the massive flake. In a few moments, still breathing steadily and smiling, she stepped onto my ledge.

She might have been the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen. Slender, toned, she walked toward me along the foot-wide shelf of stone. Her breasts were small, dark-tipped, her ribs and belly sculptural. Her forearms had delicate tracings of veins, emphasizing the strength that radiated from her whole body. She walked, loose-limbed, fluid, utterly at ease and unselfconscious. She could have been on a fashion runway, or back on the sand after a hang-ten at Malibu instead of 800 feet up a vertical wall.

"Signe," she said, extending her whitened hand. Her touch was electric, as if the strength in her flowed into me.

"Bill," I said. "Headed for the summit?"

It was a silly question, but she answered with sunny courtesy: "Yeah, and then along the arete to Unicorn. After that I'll scree back down to the lake."

Up close, her eyes were even bigger than they'd seemed at first, direct and warm, wide-pupiled despite the mountain sun. I was on a tiny ledge in a vertical immensity, talking to a nude woman who acted as if our conversation was the most ordinary thing in the world. Her hand still grasped mine, warm and relaxed.

She hunkered down on the ledge and grinned up at me. "You don't mind me naked? I didn't expect to meet anybody."

"Signe . . ." I said, spreading my hands in a gesture of happy surrender . . . and then couldn't for the life of me think what to say next.

Laughter bubbled out of her with the same effortlessness that animated her on the rock. "I take it that's a yes? Good," she said. "I'm glad you don't take offense. I work all week managing a dozen lawyers and fifty court cases. Weekends, in the high country-this is where I get to be free."

"I think I saw you this morning," I said, "diving into the lake across from my camp."

She brought a hand up and gave me a mock salute. "That was me! Every morning I'm up here."

"Always naked?"

"Diving, yes. Climbing, no," she said. "It's not a fetish. It just feels good. I rarely meet people up here, and if I do, they're rarely the sort who are shocked. I wouldn't want to ruin anybody's day in a place like this."

"You might leave them thinking they'd seen an elf. Or a wood nymph."

She sprang lightly to her feet. "I'm in favor of magic," she said, grinning. "You should try it yourself."


That laugh again. "No, silly man, taking your clothes off." She ran her hands over her body, arching her back and curling her toes in pure sensual celebration. Her face was raised to the sun, eyes closed. It was all I could do not to reach out and steady her on the narrow ledge.

Her eyes popped open. "Gotta go. Dressed this way, I don't want to get back to camp after the sun's down." She took my hand again, and placed her second slender hand on top, warm and strong. "Climb safe!"

She cross-jammed finger and thumb into a small crack and leaned far back, scanning the rock. Her face burst into a broad, white-toothed grin of anticipation. "That way!" she said, gesturing at a quartz dike that soared upward at a steep angle to our left.

She leaned her forehead against the granite and prodded her chalk-bag open, dusting her hands. Then she danced past me-I don't know how she did it on that little ledge-and stepped off into space. I wasn't even sure I could see the purchase points her hands found, and her feet floated across the protruding quartz crystals of the dike as if she were weightless. This naked, slender woman seemed to have come from some other realm, utterly at home in this dizzy world of rock and sunlit emptiness. Just before she disappeared around the bulge of granite above me, she looked down. Another glowing smile graced me. "Try it!" she said.

"Magic?" I said, joking, but she was gone.

When my heart slowed, I sat and took off my boots. I tied them to my lunchtime anchor so they wouldn't topple over the edge.

I unbuttoned my shirt and felt a brand-new warmth of the sun on my skin. I wriggled out of my pants, folded everything into my climbing pack, and tugged my boots back on.

I didn't think I could climb the dike, but above the flake Signe had scampered up was a pitch that looked perfect, tuned exactly to my skills.

As I fitted my hand to the first hold and stepped off, feeling happy, the sun embraced my shoulders. The mountain breeze caressed each tiny hair on my body.

The end

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