“Mia, help!” Jenny screamed, kicking her legs so violently I thought she would send us both over the edge.
I helped her back onto the rock. She pressed herself to the cliff, a smear of blood mixing with the dirt and tears on her face.
“You’re safe,” I said.
She looked at me, but didn’t waste breath arguing. We weren’t safe. The higher we climbed the harder it got, the more tired we became, and the more mistakes we would make.
Lower down there had been signs of other climbers. We passed several empty cams left in the rock and then nothing. We were the last ones standing.
Authorities had tried to section off the area to dissuade adventurous types, but people willing to risk their lives on this mountain would not be put off by temporary fencing.
“We have to keep going to get there by sunset,” I said. “It’s not far.”
She nodded stiffly, and we resumed our climb.
I’d heard the legend, of course. You can’t move to China and not hear about the peach tree that delivers immortality to those who eat its fruit. Another story, local to Guilin, told of a warlord who commanded his armies to build a stone statue of that tree—which was worshipped by locals until it finally rewarded them with real immortality peaches growing from its stone branches.
Recently a rumour spread that the stone tree was here in Guilin, on the highest mountain, and hopeful climbers started dying in their efforts to find it. Jenny, fellow expat and climber, insisted we try too and I agreed.
“How do you think immortality works?” Jenny had asked. “Like, if I eat the peach and then fall off the mountain, will I survive?”
I’d laughed and waved away the talk of magic peaches. For me it was only about the climb, and I thought it was for Jenny too.
“Last push,” I called to Jenny, although really it was for my own benefit.
We scrambled over the edge and lay sweating and panting on top of the mountain.
I rolled onto my side and scanned the rocks.
“I can’t see anything,” Jenny said.
“I told you,” I said, “it’s just a story. Probably attracts tourists – Eighth Wonder found in Guilin. Shall we set up beds? We won’t get down in time before sunset.”
Jenny walked over to a curved boulder that looked like a cave.
“Good idea,” I called. “Let’s set up there. It’ll protect us from the wind.”
She crouched with her back to me, and I stopped short when I saw what she was looking at—a small stone tree, with a single fleshy peach hanging from it.
Jenny turned to me, a strange look on her face.
“There’s only one peach,” she said. We stared at each other.
“Let’s get some sleep,” I said, head spinning, and too exhausted to consider what we had found and what it meant.
We set up our portaledges and I slipped into an uneasy sleep.
I woke to see Jenny holding a rock above my head. I rolled and she landed on top of me, putting her hands around my throat.
I looked into her eyes, silently begging her to let go, but the determination on her face didn’t falter. I kicked out, and she stumbled towards the edge.
“Mia, help!” she screamed, but I could not catch her. I dropped to my knees, and found myself staring at the little stone tree.
Hand shaking, I reached for the peach and all that it promised. I could smell the sweet ripeness of it as my lips pressed against it.
A hot tear ran down my cheek and onto the fruit, making the sweetness turn to salt. With a cry I hurled the peach off the mountain and, sobbing, furiously bashed at the stone tree with a rock until it crumbled to dust.
And now I sit waiting for sunrise and praying I can descend alone. My tears are not just for Jenny. I got what I wanted from this climb, but so many risked it all for no more than a promise of life. Immortality is for suckers. Immortality kills.