new zealand electronic poetry centre

Fiona Farrell



She had climbed up carefully enough, with due respect, with absolute attention. A steady ascent, along ridges where the slopes dropped off on either side thousands of feet down to the glaciers, through loose snow and across walls of blue ice, pitch by pitch, inch by inch, kicking in hard, finding the places where the she could take hold, fix the screw, the snow stake, breathe, concentrate. Then the slog along the summit ridge, six breaths to each step up here in the thin air and the dub dub of the oxygen balloon and then the summit beneath a high pennant of wind-driven snow and the other mountains – peaks seracs and glaciers stretching away on all sides below them to India, to China, sea-wrack and billow. She was being careful.

But midway down a delicate traverse, heart pounding lungs burning, their tents three tiny bright balloons a few hundred metres below, she had reached to her left and there was a butterfly.

A tiny blue butterfly, its wings trembling as it stood tiptoe on the ice and it was so astonishing, so beautiful, so unlikely at 7800 metres that she had paused, just for a second. Held her hand back, just for a second, and in that second, she had slipped.

“I’m sorry,” she tries to say to the black bird flying with her, the two of them linked by a red rope which swings between them in loops and tangles.

Like skipping, she thinks. Like skipping at school when we were little. All in together, girls. Never mind the weather, girls. Jump and clap, jump and clap, plaits bobbing and the rope swinging over and under.

“Sorry,” she calls to the black bird but she has fallen away and the sun catches in Margie’s eyes, a brilliant dazzle as she feels herself fall and rise into that golden eye. She flies up and up through that little round hole and looks down on it all: on the frozen press of mountains, at the tiny pinpricks of scarlet and yellow which are their tents where the others lie in soft downy bags, sip their sweet milky tea, read, eat mint cake and macaroni, chat, squabble, laugh, all funny lovely little humans with their warm skin and their framework of bone and their soft hair, doing funny little human things in this fearsome place where only a scattering of holy rice holds back the avalanche.

And she calls out to them too: “Sorry, I’m sorry.”

But maybe it’s pointless to apologise. Maybe it wasn’t her fault entirely. Maybe Parbat simply shrugged her cold shoulder and flicked aside the mildly irritating little insect that was Margie. Off you go, she had said. That’s enough.



From Six Clever Girls Who Became Famous Women (Penguin, 1997): 300-02

Fiona Farrell

Last updated 27 July, 2007