This is the final installment of Nina MacLaughlin’s six-part series on the sky.
I walked to a high place and slept at the top. The air there was thin. Someone sleeping in the space adjacent was ill. Coughs punched through the wall in the night. But wall is not the accurate word for the thin sheets of particle board that divided the space. A quilt hung by clothespins would’ve caught the sound better, baseball into mitt as opposed to baseball through wax paper. “Altitude sickness” had been whispered in the courtyard in the evening as the sun did a better and better job hiding itself behind the mountains, sending megaphones of cold light toward whispers of clouds. In bed, I worried as the sounds of the sickness graveled and percussed their way to my ears. Tunnel of throat, dark cavity of lung. Breath yolky and frothed. Go down, I urged the person in my mind. Go down. Get lower where your lungs and blood can feed on the oxygen they need. I wanted them to stop coughing and I did not want them to stop coughing because I feared that a stopped cough meant dead.
I lay in bed that night—a plywood platform on which I spread my sleeping bag—wearing double the regular amount of pants, four layers of shirts, a down vest, a wool hat. I pulled the hood of the bag over my head to muffle the coughs. I did not fear contagion, but the sickness in the next room meant the sickness was possible in my room, too. And by room I mean my body. I was far away, higher than I’d ever been on earth. I was afraid. I did not want to die. And it seemed so lonely to die so far away from everyone I loved.