Elegant and Brutal by Cristina Marcalow

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Kaiser Santa Clara Hospital, June 2018

The haul bag sits, a stuffed pig in the trunk. Cams, nuts, and two foil-wrapped burritos vibrate with expectant energy. But the car is parked in the red haze of the emergency room parking lot sign, and it won’t be going anywhere tonight.

Inside the hospital, her body is gently slumped, lifting and lowering in soft breaths. Digital numbers count them above her head: eighteen a minute. They have lifted and prodded and poked her body, knocking her wig and gown askew. I lean over and adjust them back, tucking her crispy black wisps under brown synthetic strands.

Story by: Cristina Marcalow, published in Volume 15 of The Zine, now available. 

Two hours ago, we stood in our driveway preparing for our first big wall ascent. We counted slings (twelve), oranges (four), and headlamps (two), and debated the merits of not bringing a stove. I watered the begonia and flicked off the light. And then:

Hey kiddo. The radiologist said the PET scan was alarming. We’re heading to the E.R.

No, didn’t say anything else. 

Yeah, on Homestead.

OK, see you there.

We eat our road burritos at 2:00 a.m. between beeping machines and fluttering geometric-patterned curtains. We tap search queries into our screens, trying to keep up with the doctors. Vacant air. Fistula. Barium. Between nonchalant visits from surgeons, we troll internet forums for beta and check our watches incessantly, wondering if we could still make it. We pretend that soon someone will say it was all a mistake. I bivy behind the EKG machine, drooling on a particleboard desk as if it were the tray table on an airplane destined for another hemisphere. The nurse comes in to check her vitals and is startled by my wild eyes peering out from behind the wires.

In the morning, the sun rises over the hospital parking garage. We sit between towering Silicon Valley SUVs, crossing our legs and staring down at the asphalt. He flicks a small pebble. There is nothing to say about our abandoned plans to be starting up our first big wall right now, the Kor Roof hanging overhead.

I pull one of the oranges out of the haul bag and peel it, letting the pulpy juice run down my fingers into rivulets on the pavement. We strategize about our upcoming weekends, and the realities of our lives bear down. The shiny Escalades and Range Rovers are closing in and will soon crush us. I feel a pang of embarrassment for thinking I could get away, for imagining that I wasn’t bound by love, responsibility, disease.

Hemmed in, we ache with the desire to be high up on the granite white expanse, where PTO and cancer have no purchase. He stands, weighted by the world, and goes to work so he can salvage one of his precious vacation days.




I take a break from the antiseptic around midday. The doctors still don’t know what is happening. Maybe she will die at any moment, or maybe nothing’s wrong. They shrug their shoulders; they put their hands up.

I don’t have a crystal ball, they say.

 I never thought you were a wizard, I think.

I step into the sunlight and walk around the meticulously landscaped gardens. I lie on the grass and lean back on my elbows, drawing breath slowly, feeling it press against my ribcage.

Just last week I was in slickrock country, chasing the ever-waning shade and soaking in the desert elixir. Somehow, I had managed to escape across the basin and range, to a magical place where the Social Security Administration couldn’t put me on hold, where people don’t count their daily steps, and where the toxic drip of chemotherapy doesn’t penetrate.

I exhale deeply and transport myself back. I conjure a soft desert breeze and the tangible weight of the sun on my shoulder. My heart skips a beat. I let go of the weight of caregiving and sink sensually into the desert’s red dirt, letting it seep into my every pore and coat my hair.

Perhaps even more than the place, it was the people that I needed. It had been so long since I had spent time with people for whom I didn’t need to put on deodorant or a false smile. During my escape, I found those people, and I drank them in. The dirtbags, the adventurers, the salty locals. I took long, deep swigs of their strength and exuberance. I mainlined their stories, basking in their weightlessness. Between sips of warm beer, they talked of breaking bones in Patagonia wind, rescuing a wild puppy from a mountain lion attack, and making herbal tinctures with a witch in the desert under a full moon.

The author (right) enjoys a moment with Catherine Cadieux. Photo: Toby Story

Two in particular told tales that transfixed me. Between gasps of breath on the approach trail, they spoke of their travels to Antarctica in exotic Australian accents. In the shadow of the Navajo sandstone domes, I spiraled out to the Weddell Sea, drifting on ice floes and coursing with the electric pulse of the Southern Cross’s suspended diamonds. I devoured their stories, allowing myself to grow intoxicated with imagined futures of visiting the edge of reality, standing defiant against the world’s constraints, and disappearing into the terra incognita, the white expanse.

Lying in the hospital courtyard, I transport myself to the base of a sandstone cliff and remember my last climb with them. The sun was creeping closer, promising only one more attempt on this, my final day. I wiped my rubber soles clean of grit and racked a rainbow of cams. My hands trembled; I needed a distraction from the line streaking up the red Wingate wall behind me. Graceful and callous.

“Tell me another story,” I said.

He described a dark, noiseless day where sky and sea were indistinguishable. As he glided through the vacuum of deep space, tears fogged his goggles while fat snowflakes fluttered around the indigo dreamscape. I melted, transported. My toes curled into the red sand, nerves chilled under translucent ice.

I pressed my fingers and toes against the edges of the void and sent the line. Sandstone and ice.

Now, between the agapanthus and shrubbery of the hospital courtyard, memory and imagination are the only escape I have. For a brief moment, I glide through past and future places. I am small. Insignificant. A speck floating through uncaring, forlorn landscapes, disappearing into nothing.

I remember being hypnotized on my first long climb. I stare into the dizzying depths of the Black Dike, the churning granite and feldspar crystals spinning away into oblivion. The wind whips my hair into a frenzy across my face.

I imagine gliding across the glassy Southern Ocean waters. My paddle dips into the inky surface, breaking the grease ice, rivulets running off the oar. The white ice forms a broken jigsaw puzzle stretching out over an endless black expanse to the horizon.

I remember descending into the Colorado Plateau, falling in love. We are lost between folds of the earth’s red crust, covered in rotten muck from stagnant pools, the sky a ribbon of blue as we descend deeper into the slot canyon that will eat us alive for days.

I imagine what it would be like to wake up suspended in midair on a portaledge. My feet dangle over a seemingly infinite drop. I count slowly in my head—one one thousand—the time it would take to fall to the ground—two one thousand—the alpine glow blushing—three one thousand—across the white granite wall—four one thousand.

I remember my first swim with my spear gun. I dive down through swirling sea foam, the underwater world coming into focus. Blue rockfish bob, suspended over a bed of mussels, their bodies twitching in unison, glinting in the sun. Kelp sways, billowing in the rhythmic pulse coming in from across the Pacific.

I am in these places all at once and not at all. I know they are out there, ongoing and unchanging, my body spiraling away and toward them. I am pregnant, swollen with their power. They seep out of me at the seams. They are elegant.

They are brutal.

My phone chirps. It’s time to go over the new CT scan.

Midnight sun falls on icebergs in the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo: Toby Story



I see older adults caring for their dying parents and am jealous of their age. They are composed and graceful. They know what to do. Who to talk to. What questions to ask. They’ve endured long, fretful nights with sick children. They’ve held friends’ hands and hugged them after grim prognoses. They’ve had some practice with this, and I am envious. They carry Kleenex and ointments in their purses. They’ve memorized medical-record and social security numbers. They know all the answers to all the questions on all the paperwork. They are fit to be caregivers. They are all the things I am not.

I look at one daughter with her mother and want to be taken under her wing. She is twice my age, with neat lipstick and reading glasses. I yearn for her to become my proxy parent. I want her to look up from her Good Housekeeping magazine and tell me firmly:

I see you.

You’re one of us.

You’re doing a good job.

I want her to hold me, to stroke my back, and when I get to the line on the paperwork, to whisper my mother’s medical-record number gently into my ear.

I steady my shaking breath and summon the steady calm you feel when you’re racked up at the base of your project and know you’re about to send it. I dress her pulpy wounds tenderly, the carnage from years of treatment. Her body is ravaged, beaten, torn. I feel the grief out there on the fringe, flirting with the edges of my perception, threatening to overwhelm. I hold it at bay, filling my concentration with clarity of presence. I am far above my gear today, and my hands are not shaking.

Confident, firm, delicate hands.

Sending the line.

Wrapping the battered flesh.


Lower when ready.

We’re ready to go to bed now.

Photo: Cristina Marcalow



Again, a doctor comes in. Again, he pulls back her gown to listen to her dry, raspy breathing. She winces and groans. He cocks his head casually as if listening to a seashell. A tear of pain glistens on her cheek. Again, he asks her questions she cannot answer, clearly ignoring or oblivious to her massive brain tumors. She blinks, bewildered. Again, he forgets to replace her gown when he is done with her body, leaving her fragile skin exposed and vulnerable. Violated, she lifts her tired hand and pulls the threadbare fabric back over her shoulder.

White-hot hatred courses through my veins. I see myself pushing the doctor to the floor. I lift her off the bed and run down the hall with her in my arms, knocking over equipment and kicking open doors as we storm to safety, her gown fluttering behind me.

But I am still sitting in the vinyl chair, and he is still standing there, impotent with a stethoscope around his neck. He clears his throat. He hangs his thumbs on his white coat pockets. He rocks back on his heels. He does not make eye contact. “Well, we’ll have to take more tests in the morning.” He shakes my hand, pumps foamy sanitizer into his palm, and walks off down the hallway.

She sleeps again and my mind races, a fire welling inside. I bring the callous doctor to the edge of an endless ice sheet. We are specks on a merciless white canvas. We look to him for answers; he shrugs his shoulders. We look to him for healing; he cuts and burns and poisons. We come to him raw with our humanity; he is cold and sterile. He blinks. I lurch at him, pin him to the ice and throttle his neck. My thumbs press deep into his arteries. I hold his head under the frigid water, mesmerized by the bubbles roiling about his face. We thrash about frantically, blood rising to our eyes, healer and murderer.

The infinite black horizon eventually convinces me the effort is meaningless. My grip loosens on his throat, and I feel his pulse pump back under my thumbs. I crumple onto the ice, limp and small, and rest my head against his shoulder. We stare into the abyss, our chests heaving with gasping breaths. We melt to nothing.

I stand, leaving the doctor trembling at my feet, and hold the pulsing mound of hyperactive cells in my quivering hand. I am overwhelmed with the desire to bury them, to bury them deep down under thousands of pounds of force, to let them be devoured by this forbidding landscape. I reach out across the thrashing waves and slip the necrotic cells between the tragic sky, slate black waters, and crushing ice. There is a groaning, a cracking, a splintering. And then there is nothing.

I float into the inky black water of the Southern Ocean, cupping the warm and viscous tumor in my palms. It is heavy in my hands, like a stone, and causes me to sink down below the rippling surface where bars of sunlight filter dimly overhead. I whimper, floating in this liminal space, this purgatory between vibrant life and rigor mortis. I weep for the parts that have been cut and burned, the futures that have already been lost. The ice slowly closes overhead, jagged shards gliding together, entombing me and the tumor below. We are nothing here.

I am atop El Cap, clutching the diseased flesh in my fist. It drips between my fingers. A scream erupts from my throat, ragged and guttural. My rage is bitter and raw, full of spite and venom. She has been cut open—bones sawed, flesh ripped, veins pumped with chemicals, brain tissue dissolved. Picked apart slowly like a carcass on the seafloor. But the granite offers nothing in response. Not even an echo. I carry the trembling mound of flesh to the base of the monstrous cliff and slide it beneath its haunches. The mountain absorbs the lesion. It disappears.

The pressure bears down from all sides, pressing the chaotic mass of cells into perfect geometric crystals. Years will pass and archaeologists in spacesuits will dust them off, hold them to the sun, and wonder at their terrible beauty.




Here I am, weaving through the crowd in front of the emergency room. It’s midday, and the place is frenetic with energy. Paramedics move in sharp, deliberate motions. Family members looking for their loved ones dart about frantically. Look closer and see the others in the shadows. They are slumped over on the benches, heavy with tragedy. I see a woman remove her sunglasses, revealing pink eyelids puffy with heartache. I know that beneath my own sunglasses, I have the same eyes. I want to run to her, to hug her, to let our hearts touch. To sit in the shadows and let ourselves be filled by each other.

But the polar cool holds me back. The nothingness is better. I choose the barren vastness. Ruthless and empty.

I open my chest and let imagined visions of translucent sculpted icebergs and yawning granite cliffs fill me up. Behind the deep longing to escape, to run away to a place where I can disappear to insignificance, there is a deeper feeling of power and strength. A feeling that I can be in these powerful, merciless places and survive intact. I can hold them within myself without exploding under their pressure.


“I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with a non-human world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate. Paradox and bedrock.”

—Ed Abbey, Desert Solitaire


Maybe if I can scale a granite tower, thrive within the earth’s crust, or float between melting icebergs with my humanity intact, then perhaps—just perhaps—I can walk amidst the glass towers of Silicon Valley, through the florescent hospital corridors, and into the crematorium and emerge intact. Whole.

Eviscerate me, and what pours out will astound you. Sand and stone; ice and rock.

One day I will emerge with beautiful stark lines etched deeply across my face. Maybe you will see them and understand. Maybe you have them yourself. Wear them proudly.

Elegant and brutal. 

Cristina Marcalow has lived in deserts, mountains, and pastures. She moved to the Bay Area so she could be with her mother after a grim prognosis. She was an intimate caregiver on her mother’s long end-of-life journey that ended peacefully at home in December, 2018. She met Toby Story in Indian Creek. He curated photos for this piece, collected while working as a sea-kayak guide in the polar regions.

Dig the words? Keep the dream alive by subscribing to The Climbing Zine. It’s $19.99 a year for three issues, and $37.99 for two years (six issues). 

About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle

We have also published six books: The Desert,  Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags , Climbing Out of Bed, and Squeak Goes Climbing In Yosemite National Park (a climbing children’s book) .

Check out our film, Last Thoughts on The Dirtbag, made with Cairns Film. 


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