It is the last run of the day, and she has something to tell him.
They’ve had these Colorado woods to themselves since the sun rose and orange light cast itself through the trees, turning the snow pink. They come here every spring to ski, making the daylong trip from their home in northern Vermont to Pagosa Springs, Colorado, a town so close to the New Mexico border that it hardly feels like the United States at all. The counties around here have Spanish names: La Plata, Costilla, Conejos. The Rockies rise gradually out of the plains, and sun-dappled ranches flank the roadside. Higher up, snow nestles in the low, cresting hills and alpine glades. This region is famous for its snowfall; just last night, eight fluffy inches blanketed the roof of their hotel.
Now, she inhales winter air and looks out at the sky, white blue. She aches, but in a good way, her mind swept clean and her muscles exhausted. She predicts a sunset in an hour and a half.
She will tell him right now, she decides. Right now.
And yet something catches her as it has all day, and she clings to the words instead of giving them to him.
Not yet, she tells herself as she has each time. Not yet, and they ski on, following the tracks they made before.
For their vacation is a pool of calm water she doesn’t dare ripple. The week has been so blissful: skiing and soaking in hot springs, eating and sleeping. They are high school teachers, and they’ve basked in the absence of deadlines and meetings, hasty class plans and stacks of ungraded papers. Their lives, for nine months of the year, are compartmentalized into study halls and lunch periods, homerooms and history lessons and sweet, fleeting forty-minute chunks of peace and quiet in the teachers’ lounge while the students are at Art. Every Christmas, they buy the same gift for the both of them: flights to Denver in mid-March. The ski trip is their annual paradise, Pagosa their home away from home.
A few years ago, they decided that riding the lifts at the resort felt too easy. They were finding the trails and parking lots increasingly jammed with gaping Midwesterners, hardy Colorado ski bums, and enthusiastic vacationing families from all over the world. So today, as they have for the last three years, the husband and wife put “skins” on their skis to scale these Rocky Mountain slopes. This way, they can walk uphill with their skis on. The equipment set them back hundreds of dollars, but with their climbing skins and flexible boots, they can access any run, no ski lift required.
Hey, a voice is saying to her now, bringing her back to the late Colorado afternoon.
He has stopped climbing and is looking at her, and his eyes are the color of a breezy Vermont sky.
Hey, hey, are you in there? he is saying, and now he’s waving his arms like he’s stopping traffic.
She smiles at him; she is sweating, and she takes off her gloves and stuffs them into the waistband of her pants. She would tell him now, she thinks to herself, except she’s dripping with sweat. Her face must be cherry-red. When she tells him, she thinks to herself, he must find her beautiful.
She watches the patches of sunlight that fall all around him, the beams casting their ways through bare branches and landing on the deep snow. The air smells so crisp, just a lilt of spring on the wind, and the sun has begun its sinking journey down. Beside her, an old knotted conifer is stretching its jagged, blackened branches every which way; long ago, she can tell, it endured a fire. She puts her hand on the conifer’s trunk, where a drizzle of sap has hardened to amber. Above her head, a squirrel chatters, and there comes the swift shadow and guttural cough-cry of a hawk.
We’ll come back soon, he says to her, reading her mind.
Not soon enough, she wants to say, but instead she closes her eyes and inhales pine and late afternoon sun. She asks him for the hundredth time why they don’t just move out here.
It’s so warm! she pleads.
You know why, he tells her, and in his voice there’s a note of impatience. She has asked him this question so many times, and the answer is always the obvious same: jobs, families, his ailing parents, a thirty-year mortgage. The neighbors are feeding their dog and two cats. Besides, they both know Pagosa can be an ugly little town once the snow melts, for jobs are few and far between, and the real estate is surprisingly exorbitant. Meth is creeping in, the newspapers report.
The main reason they’ll never leave Vermont, though, is the little grave beneath the crabapple tree in their backyard. They dug the grave three years ago, and of that day she remembers rain and the sour smell of oily hair and the sound of someone’s wailing on the wind. They stood there together, a broken husband and wife beneath the weeping sky, and she had tossed a few pretty pebbles she’d found on a beach somewhere into the turned-up earth. She can remember a dull ache in her belly, so recently huge and tight and round. Afterwards, everyone said it was the cruelest thing: to lose a child. That made her angry, because the people who said it had no idea. It’s what they’d been taught to say, but they hadn’t been through it themselves. For almost a year she didn’t go to work; in fact, she barely left the house. Only a month-long early-spring visit to Pagosa Springs—after much coaxing and planning and patience on his part—had drawn her out of her fog.
A heart-shaped stone, a patch of daffodils, a gnarled crabapple tree: these things, they know, they could never leave behind.
Don’t think, he is saying to her now. Just be here with me, he says, and now he is smiling in the winter sun as if nothing bad has ever come to their door and knocked.
They have taken five runs so far today, first climbing, then breaking at the summit, then skiing down, taking their time, whooping to each other through the trees. Climb, rest, ski. Climb, eat, rest. Ski, rest, climb. She will tell him now, she thinks to herself as they make their way over the crest. She will tell him now, where the powder is deep and the trees are tall and thinly spaced and very old.
But as it has all day, the moment to tell him falls away again, her energy for springing the news suddenly drained from her. Her limbs are aching and her head beats. She can feel it by now: the way her body is both hers and not hers. But he doesn’t yet know, and so although she’s breathing hard, she hasn’t asked him to slow down. She is not ready yet for his concern, and to give him the news will mean remembering the grave, by now a part of the crabapple’s root system. It will mean to give him hope that’s tinged with tears.
Not here, she decides finally. Not on a day so fine. She assures herself she’ll tell him soon.
They drink the rest of their water—they have more in the car, they tell each other, both a little guilty for not bringing enough along on the tour—and then they peel the climbing skins from the bases of their skis and fold them up, zipping them into their jackets to keep them warm. They won’t be taking another run, but this is their habit by now, ever since her skins got cold on a freezing Vermont day and she’d slipped, agonizingly, for many long yards until he’d taken her skins off himself, folded them into his jacket, and warmed them against his chest.
Ready? he asks her now, looking into her face, his nose a little red. He is grinning, and his teeth are so even and straight and white against his tan. He pulls his goggles down over his eyes. He is the man she always imagined she would find for herself, though for many years marked by a dozen lovers, she believed he didn’t exist. He is watching her, his smile so sure, and she wonders whether he already knows. She thinks she will tell him right now, and the words are right there and warm in her mouth. It will be her day’s gift to him.
Except that now he is pitching his skis forward, pushing himself down, and in he drops.
She goes after him, following his red jacket. They scoop around aspens and emerald pines; a few times they cross other tracks, tracks they themselves have made. She can hear her breath for a while, her heart, the sound of her skis gliding and scraping, and then she hears nothing at all. His red jacket is a dancing bird. Her body catches a rhythm; her skis and legs and arms are doing the work and she is along for the ride. And this is not work at all: this is turning and rising, levitating. She isn’t a teacher anymore. She isn’t a homeowner or a wife. She’s not a person but a part of the woods: a bird, a leaf, a spiraling gust of wind.
Ahead of her, he also flies. No time passes, and yet long minutes do. There is no way to tell. He doesn’t think.
He doesn’t wonder about the look in her eyes all week, like she has a secret she is keeping from him, like she is in another time and place. He doesn’t wonder why she gobbles down breakfast and then goes into the bathroom and shuts the door for twenty minutes and says she is fine, she is fine. He doesn’t imagine her face, so pale these days. He doesn’t wonder what he’s been wondering for two weeks now. He is fully in this snow, on these skis, in these Colorado woods. She is behind him, and this curving, tripping moment is the only thing.
After a while, her pounding heart catches up with her. She comes to a stop, closes her eyes, and listens. The air is so still, the light golden on the glistening flakes. She would tell him right now, right here, if he were beside her. She would. She looks around for him; she calls his name.
She calls his name again, and nothing comes, and a faint trace of something seeps into her, like cold metal injected in her veins. She calls his name a third time, and her voice rings back to her, an empty, piercing sound. She has stood still for only a moment, and already she’s chilled.
She has been here before: at six years old, at nine, at seventeen, she stood at the base of a ski trail, alone. She got lost—not lost on the trail but lost from herself and from her companion. Always keep your partner in sight, that’s what her mother told her when she was just a little girl and first learning how to ski in their backyard. But on the mountain, her mind had a way of leaving her, and another wild self took over. At six, at nine, at seventeen she had had to wait alone, guilty tears inching into her eyes until her partner—her father, her friend, her boyfriend—finally appeared, dusted with snow, having fallen higher up.
On those days, her companion always came. Never before, when she’d lost track of herself, had they been out of bounds.
He must be ahead of me, she says out loud. She shouts his name one last time, and then blows the whistle he tied to her pack years ago. Just in case, he had said when he’d given her the sturdy magenta pack, equipped with tiny straps for ski poles. The pack, whistle attached, was his first Christmas present to her.
The whistle is a shriek through the evening. A few birds beat their wings nearby, a branch breaks, but if he replies, she can’t hear him. She closes her eyes and listens hard.
Say something, she wills him. Send me something.
But all that comes is her own voice inside her head: the jittery tap of new fear.
Slowly, she skis to the bottom of the run, to the place where they would put their climbing skins back on. He has to be ahead of me, she tells herself. He is waiting for me there. He will be putting on an extra layer for the flat ski out. You scared me, she will tell him, and his smile will hold his apology. He will tell her that he also was lost, the snow is just so good today, and this is their very last run. They’ll make their way to the parking lot, and then they’ll drive to the hotel, soak in the pools, and eat their dinner.
He will be there, she tells herself, but still, every turn is a wince. She traverses long and wide so that she might cross his tracks, but so much of the snow is still deep and fresh and untouched; their skis have hardly made a mark all day. This is the kind of snow they wished for when they planned their spring break.
Now, she is weeping and trembling, and her heart is a fist. He will be there when she reaches the bottom, she tells herself. He will be there; he has to be there. He will be so angry, and she wants nothing more than for him to yell at her. She will promise never to do it again—lose herself like that, forget everything but her skis on the snow. She will hug him and kiss him and then she will stand back, her hands on his arms, and she will tell him.
By the time she gets to the bottom, she is sweating, though her teeth are chattering. He isn’t at the bottom after all. She isn’t surprised. She waits, clapping her hands, jumping up and down, for what else can she do now? She has no watch. The sweaty, jumpy feeling she’d had coming down is gone; now, she feels heavy and sick, as if something has entered the pit of her stomach, the back of her throat, her hands, and has settled in those places like too much rich food. She screams his name with everything she has, even as she knows this will never be the way. Her voice, ragged, is both hers and not hers; she is making the sounds, but when she hears his name echoed all through the woods, it isn’t a voice she recognizes. Her throat is so dry, and she wishes for water. She remembers that he also has none. It was their last run of the day; they had figured the deep snow would be worth a parched throat.
They had water in the car, they’d told each other. We can wait.
She sees him alone and unconscious, his leg broken, bone shot through skin and pant leg.
She sees him fallen into the deep, dry place against a tree where branches keep the snow from collecting. Trapped in there, you’re invisible, and you can’t dig your way out.
She sees his head cracked open, blood smeared on the spikes of a blackened conifer.
She sees a heart-shaped stone, a gnarled crabapple tree, a tangle of roots beneath wormy earth. A fresh new grave, and white knuckles as he digs. She hears a keen, a wail, a sound an animal might make; whether it comes from his mouth or hers she can’t be sure.
She jumps up and down and smacks her palms together, jolting blood to her fingertips. She has to make a choice; the end of the day has come, the light is low, a streak of red is making its slow way across the sky. She pictures both of their cell phones, plugged into the hotel room wall. She imagines the quiet room, the single amber light, the bubbling hot pools outside. The rumpled sheets on the bed, still holding his shape.
She could go to the car, drive into town, try to get help—round up headlamps and the burly après-ski crowd, who knows. She could go to the police, or over to find ski patrol at the resort. She could get help; surely he is hurt. She will need someone to help her bring him down.
She could go to the car, she thinks to herself. She could leave him in the woods, but just for a while.
Crimson is inching across the sky. She might have an hour of light left. She could leave him in the woods, but just for a while.
She takes her climbing skins from the inside of her jacket and presses them up against the bases of her skis again. Absently, she shouts his name, just in case.
She strips down to her climbing layers: thermal long-sleeved shirt, pants unzipped at the sides, baseball cap perched on her head. She loops her pole straps around her wrists, and as she does, she inhales the scent of the wind: water and wood, empty land bleached by sky. A flock of red-wing blackbirds crests above her head. She watches the wind propel the mass of birds, who move as if they are one body.
She knows nothing of what is to come, for everything depends on what she finds or does not find.
He is wearing a red jacket in these woods, she tells herself. Though she’s moving now, climbing fast, she can sense her heartbeat slowing. Her breath steadies; the trees’ shadows are long; she brings his face to her mind. She calls his name.
She pictures his hands, his scratchy beard, and his eyes, a color like storms. She is saying his name. The sky is creased with red.
She follows the tracks they made before, her every step upward a prayer.
KATE McCAHILL lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she is a member of the English faculty at the Santa Fe Community College. Her writing has been published in Vox, The Millions, and in the Best Travel Writing and Best Women's Travel Writing anthologies by Travelers' Tales. She holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and her first book, a travel memoir, will be published by the Santa Fe Writers Project next year. Learn more at http://www.katemccahill.com.