Tooth and Claw | Chapter 15 of 29

Author: T. Coraghessan Boyle | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1399 Views | Add a Review

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The Swift Passage of the Animals

SHE WAS TRYING to tell him something about eels, how it had rained eels one night on a town in South America—in Colombia, she thought it was—but he was only half-listening. He was willing himself to focus on the road, the weather getting worse by the minute, and he had to keep one hand on the tuner because the radio was fading in and out as they looped higher into the mountains. “It was a water spout,” she said, her face a soft pale shell floating on the undersea glow of the dash lights, “or that’s what they think, anyway. I mean, that’s the rational explanation—the eels congregating to feed or mate and then this eruption that flings them into the air. But imagine the people. Imagine them.”

He could feel the rear wheels slipping away from him each time he steered into a curve, and there were nothing but curves, one switchback after another all the way up the flank of the mountain. The night was absolute, no lights, no habitation, nothing—they’d passed the last ranch house ten miles back and were deep into the national forest now, at fifty-five hundred feet and making for the Big Timber Lodge at seventy-two. There was a winter storm watch out for the Southern Sierras, he knew that, and he knew that the back road would be closed as soon as the first snow hit, but the alternative route—up the front of the mountain—was even more serpentine than this one, and a good half hour longer too. His feeling was that they’d make it before the rain turned to snow—or before anything accumulated, anyway. Was he a risk taker? Sure he was. And he was always in a hurry. Especially tonight. Especially with her.

“Zach—you listening to me?”

The radio caught a surging throb of chords and a wicked guitar lead burning over the top of them as if the guitarist’s fingers had suddenly burst into flame, but before he could enjoy it or even recognize the tune, a wall of static shut it out and was suddenly replaced by a snatch of mariachi and a superslick DJ booming something in Spanish—used cars probably, judging from the tone of it. Or Viagra. Estimados Señores! ¿Tienen Vds. problemas con su vigor? His fingers tweaked the dial as delicately as a recording engineer’s. But the static came back and persisted. “Shit,” he muttered, and punched the thing off.

Now there was nothing but the wet slash of the wheels and the rise and fall of the engine—gun it here, lay off there, gun it, lay off—and the mnemonic echo of the question he’d yet to answer: You listening to me? “Yeah,” he said, reaching for his buoyant tone—he was listening and there was nothing or no one he’d rather listen to because he was in love and the way she bit off her words, the dynamics of her voice, the whisper, the intonation, the soft sexy scratch of it shot from his eardrums right to his crotch, but this was sleet they were looking at now and the road was dark and he was pressing to get there. “The eels. And the people. They must’ve been surprised, huh?”

She feasted on that a moment and he snatched a glimpse at her, the slow satisfied smile floating on her uplifted face, and the wheels grabbed and slipped and grabbed again. “That’s the thing,” she said, her voice rich with the telling, “that’s the whole point, to imagine that. They’re in their huts, frame houses, whatever—tin roofs, maybe just thatch. But the tin roofs are cooler. Way cooler. Think of the tin roofs. It’s like, ‘Daddy! Mommy!’ the kids call out, ‘it’s really raining!’ ”

This was hilarious—the picture of it, the way she framed it for him, carrying it into falsetto for the kids’ voices—and they both broke up, laughing like kids themselves, kids set free in the back of the bus on a school trip. But then there was the road and a black tree-thick turn he nearly didn’t make and the last spasm of laughter died in his throat.

A minute fled by, the wipers beating, sleet trapped in the headlights. She readjusted herself in the seat and he saw her hand—a white furtive ghost in the dark of the cab—reach down to check the seatbelt. “The tires are okay, aren’t they?” she asked, trying—and failing—to keep the concern out of her voice.

“Oh, yeah,” he said, “yeah, plenty of tread,” though he’d begun to think he should have sprung for chains. The last sign he’d seen, way back, had said Cars Required With Chains, and that stabbed him with the first prick of worry, but chains were something like seventy-five bucks a set and you didn’t need chains to get to work in Santa Monica. It seemed excessive to him. If he could have rented them, maybe—

And there went the back wheels again, fishtailing this time, a broad staggered Z inscribing itself across both sides of the road and thank God there was nobody else out here tonight, no chance of running into a vehicle coming down the opposite way, not with a winter storm watch and a road closure that was all but certain to go into effect at some point in the night…

“You’re really skidding,” she observed. He glanced at her a moment—sweet and compact in her black leggings and the sweater with the two reindeer prancing across her breasts—and then his eyes shot back to the road. Which was whitening before them, as if some cosmic hand had swept on ahead with a two-lane paintbrush.

“You know my theory?” he said, accelerating out of a turn and leaning into the pitch of the road—up and up, always up.

“No, what?”

“If you go fast enough”—he gave her a quick glance, straight-faced—“I mean really fast…”

“Yeah, uh-huh?”

“Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? You won’t have time to skid.”

There was the briefest hesitation—one beat, and he loved that about her, that moment of process—and then they were laughing again, laughing so hard he thought he’d have to pull over to keep from collapsing.

HED MET HER three weeks ago, just before Thanksgiving, at a party in Silver Lake. Friends of friends. A Craftsman house, restored down to the last lick of varnish, good wines, hors d’oeuvres from the caterer, a roomful of studiously hip people who if they weren’t rockers or filmmakers or poets had to be training to swim the Java Strait or climb solo up the South Col of Mount Diablo. He figured he’d tank up on the hors d’oeuvres, get smashed on somebody else’s thirty-two-dollars-a-bottle Cabernet, then duck home and watch a movie on DVD, because he wasn’t really interested in much more than that. Not yet. He’d been with Christine for two and a half years and then she met somebody at work, and that had shaved him right on down to the root.

Ontario was standing by the fire with his best friend Jared’s sister, Mindy, and when he came to think of it later, he saw that there might have been more than a little matchmaking going on here from Mindy’s perspective—she knew Ontario from her book club, and she knew that Ontario, sweet and shy and reposing on a raft of arcane information about meteorological events and the swift passage of the various animal species from this sore and wounded planet, was six months divorced and in need of diversion. As he was himself, at least in Mindy’s eyes. The wine sang in his veins. He made his way over to the fire.

“So I suppose you must hear this all the time,” he said, trying to be clever, trying to impress her after Mindy had embraced him and made the introductions, “but are your parents Canadian?”

“You guessed it.”

“So your brother must be Saskatchewan, right? Or B.C., how about B.C.?”

Her hair shone. She was dressed all in black. Her eyes assessed him a moment—from behind the narrow plastic-frame glasses that were like a provocation, as if at any moment she would throw them off and dazzle the room with her unfettered beauty—and she very deliberately shifted the wineglass from one hand to the other. “Unfortunately, I don’t have a brother,” she said. “Or a sister either.” Then she smiled, fully radiant. “If I did, though, I’d think my parents would have gone for Alberta if it was a girl—”

“And what, let me guess—Newfoundland if it was a boy.”

She looked pleased. Her lips parted and she bit the tip of her tongue in anticipation of the punch line. “Right,” she said, “and we’d call him Newf for short.”

He’d phoned her the next night and taken her to dinner, and then to a concert two nights later, all the correspondences in alignment. She had a three-year-old daughter. Her ex paid alimony. She worked part-time as a receptionist and was taking courses at UCLA toward an advanced degree in environmental studies. One entire wall in her apartment, floor to ceiling, was dedicated to nature books, from Thoreau to Leopold to Wilson, Garrett, Quammen and Gould.

He fell. And fell hard.

EACH TURN WAS A duplicate of the one he’d just negotiated, hairpin to the right, hairpin to the left, more trees, more snow, more distance. The road was gone now altogether, replaced by a broad white featureless plain without discernible limits. He used the trunks of the trees as guideposts, trying to keep the car equidistant from those on the left and the ones that clipped by on the right like so many slats in a fence. It really wouldn’t do to skid into any of these trees—they were yellow pines, sugar pines, Jeffreys and ponderosas, as wide around as the pillars of the Lincoln Memorial—but the gaps between them were what caught his attention. Go off the road there and no one could say how far you would drop. Guardrails? Not out here.

They were silent a moment, so he took up the eels again—just to hear his own voice by way of distraction. “So I suppose there’s an upside—the villagers must have enjoyed a little fried eel and plantains. Or maybe they smoked them.”

“You’d get awfully sick of eel after a couple days, don’t you think?” She wasn’t staring out the windshield into the white fury of the headlights, but watching him as if they were cruising down the Coast Highway under a ripe and delicate sun. “No, I think they went ahead and buried them—the ones that were too injured to crawl off.”

“The stink, huh?”

“Or slither off. Did you know that eels—the American eel, which is what these were—can crawl overland? Like a snake?”

He squinted into the sleet, reached out to flick the radio back on, but thought better of it. “No, I don’t think so. Or maybe. Maybe I did. I remember they used to be in every creek when I was a kid—you’d fish for trout and catch this big slick whipping thing that always seemed to swallow the hook and then you couldn’t do anything but cut it loose. Because of the slime factor.”

“They’re all born in the Sargasso Sea, you know that, right? And that it’s the females that migrate inland?”

He did. Because he was something of a nature buff himself, hiking up the canyons on weekends, poking under rocks and in the willows along the streambeds, trying to learn the lore, and his own bookshelves featured many of the same titles he’d found on hers. Which was one of the reasons they were going to Big Timber for the weekend—so he could show her the trails he’d discovered the past summer, take her on the Trail of a Hundred Giants and then down the Freeman Creek Trail to the Freeman Grove. She was from Boston and she’d never seen the redwoods and sequoias except in photographs. When she’d told him that, over a plate of mussels marinara at a semi-hip, over-priced place on Wilshire with red banquette seats and votive candles on the tables, he began to rhapsodize Big Timber till he’d made it out to be the earthly paradise itself. Which it was, for all he knew. He’d only been there twice, both times with Jared, on their mountain bikes, but it was as wild and beautiful as it must have been in Muir’s time—sure it was—and he’d convinced her to have her sister babysit for the weekend so they could hike the trails and cross-country ski if there was enough snow, and then sit at the bar at the lodge till it was time to go to bed.

And that was the other reason for the trip, the unspoken promise percolating beneath the simple monosyllable of her assent—going to bed. On their first date she’d told him she was feeling fragile still—her word, not his—and wanted to take things slowly. All right. He respected that. But three weeks had gone by and when she’d agreed to come with him—for two days and two nights—he felt something pull loose inside of him.

“Right,” he said, “and then they all return to the Sargasso Sea to mate.”

“Amazing, isn’t it?”

“All those eels,” he said. “Eels from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas”—he gave her a look—“Ontario even.”

That was when the wheels got away from him and the car spun across the road to glance off a white-capped boulder and into a glistening white ditch that undulated gracefully away from the hidden surface of the road, which was where he really and truly wanted to be.

THAT THEY WERE STUCK was a given. The passenger’s side wheels were in the ditch, canting the car at an unfortunate angle, and beneath the furiously accumulating snow there was a glaze of ice that gave no purchase. He cursed under his breath—“Shit, shit, shit”—and slammed the wheel with his fist, and she said, “Are we stuck?” For a long moment he didn’t respond, the wipers stupidly beating, the snow glossy in the headlights and driving down like a hard white rain. “Are you all right?” he said finally. “Because I—I mean, it just got away from me there. The road—it’s like a skating rink or something.” Her face was ghost-lit. He couldn’t see her eyes. “Yeah,” she said softly, “I’m fine.”

When he cracked the door to get out and have a look, the snow stung his eyes and drove the breath from his lips. He caught a quick glimpse of her, huddled there in the passenger’s seat—and there was the smell of her perfume too, of the heat of her body and the sleepy warmth of the car’s interior—and then he slammed the door and walked round the car to assess the damage. The front fender on the passenger’s side had been staved in where it had hit the boulder, but it didn’t seem to be interfering with the wheel at all—and that was the good news. For the rest of it, the rear tires had dug themselves a pair of craters in the ice beneath the snow and the axle was resting on a scraped-bald patch of dirt just beneath the tailpipe. And the snow. The snow was coming down and the road was certain to be closed—till spring maybe—and he wasn’t sure how many miles yet it was to the lodge. Five? Ten? Twenty? He couldn’t begin to guess, and as he looked up into the thin streaming avenue of illumination the car’s headlights afforded him, he realized he didn’t recognize a thing. There were just trees. Trees and more trees.

Then the car door slammed and she was standing there beside him, the hood of her parka drawn tight over the oval of her face. “You know, I grew up in snow, so this is nothing to me.” She was grinning, actually grinning, the glow of the taillights giving her features a weird pinkish cast. “I’ll tell you what we have to do, we have to jack up this back wheel here and put something under it.”

“Like what?” The engine coughed softly, twice, three times, and then settled into its own rhythm. There was the smell of the exhaust and the sound of the miniature ice pellets in all their trillion permutations hissing off the hood of his jacket, off the trunk of the car, off her hood and the boughs of the trees. He looked round him bleakly—there was nothing, absolutely nothing, to see but for the hummocks of the snow, white fading to gray and then to a drifting pale nullity beyond the range of the headlights.

“I don’t know,” she said, “a log or something. You have a shovel in the trunk?”

He didn’t have a shovel in the trunk—no shovel and no chains. He began to feel less a risk taker and more a fool, callow, rash, without foresight or calculation, the sort of blighted individual whose genetic infirmities get swallowed up in the food chain before he can reproduce and pass them on to vitiate the species. That was the way an evolutionist would see it—that was the way she would see it. “No, uh-uh, no shovel,” he breathed, and then he was slogging round the car to reach in the driver’s door, cut the engine and retrieve the keys—the jack was in the trunk, anyway. Or at least it had been, the last time he’d looked, but who obsessed over the contents of the trunk of their car? It was a place to put groceries, luggage, the big purchase at the mall.

Without the rumble of the engine, the night seemed to close in, the ceaseless hiss of the snow the only sound in the universe. He left the lights on, though the buzzer warned him against it, and then he was back with her, flinging open the trunk of the car, the interior of which immediately began to whiten with the descending snow. There were their bags—his black, hers pink—and there was the jack laid in against the inner panel where he’d flung it after changing a flat last summer. Or was it summer before last?

“Okay, great,” she said, the pale puff of her breath clinging at her lips, “why don’t you jack it up and I’ll look for something to—pine boughs, we could use pine boughs. Do you have a knife with you? A hatchet? Anything to cut with?”

He was standing there, two feet from her, staring into the whitening trunk. There were two plastic quarts of motor oil in the back, a grease-stained T-shirt, half a dozen CDs he was afraid the valet at the Italian restaurant might have wanted to appropriate for himself, but no knives, no tools of any kind, other than the jack handle. “No, I don’t think so.”

She gave him a look then—the dark slits of her glasses, the pursed lips—but all she said was, “We could use the carpet. I mean, look”—and she was reaching in, experimentally lifting the fitted square of it from the mottled steel beneath.

The car was two years old and he was making monthly payments on it. It was the first car he’d ever bought new in his life and he’d picked it out over Christine’s objections. He liked the sportiness of it, the power—he could blow by most cars on the freeway without really pushing it—and the color, a magnetic red that stood out a hundred yards away. He didn’t want to tear out the carpeting—that was not an option, because they’d get out of this and laugh about it over drinks at the lodge, and there was no sense in getting panicky, no sense in destroying things unnecessarily—but she already had hold of it with one hand and was shoving the bags back away from it with the other, and he had no choice but to pitch in and help.

INSIDE THE CAR with the engine running, he was in a dream, a trance, as if he’d plunged to the bottom of the sea with Cousteau in his bathyscaphe and all the world had been reduced to this dim cab with the faint green glow of the dash lights and the hum of the heater. Ontario was there beside him, a dark presence in the passenger’s seat, her head nestled in the crook of his arm. They’d agreed to run the car every fifteen minutes or so—and then only briefly—in order to conserve gas and still keep the engine warm enough to deliver up heat. And that was all right, though he kept waking from his dream to a kind of frantic beating in his chest because they were in trouble here, deep trouble, he knew that no matter how much he told himself the storm would tail off and they could wade through the snow to the lodge. And what of the car? With this heavy a snowfall the road would be closed till spring and the car would be abandoned until the snow melted away and revealed it there at the side of the road, in the ditch, and he’d have to beg a ride to work or squeeze onto one of those noxious buses with all the dregs of humanity. Still, it could be worse—at least he’d filled the gas tank before they’d started up the hill.

“Zach?” Her voice was murmurous with sleep.


“There’s nothing to worry about, you know. I’ve got two strong legs. We can walk out in the morning and get somebody to help—snowmobilers. There’s sure to be snowmobilers out—”

“Yeah,” he said, “yeah, I’m sure,” and he wanted to add, gloomily, that this wasn’t suburban Massachusetts, that this was the wild, or at least as wild as it got in Southern California. There were mountain lions here, bears, pine martens, the ring-tailed cat. Last summer, with Jared, he’d seen a bear cub—a yearling, he guessed, a pretty substantial animal—out on the highway, this very highway, scraping the carcass of a crushed squirrel off the pavement with its teeth. They averaged twenty-plus feet of snow per season at this altitude and as much as forty during an El Niño year, and with his luck this would turn out to be an El Niño, no doubt about it, because it was coming down as if it wasn’t going to stop till May. Snowmobilers. Fat chance. Still, there was the lodge, and if they could get there—when they got there—they’d be all right. And the car would keep—he felt sick about it and he’d need a new battery maybe, but that was something he could live with. The cold he didn’t think about. Or the killing effort of slogging through knee-deep snow. That was for tomorrow. That was for daylight.

They’d spent a good hour or more trying to get the car out, the carpets expendable, his Thomas Guide, even his spare jacket and two back issues of Nature she’d brought along to pore over by the fire, but the best they’d been able to do was give the rear wheels a moment’s purchase in order to shove the front end in deeper. By the time they gave up, he’d lost all sensation in his toes and fingertips, and that was when she thought of her cell phone—and he let her take it out and dial 911 because he didn’t have the heart to tell her that cell phones were useless up here, out of range, just like the radio.

“Tell me a story,” she said now. “Talk to me.”

He cut the engine. The snow had long since turned to powder and it fell silently, the only sound the creak and groan of the automobile shutting down. The dark was all-embracing and the humps of the gathering snow clung to it. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know any stories.”

“Tell me about the animals. Tell me about the bears.”

He shrugged in the darkness, drew her to him. “They’re all asleep now. But last summer—at the lodge?—there was one out back, a big cinnamon sow they said that must have weighed three hundred pounds or more. Jared and I were playing eight ball—there’s a nice table there, by the way, and I’m challenging you to the world championship tomorrow afternoon, so you better limber up your fingers—and somebody said, The bear’s out there again, and we must have watched the thing for half an hour before it lumbered off, and lumber it did. I mean, now I can understand the meaning of that word in a whole new way.”

She was silent a moment, then she said, “The California grizzly’s extinct, but you knew that, right?”

“Oh, yeah, yeah, I meant this was a black bear.”

“They shot the last grizzly in Fresno, probably sniffing around somebody’s sheep ranch, in 1922. Boom. And it was gone forever.” There was a hitch in her voice, a sort of downbeat, as she settled into the arena of certainty, of what is and what was. The snow sifted down around them, a white sea in fragments—the dandruff of God, as his father used to call it when they went skiing at Mammoth over Christmas break each year. She paused a beat, then her voice came to him, soft as a prayer. “Did I ever tell you about the Carolina parakeet?”

IT WAS STILL SNOWING at first light and the wind had come up in the night and sculpted a drift that rose as high as the driver’s side window, though he didn’t know that yet. He woke from a dream that dissolved as soon as he opened his eyes, replaced by a sudden sharp apprehension of loss: his car to be abandoned, the indeterminate walk ahead of them, the promise of the weekend crushed like a bag full of nothing. All because he was an idiot. Because he’d taken a chance and the chance had failed him. He thought back to yesterday afternoon, the unalloyed pleasure in her face as she tucked her bag into the trunk and settled in beside him, the palms nodding in a breeze off the ocean, the traffic light—lighter than he’d ever seen it—one great tune after another on the radio, all beat and attitude, his fingertips drumming on the steering wheel and how was work and did the boss say anything about ducking out early? He wished he could go back there, back to that moment when she slid in beside him and the precipitation hadn’t started in yet and he could have chosen the main road, the one he knew would get them there, snow or no snow. He wished he’d sprung for chains too. He wished a lot of things. Wished he was at the lodge, waking up beside her in bed. Or lingering over breakfast by the fire, big white oval plates of eggs and ham and home fries, mimosas, Bloody Marys, the snow hanging in the windows like a wraparound mural…

The car was cold—he could see the breath trailing from his lips—and the windshield was opaque with the accumulation of snow and the intricate frozen swirls of condensation that clung to the inner surface of the glass. Ontario was asleep, the hood framing her face, her lips parted to expose the neat arc of her upper teeth, and for a long moment he just stared at her, afraid to wake her, afraid to start whatever was to come. What had she told him the night before? That the wild was shrinking away and the major species of the earth were headed for oblivion and there was nothing anyone could do about it. He tried to dissuade her, pointing to the reintroduction of the wolf in Yellowstone, the resilience of the puma and black bear populations in these woods, the urban invasion of deer, opossums and raccoons, but she wouldn’t listen. This was her obsession, everything dead or dying, the oceans depleted, the skies bereft, the plains and the forests gone preternaturally silent, and she fell asleep in his arms reciting the names of the creatures gone down as if she were saying her prayers.

He listened to her breathing, the soft rattle of the air circulating through her nostrils and lifting and deflating her chest in a slow regular rhythm, and he watched her face, composed around dreams of the animals deserting their niches one by one. He didn’t want to wake her. But he was cold and he had to relieve himself and then formulate some sort of plan or at least figure out where they were and how far they were going to have to walk, and so he turned over the engine to get some heat and cracked his door to discover the drift and the chill blue light trapped within it.

She sat up with a start, even as he put his shoulder to the door and the breath of the storm rode in on a cold whip of wind-flung snow. “Where are we?” she murmured, as if they could have been anyplace else, and then, vaguely pushing at the hood of her parka as if to run her fingers through her hair, “Is it still snowing?”

They relieved themselves privately, he on his side of the car—after planing off the drift with the dull knife-edge of the door—and she on hers. He stood there, the snow in his face, whiteness unrelieved, and drilled a steaming cavity into the drift while she squatted out of sight and the road revealed itself as a featureless river flowing away between the cleft banks of the trees. It took them a while to divide up their things—anything left behind, extra clothes, toiletry articles, makeup, jewelry, would go into the trunk, where they’d recover it next spring as if they were digging up a time capsule—and they shared one of the two power bars she’d brought along in her purse and a stick each of the beef jerky he found in his backpack. They ate in the car, talking softly, warming their fingers in the blast of the heater, the gas gauge run nearly all the way down now, but he’d worry about that later. Much later. He brooded as he worked his jaws over a plug of dried meat, kicking himself all over again, but she was unfazed. In fact, given the circumstances, given how miserable he was, she seemed inordinately cheerful, as if this was a big adventure—but then it wasn’t her car, was it?

“Oh, come on, Zach,” she said, her eyes startled and wide behind the constricting lenses, a faint trace of chocolate defining her upper lip, “we’ll make the most of it. We were going to hike anyway, weren’t we? And when we get to the lodge we’ll see if maybe somebody can tow the car out—all right? And then we can play that game of pool you promised me.”

His voice dropped to a croak. He was feeling sorry for himself and the more upbeat she was the more sorry he felt. “They can’t,” he said. “It’s miles from the lodge and they don’t plow here, there’s no point in it. I mean, how would they get a tow truck in?”

The smile still clung to her lips, a patient smile, serene, beautiful. “Maybe you can get them to just plow one lane or something—or somebody with a snowplow on his pickup, something like that.”

He turned his head, stared at the frosted-over side window. “Forget it,” he said. “The car’s here till May. Unless the yahoos come out and strip it.”

“All right, then. Have it your way. But we’d better get walking or we’ll be here till May ourselves, right?”

He didn’t answer.

“It’s that way, I assume,” she said, pointing a gloved finger at the windshield.

He just looked at her, then shoved open the door and stepped out into the snow.

HE WAS TWENTY-EIGHT years old, in reasonably good shape—he worked out once or twice a week at the gym, made a point of walking the eight blocks to the grocery store every other day and went mountain biking in season—but the major part of his waking life was spent motionless in front of the computer screen, and that was what afflicted him now. The snow was thigh-deep, the air thin, and they hadn’t gone half a mile before his clothes were damp with sweat and his legs felt like dead things grafted on at the hip. She followed three steps behind in the narrow gauge of the trail he broke for her, her eyes sharp and attuned, the pink bag thrown over one shoulder, thrusting out her arms for balance every so often as if she were walking a tightrope. Nothing moved ahead of them, not a bird or squirrel even. The silence pinned them in, as if they were in an infinite bed under a blanket as big as the sky.

“You look like a snowman,” she said. “A walking snowman.”

He took this as a signal to stop, and he planted his feet and rotated to face her. She seemed reduced somehow, as small as a child sent out to play with her sled on a day when the superintendent had closed down the schools, and he wanted to hug her to him protectively, wanted to make amends for his mood and the mess he’d gotten them into, but he didn’t. The snow drove down, burying everything. There was a crown of it atop her hood, individual flakes caught like drift in her eyelashes and softening the frames of her glasses. “You too,” he said, pulling for air as if he were drowning. “Both of us,” he gasped. “Snowmen. Or snow man and snow woman.”

Later on—and maybe they’d gone another mile—he made a discovery that caused his heart to leap up and then almost simultaneously closed it down again. They’d come to a place he recognized even through the blowing snow and the shifting, subversive contours of the landscape—an intersection, with a half-buried stop sign. Straight ahead the road pushed deeper into the wilderness; to the left, it led to the Big Timber Lodge, and at least he knew where they were now, even if it wasn’t nearly as close as he’d imagined. He’d been fooling himself, he knew that, but all along he’d been hoping they’d passed here in the disorientation of the night. “I know this place,” he said. “The lodge is this way.”

She was panting now too, though not ten minutes ago she’d been telling him how she never missed a day on the Stairmaster—or almost never. “Fantastic,” she said. “See, it wasn’t so bad.” She stamped in place, shook the snow from her shoulders. “How far from here?”

His voice sank. “Pretty far,” he said.

“How far?”

He shrugged. Looked away from her even as a gust flung a fist of snow in his face. “Thirteen miles.”

THERE CAME A POINT—it might have been half an hour later, forty-five minutes, he couldn’t say—when he gave in and let her break trail ahead of him. He was wiped. He could barely lift his legs. And when he wasn’t moving—if he paused even for a minute to catch his breath—the wind dug into him and he felt the sweat go cold under his arms and across his back. He couldn’t believe how fast the snow was accumulating—it was up to his crotch now and even deeper in the drifts, the wind raking the trees till the needles whipped and sang, the temperature falling as if it were night already, though it was just past one. He watched her move ahead of him, head bobbing, arms churning, six steps and then a recuperative pause, her lower body sheared off at the waist as if she were wading across a river. She’d slipped a pair of jeans on over her leggings in the fastness of the car but she must have been cold, whether she’d grown up in the snow or not. He was thinking he’d have to catch her by the arm and reverse positions with her—he was the one who’d gotten her into this and he was going to lead her out of it—when suddenly she stopped and swung round on him, heaving for breath.

“Wow,” she said, “this is something, huh?” Her face was chapped, blazing, the cord of the hood gone hard with a knot of ice; her nose was running and her mouth was set.

“Let me,” he said, “it’s my turn.”

Her eyes gave him permission. Slowly, with the wind in his face and his feet shuffling like a drunk’s, he waded on ahead of her.

“I wish we had snowshoes,” she said at his back.

“Yeah, me too.”

“Or skis.”

“How about a snowmobile? Wouldn’t that be nice?”

“Hot coffee,” she said. “I’d settle for that.”

“With a shot of brandy—or Kahlúa. How does Kahlúa sound?”

The wind came up. She didn’t answer. After a while she asked him if he thought it was much farther and he halted and swung round on her. His fingers throbbed, his feet were dead. “I don’t know—it can’t be that much farther.”

“How far do you think we’ve come? I mean, from where the road forked?”

He shrugged. “A couple miles, I guess, right?”

Her eyes narrowed against the wind. She ran a mittened hand under her nose. “You know what killed off the glyptodont?”

He hugged his arms to his chest and watched her, the wind-blown snow riding up his legs.

“Stupidity,” she said, and then they moved on.

NEAR THE END, when the sky shaded perceptibly toward night and the ravens began to call from their hidden perches, she complained of numbness in her fingers and toes. Neither of them had spoken for a long while—speech was superfluous, a waste of energy in the face of what was turning out to be more of a trial than either of them could have imagined—and all he could say was that he was sorry for getting her into this and reassure her that they’d be there soon. The snow hadn’t slackened all day—if anything, perversely, it seemed to be coming down even harder now—and the going was ever slower as the drifts mounted ahead of them. Earlier, they’d stopped to share the remaining power bar and she’d been sufficiently energetic still to regale him with stories of the last passenger pigeon dying on its perch in the Cincinnati Zoo and the last wolf shot in these mountains, of the aurochs and the giant sloth and half a dozen other poor doomed creatures winging by on their way to extinction even as he silently calculated their own chances. People froze to death out here, that much he knew. Hikers forever lost in the echoing canyons, snowmobilers awaiting rescue by their disabled machines, the unlucky and unprepared. But they weren’t lost, he kept telling himself—they were on the road and it was just a matter of time and effort before they got to the lodge. Nothing to worry about. Nothing at all.

She was ahead of him, breaking trail, the snow up to her waist. “It’s not just numb,” she said, her breath trailing behind her. “It stings. It stings so bad.”

The gloom deepened. He went on another five steps and pulled up short. “Maybe we should stop,” he said, breathing so hard he felt as if his lungs had been turned inside out. “Just for a couple minutes. I have a tarp in my pack and we could make a little shelter. If we get out of the wind we can—”

“What?” she swung round on him, her face savage. “We can what—freeze to death? Is that what you want, huh?”

The snow absorbed them. Everything, even the trunks of the trees, faded to colorlessness. He didn’t know what to do. He was the one at fault here and there was no way to make that right, but still, couldn’t she see he was doing his best?

“No,” he said, “that’s not what I mean. I mean we could recoup our energy—it can’t be much farther—and I could warm your feet. I mean, on my chest, under my parka—isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? Flesh to flesh?”

She snatched off her glasses and all her beauty flashed out, but it was a disengaged beauty, a bedraggled and fractious beauty. Her lips clenched, her eyes penetrated him. “Are you crazy? I’m going to take off my boots in this? Are you out of your mind?”

“Ontario,” he whispered, “listen, come on, please,” and he was shuffling forward to take her in his arms and press her to him, to have that at least, human warmth and comfort and all the trailing sorrowful release that comes with it, when the air suddenly bloomed with sound and they both turned to see the single Cyclopean eye of a snowmobile bounding toward them through the drifts.

A moment, and it was over. The engine screamed and then the driver saw them and let off on the throttle, the machine skidding to a halt just in front of them. The driver peeled back his goggles. There was a rime of ice in his beard. The exhaust took hold of the air and paralyzed it. “Jesus,” he said, his eyes shying away from them, “I damn near run you down. You people lost or what?”

HE COULD HAVE STAYED where he was, could have waited while the man in the goggles sped Ontario back to the lodge and then returned for him, but he trudged on anyway, a matter of pride now, the man’s incredulous laugh still echoing in his ears. You mean you come up the back road? In this? Oh, man, you are really in the shits. He was less than a mile from the lodge when the noise of the machine tore open the night and the headlight pinned him where he was. Then it was the wind and the exhaust and the bright running flash of the meaningless snow.

She was propped up by the fire with her boots off and a mug of coffee wrapped in her hands when he dragged himself in the door, shivering violently from that last wind-whipped run through the drifts. Her wet parka was flung over the chair beside her and one of her mittens lay curled on the floor beneath the chair. A group of men in plaid shirts and down vests were gathered at the bar, roaring over the weather and their tall drinks, and a subsidiary group hovered around Ontario, plying her with their insights as to the advisability of bringing a vehicle up the back road in winter and allowing as how you should never go anywhere this time of year without snowshoes, a GPS beacon and the means of setting up a shelter and building yourself a fire in the event you had to hole up. She was lucky, they were telling her, not to mention crazy. In fact, this was the craziest thing any of them had ever heard of. And they all—every man in the place—turned their heads to give him a look as he clumped toward the fire.

Someone shoved a hot drink in his hands and he tried to be a sport about it, tried to be grateful and humble as they crowded around him and offered up their mocking congratulations on his having made it—“You’re a snow marathoner, isn’t that a fact?” one of them shouted in his face—but humility had never been his strong suit and the longer it went on the angrier he felt. And it did go on, he and Ontario the entertainment for the night, the drinks circulating and the fire snapping, a woman at the bar now, heavyset and hearty and louder than any of the men, until finally the owner of the place came in the door, snow to his eyes, to get a look at this marvel. He was a big man, bearded like the rest of them, his face lit with amusement, proprietor of the Big Timber Lodge and king of all he surveyed. “Hello and welcome,” he called in a hoarse, too-loud voice, gliding across the room to the fireplace, where Zach sat slumped and shivering beside Ontario. He took a minute, bending forward to poke solicitously at the coals. “So I hear you two took a little hike out there today.”

Zach reddened. The laughter rose and ebbed. Ontario sat hunched over her coffee as the fire stirred and settled. Beyond the windows it was dark now, the snow reduced to a collision of particles beating across the cone of light cast by a single lamp nailed to the trunk of one of the massive trees that presided over the parking lot. “Yeah,” Zach said, looking up into the man’s face and allowing him half a smile, “a little stroll.”

“But you’re okay, right—both of you? You need anything—dinner? We can make you dinner, full menu tonight.”

For the first time, Ontario spoke up. “Dinner would be nice,” she murmured. Her hair was tangled and wet, her face bleached of color. “We haven’t really eaten since lunch yesterday, I guess.”

“Except for some beef jerky,” Zach put in, just for the record. “And two power bars.”

The big man straightened up. He was beaming at them, his eyes jumping from Zach to Ontario and back again. “Good,” he said, rubbing his hands as if he’d just stepped away from the grill, as if the steaks had already been flipped and the potatoes were browning in the pan, “fine. Well, listen, you make yourselves comfortable, and if there’s anything else, you just holler.” He paused. “By the way,” he added, leaning in to brace himself on the back of the chair, “you have a place to stay for the night?”

The fire snapped and spat. It was all winding down now. Zach put the mug to his lips and felt the hot jolt of the coffee like a bullet in the back of his throat. He didn’t look at Ontario, didn’t pat her hand or slip an arm round her shoulders. “We’re going to need a room,” he said, gazing up at the man, and in the space of that instant he could hear the faint hum of the wings and the beat of the paws and the long doomed drumming of the hooves before Ontario corrected him.

“No,” she said. “Two rooms.”


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Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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