2013 Short Story Contest Winner
All the Obvious Reasons
by Lynn Stegner
What you heard were the hooves of the three horses with the mule at the end clattering through the rounded stone along the river, the first and the third horse steady, carefully picking their ways, but the one in the middle, a small dark Arabian, skittering and taking too many steps to cover the same distance, some of the steps sideways and even back, one jump ahead of a fit, as the man downriver who had saddled her remarked.
“You can handle her.” He nodded toward Harry. “Your man says you can handle a horse.”
“Sure I can,” Charlotte had said.
Harry believed everything she told him. He could afford to believe things and he was generous with that endowment, extending it to everyone. He had had the kind of upbringing that fostered commendable attributes like trust and courage and Honor, capital H. It was what she liked best about him, how clean-swept his life had been. Harry Fairbanks. How could she lose?
Of course it was easier to be honorable with nothing much to challenge those limits.
“I’ve ridden my share of horses,” she added.
But the other one, the Indian, probably knew better. The Indian didn’t look at her as she mounted, as she snugged up the reins, slipping her ring finger between the two strands of leather, her right hand clenched and holding the slack off to the right, her posture perfectly trained and the mare already jittering beneath her. The Indian, a thoroughly plausible individual who did not watch but who could assuredly hear the animal snorting and huffing—she knew that he knew the horse was too much for her. Already dark bands of sweat were spreading like ink along the Arabian’s shoulders and inside her flanks, her skin twitching, and not from the flies. Abra was her name.
It was just another one of the things Charlotte had probably lied about. All those years of riding lessons, keeping her heels down and her eyes up, and she had never sat a horse well. Mr. Purdy had said that she wouldn’t let herself become one with the animal—it was the sixties, and people had begun to say things like that, even riding instructors at fancy clubs—but now, seven years later, she knew it to be true. She had kept herself above and separate from the horses she had ridden, which had not been that many, all-told. Horses had been one of her youthful infatuations, and to her thinking infatuations demanded mastery, not union. Mastery, she thought, was a trick of the mind. Something you might try to sell yourself at the end of a long day when it was harder to believe that you knew what you were doing and were in charge.
They made a strange procession, the Indian, the girl, and then the tall man leading the mule, as they set off up the Fraser River, keeping close to the water where there were fewer mosquitoes and deer flies. For a while there had been sandy bars and shores and plenty of open sunlight, with the wet belt of alder, birch, black cottonwood and willow standing back and letting them proceed without trouble or interference. It was early June, the peak of spring runoff, so the broad banks were often wet from a recent surge, and the wildrye or mugwort or reeds flattened and muddy from the flood water’s scouring rush. In the wide swaths of river rock, silt girded the larger stones, and there might be pockets of water warming in the sun from which the bugs lofted as they passed. On the drive up from Vancouver the smells had been of pulp mills and new asphalt where the Ministry of Transportation had been paving over one of the roads the map still indicated was dirt, and of course the smell of the peanuts Harry ate with compulsive intent—“Protein?” he asked, offering her some. Foodstuffs had been stripped of their individuality and trained into conforming ranks of dietary requirements. It was all very scientific. Protein was the thing in 1970, the superstar. VIP-for-protein, Harry once told her. Protein and the wonders of frozen vegetables, though they had conceded to cans for part of the trip.
Now in the midday heat along the river the smell was of rotting vegetation, and at random intervals, when the new obscure tension in her chest became too much, she clicked the mare into the shallows where Charlotte felt she could breathe again. Somehow it reminded her of what had happened, that smell. She could not yet bring herself to say “happened to her.” She was not ready for that claim that would invite something for which she was not ready, some form of psychic catastrophe, a free-falling departure from the high mastery. She was not ready for much of anything yet, in fact, maybe only this trip, one week long, with Harry and the Indian guiding them up through the system of waterways and lakes that veined interior British Columbia.
It did not take more than an hour or so for Charlotte to give up trying to post, which anyway had been mostly to demonstrate that she knew how. The Arabian’s trot was so fast, so frenetic, everything about her distracted and ready to bolt, that Charlotte could not settle into anything rhythmic. It would not have done to let Abra take the bit, but neither did Abra give Charlotte any indication of reliable consent. They were in some kind of standoff without having the least provocation. She was a beautiful little horse, spirited and athletic, big anxious eyes; and Charlotte, at 110 pounds, could not have been more than the lightest of burdens, insubstantial as a toy up there, or dismissible erratum. The standoff felt uncalled-for. They ought to have liked each other, made a pair—that seemed to be the idea back at the outfitter’s. So Charlotte simply endured it, her bum, her spine jarred and twisted, Abra’s hindquarters suddenly bounding out from under her, her head thrown down, her graceful neck swinging sideways. What a week it would be, battling this four-legged tempest. And yet Charlotte could not help admiring her defiance, her anger, so free and absent of cause. Abra was all heart.
On the first night they camped along the Mighty Fraser; Harry liked to call it that, liked to indulge in small flourishes of speech. The rest of the week would be spent east of the Fraser, in the area between Kamloops and north to 100 Mile House. The Indian was one of the Shuswap, an interior Salish tribe, and he knew the area well enough that even the man with the horses had called him by his Salish name, One-See, because he was the only one left who had seen each of the rivers and creeks, the lakes without names, the trails that vanished into the high timber. Harry’s father had used him when Harry was a boy, and later, the boy grown, had tracked him down and hired him for fishing trips with his buddies. This trip was different, because of the girl and what had happened.
At twenty, Charlotte was not technically a girl any longer. But she was so petite and so well proportioned, so big-eyed and doll-like, that everyone treated her like a naïf. Or like something not quite real yet. On campus some of the guys referred to her as Harry’s trinket, and there had been two occasions on which strangers had mistaken her for his child. He was ten years older, about to finish his degree in medicine at UBC. His mother had taken ill and he had had to leave school for three years to help care for her. It had devolved into one of those eerily satisfying romantic stories—she had died of cancer, and thirty-two hours later, Harry’s father had up and died of a disease no one even knew he had, but which everyone decided was grief, pure and simple. They were a poor couple from the mountain town of Revelstoke, and Harry was the family star.
Charlotte was convinced that it would be the same for her and Harry—they would go more or less together. She did not think that she could bear it otherwise. People left: they broke down and were carted off, or they moved away, or they up and died. But not Harry, not this time.
The Indian unsaddled and staked the horses, then he offloaded the grub boxes and staked the mule too, graining them with hands cupped while Harry and Charlotte leveled out a tent site and gathered armfuls of wood for a fire. There was plenty lying about from the runoff and it did not take long.
“Reuben,” Harry said to the Indian, for he would never know him well enough to call him by his Salish name, “shall we try our luck?”
Reuben was studying the surface of the river. He turned and nodded toward the rods, jointed and ready, propped in the crook of a cedar. After he had watched the water and the bugs skimming or dancing off the sheen, he came back and fingered up some flies from the box, then the two of them worked their way downstream while Charlotte put up the tent she and Harry would share. They were four months married but it still felt funny to her, spending all of the night hours with him. Even now, it was exciting to wake up and find him beside her, like a holiday morning surprise with its sudden extravagance of joy that sent a hum through her breast, anticipatory and guilty, as if she were getting away with something. Still here, she thought, still right here. She had developed a secret habit of happiness, trilling the sheets with her toes, before conceding that the day must end or begin. As a child there had been too many mornings when, awakening, there was no one there.
Charlotte’s father was a G.P. in Ottawa. After her mother had been institutionalized, and then the years of him trying to conceal the women he saw, (because he was still a handsome man, after all, a vital man with needs, was how the maturing Charlotte came to understand the situation, his beard nicely trimmed, his shirts professionally pressed, no one could blame him, really), he moved to Ottawa so that he could see the women openly. In the tidy little city of Penticton where they had lived, people would have talked. Divorce was out of the question; one did not divorce someone who had had a mental breakdown. One did not abandon the elaborate beauty and comforts of social form for content, no matter how authentic. This was not America, after all, where messy realities throve.
That same fall when her father joined a practice in Ottawa and Charlotte began her freshman year at UBC, her mother was relocated to a Home in Vancouver. In the two years since, nothing had changed for Mary, and Charlotte’s visits had dwindled to once a month. But a week ago just after what happened Charlotte had gone off-schedule to see her. Ignoring the rest of it, Mary was her mother, and this was the sort of thing you brought to a mother, something only a mother might be able to fix, or at least soften.
“Where are the bruises?” her mother asked her.
It was a reasonable question. Where were they? Why hadn’t she fought?
Mary was having a bad day, they told her, and so the visit had taken place in the special room that was divided by a half wall, with heavy wire mesh rising from the low counter, their two chairs positioned on opposite sides. Her mother pressed her face against the wire, squinting at Charlotte’s visible body parts, her face and neck, her forearms, searching for the bruises Charlotte had not thought to earn.
She had been hitchhiking. She hadn’t ought to have been hitchhiking.
In a little while Harry and the Indian returned. She watched them coming toward her, their heads bowed in conversation, their boots sinking slightly in the wet sand and gravel. How she liked seeing him come toward her, like a marvelous and improbable piece of news. He brought the whole billowing world with him. And he walked like a man who knew he owned a place in that world. Harry, tall and lithe as poplar, was wearing the bright eager expression of a boy convinced he’s about to figure out something grand, or very likely already has. His thinning hair was something she liked, confirming his seriousness of purpose. He took her seriously, too, her compact body, her moods, the things she said that often surprised him. Harry did not think that he was easy to surprise, but as it turned out, he was.
Beside him, shoulder-height and still black-haired despite his age, the Indian paced along with a great and serious fortitude, every step somehow both difficult and destined. The sun was down behind the broad canyon walls and with it, the wind had dropped too, so that all she could hear was the water coursing over the river stone, and the hollow knocking of an oil drum that had washed downriver and eddied between a gravel bar and the place where they had made camp; and then once Harry’s laugh, cool, clipped and easy, as if he were trying to draw out a reluctant child. Harry was going to be a pediatrician and it seemed to her that he had chosen the perfect field, one that suited his encouraging nature.
“You didn’t catch anything,” she remarked.
He shrugged. “Wasn’t the point.”
Without quite looking at her, the Indian gave a languid side-wary acknowledgment and paced over to where the grub boxes sat beneath a stand of cottonwood and began rummaging through one of them. He was inscrutable, moving with a slight stoop that did not appear to come from any weariness but from contemplation to which, so far, he had given neither of them access.
She turned to Harry. “Aren’t we here to fish?”
He squatted beside her, offering her a swig from his flask. “This is a salmon river. Sockeye, coho, chinook…mostly Sockeye. Steelhead if you’re lucky. But Steelhead run at night. Reuben noticed a pool downriver, a pool with watercress where Steelhead like to hide.”
It irritated her, his mini lecture. Sometimes Harry knew too much. “So what was the point?” Lately it was important to her that things have a point, a specific and well-defined objective, and it helped, too, to know just how long things would take, each task, each job, so that every bit of every day would be used up doing something good and productive, something worthy that an imaginary presence who was always watching you might tick off a list. She had become a furious housekeeper; she balanced the checkbooks to the penny; she completed and then went back over her homework. Charlotte did this, she did that…. Industry stitched the day together, and so far nothing vital had bled through the open wound that morning seemed to bring.
He placed the back of his fingers against her cheek and gave it a feathery possessive stroke. “Oh, just to try it out, set the mood. We’re after trout. That’s inland, where we go tomorrow.”
“I like it here,” she said, tossing a pebble into the river, not wanting to belong to anyone at that moment, not even Harry.
In the flat light of dusk the river stretched away from her to the slanting and distant canyon wall, gray-brown, the water too, gray-brown like tea with milk, but cold, the surface a moving slick of indifference as it slid downward to the sea. The way the water moved, not flowing but huge and muscled from underneath as if it were pushing something impossible out of its way, and that one couldn’t see but knew was there just around the next bend—that was what she liked, that pushing, that deep, heavy determination to shove the unseen thing down the canyon and out of the way. Lakes were motionless; lakes did nothing but lie there looking pretty and inviting and stupidly susceptible.
“You’ll like it at the lakes too,” Harry was saying just then. “You can swim.”
“I might not want to swim.”
“You love to swim.”
“I don’t want to swim. Not anymore.”
“Sure you’ll swim, Char. You’ll do everything you were going to do. Nothing’s changed.”
She tossed another pebble in the water. “Everything’s changed.”
“I’m not going to swim.”
“Don’t be this way, Charlotte. Give it some time. Your feelings will change.”
“I’m never ever swimming again.”
He sighed, considered the flask in his hand, and then took another swallow. “The lakes are beautiful. You’ll see.”
“I don’t care about lakes or how beautiful they are or how much you think I’ll like it or won’t like it, or hate it. I’m tired of swimming.”
He seemed about to take her hand but thought better of it. “You’re in a mood.”
“That’s right, Harry. It’s just a mood. Nothing you have to think too long or too hard about. Call the next patient, order up another tray of animals to dissect, make notes in your notebooks, schedule a follow-up.” A mosquito bite on her forearm had made itself known and she was scratching it down to a dot of pulp to put a quick end to the itching. “Consult with Alex,” she thought to add.
Behind them the woods crowded down a narrow wet draw ending in a hedge of young cedar so dense that she could only worry about what was behind it. She took another sip of Harry’s whisky and glanced over at the Indian to see if he’d been listening. Harry unfolded his long self to help with dinner, leaving her alone. She had wanted to drive him away but was equally disappointed in having succeeded.
She had missed the bus. And she’d seen others, friends of hers with their thumbs out, catching rides with other students into the city, or across the Lions Gate Bridge to North Van where it was cheaper to live. Where she and Harry lived now. Plenty of them did it.
They heated two cans of beef stew over the fire and sopped it up with bread. Afterward, the Indian rinsed the cans in the river, burying them and marking the place so that they would not have to carry them but could pick them up on the way back a week later. He did not drink and he did not eat the candy bars that were Harry’s weakness, his only one, so far as she could tell. Reuben and Harry were familiar with the routine and with each other. They did not need to tell stories, the way men did, establishing who they are and what measure of deference or disregard each warranted. Even among men like her father, men who cared for a living, Charlotte had heard late-night versions of Great White Hunter tales, about patients with problems the books never told them about and that were usually the result of some strange thing they had managed to do to themselves, and these were the stories that had bothered her the most—the unavoidable exposure, the hoped-for and foolish trust, then the hunting tales that betrayed them. Once, even, she had overheard her father talking about her mother—‘will you just stop doing this, Mary,’ Bellows said to her. Bellows was another colleague of theirs in the practice. Charlotte had seen the cuts, too, but until that night, she had not known how they got there.
Around the fire the three of them sat. Reuben had found the desiccated root of a cottonwood five to six centimeters in diameter, and had begun carving it. His nose was striking, the kind suburban women with stereotypical views about Indians might want to paint, with a strong straight center bone, the flesh planning down evenly like the sides of a tent, one in shadow and the other a coppery gleam against the firelight. Harry was reading aloud from the fisherman’s guidebook about Dolly Varden, the trout they were after, “maximum weight, six to seven pounds, 18” long, hearty and colorful, stunningly spotted in scarlet with halos of pale silvery blue.” A log had settled out of the fire and he poked it back in among the embers, releasing a miniature outburst of sparks. “Dollies are anadromous—seagoing.”
Over in the river shallows they could hear the hollow booming of the oil drum against stone. It was so deep and muffled by the current that the sound seemed to come to them subliminally, like some kind of animal, a moaning beast out there calling to them, needing, needing, needing and not about to give up.
“Expect strikes to be savage,” Harry read.
Charlotte had recently begun biting her nails again, a habit leftover from childhood and the time after her mother’s breakdown, a habit now revived with a vengeance. The sound of the drum banging restlessly in the eddy was getting to her. Abruptly, she tore her hand from her mouth and leapt up, plunging into the water. The drum sent up a great rumbling commotion when she reached it; under the trees the Arabian began to dance nervously.
The Indian didn’t rise to help. Harry scrambled his boots off, but Reuben extended one hand, palm down, and Harry stopped, and then the two of them stared into the fire, listening to her struggle to shove the oil drum out of the shallow eddy and into the main current.
Harry put away the guidebook. Reuben’s knife hesitated, then a thin curl of cottonwood grew from it, and then another and another.
“The doctor said to talk about it,” Harry whispered to her later in the tent.
It was pitchy inside the tent walls, but somehow she could see the negative white of his eyes. “I don’t really want to talk about it.”
“He said it would help.”
“I told them everything.”
“The hard parts too. I told everyone everything.” She was thinking at that moment of the younger of the two RCMP officers doing his level best not to expose a twitch of emotion about what she was being asked to tell them, what she heard herself having to say to strangers, to herself who had now become a stranger. “I’m through with my talking.”
The officer had not been much older than she. It was worth hating him for, that and his fumbling inexperience, his dropped clipboard, his fat tender face and the tiniest glint of excitement she was sure she had detected in his eyes. It was like having to talk to a brother, if she had had one to talk to.
Harry propped himself up on one elbow, trying to see her through the darkness. She hadn’t cried yet and they all seemed to be waiting for that—signs of release and metamorphosis. A proper lamentation. But what was it that she had lost? What had slipped from her hands? What had died and what could she grow into, now that she had been ruined?
“Charlotte,” he whispered, “I’m almost a doctor.” She could hear in his tone an attempt at some misguided order of distracting levity, a detour onto the sunny well-tended boulevard that was Harry’s life and career where it was always safe to talk or cry, or to be yourself, because everybody would still love you. Harry was not afraid to be at anyone’s mercy. “Why won’t you talk about it, even with me?”
She rolled over. “For all the obvious reasons.”
Adoration was a dangerous proposition, potholed with hazards, obstructed by roadblocks, strangers asking intrusive questions that challenged your assumed identity. One day, one look across a room at him, and there were things you knew you didn’t dare reveal about yourself. Parts of you were quarantined as abruptly and dismissively as if officials had nailed a sign to your forehead—until further notice—or until you had somehow determined his receptivity—or his immunity—to the bad habits, the nasty thoughts, the lies that lacked any real point, the silly female rituals of love, the regrettable but not forgettable deeds of youth that you were convinced said more about who you were than all the make-up days that followed or coincided with that downfallen, down-at-the-heels version of you yourself.
She hadn’t told them everything. She hadn’t told them, for example, that she had been hitchhiking. They might have thought that she had been asking for it, or at the very least, that she had been reckless. Or that she was some sort of girl that she was not, a girl who hitchhiked.
On the second day they rode east along a creek that cut through the mountains, traveling in and out of shadow and then, leaving the creek, they found themselves beneath the tall fir and cedar and hemlock, resolutely in shadow. A disturbing quietude enveloped the Arabian. Charlotte began to worry that something important had gone out of her; began to wish for the fire and fight of the day before. From the trail a damp fecundity issued, and clouds of mosquitoes materialized, with single or double deer flies orbiting her dark curls and buzzing protest whenever one or the other became entangled. The thumping echo of slow hooves marched them along steadily, the Indian, the girl, and the tall young man leading the pack mule, and for a while no one broke whatever spell had been cast once they had left the sound of moving water and entered the silent forest.
Not long after, the Indian turned his horse, a stocky old stallion unexceptional but for a striking compliancy, and came back alongside Abra. “They like hair,” he said to Charlotte. “Hair like ours.” It was true: the deer flies did not bother Harry with his thin colorless wisps. Abra lifted her nose against the old bay and snuffed as Reuben handed Charlotte a tin of some kind of homemade salve, sharp and bitter smelling, that she was to rub around her neck and tousle into her thick curls. Reuben did the same to his own neck and hair. He had small blunt hands, but they moved—as he did—with a fine deliberation. Everything about the way he moved, in fact, suggested someone conserving himself in the face of an impending battle, an illness that he knew he could not beat, or an unbearable feeling that he knew he would simply and finally have to feel. For the first time since she had met Reuben, she offered a smile and he returned it with a slow solemn nod before resuming the lead.
What possible motive, she had to wonder, could this stranger have for treating her with such unearned and mannerly respect?
Behind her she could hear Harry humming something; he had such a reassuring voice, not especially strong but clear and valorous as rushing water. When the humming stopped she glanced back and saw that he was reading from another of his guidebooks, the one on native trees and plants. It was knowledge that bore no interest for her except in so far as having it might help her acquire some of his power. Harry was a great conqueror of things. When he took on a subject, he took it over entire, not obsessively but with a sanguine thoroughness that sometimes made her nervous, as if, once he had delved her through and through, he would leave her behind just as thoroughly. Charlotte did not want to be another topic on which one day he had finally sated himself. Even if there were not other reasons to hold some of herself back, this was reason enough.
And could he ever forgive her for this new knowledge she had not wanted, for what she had learned about men? A sudden raw shame came into her stomach. She was no longer innocent. She knew things, had done things. All of the shine of being Harry’s girl, Harry’s trinket, had been rubbed off. A dirty, needing, wanting world had simultaneously converted and convicted her: she was an adult. Adults did not need protection. And the very last thing she could stand to lose was Harry’s protection.
A polite distance had opened between Abra and Reuben’s old stallion. She watched the muscles of his rump flex, alternating with each step, left, right, left, right, unhurried and obedient, and felt herself settling into a dozy comfort. Between the Indian and Harry she felt safe; they were keeping her safe, these two men each with his own fields of knowledge, each a conquering hero. For now, she was safe.
And in that safety something terrible stole to the surface: They would not be looking for someone who stopped for hitchhikers; they would be looking for a man with a different approach, more aggressive, more obvious. And there might be another girl out there like Charlotte, just trying it out, hitchhiking for the first time, who maybe was mad about something, in that sort of mood, the devil take it all. There was something real and tangible at stake here—another life, another satchel of innocence someone had managed to carry away from the kingdom of childhood with its unsleeping monsters and its daily traumas disguised as lessons, all of them coming thick and fast as locusts in a private and inescapable parable of biblical proportions. Family bibles, she thought, each one personalized with barren dreams and born crosses, suppers trailing betrayals, doubtful redemptions.
Parables…people either broke down or went off, leaving you alone…that was what her life had taught her. That was the moral of her story. Relentless contingency.
But there was another life, anonymous but real.
She had missed the bus because she and Harry had had a bit of a row. About a woman who was going to be a doctor too—one of his classmates. Alex was her name. Charlotte didn’t even have a major yet, and was in fact considering dropping out, now that she’d met and married Harry. What more could she want, after all? After Harry.
Alex, she thought, staring into the melancholy depth of the forest whose tree trunks and branches scratched out the distance and held her to the narrow viewless path. Alex was probably Harry’s equal in ways that Charlotte could never dream of being or achieving. Even her name suggested equality, male but not male. Charlotte had not understood that Harry’s friend was a woman. Alex this, Alex that. She pictured them side by side, peering into the half-dissected vitals of a bird or a rat, poking about with cold steel tools and making cold steely notations in journals, cracking jokes only an insider could get. Making eye contact.
The bus was gone and there she stood on the curb. Harry was back in the Faculty of Medicine building, and Alex somewhere in there too, and Charlotte was needing to file some kind of cosmic complaint, not exactly for his having Alex, or an Alex, but for occupying a world to which Charlotte would have only peripheral access, wifely access…social events or professional functions or perhaps during staff vacations, she might fill in as the receptionist. She might even help with accounting. She’d always been handy with numbers. Having children would increase the stakes, but just about the time they went off to live their lives, her female charms would begin their inevitable slump and slide. She might take up volunteer work, join a book club, take a last-ditch lover, have a small-scale breakdown. But it would all be part and parcel of the inequality for which she had gladly signed on. She hadn’t driven much of a bargain, had she? And here it was, the seventies. From the very beginning she had been dazzled by Harry. She hadn’t given herself much of a chance or even tried to be a person yet, she’d been so busy setting herself up as Harry’s protectorate.
They camped late along Hat Creek. Using grasshoppers, Reuben and Harry caught a string of rainbows, no more than what they could eat that night, and Charlotte boiled rice, and then there were two cans of Le Sueur peas upon which she had stubbornly insisted. No matter the healthy attributes of frozen vegetables, Charlotte would never give up canned Le Sueur peas. Reuben had gone away and come back fifteen minutes later with a bright orange mushroom, chicken-of-the-woods, which they fried up with the fish. After dinner, after scrubbing the tin plates with gravel and creek water and spacing them out on a downed tree to dry, Charlotte took her towel and wandered downstream until she found a deep enough pool to bathe in. Washing had become especially important, all parts of her body but some more than others. The men had been reminiscing about Harry’s father, and Harry’s voice had gone wobbly. It had been a long day. Everyone was tired. She did not want to hear Harry’s voice with so much feeling in it, not now, not this week. It had the effect of unstitching some of the day’s seams enough to send her back to the tent and into her sleeping bag before any more came loose.
Within minutes, a car pulled to the curb, a turquoise VW beetle, maybe ten years old, judging by the thin chrome bumper and the seat configuration. A cheap car, repainted, balding tires. A student car. Clean—she had noticed that. It had made some kind of skewy difference as she leaned down to look through the passenger door glass. She can’t now remember what he said. What she said. What she remembers: nice-enough looking guy, brown hair cut short but not so short that it said something else, something you wouldn’t want to know. A man who was too fastidious could not be trusted with the accidents of being human. Small brown eyes, round as beads, olive skin, like her own; a checked shirt on a slim torso; flashing smile, bored, or hurried—one or the other—that tells her he might be doing her a favor, that he probably is doing her a favor. So she gets in. Because that’s all she wants right now, a favor from a stranger. Maybe he looks a little like Ricky Nelson, or some other teenage star. She’s not sure. She’s not sure now and doesn’t really want to know, because then she won’t breathe so well.
He has his left hand on the steering wheel and it looks like it’s trying to be casual, that hand with the fingers draped over the top, tapping, though the radio isn’t on so there’s no beat to follow. It’s the other hand that isn’t quite right but she can’t say how. Not when it’s shifting. When it’s shifting it looks fine, but in the space between shifting it seems to scurry back toward his body, or the seat…she’s not sure. There is a smell…vegetables…broccoli, it’s in the top of a paper bag, back seat—he’s been to market. Heading home. His window is half down. Hers is all the way up. The smell of the broccoli is making the car feel smaller than it already is. When she tries to find the window lever he says it’s broken, but it’s actually simply gone. Maybe that’s the first sign. They’re on the Lions Gate Bridge and it’s not so far from Lynn Valley, from the neat middleclass neighborhood she lives in with Harry Fairbanks in their rented bungalow, and so she just wants to get over the bridge and figure out the rest of the way some other way. Walk. That’d be fine with her now. There’s a lot of traffic that is helping her feel all right about this in a roundabout way. Commuters. Commuters seem to make everything feel normal, crankiness and petty aggressions, tailgating. She’s never before hitchhiked, and she decides she’s just nervous. Her mother used to say dramatic. That Charlotte should grow up to be an actress. Her backpack is propped in the gap between the driver and passenger sides, and she rests her hand on it, as if it’s her dog watching out for her. Some of her friends hitchhike regularly. She ought to be able to do it too, though Harry’s always telling her she looks too innocent for ice cream practically. It is something he seems to like about her, so she doesn’t tell him otherwise. It is part of the part of her that isn’t quarantined, her presumed innocence.
He’s telling her that he goes to college too, not University but one of the city colleges. Money, he says, apologizing. It feels like a line he’s used to advantage. Struggling, hard-working fellow cheerfully accepting his lot, making the best of things, philosophical about it, not jealous—that line. Some part of her decides to buy this line. And why not? Half of who anybody was was who he pretended to be, or wanted to be, or had to be just to get along. Then he’s talking about girls he’s dated and how difficult they are, making him quit smoking before they’ll kiss him. University girls, not the ones at the city college—most of them smoke, he says. Now she remembers that he’s chewing gum. He keeps his mouth closed. Someone has taught him manners along the way, but he has a slight under-bite and it doesn’t look all that easy. She would rather not hear about girls and how difficult they are. She’s wondering why he was driving around UBC when he attends one of the city colleges. “I quit smoking 2.6 weeks ago,” he’s telling her, and she makes herself mentally deliberate the .6, whether it means 6 out of 7 days or six-tenths of a week, because he’s still saying things—about mood swings and lack of sleep and periods of random aggression. He says the word “gum,” as if he’s saying “uncle” and surrendering, then gestures at his mouth and smiles without parting his lips. It’s not really a smile, it’s a flinch. She wants to get out of the VW now. A dumb word enters her mind—shenanigans—one of her mother’s. “What sort of shenanigans have you been up to?” Charlotte needs to laugh…shenanigans, shenanigans, shenanigans, she repeats to herself, trying to shrink what’s happening down to a prank.
At the end of the bridge they drop into West Van and she suggests that he let her off at the next corner. “Right here is fine,” she says lightly, trying to sound unfussy, trying not to officially recognize what might be happening, giving him a chance, an out, a merciful lie, and stifling the panic that takes up her chest like a ballooning explosion.
He doesn’t even slow down.
By late morning on the third day they made it well into the lake region. Crossing the Bonaparte River at Scottie Creek, following it east, then turning north before reaching the Deadman River, they simply began to wander. Each lake they passed sat quietly hopeless below them, passive and bound up in woods. It was a cloudless day, the sun bleak and ubiquitous. Most of the bodies of water—lakes, ponds, reservoirs, big and small—were named, but the one the Indian finally led them to had no name, or no name that he knew of, and he knew that country better than any, the outfitter had assured her.
“It is called No-name,” he told them, which made it worse. Saddened her. It seemed to render the lake vulnerable, unqualified for protection, the formalized namelessness of it. And it was embarrassing too, that it had not even merited a name or inspired a friendly idea, a moment of vanity or possession among early visitors—Bonnie’s Lake, Heartwell Pond, Loon Lake. Here they would find Dolly Varden, fish with a proper name, and yet they too would be violated. The named and the un-named. Sooner or later, everything was violated, driven down to the knees of anonymity. Who were we, she wondered, if we were just like everyone else, dirty and wanting and needing, anonymous as we wheeled toward death in our passing cars?
They had arrived late. Reuben grained the horses and the mule, then she helped him stake the animals in a sunny glen near the campsite where there was a variety of wild grasses growing—wheatgrass, wildrye, bluegrass, needlegrass. The needlegrass sewed itself into her socks as she led Abra and Harry’s big chestnut into the glen, the chestnut steadying Abra down to a tentative walk, the trust between them still cautious. For a while Charlotte sat in the shade, picking out the needles, trying not to think. Harry strolled down to the water to make a few casts at the place where a stream left the lake. Every now and then the light touched his fair hair, marking where he stood and acquitting her of thought. So long as Harry Fairbanks was there, believing she was still who she was, she did not have to think too much.
Soon, two Dolly Varden, not like the sleek silvery Rainbows of the night before but fat with a blue blush of color banding their sides and brilliant red spots, swung from a length of cedar that bowed from their weight. Reuben ran switches through them, mouth to tail fin, and they were cooked whole over a fire until their flat glassy eyes hardened, and went as white and opaque as dried beans. Kype-jawed, she had to notice, because it reminded her of the man in the VW with his underslung mouth.
The no-name lake and the cloudless sky and the primeval emptiness were conjuring a desolation all their own, as if bad things had once happened in the place. Even the blue smoke, whorling and quixotic through the trees, seemed baffled. It was too quiet. A breeze that they could not feel up on the slope under the trees was chaffing the surface of the lake, portending trouble they were too ignorant to detect.
After supper, the Indian threw his bag on a tarp down by the water and in the late light stretched out with a book—poems, of all things. She’d seen him with it the night before, and it tended to complicate him in ways she didn’t know how to resolve.
Harry was already in their tent, which from the outset had been a concession to his notion that women needed privacy. Harry could be counted on to give up things for her, and though she did seem to need a great deal of privacy right now, his thoughtfulness was galling. Needing it, she felt ashamed. “I would like to hold you, Charlotte, if you will have that,” he said in a voice so gravely formal that she felt sorry for him, as if what had happened had forced him back to an era when courtships were endless and women chaste as fresh cream.
Out of the question, she heard herself think. What she said while she sorted through some gentler surrogate words was his name, “Harry,” and he took that for assent. Maybe it was—just a little. She kept her back to him though, where the muscles were bigger and blunter and there were fewer nerve endings. Why, you could practically run a needle through them and expect nothing worse than a distant ping of alert, the brain hardly bothering to acknowledge pain so inconsequential, so far away. It seemed a good way to be, distant and removed from injury. You could get on with things that way, keep running, keep keeping on. That was what was expected. But why did people expect such grand things of someone they didn’t know? To keep living, to keep caring? There was a certain brand of universal importunity obtaining, a kind of species-wide peer pressure to buy the line, all the clever lines, and stay alive no matter what. Life is grand, isn’t it? Yes, of course it is. Life is so grand.
Lying there with Harry’s breath on her neck, the bunched sleeping bags generous and soft fortification between them, she thought about the eyes of the Dolly Varden, white and impassive in their deaths. It was how she felt now, if it could be called feeling—sightless and impassive.
“Tell me something good,” he whispered.
“I can’t think of anything good.”
“Then tell me a good lie.”
She said, “I love you.”
Harry gave a laugh that was really just his breath leaving him. “Is that the lie?”
“Water,” she said. “I like water.”
Glad, it seemed, to have found something that might distract her, he asked her what about water.
“The way it feels around my skin, the way it holds everything in place, the pressure of it, like borrowed skin, except I can still move. I can still get away.”
She was no longer sure that she loved Harry Fairbanks, because she was no longer sure who she was, or who the she was who had once upon a time loved him. But one thing she was sure of was that it didn’t matter either way. Nothing mattered. If she could have she would have erased her name to end once and for all, all mattering.
How would it be when they made love again? When she lost herself in touch entirely, which was what happened more often than not? Harry said that she was a sensualist. No more than the next girl, she thought to herself, though she couldn’t help feeling a little ashamed. It was only that she knew how to shut off her mind and for a while live through touch. How would it be if she found herself doing something new? Would he look at her as if he didn’t know her? Would he say something awful…do I owe this to him? “Don’t be insulting, Harry,” she might say. More likely, shame would exile her to the land of silence.
They met on a University-sponsored ski trip to Whistler, Harry one of two leaders commissioned to teach a group of sophomores Nordic skiing. Late one afternoon she had taken off her skis to climb up a tumble of boulders for the view, and one foot had gone out from under her, disappeared down a crevice and wedged. For a slip of girl lacking muscle in her arms, it was all she could do to hang there on winged elbows and bent knee, jackknifed for dear life. Several of her girlfriends skied by but dismissed her calls for help as fraudulent. And it may be that they were, that if she had tried harder she might have been able to extract herself. Out there in the meadow with the others, teaching them telemark turns, was Harry, a marvelous skier, and she knew that sooner or later he would come. His irritation with the others for ignoring her seemed to codify the incident and purify her motivations. The sun perched high behind him, the snow was blinding, the air aglitter with icy crystalline flecks, and she could not see his face as he hooked his arms beneath hers and pulled her from the crevice, suspending her for the longest time so that she might work her boot free from the crack. She’d been up there more than an hour, and her hands had gone white. What he did was to lift his parka, his turtleneck, and press her hands in the warm hollows of his underarms. “No,” she said, “they’re too cold.” They were too cold. But he only gazed at her, into her eyes, with the intensity of someone sure of himself, of all the right things that there were to do in the world if only you’d had a good solid life, one that let you believe in things. Harry was happiest when he was helping someone. On her warmed hands his scent, with its salty tang of authority and exertion, suggested all she needed to know about him as a man. His upper lip quirked into an unexpected and unabashed show of passion. Instantly, as if some ancient cog had ground round at last to catch up another cog long ago meant to have been caught, the machinery moving now and something back there in the crowded cluttered clanking works beginning to sing, their meeting animated a classical dynamic: distress and rescue, innocence and protection.
Now Charlotte wondered how much she had not seen gazing up at Harry in that dazzling white light. How much she had tricked him into imagining about her.
Sleep was a valuable enterprise. She was not sleeping so well. Night terrors; gory images; weird sex. How was it that these terrible things were inside her? Where did they come from?
Human beings were horrible, one way or another. God curse us, everyone.
She reaches for the door handle, ready to jump out as soon as he has to brake at a light or a stop sign, to jump out no matter the stopping, the going, but the door doesn’t open because the door’s locked and at the base of the window the up-down button is missing. He says something, something that goes with another flinching smile. Charlotte can’t remember that part, what it is that he says at the very moment she understands with every cell in her body that she’s no longer a part of the world out there, the one washing by her window; she belongs to this world inside the VW, and the other world, her world, is past and gone now, zooming out and away like the expanding shock waves of an explosion.
He takes her into the neighborhood where she lives with Harry. The man doesn’t know it and she decides not to tell him. Maybe she is protecting it, her home. Or maybe it is as if she has already said goodbye. Has already entered this new order. They roll by the house; she can see the lawnmower where Harry left it by the side gate, and the three pots of herbs on the front stoop. She is supposed to water them when she gets home. It is the only moment that opens a thin crack, a welling of tears. Time is stopped, or ripping past, or launching her into fright—it has so completely lost its measured and faithful validity.
He is holding himself. He may have been holding himself for a while, maybe six or eight turns, one quotidian block devolving into another, all the houses with trimmed lawns and topiaried hedges gazing sightlessly on her and her captor as they pass by in the slowed motion of nightmares and car accidents and suicide jumps from window ledges. She never learns his name. No-name. He takes her just four streets away, to a cul-de-sac formed by the western edge of Lynn Canyon, and turns off the engine.
“You don’t need to do this,” she says.
“Now, why is that?” he asks.
She can’t really hear him; she seems to see the words in her mind, minus whatever personality inhabits his voice.
“You’re a perfectly nice looking fellow.” Having just seen her home with all its now bygone promise and possibility has imparted some strange state of calmness, as if just seeing it must mean she will see it again. At the same time it is as if she was viewing old photographs in the album of a lost life. “You can ask girls out. You could ask me out,” she adds, trading in a concept that belongs entirely to this new order. The one that is telling her that she must survive.
The knife has been there all along—she realizes that. It must have lain alongside her backpack, slightly hidden, occupying his right hand whenever he wasn’t shifting. A long steel blade like the kind her father uses to carve meat. When he isn’t touching the knife, he’s holding himself. There is a lot of flesh rising between them, flesh and steel.
“I would go out with you. If you asked me out properly, I would accept. You’re a nice looking fellow. You don’t need to do this.”
“Describe it,” he tells her.
It takes her a little too long to understand what he wants, and he has to say it again.
She does what she is told to do. That and the other things. He wants her underwear; she removes them, he puts them in the bag with the broccoli while she pulls her pants back up. So far he has not touched her, and she takes this as a good sign. She has been instructed to touch him, but he has not actually touched her. Maybe, after all, he’s just a piss-ant, a coward. She begins to feel sorry for him, to need this badly, to take these actions; she is, in fact, embarrassed for him. Her own base instincts, like that one at the very bottom, the one that is telling her to stay alive, she is still reticent to expose. Exposing her own needs would put her at his mercy. Right now she still owns some of the action, some of what will end up being deeds.
She talks about school, about her life, peppering the surface of this new world with casual chatter, as if they are indeed on a date. She never mentions Harry. She says again, “Why don’t we go out for a regular date? We could do that, we could just go out on a date. I would like that.”
It may be that he did touch her. But she just can’t remember that part.
They have entered a place that is a time without name. It is all action, with deed as the outcome of that action, the past tense of action. Or maybe the past tense of action was regret. Time and space are one in such scenes. And she is trapped in such a scene before it must be condemned to deed.
That night, Reuben told her, she went down to the lake, walking into the black water with great quietude and courage, as if there was someone out there she was scheduled to save. She was wearing one of Harry’s white undershirts, and so was visible even in the snuffed light of the new moon and the hard little stars pinned into the night sky. Thirty or forty yards out, she stopped and floated on her back. Then she began to swim toward shore. He could see the white of the undershirt and hear the movement of the water, and he knew—he told her—that she was at home in water, and so he was not yet concerned. It wasn’t until she reached the shallows and the sloping bank touched her feet that she awakened. And then immediately he entered the water to catch her, her breath coming sharp and fast.
“You were asleep,” he said.
She stared at him. He still had his short strong arms around her rib cage. He was not an attractive human being, his face too broad and his skin damaged, but he had the sweetest eyes she’d ever seen. She started to cry then, crumpling against him.
“To see in this darkness what you don’t know…” he settled her on her feet before him and opened his palms to the hard little stars, and nodded, “that is something. But to see what you don’t want to see…”
Once, when her father had gone off to a conference in Toronto for four days, her mother had all the stone in the house painted white. One coat for every day that he was absent, so that by the time he returned, the glossy paint was so thick, and still not quite cured, that you could press tiny frowns into it with your thumb nail. Her father had loved that stone wall surrounding the hearth; had laid it himself; had run his hands across its rough surface in thought, in boredom, in appreciation of its tactile proximity to earth.
She had every tree on the place cut down, too, even the Mountain Ash he had nursed from a seedling.
She slashed a giant X into the mattress and packed the wound with rotted apples from the neighbor’s orchard. Then she used the knife to carve words into her arm, not so deep to kill, but still legible: a pity about the nights in bed.
So. So…her father had seen what he had not wanted to see.
They have been parked on an ordinary neighborhood street, houses facing other houses and at the end, a guardrail that keeps cars from plunging over the bank and down into Lynn Canyon. They are stopped parallel to the guardrail. It is not yet the time when families have all arrived home from work or school, and the street is quiet, though she is hopeful that inside one or more of the houses there are people beginning to wonder about the turquoise VW parked on their street. He tells her—and once again, she can’t really hear his voice, can only see the words scurrying across her mind like terrible rats in the Devil’s own penny arcade—that they, meaning he and she (they are a couple, it seems, in this new order), they are going to go down into the canyon together. He doesn’t pretend to anything ordinary, like a nature hike or even a fete of groping and drinking that young people enjoy under trees and beside bodies of water. He says: “We are going to go down there now.”
“Why?” she asks. The fear that she has held back suddenly dissolves into some kind of icy liquid metal veining through her body.
“I’m taking you down there now.”
“Why can’t we just have a date, a real date? You don’t have to do this.”
He says things… about how she looks and that he’s sorry she had to be so pretty.
“I’ll come around to the door and let you out,” he says finally.
“You don’t need to do that. I can let myself out. It will look funny, if you come round to let me out. People might notice. And anyway, you can trust me now, can’t you, to let myself out? Here we’ve been sitting and talking about everything under the sun, and a date, a real date, and surely you can trust me now to let myself out of the car.” In truth, it is only she who has been talking.
“A date,” he says, flinching up his smile, emitting a huff.
He studies his reflection in the knife blade. “I don’t believe you.”
“Look, I’ll give you my number…” she fumbles in her backpack for a pencil, a piece of paper, adding cheerfully, “Friday’s best for me. Only one class, early. You can pick me up in the same place.”
Somehow, it is this flurry of routine date-making details that causes him to hesitate. Looking not quite confused and not exactly off balance, maybe wobbled, maybe even the slightest bit pleased, he accepts the piece of paper she extends, her number and address—both false—scrawled on it. For a half a second he seems to belong to, or to recognize, the old world, the real world, not the one he has been busy creating inside the VW. Then he reaches in his breast pocket and extracts the up-down button for the door lock and simply hands it to her. He zips himself up. If they go down there she figures that he will have to kill her. In every terrible chaos of action and details, there is usually one point of exit best recognized by someone down there in the cellar where good and bad, black and white, freely consort. This is her point of exit. At the same time, she has accepted this new world so wholly, and acted so well across its stage, that she is actually worrying about hurting his feelings even as she casually, casually, screws the button back in place, opens the door, and runs.
He starts the engine and as he spins the car away he throws her backpack out the still-open passenger door.
No backpack, no identification, no name, no blame.
So, after all, he is a piss-ant, a coward.
The door is open at the first house she comes to, the screen door in place. A man is sitting on a couch in a dimly lit family room, watching the television. She cries through the screen door, “Help me, please, he tried to rape me, I need help! I need a phone…police…”
The man says, “I don’t want to get involved,” and rises to shut the door.
Next door, a woman in a kitchen, her husband approaching behind her. Charlotte says the words again. The woman picks up the phone. Her husband leads Charlotte into a living room, a cozy quiet sanctuary where good lives have gone on, and offers her a place on the couch. When the RCMP arrive, the couple hover in the doorway, looking worried about Charlotte, looking beautifully wonderfully human.
The kindness of strangers.
The owl woke her up. Harry was already gone. It was sitting in the Doug fir that towered over the tent, looking for the world like a small amputated human being, all torso. Heart’s home. Somewhere not so far away that she couldn’t tell its northerly direction, was another Great Horned Owl responding to hers, questioning her identity. Who, who, who. She did not feel so bad, or not as bad as she thought she would after the sleepwalking.
They were probably fishing. It was early, only five, and they had to have gone down to the lake to cast when the fish would be feeding.
Comfortably abandoned, she squizzled back into her sleeping bag, glad for the time alone and sad for it, as well. All the mornings of her world with Harry would be spent like this, with him gone off to work and the silence of the house and a day, already fractured, that she must learn to piece together. But how? She hadn’t given herself much of a chance, had she? She’d stuck out her foot and tripped herself at every turn, hoping for someone to pick her up, someone who might restore what had been taken a very long time ago.
Overhead, the owl who-who-ed again.
And if she didn’t know who she was, how could Harry? If she had to conceal so much of herself, lie about the unsavory bits, or maybe it was mostly the unlucky bits, to hold him, then she could not finally keep him. To have and hold him, she had to consent to letting him go. The idea of leaving him felt brave and cleansing. Even noble.
Anyway, she couldn’t have told him everything, how people survived one blow or another, that sort of thing. Mothers who had gone round the twist, piss-ants who would as soon kill you as date you. It was no one’s business how one survived; survival was a private matter, and the capacity to inhabit other worlds, however temporary, to understand a murderer’s heart, for instance, or the strange everywhereness of knives and fear, was no one else’s concern. Harry Fairbanks had never had anything, really, to survive. It was Harry who was the innocent.
Finding in this realization a hard satisfaction, something she might feel, like a flat stone in her pocket, as she walked away, Charlotte tried to smile, tightening the sleeping bag around her shoulders. A fine mist of condensation had formed on the ceiling of the tent, evidence of breath and warm-bloodedness, and she reached up to run a finger through it…Charlotte, she wrote, the name disappearing even as it took shape.
In memory what was a life anyway but a series of tableaux vivants that you visited now and then, like any tourist? Harry, her fellow tourist, appreciative, eager to believe, had thought that she was actually living when what she’d been up to was arranging things for his, and perhaps everyone else’s, approval. What was left now to believe in? What was real?
Briefly, she thought of the Indian’s solemn expectant face, the way little girls’ faces were….
But people do survive, she thought again. Somehow people survive, though the means are not always salubrious. Of course, it may have been better not to have survived. At the very least, there would have been some clarity in that. Things would have made better sense, responsibilities assigned, punishments meted out, rewards awarded. Her mother had not survived, not intact. Her father was in Ottawa, making an ad-hoc go of things. Their little family had been cut down back in Penticton, right along with all those trees. But Harry’s parents…even dying, they had survived together. What a marvelous legacy.
The owl overhead had been silent for a while.
She would have to tell Harry that she had been hitchhiking, or tell the authorities—someone who might keep it from happening again to someone else.
She felt strong and somehow better—briefly—than the human that she suspected she might be.
Harry. Thinking his name, she wanted to cry. Beautiful man.
Harry was the sort of person you became if you’d had a normal life.
Harry was also the nicest thing that had ever happened to her, rendering him wholly unbelievable.
It was best, really, to remove herself from his life. She simply didn’t deserve him. He would argue with her, but it was not an argument he could win. He had never been much good at the mazy logic of emotions.
An exciting and headlong uncertainty rushed over her. She could do anything she wanted, wreck anything she felt like wrecking. No one would care. She might even secretly survive, which would make for a different sort of wreckage. Live a solid, solitary life, independent of anyone, needing no one. She could be a gardener, a landscape architect, as they called them now, helping things to grow and thrive. People might even admire her solitariness, her way with plants; might wonder among themselves about Charlotte as she aged away from the possibilities that radiated like rolling green fields around youth.
A sound suddenly, then in the next moment a shadow spreading over the tent, followed by the laborious whoop-whoop of the owl’s wings lifting him heavily away. Everything fell before it could rise. Even great owls.
With the owl’s departure, Charlotte decided to pay a visit to Abra, say hello. The long grass was soft and dewy up to her knees, and she was glad to be barefoot in the cool morning, glad that Harry was gone and that she had had the owl to herself, glad to have Abra to visit. Dropping over the rise and down toward the glen, she saw that all three horses were gone; Reuben too she discovered gone. Only the mule remained to eye her dolefully and waggle its halter, asking for grain and attention. What every creature needed and sometimes deserved.
Rushing back to the camp, she found everything eerily in place—grub boxes, tackle, the fishing rods secured against a tree, last night’s plates stacked on a log. The lid to the coffee pot was off and the pot itself filled with water and sitting on the grate, but no one had started the breakfast fire. A loaf of bread sat on a board, one piece sliced, the knife half embedded in the loaf for another piece. Off to the side Reuben’s tarp lay neatly folded with a stone on top to hold it down. His book of poems too, and the cottonwood root he’d been carving. She picked it up. It was Abra, her angular face and in-pointing ears. Had he carved it for her? Harry’s can of peanuts was just over there in the pine duff, exactly where he had left it when they’d been drinking whisky the night before, waiting for supper.
Why had they left her? Where? Why hadn’t they waked her? How could they have left without her? Something terrible had happened and they had simply left her. Or something wonderful, and they had ridden off to see it and had forgotten her. Or she was too small, too weak, too much trouble, not worth it… She glanced over at the tent, the Doug fir towering over it, the owl gone. The air, the trees, the water, all perfectly still, the absence of sound frightening, as if the world had sucked back into itself and left her utterly alone to fend for herself.
Abruptly it seemed important to be dressed, to have some protective coating, to be ready. In the tent she pulled on her boots and a wool sweater. Still cold, she dragged the sleeping bag with her to the stump she had occupied the afternoon before, and sat to wait. Her legs felt leaden, her hands were shaking. They had taken her horse, too. They had taken her way to get away. The mule was no good. You couldn’t escape on a mule inured to pack. And anyway, where to go? How to go? And what if it wasn’t Harry who came back, or Reuben? What if it was someone else who found her there alone, who might take advantage, who might hurt her? Nothing was as it once was; everything felt empty and alien and hollowed out with menace. The world was no place to be.
If she hadn’t reason enough to leave Harry Fairbanks before, she did now. He would pay for this. If he came back, he would pay.
She had never been that important to Harry, never—she realized that now. Perhaps she had known all along. It was his work, his colleagues, like Alex, who really mattered. Who held his interest. He had a whole life, rich and rewarding, and she was just…just a girl. Or another one of the subjects he had swiftly dispatched.
For the first time in her life, she hadn’t the faintest idea what she would do. As if to sort it out somehow, to stumble upon the thing she must do, she got up and walked down to the lake, looked at the water, flat and impervious, knelt to feel the temperature—a swimmer’s habit—without really noticing it once she had. She went and looked at the mule again, who this time ignored her. She stared at the impressions left in the long grass where the other three animals had stood and stamped for oats. No good at making fires or at cooking over one, and not even remotely hungry, she nevertheless picked up Harry’s tin of peanuts and rattled it gently, carefully replacing it within its perfect circle in the duff. As afterthought, she kicked it away, finally surrendering to tears and the increasingly familiar chaos of fear.
If Harry returned she would not submit to him, to his reliable kindness, his love, his male assuredness, his categorized food. Whoever she was or might become, it was equal to Harry Fairbanks—different, but equal.
God, she hoped he would come back to her! Then she might properly leave him—on her watch. But just to see him again, coming toward her….
It was two hours before they returned, trailing Abra, lathered and wild-eyed.
She threw her head back and released a sound that might have been a word, or a hundred words.
“We almost lost her,” Harry called to her with a big smile. His face was red, his eyes brightly popped with that incurable enthusiasm of his, and he looked for the first time not so perfect.
Charlotte was already up from the stump, taking Abra’s halter, touching her neck. “You okay, girl?”
“She made it all the way to the other side of the lake, she was tearing up to the plateau like the world was on fire.”
“Well, it was,” Charlotte said, “in her mind.” She pressed her face into the crease behind the Arabian’s soft ears. “Abracadabra,” she whispered. Then she turned to Reuben, not yet ready to look at Harry. “There was an owl right over the tent.”
“Yes, I know,” she said without really knowing why or how she knew, without caring about her tears.
Harry was beside her, one hand squeezing her shoulder and the other on the chestnut’s bridle.
“I don’t ride well,” she said to him coolly.
“Who could ride this screwy mare?”
“Don’t be so tolerant, Harry. It’s rather mean, when you think about it. And no, I don’t ride any horse very well. Never have.”
She looked up at him then, feeling ready finally for something unnamable but essential. “And don’t do that again. Go off without waking me, without telling me something.”
He tipped his head and removed the hand that had rested so comfortably on her shoulder, and shoved it into his pocket. “All right, Charlotte.”
Charlotte, not Char, she noticed. He was looking at her differently, as if she had changed her hair or something, but not without a curious bit of appreciation. “I guess I’m still getting used to being two.”
“Yes,” she said, “well, I suppose we all are.”
© 2013 by Lynn Stegner