You couldn’t hear them move over the forest floor. The snow was fresh and soft like powder. Each step left an imprint but no resounding echo. You could only hear their breathing. You could not hear their steps. Saturday, it will be bright and sunny and windless, Catarina had told her. They had a light breakfast and drove an hour in near silence listening to slow ambient: good for sleepy mornings. I’m fine, Leana told Cat lightly pressing her hand on hers to stop her from constantly adjusting the temperature. Leana laid her head against the window letting her eyes close feeling the heat of the car envelop her. It was a beautiful drive and a placid day in the eye of the storm, and the only day right for a hike. The first half of the morning they sweat, taking their hats off and shaking their hair out. It was full of laughter and the sky was bright blue. The sun was everywhere. They kept their faces lifted and let their cheeks change color: tan, pink with freeze and rays and now dotted with blue drops of ice. It was close to evening. Gray blankets had covered the sun from every direction. Now, they pulled their scarves over their chins prepared to pull them over their noses. They pulled their hats over their eyebrows. They kept their heads down.
Catarina didn’t turn around anymore to check on her friend. She knew Leana was right behind her: pallid, huffing, waning. Catarina needed to maintain her own calm, her own diminishing endurance for the long stretch ahead. She knew the sky was changing color behind them. It was the ending of the forgiving day in the middle of a non-forgiving winter. The two women had not spoken for miles. Occasionally a bird would perch on a tree mid-flight without warning and a clump would fall to the ground startling both of them. Each time it happened they looked up searching for their rescue; body heating with hope ready to leap, jump, scream, run I am here, come quickly! and seeing nothing but the interminable white crystal blanket they still had to cross. They reserved their energy for breath and resigned themselves to private recounts of how they got from here to there–the cruelty of the jokes, the anecdotes, the warm smiles that Catarina showered on Leana leading her further from the entrance and far, far away from the black trail. They didn’t discuss the missteps or their rumbling stomachs, sore ankles and knees and calves or perseverate about their dry mouths, their brittle tongues begging and shunning the rain all at once. They didn’t talk about their feelings. Catarina didn’t ask what she was thinking. Her legs were on fire. She needed to concentrate. She didn’t attempt small talk or closure. She didn’t think of the past, hardly at all nor as she imagined Leana was thinking of the past; jailed in regret retelling the same stories about ordering the cafe instead of the horchata or not pulling him closer or her four minute showers.
“I take hour long baths, Leana,” Cat reminded her earlier after hearing her replay the same neuroses, the same guilt about her water usage. “I am stoned and boiled by God all winter and I waste gallons of water a day.”
“That’s awful,” Leana flicked the back of her neck.
Catarina turned around and sneered, “That’s not awful. What’s the harm in enjoying yourself a little, Lee? In the middle of this arctic albatross we have to carry? We should enjoy ourselves in winter.” She turned back around, “We should live.”
Leana smiled but said nothing in return. That was at 8:45 am. Catarina was the one replaying that conversation. Maybe Leana was fine. Maybe she had hope. Maybe she had emptiness or was creating a future imagining dinner, Thai, somewhere close, just the two of them, something to keep her mind preoccupied. Maybe she was imagining them making jokes about it; how Catarina is much too adventurous, much too brave but you always get us out. Leana would flash that trusting, open smile and enjoy her drunken noodles. She would bray and it would cut through Cat. Maybe I’m the one imagining this, Cat thought. Maybe Leana would make it fine but the algid walk was wearing each woman down and desperate company is lonesome. There is no assuaging the other and there is no way to quell your guilt while one party is still infuriated and too weak to say it. You make due with feeling it the whole way. There was truly nothing to say.
In front of them lay endless groves of barren trees. The backdrop was dotted with patches of evergreens; a beacon in the dense forest of trunks but also an indicator of distance. Catarina could not remember seeing clusters of evergreens anywhere except on the blue trail. There were a few far out where they were now, but they were sparse. They had to head west towards the setting sun and snow-dusted green. That’s where the cars were. That’s where the cabins were. It was the middle of January, 17 degrees, 4 pm, miles from anyone in the middle of a giant winter storm and Catarina felt it. She did turn around to look at Leana. She couldn’t help it. Her cheeks were almost red and her breath was labored. Little puffs of condensation hung in front of her nose permanently. Catarina wanted to hold her, hug her, tell her she was sorry but not for what. She couldn’t explain anything; it wouldn’t work. They had gotten lost. This way, Catarina had said gesturing to the left around 10:30 as they began to head to the red trail, but that’s not where they went. Catarina didn’t preoccupy herself with the feelings of her friend or the feelings of her life or the point of all of this. She was obsessed with now and movement. She demanded silence so all conversation had ceased between the two friends. You could only hear breathing. You could not hear their steps.
“”It will take about four to four and a half hours,” Catarina began.
“Ok,” Leana mumbled biting into a granola bar and pocketing two.
“The black trail is more intense,” Cat said closing her car door. They were in the lot near the entrance. There was no welcome center at the entrance, just a tiny map outlining the woods. It was 7:55 am. “It takes the longest to do that loop: blue to red to black.
“Will we be back by two?” Leana asked grabbing one water bottle from the back seat.
“Yes,” she smiled. “We should be able to get from blue to red by 8:30 then black by 9:30 and then back to the front of the blue trail by 12:30 taking the circuitous route that loops right and down past the red directly to the blue trail head, here,” Catarina gestured to the car. “Where the car is.”
“So by 12:30?”
“Why go from blue to red to black at all?” Leana asked tightening her scarf. “Can’t we get straight to the black trail from here?”
“I don’t know. Variety.” She shrugged and nudged her. “It will be fun! We can catch up and you can tell me all about your trip to Europe!” She threw her arm around Leana and began to lead her from the car.
By 11:30, the game was up. Catarina had paused too long at a fork.
“You have no fucking idea where we are. I told you we should have looked at the map,” Leana snapped through her clenched jaw wiping the snot from her nose.
“We just took a longer route, we are heading back to the red trail instead.” She was weaving through the trees. “I’m sorry. It will only be a little longer.” She didn’t face her.
“Ok,” she began following Cat through another zig zag. “My legs hurt.” And then a moment passed, “How much longer before we get to the red trail? Will we still be back by two?”
“Yes,” Catarina lied.
Leana wasn’t speaking because she knew the frightening truth and Catarina wasn’t pushing her because she was the reason: if they were not out when the sun finally went down, they would not survive. They had no water for hours, no food and the temperature was dropping degree by degree. Jet-black clouds were forming behind them and they carried rain– in this temperature with clouds that pregnant, that meant hail. It was 4 pm. The sunset they faced would turn to night without portrait. There would be no brilliant red and orange cascade. There would be no beauty in the transition. There would be a stinging downpour icing the whole forest. We will survive, she had lied. She knew Leana was going to die. She knew that soon she would hear the twig snap and that she would run. She didn’t know exactly what her friend would do but she did know she would hear her scream. Catarina would dart across the clearing as fast as she could while her friend was ripped to pieces. She would sprint. She would sprint the whole way without looking back or without time to reflect on her reflex. She would have no time to wonder how many her dead friend’s blood would attract. She watched the sun move across the sky keeping time with a pen in her pocket. Starting from 8 am, as every hour passed she drew a heart on her hand. Someone once told her she was lucky.
I have a metronomic heart, Leana.
What does that even mean?
I can keep time just by sensing it.
You’re full of shit literally all of the time.
Then just the memory of Leana’s laughter was in her ear. Catarina’s heart cracked and she snapped back to the woods where they were now. Reaching for her pen, she almost didn’t see him. She had turned her head slightly to the right as she began to glide her hand into her pocket. Low to the ground and keen, she saw his yellow eyes before she saw the rest of him. She could imagine his form perfectly enough. They were slightly behind the women snaking through the trees. Without reacting, she turned her head slightly to the left. From her periphery, she saw his friend skulking carefully holding snarl between his teeth. Walking this clearing for the past five or six miles exposed them. It will be faster, she said. She already knew. At least one branch had fallen and the wolf wouldn’t see it. Stepping on it just as he was getting ready to pounce would afford Catarina an extra second to jump, propel herself into full gauntlet. She kept her eyes and head down, inhaled and felt her pulse begin to thrum and warm her body in anticipation. She began to lift the balls of her feet. She began to clench her palms into fists and from her right, she heard the snap. From the left, she felt the hesitation. You are lucky. She knew there were only those two. She began to run.
From behind, she heard Leana, her meek Where that immediately turned into screech that frightened the silent birds from their trees. Suddenly the sky right above her was full of sparrows. All you could hear was the beat of the wings and the beginning of Leana’s scream as the two collided at her throat, missing Catarina. You are lucky. That’s all she heard: her breath quickening keeping pace with her racing feet and a voice far away repeating a story.
Rough draft, short story from “The Woman Who Saw Her Own Death”