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.
Compared to the surrounding stark silence, their breath was bleating. Each huff was pained and loud. The two women had ceased speaking. All reserves were focused on completing the hike and returning home. The snow was at a halt. It was a windless day and they were making use of the eye of the storm. Within the eye, everything was hiding. Every once in a while a tree shook when a bird perched and a big clump fell and startled them but hardly any birds circled. Hardly anything moved at all. A crow called out to them hours ago.
“It must be noon,” Catarina said when she heard it.
Behind her, her friend said nothing but she heard her sniffle and knew she was wiping the snot from the nose on the sleeve of her coat. Her friend said nothing but Catarina knew she was resentful. Catarina had promised her peace. I have given you a gift, she kept to herself. They were trapped in the infinite stillness of the woods and each other’s brutal wordlessness surrounded by barren trees and an imposing gray sky. Once blue, now darkening. The woods were once dull, inviting and now growing toothed and sharpening. It was the beginning of January, seventeen degrees and Catarina felt it.
Their breathing was labored. Their cheeks were bright pink and dotted with tiny drops of ice. Their skin was pallid, blue, endurance waning and their breath came out in synchronized huffs one after the other. In front of them lay endless groves of brown trunks dotted with sparse patches of evergreens in the horizon; a brightening to the dense forest and an indicator of distance. Green meant car. Green meant escape. Green meant salvation but they still had an interminable white crystal blanket to cross. All conversation had ceased between the two friends. You could only hear breathing. You could not hear their steps.
Catarina guessed it was about four pm. They had gotten lost, separated from the trail and if they were not out when the sun finally went down, there was no way they were going to survive. They had no food or water. They had no phones. They had only a light layer of fleece underneath their clothing. They were both catching cold which would breed pneumonia. There was no shelter nearby and the two women were growing angry and confused. Nightfall would complicate their emotions which would compromise their sense of direction further. She could see it in the distance: the veiled sun, the yellow halo obscured by boundless gray. It barely shone through the clouds. They were heavy and pregnant with blizzard. It was an unforgiving winter. It had been and remained unforgiving now. The sunset they faced would turn to black without portrait. We will survive, she had lied. She knew her friend would die. She knew that soon she would hear the twig snap and that she would run. She didn’t know what her friend do but she did know she would hear her scream. She would dart across the forest 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 what blood attracts or how many of them would come to see.
She had decided to wear a blindfold and forget the whole thing. It was agony to know and it didn’t seem fair. None of this was fair. But she did get to see the wolf. It was not a promise but a possibility, and she was grateful in that moment. He was gray and white with yellow eyes. He was hiding behind a larger tree with roots that twisted into several X’s like carved figure eights bursting from the ground. Low and keen, he held a silent snarl between his teeth. A wolf restraining herself from howl is a terrifying wolf indeed and Catarina had been spotted peeking. Without making a sound, she turned her head slightly to the left. From her periphery, she saw the wolf’s friend skulking carefully and quietly on the other side of them. He was also low and snaking through the branches. 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. He would step on it just as he was getting ready to pounce and she would be afforded an extra second that would propel her. She kept her eyes and head down and noticed the six hearts drawn in sharpie on her right hand. She had been reaching for the marker to draw the seventh to track the time when she saw them. She wanted to laugh. It’s four pm, she thought. I have a metronomic heart, she thought. I’m full of shit, she thought. She 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 with determination, her jaw with anxious habit and from her left she heard the snap. From the right, she felt the hesitation. She knew there were only two. She began to run.
From behind, she heard her friend yell “Where…” before she heard her scream. Before she heard two dozen wings beating above her from the nesting sparrows awoken by fright and taking off from their hidden holes, she heard the lone screech. Before she heard the victory howl, she heard the sudden scream. Before her right foot hit the Earth again, she heard the sound of two wolves colliding at a throat just missing Catarina. You are lucky. Before she heard her breath quickening keeping pace with her racing feet, her racing chest, she heard the beginning of a cry for help ripped in half by a hungry team and a voice far away repeating a story: you are lucky. She was sprinting through the forest headed towards the green. It was 4 pm, 16 degrees and she felt it.
“Datura Moon: The Life and Death of Catarina Kacurek”