Even the wind seemed to hold its breath as the suggestion was made that were one to die, the rest might live. Then the suggestion was made that lots be cast, and whoever drew the longest slip should be the sacrifice. The slips of paper were prepared . . .
At sunset we crossed Truckee Lake on the ice and came to the spot where we had been told we should find the emigrants. We looked all around, but no living thing but ourselves was in sight. We raised a loud hello, and then we saw a woman emerge from a hole in the snow. As we approached her, several others made their appearance in like manner, coming out of the snow. They were gaunt with famine, and I never can forget the horrible, ghastly sight they presented. The first woman spoke in a hollow voice, very much agitated, and said, ‘Are you men from California or do you come from heaven?’
Daren Powell sits in The Forlorn Hope outside Truckee, California and warms his bare hands on the backs of his gloves. Despite the glowing embers in the granite fireplace, despite the crackling logs and spicy smoke, the chill has penetrated even the deepest layers of his thermal t-shirts, sweater, heavy jacket, and he finds himself wrapped in the icy embrace of the Sierra Nevadas.
His drinking partner waits at the bar for another bottle of Jim Beam. The last is nearly empty, the contents little more than something expedient to wash down the spit. He bottom ups his glass and stares at the dull sky beyond the windowpane, taking in the scenery as if it is nothing more than a remote, desolate postcard. Arthritic trees bent under a burden of snow. Ragged shoulders of pines stooped against the mountains. Ice fog drifts through the pass like a cold breath on the back of the neck, settling in the secret crevices, the empty places, the vast caverns of the human soul. They are the only ones left in the bar on this bleak afternoon.
The whiskey burns Daren’s stomach even as he pours another shot, the last in the bottle. Let it burn. At least then he will feel something. The heat of life running through his veins.
Outside the bar across the empty parking lot, the highway is deserted save for the occasional intrepid SUV loaded down with ski equipment. A new BMW slides down the ice canal of Interstate 80 as if on Hans Brinker’s magical silver skates. Destination: Caesar’s Palace Tahoe for a weekend of discounted credit card pleasure. Headlights cut through the dull afternoon like search lanterns, columns of light sweeping across the snow between the trees on the hills. He stares out at the trees, the hills, the mountains that lie beyond them, and takes another sip of whiskey as he thinks about a woman.
Not his woman.
Not Erin, as sunlight-bright as her sister’s beachfront house, where windows reflect the northern California sky the way a mirror reflects a face. She’s waiting there for this shipwreck of a man to wash up like stray driftwood she can sculpt into the semblance of something useful. There she is on her sister Christine’s salmon boat on the smooth waters of Half Moon Bay. The two of them are laughing and exuberant as they cast their shimmering lines.
Daren lets himself exist for a moment in this vision, and the reflection of what might be surrounds him in a warm, sunlit aura. Bare feet move back and forth across the deck, polished toenails in search of pearls. Erin squints up at the sky. Her eyes are the greenish-blue of the sea. She sees him waving from shore, flashes a welcoming smile of recognition—
All those promises I made, Erin.
And then she slips away. Scatters like dandelion fluff in the wind and leaves him here alone, in the mountains. Two hours earlier when he was less drunk, less depressed, less oppressed by the silence of the mountains in this late and ever later afternoon, he’d immersed himself in thoughts of his wife’s golden scent, the traces of salt she left in his senses. No, not salt. Something else. Tears. No. Blood. No. Something else: the sweet taste of her skin. A taste he knows with eyes closed. But now Erin, the promise of her, is replaced by the requirement of the moment.
A woman who flits through the unsteady trails of his mind like some strange, elusive butterfly. A woman whose presence here in the pass runs through him like a pure mountain brook. A woman who, in his own mind, at least, will forever lie frozen on a hard ridge of untouched snow.
There she is. He parts the branches of trees dripping with spring rain. Hush, now.
She’s curved on her left side like a branch, heart to the earth in the melting California snow. The icy lumps of her spine protrude through the back of her summer dress. Her fingers are like fishhooks sunk into a shroud of moss. Flecks of bark and thistles are buried in fingernails as stone-white as the sky above her. Her lips, or so he imagines in this inebriated trance, are bruised the dry ochre tint of acorns. A patina of frost rims nostrils chapped scarlet as winter berries. Her last breath is chill smoke.
A name inherent to the resurgence of life in the spring, to new beginnings. Ironically appropriate in the way that only life can be. Her name tumbles from the edges of his mind like stones strewn down a ravine. The ravine is thatched with nests, robins’ nests woven with thistles burned to husks in the wind. Daren falls past the nests, the thistles, the grasping hands of roots, into the freezing stream below. He doesn’t feel the pale hands, the thistles tear his body. This is only a dream; the hands and the thistles are nothing more than a collection of subconscious images. An unexperienced recollection of the last moments of a woman’s life.
• • • •
Robyn Corliss was thirty-four years old at the time of her death.
The articles in the Sacramento and San Francisco newspapers had been dated April 21st, a little less than eight months before Daren finds himself sitting in The Forlorn Hope. She’d been driving alone from Green River, Wyoming to Meadow Vista, California, where she planned to meet her husband. Never before traveled through the western part of the country. New territories these: Hell Hole Reservoir, Desolation Valley Wilderness, Sugar Pine Point, Donner Pass. A second Eden to some.
At the time of her disappearance off the face of the map—December 8th of the preceding year, one day after the official closing of the road leading through the Tahoe and El Dorado National Forests—she had been ill-prepared for mountain driving in winter conditions. For some undetermined reason, she had deviated from the only sensible course available to her: the sure thing, the main highway, the interstate. To attempt this alternate route, on the afternoon of what would prove to be the most devastating blizzard to hit the Sierras in more than a hundred and fifty years, was a mystery: to the authorities, to her husband, to the family she’d left behind in Wyoming. Inexperienced, they said. Unprepared. She just didn’t know.
Her Chevrolet Beaumont had no chains on the tires. And of what use would they be, on the straight plains of Wyoming? A deceptive slick of ice beneath the surface layer of snow is hardly a rare occurrence in the mountains; no surprise the vehicle had spun out of control.
The ice was encountered. The Beaumont skidded off the through-road which had this past September, when the forest was a still prism of light and the air a promising blue, been extended west to intercept the interstate at Meadow Vista. And if the new extension is not precisely a shorter, more direct route through the mountains, then it is—as the Department of Tourism brochure advertised—certainly the more picturesque.
The Beaumont plowed directly into an embankment.
It was discovered soon after the park rangers reopened the road to the public, shortly after the second thaw of the season had revealed the chromed hulk of an old wreck that had hibernated all winter beneath a protective blanket of snow.
The door was open, as if the driver had just left the car for a moment, perhaps upon spotting a fleet of darting snowshoe hare in the wood; icons of winter beauty irresistible to one who had never visited the mountains in her life. Just a short delay in the itinerary before returning to the safety of a heated car, the intention being to retrace the secondary road back to the highway. And once on the highway—smooth, straight, ice-free—the driver would continue on with her dreams, her passions and pursuits; her inevitable frustrations, her depressions and defeats, her triumphs . . . her life.
Instead, the young woman’s journey had ended one hundred and fifty yards northeast of her automobile on the lee side of a still sodden hill; which, on December 8th of the previous year, had been topped with a deepening crust of virgin snow.
There she is.
Daren Powell pictures her:
Nutmeg brown hair gleaming in the warm, liquid glow of the sunlight that falls on the hollows of her cheek. She lies as if asleep beneath a stand of birch trees, the leaves of which have ripened into a tangy saffron-green.
What Robyn Corliss had intended by ascending the hill in two feet of snow is anyone’s guess. Perhaps she’d been attempting to make it back to the highway more than thirty miles away when the sudden blizzard obscured her vision. Perhaps, suffering a concussion from the accident, she’d become disoriented, then hypothermic, in the blinding storm. Or perhaps, as her up-reaching position on the hillside might have suggested to the more romantically (or at least the more ambitiously) inclined, she had been in the process of climbing up to God. For surely the clouds that pass silently overhead on Donner Peak might have resembled outstretched angel wings to a freezing woman blinking snowflakes from her lashes. Angels calling the lost ones home.
• • • •
The temperature when Robyn Corliss froze to death had been estimated at thirty below, with a wind chill factor ensuring exposed skin would turn to the texture of parchment in less than a minute. She was wearing a light coat, a sweater, and a summer dress she’d bought especially for her trip at the Wal-Mart in Green River. The dress was printed with indigo irises and pink hollyhocks, sunny marigolds.
Frozen to death, while retracing her steps to the main highway.
Returning to civilization, to the New California. The Western Eden, answer to her prayers.
Instead, she’d discovered uncharted territories, untried routes—
Frozen to death, on a mountain that leads straight to God.
• • • •
Daren sighs away from the window, from the scene he’s rewritten thousands of times in the scripts of his own mind. His drinking partner returns to the table with the whiskey. Lane, his name is. Daren met him only this afternoon. He’d stepped into the bar for a drink soon after Daren himself had.
No point drinking alone, Lane had said.
No, no point at all. And really, there wasn’t. Have a seat, Daren had invited the stranger. Now, hours later, they were still here. Late afternoon sunlight cuts the man in half as he sits opposite Daren.
“Getting thirsty again?” Lane does not await the answer before topping off Daren’s drink. Lane smiles. It’s a slow smile. Slow to reach eyes that are a light, clear, uncompromising gray. Gray as an overcast sky after a hard snowy sleet that drives straight through to the ground.
Daren is reminded of the salmon his wife will land on the deck of her sister’s boat. A little late in the season, but why not? The fish, if they are caught, will suffocate to death. They will end their own slicing silver journeys in someone’s skillet. Poached and seasoned with lemon pepper and rosemary and a little white wine. If they are caught. Jerked into the open air.
“I should be with my wife right now,” he says.
Lane pours himself a shot.
“No rush. She’s waiting for you, right?”
The man’s fingernails, Daren notices, are filthy. Flecks of bark, thistles. No, not thistles. Something else. Blood. No. A mechanic’s grime. Lane is a mechanic, he’s told Daren this. Repairs things. Cars, engines. Sends travelers back on their way.
“Here’s to The American Dream.” Lane smiles wryly.
The American Dream. Daren snorts. But he raises his glass. Here’s to untried routes, uncharted territories. They clink glasses to the American Dream. Wherever it leads.
Daren briefly meets Lane’s eyes. With their silver-gray irises and depthless pupils, his eyes are like the black-speckled bellies of salmon. Salmon thrashing on the banks after a hard snowy sleet has jumped them from their course. An instinctive course, the need to return to what has been lost. To the memory of being born.
A hard snowy sleet jumps them from their course. Slicing journeys end on a plate, far, far from home.
That is what it is like to explore Lane’s silver-gray eyes.
But it’s been a long time since Daren has looked into his own.
• • • •
Four o’clock, Saturday afternoon.
Daren is past cut, well past it. And on an empty stomach. Doesn’t seem to be doing his ulcer much good, but then, nothing does. Sour milk.
“Drink up,” Lane tells him. “Alcohol don’t freeze.”
“Gonna be another long, cold winter.”
Outside, the mercury is fifteen below and dropping steadily. Still no new snow. Just an old tarp covering the landscape, dirty and gray as rotting gums. Wind shrieks through the trees.
Daren doesn’t await a second invitation. The glass in his hand is sunlit gold, glinting with ice. He’s been sitting here in The Forlorn Hope since noon, ever since he locked up the Tahoe house and hit the road. Ten miles. That’s how far he’s come since he tossed his backpack onto the passenger’s seat of the old pickup. Ten miles since he headed west on Interstate 80, theoretically toward the city of Sacramento where he somehow still plans on spending the night in a motel. In the morning, he will head straight north on Highway 8 before cutting across the 299 to the coast, straight into the arms of his waiting wife.
Yes. This is what he will do.
At least, that had been the strategy this morning when he’d stopped in at The Great Sierra Outdoors to say via con díos to Ingrid and Derek. Eight months since the newspaper and online articles, eight months in these mountains with his head in a bottle. Plenty of time to decide this particular American Dream wasn’t much of a dream. His partners had eagerly bought out his third of his thriving retail business and that was it.
He hadn’t hung around at the shop set back in the pines. He’d designed it to resemble a faux Alpine chalet but it looked more like something off the set of Heidi. And just as prefabricated. Still, it was Tahoe’s most popular outdoor and sporting goods store, boasting not only the latest array of camping, hiking, skiing, snowboarding, rock climbing, mountain biking and mountaineering equipment, but an extensive selection of books, guides, and DVDs: avalanche safety, back country awareness, scenic day hikes in the Sierras, the basics of hypothermia prevention. The racks were jammed with slick brochures for resorts, outdoor attractions, Tahoe/Reno hotels and casinos, bed and breakfasts, local maps.
There it was: Daren winced when he saw the brochure for the new extension through Tahoe and El Dorado National Forests. The cover had a photograph of a highway winding through a valley. Mountain peaks sparkled in the distance.
Untried routes, uncharted territories.
He’d dropped by about eleven that morning. Ingrid was outlining the features of the latest skis to a handsome male customer who’d have bought anything for the chance to hear the Norwegian accent she still played up after ten years with her permanent resident card. The accent and blonde hair were sales gimmicks. Authentic gimmicks, albeit, but gimmicks.
Ingrid rang up the skis. Poles. Bindings. Snow helmet and goggles. Chapstick. SPF 45 sunblock. “Have you seen these new touring boots?” A real pro, this Nordic princess. Never missed an opening, and Daren had to admire her for it.
Derek, a twenty-something Sac State dropout and snowboarding semi-pro with a superlative sense of salesmanship, was good-naturedly attempting to keep up with the demands of a local climbing outfit. The counter was laden with super-lightweight ropes, crampons, ascenders, titanium pulleys. Derek barely had time for a quick smile in Daren’s direction before jogging off to the stockroom for a set of Advanced Base Camp Climbing packages.
Standing on the rubber doormat in a pool of melting slush while his former partners successfully wheeled and dealed their way into the next tax bracket was beyond the realm of the depressing. It was a collision with his past, a reminder of his former self. The goodbyes had already been said the night before over drinks and Canadian caribou steaks at The Fondue Hut; still doing business after thirty-five years on one of Tahoe’s more touristy side streets. It was time to leave.
Just as well. The day had begun with a layer of ice mist drifting down through the pass. No precipitation in the immediate forecast, but a northeasterly wind stirred the snow across the highway.
Leave early, Erin had urged when they’d talked the night before. Ensconced in her sister’s beach house with raucous, squalling blue jays on the timber deck and breakers crashing against the rocks like the choral of Beethoven’s 9th.
Daren listened to her talk as he stood in deafening silence at the front window of the Tahoe house they’d just sold for a tidy profit. Neat and tidy. As if packing up the remnants of your life in neatly labeled boxes was all that was required to leave the past behind. Lock up when you’re done.
As Erin had cheered and bolstered, a chattering jay herself, he’d said nothing and stared across the ice-sheeted lake. The lake shone midnight blue in the clear, cold moonlight. He’d heard the lake was bottomless.
If he searched—really searched—he could almost, at the limits of his vision, discern a gleaming set of footprints. A woman’s footprints disappearing into the mountains.
Everything will be all right, Daren, his wife reassured him. The voice of Aristotle, this one; a doctorate in philosophy and rhetoric, a discourse in logic courtesy of his AT&T cell plan. Listen to me, she said.
If only he could.
This will be a new start for you. For both of us. You’ll see. You can put this to rest.
Oh, how he wants to put this to rest.
Well, the best laid plans and travel advisories . . .
All it takes is a single, decisive, last minute swerve into the parking lot of the cedar-walled drinking hole on the north side of the highway outside Truckee. Kill the engine. Slam the door. A friendly neon sign buzzes in the window of The Forlorn Hope. Just a little liquid fortification for the drive out of Tahoe, the drive out of Donner Pass, out of the mountains. New life, new beginning.
If only he could—
Chart a new direction.
• • • •
He has tried twice to call Erin at her sister’s beach house. He wants to explain that he’d had a later start than he thought. Last minute arrangements with the house, the store. Talking shop with Derek and Ingrid. Lies.
The house phone rings and rings. He was sure he had the number of her new cell phone in his wallet, but he can’t seem to find it. The two sisters would be out on the boat, making a salmon run. Or perhaps his wife is reclining on the beach with a paperback propped in front of her. Danielle Steele or Dostoyevsky, depending on her passions of the moment, the crash of water on rocks, the tempest of her literary tastes. There she is. Straw sun hat. Her lips parted slightly as she reads, and they are tinted a bright hollyhock pink, and as her lashes drift in the direction of her cheeks she looks as if she’s falling asleep in her deckchair. It is Dostoyevsky: Crime and Punishment. Paperback descent into the damnation of humanity. It must be overcast today, for the sky has an ominous edge, the look of a prison.
Daren erases the image from his mind. Simple as swishing a stick over a sand picture.
He drains his glass to the bitter end.
The door to the bar bursts open. Daren jumps, turns his head. Someone enters. Wearing a parka, he brings the smell of cold wind, diesel fuel, cough drops. Another lost traveler.
Lane has disappeared into the nothing again. No, there he is. At the bar.
Daren’s head is starting to hurt, along with his stomach. He presses his forehead with the back of his hand, stares down at his new gloves. He’d dropped them in the parking lot coming in and the fingers had been scattered with snowflakes. Whatever patterns, whatever destinies he may have read in those snowflakes, have melted into his glass and are no more. Looking at the pool of snowflakes is like looking at a tiny Lake Tahoe.
No. Not Lake Tahoe. Another lake. Donner Lake.
Turn left at Donner Lake. Have a nice drive.
He feels sick. Painful twinge in his belly. Hands, twisting. Gripping roots.
Lane returns with another bottle. Just in time.
“So you’re heading over to Trinidad, that right?”
“Had enough of the mountains?”
“More than enough.” Daren’s attention turns momentarily to the sky on the other side of the window. Beyond the glass barrier it stretches into the mountains, catching on the summits like a fish struggling on a line. Finger hooks in moss. Does it ever try to escape? Twist away, chart a new course, continue its journey, its rightful passage through the mountains? Or does it surrender to its fate, to a life of passive captivity like a fish suffocating on a deck, just an arm’s throw away from the sea?
Trapped in the mountains like a fish on a hook, gasping for its last breath of air.
We are all true to our natures.
It’s just like going to sleep, Daren reminds himself. Freezing to death. His hands tighten on his glass and he stares into the depths of it as if it is a swirling snowstorm.
As long as you don’t drink the life—
Daren blinks at Lane. “I’m sorry, what was that you said?”
Lane gives him a peculiar smile. “I asked if you’d tried to call your wife.”
“Erin,” Lane reminds him. “You said you had to call her.”
The fragment of verse still hangs in Daren’s head like strips of skin set out on a tree branch to dry. As long as you don’t drink the life, call the wife—
Better lay off the whiskey, Powell. But he says: “I tried, didn’t get her. She’s out on the boat with her sister.”
“I hear it’s nice country. Up around Trinidad.”
“It is.” Daren tries to smile, be sociable. The pain grips his stomach a moment, is gone. “I think we both could use a little change of scenery,” he says. But he’s not sure that’s true at all. He picks up his empty glass, forgetting himself, then sets it down again. Shoves it across the table. A change of scenery. Uncharted territories. The New California.
• • • •
“Would you mind giving me directions?” The young woman with hair the color of cinnamon-nutmeg asks him. She has inquisitive eyes, the slightly desperate, barely controlled smile of those who’ve lost their way. “I’ve never been through these parts. It’s a little colder than I expected. I thought California was all beaches! But it’s beautiful. Is it warmer on the coast? My husband’s not due to meet me for a few days. I thought I might—”
“I’m sorry,” Daren says, interrupting her but not impolitely so. He’s trying to finish checking the invoices for the new shipment of camp stoves that has just arrived. The UPS guy is awaiting his signature at the loading dock. It’s Saturday afternoon and the store is crowded. Derek’s having a problem with a return, Ingrid’s off with a sore throat, and there are two customers ahead of the young woman, both of them impatient.
“I’ll be with you in a minute,” he tells her as he verifies the credit card signature.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” The young woman’s smile is apologetic.
Uncharted territory, this, never been through these parts.
Daren slides a sleek new pair of BiPolar Fleece System gloves into a Great Sierra Outdoors bag. “Thanks a lot,” he tells the customer. “Have a good one.”
He turns to the next person in line. “Yes, can I help you, sir? No, I’m sorry, we have don’t have it in stock yet. Check back early next week. It’s one of the best global compasses on the market right now.”
“Does that have the built-in clinometer?”
“It’s got everything you need.”
The young woman wanders away to the store’s picture window. The highway is clear today, only a little ice, and the hills have more tawny patches of dead arching grass than snow. If only the sun would come out, it might not stay cold. And the mountains are beautiful. She’s never seen anything like the Sierras. This will be an adventure for her. Untried routes, uncharted territories. She has some trepidation, but it’s exciting, too.
She spins the information rack as if it’s a roulette wheel. Learn to navigate your way by the stars. The flights of birds. Divining rods. Wagon trails.
Shiny new pamphlet. Luck and fate. Destiny unfolds. The photo is of an inviting highway that leads through a deep wooded valley. Mountain peaks sparkle in the distance.
“What about this one?” she says, holding the pamphlet up so Daren can see it.
His eyes flick up momentarily, then fall back to the slip he’s filling out for the customer. He starts to write Dec. 7th but the customer corrects him. Daren shakes his head, writes Dec. 8th.
To the young woman he says, “Uh, yeah. That’s supposed to be a spectacular drive. It runs right down through the Tahoe Forest, into El Dorado. Opened this fall.”
“Will it get me to Meadow Vista?”
“Excuse me,” the customer says, “but I’m really short on time here.”
“Meadow Vista,” the young woman affirms.
“Um. Yeah, I—”
“Excuse me?” the customer repeats.
“You take the west turnoff to the I-80.”
“Where do I go from here?”
“Can you show me where your outerwear is?” a woman calls from across the store.
“Be right with you,” Daren says with a nod. Sighing, he picks up a business card and writes swiftly on the back:
Drive W. on 80 to Soda Spr. Turn S at intersec. left at Donner Lake. Take first right. Take W. turnoff to Meadow Vista.
“You can’t miss it,” he says, handing the card to the young woman.
She contemplates it a moment, then smiles at him before slipping it into her coat pocket. It looks too light for this weather. “Thank you so much.”
“Not a problem. That’s what we’re here for.” Daren smiles. “Have a nice drive.”
“Thank you, I’m sure I will.”
Daren turns to the waiting customer. “You were looking for outerwear? We have a sale on MountainZone—”
The door clicks shut.
The store seems colder. The young woman has vanished into the white afternoon.
That’s what we’re here for, he has told her. Have a nice drive.
Untried routes. Uncharted territories.
It is December 8th, and the new extension Daren has just directed the woman to closed yesterday. He knows this. Of course he knows this. It’s just that he’s distracted. Short-handed. There’s just so much to do.
The sun begins to drop behind the mountains.
• • • •
“A change of scenery,” Lane says. “Yeah, well, I don’t blame you there, friend. It can get pretty cold up here come January. Pretty lonesome, too. The wind in the trees . . . sounds just like a woman’s sigh. No one there to listen, though. The Donner Party, they were all lost up here. Lost in all that snow. There are a hundred names for desperation.”
Daren glances at his iPhone under the table. Battery running low. He takes another sip of whiskey to dull the white pain building behind his forehead. It’s getting late. Sacramento’s a long drive in this weather and the roads aren’t that great. Maybe he should try to call Erin again. No. He’s way over his limit. She’d know it immediately and he has enough to explain.
“I hate to break up the party,” Daren says, “but I’m gonna have to get going.” He lays some bills on the table. “It’s been nice talking to you. Good to meet you.”
“Same. You taking the long trail down?”
“The long trail?”
“The 80. The long trail.”
“That’s the one.” The interstate, while not quite as picturesque, is at least a shorter, more direct route through the mountains. “Be seeing you,” Daren says.
“You know it. Give my regards to Erin.”
“I’ll do it.”
Daren tries to remember, but can’t, when it was he had mentioned his wife by name.
• • • •
The parking lot is almost empty at this time of day. There’s his pickup, a few diesels, and an old mashed-in Buick on the other side of the lot. The snow is dirty, gritty, stained yellow-brown from the sour breath of exhaust. Sunlight slants through the pines on the southern slopes as he heads for the truck. The wind comes up suddenly, blows snow from the plowed drifts piled high on either side of the highway.
Man, it’s getting cold. Inside the truck, the air is frigid. Daren’s nostrils stick together when he breathes. He turns the key in the ignition. The engine does not turn over. He tries again. Ten minutes later he is still trying. It hasn’t been cold enough to freeze the battery, not this afternoon with the sun shining. There must be something else wrong. Yeah, the used car dealership ripping me off.
He gets out. The sun is beginning to sink over the hills. A pale white glow illuminates the trees on the other side of the highway. He glares at the truck. Damn it. He doesn’t know the first thing about this. Where’s Erin when he needs her? He should have just put on his damn skis.
One of the rigs pulls out onto the highway toward Tahoe. Black smoke hangs in the air. It’s after five; no garages open in Truckee later than that, the owners all out drinking in the bars, chasing the American Dream. And tomorrow’s Sunday. Small town America, alive and well.
Daren’s drinking partner unlocks the door to the dilapidated old Buick.
“Hey!” Daren’s shout echoes across the highway. He tries to remember the name. “Lane!”
The guy glances his way, shakes dirty blond hair out of his eyes. “Take it easy, man,” he says with a grin and a wave. He grinds open the Buick’s door.
“Wait! You said you’re a mechanic—?”
Lane trots across the lot, skidding on ice. He’s not wearing gloves, and all he’s got on is that jean jacket with a hooded sweatshirt underneath. “Truck die on you?” His breath comes out in a cold steam.
“I can’t get the damn thing started. It was running all right this afternoon.”
“Yeah, they’ll do that to you.” Lane raises the hood, hands bare and red, and looks around for a few minutes.
“I’m lucky you’re still here,” Daren says. He stands there doing nothing, feeling stupid and overdressed in his North Face jacket and Gore-Tex All Terrain gloves. What a joke.
While Lane bends over the engine, Daren stares out across the highway. Bare slopes, bald rock. The sun goes down in another hour, it’s going to get damn cold.
“Try ‘er again,” Lane calls out.
Daren does. Nothing happens. He gets out.
Lane slams down the hood with a sigh, wipes some greasy streaks on his jeans. God, his hands look cold, Daren thinks.
Lane says: “I hate to tell you this, but I think you’re in need of some serious parts.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
He shakes his head. “Mucho dinero. Unless you got another engine in back.”
“Goddamn it,” Daren mutters.
“You know, this is just like what happened to the Donners.”
Daren looks at him. “What’s that?”
“Donner Party. Stranded, some of their wagons. Just like your truck here.”
Daren smiles tersely. “The Donners. Right.” I don’t have time for this shit.
“It’s the climate,” Lane informs him. “The altitude up here makes a wagon sick through and through. The wheels contract like a man with a wrenching gut ache that won’t die. Those iron tires work loose. Then the wheels. They pass over that sidling ground, they fall off and break all the spokes at the hub. It becomes a matter of absolute necessity that the traveler devise some means of repairing the damages. I’m quoting there, you can tell. Read that in The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California. Lanceford W. Hastings. He’s the one who advertised the shortcut.”
“What shortcut is that?” Daren says blankly.
Lane’s breath steams out in clouds. “Shortcut through Donner Pass. Of course, by the time he got around to trying it out himself, it was too late. They were done for.”
Daren’s aching head strains to find the relevant thread here, decides there is none. He doesn’t know how much Lane has been drinking. If it’s half as much as Daren has, he’s probably plowed. “Listen, I don’t want to put you out, but do you think you could maybe give me a lift? Which direction are you headed?”
“Sacramento, same as you. That’s where The Donner Party were headed, too. But I could run you back to Tahoe if you want.”
Daren thinks about it. He can’t go back to the house tonight because the new owners are moving in tomorrow morning. If the truck’s as far gone as Lane seems to think there isn’t much point in spending any money on it. It’s falling apart, wasn’t worth anything when he bought it. Now it’s just something to get him to the coast, and it’s not even doing that. He lets out a frustrated sigh and thinks of Erin waiting for him at the beach house. He’s having a hard time making decisions. Any decision. Maybe he could arrange to leave the truck here until Monday, then call one of the local charities to take it off his hands. Erin could drive out and meet him in Sacramento. If Lane is headed there anyhow—
Untried routes, uncharted territories . . .
Daren doesn’t remember Lane mentioning anything about Sacramento in the bar. But then, you never asked. All you’ve been doing is brooding about your own damn self all afternoon. “I think I’ll take you up on that offer, if you don’t mind,” he says, and summons a warm smile. “As long as you’re headed toward Sacramento anyway. But I’ll owe you one.”
Lane smiles, a quick turn of his lips. His eyes are empty and gray as the sky. “Better get started. Looks like snow.”
• • • •
“You do much skiing?” They’re heading west on the highway in the rusted-out Buick. “Tahoe Donner Basin?”
“I used to,” Daren says distractedly. “Alpine Meadows. Never did do Donner.”
“You might,” Lane says. “Might do Donner, yet. These mountains were built on human sorrow.”
Daren squints out the driver’s window. Sun’s about packed up and gone. Days are getting shorter. Lane’s eyes are silver-gray in the pale setting sun. Like silver-gray fish, Daren thinks. Landscape runs past them. We’re fish, all of us. Swimming upstream. Uncharted courses. Fighting for our lives, a long way from home.
Lane passes a car, eases back into his lane as if he’s got all the time in the world. “It’s sure pretty this time of day. Light dying, but not quite dark. The sun . . . see how it’s still hanging in the trees. Those stands of birch up on the hills.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty. If you like that kind of thing.” Daren’s head is pounding. He couldn’t care less about the trees.
“Eliza, she liked that sunlight.” Lane’s lips curve faintly.
“Eliza Donner. The littlest Donner. She had nothing to eat but sunlight during those long winter months. None of them did, not at first. She was just three years old, hardly more than a baby. I think of her sometimes, perched on the steps of that frozen cabin on the shores of Truckee Lake. Her hands are stiff with cold, but she’s holding a dancing sunbeam on her lap. She’s trapped it in her apron like a little white bird. She dashes off to show her Ma. This was in the days when they still had strength left in them. And hope. Imagine the little girl’s surprise when she opens her apron and discovers there’s nothing in it at all. Nothing to eat. Just an apron full of light. And not even that, now.” Lane’s smile is both sadly meditative and strangely tender. It’s as if this is a story he’s telling about his own child. Not a child whose smile is less than dust.
Daren doesn’t know how to respond so he says nothing. Sits back. Watches the trees stream by. He sighs. It’s definitely turning into a depressing afternoon.
They drive silently for a time, the only sound the wind whistling through the cracks in the windows. There is no heat. They have to keep the windows rolled down an inch to keep the windshield from icing up. Lane’s hands look rough and cold on the steering wheel but he doesn’t seem to notice.
The skin on Daren’s neck is burning cold, white as halibut, but he doesn’t want to fasten the top button of his North Face outershell. It wouldn’t seem right somehow, not with Lane sitting there in his ratty denim jacket and sweatshirt. He wonders if he should offer the man his gloves. He doesn’t want to think about driving all the way to Sacramento with the windows cranked down. Has to be nearly thirty below out there. And with the wind chill . . .
“Do you want to wear my gloves?” he offers Lane. “The steering wheel’s got to be cold.”
“No, you keep ‘em. Thanks the same.”
They pass another car. The driver is a woman, her hair pale as ocean sand, the strands streaming down her back like shimmering fishing lines . . . and she continues on with her travels, her life.
By now, Erin and Christine will be making supper together in the kitchen. Erin tosses salad greens with expensive Sonoma Valley olive oil. A glass of chardonnay sits on the counter beside her. Christine poaches the salmon with lemon and a bundle of rosemary.
Slicing silver journeys that end on a plate, Daren thinks. Far, far from home. It’s just like going to sleep. Dying is.
There are a thousand names for desperation.
The sisters are laughing, talking: men, life, sand, fish. Erin nods vigorously at something Christine has said while she grinds fresh pepper on the salad. Her hair is bleached oyster-pale. She laughs and takes a sip of wine. Put on some music, she tells Christine.
Down here in the Garden
There’s one thing left to eat
As long as you don’t drink the life—
Daren envisions his wife through the windows of the beach house above the rocky shore, the bay a thin sliver of silver. The knife gleams as she chops a shroud-bed of herbs on the cutting block, chops right through the tip of her thumb. A spurt of blood, a little shriek—
Daren gasps, opens his eyes. He blinks back the image, still red and clear in his mind. What in hell is wrong with him? Was he asleep?
Still half-drunk, that’s what.
“There’s Donner Lake up ahead,” Lane says with a gesture. His hand drops back on the wheel. “That’s where the settlers holed up for the winter, when they realized they weren’t gonna make it through the pass.”
Daren peers out the window. Nothing more than a dim outline in the falling darkness. Why would he be thinking about Erin cutting herself?
“You been out to the lake?” Lane asks.
“No.” Daren closes his eyes wearily.
“I’ve been out there.”
Daren doesn’t reply. He’s thinking about The Donner Party’s wagons breaking down in these mountains. It’s the altitude up here, makes a wagon sick through and through. Nothing but canvas and the empty white sky above . . . the hand of God. Nothing but the mountains in front of them, the Great Salt Desert behind. Running out of time. Not gonna make it.
Journeys that end on a plate. Far, far from home.
Daren opens his eyes. It’s dark out there. So dark.
The Buick is dirty, fast food wrappers and drink containers littering the floor. Smell of body odor and greasy hamburgers, like Lane’s been sleeping in here for the last few weeks. Threadbare woolen blanket in the backseat and what looks like a pair of balled up dirty socks. Bundle of newspaper clippings. Something else, too. A book. The cover is threadbare, faded. Daren strains to read the title in the moonlight that pools through the windows. The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California, by Lanceford W. Hastings.
“You into history?” he asks Lane.
“The book back there. That one you were talking about. Emigrants’ whatever.”
There’s a smile on the edges of Lane’s lips but his eyes are hard as granite. Granite on a mountain where nothing grows. “Lanceford W. Hastings. He was the one who told them to come this way. Take the shortcut, he says. Save you hundreds of miles. He’d never even tried it.” Lane is disdainful now. “The Hastings Cutoff. That’s what you call man’s arrogance in action.”
Which way to go. Oh, what a dilemma. Do we go left, do we go right?
The sick feeling is returning to Daren’s stomach.
“He never gave it a second thought before sending them on to their deaths,” Lane says. “Never gave it a single thought.”
“I—don’t really know much about The Donner Party,” Daren says.
“Man’s got to know his history.”
They drive silently. The trees are gray slivers in the dusk.
“They look like souls, don’t they,” Lane says. “The trees. Like thin gray souls out there.”
Daren rubs both thumbs against the bridge of his nose, where sweat has formed a thin sheet. Condensation on a melting glacier. “I suppose so.” He takes off his gloves. His hands are bathed in sweat.
“You have to wonder what went on in those cabins. What they thought about. Dreamed about. I mean, when they knew there was no hope of a rescue.”
Lane’s driving is even, smooth.
“I’ll tell you what I think about,” he says. But he says nothing for half a mile. Then, as if in a reverie: “The fine new buttons on the coat old man Donner bought at the mercantile for the trip. Shaved that sheep naked to make it. Good winter coat. You see, he’d heard it gets a mite cold in the Sierras come winter. Old George doesn’t know it, but in eight months’ time he’ll be cracking those bone buttons between his teeth, pulverizing them to powder for the calcium. No energy bars, no Gore-Tex gloves in those days. Not in those days.” Lane’s hands tighten on the wheel.
White knuckles protruding like lumps of ice.
Daren closes his eyes again for a moment, balls a fist against his stomach. Shouldn’t have drank so much on an empty stomach. He tries to remember what he’s eaten today. Sunbeams. Nothing.
“It’s just so damn cold up here,” Lane says. “Ten below, twenty, thirty. No cover. Nothing to eat. The gnawing hunger starts. Passes for a while. Comes back. But there’s still nothing to eat. It’s a long climb up to midnight. You start thinking maybe there’ll come a time you’ll have to eat the rawhide laces from your snowshoes. Two days later, that doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. Two days more of tramping through the snow, you’re so cold, your stomach’s so empty you can’t think straight. Fingers frozen solid in your mittens. You think maybe you could break one off, put it in your mouth. It’d just be like sucking on an icicle. No taste to it at all. Would you say it’s reasonable to cut off a baby finger to save your life? What use is a baby finger?”
Daren stares at his hands, snugly protected in his new gloves. Hands that seem detached. Insensible mitts. He can’t feel them through the layers of insulation. If he should decide to chew on one of his thickly padded thumbs, he doubts he’d even notice the grinding motions of his teeth.
There are a hundred names for desperation.
“You chew off your own hangnails sometimes, don’t you?” Lane says. “Is it that much of a stretch, any real sacrifice, to eat a toe? And what if it that toe were someone else’s? What would you do to survive?”
Daren tries to laugh, coughs instead. “Well, I don’t think I’d start by eating my snowshoes. Or my fingers.” He can’t for the life of him see where this conversation is leading, but he doesn’t think he likes it. He’s just getting carried along with it, a stick of wood in a river. He can’t think straight. Walking in circles, no snowshoes. His head feels like someone has taken a hammer to it.
“I mean would you eat a man to survive, though,” Lane presses him. “In the full face of God? Not much meat on a shinbone but it’ll do in a pinch. There’s a barrel of salt in the wagon.”
Daren stares at him. “What are you talking about?”
“I mean would you eat a man’s heart.”
Lane’s eyes meet Daren’s in a steady gray gaze. Steady gray waters that never break the surface of ice. No, Daren doesn’t think he likes this line of questioning at all. He starts to wish he’d called a tow truck. Gone back to Tahoe. Stayed in the bar. He doesn’t even know this guy. Just met him at The Forlorn Hope in Truckee.
“What I mean, friend, is that maybe you’ve already eaten a man’s heart. Maybe you’ve eaten it and you don’t know it. Chewed it up and spit it out like a clot of blood on the snow.” Lane looks intently at him now. His eyes are an unrelenting gray that stretch on and on. Nothing to relieve them, just endless gray days with no end, no relief party in sight.
“Or maybe,” he says, “you didn’t eat that heart yourself. Just stood by and watched while that same man got desperate enough, despairing enough, to eat his heart himself. Think of him out here. Everything he loves a frozen waste. The wind in the trees sounds just like a woman’s cries. There’s no one here to listen, though.”
Even the angels are lost in the snow.
There are a hundred names for desperation . . .
Lane’s attention turns back to the road and he is silent.
Daren finds himself staring at the man’s boots, at the scuffmarks on them. The soles are worn down to the nubs. He finds himself thinking about where these boots have been all this time before he met up with the man wearing them. He thinks about what rough trails they have taken. How he’d come by the frozen mud and pine needles embedded in the treads. What trails do you walk, stranger?
The Long Trail. I walk the Long Trail.
Lane brakes, makes a sharp left turn off the highway onto a through road.
Daren grips the edge of the seat. “Where are we going?”
The Buick bounces over the icy road. There are no other vehicles out here. The woods are full of ghosts. Moon shining on slabs of snow.
“Lane, I think we’d better—”
“Sometimes you just want to get in your car and drive as far as you can go, don’t you? See where the road takes you.”
They pick up speed. Hit a bump. Something rolls out from under Daren’s seat. He stares at it blankly a moment. It’s a distributor cap.
“They drew lots,” Lane says. “The Forlorn Hope. Lots to decide which one of them they were going eat.”
Daren picks up the distributor cap. Stares at it. His throat is so tight that he can barely choke out the words: “Where did you—did this come from my truck?”
“I got something for you there in the backseat. Been using it to keep my place.”
You don’t even know who he is, Daren thinks. But something whispers back. Don’t you? Don’t you know who he is?
“Look at the book, Daren,” Lane tells him. “See what kind of advice that great entrepreneur Lanceford W. Hastings had for the settlers heading west. It’s in there. All of it.”
Lane reaches behind him and in one measured movement dumps the book in Daren’s lap. The cover is disintegrating, a dusty brown with faded gilt letters. It smells like axle grease. Snowshoe laces. Barrel of salt. No. Something else—
Untried routes, uncharted territories.
Blackness fills in the edges of Daren’s vision. He sees Robyn Corliss on a shroud-bed of moss. Her bare hands look like shriveled winter vegetables half-buried in the earth.
“They couldn’t have known it then,” Lane continues flatly. “Could they? That the great Hastings Cutoff, the ambitious shortcut to California, had never been tried. Not even by Hastings himself. And every passing afternoon, the daylight grows fainter and fainter, like the last rays of dying winter light before the coffin lid is nailed shut.”
Daren sees them. The wagons. They’re coming out of the cold blue mountains. Shadows painted on the tops of their canvas hides, thin blue shadows like winter smoke. And the wagons look like human skulls, a row of empty skulls polished clean on that white, white plain of snow. And then he sees them. The settlers. Walking dregs more dead than alive. Men, women, children. Gaunt, starving, the rank stink of human flesh and charcoal in their mouths, the gangrenous pine trees clawing at their backs, tearing their consciences to shreds.
But there was nothing to eat. There’s nothing we could have done. You see that, don’t you?
No, nothing I could have done, Daren reminds himself. But it is his wife’s reasonable assertions that rewind through his thoughts. He thinks of the young woman who vanished into the white afternoon without a trace. Footsteps in the snow leading towards the mountains.
Buttons, bark, twigs, hangnails—
You’ve chewed off your own hangnails sometimes, haven’t you?
Daren opens the book. The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California. The pages stained and brown, autumn leaves, human hide. This is a living diary, the lines within like rutted wagon trails.
Do we go left, do we go right. Or do we go straight up, to God?
The page falls open to the thin rectangle of card Lane has been using to keep his place.
The Great Sierra Outdoors, Lake Tahoe
Daren Powell, Owner & Manager
Daren’s blood turns to ice.
“Where—where did you . . .” His voice trails off as he turns the card over. Hasty lead pencil smudges. Hasty, hasty, Hastings.
Drive W. on 80 to Soda Spr. Turn S at intersec. left at Donner Lake. Take first right through to Meadow Vista.
He stares at the words. His words.
“I found it in her coat pocket,” Lane says. So quietly Daren barely hears him. “When they brought her out of the mountains.”
The hand that grips the card trembles now and he’s sick, dear God, he’s sick.
“Lanceford W. Hastings.” Lane shakes his head. “There was a great writer of notes for you. An indiscriminate giver of directions. You know what his note to the Donners read when they found it stuck in some sage on the trail?”
Daren shakes his head. Numb. He’s numb. Can’t think—
“‘Two days, two nights, hard driving. Cross desert. Reach water . . .’ ‘Cross desert.’ Didn’t take but a moment for Hastings to write that. But he didn’t tell about The Great Salt Desert, how it was twice as wide as Hastings said it was, how they’d leave a third of their dying cattle, half their wagons, half their belongings back there in the desert. He didn’t tell how when they came out of it they’d be covered in a layer of glittering white salt dust, tongues so swollen they didn’t fit in their mouths.”
Daren stares at Lane. The man’s expression is unreadable.
“That’s what comes of not being explicit,” Lane says firmly. “That’s what comes of not being clear. People get lost out there, they can’t find their way back. They rely on their guides with their lives. The ones who’ll lead them through.”
A piece of Daren’s heart is breaking off, frozen, falling into a snowy mountain stream.
What can he say? That he’s sorry? How can he say these empty words to a man who has lost everything worth living for? There is nothing, nothing he can say, to wash this man’s sorrow away. No river in the world deep enough.
The silence becomes a ravine between them.
What is the taste of death? Salt, Blood, Loss, Hope?
Ask me what is the taste of a human heart, and it will be the same.
Ask me, friend. Ask me what it tastes like.
You should have seen the eyes of the ones that came back.
But did any of them . . . did any of them really come back? Daren wonders.
They drive on into the endless night.
• • • •
Another fifteen miles down the highway Lane turns off the engine, then the headlights. There are pine trees all around, knifed against the hills. The two men get out of the car, stand in the crunching snow. They’re in the middle of nowhere. Buried deep in the mountains.
Despite his North Face jacket, despite his All-Terrain gloves, Daren can’t seem to keep his teeth from chattering. Every breath of the rare, cold air is a razor blade.
Lane walks a ways down the highway to some unmarked spot. “This is where they found her,” he says. “When the snow melted.”
A short delay in the itinerary, Daren thinks. The intention being to retrace the secondary road back to the highway, to continue on with her life, her dreams. What dreams are these? There’s a sour taste in his mouth, a backwash of emotion, a sick wrench in his gut. We have no dreams. Not the Donners, not Lane, not Daren, not any of them.
Lane’s back is to Daren. He’s staring up at the mountains. The air crystallizes in front of him as he breathes. Daren can’t tell what he is thinking. It is bitterly cold. He is so tired. So sick. He wants to lie down in the snow. Just lie down in the snow, sleep . . . never wake up. Easier that way.
“There’s a cabin up there,” Lane tells him. “Old miner’s shack up the hill from where they found my Robyn. Been there since the beginning of time.” He turns. There’s a gun in his hand. It gleams silver in the moonlight.
Daren isn’t surprised. “You don’t need that,” he says. But it is not a plea for mercy. All the life has gone out of him.
“I know it,” Lane says.
“I’m sorry,” Daren whispers. He can’t help himself. “Dear God, Lane . . .” The words fall from his lips, unreadable runes, scattering into nothing. “I’m so sorry, I’m so, so sorry . . .“
Lane’s gray eyes are calm, dead. The salmon aren’t moving. Frozen in the stream.
“That makes two of us,” he says. He gestures with the gun. “Let’s go.”
• • • •
Someone has already beaten a trail through the hard rind of gleaming snow. Daren struggles through the deep drifts ahead of Lane Corliss. The scabby branches of the windblown pines whip across his face. Following the tracks of the snowshoe hare. It is almost as if he has been here before. A thousand times before. Almost . . .
Lane plunges behind him through the brittle crust of snow, reciting the names of the dead. Just a handful of names, strewn down the mountain like bones.
Viney Graves, Miomin Pike, Loithy Donner—
All of them gone. Angels in the snow.
Robyn Corliss, Lane Corliss, Daren Powell—
The man with the gun passes him, stops short.
Daren stops raggedly beside him, clutching his side.
They’re at the door to the cabin now, a rough pile of logs stacked on top of each other. It’s not all that far from the highway. But no one comes out here, not the rangers, not anyone. Not in the winter, when nothing lives except deep, deep within the dry brown roots.
Lane pushes in the door. Rusty hinges. No lock. No lights.
“After you.” He gestures with the gun.
There’s not much here. Four walls and a floor. A chair, a table, a bed, a lantern, kerosene. An iron cook stove, boxes of matches. Stack of new-chopped firewood piled to the ceiling in one corner. A man could live here all winter if he had to. Live off his stamina, live off his will to survive. That’s all he’d need. The will to survive.
Lane walks past Daren into the tiny room. Snow falls off his boots. Moonlight, cold and beautiful, pours in through the open door. On the table are packages wrapped in white paper. Lane picks one up. It’s small, light, delicate. Pale white toes in search of pearls . . .
Daren stares at it.
“They were labeled,” Lane tells him. “The parts they ate. Each arm, each thigh. Tied up in strips of shirts. Petticoats. Whatever they had. Just like Christmas presents. And they wrote the names of who was who on each so no one would have to eat their kinfolk.” His laugh is short, rueful. “Think of it. A world where no one would have to eat their kin.”
He sets the package gently on the table. Nothing stirs in those pale gray eyes. The salmon have long since made the journey to someone’s plate.
Daren stands frozen behind the straight-backed chair. He can’t seem to move.
“I was going to shoot you.” Lane’s voice echoes dry and hollow in the cabin. “Just in the foot. To keep you from trying to make it back to the highway. ‘Course, you’re thirty miles from nowhere, and this road’s been closed for a week. No phone reception but I think we know that, don’t we? It’s thirty below right now, dropping to forty below overnight, with no end in sight. You try to walk back in this . . . Well, let’s say the chance of survival is slight, with no hope of a rescue. You stay here, you might make it. If you melt some snow on the stove you’ll have plenty to drink. You could last all winter. That is, if you want to,” he whispers. “Only if you want to.”
The words reach Daren Powell from a long way away.
He’s thinking of a woman, stumbling through a blinding snowstorm. She’s trying to make it over the mountain pass, trying to make it through to him. But he’s given her the wrong directions. Now the snow is falling thicker and thicker. Snowflakes cling to her hair, to her eyelashes. She swirls away from him in the wind.
He blinks back tears and picks up the small white package labeled Erin’s heart.
His own heart cracks, breaks, falls; like chunks of ice in a river of sorrow. Still he sinks. His arms, his head, his world, sinks into the table mounded high with white-wrapped packages.
The red has seeped through. He presses the package to his lips, presses his wife’s heart to his mouth. The taste of her is just as he remembers, he’d know her with his eyes closed, and he’s drinking the life through the white paper, drinking the river, and it washes him clean, clean.
“Oh, Erin,” he whispers. I’m sorry, so sorry . . . But there is nothing that will wash his sorrow away. And he is carried away by the river, now, carried to the place where the salmon go . . . silver, and clean, and far away . . .
• • • •
There is nothing left to do here.
Lane Corliss walks out into the night. Stands still a moment, listening to the black silence that surrounds him. Then he turns and walks.
Behind him, he leaves the remains of a man. There is a heart in that man’s hands. Dead and frozen. Chunk of muscle, chunk of meat. A woman’s heart. Nothing more. The weight of his love in his hands.
Lane knows this weight well, for he has carried a package of his own these many months. The package is wrapped in the same plain white paper. But the paper is stained dark and brown as dry winter berries. It is light as air itself. Hardly a weight at all.
He hikes up the hill, through the drifts, through the trees. The cabin is a pine knot scab behind him.
There are, he knows, a thousand names for desperation, and a thousand ways to walk through this world. He has walked them all.
The gun drops from his hand, is lost in the woods. He trudges on. He is so tired, so tired, and it’s bitterly cold here. But he knows he will make it to his destination, wherever it lies.
Untried routes, uncharted territories.
Perhaps, they will say afterward, he had been climbing up to God.
Perhaps . . . in a kinder world.
High in the mountains, it begins to snow. Lightly, at first, then . . .
The serpent leaves a twisted track
It winds out through the snow
There is no spring underneath
The devil’s down below.
Down here in the Garden
There’s one thing left to eat
As long as you don’t drink the life
You only taste the meat.
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