Kathryn filled her backpack with the essentials: a few t-shirts and pairs of underwear, climbing shorts that didn’t get in the way, her shoes and harness, coils of thick rope. Her partner, Jake, was still asleep. In their seven years together, she had learned he could sleep through anything. The month before had been her birthday--thirty-two--and there were still cards lining the mantel. She left their little blue house in a Boston suburb the way she wanted to hold it: sun rising and rooms quiet, everything in its place.
First there was highway and then dirt road and then a camp in the woods, evidence of summer campers mowed under. It was September and they were all back in school. The place belonged to older women that weekend, there through an adult education center in Boston for a workshop called “Becoming an Outdoorswoman.” The name had made Kathryn laugh. “At least they’re trying,” her mother had said. If anyone was an outdoorswoman, it was Kathryn’s mother. She’d started rock climbing when she was in her twenties and made it her life’s work. Only recently had she slowed down -- this was the first time Kathryn was teaching an intro to rock climbing course without her.
As she drove down the long dirt road, it came back to her hard and full: she’d been in this place before. Some drawer of tucked-away memories sprang open. Multicolored friendship bracelets with frayed ends. The smell of warm pond they took on by fall. Faces of girls she’d sworn were long lost sisters and then never saw again. She was nine and the camp was called Kiwaba then. It was where her mother had gone. Such is the way in New England--even summer camps have legacies. Kathryn used to sneak out to the lake at night and think of her mother at her age, swimming in that same water. She never thought she’d be back, and there she was.
When she told Jake she was going away that weekend to teach the workshop, he was stirring a big pot of pasta sauce on a Wednesday night. Kathryn had discovered the affair the night before. So far, she hadn’t said anything.
“But I’m going to London next week for that conference,” he said, not looking up. “I thought this weekend was just you and me.”
The other woman, Iris, lived in London.
Kathryn chopped basil on a wooden cutting board in the shape of Massachusetts, a house-warming gift from the year before. She brought the knife down hard and quick, moving the blade over the pile of basil as she had watched Iron Chefs do on television. The smell was all grass and fresh and memories.
“I know, babe,” she said, sweeping the basil into her palm and sprinkling it over the sauce. “I was hoping for that, too. But we need the money and it could lead to other things for me--other gigs.”
He kissed her, tomato steam in their eyes, and smiled. “I guess I’ll survive,” he said.
Kathryn dipped a spoon into the sauce, tasted it and added salt. “No whores in the house,” she said, a line she’d used many times before.
They both laughed. Later, Kathryn would marvel over how he hadn’t even flinched.
He had forgotten to log out of his email before leaving to get a beer with the guys. From what Kathryn could gather, he and Iris had slept together at least once, and were planning to reunite on his upcoming trip. Iris closed her emails--every single one--with the words ‘missing you’ and a string of ellipses. The ellipses infuriated Kathryn. She hated their lingering faux sweetness, their flat allure. In those early seconds of discovery, a part of her was disappointed in Jake--of all the women he could have chosen to have an affair with, he picked someone who either didn’t know what a cliché was, or didn’t care.
Those seconds slipped into new ones. The wound was set and kept on opening, until she felt flayed and hanging by hook, a hunter’s prize kill. If she was glad for anything, it was that she was alone. No one could prove she’d fallen to her knees or stuck her head in the freezer. She went running. She read the emails again. Then she called her mother.
“I could kill him,” was the first thing she said.
But there was clarity after that, the kind of arrow-straight calm her mother was known for in crisis. “Let it lay for a few days,” she said. “What comes next won’t be pretty, whatever you decide. It shouldn’t be. But you’ve got to know how you feel going into it. Take off for a while and think it over. Go climb a mountain or something.”
In their family, they could say that line and mean it in earnest.
Kathryn frowned. “But then maybe he’ll feel--”
“Oh, to hell with how he feels,” her mother said. “He wasn’t thinking about your feelings when he went and slept with that tramp.”
Kathryn wiped her eyes with her sleeve. In the distance on her mothers’ end, she heard sawing and classical music--her father in his workshop. That Christmas, he’d given Kathryn and Jake a coffee table he made from cherry and ash.
Her mother shuffled papers. “I think I’ve got it,” she said, more to herself than to Kathryn. “I think I’ve got just the thing.” The outdoorswoman workshop.
The organizers had contacted her mother weeks before and she had turned them down. “The scheduling just wasn’t right,” she said, and Kathryn didn’t press it. She was annoyed her mother hadn’t referred them to her from the beginning but didn’t press that, either. One hour, one phone call, and it was done. The director was a friend.
“Are you sure you’ll be okay tonight?” her mother asked, afterwards. “Why don’t you come and stay with us, sleep in your old bed.”
Kathryn refused. “I’m a big girl,” she said, and ended the call. With the phone down and the house quiet, she put her feet up on the coffee table. The computer glowed in the other room. She picked up the phone again, scrolled through to her parents’ home number and put it back down. She thought of what she hadn’t said and only she knew.
At nine weeks, a fetus has fingers. By three months, babies grin at their hands. Here is Kathryn at ten months old, wrapped in a sling and pressed up against her mother. They are facing boulders in the woods. It must be autumn because the leaves are changing or changed, falling or fallen, and Kathryn is wearing a hat. It’s scratchy and smells of long storage but she doesn’t smell that, she smells mother. Mother reaching out and saying feel this, baby. Their hands are two white stars on gray rock. The outlines would make good cave paintings. Kathryn learns smooth. She learns rough.
Kathryn’s red fleece has the words ‘Becoming an Outdoorswoman, New Hampshire, 2011’ stitched onto the chest in white thread. She wore it to the orientation out of obligation. Over fifty women gathered on the hill, waiting for the instructors, all wearing t-shirts with the same message printed on the front. Kathryn thought they looked desperate.
But desperate wasn’t a word she was supposed to use. These women were Amazons, there to master skills, skin knees and not care, roar into the deep forest. “Make them feel like warriors,” her supervisor had said. “I want to see fifty warriors getting into their cars come Sunday evening.” Kathryn scanned the crowd and smiled. The ones who smiled back misunderstood. She imagined them as saggy throw pillows, strewn across the hillside, deep wrinkled and soft and worn in.
It was a strange feeling to be full-grown in a place she’d known at nine. On that very hillside, she and her bunkmates sat back-to-back and sang camp songs. At night, there was always a fire and stargazing.
Once, she found a dead field mouse in the grass. She buried it beneath her cabin in a painted box.
Kathryn’s belly fluttered. A sign of life. She wasn’t sure if this was real or imagined.
Field mouse paws are padded and flesh colored. Their tiny nails leave pin pricks on palm skin. Expert burrowers, they can dig vast grids underground and hold nuts like soup bowls. They have fingers. They have toes. They have fingertip-sized hearts. That field mouse was the first dead thing she’d ever held. It was the size of a balled up macaroni necklace, its limp tail draped over her wrist.
Kathryn scanned her roster. Only three women registered for her class, but because of the family connection, the powers-that-be gave it the go-ahead anyway. The names were perky and single-syllabic. Marge. Barb. Pat. Kathryn made predictions: Birkenstock wearers with potters’ hands, Cambridge types, lesser imitations of her mother. Anyone who thought she could become an outdoorswoman in three days would have to be.
After introductions and impassioned rally cries which repeated the post-retreat-warrior-promise, the group assembled in front of her. Marge was man-tall--six feet at least--and had the kind of voice that would carry in a crowded room. Beside her was Barb: heavy kneed in too-tight shorts, hands most comfortable in her pockets. And lastly Pat: the kind of person who would fit neatly into a box, a fast talker with silver rings on most fingers. They watched the other women disperse. In one quick, shared glance, they communicated what appeared to Kathryn to be politely guarded apprehension. The only person Kathryn could communicate with that way was her mother. Sometimes she felt more like a sister than a mother; sometimes she felt like a twin. Kathryn wondered if her mother already knew about the pregnancy, even though she hadn’t told her. In a way, she hoped so.
It was early summer when the arthritis diagnosis came through. It did not come as a surprise. For months, her mother’s fingers had been slow to bend and grip. The knuckles on her middle and ring fingers on both hands went from tender to swollen, and the swelling wouldn’t go down. She didn’t stop climbing, but the purple bruises on her elbows and hips spoke of secret falls. Kathryn and her father worried together but not to her face. They thought--they hoped--that maybe she’d find a way to keep going. What was she if not a fighter, a never-take-no spitfire, a constant climber? She didn’t want Kathryn, her husband, or anyone tagging along to keep watch. She didn’t want gloves or medications that might cotton ball her mind. Any concern was an insult, deeply felt. Once, when Kathryn left an article about arthritis care on her mother’s dresser, she called, irate. “It makes you happy now that I’m struggling, doesn’t it?” her mother said. “You can swoop right in and be better.” And then: “Do you know how long I’ve been waiting for you to grow up?”
“She’s just going through something,” her father said, later, when Kathryn called him in tears. “She doesn’t mean it, honey. I know she doesn’t mean it.” Something in his voice turned a light on in Kathryn’s head. Of course he’d been a target too. She felt guilty and childish and wronged. What she wouldn’t say to him, or anyone, was that her mother was right.
Afterwards, Kathryn turned off her phone. She slept close to Jake, her head on his chest right through until morning. He was supportive in a sketched-in way--saying the things he was supposed to, giving her space when she needed it. He made calzones. Taking her pill slipped her mind for one day, two, three--it didn’t matter. She gave herself up to whatever would come. Her mother was her tether and she felt fine floating away.
But one afternoon a week later, there was a knock at her door. Behind it was her mother with a deep cut along her hairline and oversized pupils, a blood-soaked rag in her hand. She was still wearing her climbing clothes and harness. “I fell,” she said.
Later, Kathryn couldn’t remember rushing through her house from room to room in search of a towel, her keys, a sweatshirt for her mother, who looked so small in the threshold, rag to her head. She didn’t remember filling a bottle with water or the drive to the hospital. She didn’t even remember the question her mother asked in the car, something about how long to let a turkey rest before carving, or the answer she gave.
She remembered only snapshots: coming home afterwards and seeing the light on in her living room, two heads--her father and Jake--in silhouette. They knew about the concussion, the stitches, the fall, but Kathryn didn’t recall telling them. That night, the men both slept in the living room, one on either couch, in sleeping bags meant for the backcountry. She remembered how it wasn’t a question, how she and her mother slipped into her bed, the way they breathed together for a while with the light on and found each other’s hands beneath the sheets.
The instructions were to open with icebreakers--two truths and a lie, trust falls, that kind of thing. Kathryn moved the group far enough into the woods that she wouldn’t be seen not doing this. She wasn’t the icebreaker type. The women, though, were eager to talk about themselves, as Kathryn had learned most people were. She was right about the pottery. They all threw, as they called it, and had met in a class at the adult education center the previous year.
“So tell us about you,” Marge said, putting an arm around Kathryn.
"You’re really very pretty,” Pat said. “Doesn’t she look just like Ali McGraw?”
Marge brought down her arm. Kathryn took a step back from the group. She filled the air between them with facts, like how many years she’d been climbing (twelve) and the number of continents where she’d scaled mountains (three). The women smiled but their eyes glazed over. Kathryn continued. “The plan is to spend today learning the lingo, getting you guys fitted with gear, maybe doing some bouldering. Tomorrow we’ll start climbing for real and then Sunday’s the big day--a multi-pitch climb at Crow Hill. How does that sound?”
Marge leaned in, fake whispering. Her height was disorienting. “Enough of the fancy talk,” she said. “Are you married? Dating anybody?”
“You are, aren’t you?” Marge continued, her thin lips pulled into a big smile. She had a chipped front tooth. “Who? Guy, girl, whatever. We don’t care, do we girls?”
The others shook their heads. “Oh no,” Pat said, ringed fingers glinting. “Love is love.”
Kathryn looked down. There had been a time in her life when she liked to count how many different living things she could find in a one-foot-square patch of forest ground. “Not married,” she said, grabbing the base of a stalk of Queen Anne’s lace. It came up easy, pale root dangling from her hand.
“It looks just like a carrot,” Pat said, surprised.
Kathryn snapped it in half and the women leaned in.
“It smells like one too,” Marge said.
“Daucus carota,” Kathryn said, rubbing the halved root with the sleeve of her outdoorswoman fleece. “Wild carrot.”
She took a bite and the women’s eyes widened. It was almost too easy.
Inside Kathryn there were two possibilities growing: the fetus alive and the fetus dead. She caught herself thinking about birth and how afraid of it she was, those smeary-eyed babies, the pain even her mother called “serious.” She caught herself wondering if it would have black hair or blonde, how early it would take to rock face. Always “it.” But then she was able to detach whatever cord was growing and recall her friend’s description of abortion. For a few minutes it’s uncomfortable and then it’s fine. Another “it.” A safer “it.” Either way it broke her heart.
Jake had a swimmer’s back, bulged out quads like a soccer player, callused climber’s hands and a rugged-but-boyish, Patagonia-catalogue face. He was able to pick up any sport with little effort, was everyone’s first pick for the team. He was righteous, curious, young. She loved him tight, loved him close. She was so tender, so soft in this one way that the rest of her had hardened around it.
Sometimes she wondered if he loved her mother more than her. His own mother passed away when he was twelve. His father moved to Arizona with a new woman after he left for college, had three new sons. The cards he sent were heartfelt, the checks generous, but he couldn’t spare the time to visit or host Jake at the house. It was one of those situations. Jake didn’t talk about it much with anyone. The one time he broke down to Kathryn, she rubbed his back in circles and some secret, small part of her opened up giddy, like she’d won. “I feel like I don’t exist to anybody,” he told her. “Anybody but you.”
Her mother always held her arms open to the lost ones. Jake had watched her hang from holds, jam and crimp and mantle and scuz, all those moves she’d taught Kathryn, and there, on his face, was mother love. It didn’t bother Kathryn. It made sense. She loved her mother more than her too.
Now, she relaxed, facing rock. They were down by the lake where there were a few boulders with a low gradient and good texture, the kind of thing her mother could walk up without using her hands. Kathryn thought: maybe there’s a way to keep her climbing.
“The most important thing to remember is that all the power’s in the legs,” she said, hands chalked and gripping a hold big and sturdy as a door handle. Her feet were spread beneath her and bent at the knee. “If you’re always pulling with your arms, you’re doing it wrong.”
The women, huddled beneath her, said, “Ah.” But they weren’t really listening. Pat produced a wand of lip-gloss and they took turns trying it on and complimenting each other.
“It was my daughter’s favorite kind,” Pat said, turning the tube over in her hands.
If Kathryn had heard the comment, that “was,” she would have picked up on what the others already knew.
Marge broke the small silence. “I just can’t get over this air,” she said, linking her arm with Pat’s. “Isn’t it just the freshest air you’ve ever breathed?”
That Kathryn heard. She rolled her eyes and kept climbing.
“How are you doing up there?” Pat called, no trace of weight in her voice.
“When you get down we have some lip-gloss for you to try on,” one of the others said.
Kathryn switched the positioning of her feet in one swift movement and looked down. There’s a limit to how high you should climb without ropes and Kathryn had reached it. “I don’t wear lip gloss,” she said, looking up again.
Happy women hooted elsewhere.
“You make it look easy,” Barb offered.
A deep crack pulled Kathryn higher--a black seam in the rock face six feet or so in length and just wide enough for a hand jam. She placed a flat palm inside the crack, made a fist, twisted. If she wanted to, she could hang from that one arm as her mother had, years before, to demonstrate the integrity of the move. “Now this is a power position,” her mother had said, dangling against the gray rock as if from some hidden mouth.
She saw her mother’s long arms, smelled the chalk-sweat-dirt-mother smell of her shoulders after they’d gone climbing together. Arthritis was no death sentence, she knew, but it changed things. Every time she thought of those swollen knuckles, she was reminded that however much you love your mother, however much she loves you back, she leaves. Something slipped inside of her and then her feet followed suit. All there was: a cool shaded wet fist and her cheek up against rock, kicked-off gravel scattering and her own voice: a yelp.
“Jesus,” one of the women yelled.
“Are you okay?” called another. Kathryn couldn’t tell who was who. Her heart raced. For a moment, she just hung there, breathing.
A climbers’ ascent is measured in moves. There’s a rhythm to it, a dance. That’s what Jake called it when he was trying to be cute. “I’m going dancing,” he’d say, feet bare, two fingers hooking beat-up climbing shoes. She regained control and danced her way down, shaken but doing her best impression of the opposite.
“You really gave us a scare,” Marge said, both hands on her hips and lips shiny with gloss. It was the type of scolding her mother had never given her.
Kathryn shrugged. “Oh, it was nothing. Just tweaked my shoulder.” Her heart kept racing.
“You didn’t have any ropes,” Pat said.
Barb blinked. “We’ll have ropes, won’t we?”
Kathryn assured them that they would. “You couldn’t be safer,” she said, which was a lie. There was always an element of danger in climbing, ropes or no ropes. It was part of why she loved it so much.
Pat put a hand on the small of Kathryn’s back and made some suggestions for the shoulder. “My husband’s a doctor,” she said, as though it made her qualified.
“Oh, don’t worry about me,” Kathryn said, looking back up at that crack in the rock. There was no telling how deep it went. “I’m fine.”
That night, Kathryn chose to sleep in her tent rather than on a cot in a cabin with the on-their-way-to-becoming-outdoorswomen. She wasn’t the only instructor to do this. But she was the only one who unzipped her tent, once the place had gone quiet, and crept to the lake, peeled off her clothes, and dove. The lake was cold as hose water. Her feet skimmed the bottom stones, smooth and slimy. Her mother had taught her that water always found its level. She floated on her back and wondered how much higher the lake got with her in it.
And then without came. Without stayed. She found a place where fear and calm held each other up and stroked through it until her body ached. Talking it out, working it through--a ripple on a lake top, lap swimming.
The next day, the women wore red lipstick. “I felt like we needed a little vavoom,” Pat said.
“A little pizzazz,” Marge added, puckering.
Barb looked uncomfortable but grateful to be included.
Kathryn had coordinated with the grounds staff to have some gym mats placed at the bottom of the boulders, and there they were--blocks squaring the round and irregular, primary colors against the muted shades of woods and earth. Sunfish sails flashed through the trees, and splashing could be heard nearby. Kathryn recalled her swim from the night before. She was tired and sore.
“It’s like primary school,” Pat said, jumping up and down on a blue gym mat and then falling over for effect. The other women laughed in an obligatory way. Pat’s glee was wearing thin. It bothered Kathryn that she would be the best climber. The petite ones almost always were.
“So this morning we’re just getting used to the rock,” Kathryn said. “Think of it as a good first date: a little flirting, some petting, maybe a kiss. Nothing too serious.” It was a line she’d stolen from her mother. All the playful bits in her beginning climbing routine were her mother’s.
Marge raised an eyebrow.
“See?” Pat said, raising her head from the mat, her stringy loose bun flopping forward into her eyes. “I told you guys she had a sense of humor.”
Marge and Barb shot her looks.
“What?” Pat said, sitting up.
Kathryn laughed in the way she was accustomed to when something hurt her feelings. Marge and Barb looked relieved. Pat, oblivious, smiled sweetly.
“Let’s start with something simple,” Kathryn said, turning to face the boulders. She stepped up to the rock and found two handholds overhead, a shelf for her feet to rest on as big as a cellar stair. “Try just getting all your weight on here and holding it for a second,” she said, demonstrating. “You have to get used to giving over to the rock, really committing to it.” She let go and stepped back onto the mat. She shook out her hands, which still stung.
The positioning was too compact for Marge, whose six-foot frame folded out at the joints, knees bent well beyond a healthy give. Pat, of course, got it immediately, confident enough to let go with one hand and wave. Even this small exercise was a challenge for Barb, whose arms shook as she held herself up. “I’m not sure how well I’m going to take to this,” she said, after, wiping her hands on her shorts and sliding them back into her pockets. Her cheeks were flushed.
Next, Kathryn added a move to the first position, then another. She had hoped that by lunch they would be able to work across the entire bottom of the boulder in one go. That did and did not happen. Their personal outcomes were evident in the way each woman approached her bagged lunch. Marge and Pat tore through their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as if the boulder they’d climbed added up to a whole mountainside. “We get to go up higher with ropes next, right?” Pat asked. Barb frowned into her paper bag. She unfolded the tin foil from her sandwich as if it were a precious thing, tore off little bits of the bread and chewed cow-slowly. Kathryn felt sorry for her. It had been a long time since she’d felt sorry for anyone other than herself.
There was a pile of rocks on the table beside her bed. A black river stone from New Zealand. Agate from Oregon. A garnet the color of blood from a deep cut. All gifts from Jake. Wherever he went, he brought home a rock for her. Her favorite was a piece of white quartz he’d picked up on a Cape Cod beach just after they moved in together. It looked like the fossilized dinosaur eggs she’d seen in museums. “I have one, too,” he’d said, and opened his palm. That night, he’d turned off all the lights in the house and told her to hit her rock against his. Kathryn missed. She tried again. There was a spark of dim greenish light. She hit again. Another, brighter spark. The stone warmed in her hand. They made such a clean sound on contact, like pool balls. “Keep going,” he said. The whole room flashed. It was just the two of them there. They made enough light to see each other in the dark.
Kathryn excused herself to make a phone call. There was a patch of lawn by the parking lot where she knew cell service was good. She sat there cross-legged, behind a line of pick-up trucks. Along with smoking and drinking, making phone calls was strictly forbidden unless it was an emergency.
Jake answered on the third ring. “What’s wrong?” he said.
Kathryn picked up a piece of gravel. “Nothing,” she said, turning it over in her hand. “Everything’s fine.”
“Okay,” he said. In the background, a voice on an intercom said something about final boarding.
She let the piece of gravel drop. “Are you at the airport?” she said. “I thought you didn’t leave until Monday.”
“They needed me there early,” he said. “Client stuff.”
Kathryn stood up. “On a Saturday?”
Geese flew overhead in a V. Kathryn heard the whoosh of their wings.
Jake coughed. “I’m sorry babe,” he said. “It is what it is.”
She let her head fall, took up a whole handful of gravel in her hand and started laying them out in some kind of order.
“Kathryn?” he said. “Are you there?”
Her eyes blurred with tears. “You should go,” she said, setting down one stone and then another and another. They made little clicking noises.
“Kathryn? I can’t hear you. You’re breaking up.”
She ended the call. Blinked. She had spelled ‘I’M PREG’ with pieces of pea-sized gravel. It was almost impossible to tell, with the gray stones on top of gray stones and the scale, but she knew the half-message was there. There was a smile and then a grin and then stop-and-start laughter. She let her hands fall forward onto the ground. A tear dripped from the tip of her nose. Her stomach sloshed. She picked up a pebble--the top of the ‘I’--and put it in her mouth. She swallowed.
Back at the boulders, the women were lying on the mats, looking up at the sky and chatting. Some part of Kathryn wanted to lie there beside them and let the afternoon be that: cloud counting. But her life had spun out beyond the pleasures of a nine year-old. She had real pain, real problems. The sight of them there, in that arrangement, on those mats, was a postcard from the kind of charmed life that wasn’t hers. The stone she swallowed settled in her stomach--or was that the first kick, the first reaching out? It was too early. It was too late.
“Let’s go,” she said. “Break’s over.”
The women raised their heads. It was like watching prairie dogs surface, three at a time. Pat and her obnoxious bun. Marge and her puppet limbs. Barb and her doughy, doughy knees. That afternoon, they learned how to belay and ascend and repel. Repelling--that was the hardest thing for every person, every time. There’s something unnatural about being high up and leaning back from a surface you’ve learned how to cling to, letting the rope and person lowering you from below control your slow fall to the ground. They each struggled with the idea, even Pat, who likened the experience to being in a bad sex swing in her loud, showy way. Barb, heavier in her mind than she was in real life, went through it embarrassed. And Marge--she came down like a tentacled thing you’d pull from the ocean, all long limbs and twitches, curls.
“I think that’s enough for today,” Kathryn said, her shadow long against the blue mat. The women nodded. Their hands were dirty, shorts creased where their harnesses had been. Kathryn coiled the ropes around her left hand and elbow as fast as she knew how. Her tent was a far-off sanctuary. Maybe she’d call her mother.
“Why don’t you join us for dinner,” Barb said, yanking off her climbing shoes. The others nodded.
“We didn’t see you at the barbecue last night,” Marge added. “It’d be fun.”
“Oh come on,” Pat said. “What else are you going to do? We can’t be that bad, can we?”
Kathryn shifted her weight. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she said, too tired, now, to pretend otherwise.
Barb nodded and started to walk away but Pat pulled her back into the group. “What’s that supposed to mean?” she said.
Kathryn’s cheeks flushed. The weight of her circumstances bore down at every joint, on every pore. She felt like she might explode.
Pat frowned. “Well?”
“Come on,” Barb said quietly. “Let’s go get cleaned up. We’re all tired.”
“I want to hear what she has to say,” Pat said. “Don’t you?”
Marge was with her. Barb just hung her head.
Kathryn gave a pitying laugh. “It means I don’t like you and I don’t want to spend any more time with you than I have to. It means I’m done for the day. It means I’m going through things you wouldn’t understand. I’m done,” she said. “I’m tired.”
The women stared back at her, open mouthed. Pat surged forward. “You’re going through something that I wouldn’t understand?” she said, tears in her eyes. “Seriously?” Marge and Barb grabbed either arm. Behind Kathryn’s stone-faced expression, she was pleased by this reaction. She hadn’t anticipated it. She didn’t consider what Pat was saying or what it meant. Later, she would be ashamed.
“Calm down, Patsy,” Marge said, her eyes fixed coldly on Kathryn. She and Barb led her away.
Kathryn walked back to her tent. The fight didn’t stay with her. Her one worry was her pay. They couldn’t withhold it from her, she reasoned, as she set up her stove. Rice and beans for dinner, a tucked-away flask of whisky for dessert. One sip couldn’t hurt. Or however many. It would burn and that was the point. She prepared her meal methodically and ate alone, watching the sky fill with stars.
Just like before, come night quiet, Kathryn unzipped her tent and stepped out into the dark. Even though her body was tired, craving rest, she couldn’t calm her mind. A walk was all she needed, she told herself. Just down to the lake and back. She took a path that cut close to the cabins and wondered which one had been hers as a girl. Somewhere inside she’d scratched her name with an old nail.
It was the cigarette smoke she smelled first, before she spotted the outline of a person on the path in front of her, muttering as she closed in.
“Look, I know. I know. I’m not supposed to--”
It was Pat.
She looked different in this light, all of her day energy swept off, ringed fingers holding tight to her cigarette.
“Kathryn,” she said.
They stood facing each other for a moment.
“I was just going for a walk,” Kathryn said. “Down to the lake.”
Pat took a drag off her cigarette. Smoke tusked from her nostrils. The woods around them sang with frog chirps and crickets. Kathryn could just make out the sounds of cars on the highway. It felt like weeks since she’d driven away from Jake and their blue house. Her hand made its way to her belly without her realizing. Something kept her there on the path. She wasn’t sure what.
Pat half-smiled. “Want some company?”
“Let me go tell the other girls,” Pat said. “I told them I was just going out for a quick smoke. I don’t want them to worry.”
She walked back towards the cabins and blended into the woods. Kathryn was tempted to go ahead on her own. She started to pace. It would be so easy to leave Pat behind. She’d never know the way on her own and that would be that. Still something kept her there.
Pat returned with the other two in tow. “I hope it’s okay,” she said. “They wanted to come too.”
Marge and Barb stood in sandals and checked flannel pajamas, faces scrubbed pale. Kathryn scanned the woods. “We might get in trouble,” she said.
“Oh whatever,” Pat said, shrugging. “Isn’t this what outdoorswomen do?”
With Kathryn in front and the other three huddled behind her, they made their way down the path. The sky was blue black. Pine needles crunched beneath their feet.
“There,” Kathryn whispered, pointing. “You can see the lake now.”
The lake was a silver shimmering line broken up by straight black trunks. Evergreens. They were coming up on the boulders and their mats.
“Let’s stop here,” Barb said, her voice a whisper. They sat where they liked, each on a different part of the mat. Pat, who had finished her first cigarette somewhere on the trail, lit another. Kathryn produced the flask she had tucked into her waistband and passed it around. Nobody said anything for a while.
“I lost my daughter,” Pat said, passing the flask back to Kathryn. “Last year, this time. Cancer.”
Kathryn let all the breath out of her lungs. Their face-off that afternoon played back in her head. She brought her hands to her lap and held them there. “Oh,” she said, looking down. Marge and Barb kept their eyes on Pat. Kathryn passed the flask on to Marge without taking a sip.
Pat studied her cigarette, took another drag. She signaled for the flask and Marge gave it to her. Her swallow was slow, her smile after genuine. “So,” she said, passing the flask back to Kathryn. “What’s yours?”
And right there in those woods beside those stones and with those women Kathryn told them everything. The words spilled out of her in a way that made her feel as though she were witnessing the scene from above. She told them about Jake and his affair, about her mother and her fear of being without her. She said she wouldn’t know how to breathe, that her father would just crumble. She told them about her world and how she felt like it was ending, how even climbing didn’t bring her home. She told them about the baby.
First Barb came to sit beside her. Then Marge. Then Pat. They formed a circle on the old blue mat. The moon was full enough to cast shadows and theirs was one multi-peaked splotch, a sloppy landscape of some new and foreign place. Kathryn felt their body heat, smelled pine and Pat’s cigarette. Her eyes adjusted well enough that the night seemed bright as dusk. The boulders were covered in lines she hadn’t noticed before. They looked like veins. They looked like a map.