As she tumbles down the jagged mountainside, I see her bend in extraordinary ways. A rent arm here, a dislocated clavicle there. I look down at the path where moments before she had stood beside me, then at the willowy pine that stops her fall. It shudders on impact, scattering snow from its quills in a circle around the trunk and over her body.
She doesn’t move.
“Claudia!” I hop over the railing, feet sliding on the snowy incline. I take my precious time in choosing my steps, though the darkening sky presses upon every moment. Hurry, don’t hurry. Hurry.
I slide down beside her, using a nearby tree for support.
“Claudia, what happened?”
She is curled fetal around the trunk, one arm stretched out, a snow angel’s broken wing. Her gloves were torn off in the fall. The fresh sprinkled snow lays white over that below, like blood over old scars. When I touch her swelling face, a scraped eyelid lifts.
“Stop yelling,” she says. “I’ve got a splitting headache.”
It strikes me in the silence that follows that she used “splitting” for my benefit, a verbal tic plucked straight from an Austen novel. Humor by juxtaposition. It strikes me, also, that she hasn’t moved anything below her collarbone.
“Wriggle your toes,” I say.
“Adam.” She gives me a look, the one she uses on her freshmen students in her lectures on logic. I liked to sit in the back sometimes and watch the students squirm, reveling in the knowledge I would never face her professorial gaze.
Perhaps I spoke too soon.
“Wriggle your fingers.” I stroke her hand, probing the frozen bones.
“I can’t.” She is quiet a moment, motionless. Though really, who knows what kind of exertion is going on under the surface? She could be dancing a jig in her mind, or ramming my nose in, everything registering on the synaptic level. But paralysis has found a way to silence her as my arguments never could.
“Adam, I have class on Monday.”
“Don’t move.” I press her fingers between my palms, hold them avalanche-still. “Don’t try to move. Moving will just hurt you more.”
I don’t tell her it could be worse. I don’t say, as I increasingly fear, she may never move again. What was that she called it? Jumping to conclusions.
Besides, who am I to say she won’t recover? What do I know of anatomy, medicine, mountain climbing, power of will?
The angles of her limbs appall me.
Her fingers tense around my hand when I reach for my pocket, the muscles constricting in confused knots as they strain over their injuries.
“I think I need to call somebody,” I say, taking my phone out.
I ignore her, glancing at my phone. No bars. Of course. You chose the most remote mountain in the U.S. for your vacation, ergo… “Listen. I’m going to have to climb back up to the path to make the call.”
I pat her hand, but she doesn’t let go.
“How long?” she asks, though not casually. As if her life depends on it. I remember finding her last week—only last week?—after her talk with the dean. He’d talked with me too, all but begged me to take her away for a weekend, a month, a semester. When I’d asked what was wrong, he’d brushed it away, though he’d explained in no uncertain terms she was “in danger of losing her position.” Stronger wills than mine might have pressed further. I had a different strong will to deal with.
I entered her office, feeling the part of a trespasser. She lay buried behind a white Everest of papers, red hair unraveling from her neat bun. She’d glanced up when I opened the door, her face like a photo whose development is interrupted by a shred of light. Premature. Stunted. Half-formed.
The air was supposed to do her good.
I let go of her hand, turned my back on her.
“Hurry,” she calls as I pick my way up the delicate slope. Instead, I choose each step more carefully, not wanting to join her in her fate. Hurry, don’t hurry. Hurry. Don’t.
The sunlight is fading by the time I return down the mountain, shadows slipping underfoot. I blunder around in the darkness, sure and yet not so sure I am coming down the same mountain. There are ways to tell which way is north, what time of day it is. There is moss, growing on one side or the other of a tree, the sun off-center of its apex. But how does one, when confronted by wilderness, locate an injured lover?
“Claudia?” I yell. No answer. She could at least answer, let me know where she is. Even a paralytic could do that.
There is the tree, crooked against the sunset. I don’t need her help after all. There is her face, cheek down in the snow, her arm (and every other part of her) unmoved.
“Claudia.” Underneath my hand, she stirs, eyelids fluttering open.
“Did you call them?”
“Yes. You’re still alright.” My words don’t curve at the end as they ought to, to form a question. Perhaps because I know the answer. She’s worsening; even I feel certain saying that, her eyebrows bulging. Lips blue, and not just from the cold.
“Adam, how did I fall?”
I stoop down, trying to peel some of the frozen hair off her face.
“You don’t remember?”
“I remember standing on the edge. Looking for something.”
We’d come here for a couple’s retreat. I’d planned it, knowing how much she hated spontaneous trips. She’d told me so on several occasions. And each time I’d plucked her from her lecture stool, thrown her over my shoulder and carried her off anyway. She needed to get out of that office, away from the school email.
She’d outwitted even me, though, with this mountain escapade. Dragged me out in the swirling snow that ought to be ambience, not experience. We packed for a spa, not a hike out in air so frostbitten it hallucinated the Milky Way. On a clear night, you could see Venus. We hadn’t come all this way to see stars, though.
“What were you looking for?” I ask.
“I—I don’t remember.” She manages to pull her hand from under her. Touching it to her head, she feels for the first time the gash, too frozen now to bleed. “Why aren’t they here, Adam?”
The medic on the phone had said forty minutes. It’s been fifty-two.
“We’re pretty high up,” I say. “There’s not a building in sight. It could be hours.”
“There’s a cabin over there.”
She tries to point toward the darkening east. Needle quill trees point out from the ashen landscape, stitching the patchy horizon back to the sky.
“It’s there, somewhere. I saw it.”
I nod my head, give her my most convincing believer face. If she says there’s a cabin, there is one. Let the logicians figure that one out.
“It hurts.” Her face lies half smashed against the snow, half taut with pain. Unbalanced, like a stroke victim’s. “What am I supposed to do for hours?”
“Try singing.” I say.
Though I can’t see her face through the dark, nor feel it move below my hand, I know she’s glaring. We have an unspoken code. Not body language, exactly. Someone looking from the outside might think nothing had happened. It’s a look over steamed coffee, eye contact during a lecture. I’d glance at her, make her pause in her lecturing. By the end she’d be glowing, even if nobody else noticed. So much of a person seems paralyzed, until you know them.
“You have a pretty voice,” I say. I hear nothing, feel nothing, and that nothing tells me so much. We haven’t had a moment like this in months, and sitting here, I think, perhaps this is good for us, freezing our extremities off, too numb to let words or movement get in the way of what we have to say. I know by her silence she feels it, too.
Or maybe that’s just paralysis.
I hear something: a sob, a sniff, a leaky bagpipe. Bending down, I almost miss her trying, trying to sing with what air she has.
“Just hear those sleigh bells ring-a-ling, ting-ting-tingling too.” She grows louder, more confident. “Come on it’s lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you. Giddy-up, giddy-up, giddy-up let’s go. Hmm, Hmm, Hmm.” She hums out the rest. She couldn’t keep a song in her head if her life depended on it. I shiver with the morbid thought that, in this instance, it just might.
“Adam,” I hear the exhaustion in her voice. “Do you love me?”
“Of course I do.”
“Then why did you let me fall?”
“What?” I laugh. She’s always had a twisted sense of humor. Half her students come out of her lectures appalled, the other half ready to report her to the dean. It’s happened more than once. She can always reason her way out, though. Come up with an excuse. She knows the ethical codes, backward and forward. Knows the fault lines. Knows the weak points.
Maybe that was my first hint of something off.
“You let me step up on the rail,” she says. “You let me lean forward.”
“I tried to stop you.”
“You didn’t even help me.”
“I tried to steady you. I put my hand on your back.”
“And pushed.” The words hang, muffled by snow. Then, she laughs, delayed like she’s missed her own punch line. “Oh, what am I saying? I must’ve hit my head harder than I thought.”
I stare at her, shivering in the harsh wind like a needle on the verge of falling from the tree. I’d read the public announcement poster in the lodge, the ones about the dangers of mountain climbing. People could lose themselves up here, mental processes deteriorating till they don’t even know they’re dying. So how come I feel like I’m seeing her clearly for the first time?
There is no cabin. There isn’t even a logician here. Just a scared college professor and her bendable mind. And the man who can do nothing to help her.
“Adam?” She reaches for my face, pawing my chin. “It’s so cold.”
“Take my jacket.” I take it off and fling it over her. The wind creeps up my back, stinging like shackles where it touches my exposed skin, my wrists, my neck.
“But now you’ll be cold,” she says.
“You wanted my jacket.” I slam my frozen knuckles against the ground, and they bleed. “So there. Now you have it. What more do you want from me?”
“I want this to be over,” she cries. “It was never this cold before.” She lets out a little chuckle, dislocated, like her hip. “I used to want to live here, in the cabin. It was so fun on vacation in the summer. I guess I thought it would always be that way. But now, it’s just so cold. It’s too cold.”
I reach for my pocket self-consciously, feeling for the ring, then remember Claudia has my jacket. Fear paralyzes me—no other word will suffice—until I see her eyes close, hear her breathing settle. I relax; wait until she slumps against the snow, face no longer twitching, eyes no longer roaming side to side with dreams. When she is motionless, I reach my hand into the propped open pocket, careful not to disturb her. I feel the ring in my fingers, but as I pull out my hand, it slips and falls. I bend down, stomping my hands full force into the snow, though my skin’s already numb with cold. I can’t risk missing it, must find it, come frostbite and all else that follows.
It is gone.
Her breathing grows labored again, seeming loud against the muffled air. I put a hand on her side, but she doesn’t move.
“Claudia,” I whisper. “Claudia.”
“It’s cold,” she murmurs, and freezes.
“Claudia!” The wind rises, a flutter-flutter like a sickly heartbeat. The trees to either side of us bow low, and a dark spot challenges the moon. A helicopter’s floodlights trail us as it soars overhead, stays locked on our location as the aircraft lands on the path further up.
“Too late,” I rock back, wiping the melting snow from my forehead. Of course they’ve come now. Just my luck. Of course they’ve come just after the critical moment has passed.
A paramedic comes down the slope, rushing toward Claudia.
“You’re too late,” I intercept him. He shoves me out of the way with his medical pack, casts me aside like some rancid tumor residue. I charge after him, but another medic catches my arm, leads me up to the helicopter.
They give me a blanket, take my temperature, like I’m the one on the verge of a breakdown. Stop wasting your time, man. She’s the paralytic.
Hurry, don’t hurry. Hurry.
Claudia follows shortly, carried in on a stretcher. I try in vain to decipher the medical jargon the paramedics swap before the helicopter takes off. I can hear nothing after.
We rise off the mountainside, wind from the rotors and mountain air blasting my face. Looking out the open door, think I spy a cabin for one second in the shifting evergreens. Just a tiny thing, humble and hiding. I lean out of the copter, trying to get another look, but the paramedic snaps me back. No use, anyway. My chance of seeing it again is as slim as finding a ring in a mountain of snow.
Deborah Rocheleau is an English major, Chinese minor, and all-around language fanatic. Her writing has been published by Tin House, 100 Word Story, Flights, and the Boston Literary Magazine, among others.