SUSAN TAYLOR CHEHAK
What this man from the city doesn’t know to do is look up. His focus is on his feet. New boots on the old trail. Dirt. Shale. Weeds, shadows, flowers popping up all around him now because although there are still patches of snow on the ground, spring is in the air. His wife, up ahead, has gone her own way, but when she stumbles he’s right there at her elbow to catch her before she falls. He’s good at what he does, and what he does for her is be her husband. Constant companion. Caring and kind. Steady and strong. And yet she shrugs him off and moves on, angry with him for some reason he can’t know, because lately she’s mad at everyone. Everything. All the time. The air is warm with the heat of her rage.
She strides off ahead now, sure of herself and solid in her fury, and he feels the hot breath of summertime, maybe, waiting in the wings. But still, he doesn’t look up. Instead, he focuses on her back as she moves away from him. He considers letting her go on from here alone. It would be easy enough to just turn around. He can go back to the car. He can drive away and be done with it, with her, once and for all.
He pats his coat pocket, reassured. He slips out the silver flask, takes a sip and then a swallow. He smiles, warm and beaming like the sun itself, but he’s still not looking up.
He’s feeling the firs all around him swaying in the wind, but there isn’t any wind. He hears a rustle in the treetops. He sees the scat at his feet, but he doesn’t know enough to read it for what it is and what it’s there to tell him. Still, he does feel something, all right. A warning, like the touch of a fingertip to the back of his neck, a caress against his cheek, a thrill up his spine, the clench of his gut.
And yet, he’s not looking up into the tangle of the branches overhead, as his wife moves away from him, about to round the bend, about to disappear, until at last he’s moving too, hurrying now, to close the distance between them as best he can.
While high above them both, an amber eye watches and waits, aloof and unmoved. Ruddy tongue. Sallow fang. Chin on paws, sun-warmed and sleepy, the big cat lolls in the arms of a beetled pine.
This woman from the city is older than her husband, but not by much. Only a couple of years, which might seem like a lot or a little, depending on her behavior and his mood. The soft sag of her breasts, the fair hair going white, the crepe-papery look to her skin. He avoids his own reflection and strives to evoke instead the sense of his former length and strength, as if it might still be lurking there somewhere within him now. Their children are grown and gone. He is retired and has no authority anymore. No territory, no domain to call his own.
His foot slips on shale. He catches himself, regains his balance, and looks to see his wife trudging reliably on ahead. From where he stands she appears to be fading from his view, turning transparent, thinning into mist. She forgets things she’s done and said. She loses words. She looks at him with questions in her eyes. He waits for her to ask, “Who are you?” while she waits for him to tell her his name.
He can imagine her melting in his arms, like ice, thawed by his own heat, and he lets the thought come in now. He welcomes it. That he might be happier without her. That he might be better off alone.
But, no. As soon as he begins to consider the business of leaving her or of losing her, his heart quakes and his body buckles in pain. The sky throbs and the trees sway as his agony bleeds out over the bright patches of snow. He can’t live without her, or so he’s always supposed. But now he sees her moving away from him, not striding, exactly, but walking with more purpose, as if it’s her choice and nothing to do with him.
She’ll be the one to go, is what. He will stay. She will move on. He will be the one who’s left behind.
She’s getting smaller all the time, while he’s still the same oafish pile of skin and muscle and bone that he ever was. He wants to call out to her, but he bites his tongue.
Go ahead then, darling, he thinks. Tear yourself away. If you dare. If you can.
He feels like throwing a rock, aimed to hit her in the back or on the head. He thinks he’d like to see her reel and watch her fall. Or maybe what he wants to do is toss her up into the air, push her down a flight of stairs, drown her in a well, bury her in snow.
She’s gone out of sight around a bend now. He could turn away. He could go back and back and on from here, erasing what’s been the last, how many years? Forty-seven? Forty-eight? His brain gets tangled up in the arithmetic, but his feet keep moving, so instead of losing her now, he comes suddenly upon her, stopped in her tracks by the sight of a small group of young men and their dog. He steps up, as if he means to protect her, but from what he doesn’t know. The dog barks and snarls, and the kid in the blue coat—the one with the smudge of hair on his upper lip—calls it off.
They have a wagon, these guys. It’s no more than a child’s toy—red with wooden slats and fitted out with runners to glide across the snow—and another kid—the one with the black earflap hat—is pulling it along by a thick line of braided rope. The wagon is heavy—piled up with camping and climbing gear, plus duffle bags stuffed with food and drink enough to last the weekend—and the young man struggles with it. The others ignore him. No one offers to help. For some reason, his job is to tackle the chore on his own.
The woman stands with her hands on her hips, regarding all this. Her husband tries to steer her away, but she shrugs him off again. He’s afraid the kids might try to harm her. He wants her to come with him. There’s no one else around, and he would have to be a hero if they turned on her, or on him. If they think it might be funny, a joke, a game, to terrorize an old couple out here alone in the wild woods. These two old coots, limping along into the helplessness of their doddering old age, are downright fair game.
The tall one in the green shirt and black jeans waves and hollers, “Well, hello, beautiful!”
The wife waves back. Her husband can’t tell whether she’s being mocked, so he assumes she is and moves closer to her, but she’s oblivious to both his posturing and his fear. Most likely the kid is harmless, but her husband isn’t taking any chances. He wants his wife to stop being friendly and come along with him. He yanks at her, more roughly than he means, but enough so that she submits and begins to turn away. And then that one, that same tall one in the green shirt, grins and calls out to her or him or both of them, “Take me with you!”
It’s impossible to tell how this is meant. The man steps forward, but his wife pulls him back. She’s smiling, and her cheeks flare. She laughs like a girl and shakes her head, then shouts, “No!”
“Jesus!” her husband exclaims, maddened and confused. “What are you thinking?”
She shrugs. Her look is coy, like she’s flirting with him.
He sighs. “Come along now,” he says. “We don’t belong here. It’s dangerous. Let’s go back.”
He ought to know better. He ought to remember that his wife is stubborn, and she hates being told what to do. She has a mind of her own, and she doesn’t like being treated like a child.
“Leave me be,” she says. And, “I can take care of myself.” With that she takes off running up the trail, and he sees that he has no choice now but to follow. If anything happened to her, it would seem to be his fault.
She’s far ahead now. He rushes to catch up, and when he does he finds her perched atop a boulder by the trail, catching her breath. He reaches for her, but she kicks him away.
“All right then,” he says, and continues on past her. He takes some photos, all the while aware of her there behind him, and feels he’s performing his assigned role: indifferent, selfish, careless husband. But when he lifts the flask to his lips again and turns around to catch her watching him, he sees she’s gone.
He retraces his steps back down the trail and finds her plopped down on the ground this time, half hidden in the shadow of the trees. A bewildered frown crumples her face. She’s taken off her shoes and her socks, leaving her bare feet pale and vulnerable, like tender blossoms planted in the muck of the forest floor.
He says her name, which lights her eyes, as if consciousness has been restored, but then she wants to know: “What is all this?” Her arms spread to indicate everything: the trail, the woods, the sky, her husband himself. He takes her hand and draws her up and in to him. He cradles her in his arms, cups her small skull in his open palm, presses her cheek against his chest, until she tips her head back to search his face. It’s a relief to see that she seems to know him now. She’s pulling on her socks. She looks around. “My shoes?”
She leans on him as she steps into one and then the other, then bends to tie them both.
He grips her arm. She clings to him, and he will not let her go. Again they are together as one, as they make their way back down the trail. They’ll find their car. They’ll drive back to the lodge. They’ll have dinner in their room. And then tomorrow they’ll go home.
Those young men have now gone off the main trail to follow a smaller path away into the deeper woods, and as the old couple passes by, that same one with the black jeans turns and grins and calls out to her once more, “Hey, beautiful! Won’t you take me with you?”
And again she shouts back, “No!”
Flash of teeth. Slap of tongue. Whiskers flare. Jowls flex.
The cat up there above them all sniffs the air and paws the branch. He leaps and lands, then slinks along from tree to tree, in cold pursuit of careless skin and muscle and bone.
Susan Taylor Chehak is the author of several novels, including The Great Disappointment, Smithereens, The Story of Annie D., and Harmony. Her most recent publications include two collections of short stories, This Is That and It’s Not About the Dog, and a novel, The Minor Apocalypse of Meena Krejci. Susan grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has spent a lot of time in Los Angeles, lives occasionally in Toronto, and at present calls the Rocky Mountains of Colorado home.