The following is from Bill Roorbach’s collection of stories, The Girl of the Lake. From an adventurous boy who learns about courage to a couple whose vacation and relationship ends catastrophically, The Girl of the Lake contains vivid characters and stories. Bill Roorbach is the author of nine books of fiction and nonfiction. He has won the Flannery O'Connor Prize and O. Henry Prize, among others. His work appears in Harper's, Granta, New York, and elsewhere.
They’d driven where Uncle Bud had shown them on his tattered maps—west on a long unmarked logging road deep into the woods, through two unattended paper-company gates, then north on a faint jeep trail, once much used, no longer. They were to look for a particular boulder. And the pickup truck did fine, as her uncle had said it would, even with no four-wheel drive, Timothy confidently pulling the shift lever and kicking at the heavy clutch, bounding them upward through the deep ruts and grassy sections and singing—Timothy singing!— except Jean knew him just well enough after two years to know that the singing meant he was anxious.
Jean was tense, too. “Where do you think we’ll pitch camp?” she said. And, “I really do hope I can manage that pack—you said thirty-five pounds but it’s forty-six now and I’m quite trepidatious about my back, sweetie. It’s hurting now, just from packing.”
Timothy glanced over coldly, said, “She’s trepidatious.” “That’s all you’re going to say?”
“You’re strong enough to carry me, for Christ’s sake.” And he bumped over a great log submerged in the mud of the old road, very slowly, one mile an hour, said a soulful “fuck.”
Which made her laugh. She clamped down on her lower lip with her perfect teeth—he always said she had perfect teeth, but with a kind of disdain, seeming to hate even what he liked about her. He also said she talked too much, which of course led to fights. But she did chatter at times. Something she ought to be able to prevent on a vacation week in the warm August woods and by force of will did: she didn’t say another word.
Pretty soon—before noon, just as planned—they were at the unmistakable rock Uncle Bud had described, mossy and dark under old trees that Timothy said were hemlocks. He parked the truck and turned off the motor leaving silence. They had wanted remote, and this was remote, all right, Jean’s idea, actually, she who’d snorted when Timothy suggested two weeks with his folks and his brothers on Cape Cod—again—after what had happened last August, dismal visit. And then Christmas, my God, was he demented? Two weeks in that paradise of stifled resentments and overbaked competition. But he’d gone for this. He had. Jean had to hand it to herself. She’d known him two years and had come to handle him passably well.
They had arrived so she talked: “I’m just saying forty-six pounds seems like a lot of pack for me.” Jean was petite—especially small compared to Timothy (who didn’t like to be called Tim and certainly not Timmy). One hundred five pounds, five foot two, eyes of blue, twenty- five years old, not the greatest beauty in the world, in her own estimation. Timothy was her giant bear, gruff, rational, reserved, a stark contrast to her more excitable (and, in her opinion, more exciting) nature. He said nothing, just pulled her pack and his easily from the back of the truck, her uncle’s truck, old wrecks, uncle and car, both of them. Uncle Bud in his cups last night had confided to her amusingly that he thought Timothy a stiff and a cold fish, though he was glad to meet him: now he could warn her off him. Wasn’t the boy a tad bit too much like her father, speaking of stiffs? Speaking of emotional deserts? Uncle Bud’s laugh was so infectious, even with his being so nasty. Wouldn’t she do well to wait to get married? “Thirty is even too young, but at least, I beg of you, wait till then,” he’d said. “I’ll be your best man. I’ll give you away! Find someone who’s not so angry.” They laughed and laughed until Timothy came into the big rustic room from one of many constipated visits to Uncle Bud’s nice outhouse, and even then they could not stop laughing. Timothy, for his part, did not crack a smile and did not ask what was funny. She’d never thought of her father as angry before, and so that had given her something to think about in the night.
At the parking spot in the deep woods, Timothy put his hands on Jean’s shoulders, pulled her up out of her reverie, as he so loved to do, said, “We’ll drink up that gallon of water in your pack there and that weighs eight pounds alone.” He’d said this before ten times. He said, “We’ll eat down the food.” Ten times. He said, “And every day it’ll weigh less. You’ll be fine.”
“Well, I’m worried about your pack, too.”
He didn’t answer but hefted her pack and held it to her back, let her find the straps. He wriggled into his own without help, a staggering seventy-four pounds, way too heavy. But he found his balance as she had found hers and they hiked into the woods on the faint trail that would take them up Talon Ridge to Independence the back way, Uncle Bud’s way. For the first twenty minutes her thoughts were all ajumble and slightly furious—Timothy had talked her into too much weight. And too much weight for himself, too, always showing off. And no sign at all that he felt this was an especially romantic trip. But it was. Their relationship was the whole idea. And that you didn’t always have to be off with your brother someplace, or some replacement brother, doing manly things, making fun of everything on the planet, including Jean, for sport.
Was that what her beautiful uncle meant by angry?
Jean and Timothy, hikers now, passed through thickest woods, mossy earth, an untouched old forest that loomed over a recent clear-cut so that there was a view out at times, to the hills south, and to Mt. Abraham (she thought she recognized, but said nothing, not to invite derision in case she was wrong), all in a balmy updraft gusting at times to wind. Her pack felt light, actually. Her pack felt fine, to tell the truth. No problem walking. Timothy pushed her to greater heights, and that was a good thing. They climbed, mostly: switchbacks, lichens, boulders right and left, warbler song, chickadees, wood peewees—what a place Uncle Bud knew about! Timothy hadn’t said two words.
“How’s your pack?” Jean called forward.
“Heavy,” Timothy said. He could say just the one word heavy in such an ironic way that it meant everything about the little argument they’d had last night and the bigger one this morning, and about all her complaining, and yet how good she suddenly felt, even climbing up the big rocks here. Looming in the woods above them was a gargantuan boulder, yellow where all the rock around them was gray, a glacial erratic, Jean knew from a half-forgotten geology class, a mammoth presence, dragged by the ancient glacier all the way from Vermont, likely, cracked magnificently along the way, fallen into two pieces you wanted to push back together. “That is a glacial erratic,” Jean called forward. Timothy said nothing, hiked on, though she knew he had heard her by the brief and infinitesimal tightening of his neck.
Well, altogether she had preferred art history in any case: Bonnard, Kandinsky, Cézanne, Max Planck, Otto someone, Courbet, Delacroix, Manet: why were they all men? Someone had complained and Professor Della Sesso had agreed, stopped his own class, rewritten his own syllabus in front of them, come back the next week with slides from Käthe Kolwitz, Vanessa Bell, Suzanne Valadon, Mary Cassatt, Romaine Brooks, Natalia Goncharova. He’d stopped the class! Of course it was all planned, to make his point, a great point about the place of women not so much in art but in art history. He was a beautiful man. Jean missed her college days. Her publishing job was basically secretarial, second assistant to the curator of the image bank at Time Warner. At least it was about art.
They stopped a little higher, sat on a kind of wide shelf of cool, dry granite, pulled the top layer out of Jean’s pack, ate a lunch of chicken roll-ups she’d made this morning, two carrots each (Timothy had peeled them unnecessarily, making fun of Uncle Bud’s garden—its very existence when there were grocery stores), and then two big pieces of the carrot cake she’d made for Uncle Bud—carrots were the theme—a quart of water between them (which would be altogether nearly three pounds less for her to carry).
“Here’s to Drunkel Bud,” Timothy said.
Then he was silent, merely ate. He was often silent. He was twenty- five, too. Jean knew he was thinking and not to interrupt. He’d listen if she said something—but if she did talk, then he wouldn’t say whatever was coming, whatever bit of conversation he was brewing up—this was the silence before the talk, and she loved to hear him talk, loved him, in fact, from the bottom of her shoes, despite what Uncle Bud had said, late (Timothy already reading in bed), poor, unshaven Uncle Bud slurring his whispered words, eyes liquid, but so full of warmest caring and gentle humor: “You’ll marry him and stay with him like your mother stays with your fucked-up father, even not loving him, thirty years to realize it’s so, yes, Jean-Jean, it’s so for her as for you, and she still can’t shake him, just lies down for him, bed of nails. Nothing can stop you, I know. No, no, I know it’s true, Jean-Jean. No, no, I’m right, no use to argue: it’s misery you’re courting, since that’s all you’ve known.”
Jameson Irish whiskey speaking.
There in the forest, waiting for Timothy to speak, Jean finished her sandwich and repeated to herself what she had whispered back to Uncle Bud (who had finally let her talk, listened unbelieving): she loved Timothy and felt just wonderful about him. And it was true—she could hardly remember what they’d argued about last night when she’d come to bed, what they’d argued about this morning (or ever, for that matter), and wanted to be his wife.
Suddenly Timothy spoke: “It’s hard to imagine,” he said. “Hard to think of ourselves like, fifty years old, like Uncle Bud, huh, isn’t it? That such a thing could happen? I mean, what if it’s just a kind of joke they play on younger people, just to make ’em feel bad—right?—like, they know goddamn well that we’re going to be always just like this, more or less like this—I mean, there are young people, which is one unchanging species, and then there are old people, which is another—and the old-people species have as a kind of group joke that they pretend it’s all one-in-the-same species—that we young ones are on a long trip that leads to their sorry-ass state.”
Jean laughed for him and he smiled and that melted Jean, that very handsome smile. She looked in his eyes and said, “But, Herr Doktor, I distinctly remember being younger. I’m not sure you’ve included all the evidence here.” Two years and they had this whole kind of private vaudeville act together, where she played graduate student and he played crazy brilliant professor. She really, really wanted to go to grad school, art history, to follow her favorite prof to his new position in Paris—he’d emailed her twice inviting her to apply—but that would have to wait.
“Well, right—but we’re the kind that go from zero to about twenty- six and just hover there, always almost twenty-six, like someone in a book—always the same age every time you read it. We’re the somewhere-under-twenty-six-always species.”
“What about a book where the characters grow old and die? I can name a few.
“Written by the Olds! Self-serving tripe! What on earth garbage have you been reading?” Even being funny he sounded harsh, like the joke was on her.
“I don’t read trash,” she said, trying to keep the tone of high comedy, failing.
He wasn’t listening anyway, just shuffled through the side pocket of his pack, eventually tugged out his tiny jar of insane pot. Methodically he rolled a parsimonious and perfectly cylindrical joint, then lit it, one of their twelve waterproof matches, and they had two tiny hard-sucked puffs each.
Coughing a little, trying to suppress it, trying to rescue the moment, Jean said, “So we’re the species that gets only so old. So I’ll get to catch up to you, yes?” She was three months younger than Timothy.
He didn’t rejoin.
The feeling of the pot overtook her immediately. She knew he’d have little more to say for a while. No one was around them in the woods, so Jean (in love) put her ear on Timothy’s chest to listen to his heart, and he leaned back against the rock and mulled his important thoughts while she undid his blue jeans just partly, just enough to get her hand in and hold his dumb, dependable willy, which rose tenderly to greet her grip. This, she liked. And he liked it, too, and tucked a hand back of her blue jeans and kind of hefted her on top of him for a long kiss, and on the moss there on the side of the faint trail they gradually got their pants down and wriggled to get his jacket on the rock beneath them without taking their hiking boots off, even, and had a very brief grind ’em (as he liked to call it—she didn’t mind so much anymore) and then some kissing, which showed that he was in a good mood, too, a very lot of kissing, as when they first met and would make love for hours in her old sublet, a great apartment in the Village now long gone, pretty white walls with art, and she couldn’t orgasm at all, he made her so nervous, and if she brought it up (she believed in communication) just said that orgasm was not a verb. Here in the woods and more firmly in herself she surprised herself coming quickly, if not too hard (coming was his word), orgasming to his overeager fingers while they kissed. Something about the forest made it easy and different, also that he bothered.
“You are a glacial erratic,” he said.
“That is an insult, Doktor,” she said, quite pleased that he’d been listening earlier, just saving it up. He’d know what a glacial erratic was, knew a lot about the world and the woods. They cleaned themselves up some with a paper towel that she dutifully stored in a baggie and pulled their pants up and hefted their packs. She could feel that hers was lighter.
Timothy kept talking, named each bird and tree as they continued the hike—he knew so much. Ash tree, birch polypore (a familiar, bulging fungus on a dead paper birch), this warbler and that one, all the little plants everywhere. Jean liked it all but cared more about nineteenth-century women painters—that was her thing, she’d decided, and still dreamed of Paris—no reason that, married, she and Timothy couldn’t live in Paris. Goldman Sachs must have a job in Paris for their wonder-boy. Two years, that’s all it would take.
She felt great, if a little soggy in the underpants. “You are a glacial neurotic,” she said.
Timothy rewarded her with a hearty laugh. This was one of those jokes they’d keep going for the weekend and that for years to come would tag this hike in their memories. She laughed, feeling light, suddenly; the pack was as nothing on her back. They could stop fairly early—no rush—perfect weather, get a really great camp arranged, set up that little stove, make spaghetti with the red sauce Timothy carried in a jar for a special first-night dinner only. She’d had stomachaches over the camping part for two weeks but felt free of every anxiety now. They had great equipment and great food and Uncle Bud’s advice, which was famously good advice, if not perfectly sober. (“Your mother told me last phone call that your father has never once said he loved her. Never once.”) Well, Timothy’s family was worse: aggressive teetotalers and potheads.
They broke out of the trees suddenly in a dry-pond meadow (Timothy called it) and were in sight of the bald blade of the famous ridge that hunkered just beneath the famous mountain peak, and the view of it all was just—it was just spettacolare. She said that word with exaggerated accents and giggled (the marijuana), and Tim giggled with her and they walked side by side, holding hands. The trail tightened then, so Jean dropped behind him, and they marched on duck boards thoughtfully placed through a mossy bog. “Thuja occidentalis,” Timothy called back, and these words were as beautiful to Jean as the trees they described, big white cedars curving up from hummocks and snags. The bog resolved into a pond—a beaver flowage, as Timothy called it—no beavers in sight, and at the deeper end they stopped on another flat rock and soaked up sun and, very hot from the hiking, stripped down and had a swim. Then they kissed and petted nicely, cold fishy gooseflesh skins pressed together. She climbed up on the next rock naked and he leaned against it and it was hot in the sun—he licked her legs, not altogether seriously. He licked her legs, then he licked her (she didn’t like to say it, the word he always used), and she had a deeper orgasm this time and said so, using his word, which made him grin and go cocky. And then he climbed up and fucked her hard on the rock, an uncomfortable performance. Her neck was bent back. He was too rough sometimes, but she could let that go. He stopped thinking of her, stopped thinking altogether, called it boning. You traded one thing for another. (Wayne, her last boyfriend, was tender and very slow, but he couldn’t kiss.) And it wasn’t ever long in any case. She would have to remember to take her pill each day of the hike and wondered if she’d get a rash from the sleeping bag, as at Girl Scouts, and thought of Mimi Stevens, her counselor, the witch, and of the particular way the logs of Cabin Twelve came together. And Timothy grunted and groaned and then laughed a little and that was that and she rose back up through several layers to him and kissed him a while, but he wasn’t into it. “Better get moving,” he said.
“I love you,” Jean said soulfully.
He spanked her bottom, said, “You love me.”
They had a quick swim and she rinsed him off her and out of her and they dressed side by side. Her socks felt wet and her T-shirt, too, and her underpants, everything a little damp from the earlier sweat and now the swim, but it was a hot afternoon and beautiful in Maine and there was plenty of time to get to the camping place Uncle Bud had told them about. She should be glad. She knew what it was—the pot. Also the orgasming, which sometimes let you down. And now she felt a little swollen and uncomfortable down there, walking. Twice in three miles of hiking! Well, that was love. And there were worse ways to be sore.
She followed Tim up the very steep path, which was nothing but a field of rocks. His butt was cute, what there was of it anyway, that was one thing. “You’re just plain erratic,” she called lightly to no response.
They came to the beginning of the open granite ridge—what a view. The stoned feeling from earlier had settled into a headache. The sun hurt her eyes. Something in her belly ached.
“One hour,” Tim said, tugging on his pack straps to adjust them. “That’s all?”
“That’s what Drunkel Bud said. One hour from the cairn.” He pointed up the hard stone slope to their left.
She hadn’t noticed the massive cairn. And he was competing with her, that condescending tone: he’d seen the cairn, she hadn’t. He’d only win if he could annoy her, though. And she didn’t feel all that bugged. Her pack felt like nothing, nothing at all. She thought about how to cook the dinner, how good that would be, their neat little gas-bottle stove, precious folding pans: boil water, cook spaghetti. It would never taste so good! And here they were, already at the verge of the famous Talon Ridge, which was superdramatic, something a nineteenth-century male artist would put in a painting, finding the curve of it complex, a kind of bridge to the mountain, a mile terribly exposed (imagine a storm blowing over it!), none of the soft fields and cloud vistas of women, more subtle, the tensions interior, or such was a lecture she recalled.
To both sides, the granite sloped sharply twenty or thirty feet to sudden drops. To the left, a kind of bog, not far down, a lot of dead spruce trees, beautiful skeletons, but to the right, a sheer drop of hundreds of feet. Ahead the talon sliced that direction, just enough that you could see some of the long face of the fall. The impression was that you were walking the apex of a cathedral, the Abbey Church of Saint Denis, perhaps, a place she’d written about once in a paper—got an A, too.
“Here we go,” Timothy said, and led the way.
Jean followed sprightly—with Timothy, you always felt you had to hurry.
The bog side was brightly lit, the cliff side dark in its own shadow. She tried not to look down. She actually panted—this was what breath- taking meant. The trail had been carved out of the plain rock. “WPA,” Uncle Bud had said, fondly.
“Welfare,” Timothy had snorted. Why did he have to call him Drunkel? Why especially that name, which she had repeatedly told Timothy annoyed her. It’s what her father called Bud, who was not a drunk, not really, just bereft, a very kind and calm and gentle soul, her mother’s only brother, a sweet, poignant man who’d built his own eccentric, amazing house and lost his wife to cancer before they could live in it, thus the retreat to his cabin. Why shouldn’t he drink?
Timothy got walking faster, the way he did when excited by a competition—they were almost to tonight’s campsite, and he’d be first. Just along this roof of granite, then back into the woods. It was as if the incredible view to all sides—even down—simply weren’t there, the only direction forward. The camping spot was on a bigger pond than the first one back there, and just under the mountain proper, Independence Peak. Uncle Bud said it was the nicest camping in all of Maine. She and Timothy would have an easy morning there tomorrow, swimming, sunbathing, bird-watching, no doubt making love, then onward—up the mountain, then a few days on the Appalachian Trail, then the Fire Warden’s Trail down from Bigelow Mountain, finally back to Uncle Bud’s truck, a grand loop: seven days. Ahead, the trail became even narrower, just a shelf carved into the rock and strewn with loose stones. Tim hurried faster. “Hey,” Jean called. She wanted a kiss from him right now on this precarious place. She said hey, and he didn’t hear. A kiss just to slow him down. He was almost jogging, and tonight if she nagged him about it he’d frankly love the attention and crow and mock her. She slowed. Walked at her own pace. Breathed at her own pace. Enjoyed the view up to the mountain, the view down into the gorge beside them. She had come to the end of the bog and now the mountain was a wall to her left, the abyss to the right all the deeper, the talon coming to a point ahead, Tim’s bright pack bobbing as he ran. “Hey,” Jean called again.
But he was too far ahead.
And then he slipped. She saw him slip. His flying foot hit a nothing of a rock, which slid under him, and he dropped to one knee. He reached for a handhold on the path, missed, went down on his shoulder, couldn’t quite catch himself, continued to slide in gravel toward the fall. It was all so slow. He put the other hand out, grabbed a large stone that was sliding, too, tried to turn, awkward under the weight of his pack. He couldn’t get around to sitting, so he dropped down on all fours, visibly putting on the brakes. But all the rocks large and small around him were moving now, a slow, gentle slide with Timothy part of it. He dug the toes of his boots in, gripped the solid granite of the ridge with his fingernails.
But he just kept sliding. Jean trotted, then raced, to get to him—there was a length of rope on the side of her pack and she reached back for it as she ran. But Timothy and the rockslide picked up speed as she did. He didn’t shout, didn’t cry out, didn’t say a thing, just looked back at her, a profound look, grabbing at the rocks around him, starting everything he touched to movement. And with everything around him he slid to the edge of the drop. Rocks flew off the cliff into the sky below his feet. His boots hung over, then his knees. He bent at the hips, legs dangling, still slowly sliding. Jean threw the rope perfectly. But the overweight pack pressed Timothy down, restricted his reach. He missed the rope end, missed it again, arms flailing. Then with a sharp cry he went over the edge. The rumble of rocks continued briefly, then everything stopped and there was silence.
The argument that morning had been about her iPhone. She’d promised she wouldn’t constantly be looking for a signal, wouldn’t be Snapchatting friends little stupid photos, it would be for emergency only. He had won—you entered the wild on wild terms—and she had left the phone behind in their sweet little room at Uncle Bud’s. So her first thought got her nowhere. Her second thought was to scoot on her butt down the incline to the cliff edge, get a look, dangle the rope. But that would be stupid and impossible: she’d go over, too. Her heart pounded in her throat, her ears.
“Timothy!” Jean called, to echoing silence. “Timothy Beal!” Nothing. Best to stay calm. She stripped out of her pack, left it at the exact spot he’d stumbled to mark the place. So many loose rocks—new ones had simply replaced those that had slid and then fallen with Timothy. Free from the weight of the pack she sprinted back down the ridge the way they’d come, a sense almost of leaving her body, of perfect ease on the loose gravel, fearless warrior. At the forest end of the curving ridge she skidded to a stop in gravel, fell to her knees turning, that anxious to look back. Her pack was nothing but a blue shape perched on the ridge. The edge of the cliff wall, what you could see of it, was dark. The odd tree grew up from rough rootholds. You might land on a ledge. A tree might break your fall. You might be okay. The bottom, not visible. Rocks, no doubt, more trees. Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God. Run for the truck? Drive out for help?
Or go to Timothy? She trotted back up the harrowing talon and to her pack, more cautious now. Oh my God, oh my God. All was quiet. Squawk of a raven below. Breezes warm and flowing upward. Jean returned to her body as if falling into it, her sweaty body, that edge of headache, the cramp in her womb from making love. She kept having the urge to turn and ask Timothy what to do.
Be calm, she told herself. Make a plan.
She checked pockets for her phone, but no. They’d been maybe four hours to this point—all uphill and with two long stops. She could run it in an hour, maybe, get in Uncle Bud’s sweet old truck, two hours on the faint jeep road, then two more on rutted logging roads to where? To that gas station? So five hours. In that time she could maybe also get to Timothy, give first aid, set a broken leg—she’d taken a course at summer camp ten years past—staunch any bleeding, give comfort if nothing else, take his advice from there. He knew about so many things. She hefted her pack, slipped into the straps, kicked some stones into a pile to mark the spot, pathetic. So she took the pack back off, built a proper cairn of ten large stones to mark the spot for any possible rescuers, a helicopter even, only then shrugged back into her pack and ran, buckling the hip strap even as she flew, the decision coming as she ran: truck. The trail got easier off the ridge, the deep shade of trees somehow comforting. She ran fast, then faster, clear to the beaver flowage before she remembered that Timothy had the keys.
Where the old trail pegged upward to Talon Ridge, Jean broke into the woods and headed down over tangled deadfall and among the boulders of eras gone by. Quickly as she made her way the cliff below the ridge established itself, sheer and cold in hard shade, but with so much fallen rock at the bottom that it wouldn’t be that high a fall, she thought, not really. After a full and difficult hour, breathing hard, climbing rocks, skirting crevices, the cliff wall soaring higher, the scree field tilted steeper, rocks tumbling under her feet, Jean rested. She had no idea how far she’d traveled. She couldn’t have missed him, not with that crimson backpack, pure attention. She tacked lower—found a faint path maybe made by deer, moved more quickly, examined every ledge and crack in the cliff above her, stopping to listen for cries. Below her a stream tumbled—good: she’d be able to wash Timothy’s wounds even if their water ran out. That joke he’d made about carrying him? She couldn’t carry him. She could stabilize him, do whatever was necessary, make him comfortable, put the tent up around him, cover him in their sleeping bags and all their clothes, be to the truck by nightfall with the keys, best plan. The cliff was so high. She prepared herself in case he was hurt badly. Tourniquets could be dangerous, she recalled. Splints could be made with sticks. Underwear, T-shirts, flannel, hers, his, it could all be used for bandages.
She came to a fault that ran the width of the narrowing canyon and created a sharp drop, nothing compared to the cliff, but twelve solid feet at first guess, and sheer. She could jump down, perhaps, but how could she climb back this way to get the truck, and help? Maybe use the rope, tie it to that tree. But then she wouldn’t have rope for later, and who knew? Wasn’t there some knot you could tie and then free with a twitch once you were down? Timothy would know it. If he could only have caught the rope when she threw it so well. The stream had to make the drop, too, and the roar of the little waterfall invaded her thoughts, made them urgent. She breathed, took off her pack, dropped it down there just so, exactly right, where she could land on it to break her fall. The pack took a foot or more off the height of the break, too. Still, it was a long way down, fifteen feet, at second guess. The rope was down there, tied on the pack. Oh! She could have tied the rope to the tree, climbed down using it, then simply cut it with her Swiss Army knife, just left the remainder behind, keeping plenty. All this in Timothy’s voice, carping, as she lay down in the dirt and loose rock and scooted herself over the edge of the drop-off till she was hanging by her fingertips, barely gripping a fragrant spruce root. She hung a long minute, without the arm strength to pull herself back up in any case, finally got the nerve, and dropped. She hit the pack hard with her feet and fell backward into loose rock.
But she was fine. She was really totally fine. Her butt wasn’t even bruised. That she was sore was from before. The cut on her hand was nothing. He’d fallen feet first, too, and so there was at least some chance he was only slightly hurt, a twisted ankle, dislocated knee.
The canyon fell deeper, darker, the stream louder and closer, more narrow, the scree looser, her footing more insecure. Jean forced herself to walk—what else was there to do? She picked her steps carefully, watched her feet intently, stepped on his hand.
Timothy was sitting up straight, that famous posture, his shoulders pulled back by the straps of his pack, head back, too, legs buried in the rocks that had accompanied him, hips twisted more than perpendicular to his shoulders. Jean didn’t have any moment at all of thinking he was alive, no need to check his breath or heartbeat. He was dead.
High up the canyon wall she saw the last sunlight climbing, orange. It would be night very soon. The stream roared and echoed in the canyon. Timothy smelled like defecation. Also spaghetti sauce—their jar for dinner must have broken inside his pack. But the spruce smell and the oxygenated stream smell was strong, too, and a breeze moderated the stench. It wasn’t like she was going to eat. She sat a long while in perfect calm, perfect acceptance, which was not like her and which she tranquilly thought must be shock. In a way it was easier that he was not in need of first aid. She didn’t cry anymore but simply sat and thought, long elegant lines of thought with no bearing on the emergency: she remembered meeting Tim at her brother’s best friend’s wedding. Horrendous blue tuxedoes, all of them. She and this handsome groomsman made love steadily, it seemed, for the next three weeks, till he had to go back to New York and his internship at Goldman Sachs, which turned into a job when his MBA was done. Very remunerative, as he liked to say. Things she was ambivalent about: investment bankers (Professor Della Sesso had often talked about such people, called them bloodsuckers in a beautiful accent, and ricattatori, roll that first r); suburbia (Timothy’s dream was Greenwich, Connecticut, ask Uncle Bud his opinion of that place); any one of Timothy’s friends, including her own brother, who was a certified pig.
And her brother, come to think of it, was exactly like their father, as was Timothy, when you thought about it, from banking to suburbia to his chilly reserve. Why was she with him? “You are beautiful,” Uncle Bud had whispered. “You are capable. Does he make you feel either? What can I do to convince you?”
She didn’t touch the corpse. The sunlight climbed out of the canyon, was gone. The stream grew louder, comforting in a way, but hiding who knew what scary noises. A lone bird sang briefly, good night. And then it was dark, and darker. And chilly, then cold. Jean dug in her pack, found her flashlight, pulled her sleeping bag out awkwardly, unfurled it from its stuff bag. Such a good sleeping bag, old gift from Uncle Bud, bright blue. She got herself in there, moved more rocks, leaned back as if to sleep. But despite all, she was hungry.
The bulk of the food was in Timothy’s pack, as was the little gas stove. In her pack were useless things like couscous and expensive freeze-dried chicken divan in foil packets. Oh, but gorp—there was a one-quart baggie of gorp—and this she ate in little absent increments till it was gone. And she drank water from her metal bottle. And felt she could sleep some, get through the night somehow. If Timothy weren’t such a show-off and always in such a heat to win they’d be camping right now. Or if they’d left the first pond just one second earlier or later? They’d be camping. Thoughts of the campsite, which she’d been picturing for two months, brought her to Uncle Bud, that idiot, sending them into danger and Timothy to . . . this.
Then again, the whole backpacking trip was her idea, her own, and she’d fought for it over going to Timothy’s horrendous family reunion on the Cape, and that bunch, oh, that bunch would blame her squarely, squarely. Every happy thought she’d ever had of marrying Timothy these two years had foundered on the image of that screwed-up family. She sat and thought the same moody thoughts as always about him, added these to Uncle Bud’s observations of last night, only last night.
All moot now.
The stream down there was loud, luckily loud. She was spared the gurglings and belches of the dead, sounds she knew well from working at the veterinary hospital every summer through high school, back when she was going with that kid, Bruce, who was no Timothy, but sweet and talkative and a listener—funny you could ever miss Bruce, but she missed him now. Timothy did not twitch, did not jump, all that was over.
jean woke with a start, kicked her feet out and sent rocks tumbling, sat up, reached for Timothy’s hand, found it—so cold, and worse, stiff. She let it go with a shudder—it was not in his possession any longer, it was not his, or him, but a disgusting object.
Oh my God, oh my God. She wanted to feel his spirit was with her, but she was profoundly alone, hard stars above, no known constellation, just the hard line of the killer cliff and across the narrow gorge the jagged line of the tops of fir trees. She listened to the stream a long time with deliberate concentration.
How could Timothy be so clumsy. How could he be so stupid.
she woke to the sound of the stream. High above, a group of stars was familiar, but unnamed. Funny, but she could relax. She’d been so unfair! He wasn’t to blame—the trail was unsafe. He was hurrying for her—he knew how much she wanted to be at the campsite, be set up in their tent, be eating, cooking. He was so good. Such a good person. She would marry him despite all. Best if Mountain Rescue found them together here. She’d never leave his side. She’d sit here through the days it took to starve, and in a few weeks Uncle Bud would look up from his Jameson’s and remember where his old truck was and call the family, who’d call the police, who’d call Mountain Rescue, who’d come out looking and certainly find the truck (probably they’d already be well aware of the truck and wondering about it)—find the truck and follow the trail clear to the campsite on the beaver pond—no sign of Timothy and Jean. Perhaps the scrap of a cairn she’d built would alert them. She should have written a note—how stupid—several hikers a day must pass; someone could be going for help right now. But no. Things were exactly as they were.
Perhaps after days of futile searching, the youngest member of the ranger team, the most insecure of them, would notice the cairn, the plight of rocks, and they’d all be led to the tragedy—broken Timothy and his girl, starved at his side, his bride in death. Oh, she loved him! And she reached to touch his hair, which felt lovely, soft and fine as always, accepted his condition, which would be hers soon enough.
But not soon enough. She should write a note in the morning and cut her wrists to be his bride. She’d be his bride by his side in death the endless night.
She woke to daylight next, birdsong. The stream, too. She blinked and stretched and was surprised they’d slept under the stars and sat up and remembered. She wriggled out of her bag, made her way out of Timothy’s sight, peed behind a boulder, clambered back, had a long look at him. His face was no longer his. His fingernails were all broken from trying to stop his slide. She worked to get his pack off him, struggled with the resistant arms. The smell was no longer so bad, or she’d adjusted. His upper body was simply loose on his hips. Oh, Timothy! She worked around the spill of red sauce, found the loaf of raisin bread he’d allowed, wiped it off, crackers in a small box, block of cheese, block of chocolate, found his compass, retrieved the little stove just in case, their little tent, his hunting knife, the keys to Uncle Bud’s truck (in Timothy’s moist front pants pocket), stuffed all this in her own pack, stuffed her sleeping bag in its sack, tied it carelessly to the pack frame, pulled the pack on, balanced step by step and rock to rock and got out of there, quickly backtracking upstream and all the way to the drop-off by the waterfall.
She tied their rope to her pack so she could pull her belongings up if she made it, attempted a hopeless free climb with the rope in her mouth, fell four times, not even close. So she tied the free end of the rope to an oblong rock, tried to toss it over the one practical branch of the high spruce up there—impossible. She stacked rocks to make a climbing platform—exhausting. After an hour she had a solid block of stone only a few feet high. To get her all the way up the drop in that fashion would take days and days and all her strength.
She gave up, made her way back to Timothy. She’d had what he would call a paranoid thought. Digging in his shirt pocket, she found his tiny blue jar of pot. Fast, she emptied the powdery potent stuff to the wind, threw the jar into the stream. His rolling papers, into the stream. She felt in a rush of horror that she was abandoning him so sat a while beside him.
Unbidden thoughts: there were other boys. She’d even recently been going back and forth with a certain college flame on Facebook, but that was nothing. She’d be a tragic heroine, very attractive in that way. She’d be wary of love, magnetic in that way. She stood, pulled on her pack, made her way carefully through the rocks he’d brought down with him, rehearsing the story she’d tell and basking in the sympathy and wonder she’d receive. Sinful, disgusting thoughts. She shut them off. She tried to pray for Timothy but hadn’t prayed or been to church since she was ten. Her last confession (to Father Mark, a saint) was about stealing Barbie accessories at a slumber party. Timothy! So impatient and disdainful. Just as Uncle Bud had said: the dude was just like her dad. There were other kinds of men. Start with Uncle Bud. Subtract the tragedy of him, and the drinking. That beautiful house he’d built! The far cabin where he was holed up now, bottle in his lap. Timothy called it a shack. Timothy thought him soft. Think of all the men she hadn’t met!
Sinful thoughts, disgusting.
And now flashes of yesterday’s sex assaulted her, and Timothy’s fall, too, the way his fingernails dug in, sex and fall somehow equally unpleasant, even horrible, braiding into one thought. She stepped faster, picking her footfalls, a good old athlete, scrambled down the scree, got to the stream, drank from it, the hell with giardia and all microbes forever, drank deeply, washed her face, struggled to stand under the new weight of her pack and the growing feeling that this was all her fault, secondary feeling that it was all Bud’s, and worse, that Bud knew it would happen.
Had she slept even two hours last night?
She headed downstream. There was no trace of a path. But a stream always went somewhere. By the time the sun got into the canyon an hour had passed. She’d find help. The stream would cross a road. She’d find help and they’d recover Timothy and she would be something of a tragic heroine and perhaps even Professore Frederico Della Sesso would see this new thing in her eyes, the deep sadness and horror in her eyes and take her crush seriously as he had decidedly not, take her in his arms there in the oaken doorway of his dust-mote and sunbeam and bookshelf office somewhere in Paris. Bad thoughts. He had called her Jean d’Arc, their little joke. She closed him out, pushed on. By noon she was out of the canyon and the forest had opened somewhat. The walking got easier for a mile or so, gently downhill alongside the stream. But then the stream widened, became a bog. She slogged her way halfway around to where it was more of a pond, stood on a lone knoll, looked out over the water, and was at last overcome. She tugged her pack off, threw it down violently, threw herself on the ground after it, wailed and wept, clutched the mossy duff. Then came a vision as if from above of herself in this position, the dirt of the forest sticking to her tearstained cheeks, herself spread out on the ground in grief and remorse and horror. The rangers would listen attentively to her, when she finally found them. They’d be older guys and have bluest eyes, three sweet men, beautiful eyes.
She cried more, at her own shallowness, felt a wave of love for Timothy, felt in the same wave that she came back to her true self (“You are not yourself,” Timothy would say when she was upset with him). But what if the true self she’d always known was false? Jean stood, crossed her arms over her chest, grasped her own ribs in confusion. And started walking. She’d go back to him. Only as an afterthought did she return for her pack, only absently shrug it on, aware uncaring that it was open and that things were falling out of it. She walked very slowly, deep thoughts of Timothy, his humor for example—a certain joke (“All your intelligence is in your brains, Jeanie”), his tricky smile. She was starved. She stopped at a sunny rock, pulled out crackers and their block of cheddar cheese (these had been on his back!), ate feverishly, found their bag of baby carrots, gobbled them all, a pound of them (his dead back!), sucked at her water bottle, found their large chocolate bar, ate half of it.
There’d be raisin bread for later. Uncle Bud had offered it, and though Timothy said no—too heavy—she’d accepted the small gift. She lay back on the rock in tears.
when she woke, her mission was pure again: get help. She retraced her steps around the bog to where she’d thrown the pack down, picked up her sleeping bag, her wading sneakers, four blue pairs of panties still neatly folded, the keys to Uncle Bud’s truck. What had she been thinking?
She carried on, climbing to higher ground, made her way around the bog till she saw the beaver dam and climbed down to rejoin the stream, which was three times wider than in the gorge. She fairly jogged, singing loud then louder, whatever song came to mind, “My Favorite Things,” for one, screamed it out as she ran among trees in the old forest, leapt boulders, pushed aside underbrush, downhill and always down alongside the stream, singing as hard as she could to stop her thoughts of Dr. Della Sesso, which had grown pernicious. Frederico. His gaze had always lingered on her eyes. Now he’d find her so dolorosa, so tragica. “Origin of the World.” He was Italian but lived in Paris. She’d been there herself, a month in junior year, hadn’t been able to commit to a year or even a semester: Wayne. Who couldn’t kiss.
There was a ranger station in Carrabasset. You could get a ride there, and the kindly men would explain that this was no longer a rescue but a recovery, no rush. The other rangers would all gather around, they’d pat her face, they’d kiss her eyes, and Frederico would come to fetch her, fetch her back to France. She snapped herself awake: Carry on, Jean, carry on.
The stream fell through a steep glade, quite straight for hundreds of yards, but just before it turned and flowed out of sight, promising nothing but more hard bushwhacking, Jean could just discern a hard horizontal, painted red: a bridge. She made her way to the road—narrow, nicely graded gravel—and simply lay down, her will collapsing, flopped herself down pack and all, lay there frozen by her thoughts, exhausted, killed.
In an hour, two, hard to say, a father and young son from nearby Quebec on their way to the store in Kingfield for camping supplies (she’d learn later), stopped their Subaru and leapt out to her aid. She heard their guttural French Canadian accents—so different from the French of Paris—heard them clearly as they leaned over her asking each other what had happened here, touching the pulse point of her neck to be sure she was alive.
She opened her eyes to see the boy, who might have been eight, saw his sweet concern, cherubic, like something on a chapel ceiling, blue brushstrokes all around his head, the wings of angels.
“I never loved him,” she said.
“Alors,” said the father.
“I never loved him one bit.”
“You are shivering,” the father said. The shivering seemed to make him cross.
“I only want to sleep,” Jean told him.
“Elle veut dormir,” said the son gently.
“We will take you into town,” the father said, gruffer. They helped her sit up, helped her out of her pack. The boy put it in their car, then father and son helped her to her feet, so unsteady, helped her into the back seat. She curled up and lay across the nice leather, let them cover her with her own green sleeping bag, which the boy had untied and unrolled.
From The Girl of the Lake. Used with permission of Algonquin Books. Copyright © 2017 by Bill Roorbach.