First, There Is a Mountain
There was suddenly no air in the room. Sarah looked down at her daughter, looking back at her from her pillow, but the girl she had been looking at just a moment before had changed. Child… Sarah thought to herself, but found nothing following it.
“Well, Mommy? How?”
Where there had been her daughter lying in that bed, there was now an unwelcome inspector. And not an unexpected one. Sarah closed her eyes a moment. The girl was still there under the covers, waiting, when she returned.
“Your father died in an avalanche, little girl.”
The girl’s sleepy eyelids opened and her eyebrows leapt up to her forehead.
“An avalanche!” It came out as an awed affirmation rather than a question, like the news was a long-held suspicion. “Where was it?”
Sarah nearly had to restrain the child from jumping from under the covers. She noted the time, kissed her daughter’s forehead, turned off the lights and shut the door behind her. It wasn’t until she was all the way down the hall that the blood rushing in her ears subsided enough that she heard the cries of protest behind her.
The couch, the girl’s dresser, the kitchen cabinets, the garden shed…all places Sarah spent the following week pulling her daughter from the top of. This is absolutely not what I meant she thought, over and over. So the following Friday at bedtime, it was more out of exasperation when she said “Claire, I’m ready to tell you about your father.” The girl sat up in bed and Sarah drew a deep breath. “He worked as a park ranger on Mount Washington, you know the one.”
Claire instinctively looked out the window, even though it was dark. On clear days, the peak was framed there in the distance. She knew the one.
“It was winter,” Sarah said, “and some hikers got stuck on the mountain and your father went up to rescue them.”
“How did they get stuck?” Claire asked.
“Well, it was very cold, and one of them–there were four in all–hurt his leg. So they had to huddle together in a small tent and radio for help getting down the mountain. And your dad went to help them.” Sarah put her palms on her lap and leaned in, taking a breath.
“Were they on the mountain for days and days?” The girl had now drawn her knees to her chest and was rocking back and forth on her feet.
“Not days, no. They were there until nightfall, when your father got to them.” Sarah realized she had been gazing somewhere past the bookshelf and the wall and looked into her daughter’s face. Claire looked back, her little eyebrows disappearing into her bangs. “They couldn’t build a fire up there. It’s so high up in the sky that there isn’t enough air to start a fire, so they were very, very cold. Your father started to help the hurt hiker down the trail, but there was all this heavy snow on the cliffs above them and it…” She refocused her gaze; the girl was motionless, mouth open, watching. “It just fell. On top of them. It was an avalanche. One hiker survived.”
“Was it the hurt one?”
“The one who got out? Was he the one that was hurt?” The girl’s question broke Sarah’s meditative calm and she stuttered out a no.
“I don’t remember the name of the man who survived,” she said. She stood and though the girl continued asking questions–When did it happen? Was it in the newspaper? Is that man still alive?–Sarah could only reply that it was bedtime, turn out the light, and close the door.
The next day Claire clomped off to the school bus in her winter boots, green pants, and a khaki shirt despite her mother’s protests. As they argued their way to the front door and out onto the lawn, Claire announced that she was a mountain ranger and stomped to the sidewalk, her classmates watching her, watching Sarah, shocked still in her robe on the front walk.
At school, Claire told her friends about the avalanche. She pointed south toward the mountain and everyone craned their necks around to look, only to see hallways and fluorescent lights. She put her arms in the air, recounting the terrible cold night the hikers spent in a tent, and the snow that fell on them. She ran in place, the laces of her boots clacking on the tile floor, as she said that her father ran down the mountain, trying to save these hikers from the flood of snow and rock and trees and ice. And Claire leaned in close and hushed her voice, saying that only one man got out alive.
“My daddy died a hero!” Claire said, and her friends fell about stamping their feet and clapping their hands.
“But it didn’t work,” said a voice, “almost everyone died.” The gaggle of children swiveled around to see who said that. It was an older boy, one of the fifth graders. “Your dad didn’t hardly save anybody.”
Claire later wouldn’t be able to say what happened next, but the gaggle watched her charge at the older boy, jump at his chest and knock him down. She kicked him with her big winter boots. They were both crying. The scene was cut mercifully short by a teacher rushing out into the hall, yanking the sobbing girl off of the boy and pulling her back into the classroom, slamming the door behind them.
Trees slipped past the early-morning moon and blurred through Claire’s passenger window as she leaned her forehead against the tempered glass. Fog crept from where her temple touched pane, taming the bright light, still playing at nighttime in the five AM sky. Sarah normally listened to the radio on her way to the hospital, but she was shuttling her daughter along with her, the first of three days’ suspension. She was waiting for an answer. Claire sighed, fogging the window more.
“Was daddy a hero?” Claire asked, almost whispering.
“That’s not what I asked you.”
“But was he?” The girl turned from the window for the first time in the drive. Her bangs stuck to her forehead and Sarah had to bite her lip to keep a serious face. She flexed her fingers, opening her palms against the steering wheel, straightened her arms and rolled her shoulders back. Her joints popped and cracked. She opened her mouth and closed it again.
“He would have loved to hear you say that he was. He loved you a lot.” That seemed to satisfy the girl for the moment, and she settled back in her seat, turning her face toward the moon.
“Is that why you had the fight?” Sarah asked.
“That boy was mean about daddy,” Claire said quietly.
Sarah watched the road. There was more to it than that, but she knew that there also wasn’t.
Claire woke up with her forehead against the window. Her mother was quietly listening to the news as she drove them home. Claire stretched her shoulders back against the seat and pressed her cheek into one collarbone then the other, pressed her feet into the floorboard and arched her back off of the seat. She felt like a little girl again for a moment, waking up in Mommy’s car. She was glad her mom had turned down her offer to drive.
“What did you think of the service?” Sarah asked. Claire watched the road ahead and let her eyes focus.
“It really bothered me, but it doesn’t matter.”
“No, it does. What bothered you?” Sarah glanced at the young woman next to her, blinking into the early evening.
“I just hate sermons at funerals, you know?” She yawned and looked at her mother. “They take me out of the moment.”
Forest and field slid between them and the evening sun, and Sarah caught glimpses of last daylight illuminating Claire’s eyes, their hazel burst gold for a few seconds between trees.
“You didn’t think the sermon was comforting?” Sarah finally asked.
“I didn’t,” Claire said. “I was looking at the pictures next to the casket, I was thinking about her, and I was really sad. And I wanted to be sad because I love her and she’s gone and I need to grieve. And then the priest started in on that thing about science not being able to explain why there are two sexes…”
“Yeah, I don’t know what that was about.”
“And from then on, whatever cathartic moment I was hoping for was gone and I was like having an argument with him in my head,” Claire shook her hands in front of her as if rattling a snow globe.
“Well you know,” Sarah said, cocking her head toward her window, “the service wasn’t really for you, it wasn’t for right or wrong…”
“I know,” Claire smiled. She looked at the radio and the parking tag hanging from the rearview. “I mean, it’s the first step in the grieving process. I don’t need a lot of complicated musings. I hate stories. I don’t want to hear them.”
Sarah focused on the miles ahead, flexed her palms against the steering wheel. She couldn’t possibly mean that, she thought. She opened her mouth and closed it again. She let it sit there between them.
“Mom, how long did it take you to get over dad?” Sarah exhaled every breath she had in her, let her shoulders fall towards her chest.
“I don’t know…”
“Mom, we never talk about this and I want to talk about it,” Claire insisted. She set her gaze on her mother and did not move.
“It…” Sarah breathed in. “A surprisingly short amount of time. I’m not really comfortable with how little time it took. But I was so removed from his death.” Claire put her chin in her hand. She knew there was probably more to it than that, but also that there wasn’t. She watched a deer appear at the roadside, meet her eyes for a moment, and then bound back into the woods. She thought about the photos and the casket and closed her eyes against an opening, a widening inside her stomach. The road washed under the car’s tires; Claire heard snow and rock and trees and ice rushing around her. She placed her mother there in her stomach and braced her from the avalanche. She placed a palm on her mom’s leg.
“I met a boy,” she said.
“On the mountain. I was hiking last week and he was there.” Claire’s face disappeared further into her hair.
“What’s his name?” Sarah drew the vowel out to a tease and stuck her elbow into her young woman’s side. Claire said that his name is Steven.
“And you met Steve on a mountain?” Sarah asked.
“It’s Steven, and yeah, you know the one.”
“Well,” Sarah smiled, “I’m just going to hang on to that N until I meet him.”
“I told him about dad,” Claire said after a pause. “I tried not to but we were right there.” Her mother put her hand on her shoulder and asked what Steve had said
“He said dad died a hero.”
Sarah grimaced a sympathetic smile, turned her headlights on and let the night fold over both of them.
When Claire woke up there was beeping and the hushed whine of oxygen flowing through tubes. She felt heavy and hewn to the bed and when she tried to speak, whispers could barely escape her drought-dry mouth.
“What is she saying?”
“She’s saying ‘Hold my hand.’” Steven leaned back in the chair by his wife’s bedside, slackened his neck, examined the ceiling. His mother-in-law stood next to him, watching Claire’s eyelids ripple as her eyes rolled around underneath. “Hold my hand,” Steven and Claire repeated as he reached for the call button.
“Steven threw up in the helicopter,” Claire cracked quietly from under morphine.
“Oh, come on!” her husband mock-protested, “No scrap of dignity in this?”
“Nope,” she smiled.
Sarah watched the two laughing in the face of four broken ribs, a recently inflated lung, seven other fractures in the legs and arms. The doctor had said it was a wonder her daughter’s spine had made it out of the fall intact. Claire’s wheezing chuckle died down and Sarah mentioned that they had been on the news.
“Yeah,” Steven chimed. “Channel 7 covered the rescue live.” If she could have moved her arms, Claire would have covered her face in her hands. Instead she lay still and dipped back under the painkillers in her blood, like sliding into a warm bath. She thought to tell Steven to call his parents, ask how her little girl was, bring the phone to her ear, let them whisper between the two of them, secrets about mountains and boys and eagles and ancient trees; mother and daughter, etching sense into injury. Claire opened her mouth, closed it, and was asleep.
Sarah and Steven watched their young woman like a setting sun and side by side they were alone.
“I’m sorry this happened to you two,” Sarah said.
“Thank you” he said. “Seeing her slip off that ledge and disappear was the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced.” Sarah looked straight ahead, trying not to picture it, not to picture Mount Washington and its craggy sides casting a long shadow over her home forever. “You would have been proud of how calm she was. Her father would have been proud of her.” Sarah stiffened. “Are you sure you don’t want to sit?”
“I’m fine,” Sarah said. An image appeared in her mind: her daughter in winter boots, green pants, khaki shirt, calmly ascending the summit of a mountain, and there finding her father. He extends his hand to her, his crisp ranger uniform fit to his tall muscular frame, and with a handsome smile he meets her for the first time. Sarah drew a breath and the image changed to her daughter as she tumbles down a rocky grade, her limbs flail and her body breaks and Sarah shook herself back to the present and focused her eyes on her girl’s sleeping face.
There was a dull buzz in Steven’s pocket. He answered his phone with a hushed hello and stepped out of the room, turning around in the doorway to say his parents were on their way with his daughter and he’d be back in an hour. Sarah watched him go, phone to his ear, down the hallway and around a corner. The low fuzz of instruments retook the room. Sarah sat at the end of Claire’s bed, put her palms on her lap and leaned in, taking a breath.
“Yes, Claire,” she replied, automatically, cheer entering her voice a moment too late. “I’m here!”
“Mommy!” The girl wriggled the few exposed fingers she had at the end of the cast and Sarah took them in hers and cleared her throat.
“Claire, I have something to tell you.” The breathing apparatus huffed and the girl blinked her eyes. “There was no avalanche.” Her daughter’s brow furrowed, but she continued before the girl could speak. “Your father did not die on Mount Washington, he didn’t die in an avalanche.”
There was suddenly no air in the room. Claire’s fingers held tight. Mother and daughter sat suspended, the hours held for them to return. Novels of conversation passed between their eyes; arguments, fights, forgetting and retelling. Claire searched her mother’s face for answers while Sarah tried to draw forgiveness from her girl’s furrowed brow.
“He left,” Sarah finally said, and it took Claire a moment to piece this to what had come before. “You were three and he left us. When you were four I heard from his brother that he fell in a river and drowned. I hadn’t heard from him in over a year.” The words hung on the hiss of machinery. Claire’s fingers somehow tightened. There were tears on her face. Sarah reached and swept them away. “You and I were alone in the world and you…you stayed so happy in spite of not having a dad that I didn’t want to crush that with the truth. So I made up this bigger tragedy–a heroic tragedy. And that was so much easier for you to carry than the truth would have been.”
Claire felt the rumble of snow and rocks and trees and ice around her, felt a familiar widening in her stomach and inside it stretched her arms against the tumbling mountain. She saw her mother step calmly from the billowing white to whisper in her ear, There has never been this. This will always be with you. As best as the morphine would allow, she arranged her face around sympathetic eyes. Sarah smiled and said she was glad she understood.
“I know you hate stories,” she said.
I don’t hate stories, Claire said in a flutter of her eyes and a crook of her neck.
“I am so so sorry this happened to you, little girl.”
I love you, too, Mom, Claire said in the curls of her fingers, in the lines of her face.
Steven returned with his parents, with his and Claire’s little girl. The child tip-toed as quietly as she could to the edge of her mother’s bed and put her arms up. Steven lifted her to Claire’s feet and she slid beside her mother’s hip to a chorus of carefuls, and rested her arm, outstretched, under her head. Claire smiled at the girl there, felt her impatient warmth wedged between her body and the bedrail, felt her shoes toeing at the cast on her leg.
“Mommy, why did you fall off the mountain?”
Claire smiled wider and swallowed the pain of a laugh. She wiggled her fingers and the girl wrapped her hand around them.
“Well you see, your grandpa was a mountain ranger.”