It gets harder to whistle and sing, which I’m doing to keep the animals away, which you hate precisely because it keeps the animals away.
We march along the trail and it’s early in the morning so there’s still an icy crust on the muck. We’re going at a fast clip, which I can never understand, how people always start out walking so fast when they hike. What’s the rush, you’ll get there or you won’t, who actually cares? My feet begin to skate out from underneath me, and I shriek and it’s like the noise of it swallows the whole world. My hiking pole catches along the side of the path just in time to keep me upright.
“Close call!” I chirp.
There were signs posted at the trailhead — bear country, wolf country, lone male spotted.
At the diner outside the campground the night before, we joked over our late-night breakfast and decaf coffee, and watched the men sitting alone at the counter. “That one’s a serial killer,” we giggled, “Oh, that one’s a psycho for sure.” The dining room was nearly empty, the waitstaff slamming chairs on top of Formica-topped tables, but I was certain that the men could hear us. I watched one after the other, a line of hunched lumberjack plaid and hunting caps, shift their weight on their stools, grind their heavy elbows into the countertop, their ears pricking like antennae, eyes like slits, as you kissed me with your open mouth. “They’re watching,” I whispered, your hand crawling up my waist. Snickering, we returned to our campsite under the vacuum of a new moon. I got my kit and scurried alone through the dark towards the tungsten glow of the restroom facilities at the far end of the service road, feeling their breath at my back, imagining their dripping incisors –
The facilities were bone cold, institutional, cinderblock. Sand and dead moths on the cracked concrete floor. Under the bright lights, brushing my teeth alone at the sink. There was an open screened-in window, where a vanity mirror would be. I bent down to drink from the tap and then stood up straight as I swished the cold water in my mouth. Framed in the window before me was the face of a man suspended in the darkness outside. It was the face of one of the men from the diner, yellow light from inside the restroom pooling on his balding forehead and the broad flat of his nose, coarse dark hair sprouting on his cheeks, spilling down his jaw and into the open collar of his tartan shirt. His watery eyes watched me. Expressionless as a mouse, I pretended to see through him as we locked eyes. Out the open window, the wind rushed through the trees, and my nostrils flared so slightly, trying to catch the scent of him. His thin, dark hair fluttered around his ears.
“Let’s watch you change,” a deep voice, loud, like he was in the room with me, “Let’s see what you’ve got under that shirt.”
I pretended not to hear him, like he was a hallucination, and lowered my face to spit the water out in the sink, thinking death. When I lifted my head to the screen again, he was gone.
We ascend through the white spruce and my heart is pumping hard. The trail is steep, and as I pick my way up through the rocks, I can’t see through the trees in front of us or side-to-side, but I imagine them in my mind — their leering yellow eyes, almond-shaped like danger. I struggle slowly up the mountainside and then you sigh as I stop at the edge of another switchback. “Just a minute,” I gasp, “just a minute to catch my breath.” I can’t whistle anymore but I think about those sly eyes, they are animals but, no, they are men —
When we reach the top of the climb, the trail cuts through a soft, level meadow and my spirit soars. We stroll past the late season wildflowers and the strangest mushrooms. “Is that bear scat or fungi?” I ask, and you get excited. You pull your camera out from its holster, and I get a chance to rest. I am excited by the thought of pulling sandwiches out of our packs at the end of this trail and I think, “I can do this, I can do this for lunch,” as we start climbing again.
The switchbacks up the second mountainside are worse, and the spruce at the top are stunted but packed together like trees on a Christmas lot. I try to force a whistle out as we wind our way through the pygmy forest but I’m a deflated balloon. The sun is hot as we step out of the trees and delight in the vista, the fertile bowl of the alpine steppe before us. “Lunch!” I proclaim. “There!” you point, and my eyes sweep up a branch of the trail scratched into the side of a bald summit hovering over the meadowlands.
We trek up the open trail and you encourage me, always one step behind me. This is my least favorite part about hiking, the words of encouragement. It means I’m failing, I’m faltering. On one side, the meadows roll up the granite faces of the peaks crowning the glacial valley. On the other, the lush spruce tumble down the slopes all the way to the lake edge, twinkling turquoise, far below us. I can feel a tightening in my solar plexus as I contemplate the view. “This is good!” I decide. You say, “To the top!” I say, “You go ahead!” But you push me on. A cold gust sweeps down from the crags above us, chilling the sweat drenching my clothes.
Voices rise up and over the crest ahead of us, buzzing down the trail, deep voices. I shiver. “Oh no,” I say as I approach the summit, my chest bursting, “Oh no.” I stop and grip my hiking pole, pushing it deeper into the bare ground at my feet, this rut in the earth. And what if a wolf, spade-shaped head low and grinning, were to emerge from the other side of the summit as I struggle to catch my breath? What if a wolf were to be there waiting for me with his enormous paws and dark plaid collared-shirt, snarling and howling? “Keep going!” I hear you say behind me, “You’re nearly there!” And if the sky were to rip apart overhead, exposing the pitch of deep space? The wolf and I suspended like a constellation in the ecstatic moment before he catches my throat in his teeth, his watery eyes and his hands under my shirt —
“Hold me,” I call into the wind. Just like I did the night before, running back to our tent through the dead thickets. I spin to face you, my eyes shut tight, spinning blind — I didn’t tell you about the men, I didn’t tell you about pulling off my fleece and my shirt in the restroom, shivering under the lights. Clutching my hiking pole tight in one hand and the scruff of your neck in the other, I can hear you protesting, but I bite down on your shoulder as hard as I can to keep this rock from spinning.
Sarah Arantza Amador resides in the Santa Cruz Mountains of Northern California and writes about longing, ghost-making, and the endearment of monsters. Her work is featured in Best Microfiction 2019 and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions. She tweets @ArantzaSarah and sometimes blogs from www.saraharantzaamador.com.