Stuck on a Rock

Prairie Fire - - ROSELLA M. LESLIE -

THEIR PLAN WAS TO LEAVE AT FIRST LIGHT and be back be­fore the storm hit.

“Weather chan­nel says it’s go­ing to be a bad one,” Anne warned. But War­ren couldn’t find his favourite reel. “I al­ways keep it right here,” he said, pulling out a drawer that con­tained lures and line and a box of reel parts—but no reel. “Kids must have bor­rowed it.”

The grand­kids hadn’t vis­ited all sum­mer, but she didn’t ar­gue with him. Once he set his mind to some­thing, there was no chang­ing it.

“You rinsed it un­der the bath­room tap,” she re­mem­bered, af­ter search­ing his work room and ev­ery other place she could think of. In des­per­a­tion she rum­maged through toi­letry and linen cup­boards and found the reel be­hind a stack of tow­els.

“Some­one hid it,” he said crossly.

The sun was well up when they fi­nally started down the gravel path to the boathouse, but a chilly breeze was drift­ing off the wa­ter. She wished she’d worn a sweater be­neath her wind­breaker. The oys­ter bucket bumped against her legs and her ny­lon cargo pants rus­tled in time with the crunch of maple leaves un­der­foot. Curb­ing her im­pulse to hurry, she matched her pace to War­ren’s slow, de­lib­er­ate steps.

“We’ll go up to the Nar­rows,” he said, his gnarled fists grip­ping his fish­ing rods and tackle box. “Coho might be run­ning.”

There wasn’t the slight­est pos­si­bil­ity of coho in any of the in­lets, but she would not point this out. He was right even when he was wrong.

In the boathouse where the Is­abel, their eigh­teen-foot Alum­naweld boat, was berthed, he laid his gear on the dock while she knelt be­side the stern, grabbed the starboard gun­wale and snugged the boat to the walk­way.

“We’re go­ing for oys­ters in Hid­den Cove,” she re­minded him. “The Clyde group is com­ing.” Ev­ery Thanks­giv­ing week­end for the past ten years Jim Clyde had brought his store man­agers to Anne and War­ren’s

fish­ing lodge at Ar­bu­tus Point. “You re­mem­ber them, right?” she asked with un­in­tended sharp­ness.

War­ren forced his stiff knees to bend just enough to climb aboard, and when he’d re­gained his bal­ance, she passed his gear to him. He looked down at his rods, his ex­pres­sion confused. “If we’re go­ing for oys­ters, why did I bring these?”

“Be­cause while I’m gath­er­ing oys­ters, you can fish.” They’d gone over the plan three times since break­fast, but as he stowed his tackle box be­neath a seat and placed his rods in the hold­ers along the port gun­wale, she knew he’d al­ready for­got­ten his ques­tion.

The hun­dred-horse­power en­gine purred to life. She un­tied the lines and climbed aboard and by the time she had stowed the oys­ter pail and made her way for­ward, he had backed the Is­abel from the shed, shifted gears and was edg­ing the boat around the boom that pro­tected their dock. As soon as he reached open wa­ter, he gunned the mo­tor and they sped up the in­let.

The lightly rip­pled wa­ter sparkled be­neath a sky so blue it hurt, but War­ren was look­ing be­yond the blue to the clouds dark­en­ing the north­ern horizon.

“Storm’s com­ing,” he wor­ried. “Maybe we should go back.”

“No!” Anne said sharply be­fore the idea of go­ing back lodged it­self too firmly in his mind. “We’ve got a cou­ple of hours at least. Plenty of time to get the oys­ters and make it home.”

For once he didn’t ar­gue, per­haps be­cause he was still think­ing about coho.

An hour later, War­ren throt­tled down and care­fully guided the boat through a nar­row open­ing and into the wide but deep bay called Hid­den Cove. A thick for­est of cedars and hem­lock ob­scured the en­trance and the cove’s south­ern shore, but a mix of cedars and ar­bu­tus grew out of the cracks in the rocks on the steep north side that was ter­raced with rocky ledges swad­dled with golden moss. She had once tried to climb a sim­i­lar slope, think­ing it was as easy as it looked, and al­most slid into the sea when the moss gave way be­neath her. Since then, she had left climb­ing to those who knew what they were do­ing.

A jagged frac­ture drew a ver­ti­cal line be­tween the ter­raced slope and the steep gran­ite out­crop that marked the end of the cove. On the beach be­neath the out­crop was a ragged col­lec­tion of huge boul­ders that had split from the moun­tain eons ago. Vis­i­ble only at the low­est tide, the seasmoothed slabs rested on a nar­row un­der­wa­ter ledge, which, ac­cord­ing to War­ren’s depth fin­der, dropped off steeply another forty feet, but they shel­tered an oys­ter colony that was known only to the few year-round in­let dwellers.

As the boat drew closer, she kicked off her socks and run­ners and squeezed into a pair of aqua shoes. They were tight around her an­kles, but the non-skid rub­ber soles were much safer on the rocks than reg­u­lar shoes. Un­fas­ten­ing the can­vas flap above her, she opened the

walk-through sec­tion of the wind­screen and lugged her oys­ter bucket con­tain­ing her gloves and a screw­driver to the bow.

The tide had al­ready turned when War­ren nosed the boat into a Vshaped gap be­tween two of the rocks. He frowned at their al­gae-slick sur­faces.

“Too slip­pery, An­nie. And you’re not wear­ing a life jacket.”

“I’ll be fine,” she snapped, hat­ing his cau­tion, hat­ing his as­sump­tion that her bal­ance and mo­bil­ity were as com­pro­mised as his. She might be sixty-five, but she still ran the lo­cal half-marathon each spring.

She swung her legs over the bow, waited un­til the waves from their wake sub­sided, then slid down to the rocks. Land­ing harder than she ex­pected, she found her­self skid­ding to­wards the wa­ter and only saved her­self and her bucket by grab­bing the bow rail. She didn’t look at War­ren as she pushed the boat away from the rock. “I’ll wave when I’m done!” she shouted as he re­versed the en­gine.

Bar­na­cles crunched be­neath her knees as she crawled to the edge of the boul­der where oys­ters were grow­ing just be­neath the wa­ter’s sur­face. She rolled up her sleeves be­fore se­lect­ing the big­gest one, eased the screw­driver blade be­tween it and the rock and gently ap­plied just enough pres­sure to break the mol­lusk free. Toss­ing it into the bucket, she moved on to her sec­ond vic­tim. When she had five, she stopped and, leav­ing the smaller oys­ters there to grow, climbed onto another boul­der, one with oys­ters that were not un­der wa­ter.

She paused to watch the Is­abel, trail­ing War­ren’s sal­mon gear, make a wide, slow cir­cle around the bay. There was no con­vinc­ing him that it was thirty years since he’d last caught a sal­mon any­where in the in­let. That catch was as real to him to­day as it had been then. She closed her eyes and tried to man­i­fest a coho for him—one last beau­ti­fully mag­nif­i­cent catch, be­fore he de­scended into the hell await­ing him as his de­men­tia pro­gressed. But there was no catch, and as he started a new cir­cuit, she went back to work, jab­bing an oys­ter so fiercely that she cracked the shell.

Sim­mer down, An­nie girl, War­ren whis­pered in her thoughts. We’ve got a long way to go be­fore the sun sets.

His gently spo­ken words had of­ten soothed her in the past, though not so much any­more. Now the slight­est bump in her day could kin­dle her tem­per and an ornery oys­ter refusing to let go of a damned rock was a very large bump. But smash­ing their shells all to hell wasn’t go­ing to fill her bucket. With a stead­ier, calmer hand, she moved slowly from one oys­ter to another, se­lect­ing each one care­fully, choos­ing only those that would give way without break­ing. By the time she stepped onto the largest rock, a rect­an­gu­lar-shaped boul­der that butted against the gran­ite wall, she had al­most gath­ered her quota.

The tide was com­ing in faster than she had an­tic­i­pated, and although this rock stood higher than the oth­ers, wa­ter was al­ready creep­ing close to the sur­face. But the boul­der’s lower sides shel­tered all the oys­ters she needed to fill her bucket. Quickly, be­fore the wa­ter rose any higher, she

knelt to pry one of them free and was splashed in the face by a wave hit­ting the wall. Twist­ing about, she saw that the wa­ter near the shore had grown choppy. If it got worse, War­ren would not be able to come close enough to pick her up. Cast­ing a re­gret­ful glance at the un­picked oys­ters, she cursed the lost reel that had de­layed them that morn­ing, got to her feet and raised an arm to sig­nal the boat.

The Is­abel was nowhere in sight.

Shield­ing her eyes from the sun, she searched the cove’s wa­ter again. Where the hell is he?

It wasn’t like War­ren to go far from her, es­pe­cially with a wind com­ing up and the tide ris­ing. She moved away from the edge of the rock as a larger wave swept over her feet.

Has he for­got­ten me?

“Not a chance,” she scoffed. She was as much a part of War­ren as he was of her. Two peas in the same pod, they used to tell each other, though not so of­ten any­more.

A wave swept over her rock and when it didn’t re­cede, she looked un­easily at the dark stain on the cliff wall. If she stayed here, it wouldn’t be long be­fore the wa­ter was up to her chest.

Don’t panic, she told her­self sternly, and pulled her cell­phone from its plas­tic zip­per bag. It was a faint hope, since there were few places on the in­let that could ac­cess a sig­nal, and she wasn’t sur­prised when the top bar in­di­cated no ser­vice. Fin­gers trem­bling, she re­sealed the bag and was re­turn­ing it to her pocket when she glimpsed a boat in the nar­row open­ing to the in­let and heard the faint throb­bing of an en­gine.

“Hey!” She waved both arms fran­ti­cally. “War­ren! Over here!”

But the small ves­sel wasn’t the Is­abel. It was a crab boat and it con­tin­ued past the open­ing without stop­ping. She low­ered her arms. The fish­er­man had prob­a­bly checked his traps and was head­ing home with his catch. It could be two or three days be­fore he re­turned, and this late in the sea­son there wasn’t much other traf­fic on the wa­ter. Since it was a Sun­day, even the crew boats and barges fer­ry­ing men and equip­ment to log­ging or hy­dro camps weren’t op­er­at­ing. In any case, there was lit­tle like­li­hood that any­one would see her here in the bay. It was called Hid­den for a rea­son.

She sur­veyed the wa­ter be­tween her rock and the in­let open­ing, cal­cu­lat­ing the time it would take her to swim the dis­tance, cer­tain that it would re­quire a lot longer than twenty min­utes, which was how long a per­son could sur­vive in this cold wa­ter be­fore hy­pother­mia set in.

Turn­ing, she ex­am­ined the cliff again. It wasn’t as sheer as she had as­sumed, and she could see cracks and in­den­ta­tions that she had missed be­fore, in­clud­ing a cleft just above her head. It was wide enough for a hand­hold, and if she could pull her­self up that far, she could reach the ledge above it. Be­yond that she was sure she could find other places to latch onto. It was doable, she told her­self firmly. But the rock she was on felt safer than the wall and she couldn’t make her­self move, not even as the wa­ter crept up to her an­kles.

She twisted about and stared at the wa­ter.

War­ren, where the hell are you?

She looked up at the sky. The dark clouds he had wor­ried about ear­lier were rapidly ad­vanc­ing from the north.

“Damn it, War­ren! You went home, didn’t you, you silly bug­ger!” She pic­tured him, jaw set, turn­ing the Is­abel about and head­ing for the open­ing. “You pig-headed old fart!”

She pounded her fists against her legs then swung around and glared at the gran­ite wall.

“There’s more than one bloody kind of stub­born,” she mut­tered.

She cast a re­gret­ful glance at the oys­ters in her bucket, shoved three of them into the pouch of her wind­breaker, and dumped the rest. Cram­ming the screw­driver into the same pocket as her wa­ter bot­tle, she grabbed the crack with one hand and wedged a foot into a slight in­den­ta­tion. The rub­ber sole of her shoes gave her enough trac­tion to push up­wards and by pulling with her arm she raised her­self high enough to wedge her other foot into a sec­ond in­den­ta­tion. En­cour­aged, she reached for another rift half an arm’s length from her head, but it was so slick with al­gae that when she tried to pull her­self up, her fin­gers lost their grip and be­fore she could grab any­thing else, she fell back­wards.

Her head just missed the boul­der as she plunged into the wa­ter. Dis­ori­ented, strug­gling against grav­ity and cur­rent and fight­ing for air, she fi­nally righted her­self and dog-pad­dled to the sur­face, only to be swept away from the cliff and car­ried along the western shore where the waves hurled her against the rocks, sucked her back to the sea and hurled her for­ward again. Fran­ti­cally, she grabbed onto a rock, an­chor­ing her­self to it, and as soon as the wave re­ceded, she scram­bled, cough­ing and chok­ing, up the steep em­bank­ment. Hook­ing her arm about the red, twisted trunk of an ar­bu­tus tree, she pulled her­self onto a grassy mound, then leaned for­ward and vom­ited salt wa­ter and bile.

Even­tu­ally, she re­leased her stran­gle­hold on the tree and her shak­ing sub­sided enough for her to open the Vel­cro-sealed pocket that held her wa­ter bot­tle. She rinsed her mouth, took a few cau­tious sips, then set the bot­tle aside and pulled out her cell­phone, bless­ing the in­ven­tor of the zip­pered bag that had kept it dry. But the phone still showed no ser­vice.

A light gust of wind swept the shore, teas­ing her wet clothes. Shiv­er­ing, she took stock of her new cir­cum­stances. She was above the high-wa­ter line, which meant that she would be safe from the ris­ing tide, but she was also fully ex­posed to the weather. There was only the slimmest chance that War­ren would re­mem­ber that he’d left her on the rocks and an even slighter chance that any­one else would ven­ture into the cove to­day. Her only hope was to climb higher to a spot that was more shel­tered and where there might be a cell­phone sig­nal, which sounded sim­ple enough in her head, but ev­ery time she started to move she was over­whelmed by the sensation of fall­ing back­wards.

I can’t do it. The words re­peated in her head un­til they were over­rid­den by War­ren’s soft voice.

“You’re no quit­ter, An­nie. You can do this.”

She fought back tears. He was right, she told her­self, and tak­ing a deep breath, she climbed onto the rock above her. From there she crawled onto a rough in­cline and crab-walked to a spot where the foot­ing was more se­cure. Grip­ping the top of a shoul­der-high out­crop, she leaned her belly into the sloped side and pro­pelled her­self onto the ledge. En­cour­aged, she moved for­ward, angling some­times to the left, and some­times to the right, find­ing a toe­hold here and a hand­hold there, avoid­ing the mossy ar­eas and be­com­ing so en­grossed that she was stunned when she came to a dead end. There were no toe-or hand­holds within reach that would en­able her to go up, and pas­sage to her right was blocked by a wild rose bush an­chored tena­ciously in a crevice.

Low­er­ing her­self to sit on the mossy ledge, she pressed her back against the rock. Be­low her the sheet of gran­ite rip­pled and plunged to­ward the sea. The ar­bu­tus tree she had clung to be­fore seemed minis­cule, and she won­dered how the hell she had climbed so high. From here she could see both Hid­den Cove and the main in­let, but there were no boats in sight and the wa­ter that had been so blue when they started out was now steely grey. The sun had dis­ap­peared, blan­keted by ashen clouds swirling with streaks of greys and blacks that were mov­ing rapidly to­ward the Cove. Rain was al­ready fall­ing on the moun­tains to the north.

The warmth she had gen­er­ated while climb­ing van­ished as an icy blast of wind threat­ened to sweep her from her pre­car­i­ous perch on the ledge. Not dar­ing to move, she gripped the edge and, clos­ing her eyes, pic­tured War­ren walk­ing slowly up the hill to the lodge, ex­pect­ing to find her in the kitchen mak­ing pies or fix­ing their lunch. But he would ac­cept her ab­sence as he had ac­cepted most things in his life. “If it’s bad news, An­nie,” he would say, “it’ll find you soon enough. In the mean­time, you might as well get on with liv­ing.”

Even the doc­tor’s di­ag­no­sis had not al­tered War­ren’s prag­ma­tism. Anne had been deal­ing with his mem­ory loss for months be­fore she fi­nally worked up the courage to seek a med­i­cal opin­ion. She had thought she was pre­pared for any­thing, but when the doc­tor said “de­men­tia,” she was so dev­as­tated that she couldn’t breathe or con­cen­trate on his sum­mary of the dis­ease.

War­ren hadn’t even blinked. “Can I still drive?” he had asked, and af­ter the doc­tor nod­ded and said that yes, he was fine for now, War­ren had pressed his lips tight and said no more about it un­til that night as he and Anne were ly­ing sleep­less in the dark. “When the time comes, do what you gotta do, An­nie,” he said qui­etly. “Put me in a home. Bonk me over the head with a shovel. It won’t mat­ter.”

She had protested, sworn she’d be there for him to the very end and there would be no bonk­ing with shov­els or any­thing else.

“Then that’s that,” he had said and rolled over onto his side. In a few mo­ments he was snor­ing softly. He never spoke of it again and she doubted that he even re­mem­bered the di­ag­no­sis, never mind the con­ver­sa­tion.

Now, pulling out her wa­ter bot­tle, she drank thirstily, dis­re­gard­ing the wa­ter spilling down her chin and neck, then rested the bot­tle on her knee and con­tem­plated the rose­bush. It was firmly en­sconced in a fis­sure that prob­a­bly ex­tended deep be­neath the ledge, and if she was care­ful, she might be able to squeeze be­tween the bush and the rock be­hind her.

“Piece of cake!” she told her­self, but as she leaned to one side to shove the bot­tle back into her pocket, the layer of moss be­neath her gave way, slid­ing over the edge and car­ry­ing her with it. She screamed and twisted about and grabbed the edge of the rock, stop­ping her fall. As the bot­tle tum­bled and clunked down the rocks be­fore it splashed into the sea, she tried to pull her­self back onto the ledge, but her feet just skid­ded on the slip­pery gran­ite. Her arms burned from the pain of bear­ing her weight, and los­ing her grip on the ledge, she reached out and grabbed the rose­bush. The thorns pierced her gloves, but she twisted and squirmed un­til she was back on the ledge, this time on the far side of the bush. She hud­dled there un­til her shak­ing sub­sided; then, af­ter pick­ing as many thorns as she could from her hands, crawled to the next ledge and the next, inch­ing up­ward un­til she was stopped once again, this time by the frac­ture that was too steep-sided and too wide for her to cross.

She stared at the gap be­tween her­self and the trees on the far side that promised safety. They might just as well be on the moon, she thought, feel­ing the same sick sense of de­feat that had over­whelmed her when she fi­nally ac­cepted that there was noth­ing she could do to shift War­ren’s de­men­tia.

“There will come a time when he won’t know who you are,” the doc­tor had said, and show­ing her an im­age of War­ren’s brain, pointed out the clus­ters of sticky pro­teins and tan­gled nerve cells that were block­ing sig­nals and rav­aging his mem­o­ries.

Refusing to be­lieve him, she had pro­ceeded to read ev­ery­thing she could find on the dis­ease. She dis­cov­ered ar­ti­cles that in­sisted Alzheimer’s could be stopped if you just fol­lowed this or that mag­i­cal cure, and de­ter­mined to try ev­ery damned one of them, she cut but­ter from their diet and used co­conut oil in­stead, banned sugar from the menu, but added red wine when some­one some­where in­sisted it would stim­u­late a hor­mone or gene or some other bloody thing that would en­hance cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties. When a friend gave her a link to a web­site that claimed men­tal ex­er­cise would slow the progress of de­men­tia, she in­tro­duced brain games to their daily rou­tine, and for a while they seemed to work. War­ren had no com­puter skills, but with her op­er­at­ing the key­board, typ­ing in his answers, he man­aged to use the mouse and ad­vanced sev­eral lev­els. Then he started los­ing points, and re­fused to play. The mys­te­ri­ous “they” who now tor­mented his world had rigged the games for fail­ure.

“How does that make sense?” Anne had de­manded of him. “The com­pany only makes money if you suc­ceed and con­tinue to play.”

But by then she had come to re­al­ize that it didn’t need to make sense. If War­ren de­cided a game was rigged or a storm was com­ing, all the facts

in the world would not change his mind. And re­al­iz­ing that there was just no ar­gu­ing with stub­born—at least not with his par­tic­u­lar brand of stub­born—and there was no diet or sup­ple­ment or pro­gram that was go­ing to stop his de­cline, she gave up.

Now she stared down at the dark grey in­let wa­ters. A sin­gle freighter plowed along the far­thest shore, but there were no other boats. She was alone ex­cept for an ea­gle swoop­ing and glid­ing on the wind cur­rents high above her. She took out her phone again. There was still no cel­lu­lar ser­vice, and the bat­tery bar was at the half­way mark. Up a cliff without a phone, she thought, feel­ing slightly hys­ter­i­cal. The dark­en­ing clouds had made it seem as if dusk was fast ap­proach­ing, but ac­cord­ing to her phone, she still had about three hours of day­light left.

She sur­veyed the canyon be­side her once more, and this time no­ticed a tan­gle of roots some dis­tance above her. Not dar­ing to hope, she crawled higher and dis­cov­ered they be­longed to a fallen tree. At least a foot in di­am­e­ter at the base and spiked with the stubs of its for­mer branches, the tree lay across the ravine, its ta­pered end dis­ap­pear­ing into the trees on the far side. On closer in­spec­tion, the trunk ap­peared solid enough, but there was no way for her to de­ter­mine if it was sturdy enough to hold her weight.

It was prob­a­bly safer to stay ex­actly where she was, she rea­soned. The tree’s canopy of roots would pro­vide some pro­tec­tion from the worst of the ad­vanc­ing storm. Af­ter all, sea planes flew over this area all the time. If she could hold out un­til this storm passed in a day or two, it was pos­si­ble that a pi­lot might spot her—though hell freez­ing over was prob­a­bly a bet­ter bet.

“Just fo­cus on what you need to do, and not on the out­come,” War­ren would tell her in the old days when­ever she got into a panic.

“Easy enough to do when you aren’t stranded on a moun­tain­side,” she mut­tered now as she worked her way past the tan­gle of roots and strad­dled the tree. Af­ter a few failed at­tempts, she dis­cov­ered that by cen­ter­ing her weight on her hands and lift­ing her butt, she could edge her­self a few inches for­ward, but it was a painful ex­er­cise. Her shoul­der com­plained bit­terly with ev­ery lift, the stubs of for­mer branches jabbed her legs, and the fur­ther she went, the more the trunk wob­bled. Then she made the mis­take of look­ing down and froze. It was a very long way to the bot­tom.

“Fo­cus!” she told her­self sternly. “You can do this.”

Look­ing away from the rocks be­low, she con­cen­trated on the sil­ver grey tex­ture of the log and lean­ing into her hands again, lifted her butt and moved ahead, then ducked as a pow­er­ful swoosh­ing rent the air above her. She lurched side­ways as an ea­gle swooped over her head. Perch­ing on the up­per­most branch of a cedar on the far side of the ravine, the bird stared down at her, waiting, she was cer­tain, for her to fall and pro­vide it with an easy din­ner.

“Not to­day,” she told the bird, and re­gain­ing her bal­ance, and her calm, she con­tin­ued across the log while the ea­gle watched and waited.

The trunk ta­pered to the width of a flag pole, bounc­ing vi­o­lently with each move that she made, so that she fully ex­pected it to snap at any mo­ment, and when she gave a fi­nal lift and push and her feet con­nected with solid ground, her legs shook so much that she could scarcely crawl up the earthy em­bank­ment. Once there, se­curely cra­dled by the knobby roots of a tall cedar, she curled into a fe­tal po­si­tion, clasped her knees and sobbed.

There would be plateaus, the doc­tor said, ex­plain­ing that these were pe­ri­ods when War­ren would seem al­most nor­mal, when for some rea­son yet to be de­ter­mined, the de­men­tia would pause and even re­treat. The first time it hap­pened, she was filled with hope. He fixed the rail­ing on the lodge deck and brought her flow­ers from the meadow and told her how much he loved her. He even in­ter­acted with the guests in­stead of re­treat­ing as he had been do­ing for months, and he took a large group on a fish­ing trip, re­turn­ing with a tro­phy ling cod. That night af­ter the guests had re­tired he had read poems to her while they sat in front of the fire, her head on his lap, his fin­gers curling strands of her hair. His voice was deep and rich and the words flowed like mu­sic. She had been at peace, filled with love for him and a cer­tainty that all would now be well.

Two nights later when she had come to bed late, he had asked sus­pi­ciously, “Are you my wife?” It was just a blip, and as soon as he was fully awake, he had laughed about it. But she knew he had fallen off the plateau.

Grad­u­ally, she be­came aware of the world once more—the sound of the wind rustling the tops of the trees, the wet­ness of the moss be­neath her cheek—and the fact that she was shiv­er­ing from the cold. She needed wa­ter and en­ergy food, she thought, and clum­sily fished an oys­ter and the screw­driver from her pock­ets. Af­ter sev­eral failed at­tempts and jab­bing her hand with the blade, she pried the shell open and downed the oys­ter and nec­tar in a sin­gle, greedy swal­low. Then she leaned back, rested her head against the bark of the tree, closed her eyes and dozed.

A high-pitched scream woke her. Star­tled, she looked to­ward the sound and saw the ea­gle had landed on the log, far enough away from her to be safe but close enough to fix its eye on the dis­carded oys­ter shell. “Noth­ing left,” she apol­o­gized, her words com­ing out as a croak. The ea­gle cocked its head.

If it wasn’t for her thirst, she would have stayed where she was, shel­tered by the tree, warmed by the thick moss. But the salty nec­tar from the oys­ter had parched her al­ready dry throat and she had no choice. She had to find wa­ter.

Most of this area had been logged, and though it was many years ago, she had a hunch that if she kept go­ing up she would reach one of the roads left be­hind. Get­ting painfully to her feet, she pushed her way through the woods, climb­ing over downed trees that col­lapsed be­neath her feet and

sent her sprawl­ing, am­bushed by moss-cov­ered holes and blocked by salal bushes grow­ing too thick to pen­e­trate. Still, there was al­ways a limb or a root for her to grab onto and on one cedar tree she found sev­eral clumps of li­corice fern. Break­ing off a root, she scraped away the outer coat­ing and popped a piece into her mouth. It tasted bit­ter, but her li­corice flavoured saliva fooled her body into be­liev­ing she was quench­ing her thirst.

When at last she reached a spot where the ground was level, she felt slightly dis­ori­ented. She paused to study the fir and cedar trees and scar­let-leafed el­der­berry bushes that sur­rounded her and her heart quick­ened. A few more steps and she was stand­ing on a road—one long over­grown with alders, but a road that might lead her to a beach on the in­let or to an ac­tive road or to some­place where her cell­phone would work.

Wind whis­tled through the tree tops, buf­fet­ing en­twined trunks un­til they whined in protest. She shiv­ered.

In her head War­ren said softly, Have to keep mov­ing, old girl.

She broke off another bit of fern, and chew­ing the bit­ter­sweet root, be­gan push­ing her way be­tween alder saplings, so in­tent on what she was do­ing that she didn’t hear the trick­ling un­til the trees gave way and she found her­self stand­ing on the edge of a small creek. Spit­ting the root onto the ground, she dropped to her belly and plunged her face into the wa­ter and drank un­til her thirst was sated.

If she’d had matches or any other means of light­ing a fire, she might have been tempted to shel­ter by this stream, at least for the night. But re­mem­ber­ing the re­port of a cougar sight­ing passed on by one of the log­gers who’d stopped at Ar­bu­tus Point a few days ear­lier, she de­cided against it. In­stead, af­ter re­mov­ing her phone from its zip­pered bag, she filled the bag with wa­ter and re­sealed it, then tried to stuff it into the pouch of her wind­breaker. But the seal broke, flood­ing the pouch.

Pa­tiently, she re­filled the bag, and clutch­ing it gin­gerly in one hand, stepped across the creek and car­ried on down the road. The trees were thin­ner here, en­abling her to see far­ther ahead; pick­ing up her pace, she rounded a cor­ner then came to an abrupt stop. Less than six me­tres from where she stood, a large black mound lum­bered down a steep, gravel berm that ef­fec­tively cut off the road ahead.

She had en­coun­tered black bears many times be­fore, but not in the woods where there was no place to run, and never an an­i­mal as big as this one. Not dar­ing to move, she watched it wad­dle to the bot­tom of the em­bank­ment. There it paused to sniff the air be­fore sham­bling to­ward her.

Bears, she knew, were near­sighted and no­to­ri­ously lazy, and although this one may have picked up her scent, there was a chance it hadn’t seen her, but she wasn’t tak­ing any chances. Drop­ping the wa­ter bag, she grabbed a mossy alder branch from the ground and bran­dished it in the air.

“Hey!” she shouted. “Hey!”

The bear peered at her and be­gan swing­ing its head from side to side. She shouted again and waved the branch as fiercely as she could— so fiercely that it snapped in two, the top fly­ing off into the trees, star­tling both the bear and her­self.

Un­daunted, she waved the stub and yelled even louder.

“Hey! Hey! Hey!”

The bear swung its head once more, then wheeled about, lunged back up the em­bank­ment and dis­ap­peared from view. Still shak­ing her bro­ken stick, she be­gan singing about the halls of Mon­tezuma in a loud, cracked, off-key voice that she was cer­tain would frighten away the de­mons of hell. When she was sure the bear had gone, she climbed the gravel slope and found her­self on a newly built log­ging road.

“Heard there’s a river tur­bine go­ing in at Bruin Creek,” War­ren had told her a while back. As usual, she had thought he’d fab­ri­cated the story to ex­plain why a barge loaded with equip­ment was head­ing up the in­let, but now she won­dered if he had been right. Run-of-the river hy­dro projects were be­ing in­stalled in al­most ev­ery ma­jor creek on the coast, and Bruin Creek had a steady, year-round flow that emp­tied into the in­let about three miles north­east of the oys­ter bed. If that was the case here, there must be a work camp, prob­a­bly some­where near tidewater.

She stood in the mid­dle of the road try­ing to de­cide which way would lead to the camp, and which would take her deeper into the moun­tains. Without the sun to guide her, she had no sense of north, south, east or west, but she did know that her life de­pended on mak­ing the right choice.

Lately, she hated mak­ing choices, es­pe­cially when they con­cerned her hus­band.

“War­ren’s de­men­tia is progressing,” the doc­tor told her, and warned that she needed to start mak­ing changes. “You won’t be able to care for him for much longer liv­ing way up the in­let.”

She had thought about it for a week be­fore broach­ing the sub­ject with War­ren.

“I’m not mov­ing till they plant me in the ground,” he’d said. It was the first time in months he’d weighed in on a de­ci­sion of any kind. Mostly he couldn’t choose what he wanted for break­fast, never mind where they should live. Last week when she asked him to write out a cheque for their gas bill he had said qui­etly, “You do it, honey. You’re bet­ter at that than me.”

But she knew she wasn’t bet­ter at any­thing. War­ren was her strength— the calm, sen­si­ble, re­li­able yin to her im­pul­sive yang. It is what had drawn her to him the day they met at a sports show in the city. He was look­ing for fish­ing gear and she was demon­strat­ing fish cakes made with a pack­aged mix. By the end of the day he had ten boxes of mix and they knew pretty much ev­ery­thing that was im­por­tant about each other. He was a fish­ing guide who hated the city, went to the States ev­ery Christ­mas to visit his wid­owed mother, and dreamed of build­ing a lodge on a piece of prop­erty he’d bought up a re­mote in­let. She was reeling from the death

of both par­ents in a car ac­ci­dent and the end of an af­fair with her boss, who had dumped her when his wife threat­ened di­vorce. Six months later War­ren and Anne were mar­ried and liv­ing in an old shack on Ar­bu­tus Point and plan­ning the foun­da­tion for their lodge.

There was no way they were go­ing to leave the in­let, she told the doc­tor. This was their spot, the place where they had raised their two boys be­fore send­ing them off into the world. The place where he felt safe and happy, and so did she. They were out­doors peo­ple, lulled to sleep by the wind rustling through the trees and greeted in the early morn­ing by the squawk­ing of seag­ulls. They shared their break­fast watch­ing deer nib­bling salmonberry leaves out­side their kitchen win­dow.

She would, she had in­sisted, find a way to make it work, or bloody well die try­ing!

Now, without know­ing why, she turned right and be­gan walk­ing, ea­gerly at first, then more slowly as the elas­tic rims of her aqua shoes chafed her an­kles and the flex­i­ble rub­ber soles that had been so help­ful when she was climb­ing failed to stop sharp rocks from jab­bing into her feet. Away from the trees, she was ex­posed to the wind and soon be­came chilled, and as if to tor­ment her fur­ther, rain be­gan to fall, a few timid drops at first and then a steady driz­zle.

She ducked her head to pro­tect her face and al­most missed the bright yel­low board tacked to a fir tree that read Bruin 8. When she did see it, she al­most cried with re­lief. The mileage marker meant that she was walk­ing in the right di­rec­tion—it also meant that the camp was only eight kilo­me­tres far­ther and prob­a­bly all down­hill. With de­cent shoes, she could have run it in less than an hour.

But she didn’t have de­cent shoes and she was al­ready limp­ing from bruised feet and blis­ters on both of her an­kles, and by the time she reached Bruin 4 she was too ex­hausted to walk another step. Hunker­ing down in the lee of a large boul­der, she tack­led the two re­main­ing oys­ters, but her hands were shak­ing too much to open them with the screw­driver. Giv­ing up, she grabbed a rock and used it to smash the oys­ters against the boul­der, then picked the meat from among shat­tered bits of shell. When she was fin­ished, she searched the slash along the road­side un­til she found a tree limb that looked sturdy enough to use as a cane, then con­tin­ued walk­ing, one step at a time.

That had been War­ren’s mantra. She hadn’t known squat about build­ing lodges or run­ning boats when War­ren took her to Ar­bu­tus Point for the first time, and she was ter­ri­fied of be­ing alone in the woods. But he was a pa­tient teacher and even­tu­ally she had learned to stop let­ting the moun­tain of im­pos­si­bil­i­ties get in the way of what she had to do. One step at a time, he had said. One step at a time.

She blinked the rain from her eyes and limped past the three­k­ilo­me­tre sign, then crossed a metal bridge and made her way around

a switch­back from which she should have been able to see ahead but couldn’t be­cause of the rain.

“One step at a time,” she chanted as she headed down a steep hill. “One step at a—crap!”

Her right foot had come down hard on a rock, twist­ing her an­kle. Pain shot up her leg and hob­bling to a nearby fir, she low­ered her­self to the ground.

“Are you happy?” she shouted, up into the trees and the rain as if they had col­luded in sab­o­tag­ing her. “Are you fuck­ing happy?”

She be­gan to sob.

It wasn’t about the rain or the wind or her throb­bing an­kle or an­swer­ing the same damned ques­tion from War­ren twenty times an hour. It wasn’t even about los­ing her home. She wanted her hus­band back. She wanted to feel his strength, to know that she could still lean on him when life got tough, to be cheered by his ir­re­press­ible hu­mour, to wake to his silly lit­tle sur­prises—a heart-shaped rock be­side her pil­low, a bou­quet of yel­low vi­o­lets and clover or a poem he’d writ­ten about her. But that wasn’t ever hap­pen­ing again. She stared out into the gath­er­ing dark­ness and a fu­ture as bleak and empty as the road ahead.

Is that what it’s like for you, my love? Are you liv­ing in a sin­gle, un­end­ing minute sur­rounded by noth­ing­ness?

“I can’t do this,” she howled. “I can’t watch this hap­pen­ing to you. To us. To me.”

She closed her eyes and leaned against the tree. Maybe she should have tried to swim to the cove en­trance. Maybe some­one on that freighter would have seen her and her jour­ney would be over now. Or maybe she would have drowned and she would be at peace.

But what about War­ren?

She pic­tured him in the boat pa­tiently cir­cling the bay, waiting for that non-ex­is­tent coho to take his lure and calmly ac­cept­ing his luck when no fish ap­peared.

Who would care for him if she wasn’t there? Who would know that he liked his eggs sprin­kled lightly with chipo­tle chili and turned just be­fore re­mov­ing from the pan? Who would make sure that his T-shirt col­lars were not frayed or iron his hand­ker­chiefs or hug him in the morn­ing and make him feel like his world was com­plete no mat­ter what else was hap­pen­ing?

“You are the most pre­cious thing in my life,” he had whis­pered last night. “Without you, I’m lost.”

Anne gri­maced, re­mem­ber­ing.

“I’m the one who’s lost, you old fool,” she mut­tered.

Groan­ing from the ef­fort, she climbed to her feet, and lean­ing heav­ily on her stick, she limped down to the road.

“You bloody well bet­ter be at home,” she growled, then re­cited silently, One step, two step, three ...

The road grew darker and she lost all sense of time. Guided only by the feel of the gravel be­neath her feet and prob­ing the way ahead with her stick, she kept walk­ing un­til fi­nally in the far dis­tance she saw a pin­prick of light. As she drew closer, she picked out a lighted win­dow and the dark out­line of a build­ing. Her steps quick­ened then halted as some­thing big sud­denly thumped the gravel and lunged to­wards her, bark­ing wildly. She tried to scream, but no sound came, nor could she move as the snarling dog charged at her from ev­ery di­rec­tion, com­ing close then wheel­ing about and charg­ing again. Then a door opened, cre­at­ing a new shaft of light around the sil­hou­ette of a man. “What is it, old boy?” he called.

As the dog ran to­ward him, Anne hob­bled into the light. The man stared at her, his mouth open.

“Where the hell did you come from?”

She smiled faintly. “Hid­den Cove,” she said hoarsely. “I’ve been hik­ing.”

He helped her in­side, gave her dry clothes and coffee laced with a stiff shot of whiskey, lath­ered her blis­tered feet with salve and of­fered her the choice of a bed for the night in one of the camp bunkhouses or a ride home in the camp boat. She opted for the lat­ter and half an hour later, his radar-equipped boat rounded the log boom and pulled up against the wharf at Ar­bu­tus Point.

“You sure you’ll be okay?” he asked as Anne stepped onto the dock. “I can help you up to the house.”

The boat-shed light clicked on and she saw the Is­abel rock­ing gently against her berth.

“No...I’m good, thanks.”

“Then I’ll be off.” He tipped his hat, pushed his boat from the dock, and by the time she had limped up the ramp, he was speed­ing up the in­let.

Out­side of the lodge she paused, bathed in light from the kitchen win­dow, and watched War­ren do­ing some­thing at the sink. Prob­a­bly wash­ing dishes, she guessed. Dishes were some­thing he could still manage without much dif­fi­culty.

He looked up as she opened the door and there was de­light in his ex­pres­sion—as well as some re­lief. “Did you have a good run?” Then be­fore she could an­swer, he added, “I didn’t know if you’d be back for din­ner. I caught a cou­ple of rock cod...but I’m not sure what to do with them.”

She smiled.

“I’ll take care of them,” she said gently. “Just let me catch my breath.”

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