Janet Rayner Art
The ranting wind shouts insults and obscenities in my ears as I struggle along the path.
It sounds much like a gnarled, tortured version of my own voice, muffled by the scarf I have tightly wrapped around my ears. I can’t take much more of this...
I look down at my hands to see if they are still there. They’re so cold that I’ve lost feeling in them and my gloves are frozen, curved and clutching my hiking poles.
“A few more miles.” Seems to me Rob had shouted that more than ten miles ago.
We really have to get out of this weather if we are going to make it at all. The map indicated a small cave, supposedly not far from here. Hopefully it’ll be big enough for the six of us, at least it could offer some shelter.
I’m walking in the middle. Rob and Jen in front, Meg, Susan and Greg bringing up the rear. At the start of the day I could hear Meg’s incessant grumbling behind me. Before the storm began, I was musing about why she was such a miserable person. She seems uncomfortable and unhappy with everyone. There isn’t a single person in our party that I haven’t heard her complaining about to someone or another. Why is she here? Maybe she hated the school more than she hates us. That’s my best guess.
Don’t get me wrong, she’s valuable to this party. She’s a cartographer. She knows how to read and use those maps. Even though they are antiquated, and sometimes inadequate. It’s because of her that we’ve made it this far.
For the last hour I haven’t been able to hear anyone talk, mumble or even yell. Just the wind in my ears. Just the verbiage created by my mind from its shrieks and howls. “You’re wrong! You’re wrong!” Then it changes. “Stand up bitch! Stand up!” In its milder moments, there’s a gentler, but no less cruel voice mocking me, “You’re lost, you’re lost.” Is that what it’s saying? Or is it, “Get lost, get lost…” I’m straining to decipher the words.
In spite of my extreme discomfort, I’d rather be here than at Hathworth. Here I’m in control of my own destiny. I’m choosing to live or die. My choice; to live or die, but now I’m choosing to live or die free.
The wind sings, “Stupid, stupid, stupid.” It’s picking up again. We had better get to that cave soon. I’m starting to feel sleepy. Not a good sign for anyone, least of all me. For me, it can spell disaster. I think I may have an hour left of wakefulness, but time is so distorted by our ordeal that I really don’t know. I can only hope that it’s true.
I lift my face to see Rob frantically waving at the front of the line. Just as my mind starts hoping it’s a sign of something good, I see him disappear off the path. He’s just gone! With a rush of horror, I think, “Oh no! He’s fallen!” I stare at the place where he vanished and I see his head pop out of the rockface. Maybe I’m hallucinating. It looks so surreal. That’s when I realize he must have discovered the cave. He’s found our salvation!
One by one we stumble to the entrance and squeeze in. I turn, concerned that Susan won’t be small enough to get through the crack in the rock, but see her gingerly climbing to the top of the doorway where the space is wider, and dropping into the room. She lands on her feet, arms out to her sides like a gymnast finishing a routine. Though I think I’m the only one looking, she takes an exaggerated bow and starts to laugh. The others turn to look at her but have no energy to respond. I swear that girl would be upbeat if she were drowning!
A small amount of light is filtering in from the outside. Enough to take stock of our surroundings.
It’s larger than we expected. Good. It will easily accommodate us all. Jen winds up the lamp and places it on the floor in the middle of the cave. There’s even a makeshift curtain to hang over the gaping mouth that we entered through. That should cut down the wind. That blasted, haranguing wind!
Susan pulls the fabric down over the entrance and we shove our packs up against it to keep in from blowing open. A small fire pit with wood in it sits near the back wall of the cave. A courtesy from the last inhabitants. I think it’s protocol. Actually, I’m pretty sure I read that somewhere. That fact exists in my head with the millions of others that I thought I’d never need. I don’t know how we’re going to ignite it with frozen hands. But Susan pulls out a piezoelectric lighter from her bag and soon even the scant heat from that fire radiates through the chamber, offering us relief. People start to peel down the layers of protective clothing, revealing gaunt and wind burned faces, dry chapped hands, and nearly shattered bodies. No one looks strong or brave or defiant right now. They looked defeated. I can’t see myself, but I’m pretty sure I must look as bad as they do.
There is no turning back at this point. We’re more than halfway there when you count the miles. More than three quarters of the way there when you consider the time it’s supposed to take. The map even has the audacity to say “smooth sailing” on the last few miles of the journey. I’ll believe it when I see it. There’s my training coming back in again. A pragmatist to the finish.
I peel my sleeve back to reveal my watch and give a sigh of relief. I still have a bit over a half hour until sleep takes me. That’s enough time to eat something, at least.
I can hear rain starting to pour down outside. Rain? It seems way too cold out there for rain. But the weather in the mountains is fickle. Look at the storm we just walked through. Nowhere on our radar and yet, there it suddenly was. Beating down on us, trying to break our will.
I see Susan checking her watch and glancing at me with concern. She quickly grabs Jen’s bag and starts rummaging for food.
“Hey! That’s my bag, and food is my job.” I’m sure that was meant to be a forceful chiding, but it came out more like a half-hearted whimper.
I look at Jen’s face. She doesn’t look good. She looks much worse off than the rest of our crew. Susan hands me a protein ration, just enough to keep me alive.
Rob had put a container outside the mouth of the cave when the rain began and came back with it full of water within minutes.
My hands are thawing, starting to have feeling, but the feeling, unfortunately is pain! I uncurl one digit at a time, rubbing life back into them with the stiff palm of my other hand. I move closer to the fire, but the heat stings my cheeks. I find a spot that is more comfortable, and Susan comes over and snuggles next to me. She nudges me, offers me some water, and peers straight into my eyes with a look of urgency.
She whispers in my ear, “Now, Mia. You don’t have much time.”
I take a few sips of water and bite into the cake. These tasteless substitutes for food are keeping us alive, and at the moment, this feels like a feast.
After Susan is satisfied that I’ve eaten enough, she opens her jacket and produces teddy. I am so incredibly grateful to have a true ally. I don’t think I would have made it this far without her.
I pull some of our paltry bedding from the communal sack, and head for the corner farthest from the door. Susan and I have been sharing a blanket, so she comes and sits next to me as I fall asleep. My protector. My friend.
I know the others will be up for a couple of hours more after I fall asleep. Probably talking about the day and planning tomorrows trek. That doesn’t bother me. Once I fall asleep I just don’t wake up. Not for 10 hours. Just like Meg said.
“Worthless.” My mind hurls one final insult at me before I lose consciousness. And this time, there’s no wind to blame it on.
© Janet Rayner