A Big Snow Year, 2018 Honorable Mention Adult Division
By Rex Adams
Jen knelt before a fractured, sparkling boulder topped with snow and glazed in ice. Using her teeth she slid off her wool glove. She pinched a piece of the boulder and wiggled. The fragment shifted. She wiggled harder and a chunk of stone came away between her fingers. She stared at it and thought how insignificant her life had been compared to the boulder’s, yet here she was, millions of years after the stone had arrived, able to pluck a chunk of it free and take it with her. She was five-foot, four-inches tall and weighed one-hundred and twenty-six pounds, yet she was able to do what wind, rain, ice, and even God could not.
She placed the piece of stone in a small, zippered pocket on the side of her pack, pulled on her glove and continued on.
Since she’d moved to the southwest corner of Idaho she’d not seen a winter with so much snowfall. The snow’s depth smoothed out the otherwise rough terrain of the Owyhee Front and turned it into an artic and alien world. She scanned barren peaks that rose up to the east and south—Share’s Snout, Wilson Peak, Soldier Cap. Roads led to the top of each one, but she had no interest in driving to their summits. She intended to hike there instead. She loved to walk through this high desert more than anywhere else she had ever lived, because here there weren’t the ghosts of the men who had hurt her, who had stolen away much of her childhood. Here she was completely reborn. When she ran from the ghosts that chased her she didn’t bump into another.
She traveled east along a ridge. The sound of her powder pants rubbing together and her snowshoes crunching were deafening. Ahead the ridge narrowed into a jagged spine of volcanic rock. At the tip of the spine a pillar of stone rose up over a canyon. A stream ran through the canyon floor into the Snake River Valley. To the south, directly below her, a deep gorge cut into the canyon wall. For today her goal was the rock pillar.
Boulders the color of rusted iron pimpled the white surface. Wind had scoured the snow from the boulders and dropped it in drifts on the leeward sides. Her snowshoes banged against the boulders. When they became too cumbersome she removed them and bound them to her pack. She continued on, jumping from rock to rock as if crossing a creek.
The ridge narrowed and dipped into a saddle. The south slope fell off sheer into the gorge. The boulders she jumped on became sparse and then disappeared altogether, but she didn’t bother to put on her snowshoes. The snow was crusted and bore her weight. She was near her goal, the pillar of stone that seemed to angle out over the canyon, a good place to rest and look down into the chasm and listen to the creek.
She was focused on the pillar and not paying attention to her feet. She had wandered close to the edge. What she didn’t realize was that a cornice curled off of the vertical rock face. She stepped out onto it. She heard a groan and then the cornice gave way below her. She gasped, tried to step to solid ground, but it was too late. Her tailbone struck rock. All the air burst from her lungs. She tried to scream, but no sound escaped.
She was staring at a passenger jet followed by twin contrails lit orange and silver by the sun. Her head throbbed. It must’ve been quite a drunk. Her vision blurred and she tried to talk but the words were stuck in her throat and she couldn’t move her mouth.
She was cold. She must’ve passed out outside, maybe on a bench or under a viaduct.
It wasn’t just her head that hurt. Her ribs, when she tried to breathe, felt like someone was hitting them from the inside with a sledgehammer. Her tailbone pulsated.
It must’ve been Nick. He’d beat her again. Once she healed he’d pay. She thought of how she’d get back at him. Somehow. He’d regret beating her.
No, that wasn’t right. Nick was dead. She had been there, woke next to him, saw how blue and cold he was and called 911. That was what drove her away from the ghost places and to the treatment center.
Her pack dug into her back. It felt as if her ribs had been torn from her spine. Whenever she breathed pain absorbed all of her. The world was so bright, so white, it caused her head to hurt even more. She was upside down, or nearly so. The serrated ridges in her eyesight pointed down instead of up.
And then it came to her. The cornice giving way, her tailbone striking something hard. Tumbling in the white, crystalline snow. Everything went blank. And now here she was hanging above the gorge that drained into the bigger canyon.
She tried to sit up, but the pain in her ribs kicked all the air out of her. And then a new pain called out, much worse than the tailbone, much worse than the ribs, like a tooth broke in half with all the raw nerves exposed. It was her leg. She lifted her head. Her vision blurred, but she could make out her foot wedged in a thin crevice. Below her knee the leg was bent at a ninety-degree angle.
Nausea hit. She twisted her body to the left and retched. All the pain except the pain in her ribs forgotten. The vomit warm, chunked, sliding down her cheek, into her hair, her ear. She wiped it away with her wool glove. The rancid smell of it made her heave again. Her head pounded. She closed her eyes.
When she opened her eyes again it was twilight. Coyotes yapped back and forth across the canyon at one another. Their voices grew, echoing into the gorge. She shivered. It sounded as if there were thousands of them. Abruptly they fell silent, the only sound left the pounding of her heart, the heaving of her breath.
All of her hurt. Her ribs, her tailbone, her leg, her lungs. The smell of vomit filled her nostrils. Bile was frozen on her cheek and in her hair.
Her breath plumed around her face. A half-waned moon floated above the canyon. The moon was a chunk of ice, making the cold world even colder. She couldn’t stop shivering.
“You will die,” she whispered.
But she had just felt sunlight on her face for the first time in decades.
She sat up, screaming, pain ripping up her leg and into her spine. Sweat beaded her forehead. She clawed and pulled herself up, twisting to free her foot.
And then she was sliding and toppling. Her head slammed against rock and her falling halted. She fought against unconsciousness, fought to hold onto the twilight. She shivered, snow piled around her, staring at her ruined leg. Sharp, shrieking waves of pain ran out of it and collided with the pain in her trunk.
She had landed in the deep gorge at its confluence with the bigger canyon. Here the gorge was a chute, nearly as steep as the canyon wall. To crawl up and out seemed impossible.
She rolled over. Pain struck her entirely. She groaned, almost vomited again, held it back. She rested on her belly, her head turned sideways, the snow burning her cheek with its frigidness. Her breath rapid and sour and fogging back at her nose. She lifted her head and looked at the boulder that broke her fall. She reached out and pulled herself to the top of it, wincing, tears weeping from her eyes, her breath booming out of her lungs. She looked down to the canyon floor. She heard the creek gurgling north, but couldn’t see it, the darkness complete down there, but in the sky sunshine still reflected off of the bellies of clouds and the wide, feathered remnants of the jet’s contrails. On the sides of the gorge moonlight radiated out of the snow. Down was the only way. She searched for a path.
But head first or feet first, she wasn’t sure. Head first she may lose control and knock herself unconscious. To lose consciousness again, that was the end of all things. She knew the cold had penetrated her, was in her flesh, moving slowly to her bones. She couldn’t stop shivering because of it. Her fingertips and toes were numb, stiff, immobile objects. The numbness was working into the shattered leg, although the slightest motion and the shrieking pain chased the numbness into retreat.
So she decided feet first. It was about one-hundred and fifty feet—maybe two-hundred—to the bottom. Once at the bottom she’d have to crawl at least a mile back to Sommercamp Road and her car.
The thought of her car made her think of her phone. It was in one of the cupholders between the bucket seats, charging. And then she thought of her keys. After locking the car she had put her keys in the side pocket of her pack, where she had put the rock. But she didn’t remember zipping up the pocket. A panic swept through her. Her keys could be gone.
She moved quickly, too quickly. The pain ripped through her body, shot into her fingers and toes. Her head fogged and she felt as if she was already falling, as if she had already pushed herself over the precipice. And then the nausea hit again and she retched, a dry, horrid retch that was so violent she thought her heart would stop due to the pain it caused.
The nausea passed and she lay quaking and spitting. Sweat broke out on her forehead once more. She didn’t want to move.
But she had to get the pack off. She had to know if the keys were in the pocket. She had to remove the pack to check the pocket.
She held still, letting the pain dissipate into a slow throb. She undid the chest strap and then she took a slow, deep breath, her lungs filling, expanding her ribs, bone grating on bone and then she rolled her shoulders back. Pain racked her body. Her eyes watered. The moonlit twilight wavered. “Don’t pass out,” she said. “Don’t pass out.” Over and over she said that to herself until it was coming out in a haggard scream.
And then the pack was off and beside her. She could see the side pocket. It was zipped. She reached out, her hand trembling and attempted to open it. The pack slid away from her. She reached out with the other hand to secure it, and then she unzipped the pocket and reached in. Nothing. No rock, no keys. She swore. It hurt to speak.
She had checked the wrong pocket. She turned the pack. The other pocket was still zippered shut. She inhaled and held her breath and reached out again with trembling hands and unzipped the pouch. She reached in and felt first the crumbly texture of the rock and then her keys.
She wasn’t taking the pack with her. She couldn’t imagine sliding it onto her shoulders. She retrieved the keys, stuffed them into a pocket on her powder pants and zipped it. And then she held the rock, staring at it. Not long ago she had plucked it from its mooring and felt more powerful than all the forces of God and Mother Nature but now she felt more insignificant than she had in the entirety of her life. Even more insignificant than when she was a child hiding in her room and her big sister Lila was trying to protect her. No Lila here. Lila gone just like Nick, just like their mother. Jen was more insignificant now than when she arrived at the treatment center and lay in that room drying out, sweating, shuddering, gnashing her teeth, head pounding, hallucinating as all the poisons vacated her body.
She dropped the rock in the snow and rolled onto her back and stared at the moon. The pain was all of her now. There was nothing else except pain and soon even that left and she was above the canyon. All her nerves deadened. She was only eyeballs and nothing else, floating up to the winter moon, knowing that this was her last day on earth.
At least she would go out sober. That was more than the people she had loved most could say.
But that wasn’t enough. Even if she was sober, it wasn’t a good enough ending. To die above this canyon and be chewed on by coyotes and have your eyes plucked out by magpies. That was not the ending for her story. She wouldn’t allow it.
She rolled back onto her stomach and then crawled. Crawled to where the gorge spilled into the canyon in a thin chimney filled with snow. The chimney ended on a shelf closer to the canyon floor. She crabbed around until her legs led her, the bad leg terrible, the foot flopping below the knee, the pain of those nerves when those bones grated against each other throbbing through her body.
She pushed herself over the edge.
She was sliding, her bad leg flopping back and forth, and maybe she passed out because she was suddenly on the lower shelf. She rested, scooped snow in her trembling hand, stuffed it in her mouth and ate it, her water bottle lost in the initial fall. And then she found another chimney, this one thinner, and crawled to it and once again slid and tumbled down.
The coyotes were yapping again. Not far away, already smelling her perhaps. Knowing it wouldn’t be long and she would be dead and then it would be feast time. No hunting down a jackrabbit for Mr. Coyote.
But she didn’t like Mr. Coyote’s plan. She was at the bottom of the canyon, partially buried in a snowdrift and snarled in bracken. Her body nothing but pain now. One, giant throbbing being that was no longer God’s child or anyone else’s except Pain’s. Pain was her new God, her father, her complete existence, reminding her that she was alive and today she wanted to stay alive so she rolled and clawed and pulled herself from the drift and bracken, cobwebs and dead leaves in her hair and face. And then she was out of the brush and on the canyon floor trail. Water ran nearby. She would have to crawl a mile and a half at the most. Nothing to it. She reached out and took ahold of the canyon floor and pulled herself on, toward her car, her phone, toward the rest of her life.