It had been a good day. A hard day, but a good one. She had thought about nothing else but finding her rhythm on the slopes, taking them wide and slow so she could feel the rise and fall, the edge of her skis cutting into the snow. Open your arms, embrace the mountain, let yourself go, and feel your own weight bring you round. Open your arms, embrace the mountain, and fly.
At times, she had owned the piste, carving a faultless triumphant path right up to the muddled queue for the next lift. At times, she remembered where she was, far away and reliant on no one but herself, and faltered, misjudged the turn, skidded on rasping patches of ice and gathered too much speed. Heart thumping, unable to stop or slow down, her breath humid on the woolly threads of scarf catching on her chapped lips, her fingers fat and aching from too tight a grip on the poles that flapped by her sides and caught on spiteful lumps of ice and black tufts of long dead grass at the high banked fringes of the crowded run. She felt her balance waver and the rhythm break, her body an impossible load pulling her towards near disaster.
In a matter of minutes, the sun would disappear behind the jagged peaks across the valley; the snow around her was tinged with pink reflected light but soon it would turn to crystal grey. She knew this moment well, when she would no longer be able to make out the contours before her, all depth of field lost, dips and bumps and hidden dangers seemingly smoothed away, yet waiting for her still.
She felt too high up now, unsure of which route would take her back to the cluster of hotels and lifts that lead to warmth, to the removal of layers caught up together in one big twist of tops and tights and thermals, to the feeble shower, and the obligations of the evening. Somewhere, in one of the several zippy pockets of her borrowed sky-blue jacket, she had folded the map they gave her when they set off this morning. I’ll be okay, I’m happy going at my own pace. You guys have fun on the black runs, I’ll see you back at base.
A thin line of snow had settled in the wristband of her glove and dropped down her sleeve, stinging her skin. Fumbling frozen fingers, fighting zip pulls and the contents of bunched up pockets rolled into elusive balls, found lip balm, a handwarmer missing its charcoal, a receipt from lunch. No map. It had been unreadable anyway; the blue, red and black lines did not seem to correspond to any route she had yet taken.
Far below her, the lights of the town were starting to come on. She could make out the little stone chapel she had sat in for a while the evening before. She pictured herself on the hard wooden bench, her legs a little too short and swinging free like a child’s in her furry boots. The impulse that had led her there, the notion that she might find something beyond herself inside, had left her stranded as soon as the heavy door closed behind her. Yes, I did go in, just thought I’d take a moment to contemplate. So spiritual, only me and the centuries of prayers. How foolish she was, how self-conscious. It was someone else’s church, not hers.
She took stock again of the few landmarks, the angle of the town below her. Beyond the next ridge she was now quite certain her favourite descent waited. Broad and generous, no sudden falling away into mounds of rocks or trees in the gloom. Two more minutes and she’d be riding the chairlift down into the familiarity of bars and souvenir shops and strings of fairy lights.
Beyond the next ridge, the mountain dropped defiantly into a narrow depression of hillocks and clumpy, churned up lumps of icy snow. Her skis were poised on the brink of the precipice, ready to push off but now hesitant. Everything shifted around her as she understood where she had gone wrong. She knew this run. She must have come out on the other side. A bell and voices calling far below her, too far to hear her if she shouted. They were hurrying the last tourists onto the lifts now: quick, get in, don’t worry - they’ll wait for you at the other end, no, no, you won’t be stuck. She pictured herself on the chairlift, her poles caught awkwardly under the safety bar, one foot dangling and unable to find a place to rest, the lurch in her stomach as the lift shuddered between giant wheels and carried her away, suspended in mid-air with nothing to catch her if she fell.
She couldn’t send herself over the edge, she would never make it down. She felt the fear in her knees and her back and the way her neck tensed and her teeth clenched. This is it, this is the decision I take that will make them shake their head in wonder and regret. What was she thinking, why ever did she do it? So sad, so stupid, and so, so sad. She had to find another way.
Stabbing bootlessly at her ski clips with the poles, then bending to free them of hardened ice, she grunted as she forced the lever down and pulled her right foot free, then the left. Just across here, just through this small huddle of balding pines, follow the rising bank of snow to the left and surely she’d be at the unaffordable chalet with heated outside pods and their special menu typical of the region. Now the painful balancing of ski against ski, holding them together over her shoulder, and the first weighty step into the white.
Her leg sank and kept on sinking. What if it doesn’t stop until the snow fills my mouth and eyes? Her foot found the hard earth, pebbles grinding under the plastic tread of her boot. Pull, lean, step, support with the pole, rebalance the sliding skis threatening to come apart or slice your ear, steady now, keep your equilibrium. Pull, lean, step, and pole. If they had bothered to make a decent map this never would have happened, I’d have taken that other blue run. Breathe. Recite a poem. And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by. Pull, lean, step, and pole. I am on my own. I should not be on my own. They promised. Pull, lean, step, and pole. Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying. One of them would be with me every day, but oh, no, as soon as we got here, who remembered that? Pull, lean, step, and pole. With what I most enjoy contented least. She pictured them now down in the embrace of the town, grouped too closely around a jumble of beers and scarves and gloves piled high on a single table, the last one, quick grab it, legs stretched out carelessly across the cobbles to accommodate feet cumbersome with ski boots. Pull, lean, step, and pole. Heat was rising up her neck, anger prickling under her hat, her hair plastered to her burning cheeks, plump and bitter with cold and resentment. Tree roots caught the rounded toes of her boots and snagged on the pole guard. She yanked them free. Were they even wondering where she was? I am on my own. I should not be on my own. Pull, lean, step, and pole. Pull, lean, step, and pole. It is you are the lonely bird through the woods.
Now she was among the trees, they were closer together than they had appeared and sunk in a natural bowl that set the space apart. The silence took hold of her. She could just make out the myriad tracks of animals and birds crossing and recrossing the deep drifts so lightly where she struggled to step. Behind her, the bank of virgin snow guiding her now curved high above her head. Close up it sparkled if she swayed a little, letting it catch what light remained. She lowered the skis carefully and the ache in her shoulders ebbed away. Cautiously at first, and then with confidence, she leant back into the white wall and let it take her, stretched out her arms and raised them up and down, up and down. The tightly packed snow held her steady for a while, then gently returned her upright, back on her own two feet.
Skis settled again on her shoulders, the chill seeping through the back of the borrowed sky-blue jacket, her resolve returned. Don’t stop. Keep on going, keep on going, step by step, bird by bird, and you’ll get there. Pull, lean, step, and pole. If you can keep your head, with a red hat that doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me, and that has made all the difference. Pull, lean, step, and pole. Stumbling free into the open on numbed toes and screaming ankles past a row of bins and a pile of empty metal drums, the ground now flat with dirty ice and so unforgiving that she almost regretted the drag of deep snow. Two figures in checked trousers and plastic clogs squatting on the step by the kitchen back door, murmuring in a language from somewhere with palm trees and hammocks, were smoking behind cupped hands. They looked up, startled, then concerned, and slithered across to hold her up, to take her skis, and steer her limbs, weak with laughter and relief, towards shelter.
Later, folded into the corner seat by the radiator with the coats half piled on top of her, she let the evening talk wash over her, the bravura of runs conquered, and near wipe-outs, and you should have seen the look on his face. Stories started and interrupted, hang on, should we go ahead and order, no, no, seriously, you’ve got to hear this. She let her head fall back against the bright orange pine panelling and her eyelids drop, listening only to the warm contented hum of her own body. Then, she had been there; now, she was here. And in that high place above them, hidden in its hollow, her snow angel was watching the ptarmigan and hares run among the trees in the silence she had made her own.