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by Kristy Gherlone
She pauses to listen halfway into the ascent.
The forest speaks to her in a language that is not at all foreign. She has grown accustomed to its dialect, but on this day, she cannot trust her own ears. They have been poisoned by hateful words.
She is alone. The solitude amplifies the words. Foraging squirrels sound like approaching demons. Dark thoughts fill her head.
Her heart beats out a rhythm of warning. The partridge drum in succession, alerting to a battle that is not their own. There is danger here. There is danger everywhere, but rarely here. She finds solace in the dark places of the wild. Perhaps it is she that is the danger.
The world sways. She drops down and covers her head. Her throat draws in shallow gulps and her hands grow numb. The still air comes to life. The trees sway back and forth in a violent dance. Dust devils swirl into the valley, scattering dead leaves and bending branches as they whistle through the pines. “Go back,” they howl. “It’s not too late.”
She buries her face into the pulpy green moss and waits, her breath hitching. The wind subsides as does the imminence. It becomes stifling, threatening to suffocate her where she rests. She’d let it happen, but she wants the final say.
She jumps up and begins again, ignoring the feeling that she may have gone too far. Today there will be no such thing as too far.
The trail is steep and tricky. Her legs are weak, but she keeps moving. Keeps climbing.
The low shooshing of the falls finally touches her ears.
Painfully she gasps, breathing in the enveloping fragrance of the forest. Tangy pine and damp earth fill her nose, washing out the scent of her own perspiration.
She turns to look out over the vastness. Fir waves sweep through, gathering among the tree tops. They resemble an old quilt. She is reminded of her grandmother.
Her eyes turn upwards. The sky is azure so high aloft, like an ocean to dive through. A passage to heaven.
Will there be a heaven for me? She wonders.
She closes her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she whispers into the valley.
The tears come and spill over onto the scree. “I’m tired,” she says, “just tired.”
Her shoulders shake as she turns her back on the landscape one last time.
The mountain comforts her with a lullaby. It sends her the songs of the warblers and thrushes. Cicadas awaken, their high-pitched rubbings echo through the land.
She steps back onto the trail and makes the final push to the top. To the falls.
She can fully hear them now. Thunderous and booming, they drown away any lingering doubts.
The sight of them quiets her like nothing ever could. They are familiar. She has drawn on their image continually. She always knew it would end like this.
On the edge, a buck drinks from the pools. He senses her presence. His head snaps up. Water cascades from his antlers. They stare at one another, neither of them ready to speak first.
“I..” she begins.
The deer’s eyes widen. His nostrils flare. He stomps an accusation before taking flight into the brush.
She feels guilty, but has made up her mind.
She sits on a boulder and removes her pack. Cool mist sprays her cheeks as the water roars down the towering gray columns.
She unzips the top and fishes around until she finds the medicine bottle. She unscrews the lid and examines the contents. She has been saving for a long time. Countless nights of torture so she could have such a moment.
She dumps the entirety into her hand and pops the fistful into her mouth.
She waits, hoping for quick relief. She does not wish for a final showing of her life. Her anxiety riddled brain has already replayed it many times.
She stares at the water. A trout flips half in and half out of the shallows. Its red underbelly heaves as it sucks air. She slides down the rock and goes to release it. A final act of kindness. She stands at the bank and watches it swim away.
A warm and heavy feeling rushes into her chest. Soon it will make its way through her veins and settle inside of her head.
She sits right there on the shore.
“Samantha!” A voice pierces the uproarious motion.
Startled, she whips around. The movement makes her dizzy, but she sees his form through the haze. He beckons to her with outstretched hands. Her heart soars.
“I’m sorry,” he mouths.
“I am, too,” she mouths back.
She gets up and dives into the chute.