By: Jeffrey Penn May
With each step into the wilderness, Nick reminded himself that he wanted to be alone. But he didn’t fully understand why. Although the feeling was similar to one occasion when he spent his entire evening leaning against the fancy woodwork of an arched doorway, watching Cathy and her audience — Cathy speaking intelligently, pausing at pithy remarks, smiling demurely, and confessing her literary brilliance. He remembered the smell of fresh varnish. Her act, even now, so far removed, bothered him.
After three days, he had seen no one, which struck him as unusual. The last time he fled the city desperate for solitude, he had to endure a caravan of hikers, camping spots like tenements, tents pole to pole, and people pacing onto rock slopes gripping cellphones, yelling in the wind. Now, he’d been lucky. He hadn’t seen a soul but, this time, the isolation made things worse.
Nick crested a ridge where the cold wind stopped him, stood him upright, and he felt as if he were pushing against himself. The straps of his pack pulled him down like Cathy’s arms luring him to bed. His fly rod, tied to his pack, made strange sounds, like her purring in his ear, and he felt foolish bringing it along, having climbed high away from any place a sane man would fish. He hurried along the ridge searching for the trail that would lead him out of the wind, and almost missed the small pile of rocks marking the turn. He hiked down into the pine where he felt devoured by the forest, then along a meadow where gray light dimly illuminated a marsh pooling into a tiny stream, running clear over amber rocks, and merging with another stream.
He knelt and immersed his canteen, bubbles surfacing and disappearing, water dripping smoothly down his arm like Cathy’s fingers enticing him to stay. The sun cracked the horizon and shone brightly on high peaks, turning them into crimson tips of spears rising out of the blackening forest. He couldn’t help but smile grimly at Cathy’s allusions, how she could rip meaning from just about anything, how she chided him about his name, Nick, as in Nick Adams, full of Hemingway bravura, and the way she wrapped allusions around herself like a lover’s arms and challenged him to caress her while reciting the verse of some long dead poet. Cathy would understand at least the idea of hiking into the wilderness with no plan, no map, ending up at Desolation Peaks. She would embrace the metaphor.
Nick turned away from the stream and climbed a slope to dry level ground where he dropped his pack, the sudden unburdening making him wobbly, disoriented, reminding him of Cathy, both of them drunk, only her eyes glassy, Nick uncertain, as he always was, of what she had taken, always something that made her mind race, burning hot, incandescent, and ultimately destructive. Now, having taken nothing, his own thoughts raced.
He unrolled his tent onto soft pine needles. He inserted the poles through the nylon slips and pounded in the stakes. He laid out his sleeping bag, ready to climb in and pray for sleep, the sun below the horizon, but a good hour before dark. On the first two nights, he lay awake thinking, wishing he had the whiskey that he’d left in his rush to escape. His body had gone rigid, alone in his tent, nothing but the wilderness surrounding him, and his mind took him on a terrifying roller-coaster ride. He’d slept little those first two nights, and he didn’t want that again. Now, he stood next to the tent, and stared into the forest, listening, almost wishing he’d see someone else, thinking that Cathy would find his misery delightfully ironic. Cathy, her lithe body pushed against his, her words caressing, full of drug-enhanced passion, lips like silk.
Nick looked down at the small meadow, the marsh, the merging streams, and decided to try his luck, which he felt would be slim at this altitude, at the very origins of a river. At least the effort might save him from too much solitude, so he assembled his fly rod, shoved the fly box into his pocket, and headed down the slope, slipping on loose rock and pine needles, scraping his arm, the torn skin feeling strangely good, layers sticking up white, like sun-carved glacial ice. He stepped carefully to where the streams came together, the water swirling quietly.
Nick cast, fly line rolling in smooth arcs, unfurling, the fly dropping gently into the swirl. The rod tip bent, then a sudden jerk — pulling away wildly. Not very big, he thought, but getting any hit at all felt good. He could almost hear Cathy’s cries in the splash of water, receding with his excitement. He stepped too close to the edge, the icy water seeping in around his boot laces as he played the line, the filament of the fly soft like a caterpillar around the barbed hook imbedded through the trout’s extended lower jaw. He reached into the clear water and held the trout, its silky skin, gold with black dots and red “slashes” under its jaw, a cutthroat trout. He twisted the hook out, then eased his grip. The trout hesitated before disappearing — amber stones, shadows, the last play of light through clear water.
Nick stood as still as he could, his slowing breath nearly imperceptible, his skin feeling the slight drop in temperature, a moment of peace he wished could last longer, but soon he was cold and knew he had to move, so he climbed back up the slope to his tent, Desolation Peaks now a sleeping blue-black behemoth. Sleep sounded good, he thought, but his stomach growled, and a trail of walnuts led from his pack into the forest. Nick followed the trail, picking up nuts. Something Cathy seemed to do with regularity, he thought. But then, what was he? He found the remaining plastic bag torn open lying on the pine needles. Nick picked up the bag and shoved a handful into his dry mouth.
A yellow glow appeared from behind the peaks as he lit his small stove, blue flames leaping out of the cylinder with the steady propane whirring. He set a pan on the fire, waiting, eventually mixing his packet of soup into the near boiling water, and feasting from the pan, then mixing in more water to make soup-flavored coffee. He poured the coffee steaming into a plastic cup and set the pan aside, the coffee quickly becoming lukewarm, sipping it while watching the moon rise from behind Desolation Peaks. He remembered Cathy, how her luminescence faded into depression and hysteria, and how she was forced by her “recreational” drugs from poetry to psychiatry, from Byron and Yeats to antidepressants and therapy, how she loved him deeply with one heartbeat, and then with the next, told him their love was “unhealthy,” that they had nothing in common, that he was a plebeian of the literary world and would never write for the magazines, never exhilarate the editors as she did, or used to do. “Fuck you” was all he managed for a poetic reply. Now, watching the moon, all he could think of had nothing to do with William Blake, or Norman Mailer, or even Neil Armstrong. No, all he could think, or would say if she were with him, would be, “Look at the moon.” Nick laughed, because he knew Cathy would point out that even his exclamation was an allusion to something. Never mind what. With her, everything was an allusion.
He tossed out the remaining coffee, not wanting more than a sip or two, knowing it was also a drug and if he drank too much of it, without the whisky, he would have trouble sleeping again. Then he heard clanking, the handle to his pan dropping. Nick froze, reached slowly for his flashlight, clicked it on and shone it at the pan. The clanking stopped, and black eyes reflected the yellow light back at him — a small, but long, creature. Maybe a weasel, Nick thought, because it looked nothing like a fox, coyote, beaver. Beaver being a metaphor, he thought. By elimination all he could think of was weasel, something Cathy might have laughed at because he felt a little weasel-like in slipping away from her when she might have needed him most. He tried hard to help, as hard as he could, but he felt himself sinking into the abyss with her. “Did she want him to stay?” he asked. And she screamed obscenities at him, telling him to get out of her sight, her literary composure imploding, none of her antidepressants working as they should because Cathy refused to give up her amphetamines and her cocaine.
So now here he was, staring at the perfect metaphor for himself, the weasel, licking the pan clean. Nick wanted to touch the weasel, but thought better not to, as it stared back at him one more time, then casually returned to the forest, the full moon rising white and shrinking just above the highest summit of Desolation Peaks.
Nick laughed and thought, okay Cathy, make me the weasel, but no matter how poetic the illness, there was nothing he could do about it. He had better things to do than let himself be dragged into drugs and insanity by a woman he’d loved (yes, deeply, more than he had ever loved) for a year — maybe less. At least now he had a chance. Someday he might become a more noble creature. His breath white in the cold air, Nick stood, and stripped, standing naked in the moonlight, shivering, howling, yelping, and dancing like a fool, but Goddamn happy, and he climbed into the tent, climbing into this sleeping bag, closing his eyes and thinking about the unlikely trout and his luck in catching it, then the smooth silky skin of the trout, the moments of joy, disappearing in the clear water, as he let go.
Jeffrey Penn May has received several short fiction awards, a Pushcart Prize nomination, and an excellent review in St. Louis Post-Dispatch for his novel, Where the River Splits. He is a University of Missouri graduate in English, Psychology, and creative writing, and has been published in at least 20 literary magazines, including The Rambler, a Chapel Hill magazine of personal expression, Mulberry Fork Review, and Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, University of Chester, UK. He currently teaches composition and creative writing.