Heartwood

Joan Mora

     
   

Cara was an actuary who believed in probability theory. The probability of delivering a healthy baby was ninety-seven percent. Women had a life expectancy of eighty-two years.

Jon was an outdoorsy dreamer, a commercial artist with a wild imagination who climbed mountains, read high fantasy and only half-joked about joining the one-way trip to Mars. Their marriage had a fifty-percent chance of survival, or less.

When Mallory had stared up at Cara with milky curved-up lips, a generations-old maternal trait, and Jon’s pointed chin and grey eyes, Cara credited dominant genes. Ten fingers, ten toes, ten points on the Apgar screen. Not a chance of imperfection.

As creative types are given to exaggeration and insomnia, Jon often woke Cara with middle-of-the night speculation. “The Republicans will never cave on their no-more-national-parks vendetta. Yosemite? Forget it. I’m telling you, in five years, mansions on Glacier Point.”

“They’ll self-destruct. They always do. Have you forgotten Sarah Palin?” Cara didn’t know the exact odds on this one, but it seemed a safe bet.

Six months ago, bothered by spontaneous bruises on Mallory’s eight-year-old body, Jon randomly diagnosed her with leukemia. Mallory was a knock-around-kid, always looking for a game of dodge ball or tag, and galloping through the door with bruises and scrapes. Because she climbed trees and rock walls and jungle gyms without falling, Cara illogically thought she could not fall.

But things happened differently west of Mount Rainier. The sun didn’t bother to show up for months, odds were good the long-dormant volcano would churn a murderous landslide, and little girls with perfect Apgar scores died. Cara retreated to bed, unable to utter the words “Mallory” and “burial” in the same sentence. Jon chose a lake setting, under a paper birch tree with branches that swayed and rustled above the grave.

Cara’s eye beds purpled, her tongue tasted like shovel metal and grave mud. For months after, oil stains blackened the garage floor, toast came out black and smoking, the fluorescent fixture above her cubicle flickered, flashed and died. She never parted curtains and rarely turned on lights. Jon followed her lead. He maneuvered as if blind, using furniture and walls as touch points. Anything to avoid seeing her.

In the night, ghostly images of Jon’s birch tree swayed and shimmied on the inside canvas of her eyelids. She imagined hacking off its branches, slipping them tie-like under his collar.

Six months after, he set a peeled orange in front of her, his fingertips white from pith. The smell roused her.

“You need some sun,” he said. “California. Yosemite.”

Yosemite was his and Mallory’s dream trip. “Okay,” she said, meaning not okay.

Charcoal rainclouds bullied them out of town. As they drove toward Oregon, objects appeared farther in the deceitful side-view mirror. A new pain stabbed the empty hollow between her ribs. Trickling rain pinged the car top like a xylophone so she plugged in ear buds and found John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Crossing the state line empty-handed hurt like hell.

Half a mile into California, she made Jon pull over and she climbed over the guardrail and up a small hill. At the top her knees thudded to the ground and she let the wind sway her like a wildflower and the sun toast her skin. Jon didn’t get out or beep, but the whoosh and grind of eighteen-wheelers killed the moment. He turned down her offer to finish the drive and she saw the logic in that.

They arrived in Yosemite to warning signs: Fire levels extreme, bears sighted in the lodge area and deer mice carried the threat of Hantavirus. The craggy landscape roared with pines and Sequoias and granite peaks, but also with mountain lions and fire and grizzlies. After one look at their cabin—not chic rustic, real rustic—down to the grimy floors, musty bedspread and 1950’s bathroom fixtures, Jon suggested they check into the Awhahnee Hotel.

“Too expensive.”

“Just humor me and have a look.” He lowered his pointy chin hesitantly, almost an apology for disagreeing. His eyes had started to hollow out over the past months, making his forehead look abnormally large and wan. Or maybe he was losing more of his thinning hair. It was as if he were a sketch and someone was shading here and there, maybe even erasing him.

They walked through the grand lobby, where polo and khaki-clad guests played backgammon and thumbed magazines to a piano serenade of Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy.” Jon was awed by the mural room, a flora-and-fauna inspired sanctuary with twenty-foot ceilings, walls of windows and a view of Half Dome. Deer munched on manicured grass and a blue jay hopped across the flagstone patio. A room for dreamers.

In the gift shop she dangled steel-blue silk in front of Jon. “Two-hundred-dollar scarf?”

“It matches your eyes. You should buy it.”

She let it drop on the table.

The room bulged with excess: appliquéd jackets, hand-knitted sweaters, Indian pottery and custom jewelry. Her stomach heaved. The shop clashed with everything naturalist John Muir believed in.

She came to a wall of plaques. Her voice cracked as she read the Muir quote aloud:

“But let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that…”

Jon stood ramrod straight, arms folded. Pinpricks of light reflected in his pupils. Should she finish?

“…death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life, and that the grave has no victory, for it never fights.” 

“Blessed star,” Jon said.

“And death is stingless,” she said.

In the end, she’d insisted on the cabin—to feel one with the world, not gape at nature through glass. “Not the Muir experience,” she’d said. “And four nights is a mortgage payment.” So cabin it was.

The first night, she zipped toiletries in sealed cases and shoved pretzels and peanut butter crackers into the mini-fridge. Someone had said bears could smell through windows from hundreds of yards away.  

“Right now, a bear family is slinking between those trees, setting down to another berry dinner and eyeing our flimsy cabin,” she said.

“Brown bears, not grizzlies,” Jon said.

And the forest fire was twenty whole miles away! As if the details mattered; each peril had teeth and claws and a taste for blood.

Jon slept corpse-like next to her. She wanted to drop a belly-up centipede from the linoleum into his open mouth and flick his cheek, tell him that even breathing through the sheet, she could taste the deer-mice virus on her tongue. But he wouldn’t appreciate being woken by a flick on the cheek, especially since she’d ranted about toxic mice until after midnight. Finally he’d hovered his square face above hers, jaw pulsing and chapped lips quivering. “You. Have got. To stop.”

She rolled over and tented the sheet above her head, seizing forth a memory of Mallory, their nightly ritual of whispers and songs and secret giggles. She reached into the empty air to trace the curl of Mallory’s lips, so like her own, inhaled her imaginary minty breath, called forth her imitation of John Lennon’s quavering “All You Need is Love.”

The next morning Jon gave her a pity smile, half apologetic, half patronizing. In defense, she mirrored it, the way bitter married people and bratty children do.

In a meadow he snapped pictures of a mule deer family lunching in tall grass while she pathed it on asphalt, looking for snakes and black fur. For all her jitters, she was annoyed by the photo-junkies, stalking the fawns in their own dwelling. She imagined strangers peering through their windows at home—Jon sprawled on the music room floor listening to New Age piano and her in child’s pose near their daughter’s empty bed or un-taping mini flat-Mallory cutouts from the map of places she’d never visit.

Late afternoon they met a young geologist, a volunteer guide who’d climbed El Capitan “lots and lots” of times, seemingly too modest to share the number. A smattering of climbers dotted the three-thousand-foot rock formation, but his telescope was focused on a boot-shaped element mid-face. From where Cara stood, she saw only two specks, like ants.

“The boot’s about ninety-feet tall. He’s on the top rim and that’s her dangling over there.”

Cara pressed her eye to the telescope.

 “They’re setting up for a ‘king’s swing’,” he said. “She’ll do a running jump to land in that crevice. He’ll spot her from over there, about forty feet across."

“Crazy.” She came away from the telescope, landing face-to-face with the geologist and regretting her word choice.

“Climb it every year on their anniversary and spend the night on the face.” He was mid-twenties perhaps, lanky and cheerful. Not yet jaded, he might even have believed most couples spotted each other.

Jon stooped to see the telescope view. She tried four times to make the swing, but each time misjudged the distance and lacked the momentum to make her target. He looked up from the telescope toward Cara. “Did you see them? We could never do that.”

“No,” she said. “No, probably not.”

                                                            *

Mallory had still been in diapers when Jon started taking her to Mount Rainier, strapping her on with his compass, first-aid kit and rain gear. By age seven, she’d outgrown five sets of hiking boots and was well-versed in safety. Hydrate, stay on trail, back away from bears, never wander alone, don’t approach the edge.

On the morning of their last hike, after their father-daughter tradition of hot chocolate on the mist-steamed deck, Jon wanted to stay home. It was damp and chilly, and Mallory seemed feverish. Cara said it was the hot chocolate. Take her, she’s fine, Cara had said, but really it was the idea of giving up a day alone.

Jon had been right to worry about her bruises and Cara had been wrong to worry about money, and she’d give anything, no, everything, to have it the other way around. In a consult room with low light and cushy couches, the oncologist’s poised posture and starched coat insinuated a controllable future. When she’d explained AML protocols and prognoses, Cara heard “rare form” and “toxicity.” She heard “higher infection risk” and “morbidity rate.” Jon heard “remission” and “increased survival rates” and “most patients.” And there he was wrong.

Now he left Cara alone next to a half-eaten bowl of oatmeal and went hiking on his own, like they’d never had a daughter. All day on the lodge patio, she watched squirrels spring across the grass and scamper up trees. She signed up for a stargazing evening on Glacier Point and taped a note to the cracked bathroom mirror. Come if you want. Which, of course, meant, don’t. At the bus, she looked around for Jon then boarded and stretched her legs from the back bench—either the safest or least safe seat, she couldn’t decide.

Two plump white-haired women appeared first, in stretch slacks and orthopedic shoes, holding matching crocheted blankets. An Asian father hugged a Where the Wild Things Are diaper bag while two toddler boys settled onto their mother’s knees. Twenty little fingers grabbed hair and tugged ears and picked noses. Cara closed her eyes and tugged her own hair. The day before she’d seen the family on tandem bikes riding into a wooded path. Bait for bears, she thought. Irresponsible.

Next came three lanky guys in hiking boots and cargo pants stuffed with compasses, water bottles and energy bars, prepared to bond with the landscape, not just photograph it. Two botoxed women in false eyelashes, diamond-studded jeans and a perfume cloud sat toward the back and two tipsy post-grads took the seat across from them.

It was a middle-America stew.

“Hold up!” A late arrival boarded.

A real mountain man, gnarled walking stick and all, hiked toward Cara. With leathery hands he stuffed a jumbo backpack in the overhead shelf, then pointed to the window seat next to her. She nodded. Taut skin on his arms and calves stretched over lean muscle. He smelled of pine and sweat and burned leaves. A not-unpleasant scent.

An oversized boy scout stood by the driver and tap-tap-tapped his palm to a microphone, silencing the rising din. “Henry here. Welcome to stargazing! The road up is curvy and narrow. But our driver George here is a pro. Haven’t lost anyone yet, right?”

A grey ponytail on the back of George’s head shook as he put the bus in gear.

“Wait until we ride down in the dark!”

Cara half-listened to Henry spout Yosemite facts and trivia, but when he described the Giant Sequoias’ life rings, she tuned in. Anything that had lived thousands of years in the midst of wild animals and flames deserved attention.

He tossed out names like The Faithful Couple: “Fused together!” and Grizzly Giant (in case she forgot about bears for one blessed moment). “The Telescope and Close-pin trees were burned from the inside—completely hollowed out. They can live indefinitely without their heartwood.”

The bus skied across the road, one hairpin turn after another, with no trees or guardrail to break its fall. To the west the rim fire raged, a bulbous bomb-like cloud above evergreens. Cara wondered if the couple climbing El Capitan could see it from their rock-side hammock.

“Natural fires are actually a good thing,” Henry said. “When fire reaches the trees, the pinecones explode, spreading seed. Sometimes we set controlled fires.”

“Set them!” Cara clapped a hand over her mouth. “Sorry,” she said to the man next to her.

When the driver barreled over another curve, there was a collective gasp. She mindlessly popped M&Ms into her mouth. Rationally she knew that she’d more likely die of a heart attack than by fire or bears or a mountain crash, but rationality was for those who believed in eighty-percent remission rates. The M&Ms tumbled inside her stomach, as if they’d reassembled; candy-coated puzzle pieces, filling empty space.

The horizon blazed purple and orange. Cameras and cell phones framed the view, but the post-grads tapped their screens at woodpecker speed, not even glancing up at the spectacular sunset.

“Why are you even here?” Cara said, earning an over the shoulder flip-off from the girls.

The man next to her turned his head, as if studying her. Yes, why are you? Wrinkles trenched his grey-stubbled face and neck. His lips flaked, his cheeks caved.

When they parked at the top, Henry said, “Take a look around, meet back at the amphitheater at nine.”

 Waiting for the aisle to clear, she saw one toddler drape his head on his father’s shoulder at just the same angle as Mallory used to. Cara rocked, humming to herself, and a low moan gurgled in her throat. She felt a tap against her thigh.

“You okay?” the mountain man said.

She shook her head.

As he studied her, the trenches in his cheeks caved further. “The things we fear most rarely happen.”

She looked at him full on. “Yes, rarely.”

“I see.”

“Do you?” Of course he did. Her grief was aged like a Sequoia’s life rings.

“Lost my brother when I was eleven. He was two years older. Lost my best friend.”

She nodded, thought, call me when you’ve lost your own child.

They were the last to exit the bus. Out of everyone dispersing across Glacier Point, she found herself following the mountain man. She wanted to apologize for her lack of empathy, even if it were only in her mind.

“Maybe you wouldn’t mind showing me around before the star talk?”

“Afraid I’m not staying for stars. Just caught the bus to hike down one last time.” He tapped his walking stick to the ground.

“Where you headed?”

“Going to North Carolina to take care of my mom.”

He seemed too old to have a mom living, but maybe outdoor life had aged him.

“She’ll be ninety-five next week,” he said, as though he’d heard her thoughts.

Way past her life expectancy.

“Mom and Dad were teachers, so we visited here many summers. One time my father and brother stopped at the edge. Right over there.” He pointed toward a rocky precipice. “He was obsessed with Houdini. He made me tie him up good with rope and he would escape. Mom drew the line when he wanted to be buried alive in the back yard so he could climb out. Anyway, that day on the cliff he turned sideways and tipped off the side.”

Cara sucked in air, a tiny gasp of sympathy.

“There was a ledge below. My father and he had a great laugh about it, but Mom was not amused.”

She waited for the rest of the story.

“Mom pushed him into boy scouts so he’d have less time for magic. My father and he were heading home from a meeting when a drunk jumped the median and rammed into their car head-on.”

“Oh, your poor mother.”

“She asks after him now, as if he’d moved to another city. Better that way, I think.”

“Better,” Cara said.

“Sixty-five years of grief first.”

He pointed his walking stick toward a hill of wildflowers, yellow, red, purple, and to the side, pale pink paintbrush. Near the amphitheater, dusk was bowing out, but she could still make out faces and figures. Jon wasn’t there.

“You coming?” The mountain man set off down the narrow path.

Like she’d never had a marriage, she followed, thought: At least you climbed Mount Rainier first. At least you won’t burn in a forest fire or become a bear’s dinner. You won’t climb El Capitan and you won’t fall from its boot, either. You won’t buy a two-hundred-dollar scarf and you won’t starve. You won’t assure someone they’re just bruises. You won’t lose your heartwood.

     
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Joan Mora attended Oxford University’s Summer Program in Creative Writing and the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference fiction workshop. She is co-founder and regular blogger for What Women Write, and has contributed to the Ploughshares blog. Originally from Maryland, she now lives in Texas where she is currently writing a novel.