R E S P I T E
The end of time will be marked by acts of unfathomable compassion.
— not Fyodor Dostoyevsky but possibly Mark Vonnegut
Sultry day, thought Sarah. No – muggy; and when the valley floors turn, as they irrevocably do every year, into ovens churning hot air masses up to higher elevations, it’ll be just plain hot. Time to get away, she concluded. She finished packing bread, cheese, and wine into the cooler and went out to the car.
It was almost a year ago when Marta, Sarah’s closest friend, had passed away. Sarah’s original deep sense of loss had gradually and unexpectedly been replaced by a sort of certainty. Certainty that the loss was not absolute, permanent. Sometimes Sarah felt a serene calm. Unexpected, indeed. Sarah chuckled. Before moving out west to this town at the edge of the mountains, she would have been wallowing in self-pity. In her old life she thought she had icons of permanence to adhere to. The rituals of the family – the schedules of children in or out of school, setting breakfast out in the morning and dinner at night – everyone had their place and expected duties and actions. That was then. Perhaps in her new life she had re-defined “permanence. “
“This heat is getting permanent,” she laughed, wiping away the perspiration running down her face before she was able to open the car’s windows. She thought back to this same time last year, a carbon copy of today. She and Marta left work early (things were slow) – and drove further than usual for their mid-week conversation/hike. Their drive gained three- or four-hundred meters in elevation, rising above the most energy-sapping layer of heat. But it was still hot. They started up the trail slowly. Marta seemed more introspective than usual.
“Sarah,” Marta began. “I don’t think I’ll be here much longer.”
“Why did I know you were going to say something like that?”
“You’re my best friend. You better know … ” Marta slowed even more. She was barely moving. Sarah started walking backwards, keeping an eye on her. “I’ve been having old person’s dreams.”
Sarah knew about Marta’s dream-interpreting aunt. “Anything else?”
“Of course.” Marta summarized and intertwined the threads of ‘dreams about widely recognized universal symbols’, the messages from unseen powerful beings calling from just beyond the familiar world of the senses, and an increasingly powerful sense of identification “with just about everything.”
“Yes, everything. Oh, not really – but it can be so unexpected, like feeling at home and tranquil in the Wal-Mart, for god’s sake.” They both laughed. “However, it’s more likely to happen when I’m in the garden, or doing something with the kids. It’s like what I once thought was “me” doesn’t end at my skin. I am, sometimes, the room. I can be the car, and everything in it. And, though I’ve rarely seen it, often I can feel my great-great-grandfather’s trapper’s cabin.”
Marta had mentioned the Dominguez family “trapper’s cabin” before. Long before the present time, trapping was not widely perceived as the work of the devil. Great-great-grandfather Dominguez gained outright title to the property by inhabiting it for seven years. Then, abruptly, he “turned environmentalist” and insisted that the property be a sanctuary, instead of killing grounds, for all life. His descendents continued to hold title to the building and some land around it. It was, literally, an island refuge surrounded by federally-owned wilderness. From Marta’s description, Sarah had a mental picture of a sturdy log structure, an alpine lake nearby, with the trees at timberline just above.
“Marta, is there special significance about the cabin?”
Marta just smiled, and winked.
Sarah started her car. That smile and wink flashed into her mind, playing point and counter-point in a sort of symphony against the oppressive heat. She checked the fuel gauge. There was enough for the trip to the divide on the other side of Llano Altura. There would be snow, still lots of snow there. “Just what the doctor ordered,” she laughed.
Late spring down in the valley was half a season, half-a-dozen climate zones, and seemingly halfway to the temperature of the sun’s surface when compared to Llano Altura and beyond. Sarah grinned when she realized, half an hour after the fact, that she wasn’t hot anymore. And she still had thirty kilometers to drive.
Snow began to appear in patches on the shady sides of stands of trees as soon as she churned up onto the Llano itself. After having climbed steadily from one-mile elevation to two, the road would seem level until the divide. Sarah shivered in anticipation … or was it apprehension? She looked in the rearview mirror. She expected other traffic, and the sun lower in the sky. She was alone. It was mid-day.
Ahead, through the thinning forest, she saw a couple highway switchbacks. The snow had been continuous for a few kilometers now. Sarah reveled in the brisk coolness. Her jacket remained in the back seat.
A parking lot just off the highway. Sarah looked at the map sketched on the back of a yellowed envelope. She lingered over the details of Marta’s distinctive handwriting. Miscellaneous notes such as where the keys were hidden. Though the penciled script was slightly smeared, there was no denying Marta’s essence. This was the spot. ‘Wilderness Area – no motor vehicles beyond this point’ stated a sign. A smaller sign, with an arrow pointing left: “Trappers Cabin, Private Property.”
Clutching the cooler in one hand, her jacket in the other, Sarah paused, savoring a deep inhalation of the cool pine-scented air. Crunching sounds on the semi-crusted snow made by her footsteps were the only sound until she arrived at the cabin. The keys were where the map indicated. Taking care not to force the rusted lock, she slowly opened it and then the door.
It was cold inside. Sarah wriggled into her jacket. She sat a while in the dark.
She woke up with a start. Soft murmurings in both English and Spanish filled the room. A multi-generational Dominguez party was in progress. Sarah knew she was the only physical presence in the cabin. Still, she did not light a candle or lamp, quietly sitting, taking in the party.