Sport 37: Winter 2009
Descent from Avalanche
What next? A double room at the lodge down in the pass village. Maybe a steak dinner at the hotel after the climb. Harriet's wind-worn cheeks shining in the yellow shudder of the candle flame, and then a walk up to the Devil's Punchbowl in the dusk with unlit torches strapped across their foreheads, in case the night fell sooner than it ought. Later her red-knuckled hands would find him in the darkness, and her small chapped mouth would open, and when she raised herself on her elbows above him, the slack weight of her worn-leather breasts would fall onto his chest as if she had transferred to him some burden, and pin him there.
What next? Richard thought. And after that? He watched a pair of fantails dip and duck between the birches and he heard the train sound its mournful bray from the river, far below. It had rained in the night, so the veins glittered red in the wet mottle of the rocks and their boot-prints softened and sank in the clay. Harriet was leading. From where he stood he could see only the fine spray of ochre up the backs of her gaiters, the rounded khaki ball of her arse, the two blue veins that bisected the backs of her knees. She hauled herself up over a net of roots and disappeared.
Richard stopped and slipped his arm out of his backpack to sling the bag down onto the track, and as he stooped over it he felt the sudden chill of his own sweat cooled by the wind. The stain on his back always formed the skull of a ram.
He unscrewed his water bottle quietly. He had shucked his bag quietly too. He wanted her to get far ahead before she half-turned and realised that he wasn't there. She'd wait for him sitting on a stone at a switchback farther up and when he appeared she'd say, 'We could have stopped together,' and he'd say, 'I only wanted a drink. I didn't want to spoil your rhythm,' and even though she wouldn't be sullen, page 4 even though she wouldn't care, it would still be his triumph, and he would chalk it up in his mind.
It had long since begun, that underwater feeling of retreat, that slow drift away from her, that grey pre-dawn of possibility each time he caught another woman's eye. He yearned for renewal. He yearned to annihilate his defective, disappointed self by simply leaving her behind. Newness would be his restoration. The next woman would be his cure. He had already walked around their flat and mentally parcelled everything that was his, and moved away.
They were selfish about the outdoors and so they holidayed mostly in the wintertime, when the peaks were lonely and the summit shale was splintered bright with ice. The lodges dropped their tariffs and the road through the shrunken gullet of Otira Gorge was often closed. It was July, and no longer school holidays—they'd checked. The car park by the visitor centre was filmed with slush and empty. The forecast was poor. As Richard filled out an intentions card and slipped it behind the elasticated wire that ran across the notice board the ranger said, 'Reckon you'll be all alone up there today,' and Richard said, 'Good thing too, we never learned to share.'
He drank, and took a moment to watch the tumble of a rivulet that had swollen into a cascade. The mountain came alive after the rains. The track became an artery and the earth shone like something raw. The wetness was glorious to him: it lent such a potency, a life, even to the smallest of the birch leaves, each of them focused and pricked by a spot of light. As a boy he had found a green-flecked worry stone in a riverbed, perfectly oval and buffed to a gleam by its endless journey down toward the sea. He plucked it from the water and held it and watched the damp film shrink to nothing until the stone was quite dry in his hand, no longer brilliant or even green. He took it home and held it under the tap occasionally, to watch it shine.
Beneath the cascade, seeded in the slender near-vertical furrows between the strata of the schist, a fern clung darkly to the overhang. Richard watched the leaves shudder beneath the rush of water, and marvelled: such a poor place to seed, he thought, such a sorry prospect for a rooted plant, and yet there it was, alive, and living. He was suddenly overwhelmed by the fecundity around him, by the fierce and blinded propulsion of life—how this most tiny of fissures, the page 5 determined anchor of these shallow-rooted ferns, made a foolishness of his question what next.
Long ago he might have stored this observation to share with her, to exclaim over, to thread like a small bead of glass beside all the other strung treasures they picked out to remember and to own. Not now. What had they lost? Richard exhaled. The question was too huge. It was not a matter of disconnect—she was there, well enough—it was that her soul was so complete, so conclusive and concluded—her pragmatism was deathly and total and cold—he could not hurt her. That was it. He could not alter her, or shake her from herself.
In the last few weeks Richard had found himself forgiving her, being patient with her, performing small measures of kindness with the generous and expansive indifference of a man who would soon be gone. What was once an act of grudging investment was now an act of philanthropy—a dispensation, like a kind of welfare for the very poor. He was impressed by his own instinctive move toward pity, and calm—it showed such a tender streak in him—oh, how warmly he would caress her cheek, how gently he would place those copper pennies over the cold curve of each eye, how touched he would be by his own goodbye, when he left her.
By now his heartbeat had returned to normal and the soreness in his legs had quieted to a kind of hum. Lactic acid gave Richard a profound satisfaction. He was oriented by any kind of pain, and physical exercise disappointed him if it was not rigorous and cruel. This mountain was his measure. He had known the peak in all weather, in all seasons, as a boy, and as a man. When he became old, it would be Avalanche that told him so. He swung his pack up again and turned from the valley and the view.
Soon he would start looking. He knew that he would not leave her before he had found somebody else. He would be a fool to give up the promise of regular sex and the detached comfort of their symbiotic life. But Richard was in his late forties now, and the flood of anxious lonely women in their thirties had become a sudden smorgasbord of opportunity. He knew to wear the relationship on his chest like a badge of internship—'I dated a woman for seven years'—and he knew how quickly he would find another, a woman who would count herself among the lucky and the few.page 6
Harriet was a plum of a woman, round-cheeked and stocky in the trunk, with stout little legs, and ball-shaped calves, and wrists that dimpled. Her brothers were long since barrel-chested. In their years together she had broadened and compacted under his hands—her skin was firmer now, and the scatter of freckles over her arms and across her back had darkened and bled. She had morphed from looking like somebody's unmarried sister into looking like somebody's unmarried aunt. Richard had always felt a peevish self-congratulation at having settled for a woman who was not as attractive as he was capable of winning. He had always felt that she was indebted to him, indebted to his progressive spirit, more than she knew—but she would know it soon enough, of course. When he left her, she would realise how wholly she would have to downgrade.
He was not an arsehole. He did not measure her against those dyed, starved, and brainless women who laughed too loud and flashed their teeth too brightly. But Harriet seemed to care so little about the way she looked—she was not defiant, simply unmoved—and it disappointed him. There was a peculiar thrill to the idea that when he appraised a woman's body, a part of her was appraising too. In Harriet there was nothing of that touching self-effacement, no profound doubt of her own claim to beauty, no profound fear of her very right to doubt. In such women, Richard thought, beauty was something so fragile, so fugitive, so desperately precious, that every touch became an act of worship, a gift. Whenever Richard told Harriet she was beautiful she laughed.
She kept fit. In bed she bobbed energetically and came with a dutiful regularity, always with the same double-glotted gasp and then a release like a murmur. When she undressed, she stripped herself with a capable unthinking quickness, shaking down her shirts from the collar and whipping them over the back of the armchair on her side of the bed. After she bathed she towelled herself with such a vigour that her skin turned pink in patches. He watched her perform these daily administrations through the cracked half-inch of the bedroom door and wondered at her. She bent naked from the waist to rub talcum powder into the rounded sheen of her calf. She brushed back her short hair with hard lashing strokes and seemed not to notice the way her breasts jounced up and down, her nipples lax and puffed and page 7 only ever so slightly fawny, like they were overlaid with an umber gauze. She arched out with her leg to flick a pair of underwear off the floor and scoop it into her hand. She hooked her bra together in front, at her navel, and then spun it around and climbed into it like a harness.
He longed to catch her, just once, staring at her own image in the full-length mirror on his side of the bed. He longed to catch her standing there with heavy helpless shoulders and a reflected expression of such girlish resignation and sorrow that his heart would surge into his throat and he would want to crush her soft head against his chest and hold her there. He longed for her to throw down a casserole dish, tear up her tax forms, burst into tears on the motorway—anything, anything. Anything to make him feel mistrusted, or angry, or misunderstood. Each kiss, a murder or a miracle—he didn't care.
But she was generous with him, and patient. Often she came up behind him when he sat working at his study desk and released the hiss-valve on his swivel chair. He sank with a quiet compression of air until the desk was level with his nipples and then she spun him carefully around and gave him head with her strong little hands kneading his hips and his hand cupped around the back of her skull so the heel of his palm crushed the shell of her ear. She was indifferent to his semen and spat it briskly into the sink like a wad of toothpaste before she rinsed.
God, there was something so adult about their life together, something so efficient, so mature. She was a woman. He wanted a girl.
Nearly an hour passed before he caught up with Harriet again. She had stopped just above the tree line, where the flank of the mountain emptied out suddenly into a ragged horseshoe of peaks—Bealey through Cassidy, curving around to the summit of Avalanche, still out of view—and gave a sudden vista down into the flat-bottomed cradle of the pass. The tussock was flattened beneath a shelf of broken snow. The foulweather markers started here, and Richard could see the first three, orange-topped and angled acutely like a line of acupuncture needles standing out of the white. They bore southwest up the ridge. Harriet had changed already into a windproof parka and a woollen hat, and when he trudged up through the topmost fringe of the bush she was breaking a bar of chocolate into squares.page 8
'You took your time,' she said.
'I just stopped for a drink.'
'Sure you aren't getting old?'
He swung his pack down beside her and stretched. 'Weather's held out so far.'
'Bet it's raining on Scott's Track right now though.'
'Be savage up on the tops too.'
'Shake us up a bit.'
He found a bag of brazil nuts and shook a half-dozen into his palm. 'I still want to do the round trip,' he said. 'I hate coming down the same way I've come up.'
'Me too. Isn't it funny? It's a bit ridiculous, really. Isn't it ridiculous?'
'Isn't it funny,' Harriet said again. Her chocolate had picked up tiny veins of wool fibre from her mittens. She took off one mitten with her teeth and tried to brush the squares clean with her fingers. 'With a round trip you can fool yourself you're getting somewhere.'
Richard zipped up his own parka and pulled a balaclava over his head. They ate and looked at the view. The turquoise streak of the Bealey River, vibrant from the snowmelt, threaded east to splice with the fibres of the Waimak and then spill across the plains to the eastern sea. The river was flattened by their perspective and it shone like a lode. Westward, beyond the saddle of the pass, the rivers and the runoff gullies all flowed toward another ocean, bottoming out in the marshy land at the heel of Deception Valley where they joined the ugly bronze rush of the Buller and the Taramakau. The island was an upturned keel after all. A shipwreck. He remembered quipping once, 'That's the thing about Arthur's Pass—it's all downhill from here'—to Harriet, most probably, standing here as they were now, a little younger, a little happier, looking out at a slightly different view.
'I need to get moving,' Harriet said. 'My temperature's dropped.'
'I'll set the pace for a while, okay?'
'Sure. Go ahead.'
Harriet waited as Richard zipped up his pack and set off into the snow, following the path of yellowed boot-prints, days old and gelled by the recent rain so the impress of each patterned sole in the snow was page 9 blurred to nothing. She tried to guess the number of people that had passed since the last snowfall, and then for a while she tried to walk exactly in Richard's prints, to match his stride exactly. The movement was unnatural for her, too broad and mannish. She felt herself unfurl. The snow would become fresher as they climbed higher. It might even be unbroken at the top.
They rarely spoke at length while they were tramping. Richard's communion with the land was something dogged and private, a ritual in service of a myth he never disclosed. Even when he explained something that was wonderful to him—bent to cup the scooped white head of an alpine buttercup against his palm, or hushed her with the flat of his hand when he saw the green breast of a bellbird shivering on a pod of flax—even when he laced her boots for her, tighter than she could manage on her own, or rubbed sunscreen into the freckled skin at the nape of her neck, Harriet remained an outsider, a foreigner lost in that vast expanse of negative space between Richard and the world.
Some twenty paces ahead, Richard bent and reached down with his mitten to fish for a stone and toss it underhand onto a cairn as he passed. The stone was discernible only as it tumbled: the moment it stopped moving it became invisible against the rest. Harriet smiled. She thought of how many of the buried stones in the pile were already Richard's, hoarded up here against the sky as a slender proof of his passing, over the years. The thought was condescending. She was treating him like an invalid, like a widower in mourning for his own youth, like a terminal patient guided to the mountains to rehabilitate and reclaim something crucial he had lost.
She watched him stamp up the ridge away from her and saw, in his whole person, the crushing mighty weight of his midlife crisis—but that term was flip and even gaudy, and the shorthand image of a red Porsche cruelly diminished the profound and particular horror with which Richard had now come to view his future and his life. Harriet shook her head. She felt for him. He had always understood his body as a machine, as a vehicle, as a hobby-project that could be tinkered and tested and improved, and now, at last, it was failing.
Richard's body was a subject that had always been mutually taboo. He refused prostate checks at the doctor's. He was intensely secretive page 10 about the ointments and medicines that he kept in the drawer on his side of the bed, and flew into a rage if she remarked on any shadow of infirmity about him, any defect, any rash. He called himself a liberal and voted to the left, but whenever a man kissed another man on television he would get up and leave the room—always under pretext, of course, stacking the dishwasher, boiling the jug for a cup of tea— and if she tried to tease him about it he would look past her, look through her, and frown slightly, as if what she was saying simply didn't make sense. Whenever he fell ill he would tremble and creep around the curtained darkness of their bedroom in a withered state of despair.
She thought: poor Richard. If only he didn't take himself so seriously.
Harriet placed her own stone upon the cairn. It quavered and then rolled over and came to rest. She did not cherish her own skin as Richard cherished his. All her life she had enjoyed that peculiar invisibility of an average-looking woman with no real charm to recommend her and nothing to lose. It was liberating, to be able to enter a room and disturb nothing, affect nothing, while other more attractive women were pursued with straining bloodshot attention every time they bent, or reached, or touched. How exhausting it would be to be stripped and stalked and raped by eyeball, every day. Harriet saw women forced to withdraw, to give less, to protect some secret patch of unbounded skin below their navel with the cup of their hand as they spoke, and after it all, to end in despair before the mirror, crying out, as her friend Marge had cried in the changing-sheds at the department store, 'My breasts—my breasts—like two cookies in a pair of socks.' Harriet pitied her. She was proud of her own equanimity. She was even proud of her plainness, in a way—it was a freedom. She wore it like a badge.
She kicked out her leg and felt the sharp coin of the blister forming on her heel. It was amazing to her how the mind condensed any recollection of a physical act—in her memory Avalanche Peak was a mere series of slides, vistas picked out at intervals and strung together in such a brisk sequence that the tax and the cruelty of the journey entirely dropped away. But that was the way of all effort: it vanished into abstraction on either edge of the present moment. All you were page 11 ever left with, Harriet thought, was the summit view, the before and the after, and above that, a vague and hovering sense of whether the journey had been hard or easy—whether it had been worth it— whether it had been a waste of time.
Harriet had never really been tramping before she met Richard, only squash and swimming and yoga classes on the dusty floor of the community hall. Richard brought her to the alps. When they first met he took her to the climbing wall at the Ymca and said, 'It's a way to learn to trust someone.' On the wall they were polite and tender with each other, and whenever Harriet lost her hold and swung out over the gym with her shoulders trembling and her fingertips on fire, Richard would say, as he paid out the rope and she descended, 'It's harder for you—you haven't got the reach, that's all.' There was something infinitely touching about the way that his harness gave a triangular emphasis to the slack pouch of his groin. She had been surprised by his embarrassment. He clasped his hands together in front of him whenever he could, and tugged the hem of his T-shirt down below the belt of the harness so it formed a ruched little skirt and his collar was dragged downward at his throat. She looked away, to be kind. He kissed her in the car afterwards and chucked her under the chin with the pad of his thumb.
Richard's smallness was something they had never talked about aloud, then or now, but privately Harriet was fascinated by it. How had he coped as a boy? Had he been bullied or shamed? What about brothers, father, uncles—had they seen, and did they know? It was tempting to view the whole of Richard's projected self—the way he swaggered, the way he sat with his knees well apart, his loud scoffing laugh, his moods and sudden silence—merely as symptoms. That was unfair. But she did think of the rest of his body as a kind of consolation: his broad square shoulders that tapered to a narrow, tightly muscled waist, the handsome sweep of his hair across his shoulders, the fine breadth of his cheeks and his brow. And she liked that he had this private handicap. It made her love him all the more.
A kea wheeled above them and cried out. The sound trailed to an eerie nothing. She looked up the slope and saw Richard lift his head and follow the bird with his eyes as it swooped up the cleft of the valley and shrank against the sky.page 12
The truth was that his handsomeness disturbed her—as if the genetic accident of his face was some kind of ruse, some cunning stratagem to advance his position in the world. Beauty was only ever a deception, Harriet thought. The unlovely were frank, and honest, and they were real. Richard's beauty gave him only frailty, insecurity, guile. Harriet had dated increasingly unlovely men through her twenties and thirties—Richard was a rare exception—in a trajectory that was wholly conscious, for close to her heart she still believed that an ugly man might be less inclined to leave her, in the end.
Harriet had never once ended a relationship on her own terms. This was a piece of information so traumatic, so intensely private, that she had never spoken of it aloud to anyone, not even once. She was vague with Richard when she spoke of former lovers. She contrived to make each split sound mutual and even inverted the roles of the most painful partings—'I just didn't want that kind of a life,' she said, and 'I guess I'd left him behind, emotionally,' and 'One day I woke up and looked at him, and it was like all my love had drained out of me, and I simply felt nothing at all.' By now they had all become husbands and fathers. For three of them, she had been the dead patch of air that launched them into marriage, the vacuum beneath the wing.
She crested a false summit and paused to breathe. Ahead the ridge dropped into a shallow saddle and then climbed again. Richard was walking determinedly, without pause, as if he meant to keep a distance between them. She thought: he is so parcelled up in his own failure. Each year drives the kernel of his self still deeper, embeds it still more firmly in the lonely fog of his sinking chest. She thought: soon he will be too far away even to see me. He will look out from the murk of his studded, oystered self and only see his own wasted chances, poor, wisping, mirrored back.
And yet that was just the way she wanted it to be. How strange that was. She craved his insecurity—rewarded it—coaxed and nurtured it. It warmed her heart when he showed a weakness. His failures made her ache. She would never admit it, to Richard least of all.
By now the weather had begun to turn. The clouds thickened and paled and if she looked directly at the sky the glare seemed to cower and contract.
It had begun to spit with rain by the time Harriet pulled herself page 13 through the last teeth of the ridge and found Richard wedged in a cranny with his back to a flat-sided boulder, fussing over lunch. Richard smiled at her and pulled her down for a kiss (his lips were cold and stiffened from the wind, but the dart of his tongue was hot) and when she dropped down next to him and dug in her bag for another layer to stop the wind he said, 'It sounds funny, but I'm glad the weather's turning.'
The thing about bad weather, Richard was thinking, was that it brought the land and the sky together—it forced you to understand your environment both as something quick and as something still. He had been thinking about this as he walked up the ridge. Good weather could fool you. Good weather let you believe that there was a middle zone, some untouchable limbo between the elements, as if the world was cloven at the point of selfhood, that atmospheric belt of consciousness some five feet above the ground. In bad weather you could not imagine such a divided, isolating world. Land and sky were all around you. The elements conspired.
He turned to Harriet to ask: when you call Avalanche Peak to mind in abstraction, in its typical form, how do you imagine the weather? The question was already formed in his mouth, but when he looked at her he felt suddenly exhausted, smothered by the vast effort of merely sounding the words, and so he said nothing. She smiled at him. The kiss had pleased her—another betrayal. He smiled back.
They lunched on waxed sticks of sausage and papered rounds of cheese. Richard ate a cold apple and threw the core to the west. The pips sat dark on the snow. The kea that had tracked them up the ridge returned now, and strutted on the rock just beyond the toes of their boots, waiting for something to steal.
'I wonder how old he is,' Harriet said, watching as the bird cocked its head and snapped its beak to show the scored grey root of its tongue. 'Parrots live for years, don't they? I wonder if we've met before.'
Scott's Track came down a different ridge, curving off to the west and closer to the flat saddle of Arthur's Pass proper. This ridge was more exposed. The wind was fiercer, the tussock was coarser. If the cloud lifted they would have a stunning view across the valley to the eastern flank of Mt Rolleston, across to where the rumple of the glaciers sat high above the bluish face of snow. The track ended page 14 abruptly on the side of the highway just beyond the village, and it was a short walk from there, past the filling station and the lodges and all the curtained windows of the roadside shanties, back to the visitor centre where they had begun.
The kea blinked its bright eye and swaggered. 'Bet you've seen it all, mate,' Richard said. The kea seemed to consider them, and then with a half hop and a strong thrust of its wing, launched itself and beat off into the cloud.
They tucked their lunch away. Richard clapped his hands to his body and moved his weight from foot to foot, stretching. He had bivvied up here once as a young man, long before he met Harriet, one windless night in summer when the moon was fat and the silver dust of the Milky Way was bright enough to glister. He left the pass at sundown with a head-torch and a bivvy bag. Above the treeline it was glorious. The tussock was raked by the moonlight and everything shone. His shadow was so black. He reached the summit soon after midnight and then went back down the ridge a bit to look for a bare patch of level scree to spread his bivvy bag and sleep. He dropped down off a boulder and tripped over a doubled mound cuddled against its lee. Someone yelped. He grunted an apology and backed off, slithering away over the rocks. 'Got the same idea as us, bro,' came a cheerful voice out of the dark, after him. 'Cracker night for it.' Richard tried to find a site to bivvy a good distance away but he was irritated, and after several minutes creeping over the stones he gave up and left. He was boiling coffee on a dewy picnic table in the village in the early morning when he saw the couple emerge from the track and return to their car, mussed and happy and craning together as they walked.
The descent was easily as difficult as the ascent. By the time they reached the village his knees would be trembling at such a frequency they would seem to hum. Sometimes it took days to recover from the stiffness, and Richard had to haul himself up the stairs to his study by the banister rail. He was leading. 'Be my guest,' said Harriet. She was being especially kind today. That meant sex later at the lodge. Richard played it out in his mind. Harriet would be soothing and attentive to his orgasm and afterward she would purr and say, 'That feel better now?' as if she had administered some small dose of a cure.page 15
The cloud completely filled the valley on the western flank of the mountain. When he looked back up the ridge he saw that the summit had long since disappeared into the white. Harriet was still a fair way behind. He saw her slither down a small outcrop and reach out to grab a handful of tussock to right herself. She saw him looking and gave him a thumbs-up. Across the valley, where the Crow glacier should have been knuckling out of the snow on the flank opposite, there was only a howling grey fog.
As they got lower Richard began to hear the sound of the falls across the pass more clearly. The rocky amphitheatre around the punchbowl focused the sound across the valley, and the pounding roar was quite audible although the waterfall itself was only very dimly visible, a tiny dagger-splash of white spearing thinly through the mist.
He was looking out across the valley when he suddenly came across a young Japanese girl, standing with her arms folded across her chest and swaying in the wind. She was standing just off the track, facing down the mountain, and she was alone. Richard stumbled to a halt and stared. She was wearing only a thin cotton zip-up sweatshirt with a limp hood that whipped around her neck and a pair of blue jeans, and she was soaked from the soles of her canvas sneakers right up to the slick shank of her hair. She had a shiny synthetic bag slung over her shoulder. Up here in the driving sleet, against the tussock and the white sky, she looked transported from another world.
The girl turned to face him and Richard saw at once the dull uncaring glaze of early hypothermia. He stared and she stared back. She might have tried to smile—her mouth quivered, and her lower lip thrust forward and back. She was so thin.
Harriet came up behind him and saw the girl. She acted swiftly, shrugging off her pack, releasing the clasps, digging for hats and woollens and food. The girl was still looking at Richard. Her lips and her eyelids were blue.
'Were you coming up or coming down?' Harriet said, seizing an oversized polypropylene and forcing the girl's hands into the armholes without invitation. Almost in the same movement she whipped off her own beanie and pulled it well down over the girl's ears. The girl didn't try to resist. She dropped her gaze away from Richard at last and said quietly, 'Coming down.'page 16
'Bloody well done, then,' Harriet said, breaking off a wedge of chocolate and pressing it into the girl's bloodless palm. 'Eat that. You got to the summit?'
The girl looked aghast and tried to give the chocolate back. 'I can't take your food,' she said, and Harriet said briskly, 'Of course you can. We were just about to stop for a break anyway. You got all the way to the summit?'
'Yes,' the girl said. 'It was beautiful.' She dropped her eyes to the ground when she spoke, like she was being disgraced.
'You had a better view than us, then,' Harriet said. 'By the time we got there you couldn't see ten feet. We might have been anywhere. Was anyone with you?'
'No.' She whispered it.
'Just on your own?'
'You don't have any other clothes?'
'Been up here before?'
'Anyone know you're up here?'
She considered. 'At the Yha they might,' she said faintly. 'But I don't know if they were listening.'
'That's fine. Tell me what you had for lunch.'
Harriet continued in this way for a while, bossing the girl about and forcing a conversation, as she wrapped her up tighter and tighter, after each layer clapping the girl on the upper arms and giving her a little half-hug and a shake. Her voice was bright and hard. Richard came to his senses. He shucked his bag too, and found an emergency windbreaker, a pair of mittens, a scarf. The girl followed the movements of his hands.
Harriet said, 'Richard, she needs a hug.'
He hovered. His elbows twitched. 'Ancient Kiwi ritual, dress up the tourists,' he said, trying to make light of it, but Harriet shot him a look and he realised too late that she might not be a tourist. Now he looked like a racist. He wasn't. He was a liberal and teppanyaki was his favourite. He just didn't know very many Japanese. He tried to make up for it by unwrapping a muesli bar and inserting it into her page 17 blue little fist. Her skin was dry and very cold to the touch. He smiled and gave her a thumbs-up and then awkwardly, like a teenager on a first date, he stepped forward and put his arms around her. His chin came down on to her shoulder, gently at first, and then he sank into her and he felt the bones of her shoulder through his mouth. He held on.
Harriet was scrabbling in the bag for more food and still talking. When she straightened she said, 'Go on, eat it, eat it,' to the girl, and 'Give her a rub, she needs to get her blood moving,' to Richard. He began to rub the girl's shoulder blades with his hands. It was strange to embrace a form so unlike Harriet's—so angular, so insubstantial and cold. Harriet stooped and placed her mittened hands around the girl's thigh and began rubbing vigorously through the damp of her jeans, up and down with such a force that the girl staggered. 'That's it,' Harriet said. 'Do a little dance. Get moving. That's it.'
'Thank you,' the girl murmured, against his ear.
Richard was still rubbing her back. He shifted his head slightly so his mouth was now almost in the crook of her neck, or it would have been if Harriet had not already wrapped the scarf around the girl's face twice and jammed it into her collar. Over his shoulder the girl lifted the muesli bar to her mouth and began to eat. He could feel the muscles of her jaw tense against his ear.
'We're going to get you out of the wind,' Harriet said firmly. 'All right? And you're going to have to walk quickly.'
'Thank you,' the girl said again.
'Let's move. Come on, Richard. Let's move.' Harriet made a little pushing movement with both her palms and began to shoo the girl down the mountain. She trotted behind, clucking to make the girl hurry, and Richard hovered alone for a moment. He was cold without his backpack on, and a little dazed.
'Looking better already!' Harriet was saying, her voice thinned by the wind and the distance. 'How on earth did you get to the summit in canvas sneakers? I've got proper boots and I bitched and moaned the whole way up!'
'My name is Umeko,' Richard heard the girl say.
Harriet gave their names. The girl slithered and fell and Harriet hauled her cheerfully up by the arm. 'Easy does it,' she said. 'Quicker page 18 the better. Don't mind if you fall.' She looked back and shot Richard a quizzical look.
'Coming,' Richard said. He swept his backpack up into the crook of his elbow and moved after them.
Harriet forced the girl to talk about her life. They learned that she was studying to become a museum curator in Japan. She spoke elegantly but hesitantly, like she was trying out the words for the first time. She said that she had come to New Zealand for a year's experience as a foreigner after her degree, before she married and fixed her fortunes on a place and a family and a man. She had been in Taupo for six months, she said, working at a fish and chip shop, the only job that she had been able to find.
'You have an arts degree?' Harriet said.
'Yes,' Umeko said. 'I am a good student. But it did not matter.'
Harriet glanced back at Richard and they shared an odd and unfamiliar look of national guilt. Harriet shook her head and drew her lips between her teeth; Richard winced and looked away.
'Your English is very good,' Harriet said after a moment.
'Thank you,' Umeko said. 'It is hard to practise. Harriet, you are the first person who has spoken to me here, beyond the customers.' She spoke musically and without bitterness.
'Shit,' Harriet said. She was uncomfortable. 'So what are you doing down here at Arthur's?'
'After six months I left my job,' the girl said. 'I had only six months remaining on my visa, so I bought a ticket for a bus.'
'On your own?' Richard said.
'Shit,' Harriet said again. 'So you've been backpacking?'
'Yes. I have met many foreigners,' Umeko said. 'Many Japanese.'
'And how do you like it?' Harriet said.
'It is very beautiful,' Umeko said. 'It is a beautiful place.'
Below the tree line Richard pointed out a fantail in the trees and she smiled graciously and nodded. Again he realised she must already know the bird. They couldn't walk side by side on the narrow track so she turned to look at them often, picking her way delicately between the roots and the rocks, her gloved hands paddling a gentle semaphore as she spoke.page 19
'You are very kind,' she kept saying. 'You are very kind.'
They talked all the way down. Every time Umeko slowed or fell silent Harriet prodded her with another question, or broke another square of chocolate for her to eat. After an hour the blueness had left her face and there was even a pink blush in her cheeks. They stopped for a drink and a rest at a switchback, and Harriet darted back up the track a bit to pee.
'Are you staying in the village?' Umeko asked. 'May I take you both for a drink tonight?'
'Maybe later on,' Richard said. He was thinking about the lodge, and Harriet, letting his legs float up in the bathwater, easing his sore back onto the bed, feeling his whole body loosen and flood with warmth as he came.
'I am staying at the Yha,' Umeko said.
'We could come find you later maybe,' Richard said.
Richard nodded and shrugged at the same time. He drank.
'Where are you staying?' Umeko said.
'Haven't decided. One of the lodges.'
'Oh,' Richard said. 'No, probably not.'
'There is a walk to the Devil's Punchbowl,' Umeko said shyly. 'Not long.'
'We've done it many times,' Richard said. 'Very pretty.'
'Would you like to walk there?'
'Maybe later on,' he said again. 'I'm not sure. We'll all be pretty tired, after today.'
'Maybe in the morning?'
'Maybe. We have to drive back pretty early.'
'And the weather is turning,' Richard said. 'Going southerly. Going to rain. It might not be right for a walk.'
Harriet returned and drew Umeko off into a conversation about museums for the rest of the climb. As they got lower the grey seam of the highway began to show through the trees, larger and larger, and then finally they emerged on the roadside and walked single file down the hard shoulder into the village. Outside the Yha they waited while page 20 Umeko undressed. She peeled off each layer with exquisite care and folded each item before handing it over. Richard was embarrassed.
'Thank you,' she kept saying. 'Thank you.' She seemed to be taking a long time, drawing out the moment. Richard looked at the trees and stuffed his hands into his pockets and smiled at nothing.
The true beauty of the wilderness was that it had no real proportion. He had often thought that. Its beauty inhered in macrocosm and microcosm at once. A view from a summit contained the same measure of splendour as the pale splay of a flower, or the parchment curl of a stick of birch. He thought about fractal beauty: a fist-sized lump of schist enlarged to the size of a mountain will have the same level of detail, the same fissures and crystals and grains, the same colours, the same strata, as a mountain itself. You could shrink Avalanche into your hand, he thought, shrink it to the size of a nugget, and it would just be a rock like any other.
At last Harriet pumped Umeko's hand and said, 'Goodbye, Umeko. You must buy some warmer clothes.'
'Thank you,' the girl said. 'Thank you, Richard.' She did not ask about the trip to Punchbowl, or whether they would come to meet her later at the Yha. She dropped her eyes and said, 'Goodbye.'
They walked back to the car in silence. When they got back to the city, Richard thought, he would start looking for another woman. He would find one. He would take her to the climbing wall and teach her to trust the harness and the rope.
'What a sad story,' Harriet said as she fished in her bag for the keys. 'What a waste.' She squeezed Richard's hand. 'Now what?' she said. 'Shall we order a steak at the hotel? We could walk up to the falls after dinner if you wanted. Just you and me.'
A truck rumbled past them over the bridge.
'I wonder if she would have died otherwise,' Richard said. 'I wonder if we saved her life.'
Harriet cocked her head and gave him an odd look, drawing her lips together and frowning ever so slightly, as if she had just been surprised by something true. The lock-release lights on the car blinked twice and they separated, Harriet moving to open the driver's door and Richard walking around, behind the hatchback, to the other side.