The woman has walked this path circling the reservoir many times. She stays in a simple but sturdy cabin near the base of the mountain when she’s up from the city. Today feels like autumn, and when she pulled into the parking lot off the highway, there were only two other cars: a green sedan and a white truck. To get to the head of the path, she had to hike uphill for a mile and a half. The dirt road winding around the lake will be another mile. She likes to walk up here to clear her mind, to make space in her head for inspiration, for creativity to grace her or give her the finger whichever it’s inclined to do.
In summer, families might share the path, or swim in the clear cold of spring-fed water. People who, like her, prefer to go out of their way for whatever small patches of pure and untouched parts of nature still exist. Today, clouds hang low and gauze-like. Thunder growls low beyond her line of vision. There is no one swimming. No families or couples spread out on blankets. There is just her and the mountain and the lake and the head of the path before her.
The woman is famous: first, for being an artist, and second for being a feminist, though the second is an unintentional result of the first. She began with conceptual art: short films, small performance studies, still life pieces that relied on the absurd. Her recent Soul of a Woman series has made her a celebrity. Each piece is a wall-sized collage using mixed media and found objects. The woman interviews other women, sometimes for days, sometimes weeks, gathering what she calls “the tangible material of the intangible.” She intended to include men, but after five of her female subjects, their complexity and stories and surprises fascinated her and she saw no good reason not to continue. There are nineteen in the series so far.
It is the end of August. A time in which the city has grown hot and irritable and this area in Vermont already holds the promise of apple cider and pumpkins and the sharp smell of burning wood. It’ll be the last time she’ll walk this path before spring. Her cabin isn’t built for winter. Now, near the top of this small mountain, the air is cool and smells of fish. There is little bird song. No high-pitched calls from tree swallows. No chatter from goldfinches. Only the crows still heckle from the tops of trees. The sweet scent of pine is thick in the damp, cool air. The woman takes note of the flowers decorating the sides of the path as she passes, one sneakered foot in front of the other: white clover, queen Anne’s lace, black-eyed Susans, daisies and pale purple asters. These flowers dotted her childhood summer days. And further in the woods, if she looked, there would be striped burgundy trilliums and pink lady slippers. In the meadows, bluets and buttercups, Indian paintbrushes and golden rod.
Above the woman’s head, the pine branches rustle and shimmer in the breeze, a soothing susurrus.
In a recent article, a critic who writes for Art Today has stated the woman’s vision is important. “Viewed individually and as a whole, this body of work forces the viewer to see a woman beyond social norms. Each woman is not merely breasts and ass and mother and wife, but as varied and complicated as a universe. Each piece tells the story of a life lived awake and with feeling, the entire work a feminist battle cry. No longer will women stand for being reduced or invisible the work seems to say. No longer will women remain under, underground, underwater, underneath.”
Earlier in the month, on this very path, the woman plucked red raspberries. Small explosions of sweet and tart on her tongue. Now, the berries appear ravaged by birds, or bears, or people and the bushes hold only those still green and sour and likely to never ripen before dropping to the ground.
She’s not quite halfway around the lake when she thinks she hears the patter, like dog paws on a wooden floor, of rain falling on the trees above her. To her left, light shimmers on the metal-grey of the lake and rotted and naked logs lie like fallen soldiers along its bank.
Hair rises on her arms. A feeling of being watched. The woods have always been safe for her. Even as young as eight, she traveled through the forest near her house, on paths or off. This day, though, she can’t shake the uneasiness. She peers through the trees on either side, past clutches of birch and firs. Through brush and shrubbery too thick. The feeling reminds her of the story her lover told her about being in Canada on an assignment and how it felt to be stalked by a polar bear. To know that even when you can’t see them, there’s at least one eyeing you for dinner. “They’re cannibals,” her lover had said. “They’ll eat their own kids.” He told her he had nightmares about being mauled by a bear for years after that assignment. “The only animals known to intentionally hunt humans,” he said, his voice low and heavy.
A drop of rain taps her cheek and takes her out of her fear. No one would be out in weather like this. Plus, she’s already been raped. Her freshman year of college. Now that she’s older, much older, two acts of sexual violence in one lifetime are unlikely. Since turning forty, she’s told herself this.
Her lover died last November on assignment in Yemen. He was writing a piece on how Yemen still promoted tourism amidst instability. He sent her pictures of dragon’s blood trees and their sap which flowed red like blood. His own blood flowed when an airstrike hit his hotel. She misses him. Misses texting him randomly or sending him pictures of weird things. Misses his strong body, easy smile, and skilled tongue. No man made her orgasm like he did. Sometimes she thinks he can still see her from wherever he is or isn’t. Sometimes she believes he might now be privy to her thoughts. She hopes so. She hopes he feels duly appreciated and even a little shocked. He had a tendency to be a prude for all his worldliness. They had a weekend in Paris—he flew her there to meet him—and their first night he asked her why she was so vulgar. They were in bed. The curtains opened, they could see into the Catholic school across the alleyway. School was out for Christmas break.
“You don’t like the word fuck when we’re fucking.” The woman rolled her eyes but his eyes were on the ceiling.
“You talk like a man.”
“I talk like a woman having a good time.”
“You talk like a porn star.”
“Maybe I like porn.”
“You can’t be a feminist and like porn.”
“Fuck you. Then when you’re finished, fuck me.”
They ended up laughing about it, but after that weekend, she became self-conscious about what came out of her mouth during sex. She wishes now she hadn’t conceded so easily.
A horsefly careens through the air around the woman’s face. She bats at it with her hand and makes contact. Steps on its stunned body as she passes.
She’s more than halfway around the reservoir. Here is the old stone wall built by settling farmers two hundred years earlier. Here is the crumbling foundation of an old standing well further on. The woman checks the sky when she hears thunder but there’s been no rain since the one drop on her face, though the air has thickened. Crickets sound off in distant meadows.
The woman wants to interview a writer, a friend of her lover, whom she met at his memorial service. The writer has traveled all over the world. Most recently, Jarkarta. The writer flew there to escort her elderly Indonesian friend on a Mecca trip to Saudi Arabia. Not allowed to leave her hotel room in Medina because she wasn’t a Muslim, the writer hung out in the hotel, which she said was like a small city anyway.
As she walks, the woman’s mind shifts to what she might include in a collage of her own life: sand dollars and sea shells, Eiffel Tower, algebraic equations, details from a Kandinsky, a brown bear in a window, black-eyed Susans, a picture of Vincent Price, a rust bloom on a pipeline, maple syrup bucket attached to a tree in spring, birch bark, title pages from her favorite books, a positive pregnancy test.
A bird flies up from a cluster of bushes and startles the woman. She jumps and lets out a quiet, “Oh.”
A figure emerges around a corner further down the path.
The woman is newly alert, maybe even alarmed, though she knew in the back of her mind she wasn’t alone on this mountain path near the lake. She remembers the truck and the sedan. Never really forgot them. Her heart thumps to her throat. The heart is a muscle, and muscles are made to work, she tells herself to slow the thumping.
As he approaches, the woman sees the figure is a man and that he is tall and large, but not muscular. His bulk is incidental. The man, bald, wears maroon running pants which bag at the knee and a dark blue tee, wet under the arms and against his stomach. She’s close enough to smell him: body odor, a hint of beer, a hint of rot, and under these animal smells, the perfume of dryer sheets.
She tries to catch his eye before she passes. He doesn’t look at her. He looks ahead, as if she doesn’t exist, as if she’s not standing on the same path around the lake in the woods as he.
She’s almost back to the point where she started, the place where the path ends and the gravel road begins. He’s going the opposite way.
She waits a few steps before she turns her head to look behind her.
The woman sees the man has also stopped. He’s looking up at something in the trees. Her palms are slick with sweat.
Her lover told her that to have even the slimmest chance of surviving an encounter with a polar bear you must avoid acting like prey. “They’ll smell your fear,” he said. “You can’t outrun them. You can’t out-fight them. Playing dead only makes things easy for them. Might as well stand there and imagine white light or pray or whatever other magic tricks you’ve come to rely on.”
An end of summer day. A clear, cold lake at the top of a small mountain. A gray sky that threatens.
Here is the woman. Here is the light.
Katrina Denza’s work has been published in The Jabberwock Review, New Delta Review, Passages North, REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters, Gargoyle #57, The Emerson Review, wigleaf and Pank, among others, and most recently in the debut issue of This is Bill Gorton.