You were peaked well before Millinocket, and I shouldn’t have missed the signs. But in truth, I didn’t miss them after all, but ignored. I ignored your unproductive cough, the effluvium of sweat and bile, the bits of black-specked blood that dripped from your nose. I ignored you. I didn’t wish to be inconvenienced. “Hike,” I commanded, wanting nothing more than to extract from you exactly what I wanted. And what I wanted was simple: to do as I pleased in accordance with my own ideal plan and in complete furtherance of my own goals and objectives. It was no different here in the woods than it was back home, in that graying townhouse we rented from your father, or in the car in between journeys as tires bore through splotchy valleys of mud. And you, fading, fading away like a stunted tree, a stump of a woman. What are stumps for if not to sit on?
Your body first started to unravel at a sawmill crossing near US Route 201. You tore away a thin clump of red skin and affixed it to a pine tree below a white blaze on the Appalachian Trail. You pulled that escarpment of flesh from beneath your right ear, and then you hid it behind a tendril of dark hair. Our eyes met for just a moment before I started trudging forward, boots gripping sheer glacial rocks as you lagged behind. “Hurry up,” I yelled. “We’re losing time.”
That year, summer ended like a faucet turned. “It’s cold,” you whine.
“Then walk faster, it will keep you warm.” Up, up, up through that green tunnel, the life draining from you, the blood, the primitive surrounding us, pain in your every step. Once you hacked out little pieces of blown sand and tossed them into the air as though ash. “You always said I was made of glass…”
Endless nights sharing a quarter-dome tent, as though we were each one-eighth of a person, when in fact I was much more and you much less. Or were you more, and I less? I throw that question into a well, but it’s an endless drop and no answer will abide. You were raw and speckled then, the chunks missing from your face lent you the appearance of a picked-over pizza. Narrow eyebrows between raw flesh, a horror—an abomination. When we came across other travelers, you put your head down, not wishing to shock their senses. If they could see your face they would think you grotesque, a monstrosity. But me? I looked quite normal. I could smile at the passers-by, tip my permethrin-soaked cap, and flash my toothiest smile. So I did.
When you groused, I quieted you, when you wept, I offered neither pity nor assistance. I shamed you. I shamed you. I shamed you, and so you kept walking. As we entered Baxter State Park, the bridge of your nose tore off, you caught it in your left hand. As it disintegrated, I blamed you for not being more careful. “Please,” you said, holding its miasmic remnants in your hand, flesh and blood and green mucus. “Please can we just rest for a moment?” I carried forward, one step in front of the other, and perhaps you knew then that nothing would stop my monomaniacal journey.
Before us was Mount Katahdin, a mammoth suspended in the air as though borrowed from another coast. “Do you see? Do you see why we can’t stop? The point of all this?” You shook your head to agree, but both of your eyes slid out of their sockets. I didn’t so much as bother to bend down and scoop them up. “God dammit,” I said. Then, “Fine, you’ll just have to follow the sound of my footsteps.”
You were quiet then, I’m pretty sure you never said another word. How could you? Your tongue had rotted and snapped off from the front of your throat. You oozed from every orifice, making you a most unpleasant companion. But to your credit, you kept the pace even as you sagged and dripped, even as your stench attracted and then repelled wild animals: moose, snakes, quizzical black bears.
Years before, I left you behind at Cologne Cathedral in Germany, your face as twisted as its spiraling stairs. You were leaning against a graffitied arch, your face flushed and your knees buckling. You gasped for air, a flounder flapping on a dry dock. “Suit yourself,” I said, and I left you there alone to face the embarrassment of walking down the narrow stairs in reverse.
Soon we were but miles from the ascent of Katahdin. We hiked only at night then—I insisted upon it. I didn’t want others to see! I walked in front, so I could only hear your presence, smell the incense-like death of your every step. I imagine you shed your hair then, big curled clumps of afterlife carpeting the trail like pine cones and turned leaves. You left a detritus behind you, breadcrumbs from a children’s fable, as though you may one day return this way again. “Keep up!” I said, “We’re almost there.”
A waning crescent moon oversaw our ascent of Katahdin, and I was grateful for the near absence of light. The Saddle Trail is for beginners, so I chose the more vigorous Knife Edge Trail. You could no longer cry, for the ducts of your eyes had vanished somewhere in Mahoosuc Notch while your gelatinous torso slid over dense boulders under an oppressive canopy of new growth pine.
“Higher,” I declared as we scrambled up ridgeline—at times I thought I heard you fall and I envisioned you sinking into some deep crevice or abyss—and yet your cracked footsteps behind me held steady.
The Appalachians were once the mightiest mountains in North America. They were worn down by time and ice, eroded away one hourglass speck of sand at a time. I imagine the loss was imperceptible. We call this natural, because it is of nature. But what of human nature?
Wind battered us as we climbed, the temperature dipping into the low 40s. Although I didn’t notice it until the next morning, you stained that trail red; you block of basswood, you. Whittled.
After hours of struggle, the sky finally opened up to a Dracula-dark landing. We were there, the peak, the northern terminus of once-mighty Appalachia. I roared like Jupiter, but felt like Pluto. And you, you were there at my side, mangled and twisted like the boughs of some ancient tree. Your right pointer finger rose, for a moment it pointed at me, but then it snapped off. Even in the half-light of the terminus, you were a horror—a horror distinctly of my own creation, I must admit.
I stood near the cliff, high on adrenaline and achievement. “We did it,” I said. You stepped closer, a broken skeleton of a woman. “It sure is something,” I said, though of course you had no eyes to see, no sensory tools remaining of any kind. You inched closer again. I suspected that you wished to knock me off the ledge, to pay me back for my cruelty. I would have respected you more if you had. Instead, you cowered beneath me and awaited further instructions.
“Let’s head back.” I walked until early dawn, listening to the discordant sounds of forest night and the muffled crunch of your steps, until a gust came down off the mountain and swept you away, scattered you like seeds blown in the early spring. And I neither mourned you, nor pitied you, but resented the imposition, the knowledge that I would need to find new companionship before I journeyed again.
Carl Taylor resides in New Jersey with his wife, two daughters, and an overzealous collie. His work is forthcoming or has recently been published in Space and Time Magazine, the Kelsey Review, the Cabinet of Heed, and Overheard.