Portia’s hiking stick tapped the ground. Gravel roiled underfoot; thoughts tumbled. Clouds opened and closed like curtains, blinkered the moon. Wind whipped, settled, blew up again. The woods bashed and ached a lively dance.
Too late to be out walking. What choice did she have? She had to escape Bill and Alda Edgerton, their unbearable conversation, and their daughter. She’d tried to talk Jennifer out of inviting them. I thought you wanted a quiet weekend at the lake with just us and lots of family time, Mom. After two days, Jennifer’s restlessness conjured a dinner party. The Edgertons were the only other cottagers. November de-population.
At dinner Bill asked her, “People still go to plays, do they? Smaller productions, I mean?” His wine-stained lips wavered in the candlelight.
“Yes, people go to smaller productions. Even little theatre.”
“I thought people stayed home to watch their flat screens. I thought plays were a thing of the past. Small ones, anyway.” Bill’s signet ring, prominent on his baby finger, struck his glass. His face flushed a light Merlot.
He’d arrived primed with booze. Boated to their cottage with Alda and their daughter Cassandra. He was exempt from risk, a famous lawyer. The thunder grumbling overhead, a warning for someone else.
“Unless it’s a New York show, the kind with first-class productions. People go to those. They’re guaranteed quality, and excellent entertainment,” he said. “True they’re pricey, but you get what you pay for.”
Alda’s white cowl neck frothed beneath her chin. A lock of spun hair escaped a clasp stuck in with casual flair. “Oh, the Broadway plays we’ve seen. Especially the musicals! Treasures!” Red fingernail tipped hands clasped into her chest. She cherished the memories.
“Bit over-the-top. Entertaining though. Definitely for the gays,” Bill said.
Rain pattered on Portia’s slicker. Not the heavy torrent during dinner.
The skies had opened, and lightning slashed through Bill’s reminisces. Thunder applauded his list of Shakespearean plays. “From just last summer. At the Stratford Festival.” A broadcast of his intellectual depth. Patron of the arts.
Alda bought study guides off Amazon. “In preparation. The language should be changed for contemporary audiences. Isn’t it about time?” She twisted the dangle of hair around her finger.
Her parents performed a duet of oh yesses and fascinating. Honesty traded for politeness, since the Edgertons were guests.
The sky throbbed. In the distance, the rumble of receding thunder. Maybe they’d gone by now.
At dinner, she waited for one of them to ask her the name of her play. Or where it was showing. Or when it was opening.
Bill couldn’t stop scratching his itch. Glass aloft he said, “Small plays are a dying breed. They aren’t sustainable. New technologies have taken over.”
Jennifer and Mathew could have entered the argument right then. Come to save the day and stand up for their daughter. They knew what the play meant to her, understood the challenges. Instead, they hid in the wings.
She breathed in cold, wet air. What a beauty she had come up with. Her mouth full of words all tumbling to get out at once. The human condition was sustainable! Worth exploring! No matter the medium! Didn’t they think so? How could they not?
Bill rocked back in his chair, half disappeared into darkness. He laughed and said, “Idealistic youth. Oh well, what harm? Nothing comes of it.”
Alda tossed out her formula for measuring a play’s worth, with a self-satisfied smile. It must entertain, draw a large crowd, and make money. Then it could be considered successful.
“I work for free,” Portia said. “Everyone does, except for Max, the director.”
Alda dabbed with a napkin at a dribble of red wine on her sweater. “Oh shoot! Always happens when I wear white! This will never come out.”
Shakespearean, as if it were blood.
“I doubt your play will even open. Not with finances like that.” Bill sounded pleased.
Portia stopped to look up at the sky. In fury and terror, the tempest broke. She ran her hand over her wet cheek.
She wasn’t doing it for the money. It was more about personal challenges. Proving something to herself. There was already buzz. It was wrong to claim it had to make money to be art. Their aghast faces, white as ghosts, peering through wavering candlelight.
“Cool,” Cassandra said.
The odd snowflake meandered through the air. The moon flickered more often now, became brighter. The weather was changing. She should turn back.
Frigid air pinched her nostrils, stung her eyes. A noise off in the distance. A car, perhaps. No sign of headlight glow splashing up against the woods. No one else at the lake but the Edgertons.
She lay down her stick. Max’s voice entered her head. She must project fragility and vulnerability to connect the audience with her character. They must feel her. Understand her as she learns about herself. They must forgive her, too.
In rehearsals, she asked Max how she was supposed to convince an audience she couldn’t see. He indulged her, his face framed by his wavy, chaotic hair. “The only person you need to convince is you. Then the audience will see your character. If you don’t do this for yourself, you will have lost. Far more than you think.”
She spun and pivoted in the center of the road. A child of imagination, a pure and perfect soul, skating on a thin layer of ice. Before it broke.
And then the other voice. The one that never went away.
Soon it will be your turn, Portia. Remember, count your steps—straight ahead, seventeen steps. Follow the illuminated line and the tree will be there.
Mrs. Campbell, the red-headed drama teacher. She had trusted her. She was fifteen.
Portia raised her arms. Mrs. Campbell’s voice pushed her character away, out of her legs, her arms, her feet, her hands. Who was she to think she could do the part? She would tremble, wobble, fall, her voice would crack. The audience would laugh.
Don’t forget, seventeen steps along the illuminated line and the tree will be there. The spotlight will come on.
She should go back.
She picked up her stick and strode ahead into darkness. If Bill’s mission was to break down her confidence, bravo, good job!
Seventeen steps along the illuminated line.
Beyond the whoosh of wind and the chaotic whip of trees, a noise. The flashlight was dimming; soon the batteries would be drained. Up ahead, something moved across the road. She heard snorting, huffing. She strained to see; the air smelled sour.
Two bear cubs rollicked towards her. Behind them the lumbering shape of a mother bear. Portia eased off into the ditch. Cold water seeped into a leak in her boot. She would allow them plenty of space to pass.
The cubs squealed and splashed. They too must have dropped down into the ditch. She climbed the other side of the embankment and headed into the woods. Her stick tapped for obstructions. She pushed ahead into blackness and stopped. The splashing had stopped. Suddenly the snap of branches and snorting. Close.
She tripped and fell face first, her knee smashed against a rock. Warm blood trickled down her leg. She groped the forest floor for her stick. Useless. Gone.
A web of grasping tendrils held her back. She slipped over fallen trees, collided with branches, stumbled over rocks, fell again. A branch lashed her face and left a searing scratch. Her knee throbbed. Arms out straight, her fingers combed for branches that would snag her coat, gouge her eyes. She pushed to stay ahead of the bears.
They’d been silent a long time. Wandered away. The black velvet of darkness surrounded her, the stroke of wind against her face, the prickle of snowflakes. She listened for the lap of waves. Heard nothing. She moved on beneath the percussion of trees, the whoosh of air hefting heavy boughs.
She’d been gone for hours. She rested on a fallen log. Snow came down harder; the woods filled with light, but not enough to see.
She couldn’t feel her toes. She blew into her hands, rubbed her warmth into her skin. Soon, the cold came back.
No one had seen her go. She said she was headed to bed, slipped out the back door. Their faces, red with booze as they stared after her and passed a joint. Cassandra asleep in the den.
She would freeze to death. Mauled by bears and eaten. All because of Bill Edgerton.
She groped on, traded dark thoughts for plans once daylight arrived. She listened for the animals. She hadn’t heard them in a while, sensed them nearby.
She came to a steep ravine. Were her eyes playing tricks? Was that a light at the bottom? Did she hear someone singing? She listened out over the gaping black space. Walking backwards through the snow, at a loss… She couldn’t make out the rest. The voice sang the same line over and over. Sadness. “Am I hallucinating?” Her voice sounded strange amidst the calamity of wind and trees. Walking backwards through the snow, at a loss…
She started down. Clutched tree trunks to break her slide. Behind her an alarming crash. She moved as fast as she dared. Grunts and huffing closed in. She darted across an opening, focussed on a single dim light over a door. She felt for the knob, turned it, opened the door, stepped inside, and slammed it shut.
Warmth enveloped her. A puddle of orange glowed on the opposite side of a large, dark room. Coloured Christmas lights bled together in scallops along the walls.
“Hello,” she said.
A man’s voice shouted, “Get your hands in the air! Turn around slowly, go back to the door and put your forehead against it. If you don’t do as I say, I’ll blow your fucking head off. I’ve got a gun pointed right at you!”
“I’m being chased,” she managed, her hands trembling.
“Who put you up to this?” the voice snarled.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“No one.” Her knees weakened. She might collapse.
“Doesn’t sound like no one.”
“Bears. Chasing me.” She lowered her arms slightly and he shouted, “Up, I said! Get them up!”
“Now then, I’m going to ask you one more time. I want the truth. How many are out there?” the man snapped.
“Don’t give me bullshit. You’ve tried this before. You’re not going to get away with it again. How many?”
“I’ve no idea what you’re talking about. Can’t you hear them? They’re out there. Listen.”
“I hear something. How do I know it’s not the rest of your crew?”
“I don’t have a crew. I was out walking. I met a mother bear and her cubs. They forced me into the woods. They followed me. I saw your light from the top of the ravine. I’ve come here to escape them.” Obviously, a big mistake.
“I’m coming for a closer look. Don’t move or I promise you I’ll shoot.”
Behind her, the squeak of floorboards as he inched closer. This would be the time to make a dash for it. He might be a murderer. Hiding out. Or a rapist. He had a gun, didn’t he?
“Okay. Now turn around, very, very slowly. Hands high.”
Even in the dim light she saw he was much younger than his voice sounded. Maybe only a couple of years older than her, around twenty-six or seven. He was holding a broom, which he pointed at her.
“You can put your hands down now.” His tone no longer menacing, without theatrics. He lowered the broom. “You scared the hell out of me. I thought this place was being robbed. It happened before. I wasn’t here, but I heard.”
He leaned against the kitchen counter and peered out the window. “Jesus, you gave me a start. I imagine that goes for you, too.” He motioned outside. “Those bears are always coming around. They’ll be out there a while.”
A growth of whiskers wrapped his chin, and his light sandy hair stood on end. He must have noticed her looking at it and self-consciously patted it down. “Are you okay? Hope I didn’t scare you too much. Hey, I’m sorry, I really am. But like I said, I get jittery, out here on my own.”
His teeth caught on his lower lip; his blue eyes narrowed. “Can I tell you something?”
“Ever since I was a kid I always wanted to say I’ll blow your fucking head off, like a cowboy. I wondered how it would feel to say it. Obviously, I was only pretending. The worst I could have done was swept you away.” He pointed at the broom, propped against the cupboard. “What’s your name?”
“Goldilocks.” She couldn’t think why she blurted that out. This all seemed so surreal.
“You don’t have blond hair,” he said. “It’s quite dark, really.”
“Well there are three bears. I think there are. I didn’t get a close look. Let’s just say the part’s been rewritten. Now she’s a brunette. Brunetta and The Three Bears. Anyway, my name’s Portia. Like the car. But spelled differently.”
“Well, welcome Portia-like-the-car-but-spelled-differently. Like they say, we don’t get many of your kind around these parts. Especially at this time of night.” He extended his hand to shake hers and smiled. “Mine’s Robbie. Isn’t this a strange time to be out for a stroll?”
She told him about escaping her parents’ dinner guests and walking to let off steam.
“You’re shaking. Better get out of your wet things. I’ll find something warm for you.” He disappeared and came back with a blanket and a damp washcloth. She dabbed at her scraped cheek and bloody knee.
She shed her rain slicker and boots, peeled off her wet socks, and draped the blanket over her shoulders.
“You need to go and sit by the fire.”
“I’ll just get warmed up, then I’ve got to go. My parents might be looking for me,” though she doubted it.
The Edgertons liked to party, and her parents partied hard with them, more so than with their city friends. Something about being at the cottage, out in the woods. They were well into the weed, scotch, and wine when she left. They’d carry on into the small hours. The next day her parents would hold their heads and say, Oh, those Edgertons, as if they had nothing to do with it.
“You’re not going anywhere. I can’t let you do that. Listen,” he said. “You can hear them, can’t you?”
Who was this man she’d stumbled into? Some kind of perv? Dressed in a red and black checkered shirt over a T-shirt, skinny jeans, he looked more like a hipster. He could be hiding out. From someone, or from the law. He might have committed a crime. Could be a rapist! “I can’t stay. I can’t upset my parents.”
“You’re not going anywhere. Did you bring a phone? You could call your folks. Oh, wait, no signal.” He lifted his shoulders, gestured with his hands. “Nothing else to do but wait. Sorry. That’s how it goes.”
He was right. She pulled the blanket more snuggly around her and considered her options. Precisely none.
She followed him into the big room. Two old easy chairs flanked a stone fireplace. Couches faced off in the centre of the room, surrounded by large cubes, equipment of some sort.
She tripped, almost ended up on the floor. A swarm of cords criss-crossed the floor like tree roots.
“Sorry, I should have warned you. I’m used to it. It’s like a minefield in here, cables everywhere. I work in the dark. Except for the party lights.” He gestured to the strings looped along the far wall.
“What is all this stuff?” she asked.
He flicked on a lamp. “Instruments. Speakers. Keyboards. Monitors. It’s my friend’s studio. He’s a musician. He lets me work here sometimes.”
“I heard someone singing while I was on top of the ridge. Was that you?”
“Was it your song? Something about walking backwards through the snow. What’s it about?”
“I don’t usually talk about things I’m working on, but it’s about a friend who killed himself.”
She pushed deeper into the couch, her hands and feet tingling as warmth came into them. He sat opposite, picked up a guitar and trailed his fingers over the strings, drifted away, and came back, as if he’d just become aware of her presence. He closed his laptop and slid his guitar beside him on the couch.
“Why were you out walking again?”
She talked about the confrontation with Bill and Alda Edgerton. “They said smaller productions would soon be obsolete. They seemed happy to say so. But what really got me going was that Bill seemed openly hostile I was even in one. He seemed to take it personally.”
She described her part, the song and dance she performed, then stopped. Unlike her to jabber, and her voice had climbed a couple of pitches. “Sorry,” when she realized she’d been talking a while. “They really pissed me off.”
“Maybe this Bill guy rejects what he can’t understand. To cover up for his own limitations. Sounds like you threaten him. They don’t sound like good dinner guests,” Robbie said. “Why did your parents invite them?”
“My mother’s hardwired for projects,” she said, as she watched Robbie pick up his guitar and strum lightly. “I’m keeping you from your work. Please, ignore me. Go on with what you were doing. Once I can, I’ll leave.”
“It’s okay. I needed a break.” He got up and stoked the fire. The hiss and flare of a tumble of new logs.
She asked him where she could find the bathroom.
He pointed. “Just there. That door.”
“Where?” She stepped around the couch, raising her feet high to avoid tripping over cords, her hand trailing across the back of the couch.
Follow the illuminated line, count seventeen steps.
She headed to where she thought he pointed.
“No, no,” he said. “I’ve still got it dark in here. I’m used to it, I guess.” He came over to show her. “It’s right there.”
Robbie strummed his guitar, headphones on, laptop open again. She leaned back against the couch, closed her eyes, and listened.
“You sing, don’t you?”
“No. Not really.”
“But you said you had a song and dance part in a play. And that’s why the Bill guy was pissed off. Let’s see it.”
“No. I don’t think so.”
“Come on, if you show me, I’ll play you the whole song I’m working on. Fair trade?”
“You’d be getting the short end of that deal.”
He got up and pushed chairs aside to clear a space in front of the fire. “There. The stage is all yours.”
She could just go and do it, but what if…what if…
Follow the illuminated line, seventeen steps to the tree.
In front of the fire, she closed her eyes. She paused to allow the character to enter her, waited for Max’s voice.
You were unbelievable. You stole the show! What a laugh!
“I can’t do this.” Bill was right. Who’d want to see her perform? What if the same thing happened again?
Mrs. Campbell, the high school drama teacher, stood behind her in the wings and whispered. Your turn Portia, time to go. Follow the illuminated line, count the steps, seventeen, then you’re there, at the tree. Her hand on Portia’s back, pushing—Your cue. Portia was off, crossing the stage. The spotlight would come on once she got to the tree. One, two, three, four… looking for the line, the illuminated tubing she followed during rehearsals. It wasn’t there. There was nothing to guide her; it wasn’t working; she was walking in pitch black…five, six, seven, eight… She wanted to stop, call for lights. She kept on…nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen...The floor came out from under her and over she went. Falling, falling. Her hand reached out to grab at anything. A prop crashed down.
Out of blackness, gasps, and urgent whispers. What happened? What happened? The house lights went on. Mrs. Campbell and others huddled around her at the foot of the stage. A bone in her leg had snapped.
The audience rose and clapped as they carried her out on a stretcher. A standing ovation.
“I can’t do this,” she told Robbie. “I can’t be in the play. What was I thinking?”
The teasing never stopped. Did you take a crash course in acting? Why don’t you take a long walk off a short stage? And then the laughter. And the sneers.
“Come and sit down. I’m getting us a beer.”
She persuaded him to sing.
“Beautiful,” she said when he finished.
He drank the last of his beer, put the bottle on the table. “It’s your turn. You can do it.”
She shook her head. “No.”
“With stage fright it doesn’t matter if there’s an audience of one or a thousand. You’ve just got to get over it. And the only way to do that is to perform.” He kept at her until once again she stood before the fire.
She drew her arms up, closed her eyes. Max spoke to her.
You are moving over thin ice, so fragile you could break through, as you find the child you once were, before the darkness set in and took it all away.
Robbie clapped. “Bravo, bravo!”
She sank to the couch, grabbed for her beer, and knocked it over. It made a terrible clatter. “Sorry. I’m such a klutz.”
He went for a cloth, knelt, and wiped up the spill. “I get it.”
Not something she talked about. She had no memory of the virus or of ever having full vision. She had no memory of loss. “I see quite a bit.”
“Do you mind if I ask how much?”
“About thirty percent,” she said. “Give or take. Enough to know where I’m going. If there aren’t too many surprises. I try to stick to familiar ground. Try,” she said. How convincing would that sound after she tromped through the woods?
He tossed more wood on the fire. “I’d like to sit and talk, but I’ve only got this studio until late tomorrow afternoon. Then it’s back to the city.”
Outside, the bears squealed and chuffed, farther away from the cottage now, retreating up the hill and back into the woods.
“Do you know what’s strange,” Robbie said, looking across the room at the door. “I’ve never actually seen the bears. I always hear them; they’re always around.”
She awoke with morning light. A fleece blanket came up to her chin and her head rested on a pillow. He must have covered her, slipped a pillow under her head. The cold cabin air smelled of wood ash.
Robbie, on the couch opposite her, must have heard her stir and opened his eyes.
“I’ve got to go,” she said.
“No, you can’t go.” He tossed aside a blanket, sat up, reached for his shoes, smoothed his hair, and pulled on a black toque. “I’ll start a fire and put on coffee. Then I’ll drive you back.”
“I should be going now.” She went to sit up but decided to wait a little longer until the room warmed. “I can walk. Just tell me where I am.” She described the general location of her cottage.
“The bear and her cubs might still be out there. You’re definitely not walking.”
No other cars. The world dusted with a thin sheet of white, pristine, immaculate. Crisp air tinged with pine, spruce, and cedar. The snow might be gone by noon. In a few weeks, it would be piled high, the woods smothered in silence and stillness, like the inside of a cathedral.
“When I fell asleep last night, you were working on a song. Did you finish it?”
“Not quite. Getting there,” he said, facing the window on the driver’s side. “It’s so peaceful here.”
Regret in his voice. He didn’t want to leave. “Good luck. With the song.” She had an idea of what his music meant to him. “Is music what you do full time?”
Still looking off in the distance, he said, “That’s the idea. I’m also a janitor. It pays the rent. I can be quite creative when I’m scrubbing toilets.”
He faced her; his hat, low on his forehead, skimmed his eyebrows. “Please don’t tell anyone about the cabin. My friend asked me not to tell anyone. You’re different; you found it.”
“I was chased there. Maybe I was directed there,” she said, laughing.
Quiet for a few minutes as they drove along. “The cabin seems far away from everything. Almost as if it doesn’t exist.”
“Maybe it doesn’t,” he said. “I like to think it’s somehow sacred. A creative place, free of harsh judgment. Free of all Edgertons.”
“I won't tell anyone if you don’t.”
“Poof,” he said, throwing his hand up in a gesture, as if releasing a bird. “It doesn’t exist.”
They started down the long winding driveway. His hands on either side of the steering wheel, he leaned towards the windshield, took in the stone, log, and glass structure draped over the rocky terrain.
The car door open, one foot on the ground, she was about to thank him for rescuing her, for the beers, and the lift home.
Before she could say anything, he said, “I’ll be over this afternoon to see how you’re doing, before I head back to the city. You were pretty rattled last night. Let’s just say it’s a courtesy call. Maybe we could have a coffee or go for a walk.”
She watched his old Honda disappear up the driveway. Waves broke along the shore. The Edgerton’s boat thudded against the dock. Still here, still here.
In the back sunroom, Bill lay splayed over the leather couch. He snorted through his open mouth. Felled by booze and whatever else he’d consumed. What would she say to him if he woke up right now? I can see through you. Straight through you. Believe me, that’s not hard to do. And you, you can’t see me at all.
When he did awaken, he’d be cranky. He’d haul his bulk around, roar at his family. Their fault they didn’t make it home last night. Their fault he got so wasted. Sharing his agitation, his disappointment in himself. Making them suffer.
Portia crossed the room. Her rubber boots squeaked on the tile floor. She hovered over him. Saliva crusted at the corner of his mouth, a chalky residue. Coffee-stained teeth. The bottoms tiny and spiky—weasel teeth. Patches of broken purple blood vessels on his cheeks. Why not give him a poke?
Instead, she stepped back, brought her right leg out behind her, and kicked his dangling leg. His breath drew inward; he snorted awake. His swollen lids raised over his squinty red eyes.
“Time for you to get up and get going,” she said. How could she have taken him so seriously?
Jennifer’s knife tapped as she cut. The kitchen infused with tropical fragrance: pineapple, cantaloupe, honeydew, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, kiwi. Portia’s hand skimmed the cool surface of the granite counter.
“Ah, there you are,” Jennifer said. “You must’ve gotten up awfully early. Were you out for a walk? In the light, I hope.”
“Yes, and yes.”
Her hand went to the massive platter of fruit, a collage of colours bleeding together into an impressionistic blur. The plumpness of a fresh strawberry. She raised it to her nose. Breathed in the scent of its ripeness. Bit into its exquisite flesh. Sweetness gushed over her lips. She savoured the juice. The taste of perfection. And possibility. The whole promising world contained in the miracle of a single strawberry.
“Your fruit platter, Mom. It’s a work of art.”