by Meredith Wadley
Water trickled and gushed through the Swiss Valley of Müstair as if the whole world were melting. And most of the valley’s south-facing slopes had shed their winter white dropmeal, exposing ugly gray flanks of rock, flattened grasses, and needleless larch. Still, enough packed snow remained on the valley floor. For the cross-country skiers and skaters, the valley’s groomed trails balanced a satisfying purchase with a heavenly glide.
Jean and Maggie were out on their morning loop, Maggie trailing Jean, who crested their final climb. He dropped from her sight, and a blackbird flapped and cawed, crawling into the sky. Maggie crested the hill and saw Jean to one side of the loipe and doubled over.
“Damn bird; flew right into my face!” he said. He brushed snow off one shoulder.
Back at their rental in Santa Maria, she rubbed his shoulder with pain relief cream. They skipped their afternoon loop, reading, chatting with their twin sons, and Zooming with friends instead.
In the morning, Maggie sat alone at the kitchen table with its nicks and burns and water rings of renters past. Three cups of coffee had her caffeine jittery, and Santa Maria’s church bells chimed ten times, the hour when the sun reached the valley floor and track conditions were ideal. She scrolled through social media posts: idiotic tweets from the White House, yadda, yadda, yadda; melting glaciers and unpredictable weather patterns; and, in Northern Italy, a highly contagious SARS flu was proving alarmingly fatal to “the elderly and vulnerable.”
Sometimes, it was hard not to imagine the world being out to get them, a ridiculous notion.
Bored, she reread the local paper, its article about the Valais village of Reckingen honoring the victims of a catastrophic avalanche. Fifty years ago, the avalanche had wiped out several homes and an army bunkhouse. Same as this year, that year had seen unseasonably warm temperatures in the Alps. Earlier in the week, on their drive over the Julier Pass, Maggie and Jean had been delayed for an hour by an avalanche clearing crew. A small slide had partially submerged a car—no injuries, the paper had reported.
Finally, she heard Jean shuffling to the bathroom. He appeared, wearing a black undershirt and jeans, and scolded Maggie for not going skating on her own. Had he gotten any sleep?
The couple usually conversed in her native American English. He’d slipped into his Lausanne French when distressed. Their boys, Léon and Elio, spoke both languages fluently—plus German. The family lived in the Zurich area, where Jean worked for a global mining company. Over time, Maggie’s sketchy German skills came to replace her sketchy French ones.
She handed Jean a bowl of muesli. “Should we go home?” she asked.
“And disappoint the boys?” Back in January, the twins had asked to spend their vacation snowboarding with friends this year, and a bewildered Maggie had needed a nudge to approve. “They’re fine without us,” Jean had said. “And we’ll be fine without them.” Now, the two were home alone. Maggie pictured the recycling pile stacked with oily pizza cartons and bags full of empty energy-drink cans.
“How about a hike?” Jean said. He pointed out the kitchen window. A zigzag road climbed the sunny, snow-free side of the valley to the hamlet of Craistas, just out of sight. He opened his hiking app. If possible, he said, they could carry on to Lü and lunch at the restaurant there, enjoying the views, from the Swiss National Park to the Italian Tyrol. “Still snow up there, I bet,” he said. A larch forest covered the mountainside between Craistas and Lü. “It’s a winter trail, marked as groomed,” he added, tapping his phone.
Engadine houses. The thick, towering walls and haylofts built of mammoth logs looked as if a gentle nudge could topple them onto her, but they’d stood solid for hundreds of years. They reached the bridge crossing the Rom. A mob of crows swept up the rushing river. Like ash-littered smoke, they whirled skywards, and Maggie recalled her dream of the family on a hike. A blackbird had flown down, seized Jean, and carried him away. The boys had turned into fledglings, helpless and vulnerable on the ground. When she opened her mouth to scream, she could only caw.
On the bridge, she found two stones with quartz belts. Wishing for her sons’ wellbeing, she tossed them. They clattered onto a gravel bar. She hoped did they didn’t need to land in the water to bring luck.
Along the road to Craistas, snow filled the culverts, its surface sandpaper rough. Meltwater streaked the pavement. Maggie and Jean tied their jackets around their waists.
“I wish you hadn’t worn black,” she said. “It lends you a pallor.”
“A pâleur?” He shrugged. “It’s sweat-wicking.” He stopped to photograph a saucer-shaped cloud hovering above the Swiss-Italian border. “That bird yesterday was actually an alien,” he mused. He handed Maggie his phone to show off his photo. She uploaded it onto WhatsApp to send to the boys, writing, Aliens descending on Val Müstair.
Elios responded: Careful they don’t abduct you!
She looked at the time, nearing eleven-thirty. Shouldn’t you be in school?
A moment later, he sent a video of Léon on the school soccer pitch, giving the double thumbs-up to Elio’s, “Say Hi to Mom!”
She slipped the phone into her pocket, and they carried on, passing small holdings embedded in the switchbacks. Sheep bells rang, dogs napped on front stoops, cats curled on woodpiles, and woodsmoke lazed skyward from chimneys.
At Craistas, its streets empty, Jean asked if she was game to carry on.
“How’s your shoulder?”
“You think we can make Lü before the restaurant closes?”
“At two? Sure, as long as conditions are good.”
Outside of Craistas, an elderly man approached from the direction of the Lü trailhead. He wore boots, not snowshoes, walked with a wooden staff, and carried a green army overcoat. Incredibly, a blackbird with an orange beak sat on his shoulder. Its claws had felted the man’s green sweater.
Jean asked the man if he’d come from Lü, and the bird tilted its head, eying him up.
The man stroked the bird’s head. “Lü, ja. Soft in places.” He continued his way, adding, “You’ll get where you need to go.”
At least, that’s what Maggie understood him to say, his dialect being unfamiliar to her.
“Do you think that could’ve been the bird that flew into my face yesterday?” Jean asked. “I was about to overtake a skier—could’ve been that guy, the bird confusing us?”
She hadn’t noticed another skier. Only the bird.
They reached the trailhead, snow-covered and pockmarked with old prints. The signpost read: Lü 45 Min.
“The trail’s pretty ungroomed,” Maggie said.
“High season’s over,” Jean said, hopping onto the surface. “We’re good!” He offered Maggie a hand up, and she hit a soft spot immediately.
There was no preparation for the crunch and collapse—the jarring. She grunted and said, “This won’t be good for your shoulder.”
Jean picked his way forward. “Walk in my steps. The surface will improve in the forest.”
Church bells up and down the valley pealed. Noon.
“It’ll take us an over an hour to get to Lü,” Maggie said.
“We’re in no hurry.”
“By the time we’re through the forest, though the last bit of trail will be slush.”
“So, we hurry.” Jean’s words were hardly out of his mouth before he sank to his knees. With a grimace, he extracted himself.
“Jean, let’s turn back.”
“The surface will hold under the trees, you’ll see. The world’s caving in. We’re fine. Nothing wrong with a bit of a challenge.”
The surface did improve in the forest. Maggie, ahead of Jean, progressed quickly. She turned to say something about the sweet air and birdsong only to find herself alone. She stopped to wait.
Odd, Jean not appearing. She cupped her hands and made the family yodel, “Hoo-hoo!”
The birds silenced.
Yodeling in crowded places—Italian markets, French museums, Spanish plazas—attracted looks but got results. Once, in London, she heard a yodel. It came from a woman who then waved and shouted, “Da bini!” Yes, a Swiss mother.
Maggie yodeled again.
She took out her phone, and the surface beneath her popped. Down she plunged. The phone flipped out of her hand. Damn.
She placed her palms on the snow’s prickly surface and pushed like a swimmer at the edge of a pool. Luckily, it held. She realized that Jean might have fallen, too. Maybe, he’d been unable to get himself out.
Or maybe something worse had happened. She needed to phone him, but where could her phone have landed? She’d hoped it hadn’t hit the surface hard enough to break through and sink. Taking a step, she felt a weight in her jacket pocket bump against her leg—Jean’s phone. Oh, shit. With no way to call her husband, she’d have to double back to find him. At least, she could call her own number. Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” began to play a meter from her feet.
The farther she retraced her steps, the more her anxiousness grew, and she increased her pace, her footfalls crunching and the forest going silent. Something dark moved through the trees. “Jean!” she shouted, but the movement was a gliding bird.
Then she did see Jean and yodeled again. He frowned as if preoccupied.
“Are you okay?” she said. “What happened?”
“Je tu l'ai dit—mon téléphone. It must have dropped from my pocket when I fell at the trailhead.”
She hadn’t heard him say anything. “Oh, good grief. I’m sorry.” She handed him his phone.
Now, Santa Maria’s bells rang the thirteenth hour, and an eerie quiet wrapped itself around them. “Let’s head home. I’m feeling spooked. This trail makes me nervous.”
“We’re fine,” Jean said, “and I’m starving.” He headed off in the direction of Lü. “Let’s just get through this.”
Said as if the hike were some sort of trial or test of character.
Past the point where Maggie had fallen, they came upon a ravine where the snow appeared as smooth and shiny as Italian meringue.
“Let’s take a selfie for the boys,” Maggie said. She held up her phone, angling it to pick up their faces and as much of the landscape as possible. Some of his black T-shirt made it into the shot, so she edited the quality of his skin tone, and pushed Send.
Whoosh, off the photo flew.
As soon as she thought of Léon and Elio, her affection for them moved through her like a tremor. Yes, they were young men, now. Soon, the two would be out of their lives. She and Jean would be empty nesters.
Jean cocked his head. The movement reminded Maggie of the bird on the old man’s shoulder, and the hair on the back of her neck rose. A shiver passed through her.
He seemed to groan—or maybe it was a tree rubbing against another tree. The birds had stopped singing again. Another groan—and Jean seemed to jump.
“Jean!” Maggie cried, and his mouth opened, too, as if he were yelling, but a roar and earth-growling rumble devoured his words. Suddenly, she felt nightmarish movement, as if she was sprinting yet getting nowhere.
At a thunderous crack, the trees all leaned uphill. No—the snow rushed through their dark trunks like white water. Rumbles, roars, and more thunder followed. A glittering of cool mist brushed her face, and the trail slid, carrying her along. “Jean!” she shouted again.
A force threw her to the ground, and she heard a cry, “Ah, ah, ah!” Looking up, she saw something black flying overhead and recalled her dream of Jean being swept away.