Oh, savage Beauty, suffer me to pass,
That am a timid woman, on her way
From one house to another!
—Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Assault”
It was only a beer bottle I found in the middle of the trail, but it pinged an impulse in me to go. Get back to the car, give up our Saturday hike. I didn’t tell Cheryl, who stood by while I picked up the bottle and knocked off the dust. She’s known me for thirty years, since our kids were babies, and mostly she endures my jumpy nervousness. But a single empty beer bottle in the big, wide open of Oregon on a sunny June day—it was silly, even for me, to get worked up over such a thing.
Except I’d never before found trash here, not even a cigarette butt, and since the trailhead is a quick ten-minute drive from our house on the McKenzie River, I came often. I’d heard about prowling mountain lions—one had recently snatched a dog right off its leash—I almost stepped in a steaming pile of bear scat one time, and you have to watch for poison oak where you squat to pee, but all of those were tolerable as long as I could rely on encountering few people, and certainly not their beer bottles, on this six-mile loop of towering Douglas fir and cedar trees, the nearby river crashing down its channel.
I was shoving the bottle in my pack when the light shifted, or I did, and suddenly a cache of garbage appeared in front of us, chip bags and burrito wrappers, a hillock of beer bottles tangled in Oregon grape and salal. Also: a whiff of human excrement on the breeze. Cheryl said what I was thinking, What the hell? and that’s when we heard a woman scream. My knees buckled a little. I said it was probably local kids who’d partied here overnight, goofing around on the riverbank before they hauled their hangovers home, but then the woman screamed again. It was a real scream. I ducked into the trees, as if it were possible to hide from the staccato of panic in the air. My hands were shaking when I pulled out my phone. There’d be no service, but I figured I should check for bars anyway. I’d told my husband we were off to hike, but I hadn’t mentioned where, so no one could easily find us, and for that and other reasons darting in my head like bats, we had to go back. Right now.
But Cheryl kept moving ahead. I didn’t want to follow her and I can’t say why I did, really, but together we came upon a man and a woman atop a slope. The woman saw us and said please. That one word. Please, please. The man had his left arm clamped across her chest and in his right hand he held a hatchet. The shiny blade was poised at her neck, which poked out of her filthy T-shirt like a cherry-red thumb.
I whispered to Cheryl, “Run.” We could be back at my car in a half-hour if we hurried like we’d never hurried before, with me at the wheel, doors locked, Cheryl calling the sheriff. Wouldn’t people with uniforms and guns and squawky radios be better equipped to deal with this? But my friend acted as if she hadn’t heard me and she started talking to the woman on the hill in a voice I could hardly make sense of. Oddly calm, the cadence of a mother to a worried child, the singsong of someone slipping a hand under a wounded rabbit, as if we were a hundred miles from any hatchet-wielding man.
If I’d been asked back at the trailhead whether I was willing to help a woman in distress, I’d have said yes, yes emphatically, absolutely. Cheryl would have said the same and look how naturally it came to her. But the truth is, I had to pin myself down on the path that day like a wriggling moth. I remember it actually hurt to keep my feet on the ground, a pain behind my eyes, a pinch under the flat blades of my shoulders. The man with the hatchet was all taut muscle and bulging rage, and he was intent on doing harm—I could see it in his face and in the way he enclosed the young woman like a cape. She stayed motionless in his grasp except for the slight pop of her lips. Please. Her arms were pummeled raw, her face bruised, her hair in a snarl as if she’d been jerked around by it. Cheryl kept coaxing the girl—and she was a girl, younger than our daughters, maybe twenty years old—to wrench herself free of him, to get to us so we could help her. But help her how? We’d hiked in a good three miles, a couple of grandmothers with weak ankles (Cheryl) and limited stamina (me). We could shout until kingdom come; no one was going to hear, no one was going to sweep in to slam this man to the ground while we made our escape.
I hadn’t been this afraid for a long time. Cheryl was afraid too, of course, and in the weeks and months ahead, we’d call each other to go over every detail and shake out our mutual terror like chunky salt in our palms, but in the moment my friend held herself together in a way I could not. She sent out soothing phrases and kept her eyes trained only on the woman, as if the man couldn’t hear her, mustn’t hear her, as if he were irrelevant to this discourse, and that’s what worried me most. What if he was the type of man who hated being ignored? What if Cheryl’s dismissal of him was the thing that would propel him to slice open the woman’s throat like a grape? And then, because we had flipped the switch, he would be compelled to turn his weapon on us.
I didn’t think of my father’s younger sister when I was out in the woods that day, but she drifted into my thoughts not long after. I remembered late nights when she pounded on the front door of our house, her husband roaring down our street in his car. I slipped out of bed to watch from around the corner, my mother unfolding a cold washcloth for my aunt to press against her bloody teeth, my father setting a glass of whiskey on the table where she could reach it. He lowered himself next to his sister with a huff of impatience while my aunt bawled out that she had done nothing, that her husband was terrible, that he was mean to her, cruel, that he was drunk and half crazy. I was a kid, but I heard it in her voice: She didn’t believe a word she was saying. She folded her body like a half-cracked nut while every signal ebbing from her was that she was the one to blame for her troubles. She’d talked back, she’d flirted with another man, she’d disappointed him in some undefined way. That’s what I heard in her inflection, her tone of desperation: her fault that her husband had slammed his fist into her mouth.
When I got back into bed that night, and other nights, it wasn’t a call to arms brewing in me but instead a cautionary tale. I’m sorry for that now. Sorry I had no way to imagine being a girl who could stand up against such business. A girl who’d light her own lamp and keep it lit, no matter what. What was I then, nine or ten years old? I pulled my blankets around my aunt’s troubles, a nugget of trouble passed from her to me that I would carry into my own future. Like the BBs I’d watched my brother pour into the chamber of his gun, hard pellets of instruction for self-preservation got planted in me, into muscle and viscera and the synapses of my brain. Whatever it took, I was never to infuriate the man.
On a Saturday when I was around thirteen, my youngest sister reached over to change the channel on our television. Our father had football on, as he did every Saturday during the fall unless he was hunting or out of town on business or upstairs fighting with our mother. Football was his retreat, his release, and he expected to be left to it without the hubbub of children. He scooted to the edge of his chair, leaning toward the screen—maybe he thought he could get close enough for the players to hear his excoriation. Stupid son of a bitch. Useless piece of shit. The quarterback pumped the ball over his head, about to save the day, and the noise of the crowd rose up and up again, a roar, a resounding gong of sound as the ball was released into sparkling blue air. At this moment, my sister reached toward the knob, aiming for cartoons or a nature show, and my father punched her in the nose.
My brother, my two sisters, and the oldest one, me—none of us considered our father’s propensity to hit as a big deal. Dads hit, and you could count on ours for a kick in the rear if you were moving too slow, for a clamp on the shoulder if you smart-mouthed him. Well, the others could count on it. Not me. I figured out how to give him a wide berth. When a particular rumble got going in our father—and I can’t say now if I smelled it on his breath or heard a click of his rib cage, a grind of his teeth—I hurried into the garage. I sidled behind my bedroom door. I made a nest for myself behind the sofa and corkscrewed into blankets until he’d cooled down and my brother and sisters hobbled to their rooms. Not that I could always get away. Some days I was trapped in a room with our father when he blew. Those times, I’d disappear. I was good at it. A pillar of stone, an empty shell. Dig a hole, hop in. Roll into a ball. Stay there until the all clear. Take no notice of what’s around you. React to nothing.
The blow delivered to my sister on that football Saturday in the family room was a wallop. Swift and exponentially more forceful than others I remember. There’d been no warning before he let loose—or my usually keen antennae had failed me—so this hit was a shock, a surprise that sucked every last bit of moisture from my mouth. It startled him as well, I think. Our father probably mistook the kid in front of him for the 250-pound tackle he’d been yelling at, except it was a skinny eight-year-old on the floor howling, blood smeared on her face, worming into her stark white hair.
I don’t remember what happened after she fell—a fog, a confusion, memory in fragments. He probably muttered, Go get your mother before he returned to his game. If I rose off the couch to help my sister—and I have to believe I did at least that—I swung wide around my father, tiptoeing across the rug so he might not detect my presence, pleading with her in my smallest voice to shut up, shut up so as not to rile him any more.
Our elderly great-aunt was also there. Aunt Bertha, well into her eighties, was the reason I was in the family room, which I would normally avoid on a football Saturday. I’d been told to settle her in a comfortable seat and keep her company until dinner. Like other tiny women, she resembled a bird, with a pretty but pinched face and reedy bones. Arms like wings that she’d forgotten how to use decades earlier. Those arms stayed glued to her sides when my father struck my sister and as that sister went flying. Not a sound from the old aunt, not a tremble of a cheek nor an eyebrow. This most ancient of our relatives didn’t storm away in disgust, she didn’t shout at her nephew for what he’d done; she didn’t call to the other women in the kitchen to get in here now.
And neither did I.
How long does one hold a memory like that? By that day in the Oregon woods, a man with a hatchet shuddering before me, I’d rolled into my sixties, living on the river with my husband, children launched, my two-hundredth pot of soup on the stove. I figured the past had shed from me like old skin, cracked like a beetle’s outgrown carapace. Didn’t I deserve such a measure of peace? It seems not. Because here it was again, that same old hardwired reaction as if it had been lying in wait, a BB pellet worked to my surface and demanding I remain focused on appeasing the man.
As Cheryl continued her rescue of the girl, I stood stock-still, certain that my friend was about to seal our fate, all three of us dead on this path before we could make sense of the hot blood on our foreheads. But then, to my astonishment, the man lowered his hatchet. He let the woman go. She jumped apart from him, scrambling down the hill and raising enough dust to coat her already dusty legs, dislodging scree that tumbled ahead of her feet as if this were a race. She ran to Cheryl, who looped her arm around the young woman and said, “We are going to get you out of here.”
With the girl tucked in between us, Cheryl and I hustled out of the forest. I kept close to the other two, hurrying over craggy roots and fallen branches, along a winding trail, while the man followed us with a creepy military precision. Twenty feet back, I’d say. No more and no less. I kept track of his presence with every step. The woman wailed as we moved ahead, her constant sound a mosquito whine in my ear. I was desperate to hush her, as I had my sister all those years ago. I was ready to clamp my hand across this stranger’s mouth, to shake her until she stopped sobbing, until she stopped jabbering the story of his trouble and hers. How he’d refused to cash his last Army check. How he’d stopped taking his pills. How the US government, the military, the VA, were not to be trusted. Just after dawn that morning, his hands wrapped around her neck, he’d announced he was going to kill her. He threw her camp stove, her sleeping bag, her backpack into the river. He tossed her to the ground and sat on her until she couldn’t breathe.
The man behind us, listening in, held the hatchet at his side. It ticked against his leg like a metronome, like a pendulum, in tick-and-tock rhythm with his steps, and as I heard every rustle and bump of his axe I suddenly became indescribably weary. My legs, so tired, my neck and back, my prickled hair. The two women next to me were tired too, panting, groaning; anyone hearing this story so very tired of rushing down the path while a weapon arcs in the clean, hot air, its blade sharp enough to cleave bone, and ready to land on any one of our heads.
And then we saw the trailhead sign. We spotted it at the same moment, the first silver glints of my car winking through the copse of trees. The three of us without a word picked up the pace, jogging now. The man behind us ran too, but I couldn’t worry about him anymore. We were close to getting out; we might wrest free of him if we could propel our bodies a few more steps. I pitched my head, my arms, in the direction of the parking lot, yanking the girl along with me.
How do I explain the note of disappointment that cropped up in me as I opened the car door? Small as a raindrop pulsing on a windowsill. I ignored it as we climbed in and locked the doors, as I started the engine and jammed the gear into reverse, but I’ve had nearly two years since leaving the woods to turn over that unexpected flicker of emotion. Maybe it’s this: I’d missed what might be my last chance. My final opportunity to defend a little sister in the way she deserved to be defended. I missed the opportunity to purge language stored in me for nearly half a century, clanking like a boiling pot of eggs. The words remain in place still, festering.
Cheryl and I drove back to my house in the early hours of the evening, through the rosy light of late June that bounced off the river like music. She got in her car to return to town, to her own bed, her own solace, while I poured a slug of wine and told my husband I wanted to be alone. I sat on our deck and watched the river current, mergansers drifting in a hole, ospreys preening in the Douglas firs, trout leaping from the surface of the water like ignited wire. Dusk fell and the last Saturday raft drifted by, full of teenagers squealing out their joy.
The girl we’d found in the woods was gone, transported by ambulance to the hospital in town, where she’d be bandaged up and given drugs to help her sleep. I figured that when she was released the following day, she’d begin a search for her husband, as he’d be searching for her. They’d be back together in a blink, returned to whatever they had with each other but this time without her camp stove and sleeping bag, without her backpack that held the poems she’d written about him, the ones she told the paramedic she’d planned to sell to magazines so they could buy food and cigarettes. She was without her last forty dollars of cash in the world, which she’d squirreled into a pocket of that pack in case she ever needed to get away fast. All that belonged to the river now.
A deputy had met us at the firehouse where we’d been instructed to take the girl. He asked us a series of rote questions about our encounter in the woods until Cheryl and I disagreed on the color of the man’s shirt. I said it was white, that it beamed like a flashlight. She remembered it as black. He slapped his notebook shut and clicked his pen. “You had phones, didn’t you?” he said. “You could have taken a picture of him.”
And like that, it was done. There’d be no investigation, no search, no apprehension of a man with a hatchet. It was simply another violent Saturday in rural America. Though it wasn’t simple for me. I sat on the deck, curious how to continue on. I wondered if I was to thank the man and the woman for reanimating a past I’d believed was finished but most definitely was not, or if I should hate them for the same. Behind me was the house I’d lived in for over twenty years, which neither of my sisters has visited. That’s how it’s been with us—they turn to each other for succor, for advice, for friendship, while I have spent decades lauding myself for being the only one to leave our father’s house unscathed. As if I could forget, even for a moment, how the others took my share of the blows.
That has turned out to be the most difficult part to live with.
One of our mother’s favorite stories is about our elderly Aunt Bertha’s final words—how at ninety-two years old, moments before she died, she raised her head from the pillow to call out, “The angels are here to get me.” Too bad I didn’t know earlier about her ability to conjure angels. I could have used some creatures of heaven on an autumn day when I was thirteen, peeling my sister off the floor, hushing her, hushing her and hurrying her away. Angels to light on me. I was still young and unformed. I could still shape myself into anyone. The angels could have helped me realize that, one angel on each side, lifting me up, filling me with resolve. Murmuring in their feather voices that if I didn’t act soon, become someone who could speak, who could act, the memories I was loading up one after another would live in me like a long-scorched road. Like a bombed-out road. Like a bomb.