Corinne was woken by the morning doves and the shifting of crackling firewood. The cheery “wow!” sound of the tent zipper revealed Srinidhi making Darjeeling tea. The orange sun was cutting quickly through the indigo sky. Srinidhi threw her a blanket. It was cold.
“How’s the ankle?” Corinne asked.
Srinidhi shrugged. “Same.”
Corinne put the blanket to warm by the fire and brought out the ones from the tent, still warm from her body. She draped one over her friend’s shoulders then the larger one around them both.
The tea was too hot to drink but it was a much needed comfort.
“We’ll be home soon and get it looked at.”
“Wouldn’t need to be looked at if-“ but Srinidhi stopped. “Sorry. I’m just tired. Didn’t sleep much.”
“I’m sorry for all of it. I was too ambitious and I really thought I could handle going off the path for a bit and we’d cut back to it. At least that’s what the map-“
“-the map said. Yes.” Srinidhi sighed and leaned her head on Corinne’s shoulder.
“I agreed. We discussed it. We both left the path. I still trust you.”
Corinne pulled the blankets taught around them, hugging her friend. Neither of them flet it necessary to bring up the fact that the tea was being rationed so much that it was little more than water. They both knew that it was only a matter of a few days before their supplies were wiped out. They didn’t know how bad Srinidhi’s ankle was. Hopefully just a sprain.
Back to back inside the tent they dressed into their only other set of clothes. They had tearing down camp down to just ten minutes now. Their new rule was no breakfast-no food in general-until they couldn’t stand their stomachs rumbling anymore. They tore off chunks of berries when they found birds eating them.
They were simultaneously relieved and dreaded finding a stream because it insured survival but also added weight to their packs. The straps of their packs dug into their shoulders despite the hip and waiste belts. They werephysically stronger since beginning the trek but mentally shot. The once romantic pine trees now seemed like a personal obstacle course designed to drain them.
Left foot. Right foot. Sun in the east. Left foot. Right. Sun above head. Eat crackers and wilting berries. Elevate ankle. Stretch. Left foot. Right food. Left. Right.
Left right left.
Corinne neglected to guide Srinidhi over some particularly slick rocks near a series of small waterfalls and was met with a sharp inhale behind her. She turned and reached for her friend with impressive speed but the damage was done. Srinidhi stood eyes wide and body stiff with pain. Corinne hoisted off her pack before guiding her friend to sit on it. She undid the other pack and dug out the ibuprofen.
“It’s the little injuries that get you,” Corinne laughed, attempting to lighten the mood. Her words only sounded bitter, her laughter out of place.
Srinidhi was silent for the rest of the evening. They split a can of beans and tried to sleep. You would think nothing could pull these two from their anxiety but the beans proved to be a multifunctional item, doubling as both nourishment and entertainment.
“Was that you?” Srinidhi asked after the sound of a high pitched whistling sound. Corinne cleared her throat, a contrasting low sound compared to the “wawathwaaap.”
“You’re stinking up the tent,” Srinidhi moaned. The sounds grew more and more musical and finally a “shroonigray?” had them laughing out loud. It hurt their sore bodies which only made them laugh harder.
“I feel like I’m back in high school,” Corinne said.
“I bet you smell like you’re back in high school.”
In the morning Srinidhi rewrapped her ankle, the sock straining to fit over the bulge. She unzipped the back window to its see-through netting to inhale the crisp air. She laughed despite the pain. Maybe they’d find the path today. Maybe this three-day-weekend hike could end at five days in. She unzipped the front door flap with gusto, ready to face whatever came their way.
Corinne was staring into the distance. Srinidhi’s smile dropped.
A bear was walking towards them.
They swore in whispers out the sides of their mouths.
“Shit. Yeah. Shit.”
“Oh holy shit. No.”
“We need to play dead,” Corinne said.
“I thought we were supposed to make a lot of noise.”
“Wrong kind of bear. Lay down.” Corinne laid down on her back.
“I’m not going to make it easier for it to come chew on me.”
“Your ankle, Srinidhi. You can’t run. Lay. Down.”
Srinidhi could see the fog coming from its hot breath and the black of its eyes. Slowly, she lowered herself to the ground.
“Oh my god, Ala, we’re going to die. Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god, please-“
“Shut up and pray in your head.”
“Play dead or be dead.” Her words were sharp but she took her hand and squeezed it.
The bear put the term “bad smell” into perspective. It sniffed around their pot of tea and pushed it over into the fire. Srinidhi squeexed Corinne’s hand and Corinne knew it was taking everything she had not to scream. The bear let out a low growl and whimpered, breathing heavily. Rhey could feel its body heat as it stepped over them, sniffing and licking their faces. Its breath smelled like rot. The saliva was hot and then froze onto their skin. Some went up Corinne’s nose and into her eyes. It itched. She didn’t budge.
The beast whipmpred and moved so that it was just above their heads.
They smelled it before they felt it. Hot drops of urine hit the side of their faces. Though the bear was about a foot away now the urine crept over into their hair, muddied with the dirt. Srinidhi twitched and Corinne gave her hand another few squeezes.
Play dead or be dead.
It went inside the tent and for what felt like forever rustled around.
After a few minutes they could hear heavy breathing.
The women turned to each other.
“It’s asleep. Let’s go.”
Corinne shook her head slowly. If they moved it would hunt them.
An hour passed and eventually they stopped noticing the breathing. All they could do was watch the sky change.
Somewhere between a long time and infinity, Corinne removed her hand to stretch her fingers, brushing the knife kept in her pocket. She slowly took it out and undid the safety. She opened it gingerly, tiny clicking sounds setting her teeth on edge. Srinidhi grabbed her arm.
No, said her bulging eyes.
Corine’s brow creased deeply. They couldn’t lie there in bear urine through the night or they’d freeze. They had hours before sunset. There was no fire. They might not die from exposure but there were no guarantees that their snoring wouldn’t wake the bear or its presence wouldn’t attract other predators. They could try to sneak off but one loud noise and it’d be over. Mauled by a bear after it pees on you… Not how Corinne was going to go. Srinidhi’s ankle would mean she’d probably be picked off first and Corinne would have to listen to her friend being ripped apart.
She gestured to her knife then to Srinidhi’s pocket. Srinidhi’s frown stretched into a grimace as she pulled out her own knife, flipping it open. Corinne translated a plan through hand gestured before rolling over slowly to face the tent. She listened to the bear’s breathing before getting to her feet. She had heard the zipper when Srinidhi had opened it hours ago. The plastic walls served as a plastic container with which to magnify the animal’s odor. She leaned gently into the wall of the tent until she was kneeling on the wall and the window netting was just above the bear’s head. She blotter her palms before raising her knife. She heard Srinidhi shuffle and saw the thumps up rise above the tent. Shaking though her fist was, seeing her friend’s fingers wrapped around her knife with a thumbs up gave her courage.
Corinne’s blade went into the bear’s eyes easily. She didn’t pause between stabbings. It was a less than ten second attack. Twelve hits to the eyes and she was bolting back to Srinidhi. They grabbed their water and bolted for the thickest clump of trees they could see. Srinidhi put weight on her bad leg almost gladly. Sacrifice one limb for the the whole. Corinne looked back and the next second was a flash of white light. She felt herself become airborne then landed hard on her back.
Up there now… Damn tree branch.
Srinidhi used their drinking water sparingly in an attempt to clean up. She piled leaved under her head and kept the bash on her forehead covered with a strip taken from the inside of her ankle bandage. It was the closest they had to sanitary.
To be continued…