A scorching winter sun bore down on me. It roasted the sweat from my skin, while simultaneously searing UP at me, frying the inner membranes in my nose.
Beneath that sun, three friends and I skied up, into the California mountains just south of Yosemite. We sweated our way across the glaring white mirror of snow which reflected a lot - but not all - of the Sun’s radiation.
That Sun was breaking bonds in billions of connected ice crystals several feet below me, starting a slow percolation of water between invisible layers of snow pack.
On the surface, the snow was magnificent that day, lying pure as a bride in the bed of a deep coulior curving voluptuously toward the west.
The air had a tangy flavor in the throat and a sting of cold in the lungs. It let you know that you were alive. So I skied on ahead of my friends, greedy to inhale more of it.
A sudden snap, basso-profundo deep. Sharp like a whiplash. My heart sank.
And the world dropped out from beneath my skis.
I fell into a tornado of snow. This maelstrom tore off a ski, and blasted my face. It ripped away my goggles. I was sometimes upside down, sometimes face grinding into the sandpaper of ice, sometimes twisted like a pretzel. My ears screed from the angry roar that enveloped me.
Eventually, it settled to a lethargic stop.
But when I told my arm to dig me to the surface, it refused to move. I told my legs to kick. They were locked into rapidly freezing cement.
I opened my eyes to look around. It was dense, starless night.
When I tried to take a breath, terror hit. My mouth and nose were packed with thick, wet snow. I strained at my chest muscles, but it was like trying to pull air from a sealed vacuum.
With all the energy I had, I spit. Something moved in my mouth, and with the attempt to inhale, I got a little flow of air around the snowball.
My next meager inhalation was the most beautiful, valuable gift on earth. It flowed through my body, illuminating my soul and warming me like a swallow of cognac. Ah, air. Warmth.
Silence. Ringing in your ears silence. Deep in your grave silence. So I conjured a voice.
“I’ll be coming back,” I heard myself say many years before. I’d said it to a little girl who was lying in a hospital bed within the South American jungle.
I was pretty much a kid myself then. A med student following the missionary doctor from bed to bed in the jungle hospital.
I glanced over the edge of a crib, and found myself being stared at by a pair of glistening black orbs
Had she smiled, she’d have been pretty. Gorgeous, maybe, some day. But her arms were so thin, I could encircle them with my thumb and index finger, and the skin over her arms and legs was wrinkled because the muscles beneath had wasted away. She looked as if someone had placed the head of one doll on the body of a much smaller doll.
She didn’t move anything. Not even her face muscles. Only her eyes seemed alive. They followed me as I moved to the other side of her crib. Followed me without moving, as if they could see everything at once.
“What’s wrong with her?” I asked the missionary Doc.
“See,” he began with his drawl, “ Barbi, she’s severely malnourished. Real susceptible to any pathogen.”
So my job, while her mother and the nutritionist slowly fed her back toward normal, was to examine Barbi daily to catch any potentially lethal infection before it got a roaring head start.
Every morning, I’d greet her mother in my crude Spanish, then lean over the rail of the crib and whisper hello to her. Her big bulging spider eyes stared out of her head which contained no one knew what thoughts, and they watched as I listened to her lungs for the faintest clue, examined her tummy for the vaguest change from the day before.
I became her bodyguard against would-be assassin micro-organisms.
Then, it was time for me to leave.
Those eyes stared out from what still looked like a very precarious body, vulnerable to hundreds of things that swarmed the world daily. Someone would have to protect her for quite a while as she slowly ate her way toward normal.
“I’ll be coming back,” I told her.
But I never got around to it as I spun through the years and the freeways and the shopping malls of my life back here.
I shivered. Something wet on my cheek - I don’t know - melting snow maybe, burned hot down my chilled skin, and quickly began to freeze.
I heard a creak. Then a low rumble began to crescendo Something was beginning to move. A second slab avalanching, burying me even deeper. I felt a tear for myself, for my too-long delayed and now squandered life.
A twisting force on my body. The snow encasing the top half of my upside-down body was moving away from the slab encasing the bottom half. I felt a shearing force at my waist.
The roar again.
The tumbling again.
The swirling tornado of snow again.
I spit out the snowball.
Eventually, the moving stopped. And I was stuck, like some snapped twig, sticking out of the snow in the blinding sun.
A week later, my skiing buddies stopped by the house with photos of the wide gouge in the hillside left by my slab’s escape.
“A proposition,” announced the lawyer. “Next month or so, when you’re healed, let’s take a little ski. Nothing major. Only where it’s safe.”
“Not this year,” I shook my head. The beer in my mouth bubbled into my nose, chilling it. “I won’t be around. I’m taking a trip.”