by Kate Todd

The old guys at the chalet had said it was going to snow. She felt their eyes follow her as she stomped from the changing room to the door, her boots clicking against the tiles. The men sat at ‘their’ table, the most central one, where they pretended to wax their skis while parroting wisdom at anyone who crossed the chalet’s threshold.

‘Well, if it isn’t the next national cross-country champion. It’s going to start coming down soon. Sure you want to go out there?’

‘They’re calling for flurries, not a blizzard.’ She tamped down the urge to roll her eyes. She needed the support of the whole ski club, even these know-it-alls.

The ringleader of the group waggled a finger at her. ‘You be careful now, young lady. Not just the snow you need to worry about. Ned, here–’ The man jerked his head towards his neighbour. ‘He swears blind he saw a ghost out there this morning.’

The way Ned was squinting at her, she wasn’t sure he could see the tips of his skis in front of him on a sunny day.

‘Well, so long as there aren’t any goblins or ghouls, I’ll do my 15k and be back before the snow starts.’

 

Inhale, hear the cold catch in the back of your throat.

Exhale, feel your dry lips become soft again.

*

Her burning quads and heaving chest force her to stop before the final uphill push. She flew for the first twelve kilometres, but that was before the snow started to fall, chubby, dense flakes that formed a shell over her hat. She tears off a glove and stabs at her fitness tracker to stop the taunting digits ticking upwards. She’d been making good time, too – but it still wasn’t good enough, not if she wants to qualify for the national championships.

She knows that they’re timing her back in the chalet. That’s what happens when you throw a gauntlet down in front of everyone, declaring that you’ll be at the next national championships.

It is possible. She’s made the qualifying time, but only the once, and qualifying isn’t the same as winning. She stares up at the low grey ceiling and waits for the burning in her eyes to pass. As her breathing slows, the silence in the forest becomes louder.

Ned’s apparition sighting was easy to dismiss in the warmth of the chalet, where the radio chattered about used cars and the coming deep freeze. Where the aroma of warming vegetable soup being prepared for lunch wafted from the galley kitchen. She can still hear the hiss and spit from a fledgling fire in the grate.

But out here, the world’s so wide it can make you feel like you’re suffocating, it’s harder to dismiss what you simply can’t see.

*

The woods are a place full of transformations. Snowflakes soften the sharp grooves carved by the grooming machine and accentuated by the first of the day’s skiers. She plants her poles and twists, savouring the pull in her mid-back. Behind her, the tracks she had so painstakingly carved begin to disappear under the heavy flakes. If she stays exactly where she is for long enough, there will be no evidence of where she had come from, no markers pointing to where she needs to go. The thought of that much freedom is as paralysing as it is exhilarating.

She shakes her head to dispel her stupor. Must push on. There are times to be met and a chalet laden with expectation. Her time for today is already ruined, but she can reset the timer and work on sprinting for the last stretch so the session isn’t a complete waste. She’ll do better tomorrow. She has to.

She rubs the snow from her hat and shoves it lower over her ears.

“If she stays exactly where she is for long enough, there will be no evidence of where she had come from, no markers pointing to where she needs to go. The thought of that much freedom is as paralysing as it is exhilarating.”

Her finger is hovering over the reset button of her fitness tracker when she hears a soft crack behind her left shoulder. She strains her ears to pick up the sound, but there’s nothing to hear. She lifts her finger again.

A second, softer snick of a thin branch snapping. She feels her spine stiffen and the hairs rise under her neckwarmer. Her eyes move slowly to the left, the only part of her capable of moving.

*

She sees the paws first. Her heart races, as though it would leave her body behind and run for the chalet on its own if it could. She tries to reel it back in as she draws her gaze up the cat’s legs and torso.

Keep calm, no sudden movements, she coaches herself. She bites the inside of her lip to stop unbidden laughter spilling out. Speed, the very quality she’s out here to find is the thing that could kill her. A hundredth of a second is all it takes to win, all it takes to lose.

The lynx is poised, all four paws resting like snowshoes on top of the snow. She senses it watching her just as studiously as she is watching it.  Avoiding the predator’s gaze, she brings her arms out into a demented star jump so that she appears bigger than her five and a half feet.

Inhale, steady the arms.

Exhale, hold back the scream that’s pushing up from your toes.

‘Eyes up. Let’s go,’ she whispers.

The cat’s pale eyes are rounder than she expected, not narrowed. That doesn’t mean anything. The forest is the home of illusions.

The tufts on the tips of its ears make it look curious, but there is no frivolity in its wide rounded nose and the thick jowls that mask its powerful jaws. Lynx are so rarely seen that the chalet hadn’t posted any sightings in years.

Except for Ned, who told his cronies, who told her, but she didn’t have the time to listen then.

Canadian lynx, the grey ghosts of the forest.

She remembers now.

*

‘Guess you didn’t expect to find me out here either,’ she says. Her voice is forced, but steady, the way she thinks it’s supposed to be. One tufted ear twitches.

Her heart pounds in her throat, but she pushes her next words past it, louder and quicker. ‘Do you want to get across the trail? I’m not trying to get in your way.’

She inches her left ski back, waiting for gravity to draw her back down the gradual slope, giving the cat a clear route across the trail.

The skis don’t budge.

She doesn’t dare lower her poles to push back.

The cat lifts a paw, its wide shoulders turning towards her. She clenches her poles tighter, squeezes her eyes and waits.

 

The first crushing blow to the knees never comes. Neither does the hot breath of the cat, or its sharp canines at her throat. She inches her eyes open.

The lynx’s ears flick, its wide head darts over her shoulder. The muffled sound of skis scraping over fresh powder, the thwack of carbon poles glancing blows on the surface has never been so welcome.

The cat meets her eyes one last time. She’s sure it nods before loping silently away between the trees. She lets her head fall back, unsure her neck can take its weight anymore.

The skier nods at her spread arms and face upturned into the falling snow as he passes by with long, lazy strides. ‘Glorious, isn’t it?’

He’s gone before she can reply. In his wake, she is flooded by adrenaline and sorrow. She’s been out in these woods every day for months, gaining seconds and all the time losing sight of its terrifying beauty.

Her skis shake as she lifts them out of the track. She sidesteps over to the trail edge, looking for the lynx’s tracks, but the forest has swallowed the big cat whole.

She reaches to reset her timer, but pulls her sleeve over it instead. There will be other days for seconds and hundredths of seconds.

 

Inhale, push off with the right.

Exhale, glide, aware of the golden eyes on your back.


Kate Todd | @KTodd_Writes

By day, Kate Todd is a business analyst for an art and tech firm. In every other spare minute, she is a reader and writer. She is represented by Carly Watters of P.S. Literary and is embarking on a new novel in 2018.

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