Kayla put my hand on the rounded side of her belly and held it there. She was smiling and holding still, and said to wait for it.
Then she pushed in slightly with her fingers, three light taps, just above my hand. There was a tap against my hand, from the inside.
She laughed and tapped again, and there was another tap from inside.
My astonishment at those first taps has been followed by many attempts, on my part, to get an answer from the little one. She responds to my cues by shifting her weight inside of Kayla, or with kicks or light touches. Sometimes she doesn’t answer, and I wait for long moments, and there is nothing.
The nights are cold now, and it is very cold in our room without a heater, and we can see our breath as we lay down for sleep. Lying next to Kayla, nine months along, in the quiet dark, my hand on the tight skin of her belly, tapping, waiting for a reply, and drifting to sleep, the scene changes. The new setting is from memory: the inside of a tent on the ledge of a mountain.
It was too early in the year for that trip, and I knew it was risky, with winter still clinging to the mountains. But it was the only time I could get off work, and I had the youthful confidence of one who does not know the true weight of snow.
It was a cross-country trek, a hundred miles through the back country, ten or twelve days if all went well, breaking brush through untouched forest, far from roads or trails. The plan to was navigate the terrain below the snow line all the way to the river, then down a trail to a highway, then hitchhike back to my car.
It was several days into the hike–deep into the mountains, through towering forests with soft pine-needle floors, across steep ledges, alpine meadows, chest-burning ascents, the views opening up at the lower summits, a vertical white wall of barren 13,000 feet peaks to the front, the river somewhere in the unseen distance–when the blizzard came.
A dark wall of clouds rolled over the mountains and consumed me where I was hurriedly trying to descend to a lower altitude. At first the sleet came at an angle, then turned to hard pellets of snow, then the sky went nearly black with snow and it did not stop coming down for two days.
It was difficult to walk in the slush after a short time, and impossible to see with the snow blowing like needles into my face, and as the powder created a new surface there was no way to know what was beneath each step on the white crust; solid ground, a fallen tree, a chasm twenty feet deep. I found a windbreak on a ledge next to a boulder with a tall fir tree on each side, and set up the tent.
There was nothing to read in that tent, nothing to do but to conserve food and water, to freeze to the core, to toss and turn, to lay and think, my stormy history playing in my head, my dreams for the future shrinking to one or two very definite short term goals. The snow piled up continually with a weight to crush my tiny hollow space on the side of the mountain.
Finally, on the third morning, the sun rose and began to melt the snow. After much miserable trudging, after sliding and tumbling in the knee-high slush, switching back and forth downward across snow-covered rocks and brush, the branches of trees dropping huge wet clumps in a bitter second snowfall, and descending finally into the green forest and the wet green grass, and at last down to the river, the water roaring and rushing over boulders and far above the banks, I was able to find a way back to the world.
But now, in this dream, I was back inside that tent on the side of the mountain, so dark at night I could not see my hands, and nearly as dark in the day, with the opaque light showing beige through the tent-walls, until the snow piled up again to create a new frozen darkness.
Except now, I was holding our baby, tiny, perfectly silent, but warm and alive and curling and uncurling against my chest. I pulled her close and covered her in a fold of the sleeping bag. We reached up together, feeling the smooth contours of the tent wall with our fingertips, watching our breath, my breath rushing out in big dissolving clouds, hers in short small bursts.
She pulled away from the tent walls. She was afraid that the snow piling up on the roof would collapse and bury us.
I told her not to worry, that if we tapped on the tight skin of the tent, Kayla would reach down with fingers like the branches of a fir tree, and tap lightly from the other side.
I told her in the dream that everything would be okay; that we would find a way down from this mountain, down to the rushing river—that we would sleep soon in our own warm bed, covered in blankets, with Kayla looking down at us.