The Divide

I have dreamed on this mountain

Since I was first my mother’s daughter

And you can’t just take my dreams away

                        (Holly Near)


‘Come on Mum, I want to get ahead of the others’, pleaded Jo. Martha felt her stomach knot.  Aware of a prickling heat in her cheeks she felt a need to check once more to make sure she had everything for her three day tramp on the famous New Zealand Routeburn track.  She smiled at how ill-prepared she had been forty years earlier in the Canadian rockies.  This time, after much deliberation, she had achieved a compromise between girl guide-like preparedness and sensible economy.  She contemplated the track and her breath quickened in anticipation of the long climb ahead.  She looked at her watch.  The coach had taken longer than anticipated.  Better get going.  Martha donned her rainbow sun hat, defying the autumn gloom, then put her best foot forward, fiercely determined to lead the way.  She had travelled across the world to make her dream come true; to share this special time with her daughter.  She was damned well going to savour every step.

About an hour later, Martha and Jo reached their first swing bridge.  Jo bounded off.  Martha reached for her camcorder as the bridge rippled and swayed precariously, and Jo obligingly turned to wave.  As they crossed the bridge, both mother and daughter were transfixed by the cobalt blue water far below.  Once safely on terra firma, a bell bird sang its congratulations and  Martha decided to celebrate their minor achievement by sharing some trail mix with Jo.  She had learned the value of such slow-release food many years earlier, from a young Canadian.

As they continued their clammy ascent, the women fell into step in silent contemplation.  Martha wondered what Jo was thinking, as her own daydreams led once more to the Canadian hike.  She longed for an alpine lake like the one she had skinny dipped in then, remembering how the still blue water had eased her blistered feet and caressed her skin.  When she had emerged in the sun, skin tingling, she had dried out sitting on a large tree root, her feet resting on a smaller one in front.  Martha shuddered as she remembered looking down to see a rattler moving in slowmo under the root on which her feet rested.  Despite her gratitude now for New Zealand’s viper-free wilderness, Martha’s body felt the impulse to freeze, and walking became a superhuman effort.

That night, lightened temporarily of their loads, mother and daughter wearily laid out their sleeping bags side by side.  As they ate their freeze-dried meal, they laughed with the relief of initiates.  Later, Martha looked out  from the track hut’s wooden balcony. Shrouded in mist, themountains seemed like brooding Gods, enveloping her.

On the second day, they hit rain, and visibility was low.  The track became a stream, snaking its way down the mountainside.  Martha’s feet squelched with every step.  Once in sight, it took a long winding hour to reach their hut.  By the time the pair arrived the light was failing as they rummaged for dry clothes.  Unwilling to carry wet socks, Martha singed hers on the wood- burning stove.  In the half light, they silently drank the last drops of whiskey from Martha’s hip flask.

Shortly after setting off at first light, Martha realised she had lost her camcorder.  She felt a pull to go back, but forced herself to keep up as Jo walked resolutely forwards.   As the light grew, so did Martha’s spirits as she drank in the sight of a vibrant rainbow, sitting like a hat on an unseen head between emerald mountains.  Today they would reach the Divide, and the end of their walk.

Several hours passed, sometimes in conversation, sometimes in silent awe at the landscape.  As they neared the Divide, Martha heard a shout: ‘Jo!’ She looked up to see a young man with sunkissed hair and smiling blue eyes, his arms outstretched towards her daughter.  ‘Ben told me you were coming through the Divide today.  I’ve been working nearby, so I thought I would meet you’.  Martha felt a pang of emptiness in her belly as she watched him embrace her daughter, oblivious to all around them.  She stood at a respectful distance, watching as they exchanged animated conversation.  After a couple of minutes, the young man seemed to notice Martha for the first time, and walked confidently towards her, his eyes sparkling as he stole glances towards Jo.  ‘I’m Mark’, he beamed, as Jo slid her arm inside the gap left by his side.  After a few pleasantries, Jo smiled warmly at her mother and gently pulled Mark away, turning to walk towards the Divide.  Martha watched them, perfectly in step with each other.  Her daughter was where she belonged. Martha felt the deep contentment of a job well done, battling against her visceral need for her daughter.  Their time together in the wilderness was over too soon.  She followed on, a few paces behind.

As she watched Jo and Mark, Martha felt a spot of something cold on her cheek.  Then another.  It was beginning to snow.  She could see the two young people ahead, deep in conversation.  They seemed unaware of an increasing gulf between them and Martha, despite her attempts to keep up.  The snow began to fall more heavily, making a white frame.  Martha seemed to be looking through a camera obscura, as hot tears misted her vision further.  Aware of her heartbeat, she swallowed hard and tried to call Jo, but no sound emerged from her lips.

Then Jo, still holding onto Mark, looked back and smiled.  She was now a very long way away, yet her voice was like a whisper in Martha’s ear: ‘It’s OK, Mum.  I’m OK.  You can let go now.  Time to go home.’  Martha did not want to go.  She wanted to stay.  She tried to say so, but even as she did she felt a pull towards the earth.  Her eyelids grew heavy.  A warmth infused Martha’s body, despite the snow.  She lay down, and the white enveloped her.



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