After a car accident, single mother and painter Anna Russell lies in a coma in a Boston hospital. Her ten-year-old daughter, Rachel, who has Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism, is in the next room with a fractured arm.
Botanist David Mortimer can name any tree or form of plant life, but he can’t commit to anything—not even to writing his masterpiece about the rare flowers that fascinate him in the mountains of China. But almost as soon as he gets the call from Anna’s mother, he’s flying across the Atlantic to meet the daughter he never knew he had. Anna left him eleven years ago when he was mapping out an exotic journey for them, but David has never forgotten her. With help from Rachel, he comes up with a plan that might help Anna find her way back to them.
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A Road Through the Mountains
By Elizabeth Cooke
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2004 Elizabeth McGregor
All rights reserved.
Most of the houses at Ogunquit were shuttered against the blinding day, silent in their gardens above the beach. They stood back from the road, pale blue clapboard battalions on their green lawns. By the Bay Cove Hotel on the corner, a smoke tree hung over the gate to the pool, its spring bronze leaves now green, the threadlike stalks of the flowers fluttering faintly in the July heat.
Anna came up the hill, looking back over her shoulder. Her ten-year-old daughter was trailing her wet towel on the path, and her feet were bare against the grass and stone.
"Honey, put on your shoes," Anna said. She walked back to her, but in a second, Rachel was running past her, uphill, and into Grace's yard, where she flung herself down in the shade.
Anna paused, then picked up the dropped towel, and followed. As she turned in the gate, the suddenness of a memory surprised her.
Rachel, perhaps only two or three years old, in that same deep shade, in this same garden, chasing Grace's cat, and wrapping it in her arms. The cat, resigned to the show of ardor, submitting grudgingly, with a single twitch of its tail. The shade of the tree was dappled, the light a changing kaleidoscope on Rachel's arms, on the fur of the cat, on the sparse grass. In spring, the sweet chestnut shed its pollen in this same place of racing shadows and light.
And here was another summer. Another memory flooding in upon the first.
Rachel was eight; they were on the road to Provincetown in the early morning; sand was blowing across the end of the highway. Anna's broken-down old Chrysler was hiked on the verge, with the hood raised. As if they were there again in this moment, Anna clearly saw the repairman cocking his head toward her child, grinning; and Rachel, staring, rapt, into the smudged gray distance. Seven A.M., sand underfoot, sea grass, the sound of Provincetown boats setting out for the whales on Stellwagen Bank.
Anna had a sudden strange feeling, a sense of disorientation.
It was as if she had stepped out of the day, and, for the few short seconds that she had been gone, time had folded in upon itself, stretched like soft candy.
She heard the opening of the screen door, saw her mother emerge onto the porch. Anna walked down the path.
Grace was even taller than her daughter, and her hair that even up to last year had been a great iron gray color, was now almost white. She was sixty, but looked more. They regarded each other solemnly for a moment. Then Anna opened the door to the house.
The rooms inside were blissfully cool, blinds pulled down on the side of the sun, and windows open on the shade. Sea air was blowing through the house, caught from the edge of the bluff above the stony shoreline. From the back, they could see Perkins Cove, the arc of houses facing the Atlantic; beyond that, Grace's view, in winter, when the trees had shed their leaves, was almost completely ocean. Anna walked over to the lawn side, to the shade, to the ripple of air. She looked out the window at Rachel, who was still lying on her back spread-eagled, eyes closed.
"Did she say anything about going back?" Grace asked, as soon as the door closed.
"No," Anna replied softly.
Grace put an arm around her shoulder. Briefly, Anna rested her head against her mother's, before they both turned back toward the room.
It bore all the hallmarks of Grace's life. Anna couldn't recall a day when Grace's house had not looked like this: a deep couch with hand-sewn cushions, newspapers on the table, empty coffee cup. A pack of cigarettes. A big box of household matches balancing on the ashtray. The English Roberts radio on the fireplace, the old Norman Rockwell print, the basket of cones and wood. Anna's own paintings, and her mother's, everywhere.
The pictures traced the years. There in the corner were Anna's teenage collages, lovingly framed. On the facing wall, Grace's bold blue seascapes, and Anna's response—her miniatures when she had been pregnant with Rachel, when her world had seemingly diminished to tiny five-by-five watercolors. By contrast, over the fireplace, was an abstract riot, four feet by six, of Anna's first year in the Boston apartment: a blast of pleased independence. And, of course, the cartoons.
In her twenties, Grace had drawn comic strips. She had syndication in the Midwest, and down into Florida, for the Daisy and Mike series, and the raggedy Mike now hung at the foot of her stairs, framed in mid-fall over a muddy waterhole, fishing pole spinning out of his grip, while the freshly starched and aproned and plaited-hair Daisy held her hands to her face in the background. You cain't catch 'em all, read the caption.
Grace would repeat that when things got rough. It was her mantra; part too, now, of both Anna's and Rachel's childhoods.
Anna's gaze rested on Mike again now, faded by the sunlight of years, but still sailing into midair. She bit her lip unconsciously.
"You could go and meet James at Logan, and talk to him by yourself," Grace said, interrupting Anna's thoughts. "Come back for Rachel. Do it that way."
Anna looked at her mother, smiling at Grace's enforced reasonableness, the determined lightness of her tone.
"Why try to get her in the car?" Grace persisted. "She's tired. Leave her here, and come back. It's no bother. Come back in a couple of days."
Anna shook her head. "No, it's fine," she murmured. "She'll be fine once we get going."
"OK," Grace said, raising her hands, palms outward, to show that she was giving up the argument. "I said my piece."
"You said it over and over," Anna told her.
They set off at three.
James's flight got in from Dallas at five.
Anna took Route 1 first, instead of the turnpike, because they had always done it that way, from the time that Grace, eleven years ago, had lived briefly between York Harbor and Kittery.
Twenty minutes out, it began to rain.
Not a sweet soft rain, like the kind that sometimes drifted in from the sea with a slow-driving breeze, but a hard downpour, the sky blackening quickly. In her driving mirror, Anna now saw the billowing clouds, and the flash of lightning.
"Storm," Rachel murmured, from the backseat.
Anna glanced over her shoulder. She looked at her daughter's face, so fair and light, like a small round moon in the backseat. Her green eyes—eyes the same color as her mother's and grandmother's—were overly bright, as always.
"Soon pass," Anna reassured her.
The road surface was slick, oily: weeks had passed of hot weather, and, when the drops poured down now, there was an illusion of road dancing over road—one dark surface slipping over the other, like the mirage of water glimpsed in a desert.
Anna felt the wheel jump a little as she steered to overtake a station wagon, its roof crammed with children's bikes. She glanced at her speed. Not too fast. Forty. But the car was sliding, for brief moments. She braked a little. She caught sight of the trees to the side, leaves flipped to show a fainter seam of green. Spray fanned up; she turned the wipers to full, and flicked on the headlights.
There were trucks ahead, one loaded with logs. Her lights picked them out in sudden Technicolor. She saw a white pickup, and a dog in the back of it. She was distracted a moment by the dog, wondering why it was there, crouched up against the cab, a German shepherd, with a chain around its neck. It looked miserable in the rain, leaning against the body of the cab, ears flattened.
Then Anna looked behind her.
The Mack was accelerating to take the outer lane; huge, bright red and chrome, a blurred splash of color through the rear window. She had a second to think that it was coming too fast, not accounting for the jumble of cars and trucks ahead of her, all of them jostling for position on the greasy, rain-smeared road.
She thought she heard Rachel say, Look at him, look, and she did look, first back at the Mack roaring toward them, and then, very slowly it seemed, at the bikes on the station wagon. Their wheels were turning, and the taillights of the station wagon were suddenly showing. The crowded family car had braked hard. She heard the squeal of tires.
And then she saw the dog—poor dog, poor dog, she immediately thought, before anything else had time to register—the dog scrambling for purchase on the edge of the pickup, and the lazy circular motion of his tail as he lost his footing ...
And the motion of the cat's tail in Grace's garden came back to her, and the flashing of sunlight through leaves, light on shade, and Rachel's hand slipping from hers as she pulled away from her in the street, and raced to the house.
It was over in an instant.
Anna's hands flew from the wheel on impact, as the station wagon slid sideways into the trucks, and the whole interior of their car filled with a strange watery light, the light from the Mack as it wailed into them, smashing the car like a mighty fist, lifting them momentarily from the road and slamming them back down hard to the grinding and keening of metal.
And—as the sound escalated to something hellish, demoniac—Anna was still thinking, still absurdly thinking, poor dog, poor dog—catching just a glimpse of its body thrown into the car on the near side. She saw the thick chains on the log truck, that smaller truck ahead of the station wagon, now slewed sideways, glisten as the load danced in slow motion against its restraints.
"Mommy!" Rachel screamed. A faint and receding echo of her own mind. "The dog, oh, the dog ..."
And then, she was here.
She was here, inexplicably, at the side of the road, under the branches of the trees, watching herself.
For a while Anna concentrated on the people, on the purposeless way that they ran between the wrecks. There was a terrible noise, a grinding sound, something to do with the truck. The driver was still in the cab, still with his hands fastened to the wheel. Smoke poured from the Mack's engine.
There were the shouts of children in the station wagon, and a woman's voice raised in an agonized cry. Other voices joined them: people who had stopped on the other side of the road. Calls for help. Yelled instructions. Figures moved, it seemed, like silhouettes on a screen.
A magic lantern show, Anna thought vaguely, knowing full well that the thought was absurd. A magic lantern show, just for me.
For a while—and she had no idea how long—she waited for someone to come to their car, for someone to open the door and find Rachel. It took forever. If the accident had been over in a moment, the aftermath was long. Her body began to feel numb. She saw that she was standing at the fence, right on the edge of the trees, alongside them, almost enveloped by them; and she was part of that living scene, rooted to the ground, away from the crash. She was a dumb onlooker, part of the landscape.
She began to feel cold.
She watched the ambulances from Boston, and the warning barriers, and the trickle of other cars on the other side of the highway, slowing to rubberneck the drama. She waited until she saw Rachel on some man's arm, stumbling, her mouth a perfect little circle of dumb shock.
Anna sighed. And with nothing to carry but a handful of jumbled images, she turned away, and took a few steps back, into the woodland. She glanced up, and saw the tall alders swaying, the sky between them now striped with a brightening blue.
And then she drifted away, between the trees, into the dark.CHAPTER 2
As soon as David Mortimer put his foot on the stile and began to climb over, the dog began to dance.
It leapt about in front of him in the knee-high grass of the meadow, a black scribble of body outlined against the green landscape. David shaded his eyes against the morning sun. The dog looked like a cross between an Irish wolfhound and some other, smaller, darker breed. Gray wiry hair stood out in a shock all over its body, as if it were alive with static electricity.
He got down the other side of the stile, and the dog careered around him, its tail looping like a propeller. He watched the performance, waiting for the inevitable moment when it would stop in its crazy circling and stare expectantly at him.
He had no idea to whom the animal belonged; only that it came from the direction of the farm below, whose outbuildings—gray roofs, scattered sheds—could be glimpsed above the trees. He never saw it anywhere else but here; never in the village street, or in the back of some farm pickup, or skulking about, even, at the farm entrance. On cue, it skidded to a halt now, and stared at him, tongue lolling from its open mouth, eyes fixed on him in dumb entreaty.
It had a collar, even a tag hanging from it, but David had never learned its name. The dog would never allow him to come close enough to read it. He had found, on the first day he saw it, coming over this same stile, that the moment you raised your hand to this animal, even in friendship, the tail dipped down between its legs and it skittered backward.
"OK," he said now. "Get going."
It scooted immediately for the next field gate, making straight for Lewesdon Hill.
Lewesdon was a nine-hundred-foot-high outcrop at the very head of the Simene River; a small, meandering water that eventually joined its larger sister, the Brit, and rolled out into the English Channel at West Bay. Rising almost vertically on its south side above the fields, covered by its huge beech-wood, the hill stood inland by seven miles from the Dorset coast.
David had probably walked this hill a hundred times. He had never tired of it. Nor of the country around it. Lewesdon was directly north of the great scoop of bay that sweeps from Portland to Exmouth, with Lyme Regis at its halfway point. The landscape of farms and fields and woodland, with its characteristically narrow lanes and hidden valleys, had once, a hundred million years ago, been a tropical sea, and the trees that grew here had their roots in sandstone and chalk. At Lyme Regis, in the first few years of the nineteenth century, Mary Anning had discovered the first skeletons of the ichthyosaur, plesiosaur, and pterodactyl in the ashy gray cliffs of Lower Jurassic rock; further up the coast, where the Brit merged, the great tower of East Cliff was sandstone, topped with a narrow band of limestone, and the cliff glowed gold even in the faintest sunlight.
But there was neither gold nor gray ahead of David. As he walked up the long incline from Broadwindsor to Lewesdon, everything was green, a complete undulating fertile green world, from the bright, almost acid green of the new beech leaves ahead of him, through the lighter turf, to the tangled shades of the hedges: a profusion of blackberry, nettle, hawthorn, and ivy.
He walked quickly, soon reaching the old embankment, a line in the grass where once a fence had divided the fields. He stopped, slightly out of breath from the climb, and looked back. The village, in its valley four hundred feet below, seemed asleep.
The dog was standing at the last field gate now, on the dried mud where the cows had trampled to get close to the water tub. David smiled at it. He opened the gate, and stepped into the wood, and then, as always, he stood for a few seconds, listening.
The very first time he had come here and seen the hill, he had thought it was like a cathedral, with the same hushed atmosphere. It was a vast room: a room that whispered and moved. One huge, heart-stopping church of trees.
It was different today—different in color, in sound. But then, it was always different. If you saw it in winter, it looked truly architectural, the gray trunks like bold watercolor strokes against the red woodland floor. In late spring, as today, the hill and the wood seemed intimately turned in one upon the other. Green pushed up from the leaf mold, and green reached down from the branches, and there seemed to be some private and ancient conversation being carried on. There was a friction, a rhythm.
He smiled to himself, and wiped the mossy smear from the palm of his hand, the legacy of the gate. He knew a lot about trees, but with all his academic theory and experience, he actually had a creeping conviction that he knew nothing at all. Not about what these mute creations really were. Nothing about what was actually going on.
Beeches were a case in point. They were beautiful monsters. Next to yews, they were mere adolescents, of course. They towered in their colonies, and looked designed or drawn, because they were so lovely in their shape, and so extraordinary in their colors. But there was a disquieting sense of their greediness and strength. As he passed the first few now, David touched the nearest trunk.
Excerpted from A Road Through the Mountains by Elizabeth Cooke. Copyright © 2004 Elizabeth McGregor. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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