A Storyby Ward Just
The way down was hard, the trail winding and slick underfoot, insecure. Late autumn, the air cold, no breeze, the setting sun casting long shadows, deceptive in the gathering darkness. The four men carrying the stretcher—two in front, two behind—had begun to curse. In the beginning they were silent, concentrating on their footing, but the way down was so very hard that they could not now restrain themselves, their boots slipping on the damp earth, the stretcher hard to handle. Each time the stretcher tipped the injured woman groaned, and when a part of her body grazed a rock or a tree branch she gasped, a kind of lumbar whistle, most annoying. They passed through wide-bellied fir trees and slender white birches, the smell of the forest in her nostrils, an odor so thick she found breathing difficult, a weight in her lungs that pressed painfully against her. She was bothered that the pain in her leg was migrating, an unwelcome undocumented alien. She was trying to put her mind in another place altogether but was so far unsuccessful. She was unable to free herself of the forest. It seemed to her the very end of the known world so she conjured images of unwelcome aliens. For now she was in the hands of strangers, dubious men who did not belong here. So she spoke aloud, telling them to be careful, to take their time, not to be so rough. She was no longer young, as they could see. And she was injured and not herself. She thought to add, “Please.”
The bearers grew impatient, and as dusk turned to nightfall and their vision failed the stretcher became as heavy as a coffin despite the injured woman’s average height and weight. The bearers in the rear could not avoid looking at her lower leg, loose as a rag doll’s, leaking blood. Her trousers were torn and one of her shoes was missing. Of course the situation was difficult for her, injuries were never pleasant, and she was not dressed properly. Her espadrilles were made for a picnic or a stroll in the park. Her sweater was woven of fine wool, soft as babies’ hair. But the situation was difficult for everyone and she could have the courtesy and fortitude to shut up about her own inconvenience. Still, it was well known that Americans were complainers when fate went against them. Americans believed they occupied a unique place in the world, a place under God’s special benevolence. And if God was absent, anyone would do. The women were no better than the men. Wherever they went in the world they expected cooperation, and if they did not get it they complained.