Somehow it has been decided that they will leave tonight, even with the snow still falling. When Frank says it will be so, Hettie simply nods and sees the others bow their heads in affirmation. She forgets about the ice splinters in her toes and forgets that her core – that hard centre of her that she always imagines is shaped like a pine cone – has frozen and stuck to her ribs.
No, somehow it has been decided they will set off tonight and those memories of stabbing, awful cold have been wiped away.
And now Hettie finds herself in Angie’s room, above the bar. She is standing at the end of Angie’s unmade bed while the barmaid rummages in a closet, throwing clothes over her shoulder.
“Skirts won’t do out in that. You’ll need to change.” Angie’s disembodied voice from beneath clouds of wool and coats. She slings something across the room. Hettie catches it. It is a suit, the legs sewn in. Hettie has never seen anything like it. The fabric is shiny to touch; water drips onto it from her still-wet hair and she wipes it easily away. It does not soak in.
“Waterproof,” Angie says, by way of exclamation. She is beside Hettie now, and jabs at the suit with her finger. “Lord knows why I kept the thing, but it’s the best ski suit I ever owned. A man bought it for me, the one who broke my ribs in Vancouver.” Angie sniffs and looks away when Hettie sucks her teeth. Facing the window through which sheets of snow can be seen, she mutters. “Don’t imagine you’d let a man beat on you that way.”
Hettie doesn’t know what to say. She can see Frank’s eyes and hands, and his mouth, and Ernest’s happy face nearby. Her mind feels soaked and damp. She cannot think clearly.
Angie has turned back to the closet and has produced a pair of jumpers. She hands one to Hettie and starts to shrug off her clothes. “Layers would be best. Lots of layers we can take off.”
She is not embarrassed about her body and is suddenly undressed, stripped to her bra. Hettie stares – she cannot help it. She has never seen another woman in her underclothes. Angie’s ease and confidence astounds her; Hettie has never let Frank see her like that, even in the early days when the excitement of having him near was intoxicating.
But Angie stands stoutly in her room, blotched skin rising in the cool. She tugs on a cotton shirt, lifting up her arms to expose a long, white scar, running from the dip of her armpit almost down to her waist. Hettie gasps and is bewildered to see her own fingers reach out to touch it.
“Snow suit guy.” Angie watches Hettie’s fingers trail the shiny path down to where it peters out. “He was a real peach.”
“Wound like that could have killed you.”
Angie sniffs. “Yep. Don’t quite know how I pulled through, but he always did say my skin was like leather.”
“He sounds delightful.”
Angie laughs. “Oh, you have such a prissy way with words, Hettie. He sure was delightful.”
Hettie holds Angie’s clothes and realises she has to change. There is no privacy. Angie’s room is large – it covers most of the floor above the bar – but it’s cluttered. A box with a shiny screen sits in the corner, books litter the carpet. Angie has taken to cooking her meals in the room, so there is a makeshift stove pressed against one wall. A sink nearby.
Hettie will have to undress in front of Angie and, wincing, she realises she needs her. The cords on the back of her dress need undoing, or cutting off. She cannot remember the last time she changed her clothes – boiling water to wash in the little shack she shares with Ernest seemed too much trouble.
Angie has scissors in her hands. Without speaking and without Hettie having to ask, she unclips the cord roping the dress to Hettie’s body. The material is wet; it peels away from Hettie’s back in slippery folds, like fish skin. Hettie shivers as the cold hits her again and Angie pauses, blanket in hand, as Hettie turns round.
“So you are scarred, too,” Angie says. Her eyes are on the torn, folded flesh of Hettie’s stomach. “Ernest?”
Hettie grabs the blanket and wraps it around herself. She is ashamed of how her body looks, particularly as she can’t remember how it got that way.
“Frank says Ernest was cut out, but I can’t remember. I was lucky to pull through.”
The air in the room seems to warm up a little; Hettie finally looks at Angie, taking in the barmaid’s dirty hair and smudged eyes. She imagines her own hair is streaked with filth – she had fallen on the trek over from the shack and had been hauled to her feet by Jackie. A night without sleep or food has added dark shadows to her eyes.
The women are connected. They feel it. Hettie accepts Angie’s clothes and puts them on, smelling the dusk of Angie’s perfume, feeling the snugness of the snowsuit against her. Angie has surrounded her and, for once, Hettie feels completely peaceful.
“I think,” Angie says, her face shining, “I think I am happy you are coming on this journey to find Quilaq. Being with the men is all well and good, but having you come along is…is…”
“Like it’s meant to be?” Hettie caught Angie’s hand in her own. “Yes. It is.”
Scars and survival have brought Angie and Hettie together. Will this bond continue on their journey?