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Road


Two roads diverged in a yellow wood. I looked at the snow-covered roads. The snow hadn’t quite filled their ruts. Looked up at the trees and felt the heavy snow-laden silence of the canopy pressing down. I squinted up at the snow as it fell, and then looked back down at my phone, padding at it with my gloved hands.

Dammit, I thought. No service.

The blue dot representing my location hovered over the cabin, which was the last time I had data service, before setting out. It was the last time my location was marked on the map, miles ago. Which divergence was I at? Which of these trails dipped down toward the icy river and its meaningful, restorative babbles – the river in the guidebook, with its overlook of the valley below. The river from which one could drink icy water and feel restored?

And which of these roads veered toward the boring town, with its Sunoco station and boarded-up diner? With its kitschy bed and breakfast and its canoe rental hut, closed for the season?

I turned off my wi-fi receiver. Turned it back on again.

Nothing.

So I sat on a log and considered my options. I could turn back, sure. After all, the cabin was warm and my spouse had a fire going. Everything we needed was there. We brought it with us in the car: steaks and mushrooms, the good cast-iron pan we liked to cook steaks in. Mittens and wool scarves. Coats made of wind-resistant fabrics. Heavy boots for our walks through the yellow woods. I brought seven books and hadn’t opened any of them yet. I felt that it was impossible to concentrate.

What a luxury it must be to be able to concentrate. The noise in my brain seemed turned all the way up. Too many things to think about. Some time passed. I read and re-read the last newspaper article that had successfully loaded on my phone: “You’ll never believe what this grandmother found in her wall safe!”

It was the skeleton of her cat, Pickles.

While thinking about this, I heard a shuffling down one of the roads. A hiker came into view from down one of the rutted paths, which were filling now with more snow. I looked down at my coat to brush it off and found that I must have been sitting there for longer than I thought. Snow was on me. My toes were cold.

“Hello!” I said as the hiker approached and was revealed to be wearing an old wool coat, and wrapped in a heavy scarf, thick with snow. As if the hiker had come from a snowier part of the world, just down the path to the left. There was meaning in the way that this stranger huddled. I could tell.

“Hi,” said a voice that came from under the scarf. I couldn’t tell its gender or accent, though there was doubtlessly a darkness to it. A rich timbre that suggested that the hiker was haunted by some past experience. It suggested that the hiker had witnessed something that needed to be shared around a campfire. But maybe couldn’t be shared because of the way that it clearly stirred this strange traveler.

Anyway, this is what I deduced from the stranger’s “Hi.”

“Well, hi,” I said. “Beautiful snow, isn’t it?”

The hiker stood motionless. I could track only two eyes, glassy with the cold and searching my face for evidence that I was a maniac, perhaps sitting on a log and reading about a dead cat.

My phone isn’t getting any service. Which of these roads leads down to the river? I’d love to take a look at it, and maybe drink from it.”

“They both lead to the same place, of course,” said the stranger.

I gulped. Did the stranger mean that all roads lead to the same end? Did all roads impel us toward the grave? Did I sense a weapon in the coat pocket of this unnervingly un-gendered stranger? Was there something problematic, implicitly, in my feeling of menace in the stranger’s lack of clear gender identiy?

“Yeah. I’ve been to the end of both, and they end up in the same place: a Target in Pawling.”

“A Target?” I couldn’t believe it. Had I been mistaken about the significance of the walk? And when did it get so cold?

“Yep.” The stranger took out a tube of toothpaste from one of the coat’s pocket. “I was just down there buying toothpaste. Hey, by the way. Are you okay? You’re covered in what looks like blood and standing in the middle of the woods.”