Sprinkling Fairy Dust
– Fierce Fiction by Nicole Modugno –
The dirt sat in the air, as if waiting for them. It slowly crept up their noses, and in between the curves of their aged ankles. The very presence of it threatened the comfort of their normal lifestyle. Millie and Evan had endured the first flat switchbacks leading to Half Dome and were now heading into the second set; a mountain of rocky stairs. Millie’s legs felt good and strong. Her knees had improved since she and Evan had started training for this hike four months ago.
“Hey Evan,” she called to her husband of forty-six years, “you remember our first four-mile practice hike?”
He snickered. “Two full-body massages, an ice bath, and a ton of blister bandages?”
“Yep,” his voice cracked. He curved around the last switchback. “We’ve come quite a ways for Cecilia.”
They continued silently over Vernal and Nevada falls, then stopped for a bathroom break. After three miles, at almost six-thousand-feet in elevation, they were drenched in sweat, but still felt noble. They ate their lunch quietly, listening to another woman who had just finished the hike, and was coming back down. She was talking to a couple of young men who were hiking Half Dome for the first time.
“Watch your nerves. I would say the best thing to do is relax on the planks.”
One of the young men had a firm look on his face. The other was so composed, he looked as if he had hiked it several times before.
“Come on, man, we got this,” he said, patting his serious buddy on the shoulder.
As Evan and Millie continued onto a dry, sandy trail, she thought about when Cecilia first asked her to join her on this hike. It was the last day of Christmas break and Millie was in the middle of packing for her cruise to Brazil when Cecilia came bursting into her room.
“Mom, you can come with us,” she had said. There was a thrill in her voice, as if she had just figured out the answer to a really complex question.
“To the hardware store?” she asked, confused by Cecilia’s enthusiasm. She tossed another floral dress into her luggage. Cecilia and Evan were just about to go to Home Depot for supplies to put together Josh’s new toys.
“No…” She gulped with a huff of air from running up the stairs. “I mean, Half Dome,” she said, grabbing her side. Millie knew she had eaten too many pancakes that morning. “It’s six months away. Dad said you could train with him while I’m in Zion with Josh. Then, when I get back, we can all go together.”
Millie stopped packing, placed her hands on her hips, and looked at Cecilia. She still had her goofy Christmas sweater on—the one with a crooked Grinch on the front, and ridiculously noisy bells—along with a pair of skinny Levis and her running shoes. Her eyes pleading with her mother, same as when she was a little girl. Sometimes she had to remind herself that Cecilia was almost thirty, and a mother. She still looked like a senior in high school. A few extra lines stemmed from her eyes, and the hair at her temples had a few gray strands, but her figure still had that long, gangly manner to it.
Her style and eagerness for adventure couldn’t have held more of a contrast against Millie’s plain, minimal style and moderate daily activities. She considered herself a woman of class, working around the house, upholding the city’s volunteer committee, and only getting dirty when a homemade recipe required it.
“Cecilia, just your father going with you makes me nervous enough.” She headed back into her closet to grab her oxfords and beige heels. “People die on that hike, you know? I don’t trust it.”
“You don’t need to trust the hike. You just need to train,” she approached the closet door, “and trust yourself.” As Millie exited the closet, Cecilia placed her strong hand on the side of her mother’s soft shoulder. “Mom, come with us.”
Millie stuffed her shoes in the corners of her luggage bag. She sighed and sat on the edge of her bed. This was the third time Cecilia had mentioned Half Dome during the Christmas break. She knew it was something important to her, but couldn’t understand why she wanted them to share the experience. Considering she was leaving the next day, she thought she’d at least give Cecilia the benefit of the doubt.
“Who will watch Josh?”
Josh, Cecilia’s adorable adopted toddler had become a part of their family just a year ago. As much as Cecilia loved being a mother, she still made it a priority to find new hikes to conquer, leaving Millie and Evan some quality time with their new grandson.
“I already told you, my friend Janet’s watching him while Dad trains.” Cecilia circled around and squatted down to face her. “Mom, why would you want to go on a stupid company cruise by yourself anyway?” She laughed, the bells on her sweater jingling with her movement.
At eight thousand feet in elevation, Evan and Millie approached the line of escalating souls, at the base of the dome. Their sweaty bodies were caked with dust; anointed by the wild. The other hikers, tiny ants on a boulder, soon to be squashed by the palm of the sun, slowly climbed the cables nailed into the rocky trail and took their rest on planks of wood.
“Don’t look up,” Evan commanded, charging on.
Millie didn’t even have time to think about what she was doing. For fear of being left behind, she hurried after Evan, keeping her eyes focused on the back of his heels.
Millie’s mind replayed the sound of her daughter’s shaky voice coming through the speaker of her cell phone. Despite Cecilia’s pleading, she went on the cruise. Standing on the deck in her nice floral dress, she held her cellphone to her ear. Her and her colleagues were waiting to see a Broadway performance when Cecilia called.
“Mom…” Cecilia said weakly, as if drained of energy.
“Cecilia?” she yelled back, over the evening ocean breeze, pressing her free hand over her other ear. “I can’t hear you…”
“Mom…you need to come home.”
Millie pushed through to the lobby on the main floor of the ship to get out of the night wind, but her colleagues were still around her laughing, and many of them had started to feel the buzz of the evening champagne.
“Cecilia? What are you talking about? Are you okay?”
Silence. She glanced at her phone. They had lost connection.
If Cecilia really wants to get a hold of me, Millie remembered thinking, she will contact her father, or find someone else to watch Josh. She recalled feeling a sense of annoyance at Cecilia for contacting her about her personal responsibilities in the middle of her cruise. She lifted up the hem of her long skirt, relieved to have an excuse to continue vacationing.
It wasn’t until she had returned to the states, that her connection came back. By then, Evan had tried to call her thirty-two times. One of his voice messages contained the news of Cecilia’s accident in Zion; a head injury that eventually sent her into a coma. Evan had waited for Millie’s return to decide whether to disconnect their only child from life support.
Millie’s eyes fixed on Evan. He was passing the pile of used gloves, available for anyone unprepared. Her mind quickened as Evan started up the first plank of wood. She rushed after him, pulling her own crinkled gloves from her back pocket. She shoved her wrinkled, sun-spotted hands into them. A young man passed her and started up.
“Wait!” she shouted anxiously, grabbing his shoulder.
He turned at her, slightly bothered, as if she had hindered any motivation he had talked himself into before approaching the dome.
“Sorry,” she sighed, lifting her hand off him. “I’d like to stay with my husband,” she explained, motioning to Evan.
He moved aside without a word.
The concern of being in someone’s way helped her forge ahead without hesitation.
The first few planks were fine. Then, her weight shifted from pushing with her legs to pulling with her arms on the cables on both sides of her. Her palms started to sweat through her gloves and her arms shook. She stopped, and looked up. Blinded by the afternoon beams of light, it was like looking at a horizon over a plane of granite. She was now going straight up a wall of rock. If she slipped, she would probably bound off a few other people behind her, and fall into the hands of death. Her breathing escalated.
“Millie,” Evan called, “how you doin,’ baby?”
She leaned her weight forward, and was now resting on the cables. Putting full trust in the only thing she, inevitably, couldn’t afford to question. Her knees began to quiver, and she felt a fresh gland of sweat blooming from her brow line. Her throat tightened like the claws of an eagle around a fresh bass.
“I don’t understand…” She mumbled.
Slowly switching hand placements, Evan turned to face her.
“Cecilia,” she huffed in exasperation. “I just don’t understand why she did all this. I never understood it.” She could feel the sting now, like onion fumes creeping into the corners of her eyes.
“Mill, you can’t—“
“No. No more pity-talking me, Evan.” Her face strained with anger and the flush of blood. “What kind of mother goes on a cruise while her daughter is in a hospital getting her nutrients through a tube and peeing in a bag?” The cable shook, unsteadily with her bursting voice.
“Mill, you didn’t know.”
“Yeah, well, I should’ve. I should’ve been so…close to her that I understood. And I knew something was wrong.”
The man behind Millie, mixed with confusion and caution, moved next to her. “Can I—“
“How could I have been so naïve?” Millie interrupted, looking straight into Evan’s eyes. “I’m seventy-two years old, damn it! And I still couldn’t be the mother that I wanted to be.” She sucked in sharp, and her tear glands gave way. “I never understood any of this,” she whispered, letting her head drop and shoulders shake.
“Um,” the man intervened, “I’d just like to make it to the top before five…”
“Go,” Evan said calmly, leaning the same way as Millie to let the man pass.
Millie inhaled deep and breathed out slowly. “Evan, what are we doing here?” she asked, finally looking up at her husband. “What are we doing here?” The tiny streams of salt water cooled her cheeks as a breeze blew.
Evan’s expression changed. “Millie, you’re here because of Cecilia. You want to answer her wishes? You want to understand her? Then you finish this hike.”
“But, what if I can’t?”
She wiped away her tears with the back of her hand. “Stubborn old man,” she mumbled, taking one more fatigued sigh, before stepping up to the next plank.
Evan smiled. “Atta girl.”
The altitude sharpened quickly. Millie didn’t even notice until they reached the last plank. They walked over the hump to the top plateau of Half Dome. Evan and Millie both collapsed beside one another on a raised rock, sweaty, salty, and shaking from the nervous tension. Millie suddenly felt a pain in her chest and her muscles slightly quaking all over. She had never felt the after-effect of such an adrenaline rush. The sun roasted the salt into the creases of her face, and seemed to glue her eyelids shut.
She could stay here. She could just lay here until the others left, wait until the warm night came upon them, and then she could slip out of her body. Slip out, like one slips out of cool sheets, and go flying amongst the clouds until she found the door that said “Cecilia” on it. It would look just the way it had when she was a little girl, decorated with swirling sea shells and beige starfish.
“You ready?” Evan’s shadow blocked the sun’s light as he leaned into her.
“Is any mother?” Millie whispered to herself, and sat up to put her camelback on.
They made their way to the front of the dome. People were standing on the very edge, taking pictures and documenting the treacherous part of their success. Millie and Evan cautiously made their way to the edge.
The same young man they had seen earlier at the bathrooms was on the other side of the dome. “Hey you two!” he yelled, pointing at Evan and Millie.
Evan, in an attempt to humor the young man, grabbed Millie’s hand, raised their clasped palms, and shook them with pride.
After taking a seat on the very edge of the dome, Millie took off her pack and brought it around to her lap. She was so weary, she no longer had the energy to be afraid of heights. Taking out the urn, she handed her pack to Evan, and cradled the urn on her lap as she looked over the awe of the lush forest and streams below. She studied the messages that everyone had written on the urn. Messages of sorrow, grief, sweet memories, humorous times, and even notes of encouragement to Millie and Evan about their hike.
She gripped the urn tightly now, wishing she could absorb it through her palms. “Before you go, we want you to know how much we love you.”
Evan put his arm gently around her as a couple tears started down his sagging cheeks. “We’re both so proud of you.”
Millie now felt a surge of guilt, and a rush to wash herself of it. “Please forgive me, Cecilia,” she breathed. She couldn’t help the heaving in her chest. Evan patted her back patiently.
With trembling hands, Millie gently removed the lid of the urn. She slowly tilted the urn, and exhaled with the first release of gray powder. “We love you, baby girl,” Millie chanted, slowly shaking the ashes out in waves. The specks of gray, black, and white looked like a sort of dark fairy dust spreading and slowly dispersing out over the forest of Yosemite below. Flying out to the setting sun in the west.
About the Author – Nicole Modugno
Nicole Modugno has published numerous pieces on Third Hour and 34th Parallel. Outside of writing, she enjoys photography, herbalism, and running. She holds a BA in Technical Writing from Brigham Young University—Idaho and currently lives in Saratoga Springs, Utah with her husband and two daughters.
Did you like this story by Nicole Modugno? Then you might also like:
Like reading print publications? Consider subscribing to the Dreamers Magazine!