Occasionally, I enjoy challenging myself by writing short fiction based on writing prompts. I wrote the following story in response to a prompt to ‘write about a character witnessing a terrifying event.’ Thank you for reading.
Birding in Idaho
© 2023 Carolyn Fenzl
I was reminiscing about the Hairy Woodpecker I’d seen just up the mountain last week as my snowmobile sped through the newly fallen half foot of snow. I’d forgotten my camera that time, a rookie birding mistake, and I hoped the bird would still be in the same stand of trees. The dry air was making my throat scratchy, and I needed water or I’d start coughing and upset my already shaky driving skills. My wife had warned me against buying a snowmobile, calling it a death trap, but it was an early retirement splurge and made winter birding on the mountain much easier.
I slowed the vehicle to a stop and pulled my blue Yeti thermos out of my bag for a swig before repacking it. I yanked my goggles up to my forehead and sat for a moment, listening for birds on my must-photograph list. I was in a remote spot, so I was surprised when I heard the faint sound of voices drifting on the air. I looked around but didn’t see anyone so pulled my camera out to use the zoom feature. I scanned the area peering through the lens, and when I still didn’t see anyone, I looked upwards. There on the cliff I saw two people near the edge. I couldn’t make out any details from this distance, but it looked like a man down on one knee and a woman, her back to the cliff edge, motioning for him to stand up. A proposal perhaps? It was certainly a beautiful place with snow blanketing the earth and tall stands of lodgepole pine and Douglas fir supplying greenery to the whitened landscape.
But as the man stood, the voices became louder as if they were arguing. The woman placed her hands on her hips and leaned forward, maybe shouting in the man’s face. Despite her aggressive stance, the man took a step forward and then time seemed to stop as I witnessed him reach out with both hands and shove the woman hard on the shoulders. She tottered for a second, desperate to keep her balance, but lost the fight with gravity and slipped. As she did so, her arm shot out and frantically grabbed at the man’s coat, causing his balance to falter also. I could hear their screams echo through the mountainside as they went over the edge, and then an eerie silence after hitting the snow below.
My heart was thudding, but I only hesitated a moment before revving up the snowmobile to go help the unfortunate couple, hoping in my heart that the snow was thick enough to have survived the fall. But as I neared the bottom of the cliff, a familiar rumbling, triggered from the vibration of my vehicle, began reverberating around me signaling the loosening of the snowpack on the hill. I immediately knew I had to turn around to save my own life as the avalanche of snow and ice began sliding off the cliffside, gaining momentum as it tumbled.
I skidded in a tight U-turn and floored the gas, heading away from the onslaught. When I was a safe distance away, almost back to where I first stopped to drink, I turned off the engine and sat panting with tears in my eyes as I looked back up the mountain toward the cliff. Those poor people, if they had survived the fall, were buried alive under a massive amount of snow. There was no doubt they would suffocate to death. The thought made my own breathing hasten and chest tighten. But there was no time for a panic attack. As the paralyzing shock wore off, I realized it was time to find help.
I wanted to help the search and rescue crew, but they insisted I return home and wait for an update. They said an officer would contact me for a statement. At home, I found a note from my wife that she had gone to the store. I left her a voicemail to call me right away. Now was not the time to be alone with my thoughts, so after pacing the living room for several moments, I made my way out to the barn. Chopping wood was always a good way to burn off nervous energy, something I’d had more of since retiring. While the slower pace was supposed to be good for the heart, I was convinced the boredom would cause enough stress to kill me. But today was anything but boring and the kind of excitement I could do without.
By the time I finished that chore and hauled several logs into the house for our next fire, I felt like I was going mad. Still no word from my wife, search and rescue, or the police. The silence wrapped tightly around me and the image of the couple falling off the cliff replayed in my head like a terrifying silent movie stuck on repeat. I kept squeezing my eyes shut, willing anything else to come into my brain, but I couldn’t push aside the stark reality that I probably saw two people die in a horrific way. No sooner had I let that thought loose in my brain than my phone rang, startling me.
As soon as I got word from the search and rescue crew that the woman had been found alive but unconscious, I rushed over to the hospital. Unfortunately, her companion on the mountain had met a grimmer fate, having suffered a broken neck. The crew said he likely didn’t linger long before succumbing to his injuries. A nurse at registration pointed me to the ICU where I was allowed to peak in on the woman while waiting for the police to come and take my statement. I drew back the room curtain and saw her lying still, eyes closed, hooked up to machines, and tubes down her throat. She had bruises all over her body, but there was no doubt – my wife was lying in that bed.