I CAME TO MY SENSES between a rock and a hard place. The rock was a boulder hurled millennia ago in thankless rage by a reluctantly northbound glacier. Still, it was a rock of ages: cleft for me. My bruised body fit so neatly into its riven side, a deep, narrow fissure, that the rock might almost have been cleft to measure. Too sick to move, I remained hidden in the rock. Only my head protruded. I rested face up in what proved to be a puddle of rainwater and blood in a shallow depression in the hard place, a ridge prettily embellished with lacy lichen in a deceptively soft shade of pastel green. Around the boulder and into its cleft grew stunted blueberry bushes that bore, here and there, clusters of tiny wild berries and dried-up bits of what had once been fruit, single berries mummified, perhaps even petrified.
In retrospect, it feels peculiar to owe my life to a boulder and its surrounding cushion of lowbush blueberries, but the giant rock is undoubtedly what broke my fall, and without the masses of wild shrubbery to absorb the impact, the body-on-boulder slam would almost certainly have killed me. As it was, I lay unconscious for what I now estimate to be an hour. During that lost time, I half-roused for seconds or even minutes. In moments of forgotten semiconsciousness, I must have slipped my body feet-first into that opening in the rock, acting as my own kindly undertaker. In dog training, we happily recognize anticipation as a sign of learning. A dog who comes before he is called has figured out what to expect next. In my case, however, the Great Handler did not call me to my final reward.
I'm tempted to romanticize my return to consciousness. It's difficult to control the corny urge to drop allegorical hints about spiritual renaissance: Naked came I, slithering out of a dark passageway into water and blood, double-cured of sin, enlightened, born again. My actual revivification was disgustingly different from the kind of rebirth that would've put me permanently in the ribbons in the My-Soul's-Better-Than-Yours class. The first thing I did was to roll painfully over, gag, and then pollute the water and blood in the would-be-symbolic baptismal font with what looked, even from my perspective, like copious ropes of saliva cascading from the jowly mouth of some drooly giant-breed dog. In my own ears, I sounded like an allergic dog in the throes of what's known as "reverse sneezing." The phrase even crossed my mind. Oddly enough, it was comforting to diagnose myself with a canine malady.
The nausea and choking began to subside. What took their place was a global sensation compounded of pain, cold, and terror. A sensible person would have assumed that the acute fear was an adaptive response to my real plight.
The pain began to differentiate. The burning of torn skin was worse on my knees and my right hand than it was elsewhere. My scratched face stung. Stabs and throbbing radiated from my right elbow down to my fingers and up to my shoulder. An object dug mercilessly into my abdomen. A foreign object? One of my own ribs? My head hurt less than the bad elbow but, without my consent, had moved someplace it didn't belong--to the middle of my stomach and ten feet away, both at the same time. But pain wasn't going to kill me. Died of exposure, I thought. Exposure meant hypothermia, a life-threatening drop in the body's core temperature.
Instead of rolling over, sitting up-offering a paw, perhaps?-and seeking heat, I took satisfaction in the word itself: hypothermia. How delightfully polysyllabic! Counting the syllables seemed like a grand idea. Hypo- made two. By the time I reached the end, I'd not only lost the subtotal, but forgotten the word I was playing with. Polysyllabic? For a giddy second, the sound of the final syllable struck me as a brilliant comment on my situation: Ick! The childish assessment triggered a moment of clarity. Shifting my head ever so slightly away from the puddle, I propped my chin on the lichen and made an effort to take stock of myself. My face, I realized, must be the same whitish green as the miniature forest around me.
That reflection, if you'll pardon the forthcoming pun, brought with it the hideous realization that if I were to look in a mirror, I would have no idea what image to expect in the glass. In panic, I tried to move my right hand. Pain roared up my arm. I did, however, manage to roll onto my back and, with my left hand, clumsily unzip the top six or eight inches of my anorak. My left hand answered a fundamental question. Breasts. The fear ebbed as I savored the joy of dawning self-knowledge. Sex: female. Skin color: green. Handedness: right. Vocabulary: polysyllabic. Body temperature: hypothermic.
Having discovered the rudiments of who, or at least what I was, I made the mental leap to wondering where I was. Instead of remembering where I'd been that morning or how I'd hurt myself, I had an hallucinatory recollection of a Gauguin painting that hung, I was certain, in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. The picture showed Tahitians across the life span. It was titled D'ou venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Ou allons-nous?
The name of the language lingered on the tip of my tongue, but I translated easily: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
Gauguin's images inspired me to decide, mostly on the basis of incipient hypothermia, that I was not in Tahiti. As it turned out, I was correct. Good girl! Sharp. Excellent. A triple-digit IQ lay only a few mental steps ahead.
Finding it a bit difficult to survey my surroundings while sprawled flat, I struggled to get to my feet. Dizziness stopped me. The nausea returned. And retreated. The whirling abated. Shuddering with cold, I was now sitting on the lichen-covered ledge with my legs stretched in front of me. The fog was so thick that my new vantage point provided little information. I wore jeans with recent-looking rips in the knees. The skin visible through the holes was raw. The heavy hiking boots I wore were undamaged. What came as a surprise was my backpack, which I hadn't known was there. It was a lightweight pack suitable for day hiking, bright red, with an unpadded hip belt that had slipped upward and twisted to cut deeply and painfully into my abdomen. The second I released the clasp, the pain lessened. Once the ground around me stopped spinning, I realized that I was on the side of a steep hill or mountain. The ledge, my hard place, sloped upward. I had obviously fallen, and then bounced and rolled downhill and across the ledge until I collided with the boulder. Uphill, bordering the ledge, grew dark green moss interspersed with a few infant evergreens, huckleberry bushes, and what I thought might be azaleas. Below were a few oak saplings and a beautifully gnarled pine that looked like a giant version of the artfully pruned trees in those Japanese dish gardens. What were they called? Everything else, on all sides, hid in the fog. I'd been dimly aware of sounds that were now easy to identify as distant foghorns and, far below me, tires speeding along pavement. The ocean. A blacktop road.
Instead of feeling relief at my proximity to civilization, I again fell victim to dread. Something was urgent and frightening. I remembered everything about this dangerous, terrible something-every nuance of fear, every trace of desperate worry that the responsibility to act was mine alone. Entirely missing was all memory of what this terrible something was.
The memory startled me as violently as if it had been a snake suddenly slithering through the fog bank. I held perfectly still in an effort to keep my equilibrium as I teetered between the shaky here-and-now and the unbalanced moments of half-arousal when I'd overheard the scraps of conversation. The sounds had come from somewhere to my right. Somewhere above? How far away? I couldn't guess. Like a picky eater, the fog swallowed some words and phrases and spat out others.
"Tragic." The voice was a man's. "Tragic accident. No one could've survived." The fog ate whatever came next. "Keep your name out of it. You have my absolute assurance."
His soft-spoken companion's reply was lost to me, but I heard the first speaker's attentive murmurs of agreement. "Yes...Uh-huh....Yes." In apparent response to a suggestion, the man exclaimed, "Out of the question! The media would seize on it." The fog exercised its appetite. A word reached me: "Death." Then, with a note of finality, the man said, "Anonymity is, after all, anonymity."
As the memory faded, the voice rang itself to silence in my ears.
Tragic accident. Whose? Whose death?
The ledge was reassuringly devoid of harps. The recollected conversation didn't meet my expectations of an angel choir. The fog had an earthy odor, like old compost, with a tinge of balsam and wild thyme, maybe, or some other herb. Still, perched as I was high in a cloud in some nameless region, I had to consider the possibility that the death under consideration was my own.
Excerpted from Creature Discomforts by Susan Conant. Copyright © 2001 by Susan Conant. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.