The Walk

Juju had not been outside for seven months. For seven months, Juju had not been outside. It was scary outside and Juju decided she was too scared to go out. So Juju stayed inside too scared to go out.

Actually, this isn’t completely true. Juju had been outside but these times – and they could be counted – were, without exception, errands that in some way had to do with the cursed fact that Juju never went out. And when she did go out, she never went out alone. John was always with her. John was Juju’s boyfriend and John loved Juju and Juju loved John. So if Juju had to go out, John would go with her. John wasn’t scared.

The flat where Juju lived was small. It was John’s small flat that Juju lived in. The room that Juju stayed in was also small though it was the largest one in John’s flat. The chair that Juju sat in was a big chair but too small to sit in for seven months. So Juju sat in a big chair in a big room in John’s small flat.

One day John and Juju went to Switzerland. Three days before they left Juju got sick. She lost her voice, she developed swollen glands and a stuffed nose, she bit off all her finger nails, she got a pimple on her chin and a pimple on her cheek, she got a tooth-ache and a headache, and three of her hairs turned white.

The only reason Juju went to Switzerland was because John wanted to go and Juju had no reason not to go. John had already gone to so many places with Juju. And her logic told her that if she died in John’s small flat or in his car on route, it didn’t make any difference to her. As the day came closer, Juju’s fear was so great that she couldn’t work her keys any more. She stood at the front door rattling. On the day they left for Switzerland, Juju gave up and gave in. She left the small flat holding on to John’s arm and, truly, she was holding it for dear life.

The day Juju went to Switzerland it rained. It rained all day. John and Juju drove in the rain on Highway 61 to Switzerland. They had only been driving half an hour down Highway 61 when Juju wanted to turn back. But Juju couldn’t formulate the reason for wanting to turn back so instead she pulled the lever on the floor of the Fiat and leaned her chair way back and told herself that you can’t really die from fear (or so she hoped). Five minutes later, they drove across the border and Juju felt like an astronaut after take-off. There was no turning back so she decided to settle down. Juju settled down with her heart pounding in her lap and she repeated to herself that famous line of ‘keep breathing’.

A good thing it was raining, Juju thought, even though she was afraid of rain, but it was better than stopping on the road for a picnic, or worse, having to sit in a restaurant and hear the sound of clinking cups and silverware. Juju was driving and John made sandwiches in the car. Now she could concentrate on something other than her own bouncing insides. The car had to be kept on the road. It couldn’t go too far to the left and it certainly couldn’t get lost. Juju had to over-take several cars several times along the way and this over-taking resulted in little patches of calm for Juju’s nerves. Every time she overtook a car or a truck, the required concentration produced a normal heart beat. In former times, Juju liked to drive, she remembered.

Juju returned to the passenger seat and was totally and perfectly delighted when she realized she had arrived safely in the Swiss border town of Basel where she and John would spend the night. Juju slept soundly, hidden and safe, underneath the warm, white body of John and the all too small eiderdown quilt.

The next morning John bought Juju sun glasses at a gas station outside Zurich. Juju had admired John’s sunglasses for over a year and now she had her own, slightly rounded but otherwise the same.

Juju drove again for the final two hour stretch into the Swiss Alps. As the little car went up and up, as the mountains outside got higher and higher making the sky seem smaller and smaller, Juju’s heart again found the familiar pitter patter of panic. And when she drove through the tunnel she decided that the past few hours had only been a temporary pause and reflected nothing in terms of her condition and that now, in the middle of a long back tunnel underneath a high Swiss Alp, she was going to have a heart attack and expire. John would have to drive himself out of the tunnel over her dead body. Light at the end of the tunnel was no mere figure of speech for this driver.

The sun was shining when Juju turned off the main road following the instructions that John read from the back of the telephone bill. Juju knew from the start that they were headed for the Alps but still, she was very surprised when she had to put the car into third gear. And she squealed like a wounded puppy when she had to put it in second. And when the road got too narrow she squealed even louder and closed her eyes, squeezing the steering wheel so tight that she actually broke the starter (so they would discover the next morning. John said it was lucky the starter broke in the hilly Alps and not in flat Holland. Juju thought John had a very practical attitude).

It was almost 30 hours before John and Juju drove up the impossible and steep Alp and arrived in the town of Brigel, population 300. They were greeted, as expected, by Big Ed who was standing and smiling in front of his prefab Swiss chalet. Juju hadn’t seen Big Ed in over seven months and when she fell into his open arms she thought how thin he felt and how gray the remaining hair on his bald head had become. Yes, there were memories. But none of them mattered now. Juju had made it this far and all she had to do was live long enough to get through the week-end and the drive back north. Seeing Big Ed again had its comforting effect even though Juju was a bit dizzy, her legs a bit wobbly whenever she reminded herself that she was physically on the top of a very high mountain, closed in by a lot of higher mountains and no ambulances around. She noticed that Big Ed didn’t have a telephone. Once again, Juju gave up and gave in.

At night, Pete came over for dinner. John knew Pete slightly but Juju didn’t know him at all. The evening was pleasant enough and when Pete suggested that they all go for a walk the next day, John immediately said yes. John loved the mountains, he loved walking, and he had come to this Alp with the specific purpose of spending some time walking with Pete and talking to him about some possible future collaboration. Pete said that he would pick up some food in the morning and meet them at the post office at 11. Before he left, Juju managed to ask,

– What kind of walk?
– A long beautiful walk, Pete answered.

That night Juju didn’t sleep. How long, she wondered, how far, how many trees and dark forests, what if she wanted to go back in the middle, how long was a long walk, should she go, maybe she shouldn’t, maybe she should just stay in the prefab Swiss chalet and read that new book, she really didn’t feel like going for a walk, but if she didn’t go then when would she see Big Ed and when would they gossip about the past, and John might get annoyed with her and she didn’t want to annoy him, she was quite in love with him, and how far could they walk anyway, and John would find an ambulance if Juju needed one, and he wouldn’t lose her or leave her in an Alp, but she really didn’t want to go, but she thought maybe she should, and that’s how Juju spent her night and that’s why Juju didn’t sleep well underneath the warm, white body of John.

At first Juju thought she would just walk with John and Big Ed to the post office at 11. Pete was there with his small knapsack. Then Juju decided she would walk with them a little longer. She could go back whenever she wanted. The village was so small she couldn’t really get lost. And so they walked. On the way they met Joey who joined them. They got to the end of Brigel and Juju thought what a nice long walk that had been.

– Now we can eat the cheese in Pete’s knapsack and go back to the chalet.

Pete stood and read the little sign on the tree.

– This is where we start, he said and turned left onto the little road.

– Hmmmm, thought Juju looking at the little uphill road before her. This is where it starts? Hmmmm, she thought again. But one had to admit it was charming and she wasn’t really tired yet. A nice little uphill road next to a rushing little stream with cold clear water, it was like walking into a picture past-card. Of course this feeling of walking into a picture made Juju uncomfortable because that is exactly how she felt all the time, as if she was living in a photograph, as if nothing was real. It was a feeling Juju hated. But Juju looked. There was no dark forest and the little uphill road was out in the open, there was nothing really scary about it, indisputably, it felt good, and oh well, thought Juju, she could always turn back. And anyway, John was there and Big Ed and Pete and Joey, and if worst came to worst they could carry her body back to the village.

Juju turned left with them. The stream was truly pretty and the sun was hot and God it was so good to be in the heat again. Juju hated the cold. Whenever she looked back to see from where they had come, Juju could still see the village of Brigel and could still get back to it if she wanted to. The little uphill road continued uphill just as Pete said it would. Her heart was thumping, big heavy thumps. This was her first exercise in seven months and these were her first physically induced heart thumps in a long time and this thumping reminded her of the other reasons that her heart thumped but she told herself that this thumping was for a good reason, that she should just breath deep, slow down, and remember she’s a smoker. A little old man and a little old lady appeared out of nowhere on the road.

– Well, thought Juju, if they can go on this walk than surely I can go on this walk.

And she walked, stopping only occasionally to rest her thumping heart and her now thumping lungs.

– This walk is a difficult walk, she said.
– This walk is good for your heart and good for your lungs, John said.

He told Juju to keep on walking, even very slowly, and breath the delicious air which was already burning Juju’s raw throat. Juju turned around again but could no longer see the village of Brigel. She was getting concerned. And she was getting exhausted. Her lungs were collapsing, her heart was in a knot. She looked at John. John looked at her and saw her wet eyes.

– You look beautiful, he said. You belong in nature.

Oh, Juju just couldn’t ask him to bring her back. He was all smiling and gleaming and he was so happy to be outside and walking under Swiss sunshine, happy to have her with him some place other than his small flat. She just couldn’t ruin this day. It wasn’t fair. And it couldn’t be much father. How far could it be? She looked at her watch. They had been walking for 20 minutes. For 20 minutes they had been walking uphill. By Juju’s standard that was definitely a long walk.

Then Pete, who was a good 30 meters ahead and was clearly the more experienced of the bunch, stopped.

– Ah ha!, thought Juju, cheese at last and then downhill home.
– This is the nicest place to wait if you don’t want to go up, Pete announced. I can leave you some food and you can wait for us. We are about one-seventh of the way.

Juju looked at John. Then she looked around her. In every direction, it was all the same. Juju was surrounded by Alps. And this is where Pete wanted her to wait for them? And this was one-seventh? Juju looked at the nicest-place-to-wait. She looked at the Alps surrounding her. The answer was as clear as the water in the little stream. She wasn’t staying at the nicest- place-to-wait, she wasn’t walking back to Brigel alone, she wasn’t going to ask John to take her home. That left two choices: continue or die. And since one led to the other, Juju silently went through the gate after Pete, Big Ed, Joey, and the beautiful John. This gate was to keep the cows where they belonged and Juju walked with brown cows around the mountain. The road was a trail now and not terribly steep and Juju’s body found time to get used to the situation. All along the trail, the valley tinkled with the sound of cow bells and Juju thought about yodeling, except she didn’t know how.

– So I’ll spend the day walking, Juju sighed to herself. There are signs on the trees and cows with bells and even a person every so often. This is civilized Switzerland. What could go wrong? So Juju walked and John walked and Big Ed and Joey walked and Pete was always ahead of everyone else. The cows were beautiful with wide, wet, clean, shiny noses. Juju watched a particularly beautiful teen-age cow eat a flower and thought how good that cow’s milk must taste.

They were walking for an hour now and at some point the trail stopped being a trail and became nothing more than a yellowing track of grass. The cows stayed where they belonged when the yellowing grass started to go up the mountain. The 5 walkers followed it.

– This yellow trail is rather steep, Juju remarked to herself.

There was no longer the question of continuing or not; for Juju, survival now meant noticing everything and remarking on everything: cows, gates, flowers, caterpillars, and the steepness of the little uphill road.

– This is becoming very difficult, Juju said.

She had to stop all the time. Her body was beginning to rebel against the unexpected burst of fresh air and energy. Juju was sweating and of course she hadn’t done this in seven months. Her arms, her legs, her back, her front, every part of her was sweating. Juju was panting and sweating and walking. Big Ed had stopped to catch his own breath and was sitting on a rock when Juju passed.

– This walk is difficult, Juju said looking Big Ed in the eyes. I’m not so sure I can do it.

And Big Ed nodded his bald head in agreement.

They all stopped for a few minutes and drank like the cows from the clean little stream.

– This is the half way mark, Pete announced.

Juju had no reaction. Juju was beyond reaction. But in case she might have one left, she asked Pete to stop making his announcements and let the rest be a surprise.

The second half of the walk was so difficult that Juju had to forget about Juju. The yellow track had now completely disappeared. In its place was an earth track the width of one human foot. On one side of the track was an Alp and on the other side was nothing. It was along this track that they continued for another hour. Not only was the track narrow and high with nothing but the little stream, now a crashing river, screaming some 100, 200, 300 meters beneath them, but it climbed straight up 10, 20, 30 meters higher than where they already were. At one point they had to cross over the valley on a plank of wood no wider than the Olympic balance beam. In Juju’s mind, there wasn’t the slightest doubt or hesitation as to whether crossing this beam was possible or not. She just looked straight ahead and walked over it, ignoring the drop and the stream below. There was a real problem, however, when they reached the part where the track had fallen off the mountain. Big Ed, Joey, and John had made it over the hole but Juju got scared. She got really scared. Pete came back to her.

– Don’t look down, he said.

Juju didn’t look down.

– Get your footing.

Juju got her footing.

Pete dug his boot into the mountain and created a step for Juju. Juju walked on this step and again got her footing on Pete’s foot. And this system continued for the 5 or 6 steps it took to get Juju back onto the track, back onto one of her own two feet. Pete stayed around now.

– Don’t look down and turn your shoulders toward the valley and not towards the mountain. Watch the track and your feet. Only step where you feel you can stand safely. And don’t think about it.

Juju listened, she turned her shoulders toward the valley, watched the track, stood only where it was safe, marched and didn’t think. Maybe she was sweating and maybe she wasn’t. Maybe her heart was thumping. Maybe her lungs had collapsed. Maybe there was an avalanche. She just kept stepping. That was all she could do.

The ground became slate for a while and the walking seemed a little easier though Juju did notice the track had completely disappeared and that they were walking almost perpendicular to the mountain.

– We’re almost there, Pete had to announce. As soon as we cross the stream, we’ll be there.

But someone had taken down the bridge so Pete jumped across the stream and everyone, Juju too, slid down to the edge of the water to help Pete rebuild the bridge. The water was exactly one degree less than freezing. That’s what Big Ed said. It was difficult but finally one log was across the stream and the bridge was built. Juju wasn’t sure if she could walk across the log without holding on. No one else was sure about it either except for Pete, but he was already on the other side. The decision was unanimous. Straddle the log, put your feet behind you, and pull yourself across. Big Ed was first. Juju was second. Like the plank across the valley, there was no doubt and no hesitation. Juju looked straight ahead and pulled herself across, putting one hand in front of the other and sliding along hoping she wouldn’t get a splinter where she sat. She ignored the freezing water and the ear-shattering current below her. She had done this sport in the high school gym. Finally Juju could use something she learned in high school. One step, two hands, slide, hands, slide, think of nothing but hands and a log. When Juju found herself on the other side she smiled and didn’t care that she was soaking wet from melted Swiss snow. Together, they all ran over another plank of wood across the same rushing stream and that was that. They were there.

The valley was wet and between God and God knows how many mountains, snow-capped mountains dripping into a big puddle, the puddle that began the stream. They were greeted by 200 goats, healthy and smiling, with pierced ears and red plastic earrings. The walkers sat down and Juju yelled for cheese. Pete opened his little knapsack and took out a loaf of bread, some sausage, the cheese, some tomatoes, some apricots, a carton of iced tea, and a package of deer meat. Everything tasted superb although Juju held back on the iced tea and the deer meat. Shoes and socks off, Pete slept. Joey slept. Big Ed slept. John slept. Juju went to pee and found a frog and two lizards in one of the sub-puddles. It was very nice. Juju had to admit it. Yes, Juju had made half the trip, the hard half. When she asked Pete how she was going to get down without looking down, he told her he would stay with her for the hard part, especially the part without the track.

It was difficult for Juju to completely enjoy the moment and she tried but some evil thoughts did jump into her mind. Juju brushed them away because she really didn’t have the time. She had to get off this Alp in one piece. Then she could crack up if she wanted. Then, at least, she could say she had done it.

When the sun moved out of sight and all of a sudden it felt like winter, the mountain climbers left the peak. Juju was ready to try the alternative route, the trackless route over the mountain, the alternative to the log over the stream. Big Ed and Joey went for the log and Juju, John, and Pete walked passed another old man and old woman.

– It can’t be that hard, thought Juju as she stepped onto the mountain.

But this route was really trackless and half way across the 20-meter stretch Juju looked down. Worse than that: Juju thought. Her brain started working and her feet started to falter. Juju needed to sit down but there was no room to sit. She could barely stand. Then Juju wanted to lay down. Yes, she definitely needed to lay down. There was nothing to hold on to accept the patch of grass at her shoulder. Safety was nowhere. Nothing was everywhere. Juju must have turned white because Pete came up from behind her.

– Stand.

It was a simple order almost impossible to realize. Juju was dizzy.

– Stop thinking, Pete commanded when Juju started to tilt. Stand.

And Juju stood.

– Let go of the grass.

Juju let go of the grass.

– Get your footing.

Juju heard the same familiar order and obeyed.

– Look at my feet.

Juju looked at his feet.

– I’ll step there and you step here.

She stepped.

– I’m scared, Juju told Pete.

– I know, Pete told Juju. I’ll step there and you step here.

Juju stepped.

– You’re doing fine.

They were stepping their way back to where they had started. It was safer than continuing. Pete knew that. Juju didn’t know anything. As they were step step stepping back to safety, Juju looked down again.

– Don’t look down, Pete half shouted.

Juju looked at Pete’s thin moustache. She saw he was also sweating.

– I think I’m going to fall off this mountain, she said, and as she said it Juju leaned forward.

Before she fell, Pete grabbed her T-shirt. He pulled very hard because on the way down, Juju felt a burning sensation under both her arms. It wasn’t a very long fall but long enough to think about her armpits and to see the silver white water, almost freezing, crashing along on its way to Brigel. Juju knew what was happening. Just before she closed her eyes, Juju saw John. He was screaming, his voice lost in its own echo across the hill tops of all Switzerland.

END

Holland, July 1991