LINCOLN, NEW HAMPSHIRE, OCTOBER 2013, ONE YEAR EARLIER
It was a warm day by any standards, and Ya’ara took off the thick shirt she was wearing and made do with just the T-shirt she had on underneath. With her hands on her hips, she stood there in awe not only of the uncharacteristic weather, with the temperature approaching twenty degrees Celsius in mid-October, but also of the stretch of country in which she found herself. She couldn’t and didn’t want to get used to the colors, which seemed more real and primal than any others she had ever known. The sky was blue and big, the sun’s rays shone golden, and the mountains appeared to be on fire. Ridge after ridge was ablaze in shades of yellow, orange, and red—the spectacular fall forests of the White Mountains in the throes of a beautiful Indian summer. Ya’ara stood there gazing at all that beauty alone and didn’t miss the company of anyone.
Ya’ara had been making her way along the lengthy Appalachian Trail for the past six weeks, northward from the Deep South of the United States. It was never her intention to hike the entire trail. All she wanted was peace and quiet. A most welcome peace and quiet following the turbulent months of the beginning of the year, the breathless months of the pursuit. Because after the reprimands and her swift departure from the Mossad, Ya’ara felt there was just one thing left for her to do: She packed a backpack and flew to South America. From Chile to Peru and from Peru to Bolivia. And from there, on a series of flights, on shoddy airplanes that appeared to get smaller from one flight to the next, she made her way to Kentucky. There she purchased a dark blue used Buick and set out, on narrow roads and dirt tracks. From time to time, she parked the car and took off into the mountains for a few days on foot.
Sometimes she found someone to drive the car to the next point on the trail. But despite the random encounters, she preferred to walk alone. She was with herself. Breathing deeply. Her legs burning with effort. Her lungs filling with sharp, clean air. After a few days of hiking, she progressed to the next point. She loved the long drives along the side roads, which offered her glimpses of what she thought was the real America. Sometimes she remained in her hotel for a full day, spoiling herself with a hot bath and idle reading, followed by dinner at the best restaurant she could find in the area. There weren’t many of those around. Most were diners, which played loud country music and served huge portions of food. Women and men, many of considerable size, sat at nearby tables, drinking whole pitchers of beer or Coke in one-liter glasses. Couples held hands and appeared in love. Sometimes, when they saw she was on her own, men would approach her and try to strike up a conversation. But her cool demeanor and icy stare deterred them. Only once, one evening in North Carolina, did a group of young men hassle her in a diner parking lot and try to block her path to her vehicle. They encircled her and one of them pushed her in the shoulder. Another reached for her crotch. She was forced to break his arm and crush the eye socket of another guy who threw a punch at her face. With two screaming heroes in a heap on the asphalt, the other thugs backed off, hurling awful verbal abuse. She got into the car and drove away, her body trembling with rage.
The northern states through which the trail passed, Vermont and New Hampshire, seemed friendlier. She knew that could change in an instant, but she was surrounded by warmth and serenity, and she gave in to that warmth, wrapped herself in it.
She reached the town of Lincoln, New Hampshire, in the late afternoon. She had walked a distance of about twenty kilometers that day, along the length of a stream in full flood, its waters raging with small rapids and sharp twists and turns. She was surprised, when she looked at her map, to discover that a stream so torrid and vibrant had no name. She thought for a moment about naming it herself, a private name, but changed her mind. It’s good to be in a world in which some things remain nameless. The forest around her was golden and quiet and she hiked slowly. After some three hours of walking lost in thought, she stopped for a breather. She dozed while resting up against a thick tree trunk, its bark a silver-white, surrendering to the warm sunbeams that found their way through the trees. She was awakened by a loud noise. A powerful beating of wings. She opened her eyes and saw a huge pheasant, its head a glossy shade of green, its body covered with reddish brown feathers splashed with black dots, rising from the brush and disappearing among the trees of the forest. A chill rose from the stream that flowed nearby, whirlpools of water swirling on its banks among the yellow reeds. She knew right there and then that she would never forget that pheasant and the beating of its wings that woke her. She stood up and started walking.
A gas station attendant in Lincoln recommended she eat at the Gypsy Café. She found it easily. It was hard not to spot its storefront, which was painted a deep blue and decorated with myriad other colors, too. It was dusk, and apart from a couple sitting at the bar, there were no other diners there. A motherly waitress told her that the kitchen would open in ten minutes and that she could look through the menu and relax in the meantime. Feel at home, dear, the waitress said to her. It’ll be worth the short wait. Our food is wonderful.
The menu seemed awfully eclectic. Food from a wide variety of places around the world, one dish per country. An Indian dish, a Moroccan dish, a Japanese dish, a Cuban dish. And so on. The Philippines, Turkey, Mexico, Italy. Nothing good’s going to come from this, she thought, consoling herself with the pleasant sensation in her muscles after the long hike, and with the warmth coursing through her thanks to the red wine she had ordered, a Californian Zinfandel with a ridiculous name—Black Chicken—which tasted surprisingly deep, rich, and smooth. She ordered two small dishes and was pleased to discover just how flavorful and original they turned out to be. She ate slowly and chose to surrender to the moment and savor this strange and friendly place, with its abundance of tastes and colors. She watched the shadows lengthen through the large window overlooking the street. Evening had come and night was about to fall over the White Mountains of New Hampshire. She was pouring herself another glass of wine when into the restaurant stepped an elderly woman, slender, her white hair cut short. The restaurant owner and three waitresses greeted her with applause. The woman smiled, her blue eyes shining with glee. Forty-eight, forty-eight, forty-eight, they chanted out loud before escorting her to a table not far from Ya’ara’s, also overlooking the street, now cloaked in the darkness of the October night. Ya’ara looked up, silently greeting her new neighbor. The woman, for her part, responded with a joyous smile. Ya’ara noticed her hiking boots, very similar to the ones on her own feet, strong high-top Timberlands, their leather soft and supple from extensive use. The soles of Ya’ara’s boots appeared almost new in comparison.
“What’s the forty-eight all about?” she asked.
The elderly woman responded, and her deep voice was exactly the kind of voice that Ya’ara was expecting to hear. Her pronunciation was that of an educated woman. She may have been a university lecturer, Ya’ara thought to herself.
“The White Mountains have forty-eight peaks that rise above four thousand feet. For the last ten years, since my retirement, I’ve been climbing them, one after the other. I scaled the final peak today. A cause for celebration, I thought.”
Ya’ara was genuinely impressed. “That’s amazing,” she said. “What a quest! I’m Ya’ara, by the way,” she added, conversing with her fellow diner across two tables.
“Pleased to meet you. Did you climb alone today?”
“Yes. I usually hike alone. Although I do have a son, who lives in Connecticut, and he joins me sometimes. He’s in good shape and likes to climb. But he couldn’t make it this time.”
Ya’ara felt her blood boil. What a “wonderful” son she must have if he can’t even find the time to come and share her festive moment, her crowning glory after a decade of climbing. She was really angry at him, but she said to herself: What do you really know? You don’t know her, and you certainly don’t know him. It’s got nothing to do with you anyway. Take it easy.
But she couldn’t let it go. She ached for the noble and lonely woman sitting opposite her.
“I feel fortunate to have stumbled upon such a special occasion,” Ya’ara said. “Will you allow me to order us something to drink?”
Ruth paused, and then nodded. “Yes. Why not?” she said. “Thank you.”
“Whiskey perhaps? Or cognac?”
“Cognac sounds good. Gladly.”
Ya’ara ordered a round of Courvoisier. A plump, fair-haired waitress served them the cognac, which glowed in the two large glasses in deep shades of brown and gold. She and Ruth, each at their respective tables, raised their glasses. “To the most impressive mountain climber I know,” Ya’ara toasted.
“To a beautiful passerby from a foreign land,” Ruth responded.
At the back of the restaurant, deep in the kitchen, the owner smiled contentedly to herself.
They spoke throughout dinner, Ya’ara trying three more small dishes with curiosity and gusto. I’m eating like a famished tigress, she thought, explaining herself apologetically to Ruth: “I walked for several hours today. The fresh air must have given me an appetite.”
“Oh, my dear,” Ruth respond with obvious fondness, a large, deep bowl of pasta on the table in front of her. “It’s healthy, to burn energy, to listen to what your senses are telling you. To eat heartily.”
Ruth asked, and Ya’ara told her that she was from Israel, that she was a novice filmmaker, and that she’d been traveling alone for the past six months.
Ruth said she was a retired clinical psychologist, who had studied in Boston and had then worked for many years in west Massachusetts. She didn’t mention her husband. “You can guess how old I am. Older than sixteen and beyond seventy-six.”
Ya’ara estimated she was approaching eighty. I really hope, she thought, to be so content with myself when I’m her age.
The glasses of cognac emptied slowly. After stepping outside, Ya’ara waved good-bye one last time to Ruth, who was sitting at the window, her figure illuminated and appearing at ease. A golden glow spilled onto the sidewalk, and fragmented, melodic sounds were still coming from inside the restaurant. The blue façade had turned black by then, but tiny lights shone on its surface. Ya’ara wrapped herself in her coat, shivering for a fraction of a second from the night chill and saying to herself, I’ll be back here. She wasn’t one to forget places in which she had found peace.