Feeling the cool embrace of the night air around us, we took deliberate and cautious steps. The thigh-high weeds were making it difficult to navigate the path. In fact, calling it a path at this point was an act of generosity. What had once been broad enough for us to walk two by two had swiftly narrowed. Formidable plants tickled our ears and brushed across our shoulders. Vines formed obstacles for our legs, tripping us with their sticky, stringy tendrils.
As we followed the path around another corner and came upon a clearing, speechless fright suddenly gripped our throats and choked us into silence. Each of us froze where we stood—moving only to blink and breathe like there wasn’t enough oxygen.
Pauline, the youngest in the group, spoke first, but because of the volume of our fear, we barely heard her: “Do you see that? It looks like a body!”
It did look like a body—a young woman’s body lying supine on the plush ground. Aside from the weathered appearance of her clothes, there were no visible signs of injury or anything being amiss. She could have been sleeping given the relaxed arrangement of her limbs. Her eyes were lightly closed and her facial expression held the remnants of a smile—like she was entering a fond memory or anticipating a reunion with her beloved. However, despite her apparent tranquility, it was clear that she wasn’t sleeping—that life had long ago left her body.
Emily, ever the pragmatist, suggested that we turn back—making the point that, if we retraced our steps and pace exactly, we could be safely home by dawn. Julie complained that she had to pee and wondered aloud where she might find some privacy. Kimberly, who’d been lagging far behind, finally arrived breathlessly and, taking in the scene, caught up to our fear quickly.
All of us stood frozen in our spots contemplating the same inevitable thoughts: Every person who has ever walked this path has never been heard from again. Was this body what remained of someone’s most recent attempt? What happened here? Had we come close to danger sooner than we’d been led to expect?
It’s amazing how fear can both overwhelm you with the urge to run, and yet shackle your ability to move in any direction. The brain can at once be both racing in search of multiple contingencies and stuck in a redundant pattern of terror and questioning. My body was at war with itself—telling me to run and scream out but stay absolutely still and silent.
We all looked to Patricia. As the oldest in our group, she was the de facto leader. Her wisdom earned her our respect. She’d had experiences some of us hadn’t even contemplated yet—kissing a boy, leaving the country, wearing a training bra. We would abide by her decision. Push on or retreat, we would follow her lead. After all, embarking on this quest had been her idea, and she was the one most at risk whether it failed or succeeded.
Looking at all of us, and then settling her eyes on Pauline, Patricia spoke calmly and carefully. “Anyone who wants to is welcome to go home. There will be no judgment—none at all.”
Everyone looked at Pauline as well. We all hoped (at least I did) that, being the youngest, she would voice all of our fears and let us off the hook. No such luck. For what Pauline lacked in age and stature, she made up for in courage and confidence. “I want to finish what we started,” she said coolly. Then she rolled up her sleeves, took out her notebook, and began to examine the body.