"There she is." My mother was suddenly beside me, her face radiant. Her long gray hair was wrapped in a bun above her turtleneck. For years, she'd refused to cut her hair short; she didn't want to look like an old lady. Until this trip, I hadn't thought of her that way--she was seventy-two, but still working as an archivist, still hiking and taking tai chi classes at the Y. But when I hugged her beside the yogurt, she felt insubstantial in my arms, her shoulders narrow, folding together.
"We thought you would be here yesterday evening," she said. I was joining my mother and her husband Werner's family in the Alps to celebrate Werner's seventy-fifth birthday. The trip from New York, on two flights and three trains, had taken me over twenty-four hours.
"An old man started having breathing problems on the plane. We had to land on an airstrip in Newfoundland." I'd been delayed by the emergency landing; my late arrival in Zurich made me miss my train connections, and I'd finally gone up into the mountains in complete darkness. I made it to the hotel after midnight, and I hadn't been able to tell anyone this story yet. "They didn't give us any information--just told us to fasten our seatbelts. I thought we were going down in the ocean."
"Come and see everyone, Nina," my mother said. She linked her arm through mine and led me to a round table beside huge windows. The view was stunning--mountains beyond the green and white of fir trees and snow, everything perfect through the glass.
Werner stood up to greet me.
"I'm sorry I was so late," I said as I embraced him. "I hope you weren't worried."
"Oh, no," Werner said with his usual briskness. "We knew you'd show up. Here is Ulf."
Werner motioned to his tanned and well-preserved brother, who greeted me warmly, though I'd met him only a handful of times, the first when my mother married Werner on a festive night twelve years ago. The brothers were Swiss, though Werner had lived in the u.s. for thirty years, studying caribou migration and teaching wildlife biology.
Werner continued his introductions. "Rudi and Elke," he said, motioning to a couple around my age wearing matching fleece vests--Werner's son and his wife. They lived in Basel and worked for Ulf. I'd never met Elke, and I barely knew Rudi. He squeezed my hand. He didn't look like Werner, who was wiry, who'd been dark-haired before his beard turned white. Rudi was strapping and blond, with the shaggy affability of a golden retriever.
I returned to the breakfast spread and filled a small plate, avoiding the strange cold cuts, gravitating toward the cheese. Back at the table, I sat next to my mother.
"Our latest American representative," Rudi said to me. He cut his roll with a knife and fork. "What do you think of our mountains?"
"I'm glad to see them in daylight," I said.
"How is the view?" Elke asked. Her crisp accent made her question almost accusatory. "Did you see the Weisshorn?" She buttered a croissant, which seemed like overkill to me.
"It's beautiful." I'd seen many mountains--one of them must have been the Weisshorn. "I looked at it from my bed this morning."
"For me, the same. I awoke to something gorgeous, and I'm not referring to my husband." She leaned in toward me with a raspy laugh, as if expecting some shared female moment. But I wanted to talk to my mother, to see if I could notice any differences. She seemed to be listening with her usual sharp focus, but I was afraid of what I might see if I looked closely.
"How's the coffee, Mom?" I asked. When she visited me, she'd always insisted on making the coffee herself.
"It's doing the trick," she said. "So what happened in Newfoundland?"
"Some Canadian paramedics came on board and picked up the old guy. Then the wings were frozen."
"Oh, wow," Werner said. "This sounds like a real adventure. Once I was tracking some reindeers in Manitoba. The pilot had trouble with the engine and landed in the middle of the herd."
"I'm glad you retired," my mother said.
"Semi-retired," Werner said. He still taught classes at the university where my mother also worked, but he no longer went on his arctic research trips.
"Don't worry, be happy," Ulf said. "You made it."
I smiled at him; I wasn't sure how to thank him for bringing me here. Ulf--technically, I guess he was my step-uncle--had invited us all here for the celebration. He and Werner had learned to ski in this village, Litziruti, when they were teenagers. Ulf owned a firm that made duplicates of famous artwork. A lucrative business, though I couldn't understand how this practice remained legal. But I thought it best to contain my doubts, particularly when Ulf was willing to buy me a plane ticket. The invitation had come as a surprise; Ulf was getting a group together for this trip, my mother told me on the phone, and he thought it would be nice if I could come along.
"Typical Ulf," my mother had said. "He's very generous."
And spontaneous: with only three weeks' notice, I wasn't sure I would be able to go. I worked as a content producer for a weekly news magazine. Like everyone else, we'd switched to digital coverage, and my workload was grueling. March was going to be nonstop; with the presidential primaries, my story quota was upped to six per day. But then, later in the same phone call, my mother told me she'd seen a doctor for lapses.
"What are lapses?" I'd asked.
"Little flashes when I can't remember why I've gone into the kitchen," she said. "Or opened a file on the computer. The answer comes to me if I wait for a minute."
"Isn't that normal?" I asked. "For older people?" I didn't want to use the word elderly.
"It's more than that," she said.
"What did the doctor say?"
"I've seen two doctors. They both want to put me on the same medication."
"Why didn't you tell me sooner?" We were stepping around the more frightening words, as though keeping the discussion abstract would soften its meaning.
"The doctor just told me yesterday," she said. "There was no need to alarm you before I was sure."
Her tone was matter-of-fact, and I felt alone with the shock of her news. Despite what she was telling me--there now was cause for alarm--my mind spun backward. I remembered a similar phone call she'd made when I was in college, fifteen years earlier. I'd sat on my bed in my dorm room; after a good twenty minutes of small talk, my mother told me she'd been seeing a therapist. She needed to tell me that she had a drinking problem, something I already knew. Things had happened in my childhood: belligerent phone calls made to my teachers in the evening hours and pointed criticisms of me that she'd forget the next day. She had terrible arguments with my father, who was mild-mannered and never shouted back, which seemed to infuriate her more. We had a routine of tense evenings and quiet, pleading mornings, when she tried to win back my father and me, fighting her own vague recollection that she had misbehaved the night before. She would offer me cinnamon toast and songs in the car on the way to school. At first I accepted her morning kindness, but later, when I was in sixth grade and my father left, I blamed her. I'd always gotten along better with him. Actually, I preferred the new setup; though I got to see him less often, when I did, I had him all to myself. Once I was in high school, my mother's drinking--martinis, usually, and wine too--was the reason I kept a distance in the evenings, lest our conversations devolve into irrational arguments. After she got sober, we didn't talk about her former self, and she was more careful in her criticism. We lived in the shadow of our memories, forging on in spite of them.
So when my mother told me that something was happening to her mind, I had the same sense that our relationship would change. But in college, the shock came from something I'd always known. This time, sitting in my apartment in Brooklyn, I'd wondered if I hadn't been as attentive as I should have.
"So now you're sure that something is wrong?" I'd asked.
"That's what they're telling me," she said. Her thin voice disturbed me--she was never one to quietly accept what other people told her.
"And you want me to go to Switzerland in three weeks?" This question was easier to approach than the others that had crowded in: how long would we have before she lost her mind, and what was I going to do when she did?
"It seems like a good time for a vacation," she said, punctuating herself with a dry laugh. That's when I recognized her again.
I could use personal days for a long weekend, I told her, which was absurd considering how complicated the journey would be. But I couldn't imagine my mother--who had spent her professional life being precise, who had an unfailing need to make her opinions known--going along without her right mind. And that was how I wound up at that breakfast table, halfway across the world, trying to decide if I wanted a roll or a croissant.
"The skiers will meet in one half hour in the lobby," Ulf said. He stood up from the table. "Walkers, make your own plans."
Everyone was skiing that day except me and Werner, who had a bad knee. I had never skied in my life and was happy never to try; uncontrolled speed terrified me. Fortunately there were wooded trails winding around the ski slopes. Werner and I would be able to reach the same summits, appreciate the same views.
"We'll be walking with you tomorrow," Ulf said. "A storm is coming tonight, and the snow will be wet and sticky." He snapped up the bib on his ski overalls.
"I'll see you tonight at dinner, Nina," my mother said to me. "I hope you don't mind. I want to take this chance to go skiing."
I did mind. I was going to be there for only three days; everyone else was spending a week.
"Maybe we can have coffee when you get back," I said.
"The bar has a nice lounge area," my mother said. "Let's meet there at four."
I was glad to have a chance to talk to Werner. I might have resented him; he got the improved version of my mother, marrying her three years after she stopped drinking. But I'm not sure what would have happened if she hadn't met him. With Werner, my mother and I had bird-watching and dinners in the backyard, a calm presence between us--the role my father had once filled, the role he still filled in my own life. Three weeks earlier, my father had offered to call my mother when I told him her news. They still spoke occasionally.
"Keep your head up," my father said to me, after I'd told him. This was one of his mottos that I found comforting in its vagueness.
Outside the hotel, Werner and I took a trail through the woods. We came to a clearing and a chairlift, where padded people inched forward on their skis. Adults in bright snowsuits pulled children on sleds. Wind bit into my face. Sunglasses weren't optional here; the glare reflecting off so much white made me glad I could retreat behind shaded lenses.
Werner led me to the next trail in the forest. Though we passed an occasional hiker, we were mostly alone. I liked the feeling of disconnection--there was no Internet or television at the hotel, and I hadn't brought my computer. Werner pointed out trees and barely visible animal footprints. His steps were light and confident, even with his bad knee. Though there were no caribou in New Hampshire, he'd taught me all kinds of things during my visits: signs of habitat, bird migration patterns, the names of berries that were safe to eat.
"Mountains are always moving," Werner said. The trail wound alongside a cliff; still, the footpath was generous. I saw only blue and white, an almost lunar landscape. We stopped to let a line of skiers cross in a flash of neon. They left a pile of powdery snow, and I had the irrational hope that I might see my mother out here, though there were dozens of routes she could have taken.
"Slowly, though." I'd learned to be Werner's student over the years.
"Always slowly. But here we can see how the snow deck has shifted." He pointed up at a line of rocks, covered by a shelf of snow. "Now that the glacial water is coming down, these rocks are becoming smooth. The change is slow, but it used to be slower."
We trudged along for a while, our feet crunching on the packed snow.
"What can we expect for my mom?" I'd done Internet research, clicking through sites that detailed each terrible stage of the disease.
"There's medication that can stabilize her symptoms. But this treatment isn't for the long-term."
"What do you mean?" Werner's English was impeccable, but his phrasing sometimes confused me.
"At a certain point, the medication won't help," he said. "She's going to get much worse."
I didn't want him to say anything else just then. I was suddenly aware of every risk--the sheer drop-off on my right side, the bright sun whose imprint I could feel on my face. I hadn't thought of sunblock that morning. There was the steep descent on the small train and the airplane crossing back over the ocean. In this stark landscape, I was surprised that I'd made it here at all.
"Will she have to retire?"
"Probably soon. She's made mistakes at work, even though what I've noticed is quite subtle so far."
"What have you noticed?" I was ashamed at having to ask this question.
"Little things," he said. "It's more the look on her face while she's thinking than anything she's forgetting at this point."
It frightened me to see Werner so concerned, his face so still. Usually, his face crinkled into the same pleased expression, years of sun etched in. We walked in silence. Soon we were climbing a steep slope, without any breath for talking. We came to a small restaurant, its shape becoming more clear in our approach. Dozens of pairs of skis were stuck in the snow outside.
"Let's take a break," Werner said. "We'll have a Schumli Pflumli."
I had no idea what he was talking about, but inside, there was a fireplace and a table in the sun. The waitress, who wore purple ski pants and a blouse embroidered with flowers, brought us tall glasses of coffee with whipped cream. I wondered how she got to work each day, not to mention the groceries. Sleds? Snowmobiles? That a world could function up here seemed too much to comprehend.
I sipped my coffee--it was sweet and rich, with a sharp taste I didn't recognize.
"Plum schnapps," Werner said. "This will carry us back down the mountain."
We sat there for a while. People talked all around us, in German and Italian, sounds I didn't need to make sense of.
"I didn't know she was having trouble at work," I said. "She didn't tell me she suspected something was wrong."
"She's afraid," Werner said. "She didn't want to make you upset until she knew."
"It's more upsetting that she didn't tell me."
"Of course," Werner said. "But now you're here, and you can talk to her."
"If she's willing."
"I think she's going to be," Werner said. I wanted to believe him.
Back at the hotel, I was too agitated to rest, so I headed to the sauna in the basement. There was an open changing room, seemingly co-ed, and I undressed quickly, keeping close to the wall. Then I wrapped a towel around my body. Inside the dim steam room, I could faintly see people on the benches lining the walls.
"Hi, Nina." I squinted to see Rudi, Werner's son, next to me. I was already sweating, but he looked composed, like a Nordic newscaster post-broadcast.
"How was the skiing?" I asked. Rudi was naked, which seemed to be the common practice. Perhaps the Swiss had a special tolerance for public nudity among family members. I kept my towel cinched around me.
"It was a challenge," he said. I didn't move my eyes from his face.
"Did my mom do ok?"
"I was quite impressed, actually."
"She hasn't skied since she was a kid."
"It's muscular," Rudi said. "The body remembers."
"Are you all skiing together?" I imagined my mother becoming disoriented or lost. Maybe I should have gone with her, though I knew I wouldn't have been able to keep up.
"Elke is a speed queen. But I stay with the old folks--I want to relax on my vacation."
"So my mom didn't have any trouble?"
"Not with me there," Rudi said. "I kept the mountain goats away." He shook his arm, waving an invisible ski pole.
"Not a simple task," I said. "I appreciate that." It was easy to banter with Rudi, just like Werner. But Rudi must have known about my mother's condition; Werner would have told him.
"And how was your walking?" Rudi asked.
"We had a Schumli Pflumli."
Rudi laughed. The steam was thickening around us, and I closed my eyes, one way to avert them. I felt dazed, with my jet lag and the wet heat. I rinsed off and wrapped myself in a bathrobe, holding it tight as I rode the elevator back to my room.
In the lounge attached to the hotel bar, I sat at a table and waited for my mother. Outside, the light was changing; shadows moved across the snow. I wanted a close look at her, to see if I could notice what Werner had mentioned to me. I wanted to reassure myself with one of our usual conversations, too. At thirty-seven, I was single, childless, and overcommitted to my job, but we avoided talking about these facts. Instead, we stuck to safer topics--books and movies, politics. My mother was funny and sharp, her criticism a catty pleasure when it wasn't directed at me.
I watched the other people in the bar. They moved stiffly; their cheeks were chapped red. I let myself glance at my watch only a few times. By four thirty, I had finished my cappuccino.
There were possible explanations, I told myself in the elevator. Maybe she'd taken a nap and overslept. But when I knocked on her door, she answered right away, holding a book.
"I've been waiting for you," I said.
She frowned, then crossed her arms. She seemed genuinely surprised to see me at her door.
"I thought we were meeting for coffee at four," I said.
She looked at her watch. "I lost track of time."
Panic registered in my stomach, fear replacing my anger from being made to wait.
"We can go back down," I said.
"Sure," she said brightly. I wasn't convinced she remembered our plan.
"Another coffee wouldn't hurt," I said. "I'm still feeling jetlagged." I wanted to console her, to remove the confusion from her face.
"I could use a pick-me-up," she said. "They make a very good macchiato down there. It's not easy to prepare them correctly."
I couldn't tell if her slip was merely an accident. We went to the elevator and waited to go back downstairs.
Dinner was served in the same room as breakfast, but the space had been transformed. Now there were candles, soft music. The mountains were invisible in the dark.
A waiter stood by our table and gave a short speech in German. Then he leaned over my chair.
"Tonight we have sea wolf," he said.
"Fish," my mother told me.
The group launched into an animated, guttural conversation. My mother laughed along with them; she claimed that life with Werner allowed her to understand German, though I'd never heard her speak it.
"Let's use English for Nina," Werner said. He didn't mention my mother, though I'm sure she was grateful, too.
"Ok, Fraulein," Ulf said. "Tell us about America. I want to hear about your next president."
I launched into a description of the caucus system. This was my area of expertise, the political muscles I rarely got to flex. Even with my six stories a day, my job required attention only to the scandals, the pantsuits, the schoolyard insults.
"She's taking bets on the horse race," my mother said.
"Why bother with the horse race," Rudi said, "when you have the electronic voting machines deciding everything?" He offered this criticism as though it were a compliment, grinning broadly at me.
"You have a point," I said. "I may quote you in my next article."
Everyone laughed except Elke. I wondered if I was boring her. Just like an American to blabber on, I thought, but my mother seemed pleased, prompting me with questions, holding court and directing the conversation. This seemed important, proof that she was still herself.
After dinner, we moved to the lounge. A piano player at a shiny baby grand did a Stevie Wonder song and then a slow improvisation, singing in soft English with a thick accent. In front of the bar, the polished dance floor remained empty. People sat up straight on stools, their faces tanned, a certain elegance in their sweaters and dense knits. Snow was falling outside the windows. My parents had had a lot of parties when I was young, and this scene reminded me of that time. In those evenings, almost thirty years earlier, there'd been a certain loose pleasure; I liked the way the house would get warm and noisy. I was allowed to arrange crackers or deliver drinks, and the adults asked me questions, made me believe I was part of it. My mother dashed around, loud and exuberant, happy to be at the center of everything.
Elke excused herself before we sat down, complaining of a headache. The rest of us arranged ourselves around a low table to play cards. The game had a throaty title; Ulf explained the rules.
"She's a shark," Werner said after I won the first hand.
"Shark of America," Rudi said. He was sitting on my left, and he held up my hand like a boxing referee.
"When I wanted to make Nina happy when she was a little girl, I'd just let her win a game," my mother said.
"But you didn't let me win very often," I said. My words hung in the air, adding a nastiness I hadn't really intended. I realized there was something else underneath my agitation. A fear that was hard to admit: my mother forgetting that she owed me an apology.
We played another round--Ulf won--and later, as we walked toward the elevator, Werner pulled me aside.
"You've got to be nicer to your mother," he said quietly. "She's feeling very low."
"It goes both ways," I said. I immediately flushed, both shamed and angry. Werner hadn't known what it was like to grow up with my mother. But he'd never reprimanded me before. Back in my room, I got into bed quickly, eager to end the day.
At the breakfast table, I sat next to my mother and spread jam on my roll.
"You seem quite fresh," Rudi said to me from across the table.
"Thanks," I said. I didn't feel fresh; I'd spent the night thrashing under my duvet. Eventually I opened the curtains to watch thick flakes of snow fall against the lightening sky.
"I sleep like a rock here," my mother said. "Something about the altitude."
"Why don't we go for a hike today?" I said to her. The next day would already be my last in Litzruti.
"I think we're all going together," she said. "It's too slushy to ski."
Out on the trail, I tried to slow our pace to give us some privacy.
"How are you doing?" I asked. She was wearing a green parka and sunglasses that covered half her face.
"Keeping up," she said. "I'm a little sore from the skiing yesterday."
"That's not what I meant."
"I'm not a fruitcake yet," she said.
"I can help you," I said. "If there are things you want to do." I'd heard of other people taking trips, documenting old stories, preserving what was going to be lost.
"You can start with coming up to Durham and cleaning the gutters. I don't want Werner getting on that ladder anymore."
Behind our sunglasses, our eyes couldn't meet.
"I'm not talking about the gutters," I said. I pictured my mother closed off, unable to recognize me. "I came all this way to spend time with you."
"I want to take you on a special hike tomorrow," my mother said. "Just the two of us. I want to see the Weisshorn. The view is supposed to be absolutely stunning from this trail. It's one of the highest peaks in the Alps--it's just incredible that we can get that close." She went on, laying out a plan, and, in spite of myself, I let her sweep me along, happy for her diversion.
We caught up to the rest of the group. They'd stopped at a lookout, and Ulf herded us together for a photo, exclaiming over the view.
That night, after dinner and another round of cards, Rudi walked to his room just ahead of me. All of our rooms were clustered at the end of one hallway.
"Would you like to have a drink?" he asked. At first, I thought he was suggesting a trip back down to the bar. But he was motioning toward his room. It was a nice gesture on Rudi's part, I thought, an opportunity for us to get to know each other better. I expected to see Elke when he opened the door--she had skipped the card game again. But the room was empty.
"Where's Elke?" I asked. Her absence was too obvious not to mention.
"She probably went back to the bar." I found this strange, but I didn't feel I had the right to question the intricacies of their marriage.
Rudi poured some sort of herbal schnapps into two glasses, and we sat around a low table. The tiny room was set up exactly as mine was; the bed was not far from my knees. Rudi recapped the bottle and crossed his long legs.
"The Swiss love their schnapps," I said. I'd always been a cautious drinker; schnapps was too exotic for me until this trip.
"I would agree with you," Rudi said. He had the clock radio going. I'd listened to the same strange music in my own room: bells, choral singing, a faint techno beat. I could see his razor and toothbrush in the bathroom, these personal effects almost close enough to touch.
"It's so generous of Ulf to bring us all here," I said.
"Family is important to him."
"Even the American step-branch."
"Even the twigs," Rudi said. "His company is quite successful these days."
"And you're working for him?"
Rudi nodded. I imagined him with a paintbrush, squinting at a Picasso.
"Are you a forger?" The schnapps must have already been affecting me, because my question seemed abrupt only once I'd asked it.
"They're called fabricators," Rudi said. He refilled our glasses.
"But I work as an accountant."
"I don't think my mom mentioned that," I said. This was an opening, a chance to let Rudi gracefully acknowledge that he knew what was going on.
Rudi nodded. "My father told me what's happening to your mother's memory," he said. "It's terrible."
"I just found out," I said. "A good reason to travel to the Alps."
"One doesn't really need a reason." Rudi's smile was disarming; I almost felt we were just talking about a normal vacation.
"I'm happy she has your dad," I said. As my mother's condition progressed, as Werner got older, too, Rudi and I would be connected in a way I hadn't considered before.
"He's been lucky to have her," Rudi said. All these years, I'd only thought about how Werner softened my mother.
"They've had a good marriage," Rudi added. Was there wistfulness in his voice? He and Elke seemed an odd couple to me, or perhaps it was just Elke who seemed odd.
I wondered how long she would stay at the bar. Maybe Rudi had told her he was inviting me over, and she was staying away so she didn't have to listen to me blather on about politics.
"It's late," I said. "Am I keeping you?"
Rudi shook his head. "I'm a night bird."
He picked up my glass. I knew I should pace myself, but I didn't want to leave. I liked the loose feeling I had, talking with Rudi. And I was enjoying the male attention. I didn't even have time for Internet dating anymore, a practice I'd resisted at first, then came to see as my only option.
But what if this were a date with some compatible stranger, not drinks with my stepbrother? How would I feel about Rudi then? My dates had never included free-flowing schnapps and a wife in close proximity. Or the shared knowledge that I was losing my mother. This wasn't a date, but I wanted Rudi to keep looking closely at me.
"It's hard with my mother," I said. "She used to be much more difficult, and it's not easy for me to forget about it." It felt good to say this, to air out some of my guilt.
"I find her charming," Rudi said. "But she is a firecracker." He put his arm on the table, in front of the bottle. My own arm was close to his; my hand was wrapped around my glass.
"An apt description." I picked up my glass and took a sip, then returned my arm to the table, this time even closer to Rudi's.
He was slouched in his chair, his brow wrinkled as he stared at the rug. "My mother and father had another baby before me," he said. I'd never heard much about his mother, the unseen source of his blond good looks. "His name was Rudolph, too," he added. "But he didn't make it."
"I didn't know that," I said. "I'm sorry." Werner's entire other life, with tragedies unknown to me. Then it hit me sharply--how would Werner and I know each other when my mother was gone? Would he stay in New Hampshire? Panic shot up from my chest--another loss I hadn't considered.
"The grave says my name on it," Rudi said. "It used to frighten me when I saw it. I was so angry at them for giving me that name."
"I probably would have been, too." I could feel his sweater through the thin fabric of my blouse.
"I didn't understand it," Rudi said. "I still don't, frankly." Our bodies were angled in over the table. Less than a foot between us. I looked at the stubble on his face.
"It's impossible to understand parents," I said.
"Of course," Rudi said. "They're never as perfect as we want them to be."
I could feel my hot cheeks, flushed from the alcohol. "Maybe that's why I don't have children," I said.
I smiled, and Rudi kept watching me, almost shy. I liked the feeling of control I had, as though I could make him keep looking. Or make him touch me--pick up my hand or lean over the table, respond to me in some way. There were excuses I could have made for what I wanted: the herbal schnapps, my loneliness. The sense that we probably wouldn't see each other again for a long time. It wasn't right, but part of me felt entitled to it; I could have my own secrets.
The room was still. I smelled the wood of the pine bureau behind me, and the raw licorice scent coming from my glass. I looked at the bed, with a book waiting on the right side. I wondered if it was Elke's.
Would I be able to move in time if I heard the door squeak open? I could sit up straight and fold my hands, but I wasn't sure I could erase the softness from my face. Perhaps our suggestion of physical closeness was like public nudity: acceptable to Europeans, something that wouldn't upset Elke if she came in and saw us.
Wishful thinking, but I couldn't trick myself. "Does Elke hang out in the bar alone?" I asked.
"She has insomnia," Rudi said. "She reads down there until she is tired. It's what she does at home, too. Saves the bed for sleeping only."
We both looked at the empty bed, which took up most of the room. Rudi's words seemed both sad and suggestive to me. I wasn't sure how to navigate this divide.
"I should go." I stood over the table. "I'm more of a morning bird."
"You should try skiing tomorrow," Rudi said. He followed me to the door, only a few steps away. We weren't moving quickly. "How often do you get the chance?"
"My mom and I are hiking," I said. I had my hand on the doorknob, but I turned to face him. "It'll have to be next time."
Rudi hugged me and quickly put his lips against my cheek. A customary gesture or an overture, I wasn't sure. I turned my face and kissed his mouth, because I knew I could. His lips felt large, softer than I'd expected. Rudi put his hands on my shoulders and gently pushed me back.
"Sleep well," he said.
Outside the room, I stumbled on the soft carpet, feeling the effects of the schnapps in the bright hallway.
It was cold in my room. I felt unsettled by what I'd wanted, embarrassed by what I'd done. I needed to distract myself--check my e-mail or read the news. But I couldn't. I stood in the bathroom, under a special red lightbulb that glowed warmth. I stayed there for a long time.
I met my mother at breakfast. Fortunately, neither Rudi nor Elke was at the table. Outside, the mountains were wrapped in fog, their peaks hidden. I felt cloudy, too, with a dull ache behind my eyes.
"Werner is spending the morning in the sauna," my mother said. "We should leave before the weather gets too bad."
The worst of the storm would be coming through later in the morning. It was going to be dangerous, my mother said, the soft snow freezing into ice as the temperature cooled. It was my last day, though; I wanted this time with her. And I didn't want to hang around the hotel.
The trail wasn't icy yet, but my mother was walking too fast, lifting her boots over the slush.
"Slow down," I said. I was afraid she would fall.
She was breathing heavily. "I know what happened last night," she said. "You shouldn't have done that."
"Done what?" I was genuinely perplexed, both by her anger and by what she claimed to know.
"You should have used a little common sense. You don't get involved with a married man. Particularly your stepbrother." My mother stopped to catch her breath and stood facing me.
"What are you talking about?" I didn't want to give in to her. Her tone was at once startling and too familiar, an artifact of my teenage years.
"I knocked on your door last night," my mother said. "After we all went up. And you weren't there."
"I was there," I said. My thoughts moved quickly. "I was probably already asleep when you knocked."
"I heard your voice coming from Rudi's room."
Had she stood outside and listened? Perhaps I should have told her that Rudi and I were just talking, which we had been, for the most part. But it was too late for that now.
"You're being ridiculous," I said. Talking to Rudi in his room wasn't a crime. But I couldn't tell if her outrage was a function of her illness or just her usual conviction that she was right. "You must have knocked on the wrong door."
I used the soft, scolding tone of a teacher directing a naughty child. I knew I was heading into something I might not have a way out of. But here in the cold wind, the desire I'd felt the night before seemed far away. And I didn't want to give my mother the satisfaction of telling me I had done something wrong.
"It was the right door," she said.
"Then you probably heard Rudi talking to Elke."
"I didn't hear Elke."
"You might have been confused," I said. I knew it was manipulative to suggest this. But I would not give in.
"I heard you," my mother said. Her voice was small against the sound of the wind in the trees. She had the same uneasy expression as when she'd missed our coffee date, grasping for a foothold. I'd won, but my triumph was uncomfortable. It was too easy to tell her she was wrong.
Snow crowded between us. The flakes were thicker now, and I stamped my feet to keep warm.
"I know we're going to lose things," I said.
She looked back at me, still working the details. "I can't help that," she said.
"You're going to have to trust me." It felt right to say this to her, even though I had lied.
"It's not my fault," she said.
"I know." And telling her this felt right, too; it was a chance to get through to her.
We began to walk again, and I let her go first. Soon we came to a clearing, a place where skiers could pass and the chairlift ran overhead. But the slope was empty, the lift still. The mountains might not have been there at all.
"We should turn around," I said.
"I want to see the Weisshorn," my mother said. "We're not far."
"Are you sure we're close?" Now I truly doubted her mind's ability; I wasn't just trying to protect myself. And this uncertainty was much more frightening. I didn't know where she would take us.
"I looked at the map this morning. We just have to stay on this trail."
"I don't want to get lost."
"I'm not confused, Nina," she said. "I know the way."
"Even if we do get there, we're not going to see anything," I said. "It's completely fogged over."
"I want to know that I was there."
"Mom," I said. She looked at me as though she were waiting for my instructions. "It's not worth it." I didn't want to go back to the hotel. I wished I could skip it and go home. Straight to the train station with the same taxi driver who'd taken me to the hotel the first night, a man in a snowsuit, sporting a black eye. Going back down the mountain, I'd see everything in daylight, the risk of the steep cliffs and narrow track evident in a way it hadn't been in my dark trip up.
"It can't be more than ten minutes," she said. "Let's try to go on for a bit more."
I followed her. My cheeks were wet and raw. The snow piled on our coats, and there was an eerie light in the sky. When we made it to the next clearing, the trail was closed, a sign in four languages chained across the path.
"Danger," the sign read. "Avalanche."
"Risk of avalanche," my mother said. "That's what it should say."
"Do you want a pen?"
"All this way for some flurries to ruin it."
"I think this is a blizzard." I imagined a quick white sheet, closing off everything I still wanted to get to.
"If anyone asks, you tell them you made it to the foot of the Weisshorn."
"I'll tell them it was spectacular."
"That's what I'm going to do." Her face was serious; she wouldn't share my joke.
We turned around and made our way along the trail. I could see the trees lining the path, but the horizon had no contrast. It was just a blur of white.
"Use each tree to guide your next step," she said. This was a lesson from Werner. I wished he were with us; I should have been more firm when I told my mother we had to turn around. I reached for her, next to me in her bright jacket, to tell her I was listening. The snow was still coming down, each flake quick and determined in its flight.