At first glance, she mistook him for something else. In the fading winter light he could have been a branch or log, even a tire; in the many years she’d been cross-country skiing on Mount Royal, she’d found stranger debris across her path. People left behind their scarves, their shoes, their inhibitions: she’d come across lovers naked to the sky, even on cold days. In spite of these distractions, the mountain was the one place where she felt at peace, especially in winter, when tree branches stretched empty of leaves and she could see the city below her—its clusters of green-spired churches and gray skyscrapers laid out, graspable, streets rolling down to the Old Port, and in either direction the bridges extending over the pale water of the St. Lawrence. This winter had been mild, and what snow did fall first melted, then turned to ice overnight. Now, at the end of January, it had finally snowed all night and all day, at last enough to ski on. Luckily her final appointment that afternoon had canceled, leaving her free to drive up before the light was gone. She slipped around the Chalet and headed into the woods, losing the vista of Montreal below, gaining muffled silence and solitude, the trees turning the light even fainter. One skier had been here before her, leaving a path of parallel stripes. On a slight downhill slope she crouched down and picked up speed as she moved around a bend.
Turning, she saw the branch or whatever it was too late. Though she tried to slow down, she wasn’t quick enough and ran right into it and was knocked out of her skis, falling sideways into the snow, realizing only when she sat up that what had tripped her was a man’s body. Her legs were on top of his, her right knee throbbing from the impact.
The air torn from her returned slowly, painfully, to her burning lungs. When she could breathe she said, “Are you all right?”
There was no answer. He was flung across the trail with his head half-buried in the snow. Beyond his body the ski marks stopped. She thought he must have had an accident, but then she saw his skis propped neatly against a tree.
She got to her feet and gingerly stepped around until she could see his face. He wasn’t wearing a hat. “Excuse me,” she said, louder. “Are you okay?” She thought maybe he’d collapsed after a heart attack or stroke. He lay sprawled on his side, knees bent, eyes closed, one arm up above his head. “Monsieur?” she said. “Ça va?”
Kneeling down to check his pulse, she saw the rope around his neck. Thick and braided, it trailed beneath him, almost nestled under his arm, and the other end rested on a snow bank—no, was buried underneath it, and on the other side she could see that the branch it had been tied to had broken off.
She hurriedly loosened the rope and found the beating rhythm in his neck, then opened the first few snaps of his coat in the hope this might help him to breathe. His face wasn’t blue. He was around her age, thirties, his short, wavy brown hair riddled with gray. Still his eyes wouldn’t open. Should she slap him? Administer CPR? She pushed him gently onto his back. “Monsieur?” she said again. He didn’t move.
She skied quickly back to the Chalet and called 911. In her halting French, all the more fractured because she was out of breath, she tried to describe where in the woods they were. When she returned, he was lying where she’d found him. “Sir,” she said, “my name is Grace. Je m’appelle Grace. I called for help. Everything will be all right. Vous êtes sauvé.”
She put her ear next to his mouth to hear his breath. His eyes were still closed but he heavily, unmistakably, sighed.