Story about illness

The couple ahead of Stevie and Peter slipped on facemasks and boarded the cable-car. He wore a suit, and she wore layers of linen. Under the couple’s weight, the car rocked, and the woman grabbed the man’s arm. He guided her onto the bench facing the mountainside, and a lapdog emerged from her layers of linen. It trembled, and the man patted its head.

Stevie and Peter boarded the cable-car. Dressed in shorts and hiking boots, they planned to walk down the mountainside after a meal at the top station. The restaurant was known more among the Swiss than tourists, and it had views of the Vierwaldstättersee and Alps equal to the Rigi.

Peter set their daypack between his knees. Usually, the pair rode the cable-car down after hiking up, but a work-related call had delayed their start. Stevie had warned Peter not to take it. Clients didn’t interrupt a Saturday unless they had complaints, and she’d been right. On the drive up, Peter hadn’t said a word, leaving her wondering what he might be holding back.

The operator closed the door. The cable-car swung free from the dock, and the woman and dog yelped. The woman’s rhinestone flip-flop brushed Stevie’s leg, and Stevie, feeling uncomfortably close to the woman’s fear, leaned into Peter. She had her own fears but dangling from a cable above a mountain flank was not one of them.

Trees dropped away, and the view appeared, snow-covered peaks, green mountain flanks dotted with chalets and Hüttlis, and the lake’s shoreline colonised by villages, hotels and villas. Boats scored the lake’s copper-green waters.

‘I’ll never get over views like these,’ Stevie said. An American by birth, she’d lived most of her adult life in Switzerland.

The car jolted at a support tower, and the woman grabbed her companion’s arm. The dog disappeared between them. Bless her, Stevie thought, for doing something despite her fear.

They docked, and the woman said in a ragged sigh, ‘Ach, endlich.’ Finally, yes, but not really: the poor woman faced a return trip. Descents were always worse than any ascent.

For Stevie and Peter, this outing was to reward them for finally tackling the attic apartment their daughter had moved out of. New carpet going in; the walls to be painted; they’d spent two days scrubbing it clean in preparation. When Stevie had suggested moving into the space themselves and renting out the large, rambling house, Peter had only shaken his head. If she mentioned something akin to paring back the business – an architectural firm – or selling it outright and retiring early, he’d switch subjects. They’d reached sixty. Stevie’s father had died at sixty. Cancer. It’d moved from blood to brain after a bone-marrow transplant.

On the restaurant terrace, Stevie and Peter’s table perched them over pastureland. A Swiss flag snapped, crows cawed and cowbells clanged. The steep trail back to Brunnen, where they’d left their car, crossed the grass like brown zigzagging on green baize. ‘You sure your knees are up for this?’ she asked. An unstable kneecap had plagued him several weeks back, and he still wore support tape. ‘We could ride back down and walk along the lake,’ she added.

Peter could be unkind about physical weaknesses. ‘Are you thinking of me? Or yourself? You have seemed quickly out of breath, lately.’

She started at this observation. Perhaps because he was an architect, Peter focused more on form and structure than content. Or maybe it was because he was Swiss German – a non-probing folk in her experience.

‘Menopause,’ she said, justifying the accusation. ‘And a pair of lockdown kilos.’ The kilos had come after Julia’s move a year ago, actually. And now they were falling away, which is what had led her to schedule a physical. The physical led to a mammogram.

Stevie’s phone pinged, a message from Julia. Her timing uncanny, but not uncommon. ‘Julia’s applied for that San Francisco position.’

Last year, after finishing college, their daughter had found a job in Zurich at a Swiss international. The company had offices in New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Julia made a tidy candidate for a stateside position. She possessed both Swiss and US citizenships and spoke both Swiss German and American English with native fluency.

Stevie didn’t understand why her daughter wanted to move at this time. Not just the pandemic but the political unrest. The meanness. The outrages. The street battles. The brutal deaths. What if the upcoming election meant—. No, she refused to imagine another four years of such disgrace. She said to Peter, ‘It’s not good timing.’ She’d put off retouching the attic apartment for ages precisely because the echoic space had left her tender with melancholy. How much would her melancholy intensify with Julia so far away?

‘For the time being, she can work remotely,’ Peter said. ‘Move after things have normalised.’

Normalised; by then, their daughter might have reason to stay close to home. Yesterday, Stevie had brought home news to share from her mammogram. But Peter had shared his news of a successful bid first, and she hadn’t wanted to spoil his buoyant mood. And today, on the drive up, that phone call had preoccupied him so. Excuses for procrastinating – but real ones.


The switchbacks crossed a sheep-cropped pasture and passed under the cable-car lines, humming. A breeze carried birdsong and the ever-present clang of cowbells. At an erratic larger than a garden shed, Stevie got Peter to pose. The lake and mountains made a gasp-worthy backdrop to a handsome man, slender and silver-haired. Exercise, fresh air, sunshine and lovely views healed, didn’t they? ‘Imagine living in a place with such views,’ she said.

‘It’s not zoned here for building,’ Peter replied.

Stevie rolled her eyes. This is what she meant by him not having a feel for content. Her words weren’t always meant to be taken at face value.

In a thicket of beech, exposed roots and rocks rived the trail, pathways spreading out like courses of water at a river delta. The trail dropped, pebbles skittering underfoot, and Stevie grabbed a branch for assurance. Peter offered her his hand and helped her safely along.

The couple ran their small firm out of the farmhouse Peter had grown up in. First trained as a graphic designer, she’d backpacked Europe between jobs. She and Peter met in Zurich, married, and she retrained as a drafting technician. They specialised in restorations, mainly churches. Church committees often created communication weak-spots – uncertainty about regulations, materials and schedules – and Saturday phone calls.

Stevie’s thighs burned from the steep descent. She stopped to drink from her water bottle. This news she needed to share with Peter – she didn’t know how, or when, or even if.

Yesterday at this time, she’d sat in a hospital, waiting to be told that her screening mammogram was fine and that she could go home. Her thoughts drifting, she’d ignored an GEO magazine in her lap and missed the mammographer’s soft-soled approach. ‘Wie bitte?’ she’d had to say, the woman’s Swiss German muffled beyond comprehension by her facemask.

Disrobe in the Kabine and go through? The radiologist would be with her shortly?

A door she’d never noticed before opened onto a changing room, which in turn accessed an examination room. The radiologist scheduled a biopsy for Monday. If he’d explained the urgency – another string of Swiss German words encoded by a surgical mask – Stevie had failed to follow.

She finished drinking from her water bottle. Ahead of her, Peter appeared thumb-sized. Behind him, the mountains and lake sparkled. As if he were a conductor of a symphonic view, he spread wide his arms, and she snapped a photo to send to Julia.



A picture of a mug held before a kitchen window appeared in return. The window looked out over the tops of trees to green lawns. ‘Oh, a park!’ Stevie had exclaimed on her first visit. ‘Lucky you.’

Julia had laughed. ‘Friedhof Sihlfeld, Mom.’

A cemetery. Go figure. ‘Well, at least the trees block your view of the gravestones.’

‘Doesn’t bother me. It’s far away.’

Gravestones, of course, were never far away, especially these days.

Stevie hung her head. Imagine just coming out and telling Peter about the mammogram. The biopsy. But how to begin? She looked around for a bench. Switzerland was good about stationing benches in places with views and shaded by trees. Everywhere, benches – just not here.

Another excuse. Tja.


The trail ended at a gravel road, attesting to their closeness to Brunnen and the cable-car station where they’d parked. Ahead, a steep curve in the road cradled a neglected chalet, nettles and tall grasses obscuring it.

The chalet’s eaves sheltered rusted wheelbarrows, garden tools and a weathered chair. No dog barked. No cat napped on the cords of stacked wood. And dusty spiderwebs covered the windows. Desolation was a rarity in Switzerland.

Stevie couldn’t help but see what a good renovation project the chalet made. Clear away the wild cherry trees below the cattle barn – brambles covering most of it – and a view of the mountains and lake would materialise. She was about to say something, when someone shouted at them – a man, his tone gruff.

She failed to catch the man’s meaning, and Peter marched along as if he hadn’t heard a word.

‘What did he say?’ she asked.

Peter waved his hand, a gesture of dismissal.

A man emerged from under the chalet’s eaves. Thin and stooped, he waved a cane. ‘Ja, riife Fiigä.

Did he say ripe figs? An odd thing to shout at them, Stevie thought.

Sehr fiin.

This she understood, ‘very fine.’ She stopped. Could the man be offering them figs, really? Farmers often set out tables of produce and fruit, sometimes jars of jams and jellies. They didn’t usually reach out to strangers. These times were no help, either.

Bitte schön,’ the man said. He wore rubber boots caked in mud, work trousers shining with grease, and a stained T-shirt. A thick bandage covered his left ear.

Meine Güte,’ Peter said under his breath. A ‘my goodness’ or no, he turned and stomped through the tall grass and nettles, treading a path to the chalet for Stevie to follow.

Honestly, the man didn’t appear well, his skin as dull as beeswax. Beige and pink spots stained his bandages, and reddish-purple lumps blistered the left side of his lips. Stevie put her hand to her chest.

Gesturing with his cane for them to follow, the old man trundled down the side of the chalet to an orchard path. Watershoots grew straight up from fruit trees, their branches loaded with apples, pears and plums bent like fishing rods.

A late frost had killed off Stevie and Peter’s stone fruits, and their apple blossoms had fallen unfertilised. She mentioned the frost. Ja, ja, it’d hit before the man’s trees had flowered, his orchard at a higher elevation.

‘Plenty of plums,’ he said. ‘Help yourself.’

‘Not quite ripe,’ Peter said.

The man plucked one off and held it out. His fingertips were as dried and cracked as the rinds of aged cheese and his thumbs as bulbous as the dusty-blue plums.

‘Sweet, yes?’ The old man slapped the trunk. ‘My father planted this tree. The cherry trees, too. My brothers and I would see how far we could spit the stones. Look.’ He indicated those tall, spindly trees Stevie had notice earlier, the ones blocking the chalet’s lake and mountain views. ‘All gone now, my brothers.’

Some of the brambles covering the barn had been slashed to allow an ancient, twisting fig tree air and light. Its knobs of blue-green fruit were plentiful. Droplets of golden nectar hung from the ripest.

The man hooked a branch. Leaves rustled. ‘I planted this tree.’

Stevie bit into the fig’s squishy sweetness. Its wriggling pink innards brought larvae to mind, and she wondered about the wasps that had ripened it, their remains inside.

Clicks approached along the road, an athletic woman attacking the climb with hiking sticks. She wore comma-shaped buds in her ears, and a small dog trotted behind her.

The man called to the woman, but she marched by without giving anyone a glance. The dog, a smooth-coated thing on stubby legs, ignored them, too. The old farmer shook his head. He handed a handful of figs to Peter, leaned against his cane and closed his eyes. His body swayed, and Stevie reached for the man’s elbow.

‘Dizzy,’ he said. ‘Just dizzy.’ He grunted and wished them a fine day, waving off Stevie’s offer to escort him back up the slope.

‘Well,’ Peter said, once the man was safely up the slope, ‘that was interesting. You still up for a swim?’

Stevie nodded. She wondered if the ill farmer was totally alone. Brothers gone – perhaps a wife, too. She imagined him sitting on an examination table, waiting to have his soiled bandages changed.

Her long-widowed father had broken the news of his cancer by phone. She and her brothers then talked him into undergoing chemotherapy. The course of drugs had mummified him as the cancer crept into his brain. And what had any of them gotten out of the horrible experience? Well, after her father’s funeral, she’d bought a backpack, quit her job and flown to Europe.

She and Peter changed into swimsuits at the car and made their way to the lake. Waves gentled a pebbly slip-off, small stones clacking. Once in the water, the pair swam against rollers a passing tourist boat had created. After several laps to the buoys and back, Stevie got out. She considered the jagged, snow-covered Alps, their solidity. When Peter joined her, she said, ‘Some things never change.’

‘The mountains? They’re changing all the time.’

Ah, he’d only gone and understood her. She smiled.

He unwrapped a fig from his towel. ‘Figs are actually flowers. The remains of their pollinators possibly inside.’

There, he’d considered contents. Stevie thought of the contents of her breasts. Yesterday, the radiologist’s bushy eyebrows had pinched in sync with his palpations. When explaining the biopsy, he’d held his hands as if playing ‘Here’s the church and here’s the steeple.’

Peter handed her the fig.

A bulbous bruise in her hand, tender flesh. ‘Share?’ she said.

‘Your call.’



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