When we checked into Big Meadows Lodge, we were given a new last name. Our father, Henry, has a thick southern accent, and when he called to make our reservation, he was misunderstood. According to the ski passes, and our tickets to the dining room, he was now Harry Bighorn.
“It’s Henry Hawthorne,” he said to a teenager with red hair and a disarray of stained teeth.
“It doesn’t really matter,” the teenager pointed out, “and it would take a while for the office to make new passes.”
My sister, Beth, and I were surprised at how easy it was to become someone else.
“Bighorn?” our mother, Ruth, asked when we met her back at the cabin.
“The teenager at the front desk assured me that it doesn’t matter,” our father said.
“Can I introduce myself as Hazel Bighorn all week?” I said.
“Please don’t,” Beth said; she had stepped into the bathroom to comb the golden waterfall of her hair.
* * *
The day before, we’d left our coastal town in North Carolina and stared out the windows of our parents’ station wagon as the roads grew narrow and nauseous; by the time we reached Big Meadows Lodge, we had passed a dozen lookouts where we were supposed to park and peer at the Appalachian Mountains themselves, which could look hard and blue, or soft and green, depending.
Beth was excited to learn how to downhill ski with our father but I knew, without really knowing, that I would have trouble. Beth had always been more athletic than I was; at home, on our island, she had joined the cross-country team and, in the afternoons, she ran beside the ocean while I sat with a novel or sketchbook, watching. I was exhausted by the act of putting on my ski costume: the huge puffy pants with suspenders, the stiff boots that fit into skis so long I felt myself turning into a clown. In our first class, Beth learned to turn neatly from side to side while I hurtled, inelegantly, at a terrifying speed.
At lunch in the dining room, where we sat at a stern black table beneath a frothy chandelier, I told my parents I did not want to spend the afternoon skiing.
“Beth is good at it, but I’m going to break something.”
“You could go hiking with me,” our mother said.
This is how my mother and I wound up on the Rose River Trail, following a scenic path that descended gently for two miles to a waterfall.
“I don’t like to ski either,” my mother said, once we were alone.
“Who could like it?” I said. “It’s exhausting and dangerous.”
We hiked in silence, the trees growing taller; I saw that my mother was worried by how few hikers we were passing.
“Maybe we should stop and rest?” she said, after we had gone a mile; we sat down together on a flat stone beside a place where the river argued with itself, then grew deeper.
“It seems to me,” I said, “that our lives would be different if we were named Bighorn.”
“Different in what way?”
“Wouldn’t you want to be louder and more outgoing if you had a name like that? Wouldn’t we paint it in bright colors on our mailbox?”
“I didn’t want to change my name when I got married,” my mother said.
“I couldn’t see why your father’s name should be more important than mine,” my mother said, “And I liked the name Spivey; it reminded me of secrets and vines; people who heard it knew I was Irish.”
This is when we heard the rustling, deep in the trees, when we glimpsed the face of a creature that might have been an ape or a bear. My mother and I sat still, our words half swallowed, and watched whatever it was turn its broad back to us and disappear into the afternoon’s shadows.
* * *
At dinner we sat at a table marked with a silver Bighorn placard and my mother and I tried to describe what we had seen.
“It might have been a Bigfoot,” I said.
“You mean Sasquatch,” Beth said.
“They’re the same thing, aren’t they?”
“It was probably a bear,” our mother said.
“Good evening, Bighorns,” our waiter said when he delivered our menus, which featured sketches of forest wildlife: foxes, bobcats, deer, and wolves born from dark pencil lines.
* * *
The following afternoon, I was in our cabin, sitting in front of the fireplace and reading about spies, and I came to a chapter about the exotic dancer Mata Hari; my book described how she dated military officers and politicians across Europe. I was squinting at a picture of her bra made of jewels, scarves draped over her shoulders, when Beth limped in, holding our father’s arm.
“What happened?” I said.
“I ran into a tree,” Beth said, hopping over to sit beside me on the couch, “I did something to my ankle.”
“What are you reading?” our father was eying the pictures of Mata Hari.
“I’m reading about spies; this one had the code name H-21.”
“It’s easy to see how she got her information,” our father said; then he took off his coat and stared into the fire the way we all stare into the ocean when we’re at home.
* * *
In the evening, we were in the lounge listening to a folk singer play a dulcimer when Beth began to complain about her ankle.
“It throbs,” she said, “like it has its own heart.”
“We should take her to the clinic,” our mother said to me, and we left our father sitting alone in the tap room with red carpeting, his beer on the table in a sweaty bottle.
Because ski accidents are frequent, the lodge had its own doctor. Before we could see him, my mother and Beth and I spent time in a waiting room with outdated magazines and photographs of mountain ranges; our mother filled out a series of forms and was called several times to a window where a woman was grooming her fingernails; Beth and I were marooned beside a lady with a fussy toddler, across from a man who seemed to cough in paragraphs.
“Frances?” the nurse called, and our mother stood up.
“Frances?” Beth said; she continued to sit.
“It’s your first name,” our mother whispered. “It’s on the insurance card.”
“She likes to be called Beth,” our mother told the nurse.
“What seems to be troubling Frances?” the nurse asked when we got into the exam room.
“She hurt her ankle skiing,” our mother said.
Beth looked at the floor. “I ran into a tree.”
After taking Beth’s height and weight, the nurse disappeared down a corridor, and the three of us were left alone.
The doctor arrived, holding a clipboard. “How is Frances feeling?” he said.
* * *
That night, after Beth had been X-rayed and wrapped in a bandage and told to stay off her ankle, we returned to our cabin where our father was tending the fire with a poker.
“The Inuit have 50 words for snow,” our father said.
“How do you know?” Beth said
“The man who plays the dulcimer; he was full of facts. I can also tell you how a dulcimer is made.”
“I can live without knowing that,” our mother said, flinging off her shoes.
* * *
Beth had to stay off her ankle, which is how she and I wound up in the lodge, playing Scrabble and reading books about failed expeditions; we sat in rocking chairs, very close to the windows that watched the mountains. Beth’s book was about explorers who landed in one place but believed they were in another; my book was about men trying to find the Northwest Passage. Beth read aloud to me from her book, which said that Christopher Columbus visited Haiti and several Caribbean islands, but returned to Europe convinced he had discovered the coast of China. On a voyage to discover the Indian Ocean, he landed in Central America.
“He was a geographical idiot, Hazel.” Beth stood on one leg and hopped over to warm herself in front of the fire. “He sailed anywhere at all, then said he’d arrived at his intended destination.”
“Maybe all places were the same to him,” I said.
“Then why was he an explorer?” Beth shut the book.
“In my book, New York was discovered because this guy, Henry Hudson, was looking for the Northwest Passage,” I said.
“Did he find the passage?”
“No,” I said, “just New York.”
* * *
I convinced my family to go to a party at the lodge on our last evening. We made up fake facts about ourselves and spent one night pretending to be Bighorns.
“Hi, I’m Harry Bighorn,” our father said to the first strangers we met, and Beth and I could barely contain our laughter. Our mother stood beside our father, beaming; she pretended that she loved to ski.
“I’m wild about algebra,” I told an old woman who asked about my favorite subject in school.
“Me, too,” Beth said. “There’s nothing like a linear equation.”
* * *
We packed up and became Hawthornes again, but I missed being the Bighorns; I liked the name printed on placards and tickets, the name that suggested identity was mutable. In the spring, our mother discovered our father had been having an affair with a woman in his office and he had one name for it, stepping out, which made it sound as if he’d gone for a walk in a pretty forest, while our mother had another, betrayal, which made it sound as if he ought to be beheaded. That trip to the mountains was our last family vacation.
There were names for places I loved and names for animals I’d lost, animals that would not come home, no matter how I called for them. I was learning to classify things in my science class: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. My mother took back her maiden name when I was in high school; later, when I went away to college, she remarried and changed her last name to Jones.
“David wanted me to,” she said, when I asked.
My mother seemed like a different person when I went to see her in a mansion by the sea where all the photographs were of beautiful tanned people I did not know. She told me her new husband could see her, that his love made her feel real. Beth got a Ph.D. in history and became Dr. Hawthorne; she had her first name legally changed, after years of being called Frances in hospitals and DMVs. But I have been Hazel Hawthorne all my life, and my father was always Henry Hawthorne, except for that week at the ski lodge, before our family scattered.
Christopher Columbus discovered one place, and pretended it was another; I remember the animal that might have been a bear or might have been a Bigfoot on that last holiday in the Blue Ridge Mountains, watching me from the woods. I remember a stray cat that was fed by everyone on our street: how he responded to at least eight names calling him from doors, strangers shaking bowls of food. Have I mentioned how Mata Hari was shot by a firing squad? How Henry Hudson became a river after he was abandoned by his crew?