The trailhead sits in the back of someone's farm. The farmer, a ruddy man in knee-high Wellingtons, looks panicked when he first sees Iman after she halloes him from the gate, a mossy timber affair opposite a road sign that reads elderly people crossing, but when she explains her quest and asks for permission to pass through his land, he seems to relax and rearranges his face and says, "Aye then, jolly good." He points uphill and says "byre." Then he points to the low thick cloud spitting infinitesimal pinpricks of rain and says something that sounds like "roarie-bummlers" and then something else, maybe "plype," that sounds benevolent, though she can't really understand any of it. He stares at her too much. She can feel his gaze on her as she walks uphill, past the farmhouse and toward the cowshed, and she thinks that through the soft pecking of drizzle on grass she hears him say "hot chocolate."
The night before, after she and Jim came down by bus from Edinburgh and checked into their mildewed eighteenth-century inn with rusty faucets and ivy-clasped walls, Iman walked a few blocks to a pub and then to an Indian restaurant that served sheep's pluck pakoras, and in the morning, when it had already begun to mist, she and Jim walked together to a café across the street for kipper and poached egg, and she was the only black person anywhere. For all she knows, she may be the first African woman the farmer has ever seen in person, she thinks as she approaches the cowshed—and then she sees the shed and stops and gags. A dozen dead crows hang from the eaves. Suspended on thin ropes from their necks, they rotate lightly in the wind. Beneath the hanged crows, stout red cows chew, oblivious. She wonders if the farmer has lynched the birds himself. She walks away fast, almost running, and a murder of live crows explodes, cawing, out of the barn.
This is the hike Jim wanted to take, a mountain walk in the Borderlands to the ancestral sheep farm that has been in his family for five hundred years. His last hike. He came up with the idea after Doctor Arthur showed them the bone scans.
"This is your first bone scan, from June," the doctor had said, stabbing the computer screen in his office with the tip of a gel pen. "This is your new bone scan, from last week, the fourteenth of December. What have we got here? We [End Page 1] got increased lesions and two small additional lesions. The one on the left pelvis has increased in size since June. There's a new area on the sternum, small. And another on the right ribcage."
The gel pen made an unpleasant noise against the screen. Jim used ballpoint pens, which, he had once explained to Iman with characteristic conviction, were the age-appropriate choice for adults. Besides, he never had to buy them: there were always perfectly functional ballpoint pens to purloin from the cheap hotel rooms where he would stay on his travels—Motel 6s, Holiday Inns. He kept them in a Bienvenidos a Chihuahua coffee mug in his home office, the small anteroom between the door to the carport and the rest of the house, which he had decorated with maps of his favorite hikes, tourist brochures from exotic destinations, and framed low-resolution photographs of the Big Bend he had taken with a succession of cheap point-and-shoot cameras. That morning, while Iman drove him to the hospital, he had used a Ramada Limited pen to write down, in blue-ink block letters, a list of questions he was going to ask Doctor Arthur during this visit. He called it his cheat sheet. He needed the cheat sheet, he said, because in the presence of authority he became overwhelmed and lost the ability to think clearly. Even if he used gel pens, Doctor Arthur, an oncologist, was authority.
The doctor's phone vibrated on his desk.
"Excuse me a sec," he said. "I'll be right back." He winked...