In the clear twilight of a New England May evening, a young woman carrying a bundle walked down a hill toward a lake whose surface, perfectly still, reflected the stars and the crescent of new moon. She was petite and slender; her hair, almost black, was cropped short, which made her dark eyes look even larger. The fading light emphasized her pallor and the shadows around her eyes; her clothes – a turtleneck, a fleece jacket, jeans – hung on her, suggesting a drastic weight loss since she’d acquired them.
She reached the lake shore and deposited her bundle, wrapped in a paint-stained drop cloth, beside the stone fireplace that her family had always used for barbecues. Opening the cloth, she took out three short lengths of wood and a few sheets of The Berkshire Eagle that she crumpled up and put at the bottom of the fireplace, stacking the logs in a pyramid above the paper. To ensure that everything would burn completely she had brought a bottle of charcoal lighter, and now squirted the liquid liberally into the fireplace. She lit the newspaper with a long wooden match and the flame leapt up with a whoosh.
She picked up the other objects she had brought, holding each for one last look before burning it. First into the flames went the black lace underwear that had itched and chafed, the ridiculous shoes with pointed toes and high heels. Never again would she subject her body, with its love of free movement, to such restriction, all to try to please a man.
Next on the pyre was a letter headed “The Milbank School.” A fragment of its opening paragraph drew her reluctant gaze like a grisly accident scene: “terminated, effective immediately, in light of the recent incident that has compromised your ability to serve as a sound role model . . . ”
She gazed for the last time at a photograph of a young man, tall and lean, with wet black hair, smiling triumphantly in nylon shorts and a tank top that bore his number placard from the New York City Marathon. Looking directly at the camera, his eyes seemed to be fixed on hers, and, in the months after he gave the picture to her, had conveyed conflicting messages: from -- at first -- You gave me the strength for this achievement, to -- after the end -- I’m a winner and you’re a loser. She thrust it into the fire.
Last was a small book, a collection of inspirational aphorisms for runners; she opened the front cover to look at the inscription handwritten there in a dark, strong hand: “To Reggie, Merry Christmas: ‘Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must; just never give up.’ - David.” She doused the book with lighter fluid, then threw it into the heart of the flame where it ignited with a thump.
Darkness gathered around her as she sat crosslegged on the grass and watched the fire die down. She poked and crushed the live embers with a stick to disperse them safely. Only the white struts of the high heels’ inner supports remained, looking like bones among the glowing cinders.
At last she stood, and headed up the hill on legs that felt too weary and stiff ever to run again, or even crawl.