Lead Guide

Our headlamps shone like a pair of eyes in the night’s vast face.
The women were asleep far away in their tents

and I kept thinking, Stay professional—the phrase
my coat of clear nail polish on chiggers, meant to suffocate

my attraction to my coguide’s British accent and long, thin legs—
the vulnerable way his Achilles tendons peeked out

from his high-water hiking pants. They shot weakness through me,
turned my limbs to slack rope. When we switched off our lights

in favor of darkness and laid with our backpacks as pillows,
the humid night became a velvet cloak. Lose one sense and the others

compensate. I felt the closeness of his body, its warmth,
and in his voice, I heard a thread of energy that anchored me

to the trail—I sensed he wouldn’t say goodnight first.
Earlier that week, we’d seen a mama bear with her cub

across a drainage valley, enough space between
not to worry her or us. The cub made mewing sounds

but more demanding. What it wanted, I don’t know.
What I wanted, I knew but wouldn’t say. I was sober

and comfortably alone with a man for the first time
since I’d begun drinking a decade ago. The wilderness

was teaching me more than I’d bargained for
in ways both simple and complex. At night in late May,

the mountain air cooled down and already I was chilled
from dried sweat. Gritty salt crusted my hairline,

my nose, beneath my breasts. My coguide said
he could tell the women respected me—echoing

my sayings and opinions in their offhand conversations—
and for once, I’d believed the best about myself

even before hearing it from someone else. For once,
I was not self-conscious, not even of my body’s unmasked smell.

I pulled the night closer.

Mary Ardery is originally from Bloomington, IN. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Missouri Review’s “Poem of the Week,” Fairy Tale ReviewPrairie SchoonerPoet Lore, Best New Poets 2021, Beloit Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, where she won an Academy of American Poets Prize. You can visit her at maryardery.com.

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