“Let’s go,” he says. “Now, while the weather’s holding.”

There’s no point in saying no. Once he’s decided to climb, nothing will deter him. Not my pleas to hike somewhere easier, or my reminders that there’s no extra milk at home for our infant daughter. Not our promises to my mother that we wouldn’t be gone long. As we face the Colorado mountains, he methodically sets out carabiners, ice axes, and crampons, assuring me we’ll get back in time. As he coils rope into his backpack, I stuff a breast pump into mine.

I’m tired from late nights up with the baby, from being a milk factory around the clock. All I want to do is rest. But my husband doesn’t understand tired. So instead, we climb. I struggle to swing the ax, to kick my boots hard enough for my strapped-on blades to penetrate the rock and stick. The mountain seems to have no top. The higher we climb, the farther it seems we still have to go. My breasts tingle, swelling with milk.

“Nice out here,” he comments, toothed tip of his pick hitched into firm snow.

“When can we quit?” I ask, gasping in the thinning air.

“Can’t in the middle,” he says. “Got to go up to find a way back down.”

We climb and keep climbing. I both sweat under the heat of my layers and freeze in the exposed chill of the ice, my fingers and feet numb, my breasts hardening like boulders.

At last, we reach the summit ridge. I’m out of breath, dizzy from the altitude. On a flat patch, I remove my pack. Tug out the pump, setting it up with stiff, frozen fingers. I unzip my outer shell jacket, my climbing hoodie, my dampened base layers. Flap fabric around to find my leaking breast. Wind bounces and bucks off tree trunks. Hail hammers down, chunks big enough to sting when struck. Up here, we have no shelter from the elements. I balance on the snow-heavy summit, ducking my head in the newborn storm. Deep inside I sense my baby is crying. The more certain I am, the more the milk gushes. One breast, then the other, squeezed, pinched, slurped by a whirring machine that offers no human warmth, no soft baby flesh pressed against mine.

“How long’s that going to take?” my husband asks, his question a possible avalanche.

“Not sure,” I say, keeping my voice even, my head down.

“Hurry,” he says, his face mirroring the ash-dark clouds above.

It’s inevitable, what happens next. He can’t find the descent route in the hail. He’s sure it’s around here somewhere, but somewhere never appears. We fight, make too many wrong turns, backtrack, fight some more. Hours have flurried by with the storm by the time we finally reach home, my body thirsty and cold but my breasts hot and sore with milk.

My mother is furious, pacing, her face almost as red as the squalling banshee-baby in her arms. The child is starving, inconsolable, she says. What kind of mother leaves her baby for so long without food?

I cradle my still-screaming infant, angry that I let my husband lead me to the mountains, that I believed him when he promised me we’d be back in time. That I’d cared when he said he felt betrayed since the birth of our baby, like I was no longer the adventurous, fearless, and strong woman he married, no longer young. That I’d felt I needed to prove I was still the person he expected me to be, the one who always tackled any challenge he manufactured, any problem he listed—the things I did wrong, the things I needed to do better—without complaint.

I settle down to nurse with an armful of girl, my tears dampening the delicate down feathering her small head. Milk spurts and arcs, the ejection too forceful. She squeezes her eyes shut, grimacing as I block my unruly breast, frantic to latch. At last, we connect. Drugged with my daughter’s scent, I sing, stroke her silken skin with my warming hands. Tiny fingers grasp at mine as a blizzard gathers outside, as she sucks down the milk I’d made on the summit ridge and all the blundering way down, its sweet taste spiked with my sorrow.

Shubha Venugopal holds a PhD in literature and an MFA in creative writing, and is an Associate Professor at the California State University, Northridge. She has won numerous accolades including: nomination for a Pushcart Prize; first place in The Southern Indiana Review’s competition; winner in The Masters Review competition; and placement in many other competitions. Three of her flash memoir pieces will appear in Letting Grief Speak, by Diane Zinna, (forthcoming in 2024, Columbia University Press). Her work has appeared in The Southern Indiana Review, Nimrod, The Masters Review, WomenArts Quarterly, BANG! The New Guard, Literary Mama, Potomac Review, Kartika Review, Post Road Magazine, StoryglossiaWord Riot, Mslexia, and in A Stranger Among Us: Stories of Cross Cultural Collision and Connection; and The Robert Olen Butler Short Fiction Prize. She is currently working on a memoir and has two beloved children and a rescue dog.

Artwork by Marvin Liberman