Foreword: This is one of those "I caught lightning in a bottle" moments. Each time I read it, I know I will never be able to write this again.

Over a score years ago, a dear, dear friend's honesty sundered my heart. I knew she was right, but I faced an impassable chasm between us. The situation itself was irreconcilable, the pain was deep, and the absence dear; I did the only thing I could: I sought to paint it with words.

Last night, we both had trouble catching that faint wisp of mental magic that causes our minds to lay our bodies to rest; here in the dark, we both laid awake. With a shared sigh, we arose, dressed. I wore my black khakis, a rugby shirt, midnight blue on hunter green, and my new belt. I liked to wear something new on this day. It allowed me to remember today for the rest of the year, whenever I wear it.

I turned to look at my wife. She smiled, tight and grim. She was dressed in the new black turtleneck sweater and black jeans. Her pale skin was a marked contrast against it. Her curly brown hair framed her round face. Most of the time, those cheeks would be upturned, the eyes behind the glasses merry. Not today. She struggled on her hiking boots.

Like hers, my boots were black. In fact, I thought the rugby shirt was too colorful. As I moved to pull on hem over my shoulder, Dolores walked over. She laid a hand on my shoulder and said simply, "Don't. It looks good. She likes green. And we don't have time." She looked at me for a moment longer than normal. We had time, but she wanted to start the drive. I looked away, but her hand remained. I glanced back, and she still gazed at me, her lips pressed into a thin, pale pink line.

I knew what she saw. Neither of us married for looks. She was smart, and sensible; I was simply smart. My wife grew softer and rounder with the years; me, I was already round, already on in years. Fate blessed our daughter with the best from both. May had my lips, "Cupid's bow," Dolores called them - how full they were, how expressive they could be. At the thought, I willed mine to a smile. She forced one to her mouth, too, but her eyes just weren't in it. I wondered if I looked like I was grimacing as badly as she did.

I nodded at the clock. It was 4:30. Sun up was in two hours. Dolores and I moved to the kitchen. From last night, she had the days's provisions sitting on the kitchen table, next to a knapsack. I filled it, sealed it, and hefted it on my shoulder. It was heavier than last year, and last year was heavier than the year before. The pack, the food and the bottles remained the same, that much I knew. Nonetheless, each year, the bag dug deeper into my shoulders.

I tossed the backpack of food into the back of the truck. She joined me, tossing hers besides mine. She had a bad back, so hers held the first aid kit and May's teddy bear.

Dolores stared out the window the whole time we drove to The Hill. I didn't know what to say, what to do. Music seemed inappropriate. Some years we talked about The Hill. Other years we drove, nothing more. This year was one of the latter. It was a cold and empty journey, but I bore it rather than risk tainting this solemn day by saying something wrong. With her thoughts elsewhere and elsewhen, and my heart was there as well, the chances of of a mis-spoken word were too great. We drove in silence.

The Hill rose out of the morning fog like an island volcanic. It was lush and green and alive in the dance of light and shadow as the tide of sunshine came in, washing over the deadfall and around the massive trunks of the redwoods. In the mists, we could see individual rays trace through the air.

The air welcomed us as we opened the doors. Pine, pungent and sharp. Evergreen, it denoted; forever,or so the name would imply, they would stay, immune to seasons' passage. Event the bony redwoods had their own rich presence, faintly bitter and dark. Moist. Together, they evoked the feeling of eternal. Some of these trees were centuries old. They grew here since before our lives, and will remain long after we were but memories.

Dolores and I stood in the clearing at the base of the trail. Bark, twigs and leaves crunched and squished underneath. There was the hint of mold in the air, but it was pleasant. It was part of this place. In the city, mold meant air too moist, too motionless, too long. Here, mold was simply life. The morning fog became dew, and that helped the dead matter become part of the earth again.

I paused to wonder. Did a leaf have a spirit? Did every living things have a spirit? I grew up believing humans do; we have parts of us that go on after our passing, but what about leaves? Trees? If so, did those spirit remain rooted here, after their material vessels lived, died, decayed away? Were we walking through an impossibly dense wall of trees ethereal?

My thoughts were interrupted by my wife's hand on my elbow. Our daughter had started walking up the trail. We followed, my shoulders feeling more than just the weight of my knapsack. The sound of the leaves and branches underfoot barely disturbed the air. No birds sang, leaving the forest hushed and holy. At this part of the trail, the trees grew thick, branches low and heavy. The boughs seemed to absorb all sound.

She was a beautiful Eurasian mix - jet black hair with almond eyes, yet her face was soft and cherubic like my wife's. She was a happy little six-year old, quiet, exploring, and always taking in the world. She loved to see what was behind the curtain, what was over the next hill, what was in the bag. Life was an adventure to her. I envied her for her innocence.

May didn't move very fast. I had time and looked back to the clearing. A few gnarled branches gathered on a patch of dirt, as if awaiting a match. Undimmed by the intervening years, I could still see the skeleton of the campfire, the tent in the green sea. I could almost hear May's giggles and our bursts of joyous song. So many years ago; so many memories ago.

I tried to remember the happy ones.

I heard a gasp. I looked up. May had fallen. I saw the jeans darken, then redden. She had scraped her knee pretty badly. She cradled it for a second, then stood and continued. She was like her mother - strong in the face of pain. Too often, I wondered how we would be different had she cried out then.

We moved forward again, always keeping our daughter in sight. The trail turned, and sunlight spilled over us. As one, my wife, our daughter and I each raised our hand to shield ourselves from the dazzling glare. I lost sight of May, but Dolores didn't. She tugged me onwards.

Today was our daughter's day. Today, we followed her on the trail. We walked up the hill, her bouncing along in her light-blue polar fleece jacket and pink jeans, us following behind in somber blacks and blues. Oh, and forest green on my rugby shirt. She was happily skipping along on the flat parts of the trails, and huffing slightly up the more aggressive parts.

The last time we went camping, May and I led the way up the trail, swinging her stuffed Smokey-the-Bear between us. At the first bend, she said with the authority that came from the clarity of youth, "Smoking is bad for you. His name is Ranger Bear." She never let go of that bear all the way up the trail. I pretend to tire so she bravely tug me up these steeper parts. I did it all, the panting, the trembling, outstretched hand, all of it. She loved it. She may not have known it was a cliché, but she knew she loved it. That time, Dolores laughed, her song prettier than that of any bird's.

I looked beside me, at my wife. Her mind was some other place, some other time. Her face was set in a grim mask of plastic stillness. I knew the neutral set was a lie. Dolores hated having her emotions play across her face, especially now. The corner of her mouth twitched, her brow furrowed, but both only for an instant. She took in a breath, then all was as before. She allowed no fatigue, either physical or emotional, to surface.

The Hill was getting taller, steeper. Either that or we were getting older. May had that endless energy of childhood. She was six, and excitement fueled her along. She continued to tromp merrily up the path, never looking back, never stopping.

We kept up. I snaked one arm out of the backpack straps and slung it under my other arm. Working open the zipper, I offered my wife a bottle of water. She took it in hand, her eyes never leaving our daughter. I grabbed a bottle of my own and zipped up the bag, then slung it back onto my shoulder before tearing the safety seal over the cap, making sure to pocket the stray plastic leavings. As we drank, we walked. The empty bottles went back into my bag.

The trees give way to a flat patch, and from there, we saw the surrounding foothills. The other way, and we saw the city, tiny in the distance. We had a picnic there, the time I led us up this trail. Today, my wife and I stood at the edge of the plain as we watched our little girl look for her Ranger Bear. we looked on; we ate our sandwiches. My wife handed me back the empty plastic bag, and I traded her an energy bar for it.

"I swear, I don't know what happened to that bear." I whispered.

"I know, honey. She knows. Neither of us blame you." She replied back in soft, hushed voice. "But we have to let her look."

I nodded. This part was the hardest. I felt the weight of responsibility bearing down on me, driving me like a tent stake into the ground. May never once looked back this morning. Would it have been better to see the disappointment on her face? Yes. I would have done anything to see more than the back of her head. But those were the rules. We followed her, and she never turned back.

Dolores was staring off, looking at the view into the dense and rich greens of the foothills. Our angel started towards the other trail down The Hill. The bag of carrots went back into the backpack. Dolores turned back at the sound of the zipper's scratch. We crossed the grassy plateau quickly. I didn't stop to take in the view.

We stumbled clumsily down the trail, always keeping our daughter in sight. This trail must have been an afterthought. It was rougher when it was level, steeper when it wasn't. My wife with her bad back had a hard time keeping up with me and May. At one point, Dolores had lagged so far behind, she only had me in sight. I looked down the trail to our daughter, about ready to scramble out of my sight. I looked back up at my wife. She was bent over, panting. She waved me on, unable to speak.

We both knew where the trail ended.

The trail ended in a dusty, steep slope. At the bottom were rocks, carelessly strewn about. Amid them was May, lying there as if asleep. I was afraid to disturb the illusion. I didn't touch her. I stood to the side I knew would not show where her skull had deformed against the rock. Where I stood, she was sleeping.

I watched her like this, admiring her beautiful repose. Her arms were wrapped about her as if she were trying to warm herself. Her legs were half-bent, one over the other. One Scooby-Doo shoe came off during her last tumble. Her sock had a hole in it. Her toes were curled. Gradually, they relaxed.

I heard a scrambling on the trail. Dolores was lowering herself down it carefully, sitting and letting her arms and legs slow her slide. "Did I miss her?" she managed to get out, before succumbing to a coughing fit in the cloud of dust.

I shook my head.

"Did I miss her? What happened?" She was upright again, approaching us the same way as me.

"She hasn't gotten up yet. It shouldn't be long now," I replied, my throat tense.

I was wrong. It felt like it took forever. I swear I felt as old as the redwoods before she finally stood before us. All year, we waited for this, for the one moment when our daughter's ghost acknowledges us, speaks to us. This time, she held out her hands, one to each of us. I held mine up and out, careful not to have hers pass through mine. I wanted to prolong the illusion.

Dolores did too. She was crouching, and had both hands raised. One was just below May's hand, the other pretending to dust comforting pats just above the tiny knuckles.

"I lost my Ranger Bear. I left him at the picnic. Can you help me find him?"

I nodded. Dolores reluctantly let her had drift from where our daughter's hand floated. I was about to say something when my wife shrugged off her backpack. She unzipped it, and held up a new Smokey-the-Bear stuffie. May smiled, laughed and rushed forward to hug it. Her arms passed through the bear.

She asked the same question she does every year, "Mommy, what happened?" A year to think of an answer, but we had none. As she faded, all we could do was to recite the Parents' Platitudes.

"It's all right."

"We love you."

"Be a good girl."