‘How is your foot holding up?’Cora asked me as the cleansing mists filled the stone room. The pills Rosemary had handed me must have kicked in as I barely felt the open wound anymore.
‘Can’t complain.’ I said, turning to catch a smirk on her face. ‘What? You know I can’t get it wet.’
‘Did you have to use a trash bag though? It’s bright orange. You look like a hobo.’
‘It’ll be even easier to see me swanning it up in the sauna then.’
‘Cora won’t be joining you in the sauna.’ Mum said as she finally opened her eyes after five minutes of sitting in the corner silent.
‘Why not?’ I asked.
‘Because she’s pregnant. It’s a risk for her to be doing anything that could harm the baby.’
‘So what will you be doing instead?’
‘A milk and honey massage followed by a facial.’ Cora chimed in. ‘Is it weird I can already smell the cucumber they’ll be putting on our eyes?’
‘You’ll be heading into the sauna and pools with the others. Be careful Aspen, those women are a pack of wolves when they get together.’ I had always thought something had happened between her and her family for us to never speak with them but Rosemary had confessed to them speaking through letter.
‘Why are we even here then if you’d rather drop dead than speak to them.’
‘We have to be here. Cora’s pregnant and I couldn’t deny them of meeting her. Come on Cora.’My mother rose from the stone seating and held her hand out for Cora as I watched her wearily get to her feet as her occupied belly heaved slightly. I’d heard the expression that pregnant women glow but had never seen it before until Cora. She really did seem to shine with happiness. I wouldn’t want to ruin this experience for her even if it meant getting one up over my mum.
The plastic bag wrapped around my foot crinkled as I walked alongside the pool. Through the blue lights of the pool I could make out the symbol of an animal placed at the bottom in black tiles. I didn’t give it much thought until I entered the spa room. A fogged up glass door closed slightly as I entered from my right. The muted cream walls absorbed the orange glows surrounding the sauna before descending into a cool blue where a long stretch of glass invited you towards what looked like an ice cave.
I could hear two women whisper from the sauna. Stepping over I bit the bullet and pulled the door open. The heat reached out to me first but it was the womens eyes that burned into my core.
‘Make room to Aspen.’ A voice said amongst the steam and pile of naked bodies. I grew even more self-conscious at my own defensiveness to wear a swimsuit. The stretched out legs and arms reeled into their wet bodies like tentacles feeling their way out the coral. I stepped in and found a spot closest to the door. The wooden panels stung as I pressed down trying to make myself comfortable. All sound and chats had been sucked from the room in my presence. Everything came down to how I handled myself here with the group. From how they would treat me all weekend to how they treated my family. Although my mum had likened them to wolves I felt that I was the mouse in the hen house.
‘How is your foot Aspen? It was quite a shock to see you fall down.’ A lady spoke out into the sizzling dry void. I spotted her sat beside the ladle and recognised her as the woman who welcomed us. Even in the intense heat her skin remained tight and unblemished.
‘It’s doing much better thanks. I can’t have it slow me down.’I could see her eyes scanning my features. It was like she was looking for the tiny similarities between us. ‘So I guess we are all related here?’ A few of the women chuckled as we continued to sweat out our impurities.
‘Some more than others.’ A lady I hadn’t met yet replied as another nodded.
‘Have we always had this place?’ I asked. The ladies eyes all moved towards the lady who had welcomed us here.
‘This house was believe it or not a place of God. A monk once lived here. He only had one passion that rivaled his love for God and that was hunting. Our ancestors, two sisters, helped with the cleaning and tended to his dogs. As one of the monks last requests he handed them the deed. We have ran it ever since and continue the traditions.’
‘Yes. Dando taught those two sisters the ways of the hunt. And those sisters taught their daughters and so on. They lived for the hunt much like Dando and we honour that. The hunt can bring many riches for those that brave the challenge.’ A few of the ladies nodded and a few kept their eyes on me. I wondered if they were trying to gauge how I would react. The whole notion of hunting foxes made me feel disgusted. Fairytales were often sodden in the blood of women.
‘You hunt foxes then?’
‘Not at all. That isn’t hunting – it’s a cowards game. Are you ready for the next step?’
‘What’s the next step?’
‘We’ve been stewing in here for quite some time now. Now we plunge ourselves into the ice. You’ll need to trust us.’
‘Why would I need to do that?’ I had heard of people running through snow after Jacuzzis in an effort to shock their bodies. The dry air was beginning to get thicker as I breathed in through my nose. The women rose up all at once and the great wall of skin trickled with sweat as it approached me. I rose up with them and opened the door. The cool air from outside the sauna welcomed me. The group of women hurried to the ice room as I purposely followed behind. My skin tingled with the freshness of a newborn as I watched the women gather around a small brick well. Surrounded by a large gathering of ice, two women took hold of the wooden white lid and pulled it off.
‘Whose first?’ One asked to the crowd as an Grey-haired woman raised out her hand for another to help hold her up as she stepped onto the rim.
‘There’s nothing to worry about.’ Rosemary said form behind me. I hadn’t noticed her in the darkly lit sauna, perhaps she was the one laying on her back row.
‘You’re all going to jump in there?’ They were mad and they were going to pressure me into doing it too. With one quick hop the lady pencil dived into the icy well. Before I could call out I saw the two women holding the lid clamber forward. In one quick motion they slid the lid over the top and closed her in. ‘What the hell are you doing?’ Three of the women turned towards me, instinctively blocking me from intervening.
‘Please wait Aspen. This is an old ritual we perform to bring out a deep sensory journey. The dry heat opens up your body and flows the blood. Then the ice snaps and flushes your body.’ A tapping came from inside the wooden lid and the women peeled it back once more. Open hands waited around the rim as two arms finally reached out. As the lady was pulled out and left to breath another took her place and more ice was poured in.
‘You will be next Aspen. Keep your jaw closed tight as you enter.’ The lady who welcomed us said.
‘And why is that?’
‘To stop you biting your tongue off.’ She smiled and Rosemary laughed. Three knocks touched the wood and the lid came free. The woman heaved herself out with her own strength and padded over to the towels. It was me next. I took off the plastic bag from my foot and edged towards the well. Ice sloshed back and forth over the deep blue that descended into black. I couldn’t make out where the bottom was but it couldn’t be that deep if these women stayed in it so long. Bandaged toe hooked over the brick like a hawks foot as I began to worry.
‘I just have to knock right?’
‘That’s all.’ Rosemary replied.
‘Okay then…’ I could feel my body trying to step back but I couldn’t not participate. These women were just trying to tease me. I plunged down with both arms clenched beside me. The water rushed up and sliced through my core. My arms shot out and hit the sides of the walls. Rushing up I saw nothing but black. Scrambling, I kicked my buckling legs out to find the floor but found no bottom. Ice slid into my mouth and lodged itself. I was a metal rod being struck; Ringing out painful vibrations. I sputtered out and slammed my hands against the stone. My legs continued to flap and shrink as the ice took hold of them. All sensation was beginning to recoil in. My feet were already lost. The fingered it’s way into my nose, threatening to slip inwards further. I slammed my hand across the stone again. The lid remained closed. I kicked my frozen legs harder and swung up. The fingers tapped against the wood. It wasn’t far from me. I could see nothing but feel the walls getting closer. Choking me. I spat the water from my face. Light breached through and hands rushed in, wrapping round my arms like molten chains, to pull me up. I sputtered for my breath as I saw a towel embrace me. Following the unseen person guiding me I finally sat down.
Breath returned. The rush subsided.
My thoughts gathered.
I wanted to do it again.