30 June, 2015

30 June 2015

Morning, Einar up before the others, alarmed that he had somehow managed to fall asleep and stay that way for  a good while there in the bag with Liz; lately that hadn't been much of a problem, as his own shortness of breath would wake him after only a brief time of sleep, chest aching and a choking sensation gripping his throat until he'd concentrated for a while on getting more air.  Must be the extra oxygen that had allowed him a deeper sleep.  Not so good, not down here in this unfamiliar place which he'd given only a cursory inspection before settling down for the night, slipping, Einar, slipping, and this is how it's gonna end if you don't get a grip on things pretty quick here, somebody's going to come along and capture you all in your sleep, or see you and report it and the next day the choppers will come...  

Except that no one would have captured them that night, no one sneaked into camp unawares, for there was Bud standing guard just below a rock outcropping which overlooked the camp, and though still frustrated with himself for sleeping, Einar was glad of the man's presence, and his forethought.  Bud saw that he was awake, started down from his perch.

Quietly so as not to wake the rest of the camp, Einar joined Kilgore on the low ridge.  "Was there a plan here, Kilgore?  A destination?  Afraid I wasn't quite as present as I'd have liked to be, yesterday."

"You might say that.  Better now, down here where the air's a little thicker?"

"I get along fine with the thin air.  Always have."

"Yeah, you have, but no so much these last few days.  Hope you're kinda seeing that, now."

Einar growled something unintelligable, got back to his feet.  "Think we'd better be parting ways here pretty soon.  This would be a good place for you folks to start heading down to wherever you started from, go back to the canyon and collect the rest of your gear, let the three of us move on so we're not such a big group leaving a lot of sign."

"Speak for yourself, Asmundson.  Nobody ever accused me of leaving much sign."

"You know what I mean.  No matter how careful the individuals might be, the larger the group, the more sign left and the greater the risk of discovery.  We both learned that first hand in some pretty gnarly places around the world, you and I, on both sides of the tracking equation."

"Undeniable fact, that is.  We'll split off soon and leave you kids alone, but before we do that, I'd kinda like to see that you're in  some sort of state where you've got some chance of making it out here, pulling security, doing the hunting, traveling, all of that.  No skin off my teeth if you want to wander off into the timber and end things, but I'd hate to leave your bride and little one stuck out here by themselves, if that's the way it's gonna be."

"You know that has never been my intention."

"I do.  But it was almost a reality the other day, wasn't it, intention or not?  Intention is nice, but at some point, results are the only thing that really counts.  They're what's gonna count to that little boy of yours."

"Well, I'm still here, not going anywhere anytime soon, if I can help it."

"Right.  And I'm sticking around for a few more days to make sure you hold yourself to it."

Einar glared, but did not verbally object, too short of breath after the brief exchange to speak without giving away his difficulty; just one more thing for the tracker to hold against him.  So.  Looked like they would have company for another day or two.  Might as well make the best of it, and at the moment, that meant packing up camp and moving  on, so as not to be spending too much time in any one place, here in this unfamiliar country.  The others were beginning to stir, Roger crouching over the remains of the fire and Susan carrying Will on her hip as Liz prepared a cold breakfast.  Einar and Bud started down the ridge to join them.

After a breakfast insisted upon by Liz and Susan and enforced jovially but firmly upon Einar by Kilgore, the small party packed up camp and resumed traveling, Bud wanting to lose a bit more elevation before setting up a more permanent camp and Einar gladly going along with the plan, as the place where they had spent the previous night held for him a vague and not‐quite‐definable dread whose source he thought just as well not to stick around and discover.  Something about the terrain, the lack of a good lookout area, perhaps, or its proximity to some as‐yet undiscovered trail.  Good to be moving again.  He would find something better.

Anxious to be moving in the cool morning air, warming up, they quickly covered the space of half a mile, Einar beginning to realize, then, the source of his unease at the previous night's camp.  The waterfall they had spotted in the distance, while barely audible from the place where they had spent the night, proved itself not only to be a roaring torrent as they neared, but also to be rumbling and resonating in the rock in such a manner as to make it felt in one's bones.  Though operating at a frequency all its own, and far deeper than any manmade flying machine, Einar now realized that its resonance had been without his awareness putting him in mind all night of distant helicopters.

Though relieved to discover the source of his disquiet, Einar was very cautious about approaching the falls, pulling ahead of the group and watching, waiting, wanting to be certain no others were about whose presence the roaring might mask.  Satisfied at last, he approached the frothing, foaming pool at the base of the falls, mist rising to meet and envelop him.  Losing sight of Einar in the spray and thinking he might have found some path by which they could circle around or even pass behind the falls, the others followed.

Quickly shedding all but his shorts, Einar stepped over the narrow rim of mineral‐encrusted rocks and driftwood at the edge of the pool and into the water, Liz shocked at how different he looked from the last time she had seen him visit a waterfall, some two years prior.  Emaciated, skeletal, spider limbs  with joints too large by proportion and appearing as though they ought to have been incapable of supporting even his slight weight, ribs and spine standing out like features on a topo map, hills, peaks and ridges with valleys of sunken flesh between, bruised, battered.  But happy.  Ecstatic, almost, as he approached and stepped calmly under the torrents of falling water, snowmelt, icy, not even flinching as they first hit him, a force fully capable of knocking him from his feet and pounding him into the rocks, arms upraised and a childlike joy transfiguring  his face so that she could not help but want to join him.  But for the icy bite of the water which she knew awaited.  Went anyhow, picking her way cautiously across calcite‐whitened rocks and logs which proved to be a good deal more slippery than Einar's sure‐footed movements would have led one to believe.

Susan held Will while Liz went to him, went to bring him out before he could freeze or fall or lose consciousness and drown beneath that pounding deluge...but when she reached him, he took her hand, held it, and instead of leading him out, she stayed, joined him, regretting that she'd kept most of her clothes but knowing they would dry.

Will had  wanted to follow his father into the water from the start, but when he saw Liz wading out towards the falls he could wait no longer, squirmed loose from Susan's grip and she let him go, taking off his little moccasins and setting him at the edge of the water, certain that he would stop as soon as he felt its bite.  Wrong, and she had to move quickly to snatch him back before he went in too deep.

07 June, 2015

7 June 2015

Einar woke in the darkness very cold despite Liz being close beside him, breath coming too fast, too shallow despite their drop in elevation, feeling too weary to move.  He tried to slow his breathing, take inventory of the scents around him; nothing untoward, lingering smoke, damp spruce needles, the foreign, plasticy smell of Bud and Susan's camouflage tarp...nothing wrong there.  He lay listening to the night, then, all quiet, only the sound of  a soft breeze in the soon‐to‐be leafing aspen tips and  somewhere far in the distance, falling water.   Inside him though, something was terribly wrong.

That feeling again, that dull, bottomless dread that he'd known only a few times in his life, the sense that nothing ever would or could be right again...he'd known it in the jungle more than once, when he'd finally given in and talked; even though he hadn't given the enemy anything real, anything they could use, it had still been crushing, an end to himself, and here he was again.  He'd given in.  Tried to ignore the thoughts, go back to sleep, but there was no sleeping now.  He'd done this.  He'd broken.  Left the path which he'd believed himself meant to walk, taken an easier one.  Just for the sake of making things easier.  For himself.  Unacceptable.  Had to fix it, couldn't fix it, couldn't wander off and do the things he needed to do, not with everyone in camp and expecting him to be there in the morning, and suddenly he couldn't breathe, couldn't get his breath at all, wanted to run, had to run, but made himself keep still.

The moment of panic passing, Einar at last permitted himself movement, crawled out of the sleeping bag—wanting to stand but pretty sure that he didn't have the breath for it; no sense falling and waking everyone—past the still‐glowing coals of the fire, feeling their  warmth radiating upwards at him as he passed.  He shivered at the contrast, went on until he could feel the heat no more, back against an aspen and arms wrapped around his knees as he shook in the night chill.  It was better in the cold, to be cold, to have it seep down inside him.  Brought a certain quietness, a solace, an ability, perhaps, to refrain from taking his leave of the camp and seeking the harsher if far more effective refuge of the ropes.  Which he could not do that night, must not do.  They were traveling, and his absence—and his actions—would interfere with the course of their journey, perhaps put his family and their guests at more risk than that to which they were currently subject because of their lower elevation.

Liz found him some time later when she noticed his absence and searched the camp, felt the tension in his body when she touched him, knew he wanted to be up in the woods handling things his own way, as he had been when Bud had found him this last time...  She sat down beside him, tried to put her parka around his shoulders, but he didn't want it.

"What's going on?  Can't sleep?"

"Shouldn't have done this."

"What?  Left the bag and frozen yourself to an aspen tree...?"

"Come down here.   Agreed to come down here."

"You couldn't breathe."

"Doesn't matter.  I gave in.  Not ok."

"What's not ok is you getting yourself into situations where you can't get enough oxygen without losing elevation because you've been doing things that cause you to bleed so much."

"I know.  Ridiculous, isn't it?  But I don't know what else to do, sometimes.  You know, something was...taken from me back there in that cage, and doing the ropes, enduring through it...that's the only way I have of getting back what was taken, just a little of it, just for that moment, Makes me ...clean.  Justified.  Justified to go on existing for a while more. "

"But yesterday...the things you and Bud were talking about.  You know you don't need to stay in that cage anymore, and every time you go do the things you do with the ropes, you're putting yourself back there."

"It's how I go on living, though.  What allows me to go on living.   Even if I accept the things he said, and I do, intellectually...well I've got to do certain things if I'm to go on living. "

"But it doesn't have to be that way.  Does it?  Isn't there something else you can do instead?"

"I don't know anything else."

"You know Will, and you know me."

He was silent.  He did know them.  It ought to be enough.  But wasn't.

"Can you just let it be?  For a while.  I know you can't let it go entirely, but just try to set it aside, live here with us for a while and see what happens..."

Yes, he was willing.  Afraid, but willing.  Nodded in the darkness.  She took his arm, helped him up.

"Come get warm.  Come to bed."

He wasn't quite ready, got stiffly to his feet and stood for a minute, listening.  "I hear water.  A waterfall.  Do you hear that?"

She did.  "We'll go find it in the morning."

22 May, 2015

22 May 2015

A lot of things happened in fairly rapid succession, then, Einar wishing he could stop it all moving, have some time to think, trying, but everyone around him seemed to possess an urgency he could not quite understand, swept him along with their momentum and kept him going.  Roger and Bud soon had tarp tents and bedding packed up and ready to go, Susan working with Liz to gather up some essentials from the shelter and distribute recently‐finished jerky between various packs.  While Liz packed Will's things Susan sat down beside Einar and handed him a pot of lukewarm broth, kept reminding him to drink, giving him only short reprieves whenever he stopped, turning away, nauseated.  Difficult as it was he did manage to keep most of the stuff down, consciousness a slightly easier thing to maintain after he was finished. 

"Guess I must have been a little dehydrated," he told her, handing back the empty pot for the last time, and Susan looked at him strangely, one corner of her mouth turning down as if she might laugh, but she didn't, pressed another pot of broth into his hands, instead.

"Maybe just a little. "

Time missing, moving, not sure how or when they had left camp, but they were moving, Roger walking beside him as if assigned to do so—which, in fact, he had been—closer than Einar might have wished, but the man wouldn't seem to go away, kept speaking to him in words which made no sense to Einar.  He tried to answer, anyway, as well as he could, eliciting a suppressed grin from the the man, who apparently found his answers humorous but didn't want to let on as much.  Didn't like it.  Why was everyone acting so strangely, refusing to talk to him?  And, where was Liz?  He looked for her, finally caught a glimpse of her walking beside Susan some distance ahead, Will on her back.  Wanting to catch up, he increased his speed, soon outdistanced Roger.

After a time, seeing that Einar had no intention of being left behind, Bud said something to Roger, and the pilot stopped shadowing him so closely, gave him some space.  Einar was glad.  Not feeling too steady, and didn't want to others to see.  Better to deal with it on his own.

World was weird around him, strange and shimmery and dim, which, he could only surmise, must be attributable to the late hour, far too late to be starting out in search of a new camp, which they did seem to be doing.  He tried point out the fact, suggested that they wait for morning, but no one seemed to be listening, and then they were moving again, heading down.  Too fast.  It was all happening too fast and he didn't like it, and because no one would listen and he seemed entirely ineffective, just then, at communicating with words, he did the only thing he could think to do, and sat down.  Fell down, more accurately, for once he reached a certain angle his knees folded and he was on the ground, same results, would have to do.  For a while no one but the raven noticed that he was lagging behind, kept moving and left him there, which suited Einar just fine.  

Night was coming; sleep seemed a good idea.  He could catch up in the morning.  Except that they were headed down, and down meant danger, which meant that he must be with them.  Back on his feet then, still wanting to call a halt to the descent and still unable to communicate the fact, all his breath going to keeping on his feet and moving his body forward.  Through a supreme effort he managed to catch up to Kilgore, pace him for a while, delivering, at last, a firm whack to the man's shoulder with his hiking stick by way of attempting to obtain his attention.  Bud stopped, whirled on Einar and grabbed the stick.

"Hey now, what's this?  What do you think you're doing?  You're not the only one who doesn't care for folks sneaking up behind you, you know."

"Want to...stop.  Too fast."

"Oh, we're going to fast for you, are we?  Can't keep up?  Well ain't that a shame?  Push harder, you doggone lazy slacker."

Einar grinned, shook his head and would have laughed, if he'd had the breath for it.  "No.  Not the pace, the...just need to stop and...talk about what we're..."

"We did talk.  All done talking.  Headed down a thousand feet or so, where there's more air and you can get more oxygen into your bloodstream overnight.  All done talking.  Can talk after we make camp.  Now, on your feet unless you want a quick boot to the ribs.  Move." 

He still didn't like it, knew the further they descended, the greater became their chances of encountering others, but unable to effectively communicate this and seeing that Liz wanted very much to continue, he allowed Bud to push him along.

Einar kept going down, falling every ten or twelve steps, coming close to losing consciousness and having an increasing struggle getting up again.  Bud pulled him to his feet the first time, kicked him the third; Einar barely seemed to notice any of it, and Liz wished he would stop, wished there might be another way, but words didn't seem to be reaching him, so she kept walking with Susan, let the tracker do his job.  After a time not even the kicks seemed to be registering, Bud resorting to lifting Einar by the shoulders and bodily setting him back on his feet, ordering him to go on marching.

The end.  Everyone had stopped; Roger was already busy setting up his shelter.  Einar, freeing himself from Liz's grasp as she tried to guide him to a seat on a fallen aspen, insisted on making a thorough reconnaissance of the place before settling down for the night, squinting hard against the dizziness and doing his best to assess their position. Not too bad, brush heavy and no sign of recent human presence, other than their own.  It would do. Would have to do.  Darkness inside and out, trees fading into night on the high horizon and the deeper blackness which had been stalking him all day finally asserting itself, consciousness fading as he finished his survey of the place.  With Bud's help Liz rolled him into a sleeping bag, slid in beside him, relieved; rest, whether he wanted it or not.

12 May, 2015

12 May 2015

Einar sat where Bud had left him, knees on his elbows, staring into the remains of the fire and trying very hard not to lose the broth Liz had talked him into drinking. Sure wasn't setting well, but she had been so insistent. Wanted to be up and working, doing his best to catch up on the work he knew he'd missed out on while gone that day, but knew that to attempt such would mean to lose the soup, and probably to lose consciousness, as well. Was a mighty tenuous thing while simply sitting there, that blackness always at the edge of his vision, swirling, swarming like a flock of hungry black‐winged vultures, waiting, threatening to creep in and take over. The tracker stalked over and crouched beside him, stared at the side of his head until he startled at the feeling of another human presence, looked up, eyes taking too long to focus. Kilgore was offering him a knife, and Einar took it, puzzled, weighing the thing in his hand. A good blade, Kilgore's own.

"Why don't you just finish it, Asmundson?"


"Whatever it was you were doing up there."

"I did finish it. It's done."

"Yeah...for now. Until next time. You know where it's leading though, don't you? Can sense it, even if it isn't your conscious intention. You know that a fella can only lose so much blood on an ongoing and increasing basis before it sets up a lethal sort of pattern that he can't pull himself out of, especially when his system's already compromised the way yours is. You're there, man. Past it. So you might as well just finish the job, stop making your family watch this, day after day."

"It's not...I'm not..."

"Oh, don't go trying to make excuses and tell me how you're made of a different sort of stuff, strongest and most resilient fella you've ever met, and all, because I already know that, and I'm not here to dispute it. But you feel it, this time, don't ya? That solid brick wall limit, starin' you straight in the eyes. I can see it in there. See you staring back out at it and this time you're afraid, even if you don't want to admit it, 'cause you know it's gonna get you. Can tell."

Einar shrugged, handed the knife back to Bud. "Maybe. Not afraid, though. Not of death. Made my peace with that old foe decades ago, and there've been a bunch of times since where it should have got me, could have, but it just didn't want me. Took everybody I cared about, but it wouldn't take me."

"Been times when you wanted it too, haven't there? Plenty of times when you tempted it, set yourself up to dance on that edge, grinning into the abyss, just to see..."

A nod from Einar. "Sure. It's how I've lived. Only thing that's made me sure I really was alive, a lot of times."

"But now that it's looking like a sure thing, an easy thing and maybe inevitable...well, now you don't really want it anymore, do you?"

He looked away, eyes wandering up to the ridge where the new leaves of aspens reached for the sky in a riot of unbelievable yellow‐green brilliance, straining, bursting, exuberant with life, little boy with his own eyes and his mother's grace galavanting about with equal enthusiasm as he attempted to match the hopping course of the raven round the fire, and when he looked back at Bud, his eyes were misty, for he knew. Knew that for one of the first times in his life since returning from the jungle, he really didn't want it. Wanted to live. Wanted life.

Bud knew, too, but he wanted to hear Einar say it, knew it was a thing which must be spoken if it was to have any force, any staying power; waited.

"It's just...Will. I know it's out there waiting, and I'm not afraid. But if I've got any choice I really ought to stick around for Liz and the little one. Ought to make that choice."

"Yep. You ought to."

"Don't know if I have the choice. Anymore."

"I don't know either. Body's failing you pretty fast here. All you can do is try. You gonna try?"

"Not try. Going to do it."

"Ok. First thing you got to do, after getting about a gallon of water and broth down your gullet, is to lose some elevation."

"No, now I don't need to be doing anything that's going to put us at risk of being spotted, coming into contact with other people..."

"Now come on, Asmundson. No excuses here. You want to live, you need more oxygen. Breathing's not negotiable."

"I'm breathing, I'm..."

"Nah, take a look at yourself. Sweating, shaking, gasping for breath, skin somewhere between grey and blue after all that blood loss, and even if you can kinda hold your own during the day, what's gonna happen when you go to sleep and your heart rate falls by a dozen points or so? Might survive that, might not. Likely as not you just won't wake up."

"Oh, it's not all that bad, it's just..."

"Yeah, it is. It sure is, and if you want to live, you're gonna have to admit it, and you're gonna have to come with me."

"Can't leave here, Bud. Not for those reasons. It would be...selling out. Giving in. The physical stuff, I can resist that. Have always resisted it, and if things are getting a little harder, well, maybe that's just because I'm getting softer and need to make a greater effort."

"Hey!" Kilgore thumped Einar on the shoulder, nearly knocking him from his seat "You already forgotten our conversation? No, you can't go on resisting that way and expect it to work. You're dyin'. Body is dyin' and you need to make a different choice."

"It's all I've got. If I quit resisting, if I give in, even a little..."

"Then what? What's gonna happen?"

Einar couldn't answer, but his eyes belied the terror and anguish which came with the thought.

"See, that's the thing," Kilgore went on. "Of course you can stop 'resisting' in that particular way if you want to, just like you can descend to a lower elevation for more oxygen if you need it, and nothing particular is gonna happen. Least of all the end of your honor or integrity or any of the other things you fear. You're free, man. You can go anywhere on God's good, green earth you might want, for whatever reason you might choose, as you really ought to realize by now. You're not in that little bamboo hovel anymore, and you got to quit acting like you are. You need to get up, walk out of that cage and come on home."

Bud was offering his hand, but Einar wouldn't take it, looked away. "Can't. Can't do that. Andy's back there, I left him back there in that cage, and I can't leave him again..."

"Oh, but that's where you're so very wrong. Andy's not in that cage. He's been home and free with a perfect freedom for the last forty years, rejoicing before the throne of his Savior. I wouldn't presume to know what another man might be thinking, but can you really imagine Andy would want you stayin' in there, now? If he knew about any of this, I mean. It's time to come out. Time to come home. You're the only one still in that cage, Einar."

Einar did not immediately respond, face the same blank, hard‐lined shell which he always wore, but when the tracker again held out his hand, he took it. Bud pulled him to his feet, Einar shaking with cold and exhaustion and now with silent sobs that left tears tracing down his face; instead of trying to stop it he stood, unashamed, just letting it be.

03 May, 2015

3 May 2015

Einar looked confused at Bud’s suggestion, tried to rise, fell to his knees, gave it another go and this time succeeded, hoisting himself up and over one of the evergreen trunks.  Wasn’t sure how long he could stay on his feet, and movement seemed a rather unlikely thing with his body seizing up on him, all the major muscles cramping or on the verge of it, but he was willing to try.  Did seem about time to be getting back to camp.  He did not want Liz to worry, and besides—squinting up at the sun, which was close to disappearing behind the heavily timbered ridge— he’d lost nearly an entire day’s work to the jungle.

Movement hurt, result of the ropes and of the cramping brought on by electrolyte levels skewed by blood loss; his body did not want to move, but he took a certain satisfaction from pulling himself together and causing it to move, anyway.  Bud was surprised, though perhaps he shouldn’t have been, to find that Einar easily kept up with him when he set out for home.

By the time the two of them reached the ridge just above camp, however, Einar was really struggling for breath, not getting enough oxygen, gasping and panting, even travelling downhill.  Bud stopped, waited for him to catch up.

“How about we take a break for just a minute, let you catch your breath and maybe get cleaned up a little before we go down there.  You know, to keep the womenfolk from carrying on, the way they can do…”

A good idea, Einar thought, though he couldn’t really see too much wrong, a little blood on his hands, maybe, and he picked up a lump of crusty snow and did his best to scrub it away.  His shirt and jacket, set aside during the ordeal, had remained mostly clean, looked just fine where he carried them now, draped over one arm, and he rose to go, but Kilgore stopped him, suggested he might want to consider putting them on.  Seeing as it is still early in the spring, and cold and all, and that would be what most folks expect you to do…  Einar nodded, began struggling into the garments but couldn’t get too far, fumbling with fingers crusty with blood.  Another problem.  Thought he’d solved that one.  Got some more snow, tried again to clean his hands and then to manage the shirt, Kilgore finally buttoning it for him when his fingers proved unable.  Einar then wanted to check everything over again and make sure he’d got all the blood off so Liz would not be bothered, crouched, began again to scrub his hands with snow.  Kilgore, who could see that he was swaying and fading, starting to lose his balance and probably not too far from passing out, pulled him to his feet and continued down the slope.

Nearing dusk by the time they finished the descent, Susan stirring stew over the fire, Roger out collecting wood and Liz in the shelter feeding Will after his most recent nap.  Susan took one look at Einar, steered him over to a fallen aspen and pressed a cup of water into his hands, taking Bud aside while Liz hurried out and sat down beside him.

“This man looks like he needs a blood transfusion, Bud.  He’s white as a sheet.”

Einar heard despite Susan’s hushed tone, grinned, eyes flashing with a brief fire that told Liz he had a fair chance of being alright, appearances notwithstanding.  “Nah, I’m ok.  This is nothing that hasn’t happened before.  It’s normal.  Works itself out.  Just kinda takes a while, sometimes.”  Out of breath after those few words he sat with head down and elbows braced on his knees, hoping to drive away the gathering blackness.  Muninn, who had been watching the entire scene rather skeptically from a nearby tree—too many people for him, too many strangers, or semi-strangers, for him to be comfortable on the ground in camp—glided down to perch on his shoulder, rasping quietly and twisting a bit of hair above his ear.

“Well,” Susan gently scolded, “things might work out a lot better if you didn’t let this happen so often.  It shouldn’t be ‘normal.’  Liz, better see if you can get some soup in him.”

Soup did not sound very good to Einar, he finding himself nauseated at the smell of it and suddenly wishing very much to curl up on the crusty snow of the nearest remaining bank and sleep, but Liz was insistent, and he gave it his best effort.

Susan motioned Bud over behind their tent, lowered her voice further to prevent Einar's sharp ears from again picking up her words.  “Seriously, Bud, how much did he lose up there?  Do you know?”

“Not really.  Pint or three, I’d say, though it’s always a little tough to say when it’s all over the rocks and leaves and all, like that.  Always looks like more than it is.”

“He can’t afford that much even, I’m afraid.  I really think if we can’t talk him going lower where there’s a little more oxygen for a while, he may not pull through this.”

“Aw, you heard him.  Nothing too much out of the ordinary, bad as it looks.  Ornery old critter knows what he’s doing.  More or less.”

“You don’t sound terribly confident.”

“Yeah, this time I’m not.  He didn’t look so good up there.  Was really out of it, all grey and dazed and didn’t even realize what he’d done to himself.  Seemed surprised when I pointed out he was bleeding.”

“It’s the dreams, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, I figure.  Fella can get trapped in that stuff sometimes.”

“I know.  I remember.  With Bill.  We had a few really rough years there, after he got back.  But then somehow it seemed to fade, go into the background and only come up from time to time, for the rest of his life.  I wish it could fade like that for Einar.”

Bud shrugged, felt strange, somehow, speaking of the matter, but Susan wanted him to speak, and it wasn’t as if he usually had any trouble whatsoever finding plenty of words…  “Thing is with Asmundson, you know, I’m not sure he ever let himself have any of those ‘tough years’ after he came back.  Old buzzard never quit moving long enough to let any of it catch up to him.  But now it has, with the search, and being on the run, and his having to face some of these memories finally.  Maybe it will fade some, with time, maybe it won’t.  For some guys it never does.  Just got to give him time.”

“I’m not sure how much more of it he can survive, Bud.  Not like this.  Not with it getting worse every time, or seeming to.”

“Yeah, I know it.  Don’t know that he’s going to have to do that, though.  I’ve got an idea.”  

22 April, 2015

22 April 2015

With the smoking fire to attend and his body soon chilled and uncomfortable where it pressed raw-boned and un-insulated against the aspen trunk, Einar’s sleep did not last long.  Probably a good thing, considering the dreams which seemed to assail him as soon as his eyes began closing, bamboo ridges hard against his ribs, humid, stifling stench rising from the fetid water beneath his cage as shoulders and hips burned with an agony which seemed certain to tear the limbs from their sockets and the interrogator shouting, shouting, repeating his demands, adding weight to his prisoner’s back when the man did not speak, and the man, though Einar tried to break contact, send his mind off in another direction and observe the scene from a distance, was himself. 

More weight on his back, breath crushed from him, sinews tearing, he could feel it, tried to resist, lash out, failing, attempting once more to distance himself, but he could not; trapped in the moment he screamed, a wordless cry of animalistic rage, terror, and Liz held him, spoke quiet words, waited for his struggling to cease.  It did not cease, grew more violent, so she held him tighter, speaking his name, calling to him, scooping up a handful of crusty snow and pressing it to the back of his neck, his face, keeping at it until at last he stopped fighting, sank to the ground with forehead pressed tightly against his bent knees and seemed to sleep, trembling, exhausted.  Liz added a few sticks to the smoking fire, curled herself around him and tried to get them both warm.

Bud, Roger and Susan had been aware of the commotion, Susan wanting to go to Liz and help if she could, but Bud had shaken his head, whispered to give ‘em time to sort it out, and Susan had waited, glad when things quieted down. 

By morning, Einar and Liz having taken turns through the night adding wood to the smoldering fire, the jerky was thoroughly smoked and dry enough to pack away for storage.  They were up before the others, having spent a fairly chilly night out in the open, Liz preparing a breakfast of buckwheat ash cakes with some of the flour and other ingredients Susan had packed in while Einar began checking over the other jerky drying racks, removing what was ready and repositioning other strips to speed their drying.

Going about his work that morning Einar was beset by a strangeness which would not leave him, remnants, perhaps, of the previous night’s dream, everything seeming too loud, too busy, motions of those around him too quick and no quiet anywhere, even—or perhaps especially—inside him.  No getting away from it.  Busy with the jerky, checking, turning and removing it from racks as it dried and stashing it away he kept himself under careful control, tried hard not to let any of the strangeness show to their guests or even to Liz, and with a fair measure of success, but he could feel himself slipping, losing contact, becoming increasingly frantic and frenzied behind the deceptively expressionless mask into which he had disciplined his face.

Before the world could finish going strange around him and he entirely lose his place—and, incidentally, before Liz had time to serve breakfast—he slipped quietly off into the timber, knowing he needed to be alone.

Laughter in camp as Einar stalked up into the timber, Susan singing to Will as she carried him on her hip, Bud and Roger engaged in an animated conversation about some past adventure as they moved drying racks to take advantage of the soon-to-be-rising morning sun; quietly, Muninn left the lively scene and glided on silent wings after Einar.

Not until Liz set out her breakfast of molasses-smothered buckwheat cakes and called everyone for the meal did anyone—other than Bud, who noticed everything—become aware of Einar’s absence.  Susan suggested perhaps someone ought to go after him, but Liz, having some idea of the cause of his absence, insisted they let him be.  Not an easy thing for her to do, considering the way he had passed the night, and the strange distance she’d seen in his face that morning, but she knew that was the way it must be.  Muninn was gone, too; Liz knew he had gone with Einar, was somewhat reassured by the fact, and soon joined the others and did her best to enjoy the breakfast.

All day the little group worked, talked and stashed away batch after batch of jerky, a pleasant way to pass the hours, all things considered, but towards late afternoon Liz began to seriously worry about Einar, who had taken no provisions for a night spent out in the cold.

Bud finally went after Einar with Liz’s permission, found him high above the camp, pressed down between the trunks of two fallen evergreens, staring but not seeming to see.  Kilgore could see that something was not quite right with him, face unnaturally pale and blood smeared along one cheekbone where he’d apparently swiped a hand across his face at some point.  Bud hardly needed a close inspection to read the remainder of the story, wounds on Einar’s wrists and the frayed remains of  a length of nettle cord trailing from one arm telling him what the man had been about. 

The ropes were, Kilgore knew, Asmundson’s way of handling things when the memories got to being too much, a bit unorthodox, perhaps, arguably rather harsh, but the memories were harsh ones, and he had no grounds on which to dispute the man’s methods.  They’d kept him alive so far, even if sometimes just barely.  Only it appeared as though something had gone a bit wrong this time, the precise control with which Asmundson normally carried out these sessions perhaps failing him some, and now he was in a bad way, having apparently lost a lot of blood and not even realizing it.  The cords, Kilgore could see, had cut into his wrists and ankles, and his blood, depleted by lack of nutrition, had refused to clot as it should have done.  Bud sat down on a log at a respectful distance, pointed out the fact, and Einar, looking down as if seeing the scene for the first time, realized that he was right, that something had to be done.  He moved to rise, got halfway to his feet and slumped back down between the tree trunks, world starting to go black around him.

“What’d you do here, Asmundson?  Kinda lose track of things?”

Einar opened his mouth as if to speak, shut it again, uncertain how to form his thoughts into words.  The tracker moved closer, pressed his stocking cap to the most profusely bleeding of the wounds.  Einar watched him for a moment before getting the idea, taking the hat and applying pressure.

“It…ropes usually…kinda help get things back in balance again, give me some sort of…control over the whole thing, but this time…”  He shrugged, looked away.

“Didn’t work out so well this time?”

“Didn’t work at all.  I…instead of directing things myself and finding the exercise useful I just completely lost my place, ended up in the jungle with no idea of where I really was, broke the ropes, took off running and…”  he stopped, eyes looking wild and tormented in his white face.  “It’s all I’ve got, Bud.  Only way I have to manage things, keep on top of the memories and all the stuff that comes with them.  If I can’t rely on the ropes anymore, can’t know what to expect from them…”  He let out his breath in a great rush, looking empty, hollow in a way Kilgore had not seen before, and did not at all like.  “Well, kinda lost, here.”

“Yeah, Asmundson, you sure  are.  But I know the way back to camp, so what do you say we head on down there together?”

29 March, 2015

29 March 2015

Will diverted from his elk-stealing and the pirated meat recovered, work progressed on the filling of the racks, smoker soon full and Bud and Roger stepping away to lash together a third drying rack, seeing that they had more meat slices than rack space, as things stood.  Quite a supply it would be, by the time they got it all done.  The smoker fire they would not light until after dark, Einar not wanting to risk such a smoke signature by daylight and the meat, he knew, quite capable of beginning to dry all on its own, even in the absence of the warmth and smoke of the fire.  Wanting to prevent the raven from so easily robbing the racks, he began skewering the meat on spare willow wands whose ends he sharpened to ease the task, sticking these into the lashing which held together the racks.

Einar worked quietly beside Liz, each simply enjoying the presence of the other, no words needed.  Spring, things coming alive, budding, waiting, wanting to burst forth in a riot of green, new life reaching for the sun, and Einar felt it, too.  Wanted it.  Wanted life.  Was interrupted in his quiet musings by Bud, who had finished assembling his new rack and rejoined the group gathered around the current project.

 “So.  About comin’ down with us when we go.  Given it any more thought?”


“You’d be just what we need though, Asmundson, with things picking up momentum down there and folks getting serious about resistance to the way things are going, politically.  If you don’t think you’re cut out for leadership—a point on which you know the two of us disagree—you could always train.  Teach.  You know, like you did during your SERE days.”

“SERE?”  Liz asked.

“Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape.  This wayward fella of yours never told you about that?  About how he spent several years teaching after stepping away from his job with the travel agency, or wherever the heck he worked after coming back from Rhodesia?”

“No, he never told me.  Travel agency?  What…?”

“Huh.  Figured he would have told you.  Yeah, travel agency or something.  Sure did travel a lot, anyhow.  All over the world, real fast-paced life, five or six different passports...  Right, Asmundson?

“Don’t know what you’re talking about, Kilgore.”

“Ha!  That’s right.  You know nothing.  Nothing at all...  You know, for a guy who’s spent years on the run downing federal helicopters, blowing stuff up doing all manner of other unconventional and downright illegal things to avoid capture over that time…well, you sure do take that ancient Nondisclosure Agreement of yours seriously, don’t you?”

Einar shrugged, turned away before the tracker could see the hint of a smile that crept across his face.  Did seem a bit ironic, come to think about it…  But he’d never minded a bit of irony in his life.

“Well,” Kilgore boomed, “guess you’ll just have to ask him about it, sometime, since he won’t talk about it with us ‘intruders’ about.  But, back to SERE.  That isn’t a secret.  We can talk about that, can’t we, Asmunson?”

Einar shrugged again, set another completed skewer on the nearest drying rack and busied himself with filling a third.  Didn’t particularly like Kilgore’s line of questioning, this delving into a past whose details he did not always like to recall.  The tracker seemed to get the hint, for once, and let the matter drop, though Einar knew he hadn’t heard the last of any of it.

For the remainder of the afternoon the four of them worked away, all racks filled with elk strips before the sun set and a fire prepared and ready to light in the smoker as darkness approached.  Will spent a fair amount of time on his mother’s back and on Susan’s, adding his own lively commentary to the conversation as everyone worked.

Evening, smoker started, supper eaten and everyone retreating to tent and shelter, with the exception of Einar, who was taking the first watch with the smoker, adding wood when necessary to keep the process going through the night, and Liz, who after feeding Will and getting the child tucked snugly into the sleeping bag, decided to join him.

“So, tell me about these survival and evasion classes you taught, that Bud mentioned.  That sounds like an interesting job.”

“Yeah, it was an interesting job alright.  Was kind of refreshing after the jungle, and Rhodesia, and then the assignment I took after coming back from Africa, the ‘travel agency’ job Bud kept trying to get me to talk about.  It was awfully interesting, too, but at times felt like I was fighting another losing war, another one that the political powers-that-be had already decided we would be losing…  SERE was different.  I knew that each of those guys I helped to train would have a far better chance of coming through…well, a situation like the one I’d faced in the jungle, if they ever encountered such, after the training was complete.  That was something real, something solid that nobody could take away from them, and I was glad to be a part of it.”

“So, it was mostly survival training?  Skills like you’ve taught me, out here?”

Einar laughed softly, a sound like the wind in dead-dry oak leaves, nearly devoid of humor.  “Oh yeah, there was a lot of that.  Lot of other stuff, too.  We had to prepare them for what they would face if the evasion part didn’t work out, and they ended up being captured, too.  I was good at that part, because I’d been there.  The interrogations.  Too good, maybe, but nobody said so at the time.  In fact, I ended up running that part of the courses more often than not, because they knew I would keep it true to life.  We tried to keep everything very real, replicate situations as well as we could, prepare people…

“Your fellow instructors…did they know that part of what you’d been through in the jungle?”

“Oh, no.  Not sure I could have done it if they’d known.  At that time…well, think I was pretty good at keeping everything stashed away in separate little boxes in my mind, as far as the memories and my own experience.  Keeping it real separate from the present, almost like it had been someone else back there in that cage.  Was the only way I could keep it together, doing work like that.  There were people who knew, of course, which is part of what got me the job, but they weren’t the ones I was working with every day.”

“It was weird sometimes, because a lot of the training is based off of the experiences of people who’d been captured and held in various conflicts, interrogated, and sometimes that would get talked about, but I never let them know, never talked about my own experiences, though I’m pretty sure some of the guys must have guessed.  We did have to test the scenarios, we instructors, some of us standing in for the students to kind of get things refined and ready for them, and after a while I ended up being the one everything was tested out on, all these different…interrogation techniques, because everyone knew I could take it.  Would take it.  Interesting times.”

Einar…”  She was quiet for a minute, held him tight where they leaned together against an aspen beside the smoker tent.  “What do you think about all of that, now?  Do you think it was a good idea?”

“Sure it was.  Sure.  Was doing something worthwhile.  Just like I am now…”  And he was asleep.