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.

21 March, 2015

21 March 2015

The drying and smoking project had come none too soon, a fact which became obvious to all with the arrival of morning, a soft breeze rolling up from the valley and clear skies promising the warmest day of the young year.  Liz, rising early to get the fires going, doubted it had even frozen in the night.  Surely the elk would not have lasted much longer in its current state, for even with the hard rind which had formed on the meat over its weeks of freezing in the trees, the flies would soon have found it and begun staking their claims.  Time to finish the work of preservation, and remembering how hard Einar had worked for that elk, tracking it through the rotten snow of early spring and nearly losing his life to the elements while carrying back the first quarter through a snow squall, she found herself tremendously grateful that they had not lost any of the meat.

Despite the warming temperatures Einar had once again endured a rather cold night, results of his splash in the icy cave spring remaining with him and body still mottled purple and deeply chilled when he crawled out of the sleeping bag to join Liz at the fire.  As usual, he was far less troubled by this situation than were those around him, finding it, if anything, quite routine and not seeming in the least alarmed when his usual routine of swinging arms and stomping feet did little to restore circulation to his numbed extremities.

Kilgore was up, also, had been crouching against the trunk of an aspen some distance from the shelter studying a map, and soon found his way over to the fire, also.

“You kids sure do choose some high, desolate places to settle, don’t you?  Looks like this spot is right smack in the middle of one of the largest solid expanses of black, tangled timber this side of the Continental Divide, and that’s saying a lot!”

“Trying to avoid unwanted visitors.  Looks like we didn’t get out nearly far enough…”  Einar’s voice was dry, raspy, and Liz put on a pot of spruce needle tea to heat, hoping he would drink.

“Nah, you’re plenty far out.  I might joke about it, but you and I both know that it’s the only reason you’ve made this thing work for so long, this evading business.  They’d have had you years ago, if you’d insisted on hanging around the edges of civilization, sneaking into town now and then for the stuff you thought you couldn’t live without.  That’s how they end up getting folks, every time.  You made this thing work, you mangy old buzzard.”

Einar shrugged.  “We’re still here.”

“Right.  Yes, you are.  Which brings us to the point I’ve been trying to make, about how you really can expand your territory now, if you want to.  Give yourselves more room, more elevation variation and access to more game this summer, more berries and all the other food plants that make life so much better, out here!”

A slow shake of Einar’s head as he rose, left the fire and prepared to start the day’s work.  “Not got me convinced on that one.  Sure, they may have taken most of their resources off this search, but there’ll still be plenty of folks out there who would very much like to resolve this case one way or another, and no way do I want to take my family down there where they’re more likely to be exposed to that.  Looking like we may be pretty permanent residents of the high country, up here.”

A quiet little half smile from Kilgore, who was almost never quiet, and Einar might have realized its significance, had he been looking at the tracker as he spoke, instead of studying his own hands.  “Well, we’ll see,” and Kilgore joined him in trimming the previous day’s harvest of willow wands, lashing them together to make drying and smoking racks for the remaining elk meat.

Will was not content to ride on his mother’s back that morning, nor to be held by Susan as she worked, striving at every opportunity to go off on his own exploring, or, when no one was watching, balancing on his ever-more-steady legs and competing with Muninn to snatch bits of meat before they could be hung on the racks.   Finally both raven and little mountain man were shooed away by the adults as they worked to finish their task, Liz settling Will on a blanket in front of the shelter and providing him with what she hoped would be enough fascinating objects to hold his attention for a good while.

Some minutes later, everyone working quickly to get the job finished up, Liz realized that she had not heard from Will in several minutes, growing a bit alarmed and glancing around in search.  Not where she had left him, busy as he had been sorting, stacking and chewing on a pile of spruce cones on a blanket in the patch of sunlight just out front of the shelter, and Einar, seeing her dismay, joined in the search.  They did not have far to look, Einar putting a silent hand on Liz’s arm and pointing.  There on a bare patch of ground behind a stand of stunted, shaded little subalpine firs sat little Will, looking proud as could be at the size of the pile of elk strips lying on the ground before him, one dangling half -chewed and covered with slobber out of his mouth and the raven, even as they watched, landing nearby and hopping up to deliver his latest contribution to the top of the heap.  Liz wanted to rush forward and amend the situation, but Einar, shaking with silent laughter, stopped her.

“Quite a scheme those two have going, isn’t it?  That old vulture.  Now he’s got an excuse for his thieving ways, and little Snorri comes out ahead on the deal, because he’s got something real solid to sink those brand new teeth into.”

“Yes, raw elk.  Our son is teething on raw elk.”

“A lot chewier than the cooked kind, if you ask me.  Lot better for cutting teeth.”

At which Roger, Bud and Susan, who had paused in their work to watch the unfolding drama, could contain their hilarity no longer, and burst out laughing.

01 March, 2015

1 March 2015

The menfolk off on their willow-gathering expedition--this time, Liz could hope, the others would bring Einar back in good time should he stray and end up inclined to spend two or three more nights in the timber--Susan held Will and helped clean up after the jerky-slicing.  Far from being alarmed at the presence of additional humans when his world normally contained only two besides himself, Will appeared immensely curious about everything Susan did, following the motions of her hands as she helped his mother gather up knives, containers and the few remaining scraps of elk which had proven too small or too tough to turn into strips for drying.  Susan paused, handing him a feather that had been lost by the raven and smiling as his eyes grew large at the sight.

“This little guy sure seems to be doing well, doesn’t he?”

“Oh, he’s saying more and more words, walking all around the shelter and taking steps without holding onto anything, a lot of times, and getting into all sorts of trouble.  I just know as soon as the snow finishes melting out, he’s going to be running all over the place outside, just like his Dad.”

“And you?”

“Oh, I’ll be running around after him, no doubt.  After both of them.  In different directions!”

Susan nodded, let the topic go; had meant more by her question, wanted to give Liz the opportunity to speak, but she had spoken, and that was good enough.  Liz, though, knew what Susan had really been asking, waited until the older woman released the rather squirmy Will onto the patch of well-trampled and hard-packed snow in front of the shelter, sat down beside her on an aspen log to watch him play and explore.

“It’s the life I’ve chosen, you know,” and her voice was quiet, but resolute.  “May not always be exactly the way I would like it to be, but I knew it was sure to be a struggle going in, and I chose to be with him.  If he wants to stay up here…I’m in it for the long haul.”

“Oh, Lizzie.  I wasn’t suggesting anything else.”

“I know you weren’t.  It’s just that I’ve been thinking so much since you came, thinking of what our lives could be if we did like Bud proposed and came down, went someplace where the daily things would be just a little less challenging, and what that could mean for us.   So I was talking more to myself there than to you really, I guess.  Trying to remind myself.  It’s not that Will cares.  He’s happy anywhere right now so long as he’s with us, and as he gets older, he will be happy with what he knows, what’s familiar to him, I know that, and me…well, for the most part I enjoy our lives up here.  We have plenty really, most of the time, and I know we can go on providing for ourselves with hunting and trapping, digging roots in the summer. It’s a pretty good existence.  It’s just…I don’t want Will to have to grow up without his father, and sometimes when Einar disappears for a day or two the way he does, I get so scared that he’s just not going to make it back.  He fully intends to, I know, and so far he always has, but…well, you’ve seen him when he gets back from some of these things!  From sitting in the snow for a day or two, or whatever he does.  I try not to be afraid for him, but sometimes I just can’t help it.”

Susan put a gentle hand on her arm.  “Do you really think things would be much different if you moved down lower, like Bud was suggesting?”

Liz shrugged, a momentary look of desperation passing across her face before she regained her composure, reached down and handed Will his prized raven feather, which he had lost in the deeper snow at the edge of the clearing behind their log-bench.  “It would probably be worse, wouldn’t it?”

“I’m just remembering the last time you were at our house.”

“Oh, I’d rather not remember that.  How it was for him, I mean.  You’re right, I know. We’re better off up here, for a lot of different reasons.  Sometimes I just wish I knew what to do.  To make things different for him.”

“Maybe he doesn’t want you to do anything.  If things are going to be different for him…well, he has to want them to be.  That’s not something you can do for him, and I’m very sure he wouldn’t want you feeling responsible for the way he chooses to handle these things, either.  All you can do is what you’re already doing.  Just be there, treat him like a human being, be willing to listen to him when he wants to talk about any of it. I know you’re in a rough position, wanting to protect him but needing even more to make sure he’ll be there for this little boy…  There’s no easy solution, for him or for you.  But I do know what I’ve seen in him when he’s holding his son, watching him explore.  I see a man who will live up to the task, and who’s giving you all he knows how to give.”

“I know.”

With which the conversation ended, a rustling in the chokecherry scrub on the low ridge above the shelter letting them know they were no longer alone.  Bearing bundles of willows, Roger, Bud and Einar tromped down the ridge between islands of rotten snow, avoiding the stuff wherever they could so as not to leave any more sign than already crisscrossed the area.  To the women, it appeared they had harvested far more willows than could possibly be required for the construction of the single jerky-smoking rack, a fact whose reason became clear when they began picking up snatches of conversation from the returning trio.

“Gonna have to put them in under the trees so they don’t show up as big old weird geometrical shapes from the air,” Bud proclaimed, making a sweeping gesture at the nearby stands of timber, “but we’ve got plenty of room to do it.  Can have this whole doggone elk done in no time, two, three days at most, and you folks’ll be ready to be mobile again.”

“Always good to be ready.  No harm in being ready, but like I said, no plans to move on anytime soon, unless we have to.”

“I know it, I know it  But ‘have to’ can take a lot of different forms, especially out here, so we’d better be getting to work on that elk critter.  Even if you don’t go anywhere, the drying’ll keep the stuff from starting to rot and attract flies as these afternoons warm up. Unless  raising maggots was part of the plan, of course!”

“They have their uses.  Good for medicine if you’ve got a badly infected foot, good for food if all else fails, but no.  Rather have the elk, since we’ve got it.”

Relieving themselves of their bundles, Roger and Bud took a seat on the log-bench, Einar a bit slower to part with his burden, and looking more closely, Liz saw why.  While the other two had made the trip with little more than a few damp spots on boot toes and knees where they had crouched to cut the willows, Einar had somehow managed to end up drenched from head to foot in water which was already beginning to freeze in places on his clothing and in his hair as the sun san behind the ridge and cold settled into the basin, stiffening his movements and causing him to have to work hard not to shiver, now that he had finished climbing.  She went to him, took the willows and added them to the stack.

“What did you do, find a lake down there?”

“Better,” he grinned, knocking one stiff-frozen sleeve against an aspen to remove some of the ice.  “Found a little hollow in the limestone, in an outcropping we’d never even seen before.  Looks like it…might go in a good distance, might even turn into a cave, and…”

“And how about some dry clothes before you finish telling me?”

“Oh, these’ll be fine just as soon as I can…” whacked the other sleeve against the aspen, again scattering ice crystals, stomped around a bit in a barely-effective effort to begin restoring some flexibility to his pants, which had also begun freezing, “soon as I can get some of this…stuff to kind of…”

Roger, typically quiet and undemonstrative but under the circumstances unable to contain himself any longer, burst out laughing at Einar’s rather less-than-typical way of drying his clothes, Bud stepping in and offering to help the de-icing along with the help of a heavy aspen staff he’d picked up to help himself with the last half of the climb.  None of which was to prove necessary in the end, Liz shaking her head, hurrying away from the little group and starting a fire.