A moment of confusion when Einar woke, the incongruity of Liz’s sudden presence nearly convincing him that she was the dream and the other--the place in which he’d struggled through the night--the reality, but she didn’t seem to be going anywhere, and when he tried to move his arms he could do it, reached for her and she took his hand. Einar let out a great sigh that hurt his ribs but he didn’t even care, gave Liz a big lopsided smile and let his head rest back on the elk hide pillow, flooded with relief and a great, wordless joy that seemed to more than compensate for the ongoing hurt of breathing. Been home all along…
Liz did not understand, but returned the smile, stretched out beside him so they could converse without his feeling that he must get up right away. “Did you get any sleep? I couldn’t tell. How was your night?”
Einar just shook his head and laughed, rested his forehead against hers and said nothing for a long time, marveling at the amazingly, entirely undeserved gift of her presence, words quite failing him. “Night is over. Morning is good. Good.”
“Yes, it is good. A sunny day coming up, it looks like, we’re back at home with nowhere to go and we’ve got a whole bear sitting here waiting for us to take care of. That’s what I call a good day! How are your ribs, though? It looks like you’re still having a pretty hard time breathing…”
“No, no…” He sat up just to show her that he really was doing fine, the plan only marginally successful when he had to clamp his jaw shut to keep from crying out at the hurt of flexing his torso. “I know what it is to have…hard time breathing, and this…I can do this. No problem.”
You had quite a night, didn’t you? I can see it in your face, that shadow in your eyes, though there doesn’t seem much chance of your telling me about it, and maybe that’s for the best, anyway. The sun’s up, no need to dwell on those things… “How about you sit here for a few minutes and try to get some good deep breaths while I fix breakfast, and then I’ll wrap your ribs for the morning so you can be a little more comfortable when you have to move around.”
A good plan, and Einar acted on it, leaning forward and concentrating on filling his lungs fully, four breaths as he had done the previous day, a series of four repeated several times, followed by a rest and more of the same. Didn’t seem to hurt any less than it had last afternoon--was worse, if anything, the entire area bruised purple and badly inflamed after all the untimely movement he had required of himself--but he was somehow finding the entire thing a good bit easier to take after the horror of the night. Had somehow put things in perspective, left him so glad to be where he was instead of in that other place that everything else was quite incidental. Except that they really did have an entire bear sitting out there, meat and hide hanging in in a tree and fat piled there against the cabin wall, and he had to plan how best to involve himself with the processing of the thing without causing catastrophic injury to one vital system or another. A real possibility, he had to admit, if he wasn’t wise about the way he moved. Free floating rib sections were nothing to be trifled with, no matter how ready one might be feeling to take on the day. Had better let Liz wrap things in place for a while, once he’d finished his breathing. Back to work, then. What happened to your sets of four? Worn out already? That sure won’t do, and you know Liz isn’t gonna want to let you help her with the hide if she sees that you can’t even breathe without a major struggle…not that she probably hasn’t already noticed…but you can do better than this. Giving it his best effort he managed to get a dozen an a half more full breaths--he was keeping count--before stopping, worn out and feeling a bit dizzy at the effort of it. Would certainly help, and for the moment, would have to do. Liz had finished adding meat to the simmering broth--that past night’s leftovers--that was to become their breakfast stew, sitting down beside him with a pile of cloth strips and a pot of slightly warmed berberine water that she had prepared, washing the bear-claw wounds on his back and carefully wrapping his ribs for the day. Einar thanked her, got to his feet and waited for his breathing to slow a bit after the strain of having his ribs pulled on and compressed by the wrapping process. He’d managed to keep still through it, but just barely.
“Ready to help me flesh out that bear hide, now before it gets too dried out and a lot more difficult to handle? I’m gonna spend most of the day rendering down the fat like we talked about, but need to get that done first…”
“What about breakfast”
“Ah, you go ahead and eat while I lower the hide and get started. Not really hungry this morning.”
“No, I imagine not, but you don’t really have a choice. Come sit back down and have some stew. You’ve got a lot of things that need healing right now, and how can you expect your body to do that very well if you don’t give it something to work with on a regular basis? If nothing else, you need the calcium. For your ribs. They shouldn’t have broken like that, not unless you’d been in a pretty serious fall or got slammed against something an awful lot harder than I expect you did by the bear in such a small, confined space as that, and you have to know it. I don’t like to get after you about this but I just hate to see you hurting so badly when it isn’t necessary and especially with winter coming so quickly and these injuries making you less able to…”
Einar was on his feet, back to the door, calm demeanor belied by a frightening intensity in his eyes. “I’m able to…”
She stopped him. “That’s not the point. Not what I’m trying to say. I know that you’re able to do what has to be done and you have a tremendous commitment to making sure it happens, no matter what it costs you. I would never question that. It’s just that we have plenty to eat now, have had for a couple of months but especially now with this second bear, yet I still see you shorting yourself at every opportunity, refusing to give yourself what you need to keep going, to get strong again, and I do know you must have your reasons and I care about them, but right now what matters most is that you be here for this child, and I don’t see you making as much effort as you could to let that happen. Now. Before I use this rabbit stick on you. Eat!” And she practically dragged him off his feet and down onto the log they’d been using as a bench, pushed the too-hot soup pot into his hands and sat down beside him with a determined finality that left him just as certain that she meant to carry through on her threat to use the rabbit stick as he was baffled about the possible reasons behind her outburst. Well. He could puzzle over that later. Figured he’d better eat.
Breakfast finished--Einar had done pretty well with his portion of the stew, despite a persistent nausea that resulted from the constant strain of breathing through the hurt of his ribs and his resulting shortage of oxygen--the two of them moved out into the sunny clearing in front of the cabin, lowering the bear hide to begin the demanding task of scraping from it every bit of flesh, fat and membrane in preparation for the braining that would render it a soft and supple source of warmth for the winter.