Most of the cordage they had left was of nettle, it being the most widely available plant with a suitably fibrous stalk up at their elevation, but Einar had saved a few feet of prepared dogbane fibers from the last time he’d collected it down in the valley, near the big creek where he’d spent a night watching the group of mountain goat-scouting students, what seemed like many months prior. Wanting to test both sorts in his quest to determine which would make the best candle wick material he prepared four inch long sections of each, taking a few minutes to twist the dogbane into two-strand cordage just like the nettle before calling the job complete. The cordage samples complete, he lit one of their remaining candle stubs and melted over it a bit of wax from their bee tree harvest, could have used drippings from the candle, but wanted it to be consistent with the wax they would use in making the fresh batch. Wick material coated and cooled it was time for the test, and he laid both wicks on a rock beside the stove, lit each from the flame of the candle. While the nettle cordage took off right away the dogbane faltered at first, nearly went out but did better once the flame reached wax. Both seemed to burn relatively well after that, neither threatening to go out and he concluded that while either would work, the nettle, which was far more accessible to them, anyway, made the better option.
As Einar crouched beside the test wicks watching them burn and trying to gauge whether there was any significant difference in burning rate between the two materials--not too late to go after more dogbane, should it prove to have an advantage--Liz took advantage of the flames to add a bit of heat to the dinner stew she had been soaking all day, jerky, berries, honey and fat, and by the time the wicks burnt themselves out, they were ready to eat. A quiet meal, Liz weary from the day and Einar still listening for that plane, his gaze distant and Liz having to remind him several times to finish his portion of the meal.
In the night the stars shone like a billion points of sharp, still light, hard and unblinking in the perfect blackness of the high altitude sky, wind whispering barely audibly through the fall-drying yellow of the aspen leaves and the slushy remains of the previous day’s snow growing crusty and solid as temperatures plunged. Tucked in warmly with Liz beneath the bear hide Einar sensed the change, heard it, ears picking out the faint cracklings and groans of the solidifying snow, and suddenly he was wide awake--hadn’t ever quite got sleep that night in the first place, having been too busy listening for air activity--deer hide drawn about his shoulders for warmth as he stood at the door, moonlight on snow and wind whispering in the aspens. Einar was happy, because he was no longer trapped. Felt his way back over to the bed and retrieved his boots, eased out of the door and away over the hard-crusty spring-like snow, away into the trees and up the steep slope behind the cabin, where several minutes later he stood breathless and panting on the overlook-outcropping, staring down at the cabin and its moon-bathed clearing, the acres and acres of steep, snow-encrusted timber that sloped away beneath it and, far, black, obscure in the uncertain light, the wide sweep of the valley quite a distance below. Fifteen hundred, two thousand feet lower. No snow down there. Too warm. Had melted during the day, perhaps even the first day, the day it had fallen.
Einar took in a long, slow breath, liking the sensation of the cold breeze whispering over him, the freedom of moving once more without restriction, without worry of leaving sign to be picked up from the air, and started at a good pace up the slope behind the overlook. Climbing, he thought of the valley, of the still-snowless expanses of grass that graced its floor, and of the elk and deer who had probably already headed down to its more friendly elevation, leaving behind the soon-to-be snowbound heights where he and Liz had decided to spend their winter. Foolish creatures, we humans. But we don’t appear to have much of a choice… For the better part of an hour Einar climbed, working to maintain a pace quick enough to warm him and pausing now and then to look out across the silvery-snow landscape below, and though he had initially planned to use the climb as an opportunity to reflect on the coming winter, and their place in it, he soon found himself entirely absorbed in the work of keeping himself going. Moving. On his feet. Finally, reaching a spot where his chosen ridgeline leveled out some and opened up into a fantastic, moonlit expanse of bare rock and snow, he stopped, turned around and stood staring down at the basin, its entirety visible from that height, every detail standing out in the crisp, shadowed contrast of moonlight and snow. A spectacular sight, and he stood for a long time studying it, heart and soul wrapped up in a wordless communion with the Creator of it all, thanking, praising--The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world--pleading, for their lives there were so tenuous, so small and uncertain a thing when held up to the enduring timelessness of rock and ancient, twisted limber pine and the whirling, vacuous vastness of the star-pierced sky until the glory and the terror of it all--creation-song; he could hear it, could almost make out the words--seemed to become one around him, within him, and he was not alone, and it was good.
Too long. Stood still for too long, and then stood there some more before he realized just how long it had been, and might well have gone right on standing there all night had it not been for the breath of wind that just then swept up solitary and uncharacteristically strong from the basin, and stirred him to motion. Was getting cold, tremendously stiff as the warmth of the climb finished leaving him and he found that the single deer hide draped around his shoulders was quite inadequate for the chill of the night, skin feeling all tight and crackly-shrunk against his ribs, the bones of his legs, fingers aching with the cold, and he figured it was time to be getting back, time, while he still had part of the night left for resting, for warming, and for sleep
Back in the cabin Einar left the door cracked for a time, inspecting the place in the resulting beam of moonlight as he got out of his boots and finding that Liz was still sleeping, hardly appeared to have stirred in his absence. Good. Seemed she was, if anything, sleeping more soundly as the baby’s time approached, not what he had expected but surely a blessing, as both of them could use the rest. As could he, cramped and crimped and nearly immobile with cold, but greatly relieved after his foray up the moonlit slopes above their little refuge, at peace, ready for sleep. Closing the door and barring it--still had to be cautious about prowling bears who, if not hibernating yet, would be wandering about eating at a desperate pace ahead of the more permanent coming of the snow--he cast off the deer hide and crept into bed with Liz, shivered himself warm under the bear hide there beside her, content, drowsy, sleeping at last.
Morning came like the coming of spring, soft breezes sweeping up from the valley to begin melting the lingering snow even before the sun hit it, and by the time Einar--still a little cold from his long night foray, liking the heaviness of the bear hide--became aware of daylight, the steady sound of dripping could already be heard from outside, as the evergreens shed their blanket of white. Looks like I’ll be stretching that elk hide today…