It was a good while before Einar got himself up and moving and into his clothes once again, taking the additional time to tightly wrap his ribs before starting out in the hopes that it would ease his breathing. Wished he could wrap them tightly enough to prevent the near-constant twisting, tearing pain of his own shiverings from affecting them, but could not seem to achieve that without preventing his lungs from usefully expanding, and eventually abandoned the attempt, satisfying himself with simply keeping the floating section of ribs from moving too much as he breathed. The rest, he could deal with. Had been doing so for the past two days, and it hadn’t killed him yet, though he had more than once thought it might end up coming close… Somewhere near to an hour it took him to make his way back down the path to the cabin--four hours per mile…not so good, but it was reality--having to stop and rest all too often simply to work some oxygen into his body and drive back the darkness that kept welling up to halt his progress and disorient him, which it had done more than once, leading to his looking up at one point to realize that he’d quite lost the trail and was wandering through a dense thicket of aspen-shaded chokecherry that he did not at all recognize, and it had taken him a good bit of additional time to locate himself and regain the trail. Crouching there in the deep, cool shade of the firs that over-arched that portion of the trail and wanting sleep so badly that it hurt, Einar had found himself wondering for the first time that day whether he had what it would take to finish the journey, short as it might be. Wished, just for a moment, that Liz might happen along and find him, walk beside him the rest of the way, but he quickly dismissed the thought--wouldn’t want to interrupt her day like that, she’s got lots more important things to do--chided himself for the moment of weakness and got as quickly as he could back to his feet. Not far to go. You’ll make it. If you don’t get lost again.
Liz was not there, but her bundle of willows was, leaned neatly against the woodshed as a clear indicator that she’d been back, but had left again. The cabin door remained barred and he got it open, blinking at the dimness inside as he stepped over to the stove in the hopes that she might have left him a note beside the one he’d left her, but his remained undisturbed, held down by its water-smoothed oval of granite. No matter. As long as she’d read it and understood the reason for his absence, the note had served its purpose. Liz had probably gone after more willows, and would no doubt be back soon. It was cold there in the deep shadows of the cabin, definitely not a place where Einar wanted to be spending too much time just then if he expected himself to be of much use, which he did, meaning to spread the chokecherries out on sunny rocks to begin drying before they fermented any further, and he stepped out into the sunlight of the clearing, shaking hard and swinging his arms in as lively a manner as the ribs would allow him, slightly disturbed that the walk had not seemed to warm him much at all. Felt like there was ice in his bones, cold water running down under his skin to instantly carry away any heat his body did manage to produce, and while he would on most occasions have found such sensations to be nothing less than delightful--a strange creature he was, no doubt, but very well adapted to his chosen environment--he was too weary at the moment to take much pleasure in being so chilled. Just wanted to stop shaking, and to sleep. Wasn’t time for sleep, though, it was time to dry chokecherries, and he stumbled about in the sunshine, scouting for the best rocks on which to dry their bounty of sticky purple fruit. Found three of them that were quite large and fairly level on top, a good start, and with much difficulty he hauled load after load of the sticky, oozing berries over to them, each time holding his breath as he lifted the heavily laden deer hide, stained quite purple by that time with juice, and he expected the coloring would be more or less permanent even after they’d washed it a time or two, adding, perhaps, a bit of welcome color to Liz’s world with the coming of winter and the fading of the bright-faced plethora of wildflowers that had lit up the warmer months.
Five loads he carried in this way, spreading the berries on the smooth, warm granite surfaces of the rocks and once pressing a palm a bit longingly to one of the berry drying surfaces, half wishing he could himself stretch out and absorb its warmth. The berry-spreading done and several long hours of watching and guarding ahead of him, Einar retrieved Liz’s partially assembled parka from its place up in the cabin rafters, settling himself in a sunny spot against one of the drying platforms and letting his breath out in a great sigh as the sun began soaking into his numbed limbs. Needed to make some progress on the parka, scrubbed the near-sleep from his eyes and picked up the stone needle he’d been using to join rabbit hides for the lining, ready to add another rabbit skin to the growing garment. Hands wouldn’t cooperate, his still thoroughly chilled core leaving him clumsy, stiff and certain, after several minutes of dropping the needle, finding it and unintentionally jabbing himself in an attempt to get started on the rabbit skin, that he was just going to make a mess of things if he insisted on trying to work like that. So he set his work aside and rested for the moment, chin on his knees and arms wrapped around them for warmth as the sun eased him towards sleep.
Had to fight the sleep. Couldn’t let those birds get their cherries. Didn’t have to fight for long, the sun loosening up stiff muscles and increased his shivering until he had to move in search of a position that allowed him better breathing. Couldn’t seem to find one, finally ending up flat on his back because in doing so he was best able to prevent his torso twisting and aggravating the ribs. Head shaded by the shadow of the rock and the rest of him sprawled out in the sunlight, he watched through half open eyes a raven float lazily on a column of rising air somewhere above the sharply-pointed spruce-tips, cocking its head and shifting in the wind as it appeared to inspect the purplish-black spread of berries far down below, critically studying the human form that lay amongst them, limbs scattered haphazardly, twitching and trembling on occasion when an especially powerful gust of wind found its way through the trees to scatter away the sun’s warmth. Lingering, watching, the raven moved on, deciding a landing not yet worth the risk. The human creature might be hungry. Certainly looked hungry. Or dead. Or would have, had it not been for the twitching. Perhaps it was somewhere in between, still deciding which way to go… The bird could wait.
Liz had, over the months, become a fairly proficient tracker, but it was difficult for her to distinguish Einar’s fresh tracks in and around the clearing from those made over the course of the past several days, leading her on a rather roundabout trail as she searched for the way he might have gone. Was finally able to separate out some fresh sign, recognizing the marks as reminiscent of the strange, shuffling way Einar had been moving that past evening as he attempted to avoid twisting his ribs any more than necessary, and following the tracks, it did not take her long to realize that he must have headed for the spring. After that things went quite a bit more quickly for her, the occasional scuff mark here and there assuring her that she was heading in the right direction and the situation at the spring telling the rest of the story. Einar had been there, alright, had been right there sitting in the water for who knew how long; several of his bare footprints remained visible in the mud at the water’s edge, and she could plainly see the spot where he had lain upon exiting the water. Where are you? Why didn’t I pass you on the trail on the way up here?
Liz was scared. She could think of only two likely answers to that question, neither of which presented a terribly hopeful picture. The first was that she had indeed passed him on the trail, but had not seen him because he’d chosen to conceal himself from her, and the second involved the possibility that he might not have headed home at all after his icy soak in the spring, electing instead to wander deeper into the timber, and she was on her feet, running, hurrying up to the twisted tree that stood stark and black in the little clearing at the edge of the dropoff, half expecting to see him standing there against the tree wet and in all probability frozen half to death in the wind that continued to sweep up chill and with increasing force from the basin. She breathed a little sigh of relief to see the tree standing empty and alone, briefly touched a hand to a worn spot on its trunk, shuddered and turned out of the wind, back down to the spring. You headed down, then? But I still don’t understand why didn’t we pass each other if you headed down, unless you were hiding from me. Why would you hide from me, Einar? What are you trying to do? It was a mystery, one she knew she’d never solve by sitting there at the spring, and with all the work left to do at the cabin that day and no idea of where to take her search for Einar, she made the decision to return home.
Moving down the trail slowly, listening, looking for any sign of a place where Einar might have left it for the timber, Liz could not help but see the bird, a good plump grouse that sat in the lower branches of a small fir not ten feet from her. She froze, and so did the bird, and the next time either of them moved the flurry of activity that ensued was quite confusing, rabbit stick flying, feathers scattering as the stick made a solid hit, and Liz didn’t even have to find the bird, which had ended up behind the tree, to know that she had secured that night’s supper.
By the time Liz got back with her grouse dinner and a rabbit she’d seen in a small clearing on her way down, the raven had landed and was beginning to pick at drying chokecherries on the rock beside which Einar lay.