In the morning, the raven was still there. Liz discovered it when she left the cabin at dawn to cut a fresh bear steak for their breakfast, sitting silent and alone on its dead-fir perch, and she wondered if it was waiting for Einar to bring the berries back out onto their drying rocks so it could have another taste. Tempted to go at the creature with her rabbit stick and add its meat to their breakfast fare she refrained, not entirely sure why, studying its sleek black feathers--iridescent when the sun hit them, but the sun was not yet up--with their white rime of frost from the night. Odd, she thought, that the bird should have chosen to spend the night out there in the open overlooking the cabin when the surrounding timber offered any number of far more sheltered spots. Reminded her a bit of something Einar might do. Fool bird. It would serve you right to end up as somebody’ s breakfast. But she left it alone, left it to live, to sit, and to watch.
Enjoying the quiet of the morning, sun just beginning to show on the distant ridges and a lively breeze rising from the basin, Liz decided to go after a load of willow and cherry shoots for the smoker Einar seemed determined to build that day. Wandering down towards the basin she collected a few willow wands here, a cherry stem there. While she could have taken a good bit of the willow from one spot she had no intention of doing so with the cherry, not wanting to kill off any of the stands that provided the abundance of fruit that they would surely enjoy through the winter in its dried state. Better to take the willows here and there, as well, avoiding any clear-cutting that would be easily visible from the air and wouldn’t much resemble anything a beaver, elk or moose would be likely to do. Moose. We’re way too high here for moose, but wouldn’t that be a lot of meat? And that hide, too! I’d been hearing about more and more moose sightings down in the valley over the past year or so before I came up here. Seems they were successfully re-introduced a few years ago and now are really increasing in numbers. We’ll be doing well just to get another elk or sheep or two before winter comes though, it looks like.
Einar, who had slept soundly after his good filling meal of grouse stew, was just waking as Liz returned to the clearing. He heard the soft, airy crash as she dumped her load of willows, a series of scrapings and scratchings as she gathered them up and leaned them against the outer wall of the woodshed. Head feeling heavy and limbs unwilling to move he lay still for a time listening to the sounds of the awakening day outside--the morning chorus of pipits and rosy-finches out in the clearing, a rising wind playing through the tops of the spruces and firs, setting the fall-yellowing aspen leaves to whispering like water over rocks--and contemplating the possibility of allowing himself to drift back off to sleep for a while. Wouldn’t have taken much effort. Felt like he could sleep for a month. The contemplation did not last long though, additional sounds from outside--Liz had forgotten at first that they needed to keep the smoking wood from drying out, was gathering everything up and taking it around to the shady backside of the cabin--pulling him out of his pleasant drowse and reminding him that it was high time to start work on the smoker. And finish rendering the bear fat, since presumably there had been no close calls with aircraft yet that morning, or surely Liz would have woken him. Not that she would have had to, at that point…
Better get a fire going in the stove, set some pans of water and fat to heat…can’t think of going after those elk we need until the fat is all rendered, or it’ll go rancid in the warmth of the afternoon…and then after that go build the frame for that smoker. Ought to have some little aspens sitting around here that would work for it. They only have to be heavy enough to support the weight of the hides wrapped around them, and twenty or thirty pounds of meat at a time hanging from the center, maybe forty. Won’t be hard at all to find some trees that’ll work. All of which was easier said than done, as he discovered upon first attempting to roll out of bed. Had, during the exhausted sleep of the night, almost managed to forget for a time just how much it hurt to move the top half of his body with the ribs all raw and bruised and swollen as they were, but he was issued a sharp reminder as he rose, breaths quickly returning to the shallow, rapid pattern he’d been fighting so hard for the past several days, and with limited success. His lungs felt tight that morning, congested. Not good. Reflexively holding himself rigid against the hurt he tried to relax, breathe a little more deeply, get himself moving. Wished for a moment he’d just gone on lying there, gone back to sleep. But only for a moment. Liz was busy outside, and it was high time he got busy, too. Crawling over to the stove he neatly arranged a pile of the little brittle-dry spruce twigs they kept for starting fires, set some larger sticks over them, stuck a wad of finely shredded aspen inner bark beneath the entire thing, and struck sparks. On his feet, stretching cautiously and balancing himself against the wall when he nearly fell, he worked to get his limbs to cooperate, to support him, managed it finally--glad I was alone for this one. Liz’d get after me for sure if she saw me like this--and stepped over to the stove, where he set pots of water to heat and stood shivering for a minute over the lively flames before heading outside.
When Einar walked out into the clearing, moving stiffly and not very fast despite his best efforts, the raven left its perch, glided down and made a wide circle around his head, almost as if in greeting. Einar nodded to the bird, which made another slow circle and rasped out a few notes before sailing off over the trees, presumably in search of its breakfast. Liz had been watching.
“Looks like that bird was just waiting around to say ‘good morning’ to you. It’s been sitting there since I got up, just watching the place and not moving.”
“Ravens are curious creatures.”
“I almost turned it into breakfast!”
“Glad you didn’t.”
Which seemed to Liz a strange statement coming from a man to whom everything from maggots to the fermented stomach contents of a bear appeared to count as wonderful and delicious gourmet food, and she was about to make a joke to that effect, but thought better of it, seeing that Einar appeared strangely subdued that morning, quiet, face shadowed, and she hoped he was alright. As alright as one could be, in his situation. She didn’t get a chance to ask him--not that she could have expected much of an answer--as he was already prowling though the timber in search of poles for the meat-smoking tent, working with a concentrated intensity as he found a small dead aspen and began striving to free it from its tenuous, rotten-rooted hold on the soil.