Liz worked for a good hour out in the clearing, cleaning up the mess of melted pitch that had ended up splattered all over the place when Einar fell onto the rock containing it, finishing the coating of the basket and moving on to slice more meat for jerky and prepare the pieces they intended to smoke, later. Einar had brought the half dry chokecherries back out onto their granite slabs that morning to continue drying, and she checked them, turning numerous conglomerated cakes and sheets of the deep purple pulp to expose their reverse sides to the sun. They would, if the sun stayed out, be dry by evening, ready to package up for use as a most welcome addition to winter soups, stews and puddings. Good progress they were making, stores increasing as the weather cooled, but still she was seized sometimes by a creeping, pressing anxiety when she thought about how soon the snow could set in, cover the short tundra-grass of the basin and drift deep between fallen trees in the dark timber to slow their travel, drive the deer and elk down to lower elevations and cut them off from many of the resources they depended upon to keep themselves alive--and how soon after that the baby would be coming.
Working away diligently at the bear meat as Einar lay unconscious in the cabin, inexplicably unwilling to do the things that were necessary to facilitate his continued survival, let alone his recovery from the serious injuries currently affecting him, Liz suddenly found herself blinking back tears. It was too much, the baby coming, winter breathing down her neck and the man she loved suffering terribly if quite bravely nearly every moment of his existence, by all appearances not far from death but entirely disinclined to acknowledge the fact, let alone do anything about it. And they needed elk, besides. More than one elk, if they were to have enough hides to cover themselves against the weather while out on the traplines they would need to supplement their diet during the winter, and Einar was so determined to get them those elk that he didn’t seem to realize he was going to kill himself in his hurry to get done with camp chores so they could go out and do the hunting. How could such a wise and knowledgeable person be so very blind when it came to certain things? She didn’t understand it, and did not know how to remedy the situation. Any of it.
Kneeling there beside the cooling firepit she wept, head in her hands and the good soothing song of the aspens whispering above her until she’d done with her sorrow and was quiet, listening, and the words came to her, Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good; Blessed is the man who trusts in Him! Oh, fear the LORD, you His saints! There is no want to those who fear Him. The young lions lack and suffer hunger; But those who seek the LORD shall not lack any good thing…The righteous cry out, and the LORD hears, And delivers them out of all their troubles. The LORD is near to those who have a broken heart, And saves such as have a contrite spirit…and she thanked Him, dried her eyes, rose and went inside to prepare a poultice for Einar’s ribs. It was a small thing, but ought to help. And perhaps his current condition might just keep him still long enough to allow her to apply it…
Einar had not stirred, though it had not been for lack of trying. In his dreams he was aware of the press of time, the demands of the day and for a time he fought the darkness that held him so heavily pressed into the ground, struggling to cast it off, to get his eyes open so he could rise, but without success. The struggle had left him lying in an odd position from which breathing was even more difficult but too far gone to realize it or attempt to remedy the situation, so he lay drifting in and out of consciousness, soon held firmly in the grasp of a most unpleasant dream in which there was no doubt as to the reason for his breathing difficulties, arms and legs bent and bound behind him in a most excruciating but familiar position as his air supply was increasingly cut off, the struggle harder to maintain with each breath, the way his broken and bruised ribs seemed to be grinding and cutting into him each time he attempted to take in air, and then there was the cough. He’d tried to resist it at first, but feeling as though he was drowning, had finally allowed it to come, though it jarred the ribs and sent white hot pain through his entire left side every time. It was alright. He’d been there before, knew what it took to get through, knew you had to take it one breath at a time, don’t even try to look beyond that, or you’ll be lost…and he managed it, got himself just enough oxygen with each tiny, strained breath to keep going but he was tired, so dreadfully weary and he supposed, viewing the entire thing for the moment objectively, as if from a great distance, that it ought to alarm him somewhat, as it would have been so very, terribly easy to simply let go, such a relief…but he did not let go, and with the next breath the objectivity was gone, the merciful distance, and once again he was alone with the crushingly present reality of his own struggle.
Liz found him there face down on the floor in a terribly contorted position that could not possibly have been comfortable and very gently she rolled him over, avoiding his wildly thrashing arms as she sought to ease the strain on his ribs, allow him to breathe more easily, and it must have worked, for he stopped struggling, took a few big, relieved breaths and lay still, sleeping as Liz went about preparing the hound’s tongue poultice that she hoped might bring some relief and healing to his battered ribs. One of the pots that he had been earlier using to render bearfat still contained some warm water, and to it she added two large hands full of dried hound’s tongue leaves, crumbling them somewhat, stirring and leaving them to begin absorbing some of the water. Into the mixture she poured the strong willow tea she had made for Einar the day after he’d injured his ribs, knowing that while he had for reasons not quite clear to her decided to refuse taking it internally for this particular injury, he was less likely to object to its use in a poultice. If he even woke while the poultice was in use… Watching him as he lay fighting for breath, she was beginning to have her doubts.
While the leaves soaked Liz searched for something to use in binding the poultice in place, finding the cloth strips with which Einar had been at times wrapping his ribs but she had a better idea, knelt beside the rough little box where she had been over the summer setting things aside for the baby--wads of soft, clean usnea lichen for diapering, several luxurious marten hides, the mostly finished woven rabbitskin blanket--and took from it the folded hide of the bighorn lamb that she had so carefully scraped and brained and stretched earlier in the summer. The hide had the perfect, springy-stretchy texture of well-made buckskin, and seemed to her just the thing to bind the poultice in place. It was wider and more stretchy than the cloth strips, and would almost certainly be more comfortable. Never mind that she had been saving it for the baby; it would still be perfectly good for that purpose after serving as a rib wrap. Hound’s tongue leaves thoroughly softened and saturated in the warm willow water she took them in her hands, squeezing out a bit of the water and pressing them into place against the deer hide. Since there was no open wound, the leaves could safely be pressed directly against his skin with no need for a backing, and she hurried to get the poultice in place while it was still warm, hoping very much that if Einar woke while she was doing it, he might realize that her actions were friendly. Which, trapped somewhere in the dim grey uncertainty between dream and wakefulness, he fortunately did.
Someone had freed him, unbound legs and arms and worked them into more natural positions, gently rolled him over and seemed to be tending to his wounds, pressing something cool and damp and tremendously soothing to his side where the ribs were broken. None of it made make sense but he was reasonably certain of what was happening, the pain far less than before, and he smiled--enemy or not, such ministrations were acts of mercy, and he was grateful, would worry about their intentions and ulterior motives later--and drifted off into a deeper if still rather oxygen-deprived sleep, rest while you can, you know this won’t last… Liz stayed with him as he slept, stretched out beside him with her back against the wall of the cabin, re-positioning him whenever his thrashing left him slumped over in a way that hurt his ribs or impeded his breathing and praying for him through the afternoon as she worked on yet another basket.
Einar woke in the evening, just in time to peer out the open cabin door and watch the raven return from his day-long aerial wanderings, coming to rest in his favorite spot in the dead fir and giving Liz, who was busy gathering up dried chokecherries from their respective rocks, a tilt of the head and a few rasping notes by way of greeting. Seeing the entire scene through the door, Einar watched Liz with a hint of confusion in his eyes, wondering what had happened to the day, remembered their last conversation and reached up to feel his head, half expecting to discover there a lump the size of the end of her rabbit stick, but finding nothing…