Einar didn’t like it, the possibility of making another trip down to the valley that fall, especially after their near-disastrous sojourn to the ridge and--hunting season still in full swing--with chance of running into others seeming to him unacceptably high. He knew it was a bit inconsistent of him to deny Liz’s acorn gathering request when he’d just taken them to the far ridge and back in search of bighorns and elk--and returned with a mountain goat--but didn’t see that there was much choice.
“Acorns would be good, but we’re doing alright on protein and fat for the winter. Got quite a bit stashed aside in here, really, and I just can’t see the sense in our making a trip down there right now to the valley where all the hunters are bound to be. We’d be running a real significant risk of being seen or even followed, and you know what that could mean… Think for this winter at least, we’d better let the acorns go to the squirrels and birds and bears. Though it certainly would have been a fine thing to have acorn ash-cakes to eat with your winter stews and chokecherry-honey syrup and all. Next year. We’ll do it next year, when little Snorri’ll be crawling all over the place and learning to walk and can help sort and scatter and play with all the acorns we gather…” At which Einar went quiet and got a very faraway, sad look in his eye, seeming for a moment entirely lost in thought before taking a quick breath and scrubbing a hand across his face, pulling himself back to the present and looking up at Liz.
She was disappointed, had been almost able to taste the rich, thick acorn porridge they would have made to fill stomachs and give them a good start on cold mornings, the steaming pancakes and ash cakes and flat, dense loaves of almost-bread which they would have cooked atop the stove and spread thickly with jams and syrups of dried chokecherries and serviceberries and honey…but really, Einar was right. Too much risk involved for too little reward, especially considering the amount of foodstuff they already had stored away, its diversity and nutritional content. If they must have bread, she could make it from the starch of lily corms and spring beauty roots, and while it would remain a rare treat so as not to prematurely run them out of all things starchy, it would be a most welcome one. And it was good to see Einar thinking prudently, too. And thinking about the baby. Walking. Wow, he’s right. This time next year…
“You’re right about the hunters. With all the snow, they’ll be looking for elk to be down in the valleys, right where we’d find those acorns. Though you know, if we just had orange hats and vests to put on, we could head down there anyway and blend right in with everyone…”
Einar let his eyes wander from Liz’s rather prominent belly to his own arms where they were crossed all bony and hollow on his chest in an attempt to give his ribs a few moments’ relief, a slow grin creeping across his face, eyes twinkling. “Yeah, because nobody’d even take a second look at the half dead stick figure of a human critter and the Very Pregnant Lady wandering around together in orange vests and hats and worn out boots, frantically stuffing acorns into packs made of brain-tanned deer hide, now would they…? We’d blend right in.”
“Well when you put it like that…no! We wouldn’t. We’d make quite a sight. But with a little effort we could change that, blend in better, and I’m sure you know that a lot better than I do, me not being experienced in such things as you are. Or were. Not that I’m suggesting we try. You were right. Too much risk. Best to stay up here out of everyone’s sight and work on our parkas and snowshoes and all the other things we have to get ready before winter. Like the mountain goat hide. I guess it’ll be fine out there hanging in the stretching frame like we’ve got it, but the sooner we do the tanning, the sooner we can use it for warmth. I want to turn part of it into a winter vest for you, if you’ll let me…”
“Would be great snow camouflage, that’s for sure. Don’t know, though. Let’s get it tanned, see what we’re still lacking and decide then what it ought to be used for. Figure we can get a couple real good warm hats out of the leg areas, the kind with ear flaps and all that’ll really keep us warm out here when it’s well below zero and the wind’s blasting, although,” smiling at the thought, “after tonight, I ought to have that wolverine hide to turn into a hat, too. Like the one we had during our first winter together. Got an awful lot of use out of that hide, the two of us did. Maybe the wolverine’s pelt ought to be little Snorri’s first winter suit, though, rather than ending up as a hat for one of us. Seems a suitable start for a future mountain critter like he’ll be.”
“Yes, he certainly will.” After which they were quiet for a time, each alone with a variety of private thoughts as they saw to their work, sewing, twisting, braiding, preparing for winter, and beyond. At last, Einar spoke.
“Gonna finish one leg of these snow pants, then I’m heading outside for a few hours to bring in more firewood. Really want that woodshed filled and kept that way against the possibility of more storms, the birth of a baby, things like that…”
“Yes. Things like that do tend to happen this time of year! I’ll come with you. I’d like if you’d let me do it for you this time so you could stay in here and rest and be warm, but don’t suppose there’s any point in my even suggesting such a thing, is there?”
“I knew that. Will you at least let me wrap your ribs first, though, so you don’t run so much risk of re-injuring them lugging all those trees around? You’ve somehow managed to avoid ending up with pneumonia so far even with all the shallow breathing you’ve had to do, but that can’t last all winter if you go on doing things that keep the ribs from healing, and if you re-break them too many times during the healing process…aside from hurting awfully badly…you know they may never knit back together properly, and then…”
“Yeah, I know, then I die a painful and protracted death strangling on my own secretions and only barely keeping myself from drowning at times because I’m willing to deliberately breathe so deeply that I nearly pass out from the pain each time until finally I get too worn out to keep it up anymore, and the breathing just stops one night, and I leave you and the little one alone to face the winter…nah, don’t worry about that. I’ve spent the last…what’s it been now, three weeks, maybe…living that way and breathing that way and yeah, I’ve got awful tired and wanted to quit a time or two but I haven’t, and am not about to start now. And besides, ribs are healing. Starting to. I can feel it.”
“Will you let me see?”
Einar nodded, uncoiled himself from the heat-conserving huddle into which he’d got in the habit of settling whenever the position wouldn’t interfere with whatever work he was doing at the time, chin on his knees and chest pressed against them, and let her see the ribs. Which wasn’t difficult, the way they were protruding through the skin--another matter entirely, and one which Liz steadfastly refused to let herself think about at the moment; it was too discouraging and she really didn’t know what more to say to him on the subject--and she carefully inspected the area around the breaks, glad to see that the ribs did, indeed, seem to have begun healing back together. Still hurt him quite significantly she could see--though he didn’t react to her gentle probing and poking, the dead-calm stillness and distance in his eyes revealed to her the depths to which he was having to take himself in order to keep still and maintain that careful façade--but he was finding ways to live with the difficulty, was beginning to mend and, she could only hope and pray, would continue to do so. Einar was cold, Liz could see it even if he wasn’t about to admit it to her, and she draped the deer hide around his shoulders.
“Good. They’re looking good. I think you’re right--they’re healing. So if you insist on going after more firewood today I’ll wrap them, make things a little more comfortable for you and maybe help prevent you from doing any more damage.”
Einar’s ribs wrapped in the doubled-over deer hide but the rest of him not wrapped nearly as thoroughly as Liz would have liked--gonna roast in all these layers, the deer hide is plenty, and sensing his determination she had relented, though with temperatures well below freezing out there and Einar barely able to sit still for five minutes in the warmth of the cabin without beginning to shiver, she knew the wrap could not be nearly enough--they headed out into the bitterly cold early afternoon to begin the hunt for more firewood. By the time the sun began nearing the spruce-bristling horizon of the opposite ridge, they had filled the remainder of the woodshed, stacked up a good number of branches and small, time-grey trees beneath nearby spruces for later use, and returned together to the cabin satisfied at a day well filled with good, productive work.