That day went much as the previous on the trapline, Einar taking five muskrat and setting several traps for beaver, besides, and with the exception of a little incident where one boot went accidentally through the ice—he’d been tempted for a brief moment to allow the rest of him to go on in, figuring he could use a cold soak, but thought better of it at the last second, remembering that he’d not brought many dry clothes, and without a fire had no way to dry his boots—the day passed largely without incident. Back in camp he fed the raven and ate the meat from one of the day’s fresh take of rat, huddling against the rock wall in a bid to escape the wind, sleeping bag around his shoulders as he sat on his heels. Wasn’t even remotely comfortable, as his seat bones felt as though they were bruising at the pressure, nothing covering them anymore, but he was too worn out either to know or to care, or to recognize the significance of a previously comfortable position suddenly paining him so.
Despite all the muskrat he’d been eating, Einar had continued to lose weight over those frigid days on the trapline. Simply couldn’t seem to get enough to keep up with what he was expending; that, and he supposed also that the sudden influx of fresh food combined with all the hard work and the cold must be speeding up his metabolism, increasing his need even further beyond his capacity to meet it. Whatever the cause, he knew he must find a way to halt the trend, before it halted him. Permanently. Had he possessed a way to measure his weight—75 pounds, and that wearing his parka and boots, and with a stomach full of muskrat and river water—he might have experienced some alarm. Ought to have, but more likely he would have felt nothing at all. Life was what it was, and he never had been one to fret over the particulars. Put more stock in results, and he was still able to work, trap, do what needed doing, and most of the time, that was enough for him. Seeing as this particular set of particulars was about to do him in, however, a bit of fretting might have been in order, but would have to wait, if it was to come at all. For the moment, he knew all his meager energy must be devoted to preparing a better shelter for the night, or all the rest of it would soon be a moot point.
Well below zero already and falling fast, temperatures were against him that evening, high clear vault of the sky splattered with stars whose silver light seemed only to make things colder as they blinked to visibility in the dimming sky, one by one and then in great legions as day tilted swiftly towards night.
What to do? His bed of boughs was certainly insufficient for the coming cold, had barely seen him through the past two nights and his initial plan to add more branches was appearing pitifully inadequate in the face of the rapidly advancing cold. Considered digging a snow cave but already the evening was well advanced, he terribly weary and without the right tools, knew the project was rather beyond his reach, for that night at least. He’d end up wet and exhausted and with no dry clothes to change into, and it would likely be the last mistake he ever managed to make. Which left him considering a fire, his previous resolve to avoid entirely such risks while down in the valley paling some against the odds he knew he’d be facing as the night went on. Couldn’t do it, though. Wouldn’t. Not much choice, then, and he knew he must hurry, and did, searching from tree to tree to find one where the snow had perhaps accumulated less deeply and he might have some hope of scraping it aside and finding a heap of good dry duff in which to bury his sleeping bag, and himself, for the night. Found such a tree at last, using his snowshoe to scrape down into the dry litter beneath it until he’d created a nest for himself, a space large enough to burrow in for the night. Muninn had followed—wanting more muskrat, no doubt—and perched himself up in the sheltering branches of Einar’s chosen tree.
Later, cocooned and shivering in his pile of spruce duff as the wind shrieked and howled outside and darkness grew complete, Einar’s thoughts turned to Liz, eyes softening as he pictured her where she hopefully lay warm and secure in their bed of bear hides, little Will beside her and a candle, perhaps, lighting their evening in the soft, quiet time before sleep. For a moment, he could almost feel her there beside him, insistent arms round the rigid, bony chill of his shoulders, holding, warming, but then she was gone, leaving him alone once more in the grip of the arctic night. Shook his head, drew icy limbs in closer to his body and huddled against a chill that he seemed powerless to effectively resist. Realized once again how greatly Liz’s attentive presence had helped to keep him warm—and more likely than not alive, too—through so many of the more frigid nights that winter, and rather than bringing the usual annoyance that attended such realizations—should not have to rely on others for so simple a thing as maintaining a livable body temperature as he slept—he found himself grateful, thinking of her with a tremendous fondness, and of Will…
He had so many things he wanted to give that boy, knowledge of the land and love for it, the subtle, sure-footed ways of the elk and mountain goat on high mountain trails that hardly appeared wide enough for a fox to travel, parts of himself, even, most of himself, when it came down to it, but there were other things he would just as soon not pass along, and the anger was one of them. Not sure why it had come to mind just then but there it was, a thing he seldom liked to think about, but there it was. Though he always did his best to keep it in check when in her presence, he knew it must in some way be affecting Liz—they never talked about it, but it was always there—and as the boy got older, grew more and more aware of his world, well, Einar did not want him carrying the burden of another man’s rage, times long past, things which in no way pertained to him, and as he lay there freezing, forcing himself to stay awake and flex already numbed, hurting hands and feet, Einar sought to plumb the depths of his own dark, murky soul, seek that anger out at its root and see if he might manage, perhaps, to leave some small part of it out there in the snow, not take it home with him again. Was it the things his enemies had done to him all those years ago?
38 years, come on, Einar, it can’t really be that, can it? Was he still stewing over having been hung from the top of that bamboo cage by wrists and ankles like a piece of meat, all his dignity stripped away—or so it had seemed at the time; he had not come to realize until much later that there is always dignity in silent resistance, no matter the circumstances, and doing all one can do, even if it is very little, to say “no, here I stand, whatever may come”—the pain at times more than he could bear, more than anyone could bear, only to have it, and worse, done all over again a few hours later when he’d regained consciousness?
Oh, he was angry about that, alright, when he thought about it, which he had hardly done for years and years after the fact, only recently allowing his mind to stray into such territory, at which point the anger he’d never really properly allowed himself to experience had flowed over him like a great flood…yeah, he was mad. Mad at them, sure, his long-deceased enemy, infuriated at his own helplessness in that cage, at the memory of it and at anything in his present life which might resemble it in any form, enraged at his inability to make things turn out better for Andy—yeah, he still saw it in the present tense, spoke of it thus in his mind, though it, too, was nearly four decades back in the dim and distant—and bitterly unforgiving of the possibility in himself that he might, just might have split when there was some chance, however remote, of his having helped Andy to freedom. Run from the torture and the pain and his own imminent death, a fact which, if true, could not be remedied…yeah, a lot of things to be angry about, but he didn’t really think that was all of it.
Worse, perhaps, than the things the enemy had done to him—they were, after all, the enemy; it was their job to be brutal and unrelenting, and he could largely accept that—was the way he’d been treated afterwards. His escape and the long, agonizing trek back to friendly territory afterwards, body failing him and strength nearly exhausted even before he’d begun, had, in some sense at least, been a thing of power, of overcoming, but once he was back and they’d finished getting him all patched up and had shoved him on that plane for home—quite against his will and despite his protests, formal and otherwise—instead of heeding his pleas to be allowed to rejoin the fight…done with you, finished, unfit, go away, got no use for you anymore…well, that had perhaps been worst of all.
Home. What was that? Not something he’d wanted just then, not with the war still going and boys he’d stood beside still fighting…and dying, and Andy—or Andy’s body, or Andy’s ghost; he had no way of knowing just then, and it wouldn’t have made too much difference if he had—still lingering out there in the jungle somewhere, awaiting his action…besides which, home simply wasn’t something that existed for him anymore, even if he’d wanted it. He was changed, cursed, marked like Cain as a wanderer forever upon the earth—Cain, who had killed his brother in malice, and though there had been no malice in Einar’s act, his desperate bid for survival, he oftentimes saw himself as no better than that first of murderers—and there was no going home after a thing like that.
Oh, the marks could be hidden, most of them, with enough effort, the scars concealed, and oftentimes he did conceal them; it had been years before he’d let his family see him in short sleeves, and by then, they’d learned not to ask questions. Often he meticulously hid all evidence of his scars in those first years back, simply because he didn’t want the questions, didn’t want to talk about it, but at other times—out in the Rhodesian bush, on some of the climbs he’d done after his return from that conflict and in day to day life on the job he’d subsequently taken—he’d been almost proud of his scars, had let them be there for everyone to see. They were the marks, after all, of a man who had survived, who had come through; that was something he had done, and it was a very powerful thing, the knowledge of which had more than once brought him through other, lesser difficulties which might have vanquished a man lacking similar experience and perspective.
At other times, he’d even added to the scars, putting his body through trials and torments equal to or perhaps at times even exceeding, by their very intensity and duration, those the enemy had perpetrated upon him, until sometimes he found himself having nightmares about those sessions nearly as frequently as about the initial events, the two things becoming entangled and intertwined in his mind, usually a good time, he figured, to back off some lest he lose his grip altogether and end up going over the edge, losing himself in the abyss. Or, perhaps he was already there. Things certainly did seem abysmal enough, at times… But with the rare exception of those times when he felt himself too close to that edge, to a place from which there might well be no return, he seldom backed off on the intensity of the thing, punishment, perhaps, for his failure to rescue Andy or at least to stay there with him and endure to the last, or perhaps simply a way to deal with the memories and sensations that sometimes came over him, get a grip on them and seize control before they could wholly engulf him and have their way with him as they sometimes threatened to do.
Or maybe—the most acceptable, sane-sounding explanation of the three, and the one to which he usually resorted when he found himself questioning his motives; the first, he knew, in which he was punishing himself, could not stand up to the test either of logic or morality if closely examined, and the second sounded dreadfully self-indulgent; not like him—maybe the entire thing really was simply his way of training and strengthening himself, an effort to render mind and body progressively more impervious to such assaults of the enemy should he ever find himself in a similar position, in the future. That was his favorite explanation, and one which seemed to him quite justifiable as a reason for his self-imposed torment. The reasons varied, though, as did the intensity of the thing; sometimes he’d go for years without the need to engage in such trials. Hard exercise, if he could get enough of it—climbing and running were good, but only if he really worked himself beyond the point of exhaustion on nearly a daily basis—seemed almost to do the same job and negate his need for the other, darker pursuit; those years on the trapline had been good ones, his time in that bamboo cage relegated, during them, to the dark shadows where it probably belonged as he got home each night nearly too exhausted to eat his supper and do the few simple household tasks he’d set for himself, before falling into bed. He’d hardly once during the midst of all that hard work felt the compelling need to suspend himself from his ceiling by the wrists and ankles until he had lost all circulation in arms and legs and had barely the strength to take another breath, or any of the other things, and that was good…
At other times, such sessions could be a weekly thing or even more frequent, leaving him to seriously question how long he could go on surviving his own treatment, but all he knew for sure was that it had kept him alive, that enforced reliving of the worst time of his life, had allowed him somehow to keep on making his way through an existence which would have long ago proven itself intolerable, untenable, quite a mystery…
What’s that, now? He roused himself slightly, shifted position and stared up at the black, starry sky. What are you talking about, Einar? What’s all this nonsense? This stuff’s not supposed to be talked about, thought about, analyzed like this…you’re gonna do yourself in looking too deeply at all this. Shook his head. Mind had been wandering. Must be getting cold. Now, what had he been trying to figure out? Right. Had been trying to figure out why he was so angry, so much of the time, dig the thing out by the root so he could perhaps leave some of it behind…only it was all seeming pretty pointless at the moment, pretty irrelevant, because he wasn’t angry anymore, was just cold, terribly, dreadfully cold and weary, missed his family, wished Liz was there…
The night went on, skies remaining clear and temperatures plunging to thirty below, thirty-five, forty…unusual, but not unheard of, and Einar did not wake.
Fire banked against the encroaching chill, Liz lay quietly in the bed with little Will that night, wide awake and staring into the darkness as trees shattered with explosive reports in the woods nearby. Sap freezing, and she knew it must be far colder than anything they two of them had yet seen in their time together in the mountains, a rare and deep cold snap for that part of the world. An anomaly. Unusual but not impossible, and though it was bitterly cold in the cabin even with the fire, they had plenty of wood, warm furs, fat and all the food they could eat, and would come through it just fine. She only wished Einar was there with them to share the warmth of the bed and maybe a pot of stew, could barely stand the thought of him down there in the valley, weary, no doubt, from all the hard work he would have been putting in on the trapline, more likely than not wet from his proximity to the river and likely short on food, also, as it seemed he always shorted himself still, even when there was plenty to eat. She prayed for him, for his safety and for his life as the night went on, for his safe return but all she heard in answer was the silence, the occasional snap and shatter of an exploding spruce.