Nobody was to have the opportunity to become warm enough to melt that early morning, even had they wanted to. With winds continuing to blast the little plateau and snow being moved continually about, if not falling at a tremendous rate, it wasn’t long at all before the chimney was drifted over again and smoke beginning to back up into the cabin. Knowing immediately the source of the problem Einar was on his feet and headed for the tunnel, but Juni beat him to it, insisting that it was her turn. He would have objected, but Liz grabbed his arm and pressed a fresh pot of stew into his hands, steering him back to his seat near the fire.
“Let her go. Everybody has to play a part around here, and you can’t deprive someone of that. She’ll end up with cabin fever if she has to sit around here all through the storm.”
“Well, no need for that. Nothing keeping her, or any of us, from spending some time out in that gale whenever it takes our fancy.”
“I’m keeping you from doing it! Better a little cabin fever than frozen fingers or toes, or worse. It’s looking like the chimney is going to be a pretty regular chore so long as this wind keeps up, so how about we just trade off each time? My turn next, then yours.”
A nod from Einar, who didn’t especially like her proposal, but saw the sense in it. When Juni returned shivering and brushing snow from her clothes from a successful clearing of the chimney she was told of the plan, Liz’s turn to come next should a continuation of the task prove necessary. Which it did, storm continuing with a fury which left smoke beginning to back up again nearly every half hour, Einar determined to find a fix which would prevent such unfortunate drifting—as soon as the storm ended. In the meantime they took their turns at roof duty, Einar, the others thought, always seeming to take a bit longer out there than he need have done and coming in a bit more thoroughly chilled each time, but as usual this did not bother him too much, and Liz always had hot tea and a pot of stew waiting when he returned. It was a quiet, peaceful time, that morning was, Will waking in time to entertain everyone by crawling about the perimeter of the cabin interior as if in search of something, satisfied only when he found the beaver hide which had so fascinated him the day before, and in so doing settled himself beside it on the floor, commencing a new and perhaps even more detailed inspection of the item.
The three adults watched him, laughing—all but Einar, who could not see what was funny—and exchanging stories of times past, of adventures, climbs, hunting trips and of family. When Einar’s turn came he gave a rousing version of the trouble he and a younger brother had once got in while climbing a pair of tall, flexible spruces that had stood in the back yard of their childhood home and which the two of them had thought offered the perfect location for an amateur radio antenna. Needing to string the antenna from one tree to the other, they had each climbed one of the great spruces nearly all the way to their lithe, swaying tops, the young Einar swinging and tossing the antenna wire and his brother, attempting a catch, losing his hold on the tree and falling headlong from his position some forty feet above the ground… Only to become entangled in the wire, itself trapped on a branch only a dozen or so feet beneath him. Einar, seeing the plight of his co-conspirator, had hastily descended his own tree, hurrying to his brother’s aid and finishing the rescue just as their mother came out to call them for supper. A near miss, and probably not a miss at all, for she had hardly believed their breathless story about having been up there trying to snare a porcupine to keep it from eating the trees…
The story was so funny the way Einar told it that it took Liz and Juni several minutes to stop laughing, but finally they did, Liz wiping her eyes and glancing over at Einar, who was staring at the floor, appearing a bit confused at the extent of their hilarity.
“This is the brother you always got along particularly well with, the one who came to stay at your cabin from time to time, later?”
“Yep, Jakob. We always did see things in a pretty similar way, both growing up and later. Get along fine with my other brother too, and my sister…well, I guess things were fine between us while growing up, though she did have pretty different interests than us boys. Lot more interested in doing things with other people, all that social stuff that the three of us tended to avoid like the plague, whenever possible.”
“But things weren’t so good between you after you got back. With you and your sister?”
“No…no, that wasn’t a real good time. I wasn’t ready to be around much of anyone, really, and they didn’t know how to leave well enough alone. Brothers mostly excepted. And father, for the most part. Mother and sister…yeah, I guess they meant well, but they kept following me around asking questions about why I was doing this, or why I was doing that, and in a lot of cases I didn’t even know, myself, was just trying to get through the day and get my brain sorted out, and I didn’t know what to do with their questions.”
“What sorts of questions?”
“Oh, things like why I wasn’t eating, why I’d leave the house in the night to go sleep in the woods, that sort of thing. Started out sleeping in the carport out back, but then when they found me there and insisted I come in and use a bed like a proper, civilized human being…well, I took to the woods so they couldn’t find me. How was I going to tell them that I couldn’t stand it, the feeling of four walls around me while I was trying to sleep, bed under me blocking my ability to hear and feel approaching vibrations through the ground like I needed to be able to do, that it made me feel trapped and desperate and tended to lead to real bad situations when I woke in the night and found myself in such a way… Couldn’t tell them any of that, because they would have wanted to know why, and I couldn’t tell them why. Couldn’t talk about it. Didn’t want to, anyhow.”
“Didn’t you want someone to know? To understand?”
“No! I didn’t want to be understood, I just wanted to be left alone. They’d been told I was missing in action, and then when I turned up again that was changed to wounded in action, that was all they knew, no details, and I wanted so badly to keep it that way. So couldn’t talk about any of it, which made me not want to talk about anything much at all, so I didn’t do that, either. Some days I couldn’t seem to get the words to come even if I wanted them to—any words at all—others, I chose to be silent, but this bothered them too, and they kept prying and pressing, just trying to get me to talk. You can maybe imagine how that seemed to me. So, not a good situation at all.”
Liz appeared near tears as she moved closer, put a cautious hand on his shoulder and then, when he didn’t violently object, embraced him. “I wish I’d been there, then…”
“I’m glad you weren’t.”
She nodded—there was a bite to his tone, a bitterness which precluded further challenge to the notion—supposed he was right, but still wished it. Wished somebody would have been. “You eventually left though, didn’t you? I mean, before the time later when you went over to Rhodesia…”
“Yeah, about two months after I’d come home I’d finally had enough of their tampering—this was after they had a guy come out to the house to talk to me, try and talk me into ‘going away somewhere’ for a while—and I walked out of there in the middle of a snowstorm one night with nothing but the clothes on my back, and stayed gone for the next six months or so. Just went up the ridge back of the house, and kept going. Lost myself in the timber. Nearly lost my life a few times, too, but it was a good time.”
“What happened, to make you almost lose your life?”
“Oh, I was still in pretty rough shape physically, bad limp, left arm that didn’t work much at all, brain that tended to go absent on me from time to time and lingering effects of my time on the run in the jungle, so that kind of slowed me down at the start. And I didn’t have as much experience in the woods then as I do now. Had grown up in and around them of course, but that was different. Just camping out as a kid, spending sometimes a week or two on my own wandering the hills practicing skills or hunting, but never walking off with nothing and trying to make a go of it, in the middle of winter like that. Lived like an animal a lot of that time, just holing up under big spruces and undercut banks where I could dig through the snow, freezing over a tiny fire at night and coming real close to starving a time or two, before I got better at snaring squirrels. Ate a lot of usnea and roasted inner bark from pines and spruces during those days, filling but not awfully nutritious, but for the most part, I just didn’t care…”
“Didn’t have any contact with my family or with any other human for nearly six months after leaving. My family told me later that they’d thought I was dead, that I’d walked out into the snow to die, and was gone, and I was sorry they’d thought that, but at the time it had seemed like the only good option. Walking out into the snow, that is. Not dying. I didn’t do it to die, I did it to live. But they wouldn’t have understood that, I think.”
“No, I don’t think they would have.” And I—there have been times when I did not understand that either, haven’t there? That you go out there not to die, but to live. That you’re managing all of this the best that you’re able—though lately for whatever reason, you do seem to me somehow less and less able—and putting up one heck of a fight doing it, too. I may never fully understand, but I promise you I’ll keep on trying. Now though, it’s time for some more stew. Got to keep up with the stew.