Admiring, after a few minutes huddled shivering and nearly insensible in the blanket, the work Liz had done to improve the situation there in the little alcove, Einar rose shakily, bracing himself against one wall as he drank thirstily from the water that had dripped and collected in pockets on the plastic sheeting. Badly dehydrated after his arduous trip through the snow—didn’t take much to leave him badly dehydrated, those days, running as he had been on the barest minimum of nutrition and hydration needed to sustain life—he could easily have consumed every drop, but stopped himself after a few quick swallows.
“Better have some of this. Need to…stay real good and hydrated so you can give Will plenty to eat.”
“I had some earlier.”
“Have some more. Finish it. He’s counting on you.”
“You have some more, first.” When he refused she drank, frustrated but happy that he’d been willing to take some in the first place, and without her prior suggestion. Seemed like progress, him taking the initiative and doing something that might actually help to sustain his life. He needed more, though, and she solved the dilemma by leaving him with Will and hurrying out to the entrance, returning with a double handful of freshly fallen wet snow, which she quickly melted in a scrap of the plastic over her small flame. Plenty for both of them to drink, and she could do it again as necessary. Einar seemed satisfied with the solution, eyes smiling as he followed her movements. She had learned well, this mountain woman. Learned real well.
On Liz’s second trip out for more snow to melt—this time she took Will with her—Einar set aside the blanket, crouching over the tiny fire and inspecting his clothes. Pretty wet, especially now that the ice had been given opportunity to thaw, and the prospects of them drying out over that little flame were looking pretty dim. Standing, stretching out to nearly his full height before running up against the low ceiling and having to stop, Einar held the shirt against his torso, attempting to judge the work required to get it dry. He’d done it before, spent an entire night exercising in wet clothes in order to generate the heat to dry them, when fire had not been an option, but he could not do it that day. The effort would take everything he had left. He could feel it. Suddenly dizzy, he sat back down in a hurry. Would simply have to leave the clothes to dry as well as they could on their own—or, if circumstances allowed for the ongoing use of a fire, wrap them around hot rocks to speed the process—and shelter himself in the blanket, in the meantime.
There were so many things he wanted to do to make the place more habitable, hospitable, disturbed when he found himself genuinely limited by physical constraints he knew he ought to be able to shake off, resourcefulness of mind unable to translate into action. Have to do something about that. Should have done it long ago. Well. Would simply have to make the best of it.
Einar was trying very hard to make the best of things when Liz came back, himself having searched the area just outside the mine until he’d found a fir tree whose boughs had been more or less protected from the blowing snow, cutting a number of these and dragging them back to the little alcove, where he’d arranged them beneath the plastic shelter by way of insulation from the chill of the ground. The branches also served to give Will a warmer spot to sit and play, which he seemed to be managing very well despite the dimness, rolling a pine cone back and forth on the boughs and squealing with delight whenever he found it again after a brief loss. The little one thoroughly absorbed in his own little world for the moment, Liz again turned her attention to Einar, who seemed not to be warming very quickly, despite being out of his wet clothes. Getting her arms around him she tried to share some warmth, but he moved away.
“Hey, don’t…don’t waste…body heat on me. Not gonna be able to help you stay warm. I’m like a block of ice, here.”
“I know! That’s why I’m doing it.”
“You like…feeling of ice, do you?” He grinned despite himself, teeth flashing white in the near-darkness.
“No, I really don’t, especially! But we’ve got to get you warm, because I need you to help me keep Will warm tonight. We only have the one blanket so we’re going to have to share it, let him sleep between us, and it will only work if you’re not a block of ice.”
“Oh, I’ll just…kinda walk the…passages to keep warm. You two can have the blanket.”
“Walk the passages? Hey, I’m counting on you to help me keep Will warm. You can walk the passages tomorrow.”
He knew they would both be doing exactly that, before too long, a distinct lack of food and the inadvisability of burning a fire for too long in that confined space and without any way to know the state of the storm outside and its ability to cover their smoke meaning that they’d be relying mostly on exercise to help generate heat, as things went on…which, wind changing, smoke no longer drawing but building up in the little chamber to smother them, they found themselves resorting to far sooner than even Einar had thought would be necessary.
Each taking turns sitting with Will in the blanket while the other did anything and everything to get his or her heart rate up and generate a little heat, they exercised, encouraging one another and largely succeeding, as night fell outside, at holding back the damp chill of the place, but Einar could only sustain the activity for so long, finally stopping, exhausted, head resting against the wall. He was losing ground. Liz could sense it, could hear by his breathing that he was growing colder despite the movement, insisted that he get up and keep going a bit longer.
“I’m too tired, Liz. Just too tired.”
“You’re going to have to get over it. Just push it aside, like you used to tell me, and decide to go on…”
“Been doing that since we got here. Got nothing left to push with. Body’s all done.”
“You need to eat something.”
Shook his head, let out a hollow little chuckle as he slid the rest of the way to the floor. Didn’t need to remind her that they were all out of food…
Liz wasn’t giving up, taking him in her arms, lifting him, guiding him back to the pad of fir boughs, unwilling to leave him lying on the cold granite. “Let’s talk, then. Sit close to me and we’ll talk.”
“Save energy if I sleep. Want to sleep for a while.”
Valid concept, but she thought it sounded like a bad idea, in his current state of exhaustion. Einar wasn’t too excited about the concept of talking, found things a whole lot easier just then when he could let his mind drift and not have to think about stringing words together, but as it seemed so important to her, he agreed to do it.
Talking, Liz had to admit after a time, wasn’t going very well, Einar’s mind drifting, Liz waiting longer and longer for answers to her questions. At last, Einar nearly asleep and unable any longer to make any sense of her words, Liz had nearly resigned herself to letting him sleep when he pulled a carefully-wrapped packet from inside his vest, its plastic covering crinkling in the silence. She hadn’t even realized he’d managed to bring those documents along, but there they were; she recognized in the dim orange flame of the tinder-pellet he’d lit for light the faded, dog-eared pages of the transcript he had read and re-read so many times, half wished, as he began reading, that she had allowed him to go ahead and sleep. Might have been better than what was to come, especially if he began feeling too confined there in the dark recesses of the mine after a few minutes of reading and reflection, and decided that he had to go out into the snow for some fresh air…
“Is this your idea of a good way to keep warm?”
Silence for a long time, as he finished a page. “Yeah, and it’s working. Can you feel the heat?”
“You’re still shivering.”
“Better read some more.”
Which he did, but the tinder pellet was sputtering, going out, and unwilling to use the last one from his elkskin pouch, he was soon left staring into the shadows.