Liz and Will, alone together in the shelter of stone and snow, sat well-protected from the fury of wind and driven snow-swirl without, fire reflecting from the limestone that all but surrounded them and soon lending the place a fair amount of warmth, as well as its light and cheer. Einar had taken his leave before eating, had gone to face his ordeal in the snow, and though temporarily without appetite, herself, at the thought of what the following hours held in store for him, Liz soon took her portion of the soup and ate, sharing bites with Will and telling him lively stories of the caves they would find on the morrow, of the life they would begin there. The little one smiled at her words, laughing and pointing at the flames, “Fi! Fi!” The joy of discovery, of a life just beginning, and Liz held him close as the wind howled outside and darkness became complete.
Einar, never looking back, journeyed up and around the canyon’s bend until he could no longer make out the glow of the fire on the walls far above, climbed up some distance from the creekbed and canyon floor until he found a tee, not the familiarly twisted, blackened skeleton of a pine that had many time served him so well up at the dropoff above the cabin, but perhaps a reasonable substitute…
Later, hanging limply forward with arms behind him and the cold wind already noticeably sapping what little stamina he had left, Einar wished he had the strength to push himself farther, really test himself, do more, needed more, need to quit needing it, you big fool, or one of these days Liz is gonna be right, and you’re not going to come back to them.
Maybe. Maybe, he told himself, leaning into the ropes. But not this time. This time he had a cave to find, bag to haul, family to get established and on their feet at the new place, traplines set up and the entire area thoroughly reconnoitered both for potential danger and for the things which would sustain them for as long as they might end up staying. Difficult for a dead man to do any of those things, difficult—tried to flex his fingers, but couldn’t feel them—for a man with no hands to be particularly useful on the trapline, and as he had no intention of turning his back on his duties, he knew that night’s meeting with the ropes and the elements could only go so far.
Had come mighty close to going too far already, Einar realized with a start some minutes later, shaking from his head a bit of the cold-induced lethargy which long since had begun its steady advance, squinting into the darkness and trying hard to remember exactly in which direction the camp lay. Liz, he realized, had no idea where he’d gone, no way to find him should things go wrong and he find himself without the strength to get free or to make the return walk; had meant to do it that way, normally would have been little concerned about any potential consequences—the striving, the struggle were, after all, only genuine if endured alone and without the possibility of ready assistance—but this time he found a bit of doubt creeping in, a bit of question.
Which meant either that he was managing to keep himself a good deal more connected to the present than usually proved possible during such experiences, a good deal more aware of possible implications and of his duties to others—or that he’d finally gone soft and cowardly and was looking for a reason to end the challenge early. Thought it was the first, but by way of precluding the second possibility he swung to the side where the slope dropped sharply away, feet out from under him and the full weight of his body—what weight remained—supported by his bound arms.
A silent cry then—always silent, mustn’t let them hear—from Einar, eyes staring blankly up at the ribbon of star-sprinkled sky that snaked its way like the reflection of some ghostly river between the deeper darkness that was the canyon walls, and when things settled down some and he was able to start thinking again, using his mind just a bit, he was aware of a great weariness that seemed to envelope him even more thoroughly than the pain, a wish to be done, and to rest—meant that he wasn’t done yet, must endure until it passed. Which he did, struggling with the desire to free himself, to end, by whatever means necessary, whatever means possible—even talking, if that was still what they wanted, if only they would show up and tell him—this torment that seemed to be growing steadily less bearable, more than he could take. Took it, remained quiet, as always, time slipping past and Einar only occasionally fully aware of his surroundings.
Though seeing the thing through to the end he managed somehow, without really trying, to keep from slipping nearly as deeply as usually would have happened into the murky haze between past and present, the place where snowy canyon walls and high country timber always became ephemeral, distant, gave way to the steaming stench and humidity of that cramped little bamboo cage, and his real work began.
This time the jungle was out there as always, pressing in on him with an undeniable and inexorable strength and never far from the front of his mind—how could it be, considering the physical sensations to which he was subjecting himself?—but always before him, between himself and that reality, lay the sight of Mother and Son, warm together in the shelter of the rocks and awaiting his return. Must return, and at the end, when finally body and mind had stopped resisting the torment and demanding relief—a demand to which, for the exercise to be successful, he knew he must never acquiesce—he was grateful, breathing a prayer of thanksgiving as he lowered himself and lay face down on the snowy earth waiting for some circulation to return to hands and arms, for had he lost himself as thoroughly as he was used to doing in the jungle, he would almost certainly have passed the entire night in the company of that tree and the ropes, and might very well never have seen the morning…
Morning. Appeared, sky an inky, light-prickled black when he rolled to his back and looked up, that morning must remain at least several hours distant, and working to free his arms from their remaining wraps of rope he struggled into his coat—felt no warmth, only a lessening of the force of the wind; warmth would take time—glad that he would be able to return to the camp, and to Liz, before morning came and she really began to worry.
Standing, shaky, hollow-eyed and halting with lingering horror and fatigue but at the same time quietly triumphant and inexpressibly grateful, Einar headed for home.