Morning, and it was not the sound of a plane that awakened Einar, but the much more nearby scuffling and scurrying of some small creature on the timbers that made up the outside of the shelter. Likely not large enough—he realized after a tense moment during which his hand closed around the pistol and he was about to bolt from the bed in challenge—to pose much threat to his still-sleeping family, and he relaxed, shivering in the morning chill as he slipped back down into the warmth of the sleeping bag. The intruder, he guessed by is sound, was something on the order of an ermine or possibly even a marten, though he doubted it would prove to be so large. Listening, drifting, Einar almost went back to sleep picturing the sleek white coat and bright, beady eyes of the ermine he believed he was hearing, but this near-repose was brought to a sudden end when the creature made its way inside and dashed most unceremoniously across his face.
Though out of the sleeping bag in a fraction of second and scrambling about the floor in search of the furry invader, Einar could only be thankful that the little beast had waited until he was awake to come calling. Would not have been a good way to be awakened, at least not in such a confined space as the shelter. Liz was very much awake, herself, by that time, struggling to find the candle and light it so some sense could be made of the commotion in the place. When finally she succeeded, it was to the sight of Einar crouched against the shelter wall with wild eyes and a very startled-looking ermine clasped firmly in one hand. Liz could not help but burst out laughing.
“You’ve certainly got an interesting way of coming up with breakfast! Where’d you find that little guy?”
“He ran across my face, that’s where! Heard him scratching around on the roof, and then there he was, leaving tracks on my forehead.”
She moved the candle closer, inspecting the ermine’s sparkly white coat, which had not yet begun to drop in anticipation of the summer months. “How’d you see to get him in the dark?
Einar shrugged, loosed his grip slightly so as not to risk suffocating the little weasel. “Didn’t need to see. Just…heard, and grabbed.”
“Like a bat. No need to see. Your father is a bat, Will! Did you know that?”
“Huh. Not the first time I’ve been called ‘batty,’ but never knew it was meant as a compliment…”
“Compliment? Ha! Well, what are you going to do with it?”
“With the weasel, of course! Is he going to be our breakfast?”
“Oh.” He inspected the ermine, its eyes still round and black and scared, but not so panicked as they had been at first. “Well, protein in protein, but he’s awfully small, isn’t he? And would eat mice that might get into our other food, if we end up staying here for a while…”
“Maybe a good idea to let him go and be mouse control, then. Not much fur on him, anyway. I guess it takes quite a few of those little critters to make any kind of warm clothing, doesn’t it?”
“Quite a few, unless you’re just looking for ruffs on mittens or hats. There will be chances to get ahold of other ermines.”
Weasel’s life thus spared, Einar held onto the wriggling creature for another minute so Will, who had been very curious from the start, could have a close look. Something about the way the creature’s pure white fur glinted in the candlelight really captured Will’s attention, the contrast between light fur and jet-black eyes enthralling him perhaps even more, and as Liz watched he leaned forward in a very slow, measured attempt to touch his nose to the ermine’s own tiny pink one. Liz stopped him before he could quite make it, concerned lest the creature feel threatened and decide to take a bite out of her son, but the ermine appeared nearly as curious as Will, himself, and more relaxed than it had been at any time since its capture.
“Think they kind of take to one another,” Einar observed. “Maybe the critter will keep coming around from time to time, and they can get to know each other better.”
“It looks like Will would really like that. Maybe he’s going to be like you. More quick to get along with and understand animals than humans…
“Huh. You saying I’m only fit company for the wolverines and grizzlies? Tried to tell you that before, when it wasn’t too late to do something about it, but would you listen? No, you would not. And now here you are, stuck out here with a wild man and a wild child and the ermines and wolverines and bears, living in an aspen hut on the side of a mountain.”
“Civilization is highly over-rated. And much too crowded. I like it here.”
“It is rather nice, isn’t it? Aside from that doggone plane, and any company it may be planning to bring today.”
“We can hope for quiet.”
“I do hope for quiet.”
Speaking of quiet, Will was far from it, howling his protest loudly enough to be heard on the far side of the ridge as Einar closed his hands around the ermine and moved to release it out the door. Einar stopped, gritting his teeth against the sound. “Hey, little guy. Any chance you could say that a different way? One that uses fewer decibels, for instance? What’s the trouble? You weren’t done studying this critter? I understand, but look. He’s squirming. Won’t hold still. Seems he’s getting pretty tired of being held onto, so how about we let him have some time outside, and finish looking him over next time he comes back? He will come back, I’m almost certain. But only if we kind of let it be on his own terms. Wild critters are like that, you know. Need to do things on their own terms, just like us humans do. Ok. That’s right. Gonna let him go now, let him slip out the door. You watching?”
Will was watching, howling stilled as he stared intently at his father’s mouth, studying the words as intently as he had moments prior been studying the ermine. How much he understood there was no way for his parents to be certain—Einar believed he understood a good deal more than most people might have given him credit for, at his age, and always treated him that way—but in any event he did seem willing to let the creature go.