Perhaps it was the relief of finding his family safe on his return, or of finally being able to sit down for a little while with no one pursuing and nowhere to go, but Einar found himself assailed by an exhaustion the likes of which he had not known for some time, barely able to keep his eyes open as Liz prepared a fire, and supper, and little Will kept excitedly repeating to him all the events of the past week there at the shelter. He propped himself up a bit higher against the wall, tried to focus on Will’s words, amazed at how many actual, intelligible words the little one was using. More than he remembered hearing before his departure, for certain. Amazing how quickly such things changed. Not wanting to miss any more of the process, Einar hoped his wandering days could be over, at least for a while. Sleep. It wanted to come, and he resisted, determined to stay awake not lose his place in the world just yet.
“How’s the trapline been? Many rabbits?”
Liz was startled to hear him speaking. Had thought him already asleep. “They’re not too abundant, but every couple of days I’ve been getting one. Not bad.”
“Spring’s coming. I saw it down there. Saw things stating to get green. Won’t be long at all, and we’ll be seeing the signs up here, too.”
“Oh, I already am! Less and less snow every day, and look at the aspens!”
Einar craned his neck to see out the door. Buds on the aspens, small but swelling, and he smiled. “We’re a little lower here than we were at the cabin. Will be interesting to see the differences, as spring really comes. Everything should come just a little sooner, a little faster. May have some different plants up here, lot of raspberries and thimbleberries in that downed timber, things like that. Saw a bunch of avalanche lilies down where I was, but when I went to start collecting them…” He shrugged, threw up his hands.
“When you started collecting them, then what? You changed your mind and decided not to?”
“No! That’s when the guys stepped out of the timber and I had to crawl under a log to keep from being seen.”
“What guys? What are you talking about?”
“Wildlife biologists I told you about. Guys whose tents are over on the rim. They’re the reason all these planes have been coming and going. Ran into them before, when I camped out near the moose after retrieving a little meat. Had thought I’d managed to leave them behind after that, but there they were, not twenty yards from me and right as I’d been about to get something to eat, too.”
“Well, you can have something now, and not to worry. I’m not about to let any bat scientists get in your way! They’d have me and my rabbit stick to deal with, if they were to try.”
“I missed you and your rabbit stick, while I was away. How about let’s try and stay on the same square of the topo map as one another for a while, if you can stand me. What do you think?”
“Sure, I can stand you. That sounds like a fine idea! Looks like Will thinks so, too.” She picked up the child, who had pulled himself to a standing position on his father’s lap and was balancing precariously with both hands entangled in Einar’s hair for support. Will protested, but not for long, soon fascinated with inspecting the sleek grey-brown hide of the rabbit whose meat filled that evening’s stew pot.
Einar saw that the firewood pile was small, wanted to fetch more so Liz wouldn’t have to interrupt her cooking to do the task, but when he tried to rise, nothing happened. Couldn’t get up, did not want her to see it so rolled to his side instead of continuing to try, bracing himself on one elbow and waiting for her to become occupied with the fire before again making an effort to rise. Absurd, this trouble. He’d just successfully traversed several dozen miles of very rough country with men at times close on his heels, and the notion that he would now have trouble simply raising himself to a sitting position in his own home struck him as absolutely ridiculous, unacceptable. And perhaps just the slightest bit frightening, had he allowed himself to slow down and think about what was going on.
No chance of any such reflection, however, Einar even then engaged in a rather intense struggle with his own failing muscles and sinews, determined not only to sit up and help Liz with the supper, but to prevent her noticing that anything was the matter. Success on the first account and a dismal failure on the second, though she didn’t let on that she had noticed. No sense making a big fuss. It wasn’t what he would want. Hopefully, he would want some supper. He’d said something about retrieving a section of the moose meat while he was out, but who knew how much he had actually eaten, or how many days might have gone by since that time? He seemed a bit unclear on the details. Well. Things could only get better from there, now that they were all back together again under one roof, the threat of the unknown for the time dispelled, named, categorized and eluded and life hopefully set to return to something like normal, for all of them.
Arms full of firewood, Einar stood for a time listening to the evening before heading back inside. Quiet there, wind in the trees, Will’s babbling from inside, the crackle of the fire. Good to be home. He swayed, pitching forward, off balance. Better get inside and eat, see if the food might make some difference to the way he was feeling. Needed to make some difference. If there was one thing he couldn’t stand it was to be useless, and he felt himself rapidly heading for that point. Could barely get his body to hold up under the weight of that firewood, let alone propel itself forward, and for a brief moment he was alarmed by the feeling of his own weakness, by the reality of it. Shook his head, kept moving. Had to keep moving. Had to get these thoughts out of his head, too. That was all they were. Thoughts. Had no more power over him than whatever he was willing to give them, and he was not willing to give anything. Not an inch. Not useful. Of course he could and would keep going, do whatever needed to be done. Always kept going. Was just weary from his long walk, from being away. Things would look differently in the morning, after he’d had some sleep, warmed up a little and…
Liz calling from inside. Supper ready. He took another two steps, spilled his load of wood beside the little fire pit and went to his knees beside it, stacking, neatening, all done for the time, ready to be home, to be still, to eat.