26 June, 2014

26 June 2014

Sleepy and something close to satisfied after their meal of squirrel stew, Einar and Liz sat near the warmth of the coals as darkness became complete outside and the cold of the night closed in, Will dozing on Liz’s lap after enjoying his own supper and Einar leaning back against the wall, eyes half closed.  He had, before Liz began working on the stew, heated a small quantity of water and broken into it two dried yellow Oregon grape roots they had previously dug and stashed aside for such purposes, carefully washing Will’s scraped nose and cheek with the resulting antiseptic solution.  The scrape would heal up just fine, he had no doubt.  Still didn’t understand Liz’s concern, supposed it must simply come with the territory of being a mother.  Which he was not, so perhaps he was not entirely equipped to understand.  No matter.  The little one would be fine.  Drowsy, dozy as he stared into the embers of their supper fire, Einar startled back to wakefulness when Liz spoke.

“Feels like it’s getting colder.  Do you think the snow will be more solid in the morning?”

Einar nodded, flexed stiff fingers over what remained of the fire.  Had thought he might well have been alone in feeling an increased bite in the night air as it crept in under the door, stiffening muscles and unsteadying his voice just a bit.  “Yeah, ought to help for sure.  Rotten as that snow was today, we’ll need a number of hours well below freezing before it will hold our weight, but looking like we may get that tonight.  Morning may be the time to run that trapline.”

“I hope so.  Another squirrel or two would be a good thing to help tide us over until things start melting out a little better and we can be more mobile.”

“I’ll give it a try, first thing in the morning before things have a chance to start softening up.”

“Oh, let me do it.  I know you’ve got to be tired from your trip still, and that way Will could spend some time with you here at the shelter, while I’m gone.  He missed his daddy while you were away.”

Einar smiled at the sleeping boy.  “Sure, I’ll spend some time with him tomorrow.  But how about if it’s after I do the snares?  That snow isn’t going to be any too certain, as far as allowing one of us to pass without collapsing here and there, and I think I may weight just a little less.”

“A little!  You certainly do underestimate things, don’t you?  Ok, guess it makes sense for you to go, so long as you’ll eat plenty of whatever you may find in those snares, so you can start working your way back up to weighing a more reasonable amount.  Is it a deal?”

“Oh, I intend to eat.  Got to keep going.”

Satisfied about the sincerity of Einar’s intentions, Liz began preparing for bed.

Awakened in the night by the need to reposition knees, elbows and ribs in such a way as to ease the painful pressing of bone on bone which seemed with increasing frequency to disturbed his sleep those days, Einar lay listening to the night.  Still, silent, only the faintest whisper of a
Breeze through the spruce-tops, and reassured by the quiet, he might have tried for a few more hours’ sleep, but instead lay wide awake testing the air with his nose and attempting thus to roughly determine the outdoor temperature.  Somewhere below freezing, he was pretty sure, though how far below he was finding difficult to determine from inside the shelter.  Far enough, he hoped, to have caused the rotten snow to form a hard crust which would support his weight, allow him to travel a little more easily without sinking in up to his hips with every step.  In addition to being dreadfully inefficient, energy-wise, such movement left a great deal of highly visible sign should anyone fly over before either the next big snow had come along to conceal it, or all the snow had finished melting out.

Unable to relax again into sleep at the thought that he would be wasting his opportunity to get out on some more stable snow—was still not comfortable; seemed to be no position in which he could lie where some part of him was not digging into another and hurting rather insistently after a few minutes, and he didn’t know how Liz could stand to be near him when they slept, for surely he must make her uncomfortable, also—Einar after some minutes eased out of the sleeping bags, doing his best not to disturb Liz and grabbing his boots before slipping out the door.  Definitely below freezing out there, Einar somewhat surprised at the efficiency of their shelter in maintaining a temperature significantly higher than that of the outdoors, even though the fire had been cold for hours.  Overhead the stars arced brilliant and unblinking above a softly swaying curtain of spruce boughs, looking almost close enough to touch and shedding enough light, once Einar moved out from beneath the trees, for him to travel without stumbling.  A good thing, for the snow, though cold-crusted and solid underfoot, was riddled with pitfalls and uneven spots where the actions of sun and nearby stones or fallen trees had accelerated the melting process, and even with the starlight, it was all Einar could do to stay on his feet.

Picking his way over the crusty snow and striving to avoid spots which would have been shaded by evergreens most days and not sun-softened so they could later form a crust in the cold, Einar headed up the ridge on which lay the snares, hoping to be able to bring home a squirrel or rabbit for breakfast.

21 June, 2014

21 June 2014

Skinning out the squirrel and hoping all the while his snares might procure another before suppertime--these alpine squirrels, even at the height of growth and good health, were not terribly large--Einar found himself daydreaming of the bacon and other things he’d seen in the coolers in the bat biologists’ camp…and then something perhaps a bit more obtainable, for his thoughts turned to that last grouse they’d had, roasted over the fire until crispy on the outside and steaming most deliciously when finally they had sliced it and eaten…  While the grouse roasted (since he was dreaming, and suddenly rather keenly aware of being hungry) he would make up a batch of the lightest, fluffiest flaky-topped biscuits with the last of the flour sent them by Susan, find some stout willow sticks and twist the dough around them for rising and roasting over the fire, and as the biscuits baked to perfection he would make gravy from the grouse drippings, season it with wild garlic and add a little bear fat just for good measure.  Grouse, gravy and biscuits.  Sounded better than just about anything else he could imagine just then, and he realized with a start that he had halted his work and sat there with hands idle, all but drooling over the images he’d created in his head.  

Silly creature, he chided himself, getting back to work.  Ought to be very grateful indeed for the squirrel stew which would instead make up their supper, for even had they a grouse and the means to whip up a batch of biscuits, he knew he would have had to take care just how enthusiastically he allowed himself to participate in such a repast.  Already since returning from his journey along the canyon rim he was beginning to experience a fair amount of swelling in his lower legs and feet, in what he knew was the first sign of a potentially dangerous trend.  He knew a good bit of the difficulty was result of his body struggling to adjust to being given something close to an adequate amount of food again now that he was back at home and eating Liz’s cooking instead of living off the random scraps he’d allowed himself on his journey, the simple solution being to stop eating for a few days, give things time to settle down.   Knew he couldn’t do that this time, though, mustn’t do it, lest he fail to start eating again at the end. 
Spring was coming and he had big game to take for his family, a little boy to bring up in the ways of the woods and high, windswept ridges, and he knew from recent experience that these thing might not be physically possible for him, if he did not somehow manage to reverse the trend of increasingly complete starvation to which he had over the last months and years been subjecting himself.  Most times, he had been able to very effectively put its negative effects aside, draw strength from the struggle itself and from the knowledge that he was persisting despite what were at times rather dire effects on his physical existence; he was not giving in, and that, at the very core of his being, was often the thing which mattered most.  Sometimes, when the nights grew long and he began losing his place in the world, it seemed the only thing that mattered.  The only one he could remember, fall back on, the thing that kept him in this world.
Now, though, he remembered the way things had been on the last days of his recent journey, he barely able to stay conscious at times—had deliberately refused to let his mind dwell on the incident in which the two men had stumbled across him down in the canyon, but it was always there, reminding him just how dire things had become, and what their consequences might have been, might still be—and his core muscles giving out to the degree that he found himself having a difficult time getting up into a sitting position again whenever he did lie down.  Scary enough on their own, these effects--though he had always found such things a good deal more fascinating than frightening, at least when observing them in himself--but when viewed in the context of a search and pursuit which could at any time go active once again…this potential inability to move his body and rely on his muscles as needed took on some rather terrifying implications.  

He had to persist, then, in eating, manage the difficulties—both mind and body—as well as he was able, and hope he had something left at the end of the process with which to carry on and build a life for his family.  Really didn't know how that would go.  Body he wasn't worried about, as it had always lived up to the demands he placed upon it, and usually exceeded them, but the other...well, seeing as the starving and deprivation were, themselves, his main tools for keeping his thoughts in line, and always had been, he was not entirely sure what to expect.  Not that it mattered too much.  Was only one direction in which he could go, considering his duties and obligations.  Besides which, when had he ever shrunk from the prospect of an adventure?  This, if he could just bring himself to look at it in such terms, had to be the ultimate adventure, really... Squirrel skinning finished, he took the animal to Liz, began scraping the hide.  His son's first summer moccasin.

Liz had gone inside while Einar worked on the squirrel, freeing Will from her parka hood and searching for a place to stash their newly-collected supply of usnea lichen, a bounty which would surely be put to many uses as the spring went on.  Lichen securely tucked up under some of the roof-logs where it would stay dry and out of reach of a curious little boy who would no doubt take the greatest delight in separating each little frond and scattering them across the shelter, Liz set about laying a fire, tinder bundle, kindling and a few slightly larger sticks, but once finished she left the arrangement as it was, not wanting to kindle flame until she'd seen what Einar thought of the idea.  It had been some hours since they'd heard the last plane, no air activity, in fact, since that morning, but still she knew he might want to wait.  Hopefully not too late in the evening though, for much as she liked squirrel sushi, a good hot stew sounded far more appealing. 

Will, who had been watching her every move and knew exactly where she had deposited her supply of springy, chewy, fascinating lichen, had pulled himself up to a standing position against the wall, and was stretching, reaching, lifting on little foot as if certain he could climb the wall with enough effort, determined to retrieve the prize.  So determined, in fact, so focused that he noticed not at all when his stance began growing less steady, and by the time he did discover the trouble, he was already lying face down on the floor, side of his nose skinned on one of the firepit rocks.  Much to Liz's alarm the little one did not immediately cry, she fearing lest he had been knocked unconscious or otherwise seriously injured.  Rushing to kneel beside him and calling for Einar, she saw that her alarm had been premature--or at least misplaced--for the child was indeed conscious, appearing unharmed save for a deep graze down the side of his little nose and cheek.  Appearing more puzzled than disturbed, Will ignored Liz's ministrations to grab at his injured nose with hand, studying his tiny digits intensely when they came away red with blood.  Einar had by then ducked inside, crouching breathlessly beside the pair, knife in hand as he glanced about the dim interior of the shelter for the cougar, wolverine or other similar creature which he supposed must be present for Liz to cry out in such alarm.

"What is it?  What's wrong?"

"It's ok.  It's Will. He was standing against the wall and fell on the rocks, and I thought he'd knocked himself out, injured his head or something, but it's just a scrape on his nose, looks like."

Einar stared, Will staring back and holding out a hand to show him the smear of blood.  Einar picked him up, balancing him on one knee as he inspected the injury.  "What's the deal, little guy?  Couldn't wait a couple of years for those nettles we were talking about, huh?  Oh, well.  A lesson is a lesson.  Now you know that gravity works, and rocks are hard.  Think you'll remember it the next time, and maybe land better?"

Will made no answer, once more fascinated with the patterns made on his hand by the smear of blood.  Liz sat down beside them, her voice belying some degree of consternation.  "Do you think he's ok?"

"Sure, he's fine.  It's just a scratch, really.  We'll just clean it up with some berberine water to get the gunk out, and I don't think it will even need bandaging.  See?  Mostly quit bleeding, already."

"Right, but that's not what I meant.  He isn't crying."

"Why should he be crying?  It's just a little scrape."

"Because he's a baby, and he fell a long way--for him--and that had to hurt!  Most babies would be crying.  A lot."

Looking puzzled, Einar shrugged, began cleaning Will's face with a bit of dampened usnea lichen.  "Guess maybe we're just a little different, Snorri and I. He'll be good as new in no time.  Almost got him cleaned up.  Looks like it's only an hour or so from dusk outside, an no planes recently, so what do you think about a little fire to heat water for the berberine, and for our stew?"

Liz, still troubled at what she had witnessed but thinking a fire sounded like a great idea, had her little tinder bundle lit before Einar finished speaking.

16 June, 2014

16 June 2014

Einar’s rooftop squirrel snares proved a good investment of time and effort, one of their spring triggers tripping while the family was still collecting usnea in the evergreen grove.  Thinking at first that his workmanship must have been somewhat substandard and allowed the trigger to trip prematurely with a gust of wind—he had, after all, been in the process of falling into an unwilling but irresistible sleep while constructing the things—Einar went on collecting lichen upon first hearing the spring-tree right itself.  Only when they started back for the shelter, collecting bags stuffed to overflowing, pockets bulging and both of Will’s fists full of lichen which he was finding to be a most suitable teething aid, did Einar realize his snare had been a success. 

Skipping ahead like an excited child—and nearly ending up flat on his face when his legs protested the sudden move—Einar hurried to free his prey, a fat, sleek-coated tree squirrel who had clearly stored up plenty of pinecones and had a fine, well-provisioned winter.  The meat, he knew, would barely be enough for one good stew, but the success was encouraging, a sign that they could indeed provide for themselves even in the lean spring season and without relying solely on the acquisition of a large hoofed animal whose presence in the high country was no sure thing, so long as deep snow remained on the ridges.  Struggling for breath as he held the newly caught meal aloft, Einar waited for Liz and Will to emerge from the timber, silently showing them his prize.

“Hey, look at that!”  Liz was every bit as pleased as Einar with the quick success of his new snare. “I’d say we’re having squirrel for supper, and now we won’t have to wonder what’s scurrying around on the roof every morning before daylight, either!”

“Well, not unless there are more of them.  Probably are.  The other two snares may take care of that, if I leave them set.  Kind of hate to snare everything, right here so close to home.  Would be better to leave some to raise families this spring and keep the local population up in case there’s ever a time when we just can’t get out and run a trapline out away from home.  Save them for a time of need.”

“This is a time of need, though.  We’re almost out of food, and we need to eat.”

“So I hear.  Well, that’s why I rigged the snares.  Can leave them for now, take a couple more of the critters if they’re out there.”

“We could use them.  Maybe the hides can be turned into Will’s first pair of summer moccasins.  What do you think?  He won’t be walking for a while, but they could keep his feet warm as he crawls all over the place, and ought to last him the whole summer if I make them a little large…”

“I think you’re a real fine mountain woman, Lizzie.  That’s what I think.  Squirrel moccasins will be great for him.  I’ve used the hides of good-sized squirrels to cover my own feet when I had nothing else, and on him, they ought to come up past his knees, if you want them to.  Protect his legs from the nettles and rocks and all while he’s crawling.”

“Crawling through nettles!  I hope not!  What about his little hands and face?”

“Oh it’ll make him tough.  Either that, or give him a real good start on identifying plants and their various characteristics!  Or maybe both.”

“Maybe there are other ways of teaching those things, at least when it comes to nettles.  Not everything has to be learned by experience!”

“No, not everything.  Got to hope some of it can be learned in other was.  Though for many things, no amount of teaching and talking can compare to actual, first-hand experience.  They’re each one of them a part of who a person is, who he’ll become, and they’re all useful.  Even the ones that leave a mark.  Wouldn’t give any of mine back, that’s for sure, even if I could.”

“Really?  Any of them?”

He nodded, eyes growing dark for a moment, distant, before he almost visibly shook himself back to the present.  “Yeah.  Any of them.  Even those.  No way I would have made it through some of the things that have come my way over the past few years, if those other times in the jungle hadn’t come first and prepared me.”

Maybe, she wanted to say, you wouldn’t have had to…  Maybe without some of those experiences life would have been a little more settled for you, and for us, and we could be living at that little cabin of yours that you called home before all the chaos of this search started, living in the woods like we both want to do but not forced by circumstances to avoid all outside human contact, and just maybe it would be a good thing, you know?  No telling who you would have been without your time in the jungle and all that came after it, but I think I would have liked to meet him.  Just once.  Just to know what he would have been like, what our life might have been.

A ridiculous line of speculation and she knew it, for had it not been for those prior experiences of his, and the kind of man they had made of him, surely the two of them never would have met, little Will wouldn’t exist and the entire thing would be one big moot point.  She did not want it to be a moot point, and did not—though some days she might very easily convince herself otherwise, were she to try—want Einar to be anyone other than who and what he was, and of course he was right about the nettles, and Will, and the sorts of lessons that tended to stick with a person.   Right, and she felt badly for wishing those things away, wishing, even if only for a moment, that he might be someone else.

Besides which, he was looking at her strangely as he waited for an answer, the thing she saw in those cold, unreadable blue eyes of his probably just distance, absence; he was almost certainly looking right through her as he struggled to keep back the memories and remain in the present, but it felt as though he might instead be looking directly into her soul and seeing her thoughts.  Hastily, she turned away lest he see too much.

“Well,” she responded almost in a whisper, her throat tight, “life will bring him plenty of his own challenges to learn from.  Maybe the nettles can wait a year or two.”

A grin from Einar as he touched Will on the cheek with the tip of the squirrel’s tail, ducked into the shelter and emerged with the stew pot.  “Nettles can wait a year or two maybe, but this squirrel sure can’t, and neither can little Snorri’s moccasins.  I better get the critter skinned out so the hide can dry, and you can fix us some soup.

11 June, 2014

11 June 2014

Though effectively limited by snow conditions to the area immediately surrounding the shelter that day, Einar made the best use of his time, setting rooftop spring-trigger snares for the squirrels whose endless skittering sometimes disturbed their rest early in the mornings and working to add insulation to the shelter walls in areas where drafts frequently found their way through the already-existing chinking.  Much to the relief of both Einar and Liz the morning was a quiet one, no planes save a solitary, high-altitude jet disturbing the quiet of the little basin.  The sharp chill of the dawn hours abated quickly as Einar worked, stretched out across the roof and shivering himself warm in the newly-arrived sunlight as he struggled to turn nettle cordage into the snare-loops which would hopefully be providing them with a supper of squirrel. 

Suddenly sleepy in the sunlight he shook his head, tried to focus on the task before him.  Not easy to do.  Body wanted to keep still, absorb the sunlight and sleep like that of some giant reptile just crept out of its den and waiting motionless on a rock until its body temperature might reach a level conducive to useful activity.  He was not a reptile though, but a warm-blooded creature who ought to have been able to generate his own heat and move about whenever and however he chose, and just to prove the point he rose, rolled from the roof and got to his feet on the packed snow in front of the shelter, wishing conditions were such that he could take off up the ridge for an hour or two just to prove to himself that he was, indeed, still quite capable of such movement.  Snow was worse than ever though when he tested it, rotten just beneath its crusty surface and collapsing beneath the weight of one foot.   No traveling the ridge that day, not until and unless he was certain the planes had completed their ferrying out of bat camp residents, and no one was returning for a last look at the area.  Such certainty would take a day or two, he supposed, to really establish, which meant he’d better resign himself to spending some more time close to camp.

Back onto the roof then, and finish your snares.  You can stay awake.  You’re not a member of some giant, mostly-extinct species of lizard, you’re at least nominally human and despite evidence to the contrary you’re a warm-blooded critter and can indeed stay awake and do useful work while lying in the sunlight, or the snow, or just about anywhere else, if you make the effort. 

It was not for lack of effort that Einar eventually succumbed to sleep, he having been in the process of rolling once more from the roof to go sit in the snow in the hopes of bringing himself back to more through wakefulness when it overtook him.  It was there, one heel hooked on a branch near the roof’s crest and unnaturally long-looking limbs draped over the structure like those of some strange, sleeping sloth or lemur, that Liz found him some time later on emerging from the shelter with Will—better there, she told herself, than in the snow where she had more often found him—his shivering nearly ended and an unaccustomed glow of peace and relaxation easing the hard lines of his face.  She left him to sleep, knowing the sun would bless the structure with its direct rays for a short time only due to the surrounding trees and their low horizon, and wanting him to enjoy it for as long as possible.  Even though he would be irritated at her for not waking him.  She smiled, glancing back at Will where he sat in her parka hood and giving him a conspiratorial wink as they silently eased past the sleeping Einar and into the timber, where she meant to gather usnea lichen. 

Einar woke with some difficulty nearly an hour later, sunlight having left head and shoulders and he beginning to shiver again despite its remaining warm on his back.  Head felt all thick and confused with sleep and sunshine, and freeing his heel so he could complete his earlier-attempted roll to the ground he crouched in the snow, rubbing the stuff over face and neck until he felt a bit more alert.  Silence in the shelter, and he did not know where to find Liz and the little one, until, listening intently, he caught a hint of a delighted giggle from somewhere off in the timber.  Will, for certain, and slightly unsteady on his legs after spending so much time sprawled out in an odd position on the roof, he started off in search of his family.

Busy explaining to Will the best way to identify usnea lichen and differentiate it from other, similar types which might be found growing in the dark timber—the stretchy, white elastic-like fibers found in the center of each tiny, gnarly stem were the surest way to tell—Liz did not hear Einar coming until he was within feet of them.

“Not too optimistic about the success of my squirrel snares, are you, if you two are having to collect usena for our supper!”

“Oh, it’s not to eat.  Hopefully.  We just use it for so many things—Will’s diapers, chinking in the cabin walls, padding and insulation in our mukluks in the winter—that I thought it would be good to have a bunch set aside for whenever we need it, since it’s so plentiful here.  And look—Will is helping me collect it!”

“Well, never too early to start learning good identification and gathering skills, is it?  He’ll need those one day.”

Liz nodded, but not before a brief shadow passed over her face at the thought of the uncertain future that awaited their son in the coming years.  Einar, busy watching Will study a clump of lichen and not particularly astute at deciphering the nuances of the human face in the first place, missed her moment of dismay and set to helping her collect the soft, grey-green tangles of lichen, adding his offerings to the nearly full bag which hung from her arm to allow full use of her hands.  Will helped in his own way, which just then consisted of dissecting one strand of lichen after another and studying its stretchy inner cores, rather than participating in the harvest.  Einar did not mind.  Let the little guy learn at his own pace, and before long, he would be more proficient than either of them at the many skills and abilities that made life possible in the high timber. 

For some time they worked together in silence, Einar content to have empty skies, a quiet day and a task to accomplish, but Liz still troubled, silent, and eventually Einar realized she was not acting quite herself, looked up and tried to figure out what might be the problem.  She had stopped working and stood with one hand on Will’s head and a faraway look in her eyes, and when Einar asked her what was the trouble, she remained silent for some time.

“No trouble.  Just thinking about Will.”

Einar stared at his son, seeing no obvious sign of distress or injury and not understanding.  “What’s the matter with him?”

“Nothing!  He’s doing so well, changing, growing up in a hurry.  That’s the trouble.  Sometimes I just get to thinking about the kind of life we’ve brought him into, the dangers he’ll face and the…well, just the uncertainty of everything, of every little thing in our lives, and in his, and it’s hard to think about, you know?  Hard to know where it’s all going for him.”

“Oh, there’s a lot more certainty than you might think, really.  Winter ends, spring comes and things are green for a couple months before we get to do it all over again…been that way an awful long time, and a person can always kind of count on it to keep things in order if they start feeling a little lost, now and then.”

“Yes, the seasons.  That’s not really what I meant, though they do bring their own uncertainty, don’t they?  Like right now, with us wondering where the next meal will come from.  It’s nothing new, really, and I guess nothing to be too concerned about because it’s all he will have ever known, our little mountain man.”

“Right.  He’ll be better fitted for this life than either one of us are, even, and I’d say we’re doing a pretty fine job of it, all things considered.  Wouldn’t you say?”

06 June, 2014

6 June 2014

By sometime just after dusk that evening the planes had stopped passing overhead, a sign, Einar hoped, that the camp on the rim was finally empty, and their own lives could begin returning to something a bit more like normal.  The night itself was quiet, and still being rather exhausted from his journey, Einar slept soundly and well, waking only occasionally to tilt his head and listen for the distant drone of an approaching plane.  Did not really expect to hear any, not so long as all the traffic that past afternoon and evening had truly been limited to the ending of the bat camp, and not to any renewed search or surveillance of the area.

Morning brought a welcomed stillness over the little basin, skies quiet and the breeze which whispered through the firs surprisingly mild, almost warm.  It had, Einar noted upon leaving the shelter to make a quick run of the trapline, barely frozen overnight, the first time this had happened since the previous fall.  Good news as far as the soon-to-come availability of a wider range of foods, but a temporary disadvantage, too, for what it would do to the remaining snowpack.  Already he could see the difference, feel it when he took his first steps beyond the boot-packed snow around the shelter—and promptly sunk in up to his knees in the rotten, crumbly mess.  The next several steps were the same, except that on the third, he went in nearly hip-deep where an unseen drift had concealed a depression in the ground.  Some fifty yards up the ridge and with little change in conditions, Einar turned back.  While entirely willing to put out the exhausting effort required to propel himself forward through the crumbly remains of the winter’s snow, he was rather more reluctant about leaving the amount of sign which he knew would be left in the snow by his passing.

By the time Einar worked his way back down to the shelter Liz had, herself, discovered the snow situation and breathed a sigh of relief when she saw him coming.  Though concerned about the possibility of their trail showing from the sky, greater was her concern about Einar’s using up all his energy, and more, tramping through that rotten snow.  From the look of him, she feared he might already have done so, but he brushed off her concerns, shaking his head when she offered to give him a hand with his pack and taking a few rough breaths before spitting out the word, springtime!

“Springtime, and we’ve lost our good, solid snow.  Travel’s gonna be…”

“It’s going to be a lot more difficult for a while, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.  Kinda limited to the dark timber for a while, I guess.  Snow will be a little more solid in there in the deep shade, and anytime we do fall through and make a mess, trees will keep it from showing as bad from above.  The trapline though, that’s way too exposed, at least up high.  And this lower part.  We’ll have to swing through the trees to get to the middle, if we want to use it…”

“Swing through the trees?  I’d like to see you try”

“Well, ok, just let me…”

“Hey!  Can’t you tell when I’m kidding?”

“Sometimes.  But I’m pretty good as swinging through the trees.  Depending on the positioning of the branches, of course.”

“I don’t doubt it, but no, that is not really something I’d like to see right now!  What if you fell out and left a big crater in the rotten snow?  What would the planes think when they saw that?”

“Nothing much, so long as there were no tracks leading away from it…”

“Ha!  You’re not getting away with anything like that!  I’m counting on you to take that lone elk for us, just as soon as the snow melts out a little.  Or freezes, either one.”

Einar just smiled and shrugged.  Of course he’d take the elk, as soon as circumstances would allow.  She knew he would take the elk.

Breakfast was another cold, fireless meal of soaked jerky and dried fruit, satisfying to Einar, who could not seem to bring himself to care much about food that day, aside from the matter of needing to acquire it for his family, but not nearly as hearty as Liz would have preferred, for either of them.  Was looking as though they might have to resort to usnea lichen and the dried inner bark of spruces, after all.  She hoped they would at least be able to have fires should it come to that, so the bark could be roasted on hot rocks to make the “spruce bacon” Einar had discovered during his first year on the run, and since shared with her.  The stuff was pretty fibrous even after being roasted, but was at least crisp, fairly tasty and easy to get down.  Well.  It might not even come to that depending on how the spring thaw and melting progressed.  One could not reliably predict such things.  Einar was staring at her.  She could feel his gaze even before she looked up.

“What?” She asked him.  “What are you thinking?”

“I was wondering the same thing.”

“I was just thinking about spring.  It’s not always an easy time for mountain-dwelling creatures, is it?” 

He shook his head, leaning one elbow against the shelter wall and poking at a pile of  icy snow with his boot.  “One of the hardest times, a lot of years.  None of the fresh stuff ready yet, no real vegetation, and the critters who eat the greens are still down lower for a while.  Not easy for anyone, really.  But,” he smiled, handed Will a sprig of fir that he was trying rather enthusiastically to reach, “we’ll get by.  We always get by.  This is gonna be Will’s first spring, his first time seeing bare ground, getting his toes in the dirt and running through the little meadows to take a dip in an ice-cold little snowmelt tarn, all of that.  Will be a real good year.”

A little too young yet for swimming, Liz thought to herself, but yes, the rest of it does sound good.  We just have to get there…

02 June, 2014

2 June 2014

There was to be no elk hunting that afternoon, a fact that became clear to Einar when he heard the third plane go over and realized where they were coming from.  The party on the canyon rim was, it seemed, finally breaking up and moving on after nearly two weeks of occupying the camp.  Apparently they had finished counting, following and inventorying their bats.  Certainly there had been too many campers present to be ferried out all at once in the planes he’d seen beside the makeshift landing strip, which explained why they now seemed to be making multiple trips back and forth.  At least, seeing that the planes did not circle or seem to take any undue interest in the area of the shelter, he found himself more of less able to accept their presence as reasonable and fully explained, not a cause for any rash actions or a hasty evacuation of the little basin. 

Liz was glad he saw it that way, hoped the trend would continue, as the last thing she wanted was to be on the run again with little Will and his father, who had himself just returned from a rather extensive and exhausting trek, and could without doubt benefit greatly from a few quiet days at home.  The air traffic concerned her, though.  Concerned them both, though they were in agreement very likely had nothing to do with them.  Anytime significant numbers of aircraft were passing over the place, the chances were increased of someone spotting an irregularity on the ground, some little detail which caught their attention and perhaps warranted, in their minds, further investigation.  The trapline, for instance, and the tracks they’d left in checking it each morning.  While human-made trails could look like elk trails from the air—Einar had seen it—anyone with more than a passing familiarity with elk would know that few could be found up that high in such an early season, making their trail an anomaly. 

Worried, Einar paced the small space inside the shelter, three steps to the spot where the ceiling sloped down and he could no longer stand close to upright, three steps back, pausing to crouch and listen, palm against the outer wall, at the drone of yet another aircraft.  Despite himself he crouched lower as the thing approached, some subconscious section of his brain thinking, perhaps, to disappear into the soil and his body shaking with the conflict of remaining still when really he wanted to hurry out and plaster himself against the trunk of the nearest evergreen, concealed, safe.  

Wait.  Just be still, and wait.  They can’t see you in here, and besides, almost certainly aren’t looking.  It will pass.  They’ll all pass, and be gone, and you can…  Inner words silenced, he listened again to the sky.  Something changing in the quality of sound coming from that most recent plane, a change in direction, it seemed, and then he was sure.  Thing was circling back, strange, and it did not fit the pattern.  Silence in the shelter, even Will seeming to sense something amiss, until the drone had grow louder, passed again and faded away into the distance.  When the quiet had held for the better part of a minute with no sign of the plane’s return, Liz crouched beside Einar, put a hand on his shoulder.

“What do you think they were doing?”

“Hard to say.  Just looking, maybe.  Hopefully not seeing too much.”

“I don’t think we’ve left too much for them to see, have we?”

“Just the trapline, mostly.  And my tracks coming and going.  Not much to see in most places, because the snow’s been so hard.  But in others…someone who’s really looking might have plenty to see.”

“They’re looking for bats.  We don’t look a lot like bats, so that ought to help quite a lot.”

“Ha!  I’ve been called ‘batty’ before, among other things, but no, we sure don’t look like the little critters, and can hope these folks were just circling back to enjoy the view, or to check out a ledge or rock formation they thought might provide a good home for bats, for future reference.  Think we can sit tight for now, but the elk hunt’s a wash for today.  Not going anywhere while these planes are so active.  If the bat camp is closing down, hopefully everyone will pack up and head out today, and things will be quiet again tomorrow.”

“The elk hunt can wait a day.  We’ve got rabbit broth left, and some things from Bud and Susan still.  If we could have a fire, I’d make us split pea soup with rabbit broth!  But we can’t.  So it will be cold rabbit broth and beef jerky, I guess.  Unless you want rabbit broth with peanut butter, instead!”

“Hmm.  Doesn’t sound bad at all, really.  Especially if we had some garlic and chilis to put with it.  Could make a real fine meal.  We could use it as a sauce over a big pot of usnea lichen, make the stuff taste real edible, and keep us full for longer, too!”

“Well, when this snow finishes going and all the plants are up, I’ll see if I can find us some wild garlic to use fresh, and dry for next winter.  The chilis might be a little less manageable, but there’s always some sort of wild mustard around, and we can use that, instead!”

“Well, sounds like a good plan.  When summer comes.  For now, I guess it’s rabbit broth and jerky tonight, then hopefully tomorrow I can make some progress on getting us an elk.”

“Elk!”  Will shouted, voice triumphant if a bit squeaky, startling both Einar and Liz with his sudden acquisition of a new word.  “Elk!  Elk!  Fire elk!”

“Oh yeah?”  Einar asked, scooping him up and setting him on one knee.  “And just what is a ‘fire elk,’ if I may ask?  Sounds interesting, for sure.  Does it breathe fire, or look like fire, or just live where forest fires have come through, like fireweed?”


“Yes, fire.  And just as soon as these doggone planes have gone for good, I’ll be heading out to hunt the mighty fire elk, Will.  Can’t take you with me this time, because if you were to yell ‘elk’ just as the critter came into sight, it would be kind of a disaster, but maybe next time.  And you can sure help us skin the critter out, and  start to learn the procedure there.  Maybe even help with the tanning, who knows?  What do you think?  Is he too little to help with the tanning?”

“I’m sure he doesn’t think so, but he’d just eat the brains.  Eat them, smear them all over himself, and pretty soon we wouldn’t have enough left to get the hide tanned!”

“Hmm.  That could be a little bit of a problem.  Sorry little guy, guess that one might have to wait a few months, too.  But you can watch, anyway.”  With which Einar fell silent, another plane making itself heard in the distance.