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?”