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.