With the departure of the storm the high country weather changed quickly, one bitterly frigid night after the breakup of the clouds followed by a series of gentler ones, new snow barely lasting two days and the moisture of its melting seeping down through the layers which had remained beneath, furthering their deterioration and beginning to very slightly thaw the ground itself. Einar smelled the change, felt a softening of the air that passed across his nose in breathing and wanted to be out immersed in this riotous celebration of new life, observing, greeting, living the changes as they came to be, but he could not seem to get any farther than the inside of his own head.
Frustrated. Wanted to wake, really wake, knew he ought to be capable but every attempt at movement left him wondering at the sudden and seemingly complete disconnection between body and mind which had plagued him since returning from his night-long sojourn after the second elk quarter. Around him he could hear the noises of daily life in the shelter, Will’s delighted babblings, screeches and the increasingly intelligible words with which he sought to communicate, Liz splitting wood and doing her best to cheerfully answer the little one’s ramblings, but try as he might, he could not bring himself to wake and participate.
For the first day, Liz had not thought this a terribly bad arrangement, Einar, as she knew, quite incapable of allowing himself such rest while fully conscious and in command of his faculties, and the respite likely an essential one, if he wanted to recover from the strain of his recent journey. Which he probably didn’t, not in so many words, but she wanted it for him, and so did her best to go about her daily routine without disturbing him, waking him only to urge the consumption of more warm broth and the occasional bowl of soup. By the second day, though, Einar was not waking at all, Liz becoming less and less convinced of the benefits of what seemed to be his rapidly deepening stupor.
By the third day she had tried nearly every approach she could dream up in her quest to wake him, and though he appeared to give the occasional brief sign of comprehension, of attempted cooperation, nothing had really changed. Liz was worried. It was natural, she was certain, for Einar to be worn out after his journeys through the snow, to sleep for a day, perhaps, in regaining his strength, but this seemed something more, and she feared the results should he go another day without water and sustenance. Already the skin on his face and hands looked especially sunken and drawn, heartbeat slowing to the point that she sometimes had trouble finding it, when she checked.
Water. She knew he badly needed water, and carefully she tried to give him some broth, propping up his head and letting the stuff run down his throat, drop by drop. He fought her, though, his unconsciousness apparently not so deep as to obliterate all awareness, and after a time she had to give up her efforts lest he injure himself, or her, or little Will, with his strenuous resistance.
Einar, for his part, had by the second day ceased to smell the awakening scents of spring from outside, heard Will’s babblings, but they had taken on a strange and dreaded inflection, language remembered, only adding to the urgent reality of the dark world through which his mind had been wandering, rain loud on the leaves, stinking swamp below and all around him, the close, stifling press of humid air and unyielding bamboo. This he fought, too, struggling to get out, to turn away from his captors whenever they came to him with offers of food, water—the precious, life-giving water that he so desperately needed—if only he would talk, in return, his protestations so violent that Liz at times chose to take Will and go outside to give him more space.
Late on the morning of the fourth day after returning with the elk quarter, Einar finally managed to win, after a fashion, his battle with the heaviness which had held him down and prevented his fully waking. Quiet in the shelter, Liz and Will outside, and this time, lying there with eyes struggling to focus on the dim lines of the aspen and fir branch ceiling, he knew their voices, knew where he was. Eyes wouldn’t quite bring anything into focus, seeming to grate oddly in their sockets when he turned them, and he knew he’d been far too long without water. This belief was confirmed when his first effort at sitting was met with such a wave of dizziness as to render the procedure quite impractical, if not impossible, Einar rolling to his stomach and trying again, bracing himself on hands and knees until the worst of it had passed. Well. Scrunched his eyes shut against the ongoing spinning of the room, got himself over to the wall and stood, legs a little uncertain and blackness becoming complete with the change in position. He stuck it out, waiting for some vision to return and rewarded, for his efforts, with an eventual lessening of the vertigo, able at last to take a few wobbly steps.
Must have been a while, he realized, since he was last on his feet, and judging from the dryness of his mouth, eyes and practically everything else, probably just as long since he’d had anything to drink. The fact, rather than disturbing him, felt oddly satisfying. Good to know that he could still do it, still hold out this long while they were doing their best to…right. Only you know it wasn’t them at all, was just your own poor Lizzie offering you that broth for who knows how long, and you must have given her an awful time with your refusals and your resistance and all. That did disturb him. Had to find her, do what he could do make it right.
Warm out there; he could tell by the dripping of snow from the evergreen boughs. That was his only real clue, though, as the gentle breeze felt awfully chilly on his skin, piercing, it seemed, right to the bone. He didn’t mind. Helped him feel more awake.
Liz, he saw, was in the process of shaving mostly frozen meat from one of the elk quarters, which she had lowered from its protective tree. Before long, he knew, they would have to start thinking about turning their meat into jerky, for with warming weather, flies would begin to appear, and would spoil meat left hanging and unprotected by smoke or spice for too long. Not a problem yet, not for a month, perhaps, but certainly not too early to begin thinking. Steps still slightly uncertain, Liz heard him coming through the soggy snow, turned to meet him, a brief look of consternation crossing her face and a hand going up as if to shield Will, until she caught his eye and realized that he knew them. She smiled then, setting aside her knife and hurrying to him.
He nodded. “You sound surprised…”
“It’s been a while.”
Einar shifted his weight uncomfortably off of his injured leg, then back on again. “How long?”
“Most of four days. The storm moved out almost that long ago, and things have really been thawing, since.”
“So long. Real sorry. Should have been out here helping you around the place.”
“You brought home all that meat! I have no complaints. But I do have a pile of elk here that needs to be made into stew, so how about you come in and have some broth while I work on it?”
Einar smiled, but he wasn’t ready. Not quite yet. Not for the broth, and not to be inside. Needed to be out under the trees for a while, first.