Squirrels stewing and the shelter filled with their warm aroma—perhaps not such a delicacy, normally, but welcome for the variety they represented—the little family sat around the fire, silent save Will’s constant, happy babbling. Einar, hard as he tried to conceal the fact, was not nearly as alright as he pretended to be, Liz knowing even before she checked that he had lost a fair amount of blood over the course of his days in the timber and seeing that he struggled now to remain awake, nearly dozing by the fire as she cooked. He was content, though, or appeared to be, taking an interest in the little details of life in the shelter, entertaining Will with the tail of one of the squirrels he’s brought home, that faraway, unreadable look gone from his eyes and his manner easy, uncharacteristically relaxed even as he shivered violently in the presence of the first heat he’d allowed himself in days. Liz was not terribly concerned. The fire was warm and his body, she knew, would recover, if only his mind would allow it. Things seemed off to a good start. She liked the way he eyed the simmering stew, not only a willingness, but a genuine interest; the rest would come in good time.
In good time, after sharing a leisurely breakfast and Liz, her persistence overcoming his mild objections, tending to Einar’s wounds, the family went squinting and staring out into the streaming sunlight of what all recognized to be the most spring-like day yet, breeze feeling soft and almost warm as it wafted up from the valley below, carrying the scent of green, growing things, soil exposed to sunlight. This warming weather, though welcome, brought its own challenges.
Clothing that had done well by little Will all winter, keeping him dry as he crept, scooted and crawled about in the snow, now began failing at that task, remaining snow so wet and slushy that it quickly saturated anything with which it was allowed prolonged contact. This situation led to a great deal of displeasure on Will’s part, not because he minded being wet, but because his mother rather inexplicably began denying access to his favorite exploring spots. Liz at first attempted to solve this wet-snow-and-saturated-child dilemma by confining Will indoors and taking him out only in the hood of her parka, but he squirmed and protested so at this restriction that she was left seeking other options. It was Einar—watching this struggle on his first day back and doing his best not to allow the child to guess at how strongly his father approved of his fighting spirit, if not perhaps of the context in which he was currently applying it—who came up with a solution.
Leaving the tree where he’d been working to lower one of the elk quarters so he could begin taking off slices of the frozen meat to dry for jerky, he limped over and crouched beside Liz, quietly observing the struggle for another minute, Will fighting to be free of the confinement of the hood and Liz working very hard to keep him there even as she fought to maintain her own balance and not upset the pot into which she was shaving frozen elk for an afternoon stew.
“How about I take the little critter off your hands for a minute, so you don’t upset the stew?”
“Oh yes, that would be very helpful! He’s every bit as stubborn and intractable as his father, you know…”
“He just wants to be free. Tired of being cooped up inside all the time.”
“I know. But the trouble is he ends up all soaking wet in the slush every time I let him get down, here lately. I know that wouldn’t bother you, and it doesn’t seem to bother him either, but he’s just not old enough or big enough yet to make those decisions. Not that his judgment about being cold and wet is likely to improve much, if he takes after you in that way… But for just a few more years here, I intend to put my foot down and keep him from losing any little fingers or toes!”
“Hey, I wasn’t suggesting we let him lose fingers or toes. I know he’s too little to be turned loose in the slush to make his own way, but I thought if we could make him a drier spot where he could sort of move around and explore and not feel quite so confined…well, might just make these next few weeks easier on everybody.”
Liz thought this a fine idea, watching closely as Einar balanced the little one on his hip and began using his boots to scrape the remains of a melting snowbank out from beneath one of the thickest spruces at the edge of the little clearing. This task done he squirmed out of his own parka—Liz had been rather insistent he wear it that morning after arriving back at camp, seeing how keenly the cold seemed to be affecting him—and laid it on the ground for Will. “See this thing, buddy? This is the limit of your world for right now, so I want you to stay on here and not get your clothes wet while I fix you up a better place. Ok?”
Will scrutinized the newly-announced boundaries of his world, tested them, eyes on Einar all the while, one little mittened hand reaching out over the edge of the parka and into the snow, just to try his reaction. When Einar squinted, scowled and shook his head Will pulled the hand back, busying himself with a spruce cone that had fallen on the parka. Well, Einar silently observed, turning away to retrieve a bundle of mostly dry spruce needles from beneath a different tree, sure is going to be an interesting thing, watching this little guy grow up. At least he’s starting to understand the concept of boundaries and the fact that we’re the ones who set them, in his world. Doesn’t mean we’re not gonna have an awful trying time getting him to respect those limits, at times. Guess he wouldn’t be our son, if he didn’t have that stubborn streak in him…
Many armloads of spruce needles later, little Will’s outside exploration area was nearing completion. By scraping away the remnants of melting snow and adding dry material atop the still-frozen ground, Einar had created a spot which was large enough to satisfy even the most persistent of young explorers, at least for a time, while also reassuring the little wayfarer’s mother as to the state of his clothing and boots. All that remained was to find some way to keep him from creeping without delay over the outside boundaries and back into the snow. A fence of some sort seemed in order, and for this Einar began collecting downed spruce boughs, brown, without needles, their rough, abrasive texture and multitude of tiny, dry twigs hopefully enough to deter the youngest Asmundson from too easily passing. Einar stepped back, crossing his arms and critically inspecting the enclosure.
“Well, what do you think? Strong enough to hold him, dry enough to make you happy?”
Liz laughed. “I don’t know if anything would be strong enough to hold him, if he really wants to go. Not if he inherited half of your resourcefulness and drive. But it ought to give him the idea, anyway, and I see that he hasn’t budged off of your parka since you told him to stay there, even though he’s looking very longingly at that little ooze of melting snow and mud. I think it ought to do the job.”
Einar lifted Will into the enclosure, gave the boy a nod when he looked up with big eyes, ready to take off and discover this new territory. “Good. That’ll free us up some so we can put some more focus on getting this elk turned to jerky. Not gonna stay frozen solid forever hanging up here in the trees, the way the weather’s turning. Need to get a good bit of it dried before the really warm stuff gets here.”
Warm weather, it seemed to Liz as she retrieved Einar’s parka from the snow and draped it over his shoulders, seemed a long way off still, but it could not hurt to plan, prepare and be ready.