Lawless as Snow-flakes
There are strange stirrings here where the aboriginal snow was once carved out by brutish things which, in this hallowed land, gave birth to man and man to gods to revere the vast beauty of the world.
The gods all are silent now. The village crafted here, inherited from father to son for centuries now, lies patient in its snowy sepulcher. Carried on the wind or by trade-beast there came a plague two months gone. When last the caravans left this place, they burrowed through the mountain tunnel once carved to connect the village to the rest of mankind and upset it such that its walls gave in.
Behind them was left a blight so rampant the mountain village stands thrice decimated. The dead lined up in morbid rows to be buried by the new frost while the living lie quarantined and fearful.
There are so many here who would like to live in this cradle of life. It is quiet here, though, and the rest of the world trudges on in indifference. This village left to die like a lame pup born to a brood.
He the prodigal one. He who leads the hunts, who will one day govern the men, who is the bright spark of light in the dim corner of the world. She his world, the holy man’s daughter, the flint to the spark.
Here she lies dying, her last breaths torpid as the caravan disease wracks her living body. He holds her in calloused hands, unyielding arms, inexorable adoration. In his bearskin cloak, he escapes to the blizzard outside and treks through the village to the governor.
The governor in his hut stokes the fire, embers luminous with pulsing red, folding upon itself in ashen bubbles. He draws a line in the embers with the prong and then sets it against the stone mantle of the hut. He turns to the man in bearskin.
How is she, asks the governor.
She is dying, says the hunter. There are some words that carry with them curses when assembled, horrifying realities we would shirk in infancy if we knew what these words could one day augur.
The governor sighs and rubs his hands over the fire. The storm is bad today, he says.
The hunter sits beside him on the stool cut from adolescent evergreens. Any word from the town, he asks.
Not for two months.
How long’s it take them to die, he asks.
You haven’t seen enough of them die yet to know?
I have but I forget.
Forget or you don’t want to remember.
What difference does it make. How long does she have.
Two weeks at most.
Do you think the elixir’s real?
The caravan men were drinking something unnatural. No water, no ale. They were healthy. If a cure exists, you’d find it in the town.
But the passage ain’t clear.
Right. The passage ain’t clear, says the governor.
I’ll go over the mountain.
No one’s ever gone over the mountain in wintertime.
I’ll go over the mountain.
We’ve got a bunch of men working on the passage. It should be cleared by week’s end. Go then.
You said it’d be done half a dozen times now. She doesn’t have time to wait. I’ll go over the mountain.
You’ll die, you know, says the governor. This isn’t the bear on your back — you can’t fight the storm. It’ll kill you and think nothin of it.
The hunter looks to the snow outside and says I’ll go over the mountain.
At night the man stays at her bedside, the ghastly screams of frozen wind chilling the corners of the room and the fire smolders gently in the center of the room and between her acute breaths he moves to the pile of ashen wood to enkindle the fire once more.
Governor said he’s going to look out for you while I’m gone. I won’t be gone long, darling. You’ll see me again. I swear on it. Either we’ll live a great long while together here or maybe if I fail we’ll see each other soon in God’s kingdom. You still believe in that, right? Of course you do, darling. Of course you do. You’d call me stupid if you knew what I was about to do. You’d try to stop me I just know it.
He touches her belly.
We’ve got a family yet to raise. We’ve got a long while before we’re meant to die. You can chastise me in God’s kingdom if it comes to that. If I fail. If I fail it means we both — I won’t fail, my darling. I won’t. I’ll come home soon. I’ll be quick. I know how much it bothers you when I take forever to come back from the hunts. I won’t keep you waiting this time. I won’t keep you waiting.
The man inches himself closer to her and the frozen wind encircles their hut like a vulture come to feast.
In the morning the snow reflects the sun like a mirror shone against God’s own brilliance. He wears his bearskin cloak and puts the hood of the bear’s face over his own and his insulated clothing protects from the biting cold. Along his waist a belt of knives and in his hand a sharpened spear. Some flint, a canteen of water, a bit of grain in a drawstring pouch.
The governor meets him at the edge of the village. You don’t have to do this, he says.
Of course I do. Ain’t no other way.
I reckon so.
You’ll take care of her won’t you.
If god hisself stood between me and that elixir, I’d cut him down. Just so you know.
I don’t doubt your resolve.
Just so you know.
What will the village do without you? Have you thought of it.
They’ll keep on.
When the hunts come around —
There are others.
None like you.
Warn’t none like me before me and the village got on just fine.
There’s no stopping you, is there?
Like the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, governor.
The governor claps the hunter on the shoulder and trudges back through the snow a wandering wolf grey with age.
The day passes slowly and deliberately like the man himself. That endless whiteness thicker and more absolute than the blackness of night. Rocks and boulders stars to a traveller. As the day ends the sun in the west beckons the man to find her. A cruel mistress indeed who drains the time from him. At night beneath a few frozen evergreens the man does light a fire, insulated with dirt and rock and kept away from the wind and the snow. He spends an hour or more tending to it and he is still in familiar country for the hunts he would lead last for days and go much further than this. But the hunts do not strand him, they do not break his spirit or try his character or leave him only a dim flame in a chilling darkness.
He must not get cold. He must not. Sleep is only a commodity to be found between rounds of stoking flame. Where there is fire, there is light still to be used to glimpse a future with her in his arms. Without it only the darkness of infinity and infinity and infinity and…
Stars innumerable hang like ornaments encapsulating the lessons of men who have walked these frozen lands before him. They warn him, they teach him, they humble him. There are many who have died next to the few who still live. He must not get cold. The fire cannot extinguish.
On the second day the man can tell the storm will worsen by nightfall. How far can he go? How far can he afford not to go? The wind picks up and he wakes up in the absence of the fire. He packs up and moves on quickly.
By nightfall again, the storm is oppressive. The hair on his face sharpens toward icy points, his teeth chatter against his will like bone instruments of a savage tribe stalking him through the winter cold, arrows drawn and targeting his heart.
Sounds of animals remind the man he is not alone. The bears are all in their seasonal slumbers, tucked away in some rocky corners of the mountain, but faster predators roam these slopes in packs. The long nights exhaust him but he has few other choices. He must stoke the fire and protect it at all sacrifices from the wind and snow and he must also keep his spear and knives close by to fend off whatever would supplant his survival with its own.
This night is long. A pack of something draws nearer. He catches scents on the frozen wind, he hears the howls encroach like the simultaneity of thunder and lightning as it comes close.
At first dawn he is gone and all that remains is a pile of ash. He happens upon a thicket and walks through, separating the bramble with his spear and clearing a path and is now well beyond the jurisdiction of the hunting party. There are no signs of life nor of progress until midevening when the snow begins to thin and the land begins to level and very distantly he can hear the call of a river like sirens to a thirsty wanderer.
She is too far from here but he can do no good at her side. He must not get cold. He must not let the fires die.
The day is bright which is better than the storm, but the snow is oppressive.
Do you think God cares about you? When do you think he last cared? Did he ever care at all?
Frozen limbs and fingers and toes and wet boots and portents of gangrenous suffering. Soldier on, he says to himself.
While the sun sets later in the day, the man kneels at the foot of the river and collects some water in his canteen.
There are still mountains yet to traverse but the water may lead to life. He decides to follow it til nightfall when he again constructs a pit to light a fire. But the wood here is uncooperative and damp. He does what he can to dry it but the cold is biting and it begins to snow. The night is cloudy and he can see little in the light of a gibbous moon. He shuts his eyes and thinks of her and attempts once more to set ablaze the stack of wood before him. He succeeds after a few more moments but the sun is gone, trekking its way across a land half a world yonder. His hands are numb and raw and he does his best to gradually introduce them to the heat.
They are barely improved when the pack happens upon him. He can hear snapping of small wood over the whirr of windy snow and he knows what awaits him before he turns around. He can discern at first but three or four of the wretched dogs with their frozen mange and glistening eyes and bared teeth. They spit and hiss at him with primal vitriol.
He takes up his spear with frostbitten hands.
They take steps closer and he only sees their wicked shadows dancing cast along the rocky riverbed by some amalgam of flame and moonlight. He swings his spear along the base of their feet and the several wolves jump back and bark, splitting the silence of the night. The man wears the bear hood and stands as imposing as he can and swings the spear again with numb hands.
The dexterous wolves dance around him as though they were strung up with wire by some sinister puppeteer also a god of war. A knife in one hand, a spear in the other, the man swings again but a flanking wolf grabs both front and back of the man’s thigh with his hateful maw. The man wrestles off the beast and drives the knife in deep and fatal.
He swings again with miserable anger and advances toward the three other wolves, bleeding but enraged. Their compatriot dead on the riverbed, the three recede into the forest with a promise to return. The man shrieks once more, casting his spear and knife against the rocks and collapses with his thigh in his hands. Every wound is a fatal wound in these mountains.
He fashions a tourniquet but the man can do nothing for his numbness, his pain, his exhaustion. The man, thus exsanguinated, collapses near the body of the wolf, looking skyward as light snow dances above his face. The fire a glimmer in his periphery, his breathing soft, stiff.
He could just — just close his eyes. Just so. Just for a moment. Just so. Think of her. Her warmth in bed, the way they would play as children. Remember it all before there is no time left to remember. Did you go to the mountains because you thought you could save her or did you go because you wanted to die because you knew you couldn’t save her? What questions will God ask you when the time comes. But the time is now. Think your last thoughts.
The fire dies sometime in the night — the wind may have blown it away or the snow may have covered it and the wolf’s bloody matted fur is frozen over at some point in the night too. The man falls asleep. His death is almost painless. In the moments before his mind wipes blank, he remembers thinking of the very last words she said before the plague shut her body down — If I find no heaven after this, I’ll use our love to fashion one for us and I’ll wait for you.
And he in his delirium spoke to the sky, to the snow, to the great wilderness that so elegantly orchestrated his death: darling, I know you don’t like to be kept waiting.