The schusshing from her skis was the only sound in the long alpine valley. The snow sparkled in the full moon, the peaks surrounding her enhancing the glow and helping to light her way. Lost in the rhythm of movement, her legs kept the stretch-glide-kick-stretch-glide-kick in an even, terrain-crossing tempo. She tried shrugging her shoulders to adjust the pack’s weight and felt the knot that had been growing there for hours burn. Wanting to make the cabin before sunrise and realizing she still had at least an hour to ski, she gripped the poles, pushed and propelled her burning thighs to a faster pace.
The down side to two weeks out in the middle of nowhere in Alaska was that you had to fend for yourself. There was no friendly neighbor to reach out to for nearly 100 square miles – and that was just the way she had wanted it. When she had called Danny and asked if she could use the cabin, he was quick to remind her that it was hardly used anymore and he had not been up there since early fall. She had not even tried to bother to explain that right now all she wanted was away from people; Danny was a people person – he would never understand and then would spoil it by showing up because he thought she needed company. She smiled wryly inside her faceguard as she remembered the melodramatic hurt in his voice when she promised to shoot anyone who showed up, even the owner. She sure hoped he got the message, good-hearted kid that he was, she was never sure if he listened or not.
Coming to the last rise before the cabin, she stopped at the top of the hill. Peace engulfed her like a blanket as she looked out over the valley. Crisscrossed with moon shadows and moose trails it was the epitome of peaceful serenity. This was where she needed to be to figure out what she was going to do next, and how to let the hurt go. But, first, there were the practical considerations. She arrived at the cabin just as the sun was hitting the west side peaks lighting them with pink morning glow.
She easily fell in to the chores to get the cabin ready for the habitation, hoping that the movement would loosen the knot registering her muscles’ complaints to carrying the pack. It had been a few years, and she still knew the way, but her muscles were telling her they had forgotten what it felt to carry a full pack on an all-night ski. She knew she would pay for it in the morning, but for now a fire, some food and the bed were what she needed. Picking up the kindling for the stove, she took a final look at the sunlight on the mountains before heading inside. The way her foot automatically slid back to put the draft stopper in place at the bottom of the door made her feel like the cabin was welcoming her home.
That was what she loved about coming here. Nothing changed inside the cabin; it was always the same, timeless. Dividing the single room was a rope with clothespins for drying outer garments that draped higher over the pot-bellied wood stove. The old rocker and the small frame bed took up the back part of the room. Smiling wryly, she looked at the cabin’s “kitchen” which consisted of two metal tubs, some shelves on the wall with an assortment of candles, matches and survival rations above and a small table that was kept level with a folded matchbook cover just below. She could still see the gouge marring the back of the chair from the weekend she and Rich had decided to have a knife throwing competition. Shaking her head to dismiss the reverie she opened the flue and knelt to start a fire.
It had only taken her a couple of hours to do all the chores to settle in and make the cabin comfortable, yet the sun was casting an orange/peach evening alpine glow on the eastern peaks as she started to use some of the newspaper as chinking for the holes in the cabin walls. She used one of the candles from the kitchen stores as a way to find where the cold was coming in and was soon efficiently plugging the worst of the holes. Completing the last wall, she tossed the remaining paper on top of the wood in the woodbin and set the candle in the holder on the table.
A soft smile crossed her face as she remembered the night Rich had nailed the tin candleholder to the table. No more sober than he was at the time she could not argue the logic behind the act as they had been talking about people taking everything that was not “nailed down.” She sighed and gave a few moments thought to what could have been, and then, turning from the memory altogether, began preparing a dinner for one. She did not even bother to light the lamp, she blew out the candle and ate in the flickering light escaping from the woodstove before falling exhausted into bed.
Shivering, she pulled the covers tighter around her shoulders. Damn it was freezing! Why doesn’t someone turn up the heat? It took her a moment to realize where she was. Remembering how she hated the “middle of the night feed the stove scamper,” she was careful to pull the covers over the warm spot as she slid out of bed. Stealing a moment in the blissful heat emanating from the stove she waited until the wood fully caught before closing the door and turning down the damper. Hoping it was going to be enough to last the remainder of the night she climbed back between the covers and attempted to recapture what warmth was left.
Freezing her head mid-turn as she was snuggling down into a chilly pillow, she strained to hear. Surely, her ears were playing a trick on her. She had almost convinced herself that she had been wrong when… Yes! There! Distorted by distance and faint as the breath of a night wind she heard it. Smiling to herself, she snuggled down into the growing warmth of the bed. She had not expected to hear the pack tonight as she had seen no sign of them on the trek in and it normally took them a few days to come see who was at the cabin. The pack were old friends and their distant but distinct presence helped her slip back into slumber with a soft smile on her lips.
Picking up the boxes she set the powdered eggs and pancake mix on the table before grabbing the snow pail and going outside for more to melt. “Oh! Well now!” She stopped short as she shut the door behind her. “Just how are all of you? I didn’t expect you guys until this afternoon.”
On the other side of rough wood deck railing sat three large canines, wolves, large and intelligent. Six inquisitive eyes watched her as she crossed to the side of the porch and filled the snow pail with a practiced scoop. Turning back towards the door, she addressed the animals and asked her usual questions of greeting: “So, where is he? Did you bring him back to me?” Holding the door open, she called to the canines: “Artemis. Arthur. Amber. Come!” At the slap of her hand on her thigh streaks of black, brown and amber shot past her, leaping into the warmth of the cabin. She laughed at their antics and shaking her head, followed them into the now much smaller feeling room. The wolves bounded from one side of the room to the other.
“All right you three! Settle down.” Setting the pail on the back of the stove to melt she dropped down on her knees and with a flick of her fingers gave Amber the “okay to approach” signal. Burying her face into the amber ruff she inhaled. Fresh air and must mixed with cold tickled her nostrils. Amber returned the affection by promptly knocking her flat on her back. Knowing she had no choice and laughing so deep it nearly hurt, she gave herself over to a tangle of fur, tongues, paws, cold noses, shrieks and giggles as Amber’s brothers took the opportunity to turn the welcome into a game of pile on the human.
“Oooof! Okay, off. Off! OFF!” she scolded as she finally pushed the animals away. Clapping her hands in command, she scrambled up to her feet. Obeying faster than their wild nature would indicate, the wolves laid down sharing the area near the stove. “I guess I better make some extra pancakes, but not too many.” Shaking a finger at the group, she continued “You eat better when you eat what you hunt.” Feeling no fear at turning her back to the three one hundred twenty-five pound predators, she pulled the mixing bowl down from the shelf and began adding ingredients to it. Turning to the stove to retrieve the snow-melt water, she shook her head and wondered “How do you three look so darned cute? You’re wolves. Don’t you know you’re supposed to be ferocious?” With a warm smile she made sure to give pats, lingering on each for a moment to marvel at the warmth and intelligence she felt there.
The wolves were really the only connection she allowed herself to have with Rich. It was hard to believe that tonight he will have been gone five years. But it was the summer they had spent together at the cabin while he did his research as a biologist for the state that kept her coming back. She had come to love the wolves as much as she loved him.
It had been a summer of magic, exploration, making love by the heat of the fire and the light of the moon, long hikes and skinny dipping in water so cold it turned their lips blue. Touching, exploring, learning and knowing each other in ways no one else ever tried. That summer had been idyllic. He had proposed down by the beaver dam with a ring of woven reed grass and they had left the valley the next morning, “heading back to civilization and people” as he had called it. He had gone to South America in the fall to do some kind of study in the Andes, she was never sure what it was other than it had something to do with little mammals. He had been so excited when he left – for a small town boy from Chugiak, Alaska a trip to South America for six months was so very exciting. Then, that phone call.
A whine and Amber leaned heavy against her leg and brought her out of her reverie. Reaching down she gave the ginger colored canine a grateful pat on the head. “Thanks sweetie. Sometimes some things just shouldn’t be thought about anymore.” With a decided change in tone, she addressed the other two wolves: “Okay. Artemis? Arthur? Are you boys ready? Let’s make you guys some pancakes, shall we?” Grabbing the bowl and flat grill she set to the stove and stirred the ingredients in the bowl giving time for the griddle to heat. The wolves, taking up most of the floor space, watched as she began to cook.
Outside in the real world it was hard to remember, but here it was easy. It was easy to remember the scents of sandalwood and patchouli, his favorites. Here she could remember his smile, the broken front tooth that did not mar his good looks. It finished off the scar that seamed his cheek, he had told her it was from a childhood incident and made it clear that was all he would say. Here she could remember how secure it had felt to take on more physically demanding challenges with him. Who else could have gotten her to go rappelling?
Her thoughts flipped with the pancakes and brought her back to the present. Life wasn’t so bad, she had friends, she had family, but damn… she was lonely and she missed him. That was why she had to come here… to be able to keep him alive in her thoughts. She was terrified she would lose her ability to remember him if she did not keep coming back. As she removed the first round of pancakes, waving them cool and dropping them on the floor for the wolves, she forced herself to think of her future… something she did not do much anymore. She was always living in the present and had been since receiving that phone call from Danny. But she knew she was wearing that like a shell and somehow she needed to find a way to break out of it. A part of her never wanted to leave the valley, but life was not like that. No matter how many times she came back here she could not make that summer happen again, she could not make Rich come alive, but she could remember him! Finishing her breakfast, she tossed the last of the pancakes to the wolves and using hot water from the stove, made quick work of cleaning the kitchen.
“Alright, I gave you fattening human food, now it’s time to run.” Reaching up for the harness on the wall, she stepped into her ski boots, snapped them on, and pulling on her parka and gloves opened the door. As the wolves sauntered out she teased: “Okay, if having them makes you move that slow, no more pancakes for you.”
When they hit the porch the wolves leapt into the snow and began rolling, playing and nipping at one another like puppies. Their bright eyes and quick response to her “here” command let her know they had not forgotten. Artemis squirmed in anticipation as she approached him; Arthur, the most wolf-like always watched her with a wary eye; while Amber, the last into the harness waited patiently until the final buckle was done then licked her in the face a long happy lick. Looping the reins of the harness over the railing, she put on her skis, then grabbed the lead. Bracing herself she gave the “Hi-yah” command that Rich had taught them. Starting from when they were puppies being hand raised because their mother abandoned them, the harness had been more of a game than a chore. She remembered how she and Rich had made it a game for themselves too by making a racecourse around the valley and challenging one another to see who could make the best time. A wry smile crossed her lips as she remembered his frustration that her time on the “wolf track” was always shorter. Promising herself not to cry, but losing the battle anyway, she gave the wolves their head and felt the rush of air as they broke into a full run. Ice prickled the skin at the outside of her eyes as her tears froze to her skin in the arctic air.
The air bit into her flesh as the wolves hit their stride and settled into the trek around the valley. It was a path they knew well. It started out being the path Rich had taken to check for bear in the summer. Loving the run, the wolves ran with the grace of the wind and the joy of abandon and she had to focus on holding her balance, enjoying the quick views of the mountains surrounding her. Tell’s Peak, the highest, was in the East and Crevit’s Crag answered it in the West. The others she never knew the name of and did not really care… they were beautiful, solid, always right there… they were… mountains.
The healing energy of the valley began to seep into her body as the wolves loped along their habitual track, tongue lolling from wide canine smiles. The cold seemed to be burning deep inside her, yet it cleansed somehow clearing the pain away. Or, maybe, the cold, being cold, just deadened it a little? She did not want to think hard enough to know the difference. She just wanted to be in the now: hear the wolves breathing, the pad of their feet on the snow, the feel of the cold air in her lungs… she just wanted to live, the last thing she wanted to do was think.
It was nearly dusk when the wolves returned her to the cabin. That was always the nice thing about letting them have their way. Like horses who knew the way home to the barn, they knew when it was time to come home and the best way to get there. Rich had teased her that it had nothing to do with actual intelligence and everything to do with knowing when and where it was feeding time. He had tried to explain something about this guy Pavlov, but she could never quite understand why someone would do that to a dog and all Rich could do was shake his head at her and laugh, then he had kissed her on the forehead.
Petting the ruff fur of each animal as she unstrapped them from the harness, she sent each animal off with a pat on the head. On her word “go” each of them headed off in their own direction. Artemis determinedly sniffing a moose trail, Arthur rolling over onto his back in the snow before heading into the trees. Amber giving a soft whine before quietly turning away. She knew they would be back in a matter of just a few minutes – they liked the warmth of the fire and human food.
Slam! She dropped the mixing bowls on the floor. SLAM! What was going on!? She ran to the door yelling: “Who’s out there? Who are you?” Taking the.41 from the holster by the door she unhooked the latch and opened the door a crack just in time to see Amber running towards the cabin. Slam! The wolf had thrown herself against the wall of the cabin full force!
“What are you doing Amber? Amber!” She dropped the gun back in the holster. Not even having time to get her coat before Amber’s brothers entered the cabin, she was completely passive as the boys each took gentle hold of her wrist in their mouths and pulled her toward the door, an echo of the “out please” game she and Rich had played with them as pups. She knew better than to fight them and let them lead her outside into the icy air. As soon as they were outside the boys let her go and all three wolves slowly walked away from the cabin.
They raised their muzzles to the sky and howled at the sheets of white, yellow, green, and red of the northern lights. Running across the sky from horizon to horizon, strips of color were lighting up the night. The lights were so bright they reflected off the peaks in a pearlescent echo. The swirling colors moved with sheets, rays, and flows holding her captive. She watched them dancing, swirling, moving. Somehow, the mournful tone of the wolves’ howling was the perfect accompaniment for the glory in sky and the depths of her thoughts. She was never sure when she started feeling him behind her. She was afraid to turn around. Sandalwood and patchouli! Oh God! Warmth, as if he melded his body to hers. Was it real? This was always the part where she doubted her sanity. His chin on her shoulder, his breath on her neck, warm and smelling like the rose hips he always ate. His voice whispering in words just beyond hearing; she did not care if he was real or not! It felt real and for this, for now, that was enough. She gave in. There was nothing else she could do. She watched the lights, she felt him with her and that he was watching the lights with her as they had done so many times. She just stood there, not thinking, just feeling; she knew she would never feel him like this again. She was not sure, but, just as the cold had started to register and break the spell, she thought that could have been his voice in a whisper of night air giving her the gift of a goodbye.
A flood of tears chilled her face as the emotions held behind a brittle veneer of fear for five years finally burst forth freeing her. She stood there in the cold as long as she could before turning to the warmth of the cabin. She was different, changed. She knew now. She knew she could go on, that she wanted to find something beyond herself and her memories of him. Glancing over her shoulder, she could see that the wolves were leaving… Amber turned one last time to howl mournfully before disappearing behind her brothers into the trees. She knew they would never be back. They had shared that one final time with she and Rich and now they had returned where they belonged – the wilds of the upper vale.
When she saw Danny show up the next morning she was glad, not irritated. Watching as he made his way across the valley, she had hot chocolate, fried potatoes and beef with gravy on the table when he arrived. For the first time in years, they sat and talked about the big brother he had loved so much and the man she had hoped to spend her life with, laughing and crying late into the night. In the morning, they closed up the cabin and left, knowing they were finally able to leave the grieving and pain behind. Rich would always be there with them, in their hearts, right where he belonged.