Desert of Trees
by M. Bennardo
Nasnan waited all day and all night for Tadzi to return.
Twice in that time, she built a fire from the endless supplies of dry sticks that carpeted the ground under the snow. She began with handfuls of brown needles that flared under the sparking chert and steel, and continued to feed the little tongues of flame until spruce and pine twigs curled and crackled before her.
Both times, Nasnan melted snow in the tin pot and boiled spruce needles as tea for Tadzi, but still he did not come. And both times, the fire looked very small and very useless under the great hunched pines of the taiga with their drooping, snow-laden branches. Amid the fuzzy white fog of day and the starless black shroud of night, the little flickering patch of warmth and light was all but obliterated by the vastness and sameness all around. If Tadzi were lost in those woods, then such an insignificant beacon would never bring him home.
But, no, there were his footprints in the snow, leading out from their camp and winding far off through the trees. If he were lost, all he had to do was follow them back again.
On the first day, Nasnan played with Peni until the infant fell asleep, telling her the names for everything that surrounded them in the forest. Once she had exhausted everything she could see--from ts'ivii daddzal, the pine cone, to nyą', the moss--she began to name the creatures who were hidden under the snow, or up in the branches, or dispersed far and wide in the taiga, many who were rarely seen.
Geh, the hare, left great tripping tracks for trappers to examine. Dlak, the squirrel, collected pine cones and ate their protected seeds. Ch'izhir, the great bull moose, grazed on the bitter needles of the evergreen trees, filling the woods with his grunts and bellows.
Deetryą', the raven, patrolled the woods in the summer. Tsee', the beaver, gnawed at trees and built himself both a house to live in and a pond to protect it. Nahtryah, the wolverine, ate gluttonously of anything he found.
And ninjii, the lynx, stole quietly and stealthily through the woods so that he was no more seen or heard than a ghost.
When the first day ended, Nasnan was tired with talking and could remember no more words to tell Peni. As the fire collapsed into nothing and the infant fell asleep, Nasnan tried not to lose herself in despair. Tadzi would return in the night, bearing skinned and trussed hares, enough to get them a few days closer to Dawson City--or at least to the river where fish and game would be plentiful again.
On the second day, Nasnan was too worried to play with Peni. Instead, she built the fire in anticipation of Tadzi's early return and tried not to think about her grumbling stomach.
Surely, Tadzi had been forced to go farther than expected to find game. Night had overtaken him, and he had stopped to sleep in a snow cave rather than travel the freezing taiga at night. But now, in the morning, he would rise and make his way back.
After the second fire died and the spruce tea cooled, Nasnan wrapped Peni in the warmest blanket and strapped her across her back with the baby belt. Nasnan recalled how her mother had been proud of the beadwork on the belt, and how she had warned her to let Tadzi make the journey to Yukon Gwinjik alone.
It was his gold, she had said, his foolish plan. It was enough to have lived with him alone in that valley for two summers while he scraped and panned in the frigid river. Let him labor over the mountains and across the taiga alone if he must sell it now.
But she had not listened.
Leaving the hand-sled behind and hanging the little remaining food from a high spruce branch, Nasnan set off on Tadzi's trail. With every step she full-hoped and half-expected to meet him on his return trip. Tadzi would be upset to find her on his trail instead of minding a tin of scalding tea, but Nasnan could not spend another day in camp alone, idly waiting.
The edges of Tadzi's footprints had melted and softened the day before, but had frozen again into sharp outlines in the cold of the night. The footprints crunched and flaked as Nasnan trudged over the frosty crust. The trail followed the undulations of the landscape, up ridges and down into dales, but everywhere under the same dense pine and spruce cover, the forest of the taiga, close and regular and as still as an engraving.
Here and there, Nasnan found places where Tadzi had stopped to rest or watch. Perhaps he had spied some animal from this ridge. Perhaps he had adjusted his moccasins in this hollow. Perhaps here he tried to take the time from the sun, but found it hopelessly lost amid branches and fog.
At last, Tadzi's trail met up with that of a moose. Nasnan could see the hoofprints leading Tadzi on, farther and farther away. At intervals, low-hanging spruce twigs were bitten off, living wood showing yellow under the twisted ends. Then there was another spot where Tadzi had paused, and here Nasnan imagined her husband taking aim at the hunched bulk of the moose with the rifle.
No doubt there'd been a sharp crack, the percussion of the rifle echoing off the countless trunks that surrounded the spot, clumps of snow knocked loose from branches--perhaps a lazy ptarmigan startled from her hiding place. But Tadzi had shot true. She could tell that from the purpose with which his steps moved forward, great and rapid strides towards the spot where the moose must have stood.
A hundred yards later, the snow around the moose tracks was flecked with blood. The shot had been true, but not clean. The bellowing bull had floundered on through the snow, though every step must have been another agony to him.
But instinct spurred him on, and Tadzi followed after. Here was the explanation, perhaps--Tadzi had tracked the dying moose for miles, on and on and into the twilight, unwilling to give up on his prize. The meat was too precious to be abandoned.
But still the thought nagged at Nasnan's mind. If this were true, surely she must have met Tadzi on his way home by now.
At last, the trail led Nasnan to the edge of a muskeg, one of the many wide peat bogs that studded the taiga. The trail led out from under the trees and across the snow-capped hummocks of the bog, under the open sky above. Nasnan knew without looking further what the sequel must have been. In desperation, moose and man had tried to cross, and one at least had broken through the brittle surface, dropping fatally into the frigid water below.
With a sinking heart, Nasnan followed the perimeter of the muskeg. It was two miles or more before she made the full loop, and no footprints or hoofprints had crossed her trail. Both sets stopped somewhere out on the bog, where Nasnan dared not go.
It had been stupid of Tadzi to follow the moose that way. He should have gone around, just as Nasnan had done. But he no doubt had been thinking of the tasks ahead of him--the skinning and butchering of the animal, and the long trail back to his wife and infant. Wanting to return before dark, he had rashly gone ahead when he should have stopped.
Perhaps the surface of the bog had swayed and groaned under his feet as he crossed it. If so, he must have ignored the warning, keeping his eyes on the moose tracks, reasoning that he could safely step where the heavy moose had gone before.
But somewhere between this point and the other shore, his foot had pressed on the wrong spot, some weakness in the crust that the moose had stepped over. In an instant, he had disappeared through the surface, leaving no sign but a little pool of stagnant red water that would now slowly close over with the sphagnum of the bog.
And he had taken the gun and compass along with him, as well as his knowledge of the woods.
Nasnan sat at the edge of the muskeg, wiping tears from her face. But the wind rose, cutting through her parka and raising a cry from Peni. She stood and turned back on her own trail, back to where she had left the hand-sled. It was the only place she knew to go.
A hundred miles of mountains and taiga lay between the northerly flowing Teetl'it Gwinjik and the southerly flowing Yukon Gwinjik. Tadzi and Nasnan had already covered perhaps twenty of them together--some of the hardest ones, pulling and pushing the hand-sled together over the drifts of the mountain passes.
On Yukon Gwinjik, there had been a Hän fishing village called Tr'ochëk. But the newcomers had pushed the Hän downriver, and now only the new settlement of Dawson City remained. Clapboard houses lined muddy streets in the bowl of the valley, with lines of tents sprawling in every direction. Along the rivers and creeks of the Yukon valley, the prospectors crouched almost shoulder to shoulder over their pans.
Tadzi had gone north to pan for his gold--up to the waters of Teetl'it Gwinjik, where he had been born among the Gwich'in and where he knew he would be almost entirely alone. After two years of sifting the glittering flakes from the river, he had set off across those hundred miles of mountains and taiga, back to Dawson City where he could trade the gold for dogs, sleds, and traps.
But Tadzi was gone now. Nasnan and Peni remained--but they had almost no food, no gun, no map, no compass, and no trail to guide them. And neither did the taiga in early spring provide much nourishment to those who could not eat spruce needles or pine cones. They could hope to meet few animals, and fewer humans.
For thousands upon thousands of square miles, the taiga spread across the continent like a desert of trees. Nasnan needed to cross eighty miles of it at least--and that was if she could keep her bearings in the obscuring fog and canopy. She had the hand-sled to pull as well, and her baby, drinking the very life out of her body with every passing day. How long would it take? Eight days, twelve days, sixteen?
Without food, she would be exhausted long before then. Without food, eighty miles might as well be eight hundred or eight thousand.
Dusk was gathering by the time Nasnan returned to camp. As the hand-sled came into view under the darkening canopy, she was surprised to see something moving on top of it. Weary and numb though she was, Nasnan crouched in the twilight and crept forward to see.
Some large animal had its snout in an old flour bag which had been used to carry food, rooting around after the lingering smell of dried fish. Nasnan could see only the lush grey and white fur of its hind legs and the black tip of its bobbed tail. She drew in her breath, but barely dared to believe her eyes.
But there--the animal drew out of the bag, its head scanning the forest warily, as though searching for the source of some strange sound. Nasnan now could clearly see the black ear tufts, the bristling whiskers, and the flat face of the ninjii--the lynx.
The lynx was secretive, shy, and rarely seen. Nasnan had touched their soft pelts and had heard stories told by trappers, but never had she seen a living lynx with her own eyes. For a moment, she simply sat and held her breath as the cat looked from tree to tree, puffs of breath misting in front of its whiskers in the quickly cooling air.
Then it buried its head back in the empty food bag, and Nasnan began to have a different idea. Though beautiful and wonderful, the lynx was also game of a sort. This one alone, a young male, must weigh twenty pounds or more. The cat could mean life for both her and Peni. If it had come a day earlier, it could have meant life for Tadzi too.
Silently, Nasnan crept forward until she crouched behind the lynx. Still groping blindly in the bag, it took no notice. Then grasping the bag on either side, Nasnan hauled up quickly with a loud cry and brought her hands together, trapping the animal inside.
For one glorious moment, she held the lynx. But the bag kicked and wriggled with unexpected force. Just as Nasnan wrenched her arms to get a better grip, there came a tearing sound. The claws of the lynx raked through the thin fabric of the old flour bag, and in a flash it was on the ground, streaking away through the woods, pausing only to give a single backward glance before disappearing for good.
And like that, Nasnan had nothing again.
The next morning, Nasnan went through the bundles on the hand-sled. She discarded the now-useless ammunition for the gun and forced herself to pile Tadzi's blankets on the snow as well. Though she paused a moment over the two bags of gold--both impossibly heavy for their small size--she left them on the sled.
As the morning wore on, she found herself doing chores around the camp--boiling spruce tea to quell her growing hunger, collecting dry moss for Peni's bottom, even scrubbing out the insides of the empty food bags with handfuls of snow in an attempt to remove the fish smell.
But at last she knew that she must begin. She bared her breast to Peni, worriedly feeling the heaviness of the milk leave her body, for she knew it cost her much to give it. Then she cut down the small bag of food and ate one of the two pieces of fish it held--her first meal in two days. At last, she picked up the hand-sled's rope and began to pull with all her might.
Moving the hand-sled alone was a terrible task. Nasnan missed Tadzi's grunts and whoops as he pushed from behind. She had to break the sled out of its frozen ruts herself, lifting and pulling to the left and right, jerking the heavy sled as far as it would go in each direction in a desperate bid to get it moving. Once started, it was easier to keep up the momentum. But for the first few moments, Nasnan did not know if her strength would be enough.
However, Nasnan was soon pulling the hand-sled through the mist-shrouded taiga, heading in the direction that seemed most like southwest to her. The taiga lay silent and still, her feet crunching through the snow and her blood beating in her brain as she struggled up hills, then raced down their slopes, carrying Peni strapped across her back.
Nasnan was exhausted long before dusk fell, but she pushed herself on and on. She knew she had only a few days to cover the eighty miles to Yukon Gwinjik before her strength failed. The task seemed impossible, but these early days at least she must do as much as possible--or admit that she and Peni were both bound to die.
At last, Nasnan stopped and collapsed. She didn't know how many hours she had traveled, nor how many miles. She didn't even know exactly what direction she had been heading. Even worse, this day she had seen squirrels and small birds, but nothing that would have made much of a meal even if she had the means to kill or catch it. For a long time, she cried.
Then she wiped her eyes and stood on weary legs in the gathering dusk. Somehow, her tears had invigorated her. Though her head ached and her hands trembled with hunger, she collected kindling and built the beginnings of a fire.
Nothing stirred in the woods. Even the squirrels and birds were quiet now. Nasnan sat by her little fire waiting for her meltwater to boil, Peni resting against her breast. For a moment she wondered at the eerie silence in a careless, half-thinking way.
And then, in the dark part of the woods just beyond the fire's rim of light, she saw him placidly watching her through narrowed eyelids.
The lynx had returned.
For a long time, Nasnan did nothing. The lynx merely looked at her, its yellow eyes staring with stupid interest at the fire, the sled, the woman, and the child. It must have made a pathetic tableau, thought Nasnan, weary and bedraggled and tear-stained as she was.
The lynx, for his part, was beautiful. But it was an empty, unconscious beauty, with no connection to the interiority of the cat. Whatever intelligence lurked behind his eyes was concerned only with his own affairs. Nasnan had the feeling that the trees, the snow, the bogs, the plants, and the animals of the taiga existed, for this lynx, entirely within the scope of himself. What was there, he took. What was not, he did not think about. Looking into the eyes of the lynx, Nasnan felt her status as an intruder more keenly than ever.
Hardly knowing what she was doing, Nasnan took the last piece of dried fish from the bag on the sled. At her movement, the lynx tensed, ready to flee if the need should arise. But then, at the smell of the fish, the cat crept forward a step, yawning and licking its lips. Something seemed to be passing through its mind--some calculation of risks and rewards--but still it stayed caught between.
Nasnan broke off a little piece of the fish and tossed it past the fire. The lynx watched her curiously, suspiciously, as if expecting the offering to be the opening of a trick. Even after the bit of fish had fallen at his feet, it was a long time before he reached out with his nose to sniff it. An instant later, the lynx lunged at the morsel, swallowing it whole.
Nasnan sighed. "Well, ninjii," she said. "Yesterday I wanted to eat you, but tonight I am feeding you instead."
Despite her great hunger, the taste of the fish was sour in her mouth. It didn't seem to matter whether she prolonged life one more day. Whether she ate now or not, she would walk as far and as long as she could, but still she would collapse before she reached the river and not be able to rise again.
Nasnan wearily threw away the last piece of fish away, tossing it at the feet of the lynx. At least he might have a chance--this little morsel might make the difference between survival and death for him.
"Good luck to you, ninjii," whispered Nasnan drowsily. As her head nodded on her breast, she tried not to think of how the taiga lay waiting for the even greater gifts of nourishment bound up in her own body, in Peni's body.
But then a voice came through the fog of sleep. "What are you?"
Nasnan shivered and opened her eyes. "I am tr'injaa, the woman," she murmured, her eyes fixed on the lynx.
"Why are you here?" The lynx's mouth did not move, but it was clear somehow that he was the one asking.
"I followed my husband here, but now he is gone. I am looking for Yukon Gwinjik, where I will be safe."
"I do not know what that is."
"There are many rivers."
Nasnan said nothing--what reply could she make? The pine twigs popped in the fire, and a grey owl began his deep whooing far out among the trees.
"You caught me earlier," said the lynx at last, "and kept me close and dark."
"Yes, ninjii." Nasnan smiled bitterly as she thought of it. "I caught you in a bag."
The lynx shifted on its paws. "Can you do it again, tr'injaa? Can you do it with ptarmigan or hare?"
"Yes, ninjii, of course," said Nasnan. "But only if they are as close to my hand as you were."
The lynx's bobbed tail swished from side to side, firelight glinting off its eyes. He cocked his head as the owl began whooing again, and a shiver seemed to run down his body.
Nasnan smiled, feeling the true absurdity of this dream at last. "Shall we catch ptarmigan and hare together tomorrow, ninjii? Will you chase them happily into my bag?"
The lynx said nothing for a long time. Then, finally, he spoke.
"Perhaps," was all he said.
By morning, Nasnan had almost forgotten the dream. But as she scattered the ashes of the fire, she could not help seeing the paw prints in the snow on the far side. That much had been true--and from the pitiless grinding of her stomach, it seemed that Nasnan really had thrown away the last of the food.
As gloom and despair descended, Nasnan put Peni to her breast. After only a moment, she was startled by the sound of the lynx's voice again.
"What is that?" he asked.
The hair rose on Nasnan's neck as she looked around. The cat stood on a nearby ridge of sparkling snow. She tried not to appear surprised. "She is tr'iinin tsal, the baby."
"She will grow to be like you?"
The lynx crept closer and looked from Nasnan to Peni. "During a bad year, a lynx has no cubs."
"Is this a bad year, ninjii?"
The lynx looked serious. "Very bad."
"How old are you?"
The lynx said nothing, seemingly unable to understand. He didn't seem perplexed or annoyed. He merely ignored what he did not know.
"I have found ptarmigan," he said at last. "Will you catch them, tr'injaa?"
"We must work together, ninjii," said Nasnan.
"I will show you where they are."
Nasnan shook her head softly. "If you want me to catch them, you must do more than that. You must also do what I say."
The lynx looked back and said nothing. His face was a cipher, just as if the words had once again gone through him unnoticed and unheeded.
Nasnan did not expect the hunt to go well. It was in vain that she explained her simple plan to the lynx--that she should sneak around the far side of the two birds, and that the lynx should startle them in her direction. He only gave her the same flat, stupid stare when she tried to instruct him.
But when the time came, some instinct seemed to take over. The lynx flattened himself close to the ground as he stalked the waddling ptarmigan, keeping his distance and darting glances at Nasnan as she made her way in a large loop around the two birds, praying that Peni continued to sleep quietly on her back.
The ptarmigan had just begun to change to their spring plumage, brown feathers showing here and there among the white. They seemed lost in their own concerns as they pecked in the snow in a larch grove. As the lynx leaped at them from behind a tree, both birds ran with fluttering wings as the lynx skidded after them with bared teeth and batting paws.
With a hop, the ptarmigans took flight, wings whirring as they buzzed along through the trees, narrowly missing collisions with trunks as the lynx snapped his jaws shut on empty air and came to a sullen stop behind. After fluttering on for a twenty yards, they stopped together almost at Nasnan's feet. As they stupidly shook out their feathers and preened away their surprise, Nasnan snatched up both the birds and quickly wrung their necks, depositing the carcasses in a bag.
Nasnan would not give the lynx his ptarmigan right away. "Let me pluck it for you tonight," she said as they trudged back to where they had left the hand-sled.
The lynx said nothing as he followed close beside her. Nasnan didn't know whether the lynx had any concept of plucking, or whether he would care one way or the other. But she knew that he was selfish and impulsive, and she was afraid he would run away as soon as the bird was in his mouth.
To Nasnan, he was an improbable sliver of hope. If she hoped to live, he needed to stay with her at least a few days more.
"This way," said the lynx, once Nasnan had harnessed herself to the hand-sled again.
"I must go southwest, ninjii, towards the river."
"This way," said the lynx again, running a little way into the woods ahead, due south.
Nasnan paused a moment, calculating. If she followed the lynx, it would add more miles to the journey, but perhaps it was worth it to keep the animal satisfied with her company. "Very well."
Later, in the waning afternoon, Nasnan stopped. The hand-sled coasted to a rest behind her. She puffed heavily and wiped the chilly perspiration from her temples. All around, the taiga was interleaved with mist, white and heavy, shrouding everything in its wrap.
"What is it?"
Nasnan tried to take her bearings among the fog. "We are going the wrong way."
The lynx merely yawned, letting a shiver run through his body and shaking it out his haunches and tail.
"Where are we going?" asked Nasnan. "The ground has sloped up the last two hours. It should go down, towards the river valley."
"It is better this way," said the lynx. "This is where I have always hunted."
Nasnan sat on the sled, trying to think. How could she convince the lynx to abandon its instinct to return to its own territory? Surely he was right, that it was better for him to go east, deeper into the wilderness. But that was not better for her or for Peni. They must reach Dawson City.
"I must nurse," said Nasnan at last, unslinging the child.
The lynx watched silently, and Nasnan shut her eyes. Despair gathered in her breast again, but she only hoped the lynx would not speak. If he did, she knew what he would say--what awful suggestion he would make concerning her child.
There was logic in it, of course. She alone might still walk out of the taiga, even without the help of the lynx. But survival seemed insufficient. If she left the taiga alone, it would be with a great permanent hollow in heart.
"Ninjii," said Nasnan at last, her voice trembling.
"Ninjii," said Nasnan again. "I will stay with you." She held Peni to her breast, shaking even harder now with emotion. "Come with me where I want to go, to Dawson City, and I will leave the child there and then follow you wherever you would go."
The lynx was quiet for a long time. "Both of you follow," he said at last.
"No," said Nasnan, tears streaming from her face. "She weighs me down. I am not as fast or as strong when she is with me. My hands cannot do so many clever things. I will help you better when I have left her in Dawson City."
Again, Nasnan screwed her eyes shut. Again, she feared what suggestion the lynx might make. If he did, she knew that she would fly at him. In that case, her only hope was that he would fight, and she would kill him.
All he had to do was say what must be in his cold, instinctive, animal mind--then he would die and she would eat.
But he did not.
"Very well," was all he said instead.
In the evening, the lynx watched Nasnan carefully as she roasted her ptarmigan on a spit over the fire. The smell of the meat brought all the hunger back to Nasnan's belly. The lynx had long ago gnawed its own bird into a pile of feathers and bones scattered over the blood-stained snow. He had not, after all, wanted to wait for the plucking.
Finally, the lynx spoke. "If you do not stay," he said, "will you leave me some of your fire?"
Nasnan watched a gobbet of fat drip into the burning sticks. "What will you do with it, ninjii?"
"I will use it on cold nights," replied the lynx. "Very cold nights, when death hovers near."
A small shiver went up Nasnan's spine, though she tried to show no sign. She had not imagined that the lynx knew that someday he must die. She had believed that he must think himself immortal, indestructible, unique. "Where will you keep it, ninjii?"
The lynx licked his lips and lay down. "I know it burns," he said. "I have thought long about this. I will keep it on the tip of my tail, where the burns will not matter as much."
Nasnan reached into the fire to rearrange some of the sticks. As the heat scorched the skin of her hand, she withdrew and rubbed snow over the tender part. "It will be painful."
"Yes," said the lynx. "But pain is better than death."
Somehow, Nasnan felt the corners of her eyes pricked with tears. She told herself it was the burn on her hand, coupled with her exhaustion and hunger and worry. "I already promised you that I would stay," she said. Looking up, she could see the lynx looking back coolly and uncomprehendingly. "To promise means that I will do what I say."
Nasnan was glad that the lynx made no reply, and that silence followed for several minutes. But at last, the cat spoke again. "Why do you carry that dead thing with you always?" he asked. "Is it part of you?"
"That is my sled," said Nasnan. "It is where I keep my belongings. When I want to carry something heavy or cumbersome, it lets me keep it with me."
"If you put food on it, will it keep the food with you?"
The lynx closed his eyes, as if ready to sleep. "I will find a moose that you can put on the sled."
Nasnan laughed lightly. "Alive or dead?"
"I will find a moose."
For two days, they made good progress to the southwest, coming ever closer to the waters of Yukon Gwinjik. They saw very little game--only squirrels and little birds--and by the evening of the second day, Nasnan was as hungry again as she had ever been. The ptarmigan had bolstered her strength, but it only made her feel the return of hunger all the more keenly.
Perhaps the lynx had more reasons than simply fear of humans to want to go deeper into the wilderness. Perhaps he had known how barren these woods were this time of year. But in the evening of the second foodless day, as Nasnan boiled spruce tea for herself, the lynx once again repeated his promise: "I will find a moose."
The next morning, he was gone.
Nasnan waited over the packed hand-sled in the chilly morning air. The sky above was slate grey, and the pines and spruces loomed in the half-light. Somewhere above, she heard the faint patter of falling drops of rain spattering the boughs above. A few moments later, bigger and more frequent drops drilled pock-marks in the soft crust of the snow. It was time to go.
Spring was coming, and the taiga was changing. In a few weeks, the ground would be mostly bare and flowers and mushrooms would make the most of the interval, erupting from the sodden ground in the lengthening days. The ptarmigan would return to the tundra to breed, to be replaced by other birds, and the squirrels and hares would chase each other amorously as the moose filled the woods with the sounds of their rut. Even the pines themselves would reach up into the air again, growing their annual half-inch during the truncated season of light and warmth.
But for now, winter's grip was only loosened--not yet shaken off. The rain only made travel more difficult for Nasnan. Her hands were wet and chilled, and her moccasins floundered in the softening snow. The sled's runners caught in the slush as well, and she found herself forced to clear them again and again.
As she hauled on by herself, Nasnan began to doubt again the dream of the lynx. Had he been real at all? What she could remember seemed impossible--but somehow, she had not felt so at the time. But such thoughts brought with them more cold realities, and Nasnan remembered how far she had to go and how little strength.
Her footsteps slowed to a crawl, and then to a stop. She stood a moment in the rain, falling regularly and heavily now, the drops tracing cold lines down her face and pelting against her parka, leaving her sodden and broken in spirit. She dropped the rope for the hand-sled and stumbled forward a few steps more. Her head whirled and her knees trembled.
Unslinging Peni from her back, Nasnan held the child to her chest and hugged her. She could not bear to look into her daughter's face, so she simply clasped her to her body and shut her eyes. Time slowed and Nasnan imagined that this was what the end would be like.
It wasn't so bad.
It wasn't so terrible to have failed.
The falling rain was like silence, the chilly water was like numbness. Nasnan's thoughts were like the emptiness and carelessness that must come with death.
In a moment she would pick up the rope again, and pull the sled further on. But first, something called to her. Nasnan opened her eyes.
"Tr'injaa," said the lynx. "I have found a moose."
Nasnan was startled how quickly she slipped back into the dream again. Perhaps this, too, was a premonition of death? Perhaps this lynx was an emissary of the other world, or the disease of her dying mind? But still, with Peni belted across her back and the hand-sled trailing behind, Nasnan followed the lynx on under the trees, through the curtains of rain, over the softening snow.
Often, the lynx seemed to vanish into the distance ahead. He ran on, leaving Nasnan to follow his melting paw prints, leaving her to wonder again if he were real or not, until she caught sight of him once more. His rain-flattened ears drooped ridiculously over his face, and he shivered and sneezed the water away as he waited for Nasnan to catch up. And when she almost had, he would disappear again.
It was during one such disappearance when Nasnan stumbled into a small clearing. On the other side, only ten yards away, a wolverine was ripping at a long-frozen moose carcass, still half-buried in snow. Nasnan stopped short, the blood suddenly rising to her cheeks and temples. The barrel-chested wolverine paid her no heed at first, its jaws locked tight and its whole body working to worry some morsel free from the moose's frozen carcass.
Nasnan stood transfixed. She had a sudden image of Tadzi, as he stood at the edge of the bog, debating whether to follow his moose across. Had he, she wondered, made the wrong choice? Or simply the only choice? There were moments, perhaps, when a choice could be both inevitable and foolhardy at the same time.
Picking up a stout pine branch from the ground, Nasnan knocked it once against the trunk to her left and once against the trunk to her right. The wet wood did not make as loud a sound as she had hoped, but it seemed to catch the wolverine's attention. The lynx--if he existed at all--was nowhere to be seen. But Nasnan was done with waiting.
"Go on, nahtryah!" she called to the wolverine. "That's my moose now!" She waved her arms and tried to appear large and threatening.
The wolverine jumped back from the moose carcass, growling angrily through blood-stained lips, his teeth bared and his mouth red from feasting. His thick brown fur was shocked up into bristles around his powerful shoulders, his thick neck, his triangular head. Under his chest crossed a chevron of lighter fur, which showed more clearly as he raised himself on his front legs and snarled all the more fiercely.
Nasnan thumped her branch against the ground, making the wet snow splash. "Get out!" she called again. In truth, the wolverine should have been ridiculous rather than fearsome--he was really nothing more than an overgrown marmot. But Nasnan had heard stories enough of the ferocity of wolverines--how they had been known to bring down moose and elk, and how they would not hesitate to fight even a bear for carrion.
Neither did this wolverine seem inclined to leave the frozen moose carcass either. As the rain pelted harder, each drop a falling flint, he circled closer, twitching and bristling through a series of feints and little leaps. Nasnan turned to keep the wolverine always in front of her, feinting forward with the sharp end of her branch. From behind her, she could hear Peni beginning to cry on her back--woeful wails gathering at the sharpness of the rain and the strange, jerky movements of Nasnan's jabbing shoulders.
Jumping to the side, the wolverine landed on a slick patch of snow, his paws sliding out from under his body. Without thinking, Nasnan surged forward and knocked him across the shoulder with her branch, sending him off-balance again. Snarling and clawing, the wolverine slid another few feet on the slick snow, and then scrambled up and tried to pounce. Nasnan met him again with the branch, knocking him down. But this time, the wolverine merely rushed forward and latched on to her ankle, sharp teeth sawing through the leather of her tall moccasin.
Nasnan grunted in pain as she tried to shake the wolverine off. But its jaws were powerful, and the creature weighed at least twenty-five pounds. In the slippery snow and driving rain, Nasnan dared not kick her hardest for fear of falling and exposing her neck--or worse, her child--to the wolverine's fury. He became like a lead weight on her leg.
Panting and cursing, Nasnan tried to drive the branch down into the wolverine's skull from above, but her fingers were numb, the wood was slick, and her shoulders ached. She began to fear that the wolverine would never let go of her ankle. Clumps of bloody leather and goose-down collected at her feet.
"Let go, nahtryah!" yelled Nasnan desperately. "Let go!"
And then suddenly, the pain in her ankle seemed to go from dull to sharp, and stars flashed in the periphery of her eyes. But also, her leg had gone from heavy to light, and a great growling and howling could be heard below. Steadying herself carefully so as not to fall, Nasnan at last looked down to the clearing floor again and saw the lynx wrapped in a scrapping ball with the wolverine, jaws clicking and paws scratching as the two creatures fought.
The wolverine had been taken by surprise and never had the upper hand, but at last he succeeded in throwing the lynx off with strength alone. The wolverine leaped to his feet again, shaking with anger and surprise in the cold rain, while the lynx twisted and clawed at the snow where he'd been thrown. Nasnan, seeing the wolverine tense for a jump, rushed forward a few steps and heaved her branch as hard as she could at its head.
Though her foot skidded on the slick snow and though her eyes filled with rainwater, she heard a heavy crash as the branch struck home, followed by a pained snarl and a receding rustle that disappeared into the undergrowth.
As Nasnan's ankle gave way at last and she collapsed, she turned to the lynx again. He was standing just where he had been thrown, his face and shoulder torn and bloodied, his sides heaving rapidly as he cooled from the fight.
"Well, ninjii," said Nasnan. "You did what you said."
"Yes," said the lynx. "I promised."
Ten days later, Dawson City was within sight. The moose had been partially rotted, but there was enough good meat left that had never been thawed since the dead of winter when the animal had died. Nasnan and the lynx had spent the day huddled under the trees, waiting for the rain to stop so they could build a fire and dry themselves. At last, on the morning of the next day, they did.
The rain had frozen during the night, leaving the taiga floor slick but easy to pull the hand-sled over. Nasnan had cleaned and bound her ankle, slipping a wooden splint into her moccasin to take the weight off the tender parts. As she limped through the woods, the sled now laden with cuts from the moose, every pine and spruce needle glistened with a prismatic bead of frozen rain. By afternoon, they had all melted, and mist rose again from the taiga floor.
Nine more such days followed until they had walked out of the taiga near Dawson City. The river Yukon Gwinjik, milky with the meltwater of countless glaciers, poured through the valley in the beginning of its flood. The pines on the other side looked beautiful instead of desolate, green shaggy branches drooping over straight black trunks. And in the bowl of the valley below, line after line of tents stretched on the mud flats--the snow here long since beaten into water by the ceaseless tramping of men.
Nasnan's fingers trembled as she unloaded the gold bags from the hand-sled. She buried them in a snowdrift near the treeline, next to a rock that she knew she would remember. She didn't want to look at the lynx, but at last, she knew she had to. This was the moment he would redeem her promise to stay with him.
"Ninjii," said Nasnan quietly. "I am taking the sled and Peni with me down into the valley to Dawson City."
"Yes," said the lynx. He seemed unperturbed--this was only what they had agreed.
"Ninjii," said Nasnan again. "I am not coming back."
The lynx looked at her, but as always his face was inscrutable.
"You will die," said the lynx at last. "Without me, you will die."
Nasnan shook her head. "Not here. I can't explain how it is, but I will not die here."
The lynx made no reply, and the silence stretched on. There was nothing to say, no way to explain. There was nothing left to communicate.
"I lied, ninjii," said Nasnan. "I never meant to do what I said."
Again, there was no reply.
At last, Nasnan turned and began to walk down into the valley towards Dawson City. When she stopped to look back, the lynx was gone.
It took Nasnan some time to find someone who would buy her gold without cheating her too much. Many times she took a small amount of gold dust with her into Dawson City to see what the different buyers would offer. At last, when she found one who gave her more than the rest, she made him promise to the same terms for the bigger bags.
It took some more time for Nasnan to arrange transportation back through the taiga and over the mountains to the home she and Tadzi had left behind. As she finally marched out of Dawson City with the men who were heading north, she kept a keen eye open in the taiga for any signs of a lynx.
She saw none.
It was five years later, when Peni had grown to a rambunctious, spirited child, before Nasnan would see any lynx again. It was autumn, and Peni was running along the snare lines near the village when suddenly she stopped.
Nasnan behind her could see that one of the snares had been sprung, but that what dangled from it was not the expected hare. Instead, the sapling was bent low to the ground with the animal's unusual weight. A lynx hung from the end of the snare, caught by one of its back paws.
Before Nasnan could say anything, the child had reached out to touch the cat. There was a swipe, as quick as anything, and Peni clutched her forearm, sending up a loud wail. Rushing quickly to her side, Nasnan caught up her daughter and had only time to spare a short glance at the struggling lynx.
He was no longer a young lynx--five more years had not been kind to him. But she recognized the scar on his shoulder--three parallel grooves imperfectly covered over with muscle and fur, a memento of where the wolverine had sliced him to the bone.
"Stupid ninjii," muttered Nasnan. "Why did you come here? Why didn't you go back where you wanted to go?"
But still the lynx said nothing. He merely struggled harder in the snare, striking out with his paws as he dangled and twirled just above the ground. There was no flash of recognition in his face, no glint of intelligence in his eyes. He was simply ninjii, the lynx. Nothing more.
Nasnan slipped her knife from her wallet and cut the snare line. The lynx dropped heavily to the ground. Then, shaking himself off, he darted like an arrow into the underbrush nearby and disappeared forever into the woods.
Kakitso, fiction, Issue 19, June 1, 2012
Desert of Trees, fiction, Issue 21, December 1, 2012
Transatlantic, fiction, Issue 31, June 1, 2015
M. Bennardo's short stories appear in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Asimov's Science Fiction, Shimmer, Lightspeed Magazine and others. He is also editor of the Machine of Death series of anthologies. The second volume of the series, This Is How You Die, will be available from Grand Central Publishing in July 2013. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio.
His website is, http://www.mbennardo.com
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