Copyright © 2018 Alby Stone
Ahead, the Pole Star and a horizon hidden in darkness. Behind him, a long, meandering trail of furrowed footprints in the snow. Back further still, among trees and rocks, the shredded remains of his blue Cessna 185. Escaping that with only small cuts and a few bruises had been a miracle worthy of the time of year. But he was lost and cold and alone. His winter clothes wouldn’t keep him alive for long in the Alaskan night.
It had been a routine flight, right up until the storm hit. One last job before the holiday. Anchorage to Kodiak and back, returning home from a charter – scientists one way, cargo the other, he’d done it a hundred times without incident, could do it in his sleep. But not this time. First the lightning, then the wind, instrument failure followed by loss of power and a near-blind descent through dense snow and hailstones the size of his fist. A freak, completely outside his experience, impossible to predict. Not even time to send a distress call before the radio died and the plane slipped into its downward rollercoaster glide. Now he was in deep trouble.
The cargo – cardboard cartons filled with Inuit and Yup’ik handcrafted goods, small wooden carvings, necklaces and amulets made for tourists – had some minor cultural significance and maybe monetary worth but no survival value. Blankets would have been useful, maybe even a pair of snowshoes. Nor had there been anything in the plane. No weapons, no cigarette lighter or matches to make a fire, no food. All he had was an empty flare gun – fired and unanswered – and what he stood up in, a red anorak and lined cargo pants, Timberlands; thermal underwear, shirt and sweater. Dressed for cold, but not this kind of cold. This was Shit Creek, and he had no paddle. At least the grizzly bears would be fat and asleep at this time of year. But there were other predators. Not that he’d have to worry about them, not the way the temperature was falling.
He trudged on, the Pole Star his only target. There was nothing else to aim at. Hopefully, if he went north he would still be roughly on course for Anchorage. A long, hard trek, though he might just make it or strike lucky by stumbling across a road with traffic. A slim chance, but not wholly impossible. But if he’d overshot Anchorage completely and ended up in the Denali National Park, well, he might as well lie down and die right now. Six million acres of mountains, trees and snow might look beautiful on a postcard, but to a man in his position it meant only a cruel and sad death from exposure. Or worse.
What a shitty way to spend the last few hours of Christmas Eve. By now he should be in the Blue Fox or – his favoured hangout when a job paid out – Darwin’s Theory, knocking back a beer or two before going home to his apartment, then in the morning driving over to spend Christmas Day with his folks. Roast turkey and mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie. Giving and opening presents. His mother fussing over him as if he was still her little boy, his father smiling easily and spinning bourbon-lubricated yarns late into the evening. Would he ever see them again? It was looking doubtful.
He was tired but had to keep moving. Shivering was good, so was feeling cold. It was when you stopped feeling the cold that the real problems began. Hypothermia caused disorientation and hallucinations, and gave rise to irrational behaviour. Paradoxical undressing, a desperate shedding of clothes as blood vessels constricted to cause an unbearable and treacherous hot flash. Terminal burrowing, where you dug into the snow like an animal, a crazed last bid to keep warm, forgetting that human beings just weren’t designed to do that. Frostbite was another danger. His hands and feet were already numb, as were his nose and ears. Even if he was rescued, even if he somehow made it to safety, it was likely that not all of him would be going home.
A movement caught his eye, then another, just ahead and to his right, something slinking silently from tree to tree, little more than a shadow, hard to identify in the gloom. Whatever it was, it didn’t seem large enough to be a threat. A fox, probably – perhaps a lynx or wolverine. Animals that wouldn’t attack a grown human, though they wouldn’t think twice about feasting on his corpse. Not a wolf, at any rate. He was fairly sure of that. In this neck of the woods they travelled in packs. Please God, no wolves.
Or maybe he was suffering from that delusion he’d read about when he was a kid, where travellers in snowy wastelands think there is an additional member of their party, a phantom who vanishes when a count is made. Not a ghost, of course. He didn’t believe in ghosts. But surely it was only wise to be afraid of whatever out here might be mistaken for one?
Sometimes the very thought of fear brings the thing itself, a blind and unreasoning dread that may sometimes propel but more often than not simply petrifies. And now, by admitting its existence, he’d let it in. It filled his soul with an inner chill that matched his surroundings and threatened to overflow, to burst out as a scream. He fought it down and forced his feet to keep moving. One after another, striving to maintain pace length. Eyes fixed firmly ahead, no sideways glances. Swing that leg, half a yard and ram it forward, make another bone-wearying trough of a footprint. Then another, and another. Wishing he was shorter and less bulky, the belly smaller, less to carry around. So hard with the snow so deep, with freezing muscles and blood screaming for sugar, exposed skin yearning for honest warmth.
Keep going. You’ll soon be there.
You’ll see. Soon.
‘You’re a tough bastard, I’ll give you that. When your plane came down I gave you an hour, maybe two, assuming the crash hadn’t killed you outright. But six straight hours of walking in these conditions? By rights you should be very dead by now. I’m impressed.’
He opened his eyes and slowly sat up, surprised to find that he was indeed alive, lying on a bed and covered with thick blankets, the inner chill banished. Welcome heat from a fire he could not see. Something smelled good and cheering.
She spoke again. ‘Here, drink this. It’s not too hot, but take it slowly.’
He took the cup gratefully, sipped the extra-sweet coffee, the warm liquid soothing his chapped lips. The caffeine and sugar quickly hit the spot, quickening the blood and clearing some of the fog from his mind. His limbs and fingers were still stiff and his limbs ached, and his vision was slightly blurred. He examined his fingertips, gently touched his ears and nose. He wiggled his toes. Everything felt normal, no pain or numbness, nothing missing. He was alive and had astonishingly escaped even frostbite.
The woman came back into view. She was, he guessed, around thirty – pretty in a homely kind of way. Light brown hair worn long and loose, greying a little. Striking amber eyes. A grey dress from neck to ankle, long sleeves. Thin but lithe. Hands that spoke of hard work. Toothy, friendly smile. ‘How are you feeling?’
‘Tired and a little achy. Picked up a bruise or two in the crash. I feel good, though, considering the alternative. Where am I?’ His voice sounded strange, hoarse and wheezy. Obviously he wasn’t yet completely unfrozen. He drank more coffee. It tasted like fiery nectar.
‘My home. Found you lying in the snow nearby when I went out to look for rabbits a while ago. You were wet through, near-frozen on the outside. Had to take most of your clothes off. Hope you don’t mind.’
He realised that beneath the blankets he was only wearing his thermal vest and shorts, and laughed weakly. ‘Mind? You saved my life. I can’t thank you enough. You live out here on your own?’
‘Not at first. There were others.’ She shrugged. ‘It’s hard out here. They were old, got sick, accidents. Just me and the kids now. They’re in the other room now, sleeping.’
‘You have kids here?’
‘Boy and a girl, still pretty small.’ She looked away. ‘Their father passed just a month ago. Went hunting, never came back.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that. I guess it must be quite a way from the nearest town. Seems a strange place to live. I don’t mean to be rude.’
‘That’s okay. We came here just because it’s so isolated. Away from people, you know. It’s a good place to live, even in winter. Beautiful in sun or snow. It provides all I need, usually. It’s home.’
There was, he sensed, a story behind her words. The solitude, the simple clothes – he guessed maybe she belonged to some religious sect or back-to-nature movement. But there was also something strange about the cabin, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. It was square, maybe twenty feet by twenty, the walls hung with plain ochre and green blankets, no windows, just the hearth and the bed. He couldn’t see a stove or cooking range, chairs or cupboards. Maybe this was just one room of several – this must be a bedroom and that door must lead to a larger living area. But there was a white carpet, and in one corner was a Christmas tree, shrouded in tinsel, multicoloured baubles gleaming in the firelight, so tall its top was lost somewhere in that high, shadowed ceiling. It looked gorgeous.
‘Did you see my plane come down?’
She shook her head. ‘Heard it crash, that’s all. Nothing else out here to make a noise like that. I figured you’d be on your own. Light aircraft, late on Christmas Eve? Only working planes would be up there, and in these parts that usually means a one-man operation. Didn’t know exactly where it came down, or how far it was, so there wasn’t much point in going out to look. I guessed whoever was in it was heading for home. Roast turkey and mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie. Presents. Family. Mom and dad.’
‘How long have I been asleep?’
‘A few hours.’
‘It must be Christmas Day by now, damn it. I’m going to miss Christmas dinner.’
‘Don’t worry, there’s food here. Enough for a feast. Not that you need building up. Plenty of meat on those bones.’
His teeth began to chatter. ‘I’m feeling cold again,’ he said drowsily.
‘You should get some more sleep,’ the woman said. ‘You’re exhausted. Here, I’ll lie alongside you to keep you warm. Christmas dinner can wait a while.’
‘You’re so kind. Thank you.’ He closed his eyes, slept deeply.
He dreamed he was in a forest clearing, supine in a deep bed of snow that covered his body from the navel down. Scattered around him were a red anorak, black cargo pants, Timberland boots, a sweater, a green plaid shirt,a thermal vest. His mouth was filled with barely melted snow. The clearing was roughly square, walled with spruce and larch. Above him rose the majestic Milky Way, a sparkling curve of silvery dust set with stars that blazed like jewels in the cloudless night sky. But his eyes were dimming, the picture fading back into a slumber that would be deep and eternal.
The wolf rose from his side and licked her grey chops. This was her home and tonight it had provided. The human was bigger than most of the few she’d seen in her time. Enough for a feast, enough to keep them alive for another few days until something else came along. Survival was all that mattered. Her belly rumbled. She called to her hungry pups.