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WINNER Consolations in the Forest

Electra Rhodes

I was woken by coyotes that night, thin yipping in the dark beyond the tree line. The stove was almost out so I added a few bites of wood from the pile. My breath curdled the air. I stood shivering in my union suit until I pulled the quilt off the trundle and wrapped myself up. The coffee-pot was still warm so I half-filled a tin cup.

From the porch I could see tracks in the yard. A fingernail of moon silvered the sky but there were no clouds and the air was brittle. The colour had been leached out, leaving the forest sepia-toned. I guessed the coyote had been worrying whatever had found the salt lick. Whitetail, probably. The coyote tracks were close to the cabin. Closer than I liked. I hoped I’d scared them off.

In the morning there was blood in the deer prints. Not much, not enough there’d been a kill. I supposed the coyote would move on somewhere where there were better, easier pickings. Nevertheless I took the double-loader down from above the door and pocketed a handful of shells. No point in taking chances.

The frozen puddles creaked under my feet, but it was cold enough that the ice held. I hustled and put on a little speed.

At the store there were the usual suspects hanging round the potbelly stove in the centre of the floor. It was one of those places. Old fashioned. Donald had found something that worked and hadn’t messed with it since. I picked up a few items from the open shelves and stood waiting in line at the counter. There was a new girl working the till. It was unusual for him to take on staff in the winter months. Must be a special case. He was soft like that. Oftentimes.

The girl was tall, dark haired, and had a scrape on the side of her face, but a nice enough smile. Something wary, though. Maybe round the hunch of her shoulders. Careful. I looked back at Donald. He’d been known to help out runaways now and again. A bit like a railroad. Kids passing through. Scared. Trying to get away from something, or someone. Adults too.

Donald was decent. He’d give them a place out the back of the store, give them hours out front. Made sure they ate something, more than just the candy from the big open jars. Helped them on their way.

I’d been one of them, coming up on three years ago. I wondered if there was a system now where folks passed this news along. Some website. I’d been lucky, just word of mouth, and a note pinned to a board at a Greyhound station in Albany. That there was safety here. All the same, no one usually showed after November. We were too cold, too remote, and the bus service was hit and miss in the Winter quarter. But here she was.

When I paid up the girl was polite. Not over friendly, but not too cowed either. I’d have said she was pleasant. Her clothes were okay. Not some hand-me-downs. She was kitted out reasonably for the climate and the place. Maybe she came from somewhere half decent. Up close the scrape on her face looked more like something had scratched her. She’d put some ointment on it.

She packed everything swiftly and smiled when I dropped my change in the tip jar. It was only 30 cents, but 30 cents is 30 cents and the jar was already half full. Folks round here were like that. They'd drop a few cents or dimes into a jar. Not showy. But with compassion in their hearts. The kind of people who’d welcome a stranger, even a temporary one, and try to help them out. Not interfering. Just some assistance, where it was welcome.

I nodded to the men hovering at the stove and we laughed a little. Passing the time before I braved the cold again. My bag hoisted, I got the store door open and glanced back at the counter. The girl raised a tentative hand, waving goodbye. I tipped my chin up, hands busy with the latch and the double-loader. She smiled. Just a small thing. Some kind of fellow feeling.

In the cabin I raised the heat under the coffee-pot. On the walk back home I’d worried I might not make it home before the next dump of snow. From the porch, tin cup of coffee in hand, it looked pretty. Big, white feathers, the kind kids dream of in cities. That won’t get dirty as soon they touch the ground, greyed by soot and fumes, and the general exhaustion of sidewalks and people.

After I’d eaten a bowl of stew I walked through the falling flakes across the yard and into the trees proper. It was quiet, just the noise snow makes when it’s coming down steady, and a satisfying crunch underfoot. At the lick there were tracks, the dance of coyote paws, and the answering scatter of deer. I’d set a hide up just beyond, where a redwood cedar had drooped and there was some natural cover. It seemed unfair. To draw the deer in with an illusion of safety and comfort and then take one for the larder. But it was the way of things. Life was easy and fine, until it wasn’t. A surfeit of curiosity had consequences, and it was good to learn that early.

I sat in the hide for a while, just looking, snow still falling around me. I was putting out enough heat that the flakes melted when they landed on my thigh. It was cold, though. Real cold. I could feel the drop in temperature. I fancied if I looked at the thermometer nailed up beside the back door it would have given up. I rolled my shoulders, listening for the creak of deep winter in my joints. Time for me to give up too.

The next week or so nothing much of anything happened. I didn’t hear the coyote again, though there were deer tracks round the lick. The temperature dropped further and I hauled a load of wood inside. Seemed like half the cabin was wood pile now. The stove was going all the time, the air around it shimmering with heat, and I’d stuffed moss into any gaps between the logs the walls were built from. Folks usually used caulking but moss was free and functional. I liked the thought that one day, somewhere way beyond me and the small circumference of my life, the whole cabin would collapse in on itself. Everything finding its way back to the earth. Metal. Wood. Cloth. Bone.

I made it into the store a couple of times during those weeks. Donald took the whittling and metalwork I did and in the complex barter of isolated communities everywhere I’d leave with the dried goods and treats I couldn’t grow, or hunt, or gather myself. It seemed I was always in credit in the big ledger he kept under the counter and he occasionally passed on a few dollars. He’d smile wryly, urging me not to spend the five single dollar bills all at once. It usually went straight back into the local economy. Maybe at a bake sale, or sponsoring one of the kids, or even, just occasionally in the town bar.

The girl was in there, tucked into a booth with an older woman who I realised must be her mom. She had the same look. Hunched. The girl waved me over as I leaned on the bar. I left the change for the keep. Mickey was alright. She’d left her husband in Boston and had come up North. Another one of Donald’s runaways. The town was littered with us. We mostly lost the hunted look after a while.

The girl and her mom were friendly. Asked about some of the people, the library, the nearest school. I asked them if they were fixing to stay come the spring. There were cabins for rent up by the lake and there’d be work to pick up round the town. The folk here would try and absorb a newcomer if they could. None of it was exactly well-paying - busboy, short-order cook, teaching assistant sometimes. What the pastor’s wife called itty-bitty work. But if people hustled they could just about get by. The girl and her mom looked like they’d been used to doing more than getting by. I didn’t ask though. If they wanted to tell me they would.

I saw them around the town. Either separately or together. The girl seemed to make some friends. The mom seemed to avoid the worst of the lone jerks and guys who thought a single mother was some kind of game prepped for hunting season. We had a couple of drinks together, and her daughter served me coffee in the diner or at the store any number of times. I didn’t seek them out, but I didn’t avoid them either.

Most of the time I was back in the cosy fug of my cabin. Whittling. Listening to a windup radio I’d brought with me when I’d run. I’d turned my hand to silver wirework the previous summer and had some commissions to finish ahead of Valentine's Day. No one usually came up this way and all the prints I saw in the snow were either animal or bird or the shallow strides I knew were my own.

A few times,when it wasn’t quite so cold that I thought I’d freeze solid, I sat up in the hide. I’d had plenty of practice sitting quiet long before I’d found my way here and it stood me in good stead. I saw any number of deer. Pitting their way through the trees, glad of the lick. I didn’t shoot one, though, but instead picked off a few grouse and a couple of squirrels. They made a good stew and I left the skins stretched and hung up from the ceiling of the outhouse. The grouse feathers I cleaned and saved for fly-tying and traps.

Sitting in the afternoon dark with an oil lamp burning on the table, an old Foxfire in my hands, I thought that hibernation had its attractions.

Round the third new moon Donald leaned in close over the counter and said that someone had been in, asking after me. He had a flyer with a photograph that must have been taken upwards of five years ago. There was a reward for information leading to the whereabouts. Not enormous, but enough that someone might try and find me. I didn’t need to ask what Donald had said. But I knew that someone might find the lure of ready cash irresistible. The hunter only had to be lucky once. I had to be lucky all the time.

I didn’t panic. Not even when I found footprints back at my place. There were two sets, one bigger than the next, and I thought it might be the girl and her mom come to warn me. I appreciated the thought, even though they hadn’t left a note. Perhaps they were worried he’d stop by and find it and know straight away where I was. The prints told their own story so I tramped round the yard, and then switched up my boots to an old pair of Donald’s waders he’d loaned me some time and tramped around again, varying the length of my stride. By the time I’d finished the yard was a mess.

It snowed again in the night. And in the morning the only tracks were fresh deer prints a yard or so from the cover of the trees. I drank coffee looking out the window beside the stove, considering. The empty windows allowed an uninterrupted view out. Or in. I fetched some sacking from the toolshed and hung it up on wires screwed directly into the wood. It wasn’t pretty, but when I pulled one of the makeshift curtains across it shut out the blue light of winter sun on snow.

After a few restless nights the lack of any closer enquiry led me to hope the hunter had moved on. If it wasn’t some chancer I knew he wouldn’t like it up here. Too many closed-off faces not ready to succumb to the easy charm he liked to smooth around like icing off a warm knife. As sickly as sugar-frosting too, he had a tendency to lay it on thick. Nevertheless I stayed close to the cabin and for the first time put a bar across the door whenever I was inside. A single way in and out means there’s nowhere to run, and I didn’t want to take a risk on an unexpected visitor.

There were still fresh deer tracks every day, and I’d already replaced the salt lick twice. Sitting in the hide brought me a kind of calm. I hoped Donald would get word to me if he was still hanging around. I was reasonably sure someone would. It’s what I would have done, and I reckoned I knew folk well enough to know they’d do the same.

Sometimes I saw familiar deer. An older doe with a yearling. A couple of young bucks. And just once an antlered stag, tipping his head to one side to make his way between the close crop pines. I’d seen no squirrel for over a week, and a grouse would have required a walk further than I wanted to go, but I still didn’t take one of the deer, and I couldn’t have explained why. It doesn’t do to grow too fond of your food and diversity is usually what you come to crave by the end of winter, but, we had a way to go yet.

I suppose I got complacent. That last night I was soundly asleep when I heard something, out in the unsuspecting dark. I pulled the double-loader from under my bed where I’d taken to keeping it. It was quiet again. But the kind of troubled stillness that presages a storm. He’d come close enough to killing me that last time, and I was sure he’d try again given any kind of a chance.

Out on the steps down from the porch one of the boards creaked. I hazarded a glance through an unplugged crack in the wall.

The doe and her yearling were in the yard. Standing clear between the cabin and the forest. They were both looking away from me, into the woods. He was there at the tree line, standing in the shadows. No one had sold him any woodland camo gear, and he didn’t know that a black puffy and denims showed up grey in the moonlit dark. I imagined he was pretty cold, and I thought he’d have to bare at least his trigger finger to use the rifle he held at his side. He’d never been especially good at waiting.

He made his move after half an hour, sticking to the darkness as far as possible. The deer shifted round, keeping between us. I’d never seen this behaviour before. He couldn’t shoo them away or make some kind of noise to startle them. Even with the logs between us I could feel the frustration coming off him.

As he got closer to the cabin I could see it wasn’t a rifle, more like some kind of automatic weapon. Something that could rip through a wall. He wasn’t willing for me to get away again. Some men were just like that. I found it hard to credit, I’d never been that way myself. But I’d seen it in his face the first time I’d said no. The affronted, disbelieving outrage. I watched him take his glove off with his teeth.

The doe sprang, and he loosed a volley without knowing what he was about. I pulled open the door and gave him both barrels. He looked surprised, like he couldn’t believe I’d defy him again.

I hadn’t hesitated, not even for a moment, not even to shout some warning or justify myself. I reckoned if he’d come up here we were past all that. In the movies and books folks always hesitate. Gets them killed most times.

His finger spasmed on the trigger and there was another brief burst of gunfire. The yearling and the doe leapt for the trees. When I started after them I found a thin trail of blood which I hoped wasn’t fatal. I looked for an hour or more but there was no further sign of the deer, and, when I returned, he was most decidedly dead. I didn’t stop to cover his corpse overnight. Let the coyote find their own if they scented him. Predators all.

The next morning, early, I made it into the store and told Donald what had happened. My hands were shaking with the delayed shock and the girl went to make coffee in the back. Her mom came out with her, cradling another mug carefully. One arm bandaged and done up in a sling. She smiled at me. Just a small thing. Some kind of fellow feeling.

Folk rallied round, more or less as I’d expected. I didn’t entirely know how these things went up here, but the sheriff who carried out the investigation shook her head over the backstory and I got a letter from the county prosecutor's office saying the death was being ruled a hunting accident. I couldn’t argue with that. From what Donald said about it I guessed his reach went farther than I knew. Plenty of us littered around up here still. Plenty.

I found both absolution and consolation in the forest. When I looked out into the bristled quiet I wondered about the girl and her mom. Somehow, I couldn’t shake the possibility. I left the double-loader hung on the hooks above the door. My appetite for venison was gone.

E. E. Rhodes is an archaeologist who lives in a corner of a castle in Worcestershire. She can be found on twitter @electra_rhodes and has had work published in a range of anthologies, journals, and collections. She’s currently working on a flash novella set in Wales.

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