Annoyed by his companion’s smug smile, Arnold glanced furtively out the car window at the hostile white landscape. Everything pointed to a disastrous weekend. When he had decided to stage their last outing at the cottage, he’d failed to consider winter’s potential tyranny.
In the city—his arena—the elements were kept under control. In his haste to find a spot where she would not embarrass him by histrionics, he hadn’t considered that like relationships, seasons shifted. Memories of previous summer visits to the cabin: hot buzzing fields, gentle hills, and a seductive silver lake had lured him back. All that remained of that warm season was a bone white carcass.
On the trip up Karen had referred to it as “wolf country;” for him “bleak country” more aptly described the landscape. Thankful to be armed with the latest technologies, he felt like an alien invading enemy territory in an unreliable metal tank.
Behind the car, the wind erased their tracks; in front, the road wound a gray gully between ridges of snow. Inside the steamy shell, the radio announcer’s voice was tortured by static.
“Can’t we have that off?” Karen pleaded.
“Please not. It’s the last link to civilization.”
The farther they drove, the thinner the radio voice, until finally when the crackling shredded their ears Arnold grudgingly cut the cord. The cocoon fell silent; Karen smiled.
“You’re sure they plow the road?” Arnold asked.
“Yes,” the careless reply.
“If not, what’s the worst that could happen?”
No visionary, Arnold imagined that the worst that could happen would be to be stuck with Karen for another day, forced to hear her yap on about the wolves, the snow, and the serenity.
Once, long ago, her rough edges had amused, her faux pas been forgiven, but no longer. She could go home to her mother, find a job in the hick town she came from, and hook up with some local yokel. All’s well that ends.
More encouragingly he could recover his routine—enjoy the meetings, the conventions, without justifying where he was every minute, without excusing Karen’s behaviour when she tagged along.
The car swerved as they ascended the crest of the valley. “Wolf country,” Karen sighed, and then in a firmer voice, “My country.”
Arnold acknowledged a canine resemblance.
They turned in at the gate, the car chugging against the snow, the desperate engine gasped, lunged forward, and expired. Arnold switched off the ignition and yanked out the key. The vehicle shuddered ominously, a last rattle in the frozen silence, and then sunk defeated. A soft white shroud slowly descended. They had arrived.
Now for the job of lugging their things across the open yard, snow up the pant legs, icy nails cutting his face. Then to struggle open the door. Only when it was too late to turn back had Karen gleefully outlined the survival procedures required on arrival. Having translated her description into reality, Arnold feared the worst: the frozen cabin, ice in the water bucket. It would take half an hour to get a meager fire going in the wood stove, an evening of effort to make the place habitable. They could stick the professed beauty of the winter wonderland. He preferred to read about it, see the video.
Shivering, the man pulled his rough duffel coat around his shoulders, shoved his hands in his stiff gloves and reluctantly pushed open the car door. While the snow resisted, the wind attacked, howling, and yanking at his jacket. Karen had already leapt from the car. She twirled about crying “Beautiful, beautiful” and then her tall leather body moved away, eagerly swallowed in the swirling white.
Later, had Arnold agreed, they could have hiked across the frozen lake in the moonlight. As soon as the wood stove crackled, Karen had urged him out for a walk.
“It’s so bright, we may see the wolves.”
“You’re frightened because here other animals hold sway,” she teased.
“What that supposed to mean?”
Karen shrugged, and stared out the frosty window.
“The hockey game’s on tonight,” Arnold said. “I wonder who’s winning.”
“You can find out Monday.”
“Maybe I can get it on the radio.”
“No, you can’t.”
A razor sharp howl severed his words, then a hush. Another piteous wail and then, silence.
“There they are,” Karen whispered reverently. “Did I tell you about my dog running with wolves?”
“And I told you they’d have eaten her.”
The next morning after breakfast, Arnold insisted on starting the car before they ventured out for a walk. He wanted to be ready to leave as soon as the news was broken. Uncomfortably perched on the frozen seat he jabbed the key in the ignition and turned: dead and again dead. Cursing he jiggled and twisted the cold metal. The motor was frozen. The gray sky churned as angry as his acidic stomach.
Surely, she didn’t mean to go walking in this. But, she did. Well, fine, the last walk, then, back to the cabin, the announcement and her tears.
“Come on,” Karen beckoned, moving towards the frozen lake, “It’s beautiful.”
Arnold struggled out of the car. He slammed the door shut, and trailed after the receding figure. The winter forces were gathering strength, the black skeletal trees contorting.
“Lovely,” she cried, whirling about, scattering snow. “Wonderful.”
Lurching towards her, he barked. “The car won’t start.” Grabbing her roughly he snarled. “How will we get out of here?”
“We’ll walk to Mr. Gardner’s. He’ll help if he’s there.”
“What do you mean if he’s there?” he shouted kicking at the torpedoes chewing his ankles.
“I didn’t see his car when we drove past. Probably gone south,” she smiled. “If so, we’ll walk to Mr. Beckett’s.”
“Beckett is miles away.”
“We’re in no hurry,” the woman shrugged, moving off. “I’m going to see if there is any spoor out on the Bay.”
If they’d been in town he’d have smacked her face.
Arnold glanced back at the shrinking cabin, no smoke from the chimney. Final straw, she’d forgotten to put more wood on the fire.
“Did you bring the house key?” Karen called back.
The key? Surely she hadn’t locked the place. The wind knifed under his thin jacket, snow crept up his raw ankles. They’d have to smash a window. Smash the whole damn place.
“Just teasing,” the woman cried, “Who would we be keeping out? The wolves?” Then pointing behind him, she sang triumphantly, “There they are.”
Arnold whirled around.
Karen laughed, “Only their droppings silly.”
Arnold shuddered. “Let’s get this over.” It was only a matter of endurance; only another day.
Suddenly Karen galloped towards him, butting against his side roughly. “So you’re throwing me out?”
“Karen,” the man wailed, “Don’t start that here.”
A sharp crack sounded. “The ice breaking,” the woman sang. “Every year on a day like today, crack…another man drowned.”
“Or another woman,” he muttered.
What was she up to? Either she’d guessed he was leaving her or she was going crazy. She was never this bad in town.
Karen loped easily ahead. Gritting his anger, Arnold stumbled behind, pushing against the obstinate snow. His aching feet were imprisoned in soaked boots, his face burnt from the wind, still she pushed on.
“I’ve had it, I’m going back,” he shouted.
“Go back if you want.”
“You can’t stay out here alone.”
“Don’t worry about me.”
Arnold turned around, squinting to see the cabin. The wind had eaten their tracks. Across the lake, snow covered trees melded into the cardboard grey sky. The beast was crouching quietly now. He could sense its shallow breath.
“Could you get back alone?” he asked.
The man shrugged angrily, and trailed after the furred body plodding ahead. She’d done it this time; she’d regret this game. He dragged his heavy boots along, drugged by the repetitious white, the unrelenting cold. Finally, he stumbled forward and grabbed her arm.
“Karen, stop playing around. Let’s go back.”
“No,” she snarled. “Wait here if you’re tired. I’m going around the point.” She yanked her arm free, pushing him onto a snow-covered log.
“Don’t be long.”
“Why? Afraid you’ll drift off to sleep and die?”
Disgusted, the man withdrew his head into his coat collar, shrinking his body into a fetal curl. Through frozen eye slits, he watched the snow flakes bury his ankles, his legs, and cover his chest. Suddenly he burst from the white blanket banging the snow off his jacket and scoured the landscape. “Karen,” he roared, “Let’s go back.”
Now every movement was agony, his aching body heavy, unmanageable. Pain knifed his legs when he leaned on his swollen feet. “Karen,” he cried, stumbling forward.
Silence. In the grey dusk no hint of footprints remained. Maybe she’d run off with the wolves, he laughed scornfully, the ice cutting his throat. He shuffled painfully back and forth, spitting out her name.
“Damn her,” he muttered. “Let her find her own way back.” He turned and trudged towards the pale light, struggling to move against the cold, the pain, the exhaustion. Was he heading the right direction? The sun had been behind them when they left the cabin, but now there was no focus to the anemic light.
Exhausted, Arnold sunk down into the snow and drifted into sleep. A sudden noise jerked him awake. Something was lurking nearby, sniffing at him. A wet snout licked his cheeks. Grabbing his face, he jerked into a ball, crying for help. At a jab to his ribs, he painfully pealed open his encrusted eyes, and stared into the sharp light. Karen’s face loomed above, her teeth glistening.
~ Melodie Corrigall
Originally posted at: http://www.cerebration.org/melodiecorrigall.html