The Wolves of Winter
The trap was empty and the snow was bloody, which meant one of three things.
One: The animal had gotten itself loose, making a mess in the process. Unlikely. Too much blood.
Two: Wolves had gotten to it and somehow managed to drag the carcass out of the trap. Even more unlikely. Not enough blood. Or hair. Besides, their tracks would have been obvious.
Three: Conrad had poached my kill.
Thieving, asshole Conrad. Not only likely but, based on the boot prints and snakelike trails that his sled made through the bloody Rorschach marks in the snow, it was the only option. It had snowed early that morning, maybe an hour before the sun crested the hills. A thin dusting had already settled over his prints. He got up early, you had to give Conrad that much. Stealing didn’t seem like him, though. He was an ass, no doubt about it, but a thief?
The animal’s prints were teardrops, scattered about the bloody mush of snow. Teardrops meant deer. And by the size of the prints, it was a buck. My wire had been snipped too. I’d placed it between two pine trees in a small ravine. The logjams on either side were a
bitch to set up, but they herded the animals into the trap. I took the broken wire between my gloved fingers. You know how rare wire was nowadays? I could repair it, but it wouldn’t hold as strong. I was always careful to remove the wire by unthreading it from the tree and the animal so that I could use it again. I was pissed.
I adjusted my compound bow under my arm and the rope over my left shoulder. The rope was attached to my sled. My uncle Jeryl—Dad’s brother—had made the sled for me four years earlier. About three feet wide, six feet long. It carried small game no problem, a deer was tough for me but manageable, and an elk, caribou, or moose I had to butcher first and carry just the meat. The sled was made of spruce and had bloodstains from past kills splattered about the wood, but it was sturdy. I always dragged it along with me to check the traps.
A slight easterly wind stung my nose and cracked lips. The sun was gray and bored in the hazy sky, but the fresh fallen snow was still blinding. Sunglasses. I missed sunglasses. I headed southeast, into the wind. It was less than a mile to Conrad’s place. Dragging the sled made it tough going, but I didn’t care. No way in hell I was going to let him keep my kill. He was a big man, though, and he was stronger than me.
Somewhere, a gray jay woke and started chattering. The wind blew a dusting of snow from the ground that billowed like smoke in the chill morning air, and the sun, not giving a shit about my deer, was probably already contemplating its early descent.
I was sixteen when we left Eagle, Alaska. When things got bad, when everyone seemed to be leaving, we up and left too. We
headed into the Yukon Territory. To the trees, hills, mountains, valleys, rivers, snow, snow, snow, snow, snow. The vast wilderness of nothing. But for the next seven years, that nothing became home. I got used to it. The whiteness a comfort, the pine trees a refuge, the silence of it a friend I never knew I needed or wanted.
Being twenty-three now, looking back on my sixteen-year-old self, Alaska feels like a different world. Or a dream. Where people had jobs, hobbies, possessions, friends, and things like ovens, TV, cereal, toasters, pizza. But what made that life real for me was Dad. His death didn’t feel like a lifetime ago. I carried him with me everywhere I went.
Conrad lived in a small log cabin next to the Blackstone River. He built the place himself, and it always looked to me like it was about to fall over. It leaned slightly to the south. Reminded me of the pine, fir, and spruce trees—the tired-looking ones that were hunched over from the weight of the snow. They looked exhausted, depressed, like they’d given up, given in to the arctic bully. Snow can be a burden sometimes. All the time, really. There didn’t used to be so much of it. Before the wars and the bombs.
When the cabin came into sight, I spotted the deer right away, lying in the snow next to Conrad’s door. It was a buck, just like I thought, a big buck, a horse with antlers. A good kill. My kill.
I made my way down the hill to his cabin and walked right up to the carcass. When I got close enough, I let go of the sled and surveyed the animal. The thing was stiff. A clean cut across the jugular. I knelt down and put my hands in the brown fur, then
palmed the antlers, the soft velvet on the horns folding beneath my gloves. I’d probably be able to get it on the sled and up and over the first hill or two. But from there I’d have to run and get help to bring it all the way home. First, though, I had to get it off the damn porch. Conrad’s porch. I wiped my frozen nose with the sleeve of my jacket.
The door creaked open, and Conrad filled the doorway, his dark green winter coat and boots still on, and his .308 rifle held loose at his hip like he was compensating for something. “Admiring my kill?” He had a dense black beard and brown eyes like a wolverine’s, sitting too close to his nose. He was a thick man. Thick around the waist, neck, face, and limbs. How he’d managed to stay so round through the lean months I didn’t know. He had a smell about him too—wet wood, near to rot.
“This is my kill,” I said.
He just smiled. Probably had been rehearsing the conversation. “So you slit its throat?” His voice was low, buttery with the pleasure of the situation. He was eating this up.
I glared, hoping some of the heat I felt in my stomach would transfer through my eyes, laser to his forehead, and burn him to charcoal. “I’m taking it back.”
“I don’t think so.” He set the rifle down just outside the door.
“It was my trap.”
“It was my knife, my find. How was I supposed to know it was your trap?”
“You knew damn well it was my trap.”
“A poorly assembled bit of wire?”
“Set in a ravine, with logjams on either side to herd the animals through. Don’t be stupid.”
He shrugged, the thin smile never leaving his pinched face. I wanted to punch my fist right through it. Shatter his teeth, jaw, skull.
“It’s a lovely day,” he said, inhaling the stinging morning air, exhaling tendrils of white steam. “A good day for butchering.”
“I’m taking the deer,” I said, lifting my rope and pulling in my sled. I set down my bow, wrapped a hand around the buck’s antlers, and started to jerk the massive bulk. Conrad grabbed my arm. His grip was firm, trying to prove something to us both.
I yanked my arm back, but his fingers just tightened. “Let me go!”
“I’ll butcher him up, make a nice warm coat for you. We’ll call it even. How’d you like that?”
My dad always told me that when I’m angry, I make rash decisions. I get it from Mom. Once, back in Alaska, I broke two of my brother’s fingers in the doorway. “Take a breath,” my dad would say, “and think. Think about what you’re going to do, what you want to happen, and if there’s a better way to get things done.”
But I was too pissed at Conrad. I swung at him. Fist clenched, arm flailing. It was a stupid move. My fist connected with the edge of his jaw. His head barely tipped back. My knuckles vibrated with pain.
“Bitch.” The word rumbled from his round belly. His eyes grew intense, like those of an animal charging. Hungry. He came at me. I might have had time to raise my arms or duck if I’d thought the bastard would hit a girl. But I didn’t. Didn’t think he had it in him. So I was caught completely unaware when his fist collided with my cheek and knocked me flat to the ground. He wasn’t wearing gloves either.
The snow wrapped around me like a frozen blanket. My head
reeled. The gray of the sky waterfalled to the earth, then the earth to the sky—the pine trees dipped and jumped. I blinked and felt water fill my left eye where he’d struck. Then his weight was on me, firm and heavy, full of heat and iron.
“You’re dead, you asshole,” I said, gasping. “You’re a dead man.” My voice was weak and didn’t carry the anger I felt.
His hands pinned me down, his face inches from mine. I couldn’t move. I felt a panicked helplessness.
“You’re a stupid little girl.” He shifted his weight, his stomach pressing against my side. “You think you have a little community with rules? You don’t. Welcome to the new world. Your brother and uncle can’t do shit to me. They can try if they want, but I’ll fucking kill them.”
He turned his body again, his left elbow and forearm pushing against my chest, pinning me to the ground. Then his other hand slithered down to my thigh. “I can do whatever I want, whenever I want.”
“I don’t need my uncle; I’ll kill you myself!” I spat in his face and saw a small bead of spit land in his eyelashes, but he just blinked it away. His hand went higher up my thigh. I thrashed and tried to claw his eyeballs, but I couldn’t reach. He was too big, the fat fuck. Then his palm was between my legs. I clenched them, but I could feel his fingers on me. They pressed, dipping and rubbing as I squirmed, helpless as a caught fox. I felt my knife dig into my hip. My Hän knife. I kept it sharp. But my hand was pinned. I couldn’t reach it.
He leaned in even closer, trembling, his beard tickling my chin. I was going to be sick, was going to throw up in his face. Might have been a good thing if I had.
“Whatever I want,” he repeated.
Then it was over. The touching, the weight, the stink of his breath. He released me and stood. I took in quick, shallow gasps of air. My cheek throbbed. I got to my feet as quick as I could and thought about going for my knife or my bow, discarded in the snow beside me. Conrad watched with a pleased look on his face. He knew exactly what he was doing. He was making a statement. Claiming territory. Drawing lines. Letting us know that he wasn’t afraid of us.
Either way, he was a dead man. I decided to tell him again.
“You’re a dead man.”
“Run off to your uncle.”
I picked up my bow, then snagged the rope attached to my sled. The buck stared at me with his dead, marble eyes. Such an impressive creature, rotting on the front step of Conrad’s shit shack, waiting to be butchered by his careless knife. I gave Conrad one last glare before turning. But the fire didn’t burst out of my watering eyes. It didn’t burn him to charcoal.
“Bye bye, Gwendolynn,” he said as I walked away.
“Fuck you, Conrad.”