By Kij Johnson
Richard was recording his entry on the day’s hunt when the wolf’s scream of pain cut through the walls of the cabin. He dropped his pen on the open page. He’d seen a rabbit snare a few weeks ago. The trapper must have returned with traps for the valuable wolves. At least he would get the bastard before he left. He picked up his emergency pack and the Winchester thirty-thirty, and slung them over the parka he wore against the cabin’s cold. He stuffed the handcuffs he’d brought back from Yellowknife into one pocket.
The early winter air caught at his lungs when he ran out the cabin’s door. He dropped his bearpaw snowshoes into the snow, stamping his boots onto the frames and securing them, fingers fumbling in cold and haste.
The howling raised in pitch and was broken by growls, as though something new threatened the wolf. Dragging on his gloves and mittens, Richard ran south toward the sound, toward Horsehead Mountain.
The noise cut off abruptly when he judged he was about halfway to the animal. He paused, but he couldn’t hear anything over his own panting.
A wolf broke from the trees ahead, a mass of fur and teeth and eyes in motion. Richard jumped backward, crossed his shoes, and fell. The wolf hesitated ten feet from him: the gray bitch he called Genna, one of the lower-ranked wolves of the pack. She held her left front paw slightly raised. Blood trailed onto the snow, melting a red uneven hole beneath it. The wound did not look serious. If she began howling as soon as she was caught, she hadn’t had time to thrash around and do much damage. He looked at her eyes for further clues.
Genna’s eyes were gold—all wolves’ were—but he’d never been so close to a free wolf, never seen the pale color of so wild a gaze. I have to remember this, he thought, until I can get back and write it down.
Blood dripped slowly from Genna’s paw. Not understanding why, he made a cooing noise he knew would convey nothing to her, and tried to roll upright. The snowshoes, still snagged together, made a sound like sticks rubbing but she did not move. “Let me look at the foot,” he murmured. Her eyes tracked him as he moved forward.
She bolted, the suddenness of it rocking him back so that he fell again. He rolled onto his side in time to watch her lean rump vanish in the trees with a bobbing gait caused by the limp.
Close ahead, Richard heard the whack of a trap’s metal jaws snapping shut on air. He clawed upright and ran on, jamming his fingers into the lever action of the rifle. The cold of the metal bit through his glove.
He broke into the clearing before he expected to, for the snow deadened the sounds and made distance uncertain. A trapper in a dirty red parka and dark pants crouched in snow torn up by frantic bloody claw marks. Even across the clearing, Richard recognized the trap in the trapper’s hands, a Newhouse Number 114. If it had caught the Genna’s foot wrong, it would have crushed her bones. He lifted the rifle over his head and fired.
The noise deafened him in the still air. The trapper fell sideways to one elbow, a mittened hand grabbing at a pocket.
“Get up,” Richard shouted over the ringing of his ears. He chambered another round.
The trapper stood unsteadily, sinking shin-deep in the snow. Dark eyes looked past the dirty fur that fringed the parka hood. With a shock, Richard realized the trapper was a woman.
“She went your way,” the woman said in a hoarse voice. “Did she look all right?”
“She’s fine,” he said harshly. “Considering.”
She appeared not to understand the anger that thickened his voice. “She looked all right to me. Broken skin, no bone damage. She’s never, none of them have ever let me get so close before. Perhaps she’ll tell them.” She paused, seemed to look at Richard for the first time. “You’re the one who watches the pack. The behaviorist.”
“Who the fuck are you?”
“I watch them, too.”
I bet you do, he thought. “Do you know what kind of trouble you’re in?” he asked.
She stared at him uncomprehending.
“Trapping,” he added and pointed the rifle’s muzzle at the Newhouse.
“Trapping? You think—”
“I know,” he said. “I found you with the trap, and I saw the wolf.”
“I freed her. I heard her howl and came running. The trap has been here for months. Look at it.” She held it out.
“Throw it here.”
Scratches of bright metal shone through a fog of rust, tracing the arc of the trap’s motion. Flakes of dislodged rust still clung to the jaws. She said, “It must have been set and then lost, never found.”
Richard slumped with the release of tension in his shoulders, and slid his Winchester into the scabbard lashed to his backpack. “What are you doing out here? There’s going to be a storm soon, the first real snow of the season. You should have left a month ago.”
“I’m staying for the winter.” The woman hunched her shoulders and coughed. Her breath clouded between them.
Richard looked up at the vivid reds of the dimming sky over them, then hefted the Newhouse. “You should get inside. Where are you staying?”
“Nowhere. Wherever the pack is.”
“You’re following the wolves? You have a tent?”
She gestured. “No tent. Just what’s on me.”
“Why haven’t I seen you before?”
She smiled slightly. “You weren’t looking for me.”
A slight wind picked up one of the cords that tightened his parka hood and snapped it in his face. “We’ve got to get inside. My cabin’s about a mile from here. Come with me and then we’ll figure this out.”
She led, retracing his trail without trouble through ribbon forests of fir and spruce and the clearings between them. It was dark when they walked across the last narrow meadow toward the ice of the southern shore of Lake Juhl. The cabin hunched against a large rock outcropping a few hundred yards from shore, a small box made of insulation, plywood sheets, and caulking that showed as white strips against the wood. A small window glowed dimly.
Richard removed his snowshoes and followed her through the low doorway.
“Did you put this together?” she asked as he entered, and she gestured at the room. Dull light from the stove fell on shelves heaped with dried and freeze-dried food packets, tin pans and eating utensils, the pieces of a shortwave transmitter, an oil lantern with a cracked shade. A narrow iron bed lay against one wall. Richard pushed his notebooks out of the way, and dropped the Newhouse on the little table built into the corner. There was barely enough room on the cabin’s floor for them both to stand. The tea in his cup had grown a skin of ice while Richard was gone.
“It was here when I came,” he answered; “maybe a trapper’s bolthole. He must have had everything airdropped, but that was a long time ago. When I moved in, it was all mice and squirrels.”
“It’s not very warm.” The woman sat on the bed.
“It’s not meant for winter.” Richard stoked up the stove. While he trimmed the wick and lit the oil lantern, the woman removed her leather mittens and gloves and pushed back her hood. She was half-starved and suffering from frostbite. Thin bones showed at her emaciated wrists. Her fingertips were discolored. There were frozen frostbite sores on her dirty cheeks, white patches that sloughed off when she wearily rubbed her face.
“What have you been doing to yourself?” Richard said, appalled. “You should have told me right away.” He put an ice-topped pan of water on the stove and slid the aluminum first-aid box from under the table.
Richard pulled out paper packets of gauze pads. “The frost burns on your cheeks are going to start oozing when they get a little warmer. It’s going to hurt a lot. Your fingertips—”
“I’m fine,” she said. Her eyes when they met his were cold and full of wild anger. Involuntarily, he stepped back and slammed into the table. Notebooks slid to the floor. He put down the first-aid kit, dropped to his knees and gathered them. When he looked up her face was averted, hidden by greasy dark hair that fell past her jaw line. The wildness was gone.
“What’s your name?” Richard asked. His voice sounded unnaturally calm to himself.
“Adele Frazer. Addie.”
Richard laid the notebooks on the table. “A trapped wolf, coming close to an injured wolf. She might have ripped you apart.”
“I know these wolves. She wouldn’t have.”
“She might have.” For a moment, Richard saw Genna standing injured in the snow a short leap from him, and himself crawling toward her. He turned back to the stove. Something in his pocket clanked; he pulled free the handcuffs, their key hanging from one of the locks, and dropped them on the desk beside the trap and the books. She looked at them. “Handcuffs,” he said. “Six weeks ago I saw a snare and thought there was a trapper in the area. If he came after the wolves, I was going to stop him. Stupid, right?”
“That was my snare for rabbits.” She reached across to the table and picked up one of his handbooks. “What are you doing here?”
“Research. Second-tier pack hierarchy, specifically.”
“Who are you?”
Her eyes looked big in the unsteady light. Exhaustion had circled them with dark rings that spread onto her cheekbones. “I’ve read both your books about the North Range pack. And your dissertation. What are you doing this far south?”
“Comparing tundra and timber packs. This is my first year in the subalpine forests.” He turned to the stove. “Are you hungry?”
“Yes. You describe everything so clearly, but it’s not like being with them, is it?”
“Nothing is like that.” He shook milk powder and sugar and the freeze-dried contents of a couple of pouches into the pan. After a time he asked, “How long have you been out here?”
“What’s the date now?” She leaned back stiffly, propping her feet on the bed’s frame. Richard saw a crack in the leather between the upper and the sole of one shoe.
“Twenty-third of September.”
“I came in July on foot. I found the pack in August, I guess.”
“Where’s your backpack?”
“I’m doing it the way the wolves do, except that I need a hatchet to break marrow bones and things, and the snare. I don’t have teeth like theirs.”
“You can’t survive here without the right equipment.” Richard poured lukewarm soup into a tin bowl and handed it to her. She huddled over it greedily, gulping down the mixture almost without breathing. “When was the last time you ate?”
She frowned. “Yesterday, I think,” she said when her mouth was clear. “I trapped a rabbit for the cubs, but you were out already. I couldn’t leave it for them so I ate it.”
“Raw? You’re not lighting fires?”
“I didn’t bring matches.” She pulled her lips back from her teeth. “I’ll get used to it.”
“No one gets used to it,” Richard said grimly. “Why are you even out here? You’re totally unprepared for this.”
Addie looked away, silent.
He persisted. “You’d die if you stayed.” She shrugged one shoulder, and Richard’s throat tightened. “Don’t you care? What’s so bad that death is easier?”
She looked up and he saw again the flash of absolute wildness in her eyes, lamplight reflected flat and gold as she stared at the trap on the table.
“Nothing,” she said finally. “Nothing at all.” She lay down and wrapped herself in the bed’s blankets, face to the dirty wall.
He watched her, but she didn’t move and she didn’t relax into sleep. After a time, he sighed and sat on the floor in his sleeping bag, completing his notes for the day.
Richard woke to a gust of cold air. He pushed his sleeping bag away and looked around.
She was gone. Predawn gray seeped through the single small window. A puff of unmelted snow lay just inside the door. He dressed quickly and grabbed his backpack and the Winchester.
Outside, the sky over the cabin was just brightening with the cold blue of dawn. To the far north Richard saw the first streamers that presaged storm clouds: maybe another thirty-six hours before the snow got here. He’d call Jeff, have him fly them out later today, tomorrow at the latest. The snow on the ground glowed softly so that Addie’s footprints were nearly invisible. Cold air needling his lungs with each breath, he followed the prints due south across the meadow, toward the ridge where Genna had been hurt. He found the stains on the snow but Addie’s footprints ran past. The sky was gold and delicate pink by the time he found her.
He crested a hill by a half-grown fir. Addie’s footprints ran to the right along the bowl of the valley; as he watched, a flash of dirty red nylon flickered halfway down. He couldn’t reach her without disturbing the wolves in the valley, so he crouched down.
The wolves were on the opposite side of the basin, apparently undisturbed by the arrival of Addie and Richard. Genna was there, absently licking her paw. She didn’t appear to be in pain. The young darker wolf, Murie, lay curled beside her, head pillowed on her ribcage. When he shifted, she snapped at him without heat. Primadonna, the alpha female, hopped in place, surrounded by a whirl of half-grown cubs licking her face and tugging at her ears and tail. The alpha male, Black, trotted from the young firs uphill from the wolves. The pack rose and converged on him. When the three cubs bounced at him, he lowered his head and regurgitated meat, which they attacked with growls that were audible across the valley. Black and Donna touched noses for a moment.
Black started the howl. Donna joined in, then one by one the other wolves, until even the cubs sang with their wavering voices. Richard leaned against the fir, weak-kneed as he always was at the sound, the knots of pitch and overtone. The voices seemed many more than seven, laced together like a loose braid.
The last voice to join the howl came from his side of the valley. He opened his eyes. The pack were all still visible, clustered close together, lifting their heads with half-closed eyes. Black stared toward the brush below Richard.
In the underbrush Addie crouched on all fours, her chest pressed against one knee, her head tilted back and her eyes closed in complete absorption. Her voice was different, higher and rougher and lacking the fluid drop of a wolf’s song. He found himself harmonizing in his throat, but he bit back the sound. He could not stop watching her, even after the howl died and the pack moved off to hunt. She half-ran, half-slid down the hill and stumbled a few steps after them. The trailing wolf, Murie, turned to look at her, then continued on.
Only when the wolves were out of sight could Richard move. He walked down to stand beside her. She stared after the wolves, a look of naked longing on her face.
“They never let me run with them,” she said. “Sometimes I trap for them and they’ll eat it, but they never let me run with them.”
“You howled with them,” he said, half angry, half in wonder.
“Why didn’t you?”
Richard stamped at the snow with one of his snowshoes, releasing a cloud of loose flakes into the air. “You’re affecting their behavior when you do that.”
She squinted at the interlaced trails of the wolves. “I’m going to follow them.”
“You’ll never catch up with them,” he said with a certain satisfaction.
“But you’ll try, too, won’t you? For your notebooks.” Addie ran after the pack, snow kicking up under her feet. Richard followed.
She traveled quickly. The trail went northwest for several miles, heading back to Lake Juhl, to the western arm a couple of miles from the cabin. She moved at a quick constant trot, plowing without pause through calf-deep snow. How can she do it? he wondered, as he stumped after her. She’s sick and starving and unequipped. She’s too weak for this. He lost sight of her and hurried to overtake her before the hill’s crest.
She rose from the bush in front of him, finger to her lips. Richard stopped. She approached until they stood within a few feet of one another. “Moose over the hill on Lake Juhl, and the wolves have vanished. They’re stalking.”
“You don’t know that yet,” he said in annoyance. She was already gone, back up the slope to settle on her belly in the snow at the crest. He crept up to lie beside her.
Moose were paired off for the rut season, so there were two animals here. The bull looked large, over eight feet tall and very healthy though still young, judging by the size of his antlers. He held his head high, wary: Richard suspected that the smell of the wolves (or perhaps himself and Addie) was making the bull nervous. He couldn’t understand why the pack was going to waste its effort on so healthy an animal. Then he noticed that the small female kept shaking her head as though to dislodge something. Screw worm, probably. This would make her easy game if the wolves could separate her from the male.
Richard leaned over until his mouth was a few inches from Addie’s ear. His breath touched her in a fog as he whispered, “They can’t attack. The bull will fight.”
Addie gestured impatiently and pointed at the two moose.
The bull nosed at the air, trying to pull scents from it. He shifted restlessly from foot to foot, dropped his head and thrust his antlers into the snow.
Murie and Black and one of the cubs broke from cover just above the moose, vocalizing in sharp yelps. The cow backed across the ice. The bull bellowed, a huge sound that seemed to fill the lake’s basin, and charged the three wolves. They evaded him easily and began running south along the shore, just out of reach of his huge hooves, turning to jump at his hocks and pendulous nose whenever he slowed.
The rest of the wolves—Richard saw Genna with them, favoring her leg—broke cover a short distance south of the first ambush, neatly cutting the cow’s route to the bull. The cow sank back on her haunches, for a moment meeting the eyes of the gray female, Primadonna. The cow wheeled and ran north, calling as she fled, but the bull was still hampered by the wolves, who jumped at him whenever he tried to turn and follow.
Donna got in front of the running cow and jumped at her nose, sinking jaw-deep into the fleshy tip. The cow wailed and threw her head upward, Donna flopping into the air like a half-filled bag, still clinging with her teeth. The cow shook again and the wolf flew twenty feet to fall in a loose-boned heap.
Addie leapt up and ran down the hillside.
“Addie!” Richard grabbed for her ankle but missed, and his hands came down heavily in the snow.
The bull moose roared again and kicked at the circling wolves. Murie shied away, and the bull galloped through the gap in the circle. He charged toward the wolves harassing the cow, toward Donna who lay still.
Addie screamed as she ran toward the converging moose and wolves, and pulled free the hatchet in her pocket. “Addie!” Richard shouted again.
The bull moose had seen Addie and veered to charge her, his head low. Richard pulled the rifle free and squeezed off two shots at the bull. He dropped to his knees, red pumping around him. Addie jumped back. Donna lifted her head at the sound of the shots, stood and shook herself. The wolves trailing the bull and surrounding the cow appeared to make an instantaneous and unanimous decision and moved toward the bull, streaming past Addie as though she weren’t there.
The bull staggered upright. Before the pack could close the circle, he feinted again at Murie, and again ran out the gap caused by the young wolf. The bull fled north across the lake, dropping splashes of blood. The wolves ran after him, Donna keeping up easily. The cow followed, as though uncertain where else to go.
When they were past, Richard ran to where Addie stood in the bloody snow. She dragged heavy breaths into her lungs, her arms wrapped tight around herself.
“What were you doing?” he shouted.
“He would have killed her, Richard! I can’t let them be hurt.”
“You’re fucking with them when you do this, and with your free meat and your howling. No one’s going to get realistic observations from this pack. They’re not living realistic lives.” Richard stopped shouting, out of breath in the cold air.
Without speaking, Addie thrust her axe in her pocket and walked quickly off the lake ice toward the cabin. She maintained the day’s pace, but by the time they got to the cabin, she was staggering with exhaustion. Only after the cabin warmed a bit and Richard fed her porridge and beef jerky and hot sugared tea did they speak again.
“Addie, you have to leave them alone.”
She stabbed her spoon at the bottom of her tin bowl. “I’m not supposed to help them? They can die when they’re caught in a trap or hit by a moose, and this is supposed to be right?”
“Wolves dying is a part of things. Moose and rabbits die too but you’re not considering them.” He pointed at her rabbit snare and axe on the table where she had cleared her pockets. For a moment he saw the moose he’d shot, the way it had fallen to its knees at the bullets’ impact.
As though reading his mind, she said, “So why did you shoot the bull, then? Why didn’t you let him kill the wolf?”
“I was saving you.”
“I don’t know,” he snapped, then: “You’re not a wolf, Addie.”
She rocked forward and grabbed the side of the bed frame. Her bare hands were clenched white on the metal. “How can you see everything they are and not care enough to try and save one?”
“I care, all right? I’m trying to keep the species alive, not these seven. It’s wrong to be overprotective of the individuals of a species.”
“They’re, we’re, not all just pieces in a puzzle, fit them in and they’re just part of the picture. They’re individuals. Do you have any idea who these wolves are? How they feel when they play or howl? What it’s like for them to babysit the cubs?”
“No one knows that.”
“I’m going to.” Addie pushed the tin bowl onto the floor and pulled the blankets around her.
Richard stared at her in fury, but Addie said no more, even when he hooked up the radio transmitter to its battery and called Jeff for pickup the next day.
Richard jerked awake, already losing the dream that had awakened him. He was hunched fully dressed over the table, so that his face rested in an open notebook a few inches from the jumble of metal that was the wolf trap, the rabbit snare, the handcuffs, and Addie’s hand axe. The stove had burned down and the cabin was frigid. He was alone again.
He ran outside. It was after midnight and nearly pitch dark from the heavy clouds rolling in. The wind was stronger than it had been during the day, drifting loose snow across the ground. There would be no way to track her.
“Addie,” he yelled. “Addie, goddamn it, where are you?” The wind swallowed the noise. Richard yelled again; the shout lengthened, rose in pitch; and then he was howling, aware in spite of his anger of the quality of his voice, hoarse, not wolf-like at all, but carrying in the way a shout could not.
He was surprised at the power of his lungs, at the volume he could produce when unhampered by the need to make words and sense. He did not stop until his anger had drained from him and his throat hurt from the icy air. Only then did he hear, far off to the northwest, the pack howling in response, their interwoven voices muddied by the wind. He could not tell if Addie’s voice was among them.
Morning light gleamed through the cabin’s window when Richard heard the sound of her feet outside. The door flew open, dragging in a cloud of flakes.
“I thought you’d be gone to wait for your pilot by now.” Addie was silhouetted in the doorway.
He’ll land on the lake.” Richard slammed a notebook into a half-filled pack. “You shouldn’t have gone. We might have missed him.”
“I was with the wolves.” She stepped forward into the room. Light from the lamp and the window fell on her face. It was masked in gouts of blood and sinew.
“You’re covered with blood,” he said with horror.
She rubbed at the gelled stains that darkened her parka. “I’m fine. It’s from the moose. They accepted me. They got the male they were chasing, the one you shot. The alpha saw me, he let me feed off the kill. I came back for my axe.”
“The wolves let you approach?”
“They let me in.” She reached across him and pulled free the hatchet and the snare and dropped them into her pocket. “I followed them. The kill smelled so good and I’ve been so hungry, so I crawled down to it. The alpha watched and let me feed. He was three feet from me. I could smell his fur. It was just dawn. He accepted me.” Through the blood, she smiled at him with mad dark eyes.
“The pack accepted you?” he repeated.
“I ate so much and then we slept together. I could reach out and touch one of the cubs, the pale red one, I was that close. I have to go back now. As soon as the moose is done, we’re going to the south end of the range, by the foot of Horsehead Mountain.”
“How can you know?”
One of the sores on her cheek was beginning to ooze. She rubbed absently at the blister, smearing blood into the clear fluid there, apparently without pain.
“There’s caribou by the mountain.” Addie said. “I’ll—”
“Addie,” Richard said. “You’re imagining it all.”
She looked at him for a moment. “You’re jealous. You’ll never dance with us. You’ll never feel the cubs’ noses against your face.”
“There is no ‘us’. It’s not real, Addie. Jeff will take us to Yellowknife, and we’ll get help there.”
She turned away. “They’re waiting.”
“They’re not. You’re sick. You need help.” Richard reached for her hand, but she flinched away.
Richard lunged for Addie. She jumped back and cracked the back of her knees against the bed frame. Before she could regain her balance, he caught both her wrists. For a moment they stood toe to toe. She glared into his eyes, her teeth bared and the cords of muscle in her jaw sharp beneath her blistered skin.
The cuffs still lay on the table behind him. Richard grabbed the hoops, snapped one around her thin wrist. She pulled back and, losing her balance, fell back on the bed. He tripped over her kicking legs and fell to the ground. Grabbing the open hoop as it swung wildly at the end of its chain, he snapped it shut on the bed frame. He pulled the key from its lock and dropped it into a pocket.
Addie fell heavily against him. Thinking she’d fainted, he caught her shoulders and tried to rebalance her before he noticed she was scrabbling at his pocket, the one with the key. As she got it, he slapped it from her hand, so that it hit the door and fell beside the stove. Addie howled and lunged after it. Caught short by the cuff, she slammed onto her side on the floor, whimpering in pain, her arm wrenched high over her head.
Richard slid the key into the wrist of the gloves he was wearing. It settled cold in his palm. He looked down at Addie. Her face lay against the floor, dust and snow catching in the blood and blisters. Tears dribbled from her closed eyes. She shook, but he couldn’t tell if it was from sickness or grief. She made a horrible whining noise, like an injured animal.
“Addie,” he said, afraid of the sound, “I had to.” He crouched beside her. “You know I have to do this, don’t you? I can’t let you kill yourself like this.”
The whining continued.
“We’ll get you out of here. You’ll be fine. Would you at least look at me?” He reached for her hand, curled close to her face. She snatched it away, but her other hand, still stretched over her head, only pulled at the handcuffs chain.
“You have to understand. I have to get you somewhere there’s help. Your frostbite—” He said nothing about the insanity in her eyes. “You can come back in the spring.”
“You don’t know,” she said. “They accepted me. They let me share a kill. They let me sleep with them. They’re waiting for me.”
“You’re a woman, and they’re wolves. Maybe you’re prey.”
“You don’t know what it was like, to be with them—” Her voice broke.
“Don’t I?” he said softly. “I used to watch the pack in Como Zoo. They paced a dirt path twelve inches from the wire fence, all around. I could see the road on the other side of the enclosure, sometimes cars, sometimes other people watching. The wolves ignored us all, just kept walking. Except once, the alpha, a long-bodied gray, he looked at me, not afraid, just curious. That’s all we get, is a meeting of eyes.”
She raised her face to look at him. The tears had cleared tracks through the mask of blood and dirt and pus. “Let me go.”
Richard turned his head away from the terrible wild eyes that glowed within the mask. “I can’t.”
She said no more. He packed the rest of his things, then sat staring at the meaningless marks of his writing on the cover of a notebook, trying not to hear her hopeless crying.
When Richard heard the plane over the wind, he ran outside and to the lake shore, not bothering with his snowshoes. The wind snapped a few heavy flakes in his face. He couldn’t see the plane but the drone grew louder. It was a full minute before the de Havilland Beaver appeared in the southeast, facing into the wind for a landing. It hit the lake ice on one ski and bounced sideways before it settled onto both skis and ran smoothly away from him. For a moment, the plane sounded as though it masked a wolf’s howl, but it was only the overtones of the slowing engines. It slowed to a crawl, turned and began taxiing back. Richard waved his arms at the small figure behind the windscreen and ran back toward the cabin.
“Addie,” he yelled as he approached. “He’s here, we’re getting out.” He scrambled around the rock that hid the cabin.
There was blood everywhere by the entrance, splashed red against the white snow and the pale walls. Indistinct footprints wove southwest across the meadow into the ribbon forest, toward Horsehead Mountain. The trail was drilled with holes and ribbons of blood.
Richard ran into the cabin. Sheathed in blood, the cuffs still hung from the bed frame, one hoop swinging closed and empty. The chain between the rings had been smashed by something sharp but was unbroken. Blood soaked the bed’s blankets, and heavy drops trailed down the walls. In a pool of gelling bed by the bed lay a severed hand, bones extending just past the ragged cut.
He had forgotten about the hatchet in her parka.
Richard staggered out the door, away from the thick cold smell, to fall retching by the cabin, holding a corner until he could stand alone and look again at the path that led into the fir and spruce.
She couldn’t be far away, losing blood as she was. He’d easily overtake her. He looked at her path, the mountain beyond it, and the clouds dark behind that. New snow was falling, drifting over the stains. After a long moment, Richard turned his back and walked north, to Lake Juhl and the waiting plane.
Kij Johnson is the author of several novels, including The Fox Woman and Fudoki, and a short story collection, At the Mouth of the River of Bees. She is a three-time winner of the Nebula Award, and has also won the World Fantasy, Sturgeon, and Crawford Awards. She splits her time between Seattle and Lawrence, where she is a professor of creative writing at the University of Kansas.