BY LISA CORMIER
This is the conclusion of a two-part story. Copyright is held by the author.
IT SEEMED like I was hiking for hours; my legs hurt, my head ached, and it felt like I was carrying a bear on my sled. I had no more footprints to follow, I was just following an opening between the trees. I stopped to catch my breath. I strained to hear the river, but all I heard was the drumming of my heartbeat. I took off my mitten and did something I was told never to do, I ate a handful of snow. Sweat beaded from my brow. I ate some more snow and put my mitten back on. I shivered. All the talks my father gave us about hypothermia flooded my brain. I shrugged it off. I bent over and reached for the rope of my sled and saw that the sled had been completely covered. I knelt and dug around for it. Once I found the rope, I realized the sled was too much to bear so I hung it on the nearest limb and hoped to retrieve it the next day. I kept hiking through the snow; the deeper it got, the weaker my legs got. A tree limb cracked to the left and I instinctively dropped on my belly. I looked up, waiting; my lungs filled with cold air, I coughed. A huge moose came busting through the trees and crossed directly in front of me. Seconds later I heard the crash of ice and dribbling water. I couldn’t hear the river before because it was freezing over again. I got up and found my way through the brush and came to the river. The moose was drinking and paid no attention to me. I looked up the river and couldn’t see anything. The snow was too thick. I sat down and watched the moose, frustrated, cold, and scared for the little old lady. The moose ventured onto the flat surface of the ice and disappeared. I was shivering uncontrollably, if I didn’t move, I’d fall asleep and never wake up. I got up and dragged myself up the river toward the hill that I knew had to be there somewhere.
Darkness had crept upon me, making the way slow and painful. I had to watch my footing— one slip and I could fall down the steep embankment and under one of the chunks of ice and into the river. My father always said that drowning was no way to die. I grabbed onto bushes and held on to tree branches for support. The wind picked up and hurled around my face. I had to stop several times to catch my breath before moving on. There was no way that little old lady had come this way, I thought, she must have used another route. Once the embankment gave way to flat rock, I knew that I was getting closer; Flat Rock was where we would sunbathe in the summer. The hill leading home wasn’t far off, but there was still the trek through the ski-doo trail, and all uphill. I was weak and shivering from the cold. At the rate I was going, the trek would be a couple of hours, at best. The temperature had dropped again causing the big snowflakes to change into fine flakes. My boots were heavy, like a brick had formed in each of them, my head pounded, and just when I thought I would never find the hill, it appeared in front of me. If the snow hadn’t faded, I would have passed it.
I stopped again to catch my breath, but not for long; the shivering kept me going. I trudged through about three feet of freshly fallen snow. Uphill I went until my lungs cried for air. I fell to my knees and fought my way up again, falling, until, alas, I couldn’t go one more step. I fell into the snow and turned on my back. My chest was heavy, I was so tired. A few stars twinkled in the sky; wind blew the snow in small funnels all around me. I fought the urge to close my eyes; my lids were so heavy. I thought about how nice it would be if that little old lady would be here now, to pull me once more on my sled, to a place of cozy blankets, a warm fire, and a cup full of cocoa. I closed my eyes.
I dreamed I was a moose, with long lean legs that could plow through the deep snow. I had a thick fur that kept me warm and a rack of antlers that could scrape the bark off any tree. I was drinking from the river and the babbling water tickled my lips. I laughed. Wind blew the snow off the trees. The sound of the river became louder.
Voices off in the distance I could not comprehend. I was a moose, I had to find shelter from the storm. I had to find the old lady.
I saw my father. He was yelling over the sound of the ski-doo, but I did not know what he was saying. He scooped me up and put me in the wood sled he was hauling and covered me with blankets. I heard my uncle and father yelling to each other, then nothing more.
Early the next morning, I awoke. The fire in the woodstove was crackling. My father was in the kitchen, making a pot of coffee. The storm had passed.
“Well, well, Doll, how do you feel? You gave us quite the scare yesterday. Did you get lost in the snow? And what happened here?” He touched the small cut on my head.
I felt the cut; the bump had gone down. I tried to remember what had happened. He came to me and checked my fingers and toes for signs of frostbite. My cheeks and nose were a little snow-burned, but that was the brunt of it.
“Where did you go? Clint told us that you went sledding on the main trail and that you wouldn’t be back until after lunch, which was when the heavy snowfall started. Where were you?”
I stood there staring at him, trying to remember.
“Your uncle and I went out looking for you when you didn’t show up for afternoon tea. It’s a good thing we found you when we did.” He tousled my hair, waiting for an answer. “You were calling out someone’s name in your sleep…”
“Maggie! Oh, Dad, there was an old lady in a cabin…!” I was so loud with excitement that I woke up everyone else in the house and they all came running to see what the commotion was. I told them about the ice chunks and how the river had opened and how I woke up in a strange cabin in the woods. I told them about how I had left my sled because it was too heavy to pull and the moose that showed me the way. My father and mother had never heard of any cabin in the woods along the river and were a bit skeptical. There were a few small shelters that were made in case in rained during moose hunting, but they weren’t near the river. Once I told them about the pneumonia, my father didn’t hesitate. A half hour later, I was back on the trail riding in the wood sled with my brothers, the sound of the Polaris’ engine ringing in my ears. It was a beautiful clear day. I prayed that Maggie was all right.
Even though over three feet of snow fell through the night, some of it had blown off the trail. The big machine went through with ease. We got to the last hill but before reaching the bottom, my father proceeded right, on a trail alongside the river. As we drove through, the only tracks were the little tracks of mice and rabbit. The ski-doo got stuck a few times in the deep drifts of snow and we had to get off and help clear it. Once, my father turned off the engine and asked me several questions about the cabin, about the trail. He had gotten impatient and thought perhaps my head injury had gotten the best of me. I looked around, but nothing seemed familiar to me. He suggested we put on our snowshoes and keep travelling by foot. Perhaps I would remember or see something familiar. After an hour had passed, I grew weary that we would not find the cabin and that Maggie may have passed during the night. My father had a busy day ahead, so we trekked back to the ski-doo and he took us home where my mother had brunch waiting. After that, he drove us to the place where we had ended our search earlier and told us that he would be back in a few hours to get us. I felt a little uneasy as I watched him drive away.
My brothers and I put our snowshoes on again. Since nothing looked familiar to me on this trail, my brother, Phonse, had the idea that we should head through the trees toward the river, perhaps there was another trail parallel to the one we were on. So, that’s what we did and sure enough, there was another trail. It was a narrow trail. I couldn’t say for sure if it was the one that I was on the night before, but it felt like it could be the one. We went single file, Clint in the lead. I struggled at the back of our convoy, kicking up snow with every step. I was never comfortable wearing snowshoes. About an hour had passed and I grew weary. I was about to yell out that I was stopping to rest when I heard Clint yell.
“I found it! Hey, you guys, I found the sled!”
Adrenaline rushed through my veins and I rushed past Phonse, almost tripping. Clint was untangling the rope from the tree when I got to him.
“We can’t be far now,” I said, but truth be told I had no way of knowing how far it was because it was different, it felt different. The wind had blown most of the snow off the limbs and drifts of snow had turned the winter wonderland of the previous afternoon into another ordinary winter day. Even the trees didn’t seem as tall as I had remembered.
We went a bit farther, but soon had to turn back. Phonse kept looking at his new watch and directed us to turn around. We followed our tracks back to where we had been dropped off. Up ahead, our father had been waiting for us. I was tired and sad, but glad to be getting out of the woods before dark. Darkness came fast in the winter, and shadows were starting to look menacing. We went home where supper was waiting. The moose stew was nothing compared to the scrumptious dish I had eaten the night before. There was no apple pie or cocoa, only tea with homemade bread and strawberry jam.
I dreamed of the old lady that night and for a long time after spent my weekends and snow days searching for the cabin, always begging my brothers to help. (I never ventured into the woods alone after that.) But it was as if it never existed. Winter gave way to spring and spring into summer, and so on, and the sled was hung up on a nail in the shed. It was the last winter I remember using the sled, as I had entered my teens and developed other interests. As time went on, I thought perhaps it had been just a dream, but no one could ever explain the scar that remained on my head.