Thursday, November 29, 2007

Room for So Many

Peter pushed opened the door of his cabin to low sunshine and a gentle autum breeze. Honking bird calls sounded overhead, some northern species of geese or ducks passing through, from and to where he wasn't exactly sure, but that they flew by here, now, seemed right. The great vee formation spread across the length of his extended hand. There must be hundreds in this flock alone, he thought, and he could probably expect to see hundreds more flocks going by in the course of the day. He should remember to check the pond this evening--geese could be eaten. The thought made him briefly uneasy, but on examination, he could feel no urgency. He was not particularly hungry.

First things first, in any case. He slid his bare feet into his boots, and walked around the woodpile, just a few paces downwind of the cabin, to relieve himself. There was a privy a few yards yet beyond, just by the edge of the trees, but he preferred not to use it when the weather was warm. He hiked down his drawers and leaned a forearm against his favorite tree, emptying himself as freely as nature intended. The piss steamed on the leaves, and the scent of it spiced the spongy fern-and-fungus aroma of the earth in that spot. He pushed against the tree with his hand, enjoying the rough solidity of the trunk, the warmth of sun on his back, the soft pressure of his left hand cupped around his bare cock. Ahead of him, the forest rustled. First the hillside, he thought, and then he could work his way around down to the pond, he thought, make the most of the day, get a little provision on the way. Rather than dig into his stores, he gathered some dry kindling from below the trees.

There was nothing, Peter decided, like a morning fire. Smoky smells filled the single room, combining with leather, sweat, and old cooked things, odors that struck him as uniquely, and fundamentally, human. The thought satisfied him. Tentative flames licked the blackened stones of the tiny hearth, caressed the blackened bottom of the kettle suspended from its iron hook. It was wise to gather whatever he found on his daily walks, and dried mint and rose hips from another excursion had been crushed together in a small wooden bowl some time before. He poked the small flame, and placed his hand on of the side of the vessel to gauge its warmth.

He spread some few items onto his pallet: the tin canteen that fit into its own cup, split like an ass-crack, whatever stamped figures on the bottom long-since scratched away; his fur cap, which he might need on the way back; his long knife; his leather sack for game and his pocketed woven one for forage (he should be able to fill the bulk of it with tree nuts), the two of which were still tied end-to-end and front-to-front with the cord he'd sling over his shoulder; his small emergency kit, mostly tinder and matches; and, of course, his rifle. The gun, he thought, even with its worn stock and old scratched barrel looked incongruous, far too precise in shape and sterile in smell, but he didn't dwell on it. He fished a few rounds from the rough trough near his pallet and pocketed them. With care, there could probably be enough to last a lifetime. It was difficult to judge.

A lifetime... There was something else he needed. Yes. He reached under the straw and pulled out the paper envelope. He ran his hand against the edge of it, smooth from many such caresses. It was yellowed and creased, but it was more important than any other thing in the cabin, even the matches and the gun. He wondered if he could read what was inside if he opened it, not that he was about to. Carefully, without folding it, he slid the letter into the inside pocket of his jacket. On the outside of the envelope was printed, "FATHER." The smell of herbs began to flood the small space.


Peter shoved his way along the brushy game trail, eyes flitting from the ground to the space ahead of him. Deer had come down the run recently, probably just this morning. He'd seen pellets stacked up among the laurel, still moist, and prints, little paired elipses, strayed onto the softer patches of the earth on the sides of the beaten ground and ornamented the route through the bushes. They'd be mating, he realized, and he giggled to think he might catch a pair in the act. Everywhere around him were the chitters of woodland animals: mice and innumerable squirrels, scritching insects, and the raucous singsong of local birds who came to feast on the bugs while they lasted. Some visitors stopped by to gorge as well, just passing through like the geese. He watched a great flock of swallows infest a giant maple, and, as he crunched past, rise and wheel around before settling down again. He could see unidentifiable migrants fill up the sky through breaks in the trees. He loved the sound of them.

There could be big animals in the woods too, but Peter liked playfully stalking the deer too much to feel threatened. It didn't feel right they should be here this morning, and anyway, he was going somewhere. At one point, he did catch sight of a fox's tail, and saw it's angular, ghostly face bob a moment before it turned and faded into the bushes behind, no doubt after some smaller animal. A wolf or a cat may attack a fox, he thought, or a bear. He himself could shoot any of them, but even following the deer, he didn't worry much. There were always far fewer predators than prey, and they needed more space, and they had far less class. Many of the bigger animals announced themselves when they moved into an area, howling at night or dropping spoor, and, thinking of woodsmoke and his two tiny buildings, he was much the same. There was room for only so many at at time.

His favorite place was a small and sparse cedar grove, on a south-facing hillside. At this time of year, the sun angled between the small trees and filled the stand with warmth in the afternoon. Grass still sprouted in the expanses between the trunks--possibly an old fire had cleared it in the years before Peter had arrived--and he appreciated the spacing of things, the wood smell, the soft places to lay, the green maples further down, embossed in places with red and gold. There was something about a warm glade that fit perfectly in his mind. Or in which his mind perfectly fit. He removed his bags, placed his leather jacket on the moss at the base of one of the thinner trees, and propped his head against the trunk. The sun painted the backs of his closed eyelids red, and tickled the exposed skin of his hands and face, snugly warmed his clothes. There was a word for this early autumn heat, but he could not place it. He loosened his shirt, and gave in to the sounds and smells of the clearing, and the sky opened up behind his eyes.

He started awake to a sudden chill, but smiled to see it was just the sun ducking behind a solitary, pristine cloud. He frowned as he tried to catch his fleeting dream, but could not, and his hand patted the chest of his jacket. He should, he realized, have a pipe. Actually he should have two pipes. There was hemp growing down by the pond, he thought, which he could pull up and dry in his cabin while he slowly carved out a briar. In the meantime, he'd look for a bone for a flute. Had there been an old deer kill, maybe? He furrowed his brow trying to remember.

As if in answer, he heard a crow call, and then some of its friends angrily respond. He stood up and squinted around to locate the source, a black knot in the grass a few stone's throws away. One angry bird, or a succession of them, jumped out from the cawing throng at intervals, and dove back in. Peter suspected there was meat, but he couldn't smell it from where he was standing. He was surprised he hadn't heard them before, and hoped that whatever it was that had their attention hadn't occurred while he was asleep. Lurking about upwind may not be in his best interest, and it was getting cooler in any case.

He gathered his things and snuck a southeasterly arc across the wind and down the hill, keeping his eyes on the noisy black birds as long as he could. They swarmed as if to intentionally block his view, and, it seemed, cawed at him to stay away. It was impossible to tell what they were teeming over, and as they trailed off out of his sight, one came loose from the murder, and sillhouetted itself briefly against the sun. Peter's hands gripped the rifle hard.

He should return in several days to see if there were signs of a carcass. Maybe he'd get a flute out of the experience, but if a bear had invaded his territory, it seemed unlikely they could coexist peacefully: one of them would have to die. The moral calculus made Peter uncomfortable, but he realized as well that bears could be eaten, and that their greasy fur was warm, and their skin could be used too. He grabbed his hat from his leather bag. Let's hope it doesn't come to that, brother.


Peter's route to the pond came up around the soft end, where the water stretched out with swampy fingers toward the fitful stream that fed it. He skirted the wetlands along a rim of stony rubble a couple feet above. The pond occuped a space where two hills met. The stream may have been bigger once, for at points it carved some a hefty chink out of its rock bed, or maybe it was just very old. Some other trick of geology had piled up a rocky dam at the other end, near where the hemp grew, and the stream seeped lazily over it on its way to the valley proper.

It wasn't pleasant like the hillside, but it had an earthy sort of sincerity. Below the hill and under the trees it got darker earlier. The trees here loomed over the swampy expanse to reach at the latest available rays of sun. They were taller, both because moisture was close and the sun was far, and the shadows they cast were deep and moist and coolly scented with rotting leaves. There was little undergrowth, and his walking was easy amid the stones. Some ambitious crickets offered an occasional counterpoint to his footfalls.

As he came around, he saw the geese before he heard them, paddling on the far side of the water, where they paddled about, ducking occasionally into the water to gobble at who knew what. Listening carefully, he could pick out an occasional honk. He'd need to hurry if he wanted to get home before nightfall. He quick-stepped along the bowl, making his way out of the shadows and into the waning day that still touched the other side. Just ahead, he could see the gray granite expanse of of the dam, and from here it looked it opened to a precipice. Closer, he could see that the big slab was tumbled up against a mix of other giant stones, all cluttered into the mouth of the small ravine, and the drop to the lower stream was only half again as tall as Peter himself. Water seeped over the top of it, and oozed down the hillside out of sight.

He squinted at the oblivious birds, but he still wasn't close enough to shoot well. He crouched down and duck-walked over the slipppery rock, and then jogged another fifty yards on the other side to get in range. He sat on a muddy hillock, and set the rifle on his knees.

What did a goose feel? He lifted the gun, and put one of the creatures between the sights. It was black and gray, he noticed, with a spot of algae on its back. As Peter noticed it, so did the bird, and twisted its back to nibble it away. Did one thing always have to die for another? There were nuts everywhere, still plants, and he wasn't hungry. Wouldn't he be hungry in... Did the land dream? Geese were food. He tried to steady his aim, but his hands were shaking, and his eyes, he realized were clouding, so he wiped them. The goose swam toward him, as though curious. Suddenly livid, Peter grabbed his gun, and fired into the air. "Go away, dammit!" His own voice sounded strange to him, and much too loud. The goose turned its whole body to point an eye at Peter, and honked questioningly.

Peter turned and ran the way he came. A crow cawed behind him, and the geese, the flock of them, flapped and shouted at it. He raced over the rock dam--eyes already ahead toward the swamp and mind already halfway to the cabin--and his feet slid beneath him. There was sky, then trees, then rocks, then darkness.


Peter awoke for the third time that day. The air was sharper now, and gloomier, and his shoulders were shuddering with cold, but he couldn't feel where his legs were when he tried to move them. He looked about him with growing dread. The lower half of his body was soaked in slimy water, but the angle of his legs told him they weren't numb from the cold. His bags had gone flying, and hickory nuts in their green casings bobbed comically in the green water by his knees. The rifle had landed near his head. He pushed his body up, hoping to free himself from the stream anyway, but his waist would not support him.

The sun was setting he realized, and the wind was picking up. It carried an unwholesome stink on it too: grease and game and shit. It had been a bear after all. On cue, he heard the creature blundering about in the pond somewhere above, hassling the birds maybe, but if they were still up there he couldn't hear them now. He reached about him and found the gun, slid the bolt to eject the spent casing. He pawed at his jacket for a new round, and felt a crinkle instead. Wrong pocket. The bear roared somewhere above him.

Peter's hands trembled as he pulled out the envelope. If the tremors were from hypothermia, shock, or some unseen blood loss, he couldn't tell. Didn't care. The sun was nearly set, but reading the letter now seemed very important to him. He tore the end off with his teeth, breathing short gasps. The paper inside was flimsy and disintegrating at the edges, but the writing on it, in the same large, blocky letters as on the front of the envelope, was legible.


The words practically shouted at him. The bear roared once more, now just out of sight. He could hear the crows bickering again too.

Peter threw the gun as far as he could from him, and looked out to the last moments of day, the ancient crack of the ravine turning one more time away from the sun. There was hot breath behind him, but he didn't turn. How big was the world, he wondered. How much could it hold?

"Yes," he said aloud.


"Is he..."

"Completely painless," the doctor said. Some flashing lights traced across the room, announcing themselves for a moment in red and blue over the dim fluorescents. The window kept out most of the traffic noise and fumes. "Completely at ease and completely consensual." Well, almost completely consensual, but the final response would be the one that mattered on the transcript. How much value could permission have under the circumstances anyway? It's not like they didn't sign the forms. "Thank you for choosing Mercy Hospital." He put on his best concerned expression, and shook the woman's hand. Unsure what to do with the child, he bent and patted her cheek.

The little girl did not break his gaze. She was in a pink dress, flimsy but spotless, with hard little pink plastic shoes. She clutched her stuffed bear without crying, staring expectantly at him. He groped backwards for the door handle. "It was a better place," he told her. "You're, um, a lucky girl." He shouldered his way out of the room. The child didn't utter a word, but followed him with big, hopeful eyes.

The rest of his patients went much closer to the usual script. He remembered his own father telling him that doctors had once spent more time healing--some still did, he supposed--back in the old days of "quantity of life". There were worse ways to earn a ration than getting into palliatives, and worse things even to depend on the platefuls of brown gruel that got piped out of the hospital cafetria. He longed for a smoke afterwards to clear the taste. He strode through the lobby and elbowed his way onto the ancient sidewalk, into the electric glare of the late evening. He assumed a nook against the pockmarked concrete and hunched his back against the throng to light up.

The kid was lucky. For the voluntary cases, it was a guaranteed lifetime of rations for survivors, even some basic care. And she might be one of the last in the world to get that. There would be a law in no time, he was sure of it. But that kid had "volunteer" written all over her, he thought, even if she didn't screw up her benefits by reproducing. Dreamers and loners weren't fit for the world. She'd be back in five or six years, painted and filthy by then, as one of his innumerable teenage clients.

It wasn't the sort of thought to linger, but as he sucked in the last of his greasy cigarette, he could still feel the child's gaze on him. It was the bear, he decided, that was getting to him. What was she doing with one of those things? There was no space for bears on this planet, they just took up space and ate up rations. The last of them had been consumed a generation ago. He flicked his butt. Fuck 'em anyway. If they were alive they'd be fucking food right now. He lit up another smoke, and tried not to imagine shiny button eyes judging him over a pink arm.

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