He woke to see his breath. Closed his eyes, groaned deep, stretched out far. Then sat up and threw the covers off, put his feet into slippers placed the night before.
Naked, save his feet, he rose to the corner, put a hand on the wall, and filled the piss pot. Steam rose and he turned his head and pursed up his face. He let out his breath, relieved, and put on a knee-length fur coat from a nail in the wall and tied a lazy knot.
He walked over a bloodstain and looked in the woodstove. Embers still alive, he added kindling and blew the glow to flame and added split wood. To the water bucket next, he chipped ice into a blackened kettle and put it on to boil.
Slippers off, boots on loose, and lazy-knot coat, he left his cabin for the lake. There was a thin dust of snow on the path and the banks were up to his shoulders. His hole was three-foot square, and an inch or so of ice had frozen overnight. He took a hoe from the snowbank and broke it away then kicked off his boots, undid his coat, and braced himself.
All the air from his lungs, each time shocking.He surfaced and loosed a high pitched yelp that no one heard. Then quickly out, boots and coat back on, he hurried to the threshold, shivering and rubbing his arms, the warmth instinct.
By the time he opened the door, frost had grown in his beard and eyelashes and on the hair of his head. He stomped off his boots and put the slippers on again. Took the rolling kettle from the stove, dropped in two bags of Red Rose, and brought it to his bedside table next to a green tin cup. He hung up his coat and sat on the edge of his bed: slippers off, under the covers.
Underneath, he felt the cold, his hands especially. He put them down to warm between his legs but they just caused everything to shrivel. He poured a tea instead and held on to the hot tin cup, taking sips until he warmed.
It was warmer in the cabin now and he only wore thin wool trousers over his red underclothes. He sat at the table and read the Bible. The thin pages rustled between his fingers and he wondered at the incarnation. God, a baby. Mary, young and beautiful.
He closed the Bible, which was leather and wanted to stay open, and said the Lord’s Prayer with his hand still on it. He rose and walked out to the meat box.
He took the rocks off the wood cover and lifted it up and kept it open with his head like a schoolboy. The bear meat was frozen hard, but his knife was sharp and a chunk came off nice. His hands numbed as he carried in the round of meat.
He had been surprised to see a bear in December. Must have woke up hungry, a summer of drought, hardly a berry to be found. Smoking pipe on a Sunday when it came to nose the meat box. Got the rifle and the shot was good, just behind the front leg. It took a few steps and fell. He gathered supplies: axe, knife, sled, lengths of rope and walked up the blood trail, sloped its head downhill and cut its throat. Then put his finger in the bullet hole, rubbed his hands clean in the snow.
Roped the legs and dragged it a short stretch away to dress it. Felt for the ribcage and made the first cut up to the throat, the second all the way down the belly to the short tail. Some more cuts then peeled the fur off. The gore got under his fingernails. Breathing heavily, he axed through the breastbone and spread the legs apart, opening up the chest. Cut the windpipe and gullet from the head and left them in the chest. Then through fat and muscle to the guts. It was pregnant. He paused at this.
“Fuck off,” he said. Then stood up straight, turned his back, wiped his hands, and pulled a rolled cigarette from his pocket, struck a match and smoked, almost to nothing. Lit the second with the first, finished it, and threw it in the snow.
Picked up the axe and went through the pelvis. Next, slowly cut the anus and bladder loose from the flesh, rolled the bear over and they, along with the unborns and the guts, fell out on the snow staining it almost to black. Up to the chest, he grabbed hold of the windpipe and pulled on it and out came the heart and lungs, mixing with all the rest. More organs followed.
There he stood, over this mound of skinned and gutted flesh, bloody to his biceps, sweating, chilled. He scratched his eyebrow with the back of his wrist then rolled the animal onto the sled, balanced his tools atop the fur and dragged all to the hanging shed.
A rope on each hind leg, he pulled it up over a beam until its snout was just off the ground, a series of heaves and pauses then tied it off. There it hung, looking almost like a man, surprisingly small, just fatty meat on thick bone.
He sliced some meat off the frozen roast and it sizzled and browned in the cast iron, cooked in its own tallow. He blessed it and ate with two knives, one cutting, one spearing and bringing to the mouth. He always liked bear.
Full and cleaned up, he knelt at the prayer table beneath the southern window. Carved the candle with a small, matte blade. Lit it. On the table sat a Celtic cross and the family bible. A picture of wife and child, dead eight months. Killed while he huddled beneath a shivery tarp, bound by springtime winds.
He rounded the point, and there was no smoke coming from the chimney. Closer, the door swung in the breeze, and no one was waiting for him. He slowed his strokes as he approached shore then unloaded the wares and weighed possible scenarios, trying to believe in one without loss. He flipped the canoe and with his rifle cocked and shouldered, moved to the door, which still swung slow.
He stopped the swinging with his foot and a wolf was there growling over a puddle of overturned stew. He shot it dead. Wolf blood sprayed then pooled and mixed with the broth. He moved to the cradle where lay empty swaddling clothes. On the dresser next, a cloth diaper, open like algae.
He found his wife outside, dress torn, being pecked at by carnivorous birds. Eagles and hawks and vultures and crows all ate peacefully, not fighting over the carcass, sharing spoils like the civilized. He called out and ran to scare them off. They flew a few feet away and watched him weep, hopping closer until he looked up and waved his arms and yelled.
He carried her to the hanging shed, eyes out, viscera exposed, her flesh mostly consumed. Dug a grave straight away, all six feet deep, and his hands did not bleed for they were strong and calloused. He buried her with the child’s swaddling clothes and tried to sing her Rock of Ages but his sobs were too much and he fell on the mounded earth. It was dark and he returned to his cabin and sank into bed exhausted.
“Did you eat my little boy?” he said to the wolf carcass when he woke. The wolf just lay there as it was dead. The widower rose from his bed and asked again, “Did you eat my little boy?” And as he spoke to the body he got angrier and angrier and he looked crazed and he kicked the wolf, then straddled it, a knee on either side, punched its face and body, half-dried blood all through the scene. He retrieved his nine inch blade and cut open the wolf’s belly but he could not tell whether his son was in there or not. Then he dragged it outside and the birds ate it as they did his wife.
He waded in the water and removed his clothes, let them bob and work back to shore in the light chop. He scrubbed vigorously under water, his body, head, and beard, and he emerged from the water panting. May’s morning sun shone through and a blue heron statued on a rock. The bay sang with the sounds of the animals, and a pair of red-necked grebes danced and called ritualistically. The May water was cold, and he shivered and walked back to shore.
He picked up his clothes and wrung them out and walked in the cabin naked. On his knees, he used the clothes to scrub the guts and blood and stew from the floor. He buried the clothes behind the hanging shed, dug the hole in just his boots as bugs bit and buzzed, and he returned to the water again to scrub.
Blood and water mingled, pooled as the round of bear thawed on the table. The widower rose from prayer and took up the roast, holding it reverently at eye level. He put it down again and gathered spices, dried herbs from summer’s garden. Tore them small and mixed with his hand in a pine bowl. Filled his right hand with salt and held firm the roast with his left and rubbed salt into the wet meat. He filled his hand and rubbed yet more. The other spices in the same manner, then into the roasting pan with a foreknuckle of water and some cellar roots. The roasting pan into the oven. Then filling the fire so full of wood that the door had to be forced shut. Some more wood against the stove, some on top.
He finished the cabin two Augusts previous. His wife was splitting wood as he carved a cross over the door frame. “Heavenly Father, I give you my home. Hold it in your hands and deliver it from evil.” He felt the logs, which had stood green and bore branches in the past, which were the labour of his sweat and his Creator’s perfect design. He walked the perimeter of his home. “Place protecting angels on all sides, Father, and make me an instrument of your peace. It is in the name of your son, Jesus, that I pray. Amen.”
He put away his tools and swept the sawdust out. It was hot and he watched his wife work from a distance. Sweat soaked through her dress as she chopped and hummed to herself. Her hair was loosely tied and she accented notes on the down swings. She raised the axe and her beauty overcame him.
“Carol.” She jumped startled and leaned on her axe, her hand up to block the sun. “It’s done.” She dropped the axe and ran to him and he shook in her arms. “I’m so proud,” he said “I’m just so proud.”
And he took her hand and guided her through the house. Through tears he explained each feature and its functionality and the grace of it was not lost on her. Once everything was shown, she put her hand on his shoulder and he turned and put his hands on her hips.
“I built it for you.”
“I know. Thank you.”
They kissed and tore at each other’s clothing and he picked her up and put her on the bed and she threw her head back and her face and neck burned with the roughness of his beard. And as he lay on top of her, she seemed to disappear beneath the breadth of his back and shoulders: just arms and legs which interlocked and pulled, striving to feel him closer, always closer.
They rose from the bed naked and the couple’s sweat shaded dark patches onto the blanket. Then they went down to the water and cooled off and talked about their home’s perfection.
Later, they dipped bread in oil and sat on a blanket and watched the sun lower beneath the spruce and white pine and birch to the west. Two pine stood out from the rest and the couple surveyed them.
“Don’t they look like dancers?” Carol put her hand on his knee.
“I guess I can see it,” and he lay back and brought her with him, her head on his shoulder. “Are you glad we came here?”
“But are you happy?”
“I’m happy and I love you.” A pause. “I do miss my mother and father though. And my sisters. Especially Jane and her little one.”
He looked up at the trees. “Do you miss dancing?”
“Ask me to dance some time. I’m clumsy and we haven’t got any music, but I could sing and sway and move my feet with my hand on the small of your back.”
“I’d like that.” They smiled and kissed.
Whiskey jacks flew about and when they had eaten their fill, they coaxed the jays close and had them eat out of their hands. The man exposed his wife’s belly which was starting to show and kissed it and put some bread on it, and the birds landed and ate and flew away when she laughed at the sensation of their feet on her skin.
The sled at the frozen shore loaded with rope, net, auger, shovel, axe. There he piled rocks on the sled, seven skull-like stones, and smoke rose from the chimney and a red fox jogged on light paws. He harnessed himself to the sled and began to walk.
Out past the bay he dragged it, into unsheltered waters that sink deep into the mystery of cold. Winter is quieter and as he shovelled the topsnow clear, all he could hear was the wind beneath his hat and the seemingly distant sounds of his work.
At the ice now, he took out his auger and began to crank. After an hour, he overheated and threw his overcoat in the snow. The work was hard and he imagined it as opening the sacred bottle that held the blood of Christ himself and, so, eternity. The widower took his pickaxe and swung at the ice and again and again ice flew beneath his mighty strokes.
He swung and flames shot through his cabin windows and black smoke rose and red flames licked the cold. He didn’t pause to take it in and he couldn’t feel the heat or smell it.
Water finally and he continued to break until he would fit. The cabin had collapsed and smoldered on shore. He sat in the snow and imagined it on fire: prayer table, cradle, bed, bloodstained floor. Frost collected in his beard and around his eyes and sweat soaked through his clothes and he began to shiver.
The widower put on his overcoat and moved to the sled. He wrapped the seven rocks in the net and took off his mitts and fastened it shut. He attached four lengths of rope to the net. Two he knotted around his ankles and two around his wrists and he blew into his hands to keep them dextrous.
He bore his anchor, the ropes like winter snakes in the snow, and stood over the hole. The sun set pink and purple, the moon rose translucent, his home smoked, broken. All around were leafless trees and needled conifers and rocky cliffs, and they all were covered in snow. Braced himself. All the air out of his lungs.
The shock turned to numb as he settled on the rocky bottom, and the sinking stones joined their kin. He thought of the wolf and the birds and the empty swaddling clothes. Dusk glowed in the hole he cut for himself and he wondered at the incarnation.