Publication date: 2 June 2020
The door was locked. Either that, or it was unlocked, as it should have been—as it unfailingly was—but Felix had failed to pull the handle all the way down when he applied the pressure of his hiking boot to the base of the stoutly constructed entranceway. The door that Felix was attempting to open was that of a log cabin, and it was one whose opening and closing required a special knack. He knew this from visits there in twelve of his thirteen summers as an adult. (The season that Felix missed was one he had spent on crutches after breaking an ankle while solo hiking.) From the experience of his dozen trips to date, Felix had become a master of the door. Or was it, as he sometimes allowed himself to think, that the cabin had come to accept him?
What was different now, compared with all previous visits, was that Felix's attempt to gain entrance was being made with frozen hands. A blizzard had left his fingers burning at the tips and otherwise sensationless. He could not even unzip the top pocket of his backpack to retrieve the gloves that he had remembered too late.
As Felix stood on the log cabin's raised porch, his senses were trying to tell him something. Specifically, there floated at the periphery of his awareness an odor that not only was familiar but offered information pertinent to his situation. But so focused was Felix on the need to warm himself that he registered the smell in the vaguest of senses and left it hovering for the moment; for now, he remained fixated on the door.
Deciding that it would be beneficial to definitively establish the cause of the door's resistance before settling on a course of action, Felix lowered his head to study the crack where the outermost plank met the entranceway's wooden frame. The metal bolt was indeed drawn across. Either someone was using the cabin and, for some reason, had locked the door when they left on an errand, or someone was staying and had turned the key from the inside. There was a third possibility, too, but he pushed that thought as far back in his mind as he could.
With the door's boltedness confirmed, Felix administered a couple of firm kicks to its base—this being the least challenging form of knock that he could administer—and waited. He also tried to voice a hello, but his throat had been muted by the cold.
A minute passed without response, which he took to mean that the cabin was most probably empty. There was only a hallway, a bedroom, and a living room. The activities, Felix reasoned, that might typically prevent someone from answering the door in daylight hours, such as washing their exterior or lightening their interior, were all necessarily performed outside.
Then a thought came to him. It might just be that someone was in—two people, in fact—and they were engaged in another such activity: one typically performed in the bedroom. With a faint hope, he shuffled along the porch and tapped his knuckles against a pane of the single-glazed bedroom window, behind which the curtains were drawn. On account of his hands' unfeelingness, Felix found it difficult to judge the force that he was applying. He certainly did not want to break the glass—not if he could avoid it. The first attempt was barely audible, and so he repeated the action with greater vigor. The sound was more than satisfactory this time. In fact, he had come closer than he would have liked to applying a shattering force, and the walls of the cabin emitted a muted groan, as if in response; but, again, there was no answer from inside. His spirit ebbed as he studied the dim reflection of his face in the glass. The tip of his nose had turned purple, and his lips, though tingling with heat, were a bloodless shade of blue.
Although Felix had never encountered anyone else at the cabin, he was prepared for a need to share the accommodation: As always, he had packed a roll-mat on which he could lay his thick sleeping bag, in case someone had beaten him to the mattress in the bedroom. It had never occurred to him, however, that he might find the door locked. Furthermore, while he was familiar with the malaise that could result from being stuck inside a cabin, the anguish of being trapped outside was new to him.
Under the strain of a growing unease, Felix's resolve faltered, and all he could do was think of fire…
He needed fire in order to think…
At length, he remembered the woodpile that he had passed on the gravel forestry track as he neared the cabin, and with this recollection some of his spirit returned.
Felix decided to leave his rucksack on the porch—it might, he supposed, trigger a search of the cabin's surroundings if he did not make it back. A minor concern was that the large sheathed knife that hung from the outside of his pack could be a little threatening to the cabin's other visitor or visitors, whoever they were, on their return from their errand. But his hands were too cold to safely unsheathe the blade, and he could not untie the knot that he had made in the cord. All he could do was turn his pack so that the knife faced away from the porch's steps.
With his limbs stiffening after what had been an exhausting day, Felix hobbled back down to the stack of cut wood. The dark, snow-laden clouds had now passed and the last rays of the day drew the trunks of birches out in long shadows across the track. On another day, he would have found immense beauty in the alternation of light and dark, for he generally saw life through a lens of positivity and wonder. However, a distaste for his fellow man had taken root as he left the porch, and with each weary step down the path, and away from the cabin, the feeling penetrated a little further into his psyche.
On reaching the log pile, however, the ill thoughts were in an instant reversed. By the side of the stack was a metal container with an easy-to-open lid that housed dry tinder and kindling, as well as a box of strike-anywhere matches. Additionally, in accordance with the chapter of mountain-refuge custom written with numb-fingered visitors in mind, the last person to use the matches had left one of the chemical-tipped aspen splinters sticking out.
Despite the urgency of his craving for warmth, Felix constructed his fire with all the care for which he had energy and dexterity. Only when he was perfectly satisfied did he take the matchbox out of the metal container and sit down beside his creation. With his back blocking the biting late-afternoon breeze and the match gripped by his incisors, he held the small cardboard box between his two palms and dragged its abrasive edge across the phosphorous head. The match took and he bent forward to apply its combustive seed to the tinder.
Soon the flames of the kindling were leaping up through the teepee of logs that Felix had erected, and, while thawing his hands and face, he assessed his surrounds. The cabin looked over a snow-dusted meadow and stood at the foot of an icy ascent to the tallest peak in an overlooked range. The stunning bleakness contrasted starkly for Felix with the gentle charm that the scene had possessed in the summer, when the track that led to the cabin was fringed by the radiant foliage of lifesome trees. Then, it had recalled the oil paintings he had seen hanging over fire places in grand lodges, on canvases that he unfailingly wished to step into. In one such painting that Felix had come across many years earlier, the foreground had been dominated by a majestic buck, who stood serenely with neck proudly erect. Felix's instinctive reaction had been to shoo the deer away, back into the cover of trees on the painting's fringes and away from the threat of rifle-shot. Game hunting was morally repulsive to Felix: He had pacifistic concerns that radiated deep into life's queendom.
Now he noticed, for the first time, the narrow column of smoke rising from the cabin's stone chimney. The smell of fire is what his subconscious had been pondering ever since he had arrived, but only now was he ready to process the information that it conveyed. Most importantly, it ruled out a scenario—the possibility of which he had so far been suppressing—in which the person who had locked the door would not be coming back to the cabin that night. He celebrated this discovery by wolfing down several handfuls of the home-made trail mix that he invariably carried in his jacket pocket.
As Felix basked in the blazing warmth, he could hear the calls of tits up in the birches near the cabin, while above him crossbills moved boisterously between the tops of several towering conifers. For a while, he was joined around the fire by a weasel; she was as curious about the man as about the flames. There they sat, the mustelid appraising the smoky odor and the man drinking up the musty aroma of pine straw. The sights, and the sounds, and the smells—they had been there all the while. But only now that Felix was no longer in a battle with Mother Nature had she regained her vibrancy in his senses.
At last Felix returned his mind to a question that had held his attention for much of his day's hiking, up from the valley below. Why had he awoken that morning with an irresistible compulsion to climb the mountain, in the bitter heart of winter? Studying the cabin once more, a feeling began to take hold in Felix that it was the building itself, and not the peak looming behind it, that had drawn him there. The ideation of this alternative locus of attraction brought him no closer, however, to establishing the cause of his unshakable yearning.
Catarina sat cross-legged, on a threadbare rug, holding the bottom letter from a finger-width, chronologically ordered stack. She'd promised herself that she would not re-read any of the messages, but for all her faculty of self-restraint she simply could not resist delving into the inky swirls of the final note one last time. It would at least provide a distraction from her battle against a swelling dread.
The letter was the one in which Catarina's ex had broken off a long-distance relationship that had endured all the usual challenges during three-and-a-half orbits of the sun. Reading the note now, as had been the case with every other analysis to which she had subjected it in the previous six months, Catarina could not find an answer to the question of why. Nevertheless, there was something different about this reading: It was the first time her eyes had stayed dry.
Like the other sheets of paper before it, this letter was placed in the greedy nucleus of a fire that Catarina had lit. Within seconds, the paper was gone—its energy released to heat the cabin in which she sat; and its essence carried up the chimney into a frigid dusk.
As a teenager, Catarina had hiked in the mountain range in which the cabin stood. And it was in the accommodation's stone hearth that her dad had taught her the fundamentals of fire-lighting. This was before her parents' separation; before her dad's relocation to Pittsville; before the accident at his factory.
She couldn't explain what exactly it was that had drawn her back up here so urgently—after so many years—in winter's hostile depths. It certainly was not the nostalgia of childhood happiness. Except for the fires that she'd shared with her dad, Catarina had never really enjoyed her time in these mountains. She had loathed the lung-burning cold, abhorred her apprehension of the unknown, and despised the all-too-regular sight of slain deer being dragged back to the cabin. (Catarina was amazed that, using an online map in satellite mode, she had rediscovered its location so easily.)
But an explanation is not something that she had demanded. For the first time in a long while, Catarina was living in the moment. This is why she had not applied the stifling scrutiny that she so often did to her gut impulses. This why she had not just stayed at home, fifty miles distant from the mountains' lower slopes.
As Catarina stared into the flames, doing her damnedest to think of nothing at all, she was roused by a knock on the cabin door. Her anxiety crashed through the levee that her meditation had built: This is what she had been dreading.
The man had come back. The man who had tried to kick down the door and break the bedroom window. The man who had hovered zombie-like on the porch. The man who had so threateningly placed his rucksack, with the large knife that hung from it facing the doorway.
Catarina's stomach was taut and airless, and her neck felt as if it were being constricted by a silent force. Through the living room window, in the twilight, she could see the mountain's summit only as an unearthly outline.
Drawing the curtains on the coming blackness, Catarina crept into the bedroom on all fours and contemplated getting another look at the man. By the time she had reached the window and focused her courage so as to be able to raise her head above the pine sill, the man was heading down the steps once more, this time with his rucksack on. She took a series of long breaths and slowly eased the suffocating tension. The cabin creaked, as if it were sighing.
Studying the silhouette of the man as he hobbled down the trail, Catarina could hear the voice of a friend in her head. You're the wrong side of thirty now. You won't find the right guy, if you're too scared to take a chance. This friend, Catarina happily conceded, did have a point, but only in a general sense. She was not about to start a new, more liberated chapter of her life with someone who announced his presence by trying to kick down doors and break windows… someone who might possibly be a serial killer. (She visualized a headline: Mountain slasher swipes another victim.) No, Catarina wanted a gentler guy: someone with whom she could share long walks; someone who could teach her the names of the birds and the trees; someone with whom her life expectancy might be upward of fifteen minutes.
Grabbing the sleeping bag that she had earlier laid out on the bed, she went back through to living room. She would stack the fire high and get what sleep she could. At first light, she'd get off the mountain and back into civilization.
Or that was the plan, at least, until she realized that she needed to pee. There was no way she could hold it in till morning. She'd have to go outside, into the cold night, where there more unknowns than just a possible serial killer. Suddenly, she craved company… What if this guy wasn't a murderer? What if she'd just dismissed a rare chance of companionship on the mountain?
What if the man was freezing to death?
Felix made painful progress down the track. Passing the remains of his fire, he covered the embers in soil and remembered to leave a match sticking out of the box for the next person. His hope was that he would meet the person who'd locked the cabin coming back up the trail from whatever errand they'd been running. And if he didn't, he knew of a simple shelter a few miles down the track, where he could at least protect himself from the elements. He favored this option to breaking into the cabin. He had survived nights like this before.
The fire and food had replenished him, and, with his large knife held in a gloved hand, he whittled a small stick as he descended. Nothing drew him into philosophizing more than this wood-carving habit, and he fell onto a standard motif of relationship issues. Why could he not find someone with whom he could share these hikes? Someone who wanted, like he did, to know everything they could about nature.
About two hundred yards back down the slope, Felix's rumination was broken when he thought he heard a voice from back in the direction of the cabin. He considered, for a moment, the idea of returning; but he knew that his body was only fit for going down now. And so he stumbled on toward the shelter. ■