The cold cannot be an enemy. That he had found early on. You couldn’t turn your back on it. In the city it was not more than mere annoyance, and on certain days if the happenings aligned just right it was almost totally inconsequential. But out there, in the big woods, it was God and it was omnipotent. One could only kneel in adoration and in terror of it. It hung with you in your dreams and it kept you warm somehow when it was too frigid to bear and the wind would whip your face numb and leave you blinded in love, battered into a grin. You had to worship it with absolute faith or it would alleviate you of your doubt and you would be washed to the bone by it. Scrubbed to the blueprints, by those biting northwesters.
If you dropped a glove, it could mean the end of your fingers. If you soiled a boot and had nothing to replace it with it, it was almost certain you would lose your toes. He thought often of wandering the aborted wastelands of the Dakotas and seeing them go by, moving west, tottering on side by side: the stubs, his mother had called them, men and women and child alike eking through gray mist and veils of freezing rain, some with only one foot, some with no fingers, others missing legs from the knees down and some with arms wholly removed. He saw them bundled like inhuman materials, some without limbs at all carried out front of another, strapped upon a breast like great infants or garish babushkas, peering from the layers folded about them with pale and pinched faces, accusatory glances; nightmares of fog and slantwise snow and long devouring plains and cunning bitter winds.
Don’t stare now, his mother had told him. You just don’t stare at em. You remember that it could be you. Any wrong move and that could be you.
It wasn’t an issuance of compassion. It was a warning.
Are you getting cold? He asked her.
Morgan shook her head. She was heaving the stiff cadaver through a frozen slough. The ice cracked and choked beneath their feet and around them they could hear moving water.
I don’t like the sound of those streams, he said.
Be careful, she said. Be real careful.
He glanced at her.
I’ll do my best.
You go in, I can’t pull you out.
Aren’t you ever scared, out here, by yourself?
She shrugged. Yeah. Just of people, I guess.
But not of the woods?
What’s there to be scared of?
He shrugged. All kinds of stuff can kill you out here, especially this time of year.
Just cause something can kill you doesn’t mean you have to be scared of it.
I spose. But people are a good thing to be scared of.
Especially when you’re a little girl.
After a while she dropped the rope and turned to the man. Her face seemed ten years older.
Can I ask you something? She said. There’s people out here hunting people like me. Cause we’re worth money? Is that why?
Caradoc nodded slowly. That’s right, he said.
It’s. It’s uh. It’s because you weren’t born like the rest of us. It’s hard to explain, but most women can’t give birth the way people used to anymore. Because of what happened a long time ago. Doctors started doing things differently when babies were being born, they were giving them all chemicals and hormones and splicing genes, that stopped them from ever giving birth. In order to have kids, they have to get these shots now. And then they get pregnant. But you. You just need a man-
He blinked. Yeah, he said. A husband. And you can just have a kid.
That’s how people used to do it?
Why’d they stop?
He sighed. I don’t know, Bloom. There was too many people, I guess.
Are you gonna tie me up?
I told you, I’m not tying anyone up, and I don’t plan on moving back to the city.
Why? You didn’t like it there?
No, I didn’t. Things are bad there right now. I used to love it there. But then we became poor, and it’s not a good place to live if you’re poor. Out here, you can forget about rich or poor or any of that stuff. There isn’t any use for those ideas… You’re either alive or you’re dead. Those are really the only the only things you gotta worry about, right?
Yeah. And the weather.
He smiled. Yeah, and the weather.
But how come they want me? How come I’m worth money, just cause I can have babies without shots? She picked up the rope, absently, and resumed her haul.
You know, he said. You shouldn’t get sweaty like that. If the temperature drops too fast you’ll freeze up.
I know. If it starts to drop I’m stripping some layers. Cooling off. You gonna answer my question?
He shrugged. I don’t know. It’s cause they can use your organs and your hormones and stuff for experiments. For new drugs. For commercial use. You’re not considered a human, anymore.
In the city they wouldn’t even consider you a human. You have to prove your citizenship… you have to earn your place there. You convince the government that you are willing to put the needs of the world community over your own when you are old enough to make your case. Until then, you legally have no rights unless granted to you by your community.
He shook his head. You know what, Bloom? This is a lot to think about right now. You’ve got too many questions. Hey, I’ve got one for you. Who taught you to read and write and stuff, anyway?
Her head hung, there was an impish shame about her. I can’t read, she said.
You can’t read?
I can read a book that Grandpa has, by the pictures. It’s called, Goodnight Moon.
So you just read the pictures? What the hell does that mean?
I read the pictures, she said. I know what the words say because I know what words go with the pictures. Grandpa’s read it to me so many times.
He smiled. So you have it memorized.
Will you tell me it?
I can do that. Right now?
Please, he said.
That was the way they went for a long time. Chatting about aimless things. Meandering and buoyant topics that were like the reflections of stars on the dark of a lake. Then it was close to nightfall and they still had not reached her grandfather’s cabin, so they settled down into the spruce and he cut away some thin boughs and made a very makeshift shelter against the wind. Night fell not long after they had lit their fire. Tossing in innumerable armloads of dry twigs and birch bark, the only thing they could get to burn.
It was a tiny fire and they huddled about it and warmed their hands and feet.
It’s not far now, she said. We’re close.
That’s good, he said. He looked out across the flames and the bowl of the valley, black deviating forms of timber, the cerulean lunar glow on snowdrifts, the gaunt trunks of birch laying across the way illuminated like bones in a temple of relics. A late world of darkness and antishape and the suspension of certainty.
He woke to the sound of men speaking. When he blinked himself to sight the girl was gone and the fire was out. Embers and all snuffed and covered. The girl was gone. He swung his arms about, feeling for her. She was nowhere. All about the night was soft, opaque. He listened. The voices were close. Somewhere to his right. He tried to quit his shivering.
Someone was saying, I can smell the damn fire smoke.
You keep looking for tracks.
I bet they’re right over there.
A light swept across the forest. Flashed before him for a moment, seeped through the wall of spruce boughs behind him. Then it was jerked away.
You saw that, right? Said the voice.
Yeah I did.
He watched. A waxy amoebic structure configurated before him. A man. And he realized it was nearly on top of the deer.
The light flicked on again. There he was, dressed in expensive looking gear. A new parka. A lime-green facemask.
He was not a wanderer. He was from the city.
It’s a fucking deer, the man said. As if startled by it, he swung the beam into the structure. Blinded, Caradoc lay shielding his eyes.
Jesus Christ, who the fuck are you? The man cried.
Someone behind him and to his side flicked on a light of their own and laid the beam across the shelter. Caradoc fumbled for his knife.
I asked you a goddamn question, the man snarled.
I’m just a wanderer, Caradoc said quickly. A wanderer, from the city. His hand scoured the cold earth but it was gone, it was somewhere his hand was not.
You sure about that? We found an Old Birth back there, about a mile. You sure you ain’t related to him? The man grinned horribly in his ski mask.
Caradoc said, I don’t know anyone. I’m just dragging that deer.
You need it? The man gestured behind him with his thumb.
What, the deer?
Yeah. You really need this thing?
Yes. I need it.
The man looked back to where his friend was and tilted the flashlight to his own chin so that his friend could see his grin. Then he turned the light on Caradoc once again. You know, I don’t think you do. I think you must have a lot of deer, running around these pretty hills.
Caradoc was silent.
The man took a step toward him, his mouth was fogging up, his face small canyons of shadow. You know, he said. I think you can afford to let us take this thing. I think you’re being selfish.
The second man, out of sight, chimed in:
Just fuckin take it, JD. He’s not gonna do shit. Or I’ll shoot his ass.
I think we need to check to see if he’s got a tag, said JD. Grinning. I think we need to see if he’s not an Old Birth. The old one back there, we cut him near in half looking for his tag. And then we found he was an Old Birth, when we poked around. Think we may need to poke around your insides too.
Fuck you, he said.
Let’s get that deer and go, said the second man.
JD looked at him. Then at Caradoc. Then he shined his light down at the deer where it lay frozen stiff in the snow. His face screwed up.
Wait a minute, he said. Where’s the bow at?- and this was just before an arrow passed through the meat of his shoulder and splintered at the bone.
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Copyright 2017 by Ethan Fleisher and Blue Wolf Bounty Books