This is a tale that came to me by chance as I watched an interesting video on how snow settles. Yes, I can be odd on occasion. Mix that with a sprinkling of mild fascination with islands (I live on one) and enforced isolation and this short story was born.
I will be submitting it for the Dorset Fiction Award 2018, so will update you on the progress.
Until then, I do hope you enjoy...
THE WINTER STRANGER:
The snow crunched underfoot as I made my way back. It was the last of it, thankfully. I carved another line into Old Fir, the seventy something foot conifer that dominated the island’s skyline. Even she was benefiting from the oncoming Spring, her once blanketed needles free again to point and prick any unsuspecting fauna that journeyed too close.
There were one thousand, one hundred and fifty eight lines - including today’s - that I had carved into Old Fir since The Event. It had changed everything for everyone, including my family. They didn’t survive the first winter.
There was a rush of air and a flurry of black feathers as I felt Aves land on my shoulder, her talons making her presence known. She cawed in my ear and fixed her ebony eyes on the pouch that hung about my neck. She devoured the seeds instantly as I poured them into my open hand. Aves was my only friend in this bleak wilderness. After she had finished, she took off up to her nest in the loftiest branch of Old Fir.
I pushed open the cabin door, the smell of pine welcoming me home. After resting my bow by the table, I walked over to the radio in the corner and switched it on. Just like every other day, there was static. It was comforting to me, in a macabre way, that the Earth had peace at last. She could begin to heal. I emptied my pouch onto the table; Meagre pickings. There was barely enough to last me the week, but that wasn’t uncommon during winter. I had already started to see signs of some pack rats emerging from the old mine about two miles from here, keen to explore the returning warmth. I bit my bottom lip at the thought of a hot, cooked meal.
The snow crunched outside.
I froze, before reaching for my bow.
There was a flash by the window. I threw open the door, my bow ready to fire. But, there was nothing. As I relaxed, I noticed some tracks in the snow - footprints. That was impossible, but I could see them leading up into the forest.
There was a crackle over the radio.
My body went cold as the hair on my arms stood on end. This was not happening. I grabbed my pouch, kept my bow taught and left the cabin. I would follow the tracks. At my whistle, Aves came down from her nest and took point. She was more alert to danger than I ever could be.
We passed Old Fir and the fallen stump I frequently rested on, but nothing was out of the ordinary, except the tracks. They were clearly human, but they seemed smaller than mine. I could be seeing my own; the lack of fresh snow fall, coupled with my irrepressible hunger, could have caused me to hallucinate, imagining the flash at the window. But that voice on the radio - that voice was unmistakeable. I sat on the stump and closed my eyes. I had to regain my senses, as it was not the time to descend into madness.
Aves returned to me and dropped several red berries in my palm. I ate them with haste, closing my eyes as I savoured the taste. Despite them being bitter, the cranberries released a desperately needed energy resource. Aves pecked me lightly on the cheek and flapped her wings. She had found something. I picked up my bow and followed her.
After a good thirty minutes had passed, we arrived at a boggy patch of land, about the size of a football pitch. I dropped my head, resting it in my hands. I was so overjoyed, I was brought to tears. In front of us was a sea of red; at least ten thousand cranberries were ripe for picking, ready to save Aves and I from what had been an inevitable demise. I got to work, stuffing as many as I could into my pouch, as Aves circled above, maintaining a vigilant watch for bears.
As I slammed the cabin door shut, I eagerly made my way over to the chair by the fire to inspect my haul, Aves sat on my shoulder in anticipation of a feast. I opened the bulging pouch, conscious not to squash any of the precious cargo within. Both Aves and I indulged for a few moments, enjoying every bite and swallow. Fortunately, Aves’ appetite wasn’t as needy as mine, so she gave up half way through our binge and flew out of the window. It was getting dark.
The fire was roaring, my stomach was full and Spring was on its way. I had survived another harsh winter, alone. This island had everything I could possibly need. I closed my eyes, smiling.
There was a crunch in the snow.
My eyes snapped open.
A knock at the door.
My heart sank and my body went ice cold again.
As I slowly opened the cabin door and surveyed the darkness, I saw a small parcel. A note was attached. I unravelled the parcel - inside was a cooked pack rat. I unfolded the note;
You’re not alone…