fiction

Sung Home: Chapter Sixteen. {fiction}

I awoke with the contrast between the dream of abundant love and food to the reality of loneliness and the specter of starvation.

While I thought it was possible, not likely, but possible, that I could survive the winter, I couldn’t think of why I would want to. Still, lacking the will to actually kill myself, and having Burl to think of in any case, I did the only thing I could do. I started gathering what plant foods were still available this late in the season and set snares for rabbits.

Two weeks later, the first freeze came. A thin layer of ice lay like a crystalline spider web atop puddles near the river, and I could see my breath come in tiny cloud-like puffs as I exhaled. Soon the high desert sun warmed the air and melted the ice, as I grimly set to work again — gathering, drying, packing, skinning and jerking meat.

I had contrived a less-than-perfect solution to the problem of heating. I used the hand drill to drill small holes in the tin roof in a circle, then hammered the circle out, making a small smoke-hole. I built a stand out of large rocks placed in a circle on the floor, then set a large wok I had brought from the Gunderson’s on top of that.

It wouldn’t make a big fire, and wasn’t the safest way to heat a wooden cabin, but I wouldn’t freeze, and if I was careful, I probably wouldn’t burn it down either. Like everything else, it would have to do.

Bit by bit, the nights got colder and the days warmed less. Shadowed puddles froze and never melted. The ice rimming the edges of the river thickened towards the center. I had replaced enough of my previous stash of food. I knew I wouldn’t die any time soon, but I also knew it was not anything close to what I’d need to survive the winter.

All I could do was take things one day at a time, just like after the virus. When you don’t know what to do, then just focus on what’s in front of you and keep stepping forward into life. What other choice did I have?

Fall turned into full winter, and the snow came down like I had never seen it do there before. Day after day, for an entire week, the big fluffy flakes rained down, softly, silently, potentially deadly. Even though I kept the fire going constantly, I still had to wear my coat inside. I awoke about every hour through the night to feed the fire, but by morning I could still see my breath inside the cabin.

I had collected firewood all summer and stacked it roof-high along one wall, but I doubted it would last the whole season. To postpone the day that I had none, I collected some from the dead branches of surrounding trees, breaking the smaller branches off with my hands, or using the saw for thicker limbs.

I had to clear the path from my front door each morning, and again before sunset, to the series of trees from which I gathered the firewood, or I would soon be unable to leave the cabin at all. I also filled every available container I had with snow to melt beside the meager fire.

I scraped through the snow around Burl’s shelter so he could eat the dead grasses there, but I didn’t know how long I could keep that up. Burl looked at me with a resigned expression, accepting whatever I did or didn’t do for him, as usual.

“Hang in there, buddy,” I said, rubbing his head and neck affectionately. He nuzzled my hand, signaling his trust in me. I hoped I deserved that trust.

Around noon, I cooked myself a daily stew of jerked meat and the vegetable of the day. Other than my chores, I slept as much as possible to conserve calories. I never ate enough to feel truly full and satisfied, but I had to make the little I had last as long as possible. As I watched my food stores dwindle and the days dragged on, I felt increasingly sure that I would in fact starve before spring.

I knew that many people in that situation would have considered it a sad necessity to kill Burl and eat him, but Burl was the closest thing to family I had now. I would literally rather die than kill him.

During the seventh night of snow, I decided I would bring Burl into the cabin with me as soon as the sun rose. It had gotten harder to get out to him and the snow had piled up to the top of his corral. I had no way of knowing when the snow would finally stop falling. The makeshift roof on his enclosure creaked and groaned with the increasing weight. I doubted it could take much more.

I awoke as the first light of dawn filtered through the cracks in the eastern wall, and I heard a pack of coyotes call and yip excitedly from near the butte and upstream a bit. At first I figured they had located a deer and were closing in for the kill, but then they grew louder.

They had never ventured very close to my cabin before, I guess because they were wary of humans. But this time I could tell they were coming our way, and fast. I had just made it to my feet and reached the door knob when I heard them hit.

Burl let out a bray like I’d never heard before, so loud and panic-filled that it shredded my heart. I stood frozen at the door, shaking with horror, adrenaline demanding action and terror telling me to stay put. A pack of coyotes hungry enough to attack a full-grown burro wouldn’t think twice about going after a small human, even one wielding a shovel.

I didn’t stand a chance.

My hesitation made the decision for me. I heard a sharp yowl from one coyote. Burl wasn’t going to go down without a fight. But he was outnumbered and the coyotes were designed for killing. Burl was not. Burl screamed and thrashed a few moments more, then fell silent. I heard the sickening sound of tearing flesh and happy growls as the pack tore into my only, my last, dear friend.

It had been nine months since I had spoken to another human.

I curled into a knot on my bed, staring numbly into the flame flickering in my makeshift fireplace, feeling the full weight of my failure squeezing my chest like a giant, angry hand. I sobbed into my blankets and covered my ears, trying to shut out the sound of the triumphant coyotes.

They would live through the winter.

The weeks came and went. I continued my very simple routine: rise, collect firewood and snow to melt for water, cook my one meal of the day, eat, tidy up and sleep an awful lot. A semi-hibernation. I dreamed of my long-dead family and friends, better days, and how those better days came to an end. Sometimes I awoke startled and confused about where I was, and when. Then it would come back to me.

It was probably about mid-January, and I just had a few packets of jerky and even less dried vegetables left on the shelves suspended above me. The snow had continued to accumulate at a regular pace, but it had not snowed so heavily as that first week-long deluge, so it had partially melted in the sun and compacted to a thick layer of ice over the entire ground. I could no longer tell for sure where the river course lay.

As bad as was the prospect of simultaneously starving and freezing to death, the fact that I was so completely alone made it much worse. What if I had made this trek with Mama? Well, for one thing, we probably wouldn’t be starving to death. More hands meant more to do all the work of creating this little home as well as finding food.

The loneliness crushed me bit by bit into a small, hard, brittle version of my former self. The image of finding others here who knew me had staved off the feeling of isolation on the way here, but I had no such hope of good company now, even if I did live.

I thought of Daddy, Mama, Seth, Grandma Sita and Burl, and just wanted to be wherever they were. At this thought, the pressure on my chest eased. I felt light and peaceful. I found that I didn’t mind the notion of dying nearly as much as I expected I would, so close to its reality.

So be it.

I would die here and join them. In the meantime, I figured I might as well use up the food stores I had. As much as I now looked forward to death, I didn’t really like the idea of starving any sooner than I had to. Being dead I could accept, but I wasn’t in a hurry to experience starvation.

This is an ongoing series from a forthcoming fiction novel by Laura Ramnarace.
Tune in weekly for the next chapter in ‘Sung Home’.

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Laura Ramnarace, M.A. was driven to earn a master’s degree in Conflict Resolution while on her quest to find out why we can’t just all get along. She has published a book on inter-personal conflict, ‘Getting Along: The Wild, Wacky World of Human Relationship’, published a newspaper column also titled ‘Getting Along’, and submits regularly to Rebelle Society. Since 1999, she has provided training to a wide variety of groups on improving personal, working and inter-group relationships. ‘Sung Home’ is a work of eco-fiction set in southwestern New Mexico.

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