Her name is Elena I. Ulinov and, against judgment, I have fallen in for her. Even tonight, as she rifles through our provisions outside the tent in her parka and grey balaclava, I cannot ignore the way she spoke to me this early evening as we came into the valley and broke to feed the teams.
“Do you have a wife and children?” she said.
We both watched the dogs and the light snow as it gathered in the tree boughs stretching up the hillsides.
“No,” I said to her, though I was shocked. “Thank you. I have neither.”
And then when I could think of nothing else to say, to be polite, I said, “And yourself? A husband?”
“It is a lonely life for you then?” she continued.
“I beg your pardon?” I said.
“It is lonely life without someone to look after you and to care for in turn? A man of your age no less,” she said.
“I do not think so,” I said. “No. It is not so very.” And then my attention was drawn again to the sleds where two of the dogs had stretched in their harnesses and were attacking the same food scrap and, in time, one another.
“Would you like to attend to those dogs?” she asked me finally when I stared at them, knitting my brow and pressing my mittens together in the position of prayerful hands.
I nodded my head and went to see what I could do.
I’ve found it very difficult to sleep these first few days with her, and tonight is no exception. In addition to everything else, the threat of bears grows greater as we move away from the ocean. It is therefore important not only for ourselves, but for the sake of the dogs to keep watch and know when they will arrive. Even the smallest figures and sounds can make a difference.
So instead of sleeping, I lay awake tonight and listen with intent to the movements outside: there is the howling wind, the flapping of tent canvas against itself, an occasional protest from the dogs, a tapping that must be a loosed sled rope, shifting limbs. It is difficult at times to hear the softer sounds though, for the inside of the tent is filled with Elena’s heavy breathing. Her nose is plugged and she makes a clicking in the back of her throat with each exhalation. Prior to her nose being plugged, it was not so distracting. But now it frustrates me.
For what will become many hours, I try to focus my listening between her noises and the other common sounds. In the short distance, I can hear the sound of the Shumnaya running hard and, further out, there is a strange, vague hissing once in a while like a ready teapot without the whistle.
It is our second time here together. The first time we came was last spring when the thaw was not far off. Mists from the lakes and the early morning fog in general hindered us from making the progress we desired and caused us to lose our way. Consequently, it was with over-hungry dogs and a shortage of food for ourselves that she and I had originally come upon the headwaters of this river up which we now travel.
“But look,” she had said then, after I had insisted, ferociously so because it is the only way to make progress with her sometimes, that we turn back for good.
“In the distance. Do you not see it?” she said. She pulled the wool away from her mouth so that she could speak clearly. I had looked to where she was pointing with the four fingers of her mitten and saw one very individual column of smoke rising as if from a hose out of the ground.
“Yes,” I said. “But what could it be, and what difference does it make?”
“It could be geothermal,” she said.
“No matter,” I said, “as I’ve been telling you, if we don’t turn back at this very moment, we will, none of us, the dogs nor ourselves, have the strength to return.”
“Come with me to where it is,” she said, “and then we will return immediately.”
“I cannot allow this,” I said.
She turned her attention away from the column of smoke and peered at me with what can be, when she chooses so, fractious eyes.
“Then I will go alone,” she said.
“Very well. But if I were you, I would likely choose to see it from this distance now and again fully in the future, rather than closely now and never again.”
She continued to stare at me for a time that was meant to weaken me, or perhaps only change my mind. But when she saw at last that I would not waver on this point, she turned her sled away from me without a word and began mushing down the river towards home.
It is late autumn now: a time of waning for the Kronotsky. There are still many colors to be seen across the landscape as we travel. But they are colors, subtle and bold at the same time, which do not have names. They cover the patches of snowless curves that rise and slip from the crags and imperfect land and emit from them something careful and living. I think of these colors often when we are not traveling and smile with satisfaction.
I know for certain that Elena is the kind of woman who could do all of this without need of a guide, but I am here all the same. For it is wise of her to know that one should not travel such rugged land without a companion; it also, I think, gives her time to observe. She describes and records constantly in a small, black notebook. And we are always stopping to make measurements with the heavy equipment that we carry. I suppose this is another reason to have me along, though she would never say so: one sled alone could not carry the weight of these machines.
In truth, if it weren’t for the high wages, I would not be able to bear taking academics like her across these parts of the peninsula. In fact, I might even go so far as to keep them away at any cost. Their unfailing wish is to quantify and ‘discover’ that which has always been. And there is not much in that. Plenty, I would like to tell them, exists absent of verification.
In the morning I wake, and leave the tent quietly. I go to the banks and cast a small net into the Shumnaya and am rewarded, one after the other, with several sizeable salmon on their way towards the caldera. In time, I pull them from the eddy I have found and take them from the cord and drive their heads against a rock. They sit in a row beside the river as I wait to see if more will come and once in a while I look at them and am thankful.
I cook one of them for our breakfast and feed the others in raw bits to the dogs. They howl in pleasure and make a mess of things until Elena comes out of the tent. She has none of her head covering on for the moment and I see her as she is. Her long, blonde hair is in a nest on the back of her head. She rubs her eyes, which are hazel, or the color of whiskey more so. Her features are small except for her lips that are plump but pale and dry in this climate. She looks very similar to Roza Shanina, the sniper. It confuses me quite frequently, as it once did with Roza and her profession, how Elena has become a scientist at such a young age.
“Good morning,” she says while she lifts her arms and stretches. “Did you sleep well?”
“Yes, thank you,” I lie, turning the fish in the pan. “And you?”
“Yes,” she says and bends at the knees. She stands, looks around. “It is a beautiful morning,” she says.
“It is,” I say.
There is a pause.
“I will be right back,” she says. And then she goes away at once and around a nearby tree to relieve herself. It is something she’s never been shy to do. Even at the beginning of our companionship she would not go far at all, and I can hear now the slicing of her stream into the snow and a bellow as it makes its way through to the hard ground. Intimacies of life at camp do not bother me in general, but it is rare to share them with a woman.
When she comes back she is still fixing up her clothes.
“When will we leave today?” she says, and then sits next to me on top of her sled and rolls up her hat which she has retrieved from a pocket and sets it on the back of her head. A snow that began the evening before has ceased falling overnight.
“After I cook the fish we can go,” I say, shouting over the sound of the river. She nods though I know she would like to be more insistent. She picks up the net, drying on the pack beside her, and turns it around in her bare hands.
“You should put your mittens on,” I say. “It is bad to start the day out with cold hands. It can get into the bones and not leave.”
She looks briefly to her hands, and then she puts them together in her lap.
“How long will it take to cook the fish?” she says.
“Not long,” I say.
“Do you often eat fish for breakfast?” she says.
“You learn to eat whatever there is,” I say.
I pick the fillet up and check the underside. My fingertips are still red from the gutting.
“You are not wearing your mittens,” she says.
“I am cooking,” I say.
“And the fire warms them, I suppose,” she says.
“Yes,” I say.
“Does the sound of my snoring keep you awake at night?” she says suddenly.
The fish crackles in the fat. Behind her a sea of conifers covers the valley slopes. Beneath them are the varied lines of the tallest riparian vegetations coming through in bursts from the snow.
I say, “You do not snore,” and rub my nose with my sleeve.
She says, “You do not have to be so polite always.”
I am an old man, it is true. And I do exercise courtesy, especially with a lady. It is simply one of my ways, and as they have been saying of old men since the start of time, people say the same of me, that I am set in these ways.
Especially I hear them speak of it in Dolinovka. It has come out differently over the years, in different words, but the idea is mostly the same. Isn’t he a lonely old bachelor? they say. And How can he stay by himself for so long?
But what do they know?
I live in a comfortable house. I never want for food. I have the dogs, a fireplace, clothes that are warm, milk in the winter, a very fine rug, a table. And there are times when the fog lifts from the valley and I can look out my window all the way down to the water and I can see the long, grey, striated sheet of it as it goes on and on. Yes, there is restlessness. Yes, sadness does come, when I was younger especially, but now, most nights I think, what more does a man need? For I know quite well what the reality is—and those who would talk might find so as well if they only chose to address it—loneliness is an unavoidable part of all lives.
At times it may temper, yes, but it cannot go away.
It is like sadness itself, I think. And sometimes I can look upon it this way. The decision to be made, after all, is not one between loneliness and companionship, happiness or sadness: any of these things we determine we must always have. The decision to be made is between which type of loneliness you prefer in the end: the type with a wife by your side, or the type without her.
Eventually, there becomes little difference.
I clasp the muzzles of our many dogs in both my hands to look into their eyes and gauge their readiness for travel after breakfast. Elena stands beside the river with all her clothes on, waiting, and I can sense her impatience.
“We are ready, Ms. Ulinov,” I finally call to her when our sleds are set, and at last she unfolds her arms and comes to her sled.
“We should have been gone long ago,” she says and steps onto her footboard. Her dogs yowl and snort and whine, craning their necks to look at her, anxious for the pull.
I do not care to answer her.
“We will do better tomorrow,” she says.
And to this I certainly do not respond.
Instead I go to my own sled and begin my team upriver.
But the snow is wet this morning and from the moment we start it makes for a bad go. I am able to manage a reasonable pace as the day progresses, but Elena, even in the tracks I leave for her, has trouble with the conditions.
I keep a long way ahead of her during the morning all the same, but pay the price and am scolded for doing so when we stop for food after midday.
“Do you realize you could have lost me?” she says.
But because of the rare clarity of the sky and the landscape, I do not feel regret, even amidst her complaining. As we traveled, I had gazed at the walls of the river valley and could once in a while see the splendid white top of Taunshits rising behind the caldera. Despite the patter of the dogs, the running of the river, and a small soreness in both of my hands, I also gave in to a certain con-tentment that I cannot experience but here.
In the afternoon, dark clouds come in and I do stay back with Elena. Fog threatens, and snow as well. Twice we pass by bears fishing on the bank opposite, and I have to keep each of our teams, as they are always wont to do, from going headlong into the water after them.
“They will only eat you!” I shout to both teams during the increased excitement caused by the second sighting, and for once that day I notice Elena smiling even behind the covering of her mask.
Because of the worsening conditions we stop early to camp for I feel the snow coming. I begin to cook our dinner as Elena sets the tent, just as the first flakes fall.
“I fear there will be large storms tonight,” she says once she is finished and comes to sit by the fire. “Do you think there will be storms?” she says.
I nod my head and stare at the pan in the flame.
“Did you put the tent beneath cover?” I say.
“Of course,” she says.
“We will be okay then, even if it chooses to.”
“Have you been stuck by snowstorms before?”
“Were you frightened?”
“Would you be frightened if we became stuck here?”
I look at her and she is sitting on a large, flat stone. Her eyes are worried.
“You are remembering our first time out?” I ask her.
“I am,” she says.
“That was a rare kind of storm,” I say.
“But we were lost all the same,” she says.
“Yes,” I say, “but we were able to make it out.” I pause. “And recall, had we not gotten lost, we would not have found the very thing we are going for now.”
“What difference does that make?” she says.
“Some,” I say and then poke at the meat and put my hand into my beard. “Do not concern yourself. If we are stuck here, we will have no shortage of fish or of water. Our only worry would be the cold.”
“Well does the cold worry you then?” she says.
“Not yet,” I say.
“Are you hungry?” I say.
I see her shoulders relax and she exhales. It seems to me she can build worry so very fast.
“Very hungry,” she says.
“Why don’t you get your bowl?” I say.
I am not superstitious, but perhaps our talk did cause the storm. This night I cannot hear the clicking in her throat, much less the river or the dogs or the snoring because of the wind and the cracking of the frozen trees. I lie in the tent, awake once more over many hours, and can sense the soft padding of the snow all around. I imagine what it looks like building to every side of us on the ground and in the trees. And for a while, I also stare to where Elena is, and because it is too dark to see her, I imagine her as well. I imagine her in the same way as the building up of the snow. And it haunts me.
I fall asleep.
But as soon as the first light comes, I work my way out of the reindeer skin bag and out of the tent. There is a small enough break before the tent door to exit, but in order to get to where the sleds and the dogs were, I have to first dig through the snow that has piled against what covered us with my hands.
I put on my snowshoes at once and rise and walk around to where camp had been. The snow has stopped falling for the moment, but there is no lightness in the clouds, and I know it will start again very soon.
I try to find the things that we can make use of if we need to wait the day out or even the week. The dogs seem content enough and most still sleep in the bottom of the holes where they had curled up the night before. Frozen bits of snow stick on the faces and coats of those that do rise with curiosity and paw at the ground as I look for and find both sleds and dig down to the supplies. As soon as I have gotten everything and pile it up beside me, it begins to snow again.
So I fish for as long as I can and fill several canteens and set them beside me in the snow. I cast the net into the river for the fourth time when Elena calls out to me and I know she cannot see me though I can see her.
“Over here!” I shout above the river and wave my hand through the flurries. I see her start towards me, though she bobs almost out of sight as she walks and sinks into the snow.
When she finally reaches me she is out of breath and says, putting her hands on her knees, “The storm came. Can you believe it?”
“I can,” I say. “Where are your snowshoes?”
“You said it was too early still for a great storm.”
“I am not always right,” I say. “Where are your snowshoes?”
She looks out over the grey river and her chest heaves and she tries to straighten her shoulders. “In the tent, I suppose,” she says. “What does this mean then?”
“It means we will stay. You should have them on. The snow will get into your boots and freeze your feet.”
“Stay?” she says. “But we have sleds to travel over the snow.”
“Not this type of snow. Snow like this is impassable. There is too much. It is new snow, and too soft. Have you not noticed how far you sink into it without your snowshoes? It is always a fine balance between waiting for enough to travel efficiently, and risking a series of great storms. Hopefully it will just be this one.”
“What if it isn’t the only one?” she says.
“Then we will wait, just as I said before.”
“I cannot wait forever,” she says.
“Sometimes,” I say, “there is no choice,” and then I motion for her to help me with the net.
We eat dinner that night next to a fire by the river. It still snows in spurts, but it seems it is abating already, and we will be forced to wait no longer than a few days. Flakes swirl around in the glowing light and land softly in Elena’s hair. Some of the dogs sit beside us and rest against us and beg and give us more warmth. The one called Makea stays underneath Elena’s arm even while she eats. I watch both of them carefully to make sure the dog is not getting more than what Elena takes for herself. Earlier she had refused to eat lunch because she was restless and insisted that she was not hungry. I worry always about her strength—though this is not so different than anyone else I travel with.
“So tell me,” she says after we’ve slowly eaten and sat without speaking for what I know is too long for her, “how do you find this kind of life?”
I finish a piece of fish and drink some of the tea she has prepared. I look out into the night above the fire. “What kind of life?” I say, throwing some of my bones into the flames.
“This life in the woods,” she says. Then pauses. “For instance, at home we would call you a mountain man.”
“Ah yes,” I say. “I see what you mean. It is a wonderful kind of life,” I say.
“Wonderful?” she says.
“What is wonderful about it?” she says. She gives a little laugh. “You are mostly cold, are you not? You sleep on the ground all the time. There is no music. No hearth. No company. It is rustic, and very lonely, is it not? And a place like Dolinovka? Even when you go home there are so few people to talk with.”
“Please do not give the dog so much of your dinner,” I say. “She has had plenty. It is you who will be weak if you do not have enough.”
She studies the food in her bowl and then puts her hand against the ribs of the dog who is licking the sides of its muzzle with its long tongue and smiling. “I am simply tired of fish,” she says. “That is another thing that must be difficult,” she continues, “eating the same meal all the time.”
“It is not difficult,” I say. “Please eat.”
“But what about the rest of it? The hard ground and the cold. The lack of company and the boredom. What do you do with all the time?”
“I do the same as everyone else.”
“What is the same? Not everyone else lives and works in places such as this. How can it be the same?”
The snow has almost stopped by now, and I am quietly satisfied with the thought that this is the end of it. I even sense the clouds beginning to move on and soon enough there will be stars.
“It is the same because the sleep and the cold are the same no matter where you are,” I say. “The lack of company and the boredom are just like anywhere. You feel this sometimes yourself, in the city, do you not?”
She holds her hand in the pile of fur on the dog’s neck. She looks at me. “Sometimes, yes. But not so often as you, I imagine.”
“It is only that, then: your imagination,” I say.
“I beg your pardon?” she says.
I have been asked these questions by so many, and I grow weary of them.
“I have known plenty of men,” I say, “who have lived the life they say you are supposed to live: in a home, in a city, with a wife, and with children. And I have listened to what they say.”
“What do they say?” she cuts in. “I would love to hear it.”
“Just how many men do you think have said so, around fires such as this one? Before we’ve left they speak nothing of the sort, of course. But once we are out here, once we are well along the trail and they feel like they have gotten far enough away, they will tell me over dinner and one too many drinks. Their beds are as cold and hard as mine. They wake day after day to the same cityscape, the same livelihood, the same wife. How many of them do you think have wanted to trade places with me? How many?”
She is silent.
“Yes. You see. It takes but nothing. One day of travel and all of a sudden their tongues become loosened, and I do not even have to prod like you do. They lay their troubles down without prompting and they say to me, ‘You. You have done it right. You have escaped it and you are free. What I would not give to be where you are.’ You see? Do you see what they say? And just how many do you think have told me things like this? One traveler? Two? Maybe a dozen? No. All of them. That’s right. All of them.”
“Not all of them,” she protests out of her quiet.
“How could I do anything else?” I continue, “How could you expect me to want something that even those who have it do not want? When I wake in the mornings there is more snow or less. It hangs at another angle or it has melted away. In the summer, a flower appears that was not there before. And sometimes I go to bed at night after reaching the crest of a hill or emerging above the trees in the pitch black and I can only hear the sound of the sea or know by map that it’s there. But in the morning I see it. I wake and it is capping or it is calm. It is blue-green or silver. And what would I trade this against? Nothing. You are so certain that I am lonely. Well what about you? What is it that you wake to? Is it so beautiful to be a scientist and to know the explanations for mystery and for things that cannot be seen? You are not married yourself. You have no children. Why do you keep asking these questions? I do not have to explain myself to you.”
By this time the fire has raised up in the wind and my face is hot. I take off my mittens and put my hands against my cheeks. I am out of breath. I am sweating from beneath my hat and I look bashfully at her. The dog has left her side while I was speaking and now she has folded her arms in her lap. All at once, she shoves her fists into the snow and stands where she is to the right of me. She throws her bones from dinner into the fire. She blinks against the smoke, and I can see her eyes reflecting the flames. She nods to me without word. And then she walks away.
In two days, unimaginably, the snow is navigable again. I wake Elena on that morning and we leave just as the sun rises. The color of the snow is blue and pink and white with flakes of gold for the first hour of the day. The dogs start off well having had the rest. And Elena keeps up without problem and is close behind me as the river turns slightly and we follow it up.
Around noon I stop us all for lunch and Elena sits on a pad of snow covering the stump of a fallen tree. She eats heartily for the first time in days and gives nothing to the dogs though they are finished with their food and yelp out at her. I listen to the sound of the river, thinking about how much farther we have to go and feel hungrier myself. When I rise to take out more food Elena asks, “Will you bring me something else as well?”
It is the first full phrase she has spoken to me since the night we argued.
I give her chocolate.
“You are eating better today,” I say.
She nods her head and takes the bar into her mouth and bites from it fiercely.
“You are glad we are moving again?” I ask.
She nods once more.
I see her look into the trees and I follow her eyes to where I see them cast on nothing in particular.
“I’ve been saving this chocolate for when we really need it,” I say to her.
She looks from the trees and then considers the remainder of the bar in her hand.
She says, “What do you think of me?”
And though I am quite alarmed that she would ask me something like this so directly, I have mind enough to stifle my first reaction: which is to say that I am growing towards you, and I cannot understand why.
“I think you are very determined,” I say instead.
And when I look at her she is looking at me and I cannot tell her emotion because I have not often seen a mood in her that is far apart from willfulness.
It happened when we had nearly reached camp for the night and it began to snow again slightly. The river made a turn once more, and we followed it to the right. I had let Elena take the lead with her sled for the second half of the day, as she was now becoming very skilled and could drive at a fair speed. At times, of course, I had had to slow my team behind her, but this early evening I was almost struggling to keep pace as she and her dogs passed out of sight around the curve. I worried about her in these situations, but it seemed to give her great satisfaction to feel swift and well ahead, so I did not push to my limit.
But before I had come completely around the bend, I heard the great noise and the chaos already starting. My eyes were to the hillside as I had stolen a westerly glance to see the colors made in the softening of the sky and the inserts, fingerlike, that drove that chroma between the tops of the trees. But when I heard her team barking and gnashing in madness I raced immediately forward and rode hard to where I could see.
I threw back my hood and mask even as I traveled and was confounded at once when I saw her team racing away from the river, pulling only a tipped, empty sled, making their way madly towards the next rise. At the very last moment, just before they disappeared all together, I saw the dark haunches of the young brown bear as it lumbered on at a steep angle from the bank.
I stopped my own team with furious calls and came off running before we hit her tracks. It was no use trying to summon her dogs of course for they would only cease their frenzy at the capture or disappearance of the bear. I listened for the sound of her voice as I ran through the hardened snow and scanned the panorama. The gloaming light made it difficult to distinguish between objects, and as I continued to listen I ran along the tracks her running boards had made to look for any inconsistency. My breath was beginning to catch already.
Just as I reached a nearby rapid I saw the arc, to the right then quickly to the left, in her track and then three or four sharp angles going away from the river that were much more depressed from where the sled must have fallen to its side. There was no doubt now where she had been thrown, so frantically I turned to the Shumnaya and yelled her name, but despaired when I could barely hear my own voice above the raging water.
I labored along the bank back downstream and strained my failing eyes. I grabbed a rope from my bag as I passed back by. “Elena! Elena! Elena!” I yelled as I ran. Her first name felt strange in my mouth. I stopped for a moment at the bank to squint carefully. But I saw nothing and there was certainly no response. I began to sprint again for the only hope I knew, if she was in fact in the water, was back at the bend in the river.
As I went, my boots felt like a thousand stones and I cursed myself for slowness and age. A stitch came suddenly at my side and I pressed my hand against my ribs. If she had stayed near enough to the bank I decided, the river could have caught her up at the outside of the turn. I held the rope over my shoulder and lowered my head. Warm trails of sweat came from the sides of my eyes, and when I reached the bend I saw the dark jam of sticks and logs at the water’s edge first. But before I could see into it properly, because my breathing was labored and I had difficulty in focusing, I had to fall to my knees to steady me. And it was then that I saw her body, facedown, bobbing against the bundle.
I cried out to her, but of course this was no use. I threw the rope aside for I saw that I would not need it and I plunged into the shallow, frigid water near the edge. I grabbed her clothes by the shoulders and flipped her over and floated her along the water, tearing her balaclava immediately from her head. Already her face was the same grey as the water and lanes of watery blood came from her hairline. Her eyes were open too, horribly, and the pupils saw nothing that was before them.
I dragged her out into the snow and kept her momentarily on her back. I cursed loudly for it seemed at first that she was not breathing. I listened more closely with my ear at her mouth and covered the wound on her head hard with my hand. Her blood was warm. Nothing. Not a whisper. I reached below the wet layers of her clothing for her neck and felt the cold skin. It seemed there was no pulse beating.
I loosened some of her clothes and then pushed her onto her stomach. I took my own dry hat and wrestled it onto her head to keep the blood contained. Her wet hair streamed from beneath the hat, lying limply in the snow. I raised her right arm above her head now that she was face down and arranged the other so that her cheek was resting upon her forearm. I crawled behind her quickly and straddled the backs of her knees. I rocked forward and applied pressure with both my hands into the small of her back. I counted beneath my breath, “One, two, three, four,” and every four numbers I leaned forward once more, pushed, held, released. I worked my parka off at length and stuffed it between her stomach to insure counter-pressure on her diaphragm. Even though the Schäfer method had been dismissed, it was what I knew to work.
I do not know how many times I pushed before I gave in. My legs and hands eventually began to feel the cold, and it pained me greatly every time I pushed against her.
“Please. Please. Please, Elena!” I said, and I shook her by the hips violently. I looked around me in a whirl at the dark treetops for a moment and then I put my forehead against her back and rocked myself, and her, side to side. There was a terrible smell between the both of us. I wiped my eyes in the cloth of her coat, embraced her shoulders, and held still. I breathed and breathed and breathed. There was only one more thing to try.
When I came back from my sled, I threw the tent canvas over the ground beside her. I tried to arrange the opening facing upwards, but the joints in my fingers ached more and more, and I had great trouble with these finer movements. In time though, I got the sleeping bag inside and underneath the flat roof of the tent, and then I went to her with the fish knife.
I rolled her back over and cut down the front of her parka. I looked at her eyes, still open and terrible despite the darkness, and then I moved downwards and cut the front and both legs of her thick pants and woolen underwear. It had been perhaps ten years since I had seen the naked body of a woman, other than in a photograph, and so as I pulled open the jacket and worked her thin arms outside of the sleeves, my first reaction was to avert my eyes.
But when I saw at once this was absurd, I gazed down upon her. The sight of her finely shaped torso, the gooseflesh over her chest and her tight, hard nipples, painfully erect, filled me with an unbearable woe. I did the rest of the work quickly trying not to think of these things. Especially, I did not wish to look at the lower parts of her.
I took off my own upper clothing before lifting her into the bag. I knelt down beside her, but had a great amount of trouble at first getting a good hold. Her naked body was both slippery and sticky against my own, and the dead weight of any person, no matter how small, is difficult to maneuver. Finally though, I worked my arms beneath her knees and her shoulders and neck for the second time and, with this attempt, got her up and cradled against me. Her head fell back when I lifted her a little ways, and I walked on my knees towards the tent, shifting and pulling and pressing until she was inside of the bag.
I tore off the rest of my clothing and opened the mouth of the sleeping bag. When I entered I had no choice but to touch most of my lower body across her face, and I cursed myself at once for my mass as I struggled downwards, but, eventually, with a tremendous series of inhalations, I was finally able to slide all the way in.
I rolled us over at once so that she was on top of me. Her head lolled towards my opposite shoulder as I shifted. It pulled on my beard with its weight. I could smell her hair now. It was clammy, like wood smoke, and also sweet. The sky was a sheet of starlight now, black, white, cold, and I could see it beyond her to my right.
The moon has risen now and the dogs have pulled my empty sled close by. They are whining and waiting for me to untie them from their harnesses, and some of them are lying down.
Elena is here as well. I think I can still feel her against me. I have waited for her to breathe. I have waited for her heart. The stars still rustle and shine in the dark parts of the sky, but the river sounds somehow distant now, almost as if it has disappeared.
I do not know what any of this means. For now, to keep myself from falling asleep, I am thinking of all the things that I must say to her when she does come awake. Not things that I ever wanted to say, nor things I even know. Not words I can imagine voicing while the meaning is also behind them. “Elena,” I will start, or maybe I will tell her this:
At times, I have found, after all that I have lived, that you can feel when someone is watching you; and, at other times, you know certainly that they are not. Before you woke up, Elena, I was in between these two places. Your body was lying against my own, and at one side of me was the notion that there is surety, that there is order to this world, and that there is a way out for all of us that will not require labor beyond which our strength ends. But at the other side of me was the counter. And no matter how hard I pushed against it, I could not make it go away. No one is watching, it told me. There is no one who cares. We have all suffered for no reason, and each of us, without fail, will continue to do so until whatever end. Hardship is no rite. A good deed is only that: a good deed. All of it is eventually forgotten. And being human, as it was once said, is no more than the ceaseless wish to be happy, coupled with the ridiculous impossibility of such a thing. But if you wake to me, Elena, I think it will make a difference.