The forest was dark. The makeshift torch that once illuminated the off beaten path dimmed under the fresh falling snow. —- kept his eyes on the ground with the torch held low to reveal the rocks and roots and holes that surfaced the narrow trail. Lost in this weather, a bad fall could be fatal. Every step, every branch pushed aside, was weighed down by the snow and the loss. There was no fear, only fresh memories. A few hours ago the two of them were together, walking the forest. Now he was alone, reliving their last moments in the falling snow she loved so much.
A fair sized mutt with thick black fur, well over a hundred pounds, he called her his teddy bear, Teds for short. She was trailing behind him, stopping to sniff at one thing or another. He rushed her along. There were a lot of cougar sightings that year, a few months back the two of them had their own close encounter. It was on a different trail but around the same time in the evening. It was up on a rock, a kilometre or so away, watching as they took their walk. Teds smelt it, her nose moved about in the air. —- walked backwards slowly, knowing better than to turn his back and run. But when it leapt onto another rock, stretching out its six foot frame, his blood went icy and fear took over. They ran the three kilometres back to the car, staying a while to call in the sighting and warn off any other hikers from taking that trail.
Teds was still lagging behind when —- spotted a rabbit in the distance. Its white fur amongst the muddy ground and forest background stuck out like a sore thumb. The snow hadn’t come then, though it was well into the winter season. The rabbit was at the edge of a clearing, close to the forest wall, still as a rock. But it wasn’t enough, Teds had great vision. There was nothing to be done once she caught sight of it, except watch her expertly chase it, her long dark coat getting peppered with mud as she went. —- made his way towards her through the mud, his feet sucking into the ground where it was softest. When he found them they were moving swiftly through bushes and young trees at the edge of the forest wall. His dog, with her nose to the ground a foot or so behind the rabbit, was running circles around the base of a large spruce tree. While waiting for the rabbit to slip into its hole and evade the dog, he lit a cigarette and looked around. It was getting cooler out, the sun was making its way behind the tree line and low hanging clouds covered the sky like a billowy blanket. The cigarette smoke drifted in the air outside his face as he tried to remember if the weather report called for snow. He looked to the clouds for answers but something unexpected drew his attention, something black against the soft gray clouds that covered the sky. He barely caught a glimpse of whatever it was streaking upwards before disappearing entirely. He waited for the sounds of an airplane that never came. He turned his attention back to his dog that was no longer chasing anything but a scent, her tail wagging happily. He looked up again, searching, listening for the noise or lights of an aircraft but found neither. He flicked his cigarette into the mud and slapped both hands against his thighs before running. He didn’t have to look to know that she was right behind him. Laughing, he ran as hard as he could, breathing in the cool air, expecting at any moment to feel her body collide against his legs. Instead, the echoing crack of a single shot rang out. The suddenness of the blast caused —- to lose his balance and fall, sliding across a patch of mud. Scrambling to find footing in the mud, he spun to find his dog lying on her side. He cried out to her as she lay motionless. He called to her again but the sound of his voice was muzzled by a man pushing through the forest wall shouting in his direction. It was a hunter. A man dressed in orange, complete with a matching tuque, and holding a rifle firmly at both ends.
He was a larger man, his gut hung low and protruded underneath his jacket as he continued to bridge the distance between them. He called out, are you alright? —- stood up, the back of him covered in cold wet mud, watched the blood seep out of his dog and into the tan coloured ground. Her long coat made it impossible to see exactly where the bullet had caught her. Bits of spittle flew from the man’s mouth as he breathed out heavily, his eyes squinting with discomfort from the recent exertion. He looked at —- and began saying that he seen the dog chase him and thought he was in danger of being bitten. Possibly killed, he added after his words were met with silence. —- reached in his pocket and pulled out a cigarette. With shaking hands he flicked the lighter.
He pulled hard before placing the filter tightly in the crook of his mouth. He sucked up a wad of snot that was starting to run down his nose and spat it out onto the ground. The man spoke again but his words were cut short when —- shot out his arm and grasped onto the barrel of the rifle. Before the man could get out a word of protest —- began punching. The man moved backwards as the blows rained on until they knocked him over. Raising the rifle, —- fired it into the man’s gut.
—- didn’t stop digging until he had made a large hole, large enough to fit a man. The mud on the surface was easy to move through but underneath it was compact and came out in solid chunks. He dug with a flat rock into the cold ground, into the night and darkness. He took hold of his dog’s back legs and pulled her through the mud to the edge of the hole, her body stiff with rigor, and pushed her inside. The man, thinking the hole was for him, sobbed loudly as it was being dug, writhing in pain and holding the hole in his gut. —- unclasped her collar before reaching in his pocket for a handful of dog treats to toss into the hole with her. He covered her first with sticks and rocks, and then mud. He imagined the blood and mud swirled together underneath his feet as he lit another cigarette, the brief flicker of flame illuminating his face and hands in the darkening space.
He reached for the ground, feeling for the man’s gun. Finding it, he opened the action to remove a cartridge from the chamber. He took off his coat and sweater and t-shirt, the cold air quickly freezing the sweat on his body. He tore at his t-shirt and wrapped the fabric tightly around a stick, and working a bullet out from the cartridge he sprinkled the gun powder on his t-shirt. An old survival trick he learned. It burst into flames with the first flick of his lighter, the smell of singed hair and fabric filled the air. The ground in front of him became visible. The forest walls surrounding him were still hidden, all he could make out were the tips of the trees against the grey sky. He turned away from the man lying in the mud and walked towards the trees in the falling snow.
Small pieces of forest wall materialized and then disappeared as he walked until he found an opening amongst the trees. The man left behind had long been swallowed up in the darkness. Snow started to fall in large flakes that quickly topped —-‘s head and shoulders. He walked on until the torch was nothing more than embers sizzling under the snowfall, knowing now that the path he took was not going to lead him home that night. Pushing through the brush he walked blindly, his free hand stretched out in front of him searching. His hand met with a large tree and placing his back against it he flicked his lighter under the protection of the branches above him. He kicked at the forest floor, pushing together the small twigs and brush that carpeted the base of the tree and placed his torch down on top of it. He emptied his cigarette package onto the pile and a flame flickered up quickly. He was sheltered by large spruce trees. The ground was soft with dried needles and topsoil. The snow hadn’t fallen through yet. He grabbed at a few small twigs and sticks, laying them on the flame. He warmed his hands and pushed out the thoughts of his dog that kept swimming to the front of his mind as he listened to a coyote yip and howl.
The night went on as the snow began to slip through the branches above him. He imagined it was late by then but he was too cold to feel tired, and falling asleep could be the end of him. When the wind started to pick up he sought out branches off a nearby spruce tree to build up the fire, causing the flames to rise and the needles to pop and emit their scent. Under this fleeting light he lit a cigarette and stared out into the distant forest he couldn’t see. The bare bases of trees surrounded him. A large boulder jutted out of the earth next to a tree. His eyes were pulled to a strange shape protruding above the rock. He leaned forward, hoping to understand that it was part of the natural surroundings. Watching the shape for movement, it looked like it could be the top of someone’s head. He worried it was the man come back from the clearing with his gun, and then wondered if people hallucinated when their body temperature dropped. He turned his face back to the fire to whatever fate awaited him.
The glow of the fire was shrinking and he began to shiver intensely. The temperature had dropped further as the night went on. The branches he added to the fire snapped under the pull of his frozen hands but he could no longer feel them break. The flames licked at the fuel and in exchange emitted a bit more light and heat. He kept an eye on the unknown shape from behind the rock. He was certain it hadn’t moved until looking for it he couldn’t find it. He fed the fire again and calmly accepted that he just may die before daylight, either by exposure or something else. The back of his head rested firmly against the tree, his eyes closed and sleep took him easily.
A bright white light covered everything around him like a thick billowing blanket, from the forest floor to the tip of the trees. It pierced through his eyelids and pulled him awake. He squinted and shielded his eyes, searching through the thick whiteness that came on him as if someone had flicked a switch. He wondered if he had died and this was what the end looked like, a bright white light, all-encompassing and thick like a fog. But then in the sea of white came a figure, tall and slender, moving slowly through the forest. Then another and another came until he was surrounded by figures with their arms held long at their sides moving towards him. They seemed to float above the snow, gliding through the white light. A rescue team, he hoped. And then he began to float too. The tug of some force pulled him upwards, lifting him between the trees and towards the sky. He grabbed at the branches to stop himself and they snapped off in his hands. There were no helicopter beams, no engine sounds, just the white light and the figures now far beneath him and too began to rise upwards.
He lost consciousness. When he came too he was floating in the air of a large room, the edges of which he could barely make out in the heavy darkness. It felt as if he were lying on his back and floating on a still body of water. He felt calm, his heart resting with soft beats, his mind slowly forming one way streams of thought.
Some time passed. He continued to float.
He was dreaming of his dog. It was a dream in darkness, a thick black fog, and her barks floated around in the air with him. A noise began to rise, mixing with the barks and then drowning them out like a slow suction that never seemed to pop. All at once it felt as if he was being pulled upwards at an incredible speed from the bottom of the ocean by a vacuum. He pressed his palms into his ears and screamed.
Pop. The cold ground was beneath him, above him gray clouds that stretched beyond the tips of the trees surrounding him released heavy snow flakes that quickly made their way down. His dog’s bark came from inside the forest wall. He called to her and she bounded from out of the trees towards him. He looked to the clouds for answers and something unexpected drew his attention, something black against the soft gray clouds that covered the sky. He barely caught a glimpse of whatever it was streaking upwards before disappearing entirely. He waited for the sounds of an airplane that never came.