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He carried his girl tied to his front, the trapsack on his back, the rifle balanced like a yoke along his shoulders. He walked all day on snowshoes, lost in effort, in steady breathing. The snow drove thick and clotted on his eyebrows, filled his beard. It cluttered his drawing breath.
He’d left the cabin, his valley with its knoll of pines. In the barn, the wind had pulled the uneaten hay and scattered it. He’d left the saddles, stiff with frost. The horses had run off.
There had been a pass to climb. A north wind to bear against. He’d thought to catch the clearing weather, though each night the moon grew smaller.
“Are you there, June?”
He made halt with his back to the wind. Took off his mittens, blew on his hands to thaw them. She stirred in the bundled blanket.
“Let me see.”
Her hands emerged. MacLaren tried to feel them, but his own hands were too cold.
She nodded. She’d cried the night before, a sad thin wail against him in the stinging wind. He kept looking at her fingers, held them balled inside his hand. He squinted at the sky. In all the world now was nothing but the two of them, and white.
At midday, he unlaced his snowshoes, stood them on their tails. Knocked the ice out of his beard, lit a fire, stripped balsam boughs for tea. The snow had quit.
When water boiled, she took the blanket from him, held it tented as he’d shown her, so she could breathe the clearing steam. Her hair was damp, eyes murky gray like his. He watched her fingers curl around coarse wool. He put the steaming pot beside her.
All his life, he’d only gone from one thing to the next, only done what needed doing. His world had all been wood and water, fire, food; it had all been journeys needing made, traplines to set, a world of things to mend and mind with never time enough. But these past few weeks had taught a different kind of seeing. It was as though such endless diligence had muffled him somehow. But here now were the curled edges of his daughter’s ermine scarf, and he could see the hairs stir in the wind, and could see each crack and split in her small lips. He had learned, in these past weeks, the shapes of her knees, her feet, had seen her secret skin. He knew the hard black scabs of scars she would come to live with. If he could command it.
She looked at him.
You are mine, he thought. With his eyes, again, he saved her.
She began to cough. He waited. Fed the fire. The wind came up and sprang the pines, and showered them with snow.
He came off the forest slopes into the river valley in a waning daylight moon. It took less strength to plod along than to see what shelter he could find, what fuel to make a fire. Everything was frozen. And he’d worked like this, in winter, his whole life, but always in the company of men. It was terrible to stop, to see how small she lay without him, waiting for some warmth.
At last, in a cove of pines, he trod the snow and floored the camp in boughs. Made rough shelter. Hacked down limbs and shook them.
He put the meat to boil, and listened to her breathing. He closed his eyes and waited.
One morning after he had made the graves, he’d stood and watched the wind blow down the snow, watched it spill off the laden pines, drift glittering through the blue. Each joint and twig of aspen lined in snow, a faery openwork of black and white. It hardly seemed the world should be so beautiful. He’d walked out past the barn and seen, on all the stumps and posts and rails, a dazzling crest. A herd of elk was feeding off his snowy hay, yarded up content as horses. He’d shot a cow, cut the meat to carry.
He woke to the stink of his blanket burning.
She was curled against him, her hand inside his coat. Until these recent weeks, it was always Lise she’d clung to. He’d never known this kind of flattery, or what it was to be a source of comfort. Now he heard the rattle in her lungs, like glue.
He’d come to think he could refuse to sleep. That a man could stay awake.
When Lispat went, he’d been sleeping. Lispat—Elizabeth—her lanky legs, sly eyes, the cheekbones like her mother’s. She’d raged at the last for scissors, as though she might still cut some figure out of paper. She was ten. He’d had the fever himself by then, and was tired. Go to sleep, he’d said, and left her. Not believing any child of his could die so easily.
He remembered the dry grief cracking out. He’d stood in the doorway’s glare, panic-stripped and heaving.
The ground was hard, he’d had no strength to bury her. He kept her for two days inside, then hauled her onto the ridgepole for fear of wolves. He came to fear his own sleep after that as well, for the losing of his other two. He stayed awake. He talked to them. Tried to cool their faces, keep the chill away. The fire he would keep alive.
Five days of fever turned to chill. Engorgement of the flesh. Suppuration. All his life he’d worked with men who had survived, seen women scarred, seen children blinded or made deaf, but now they owned that horror: variola. Agony, exact and inevasible, every surface real, remembered, the eyes, the tongue, the palms that closed around the cup, the soles on which he walked. His lungs shot through as though he had breathed lye. And no one in a hundred miles to know it.
“Tota?” June would call as he was dozing.
Alexander suffered it ten days. His golden child boy of two. Blessed release. He remembered carrying him outside, how the bright cold hit them. In the snow against the cabin wall, his legs had given out. He remembered sinking with his boy in his arms, waking sometime later. Remembered the horror of the snow, which had fallen while they slept, and lay unmelted in those curling palms.
So he and June, his middle child, were left. Still burning. Each breath disturbed what only begged for peace, each effort broke what little surface might be healing, but he tried to answer when she called. He lay festering in his robes, and moaned and would have been glad for death but for the nightmare fear that she’d be left alone. He would not die and leave her there alone. So he stayed, insensible of days and nights or that the horses had run off, until the sores began to melt together and stiffen into solid sheets like bark that split and stank, and he thought the two of them might live. And, for a silent fortnight, they had.
He pulled June’s head against him. Smelled her hair. Six days, he thought. Six more, if he could do it. Then there would be rest.
The sun rose in a yellow band below the gray. By midday the sky was clearing. He’d reached the plain along the river, now followed that valley north. Blackfeet, Gros Ventres—he saw no villages, no sign, but they were there. He was making for the mission, St. Marie’s. The Jesuits had come out two years before. They had built a crude hall and a palisade against the Blackfeet, who resented them. Their work was with the better tribes: Flathead, Salish. To bring them God and learning. To heal their sick.
“I’ll take you there,” he’d promised, when her lungs began to fail. “They’ll help you. They’ll have something.”
At noon he stopped for longer than he meant to rest, and by dusk he was all but ruined. An ache had lodged in the backs of his legs since the fever, and would turn to knives, but the land here afforded nothing. He kept on, though his eyes were falling shut, his course wavering. The plain was too exposed. At last he made a camp above the river. It took two hours to find some wood and light it.
He boiled the meat by starlight. They heard voices in the silence, swells of laughter, a distant gathering in happy conversation.
She lay watching him. The whites of her eyes shone in the faint light.
“Can all people fly? After they be dead?”
He said, “Did your mother teach you that?”
“She said some go in the water.”
“It’s the river you hear,” he said. “The river’s moving under ice, that’s all.”
He woke. The sky was filled with stars.
“Tota. I’m cold. Tota.”
She fevered, spooned against him, almost touching the last coals.
He reached for the wood behind him, put a few small pieces on.
“Tota, when will Sally come back?”
He closed his eyes, saw their horses homing through the snow—against the dark, he dreamed them flying, spinning through the heavy drifts, the spray of ice, steam roiling from their nostrils. The branches, in their wake, freed and springing.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ll go out after thaw and find her.”
None of them had asked about their mother. They hadn’t seen Lise go. He’d told them that first lie and never told another, and wondered since if they’d known more than he. But hadn’t found the strength to ask.
“The fire wants more.”
She said this—as though she’d read his thoughts—in her mother’s tongue, Nez Perce. He answered in the same. “He can’t have more. Not here. Do you know why?”
Sometime next day he saw the sun a failing silver, veiled in ice. The snow began to rise and slide in ribbons. He tied his hat. He tucked his chin against her, bore along the hissing gusts, ice scouring his cheeks; it stung his eyes like sand and melted into tears. He blinked and wiped them, kept the river on his right. It was better on a day like this to move than to keep still.
He’d had to force her to drink tea that morning. Now, helping her to make her water, he saw her wasted thighs, the skin not honey brown, as it had been, but clay. Her breath was worse. She choked. She bleated, trembling.
“Stay with it,” he tried to say. No sound came out. He said, “It’s you and me. The two of us.”
That night he set a twelve-foot pine alight, and slept in falling sparks, and held her fevering close against him.
With dawn came ease, then quiet. The snowflakes warmed and fattened, idled down. They could be close but had no way to tell; the sky was blank, the horizon sifted into nothing by the snow.
And he’d thought she might not make it, but it couldn’t ease those hours. Kneeling at wet coals. The pine’s black skeleton was steaming. Nothing lit. Nothing lit. She wailed. He sat and held her head. He’d have given her his life but only gave the blankets from around his feet when she told him hers were cold.
She said, “I want to stop.”
“We’ll stop. We’ll stop the day.”
His feet were bare. The snow had quit. Chickadees were peeping in the boughs.
“Tell me Elisabetta.”
Elisabetta, the white bear, had danced like a woman if a fiddler played. She’d smiled and swayed her hips. He swallowed. Like ashes in his throat. All the features of his mind seemed gray and flattened. He couldn’t remember what to say.
“A long time ago, when I was young . . .”
“On the stony beaches.”
“On the stony beaches of the north,” he said, “there lived a beautiful white bear. And her name was Elisabetta.”
He tried to tell it, as he had so many times. When her breath went still and the color drained, he put her down and climbed the low rise behind him and started calling out for help. He called and called like a madman, until he was hoarse, until the icy snot ran down his face and all his breath was gone. But of course, no one was in this world to hear him.