Carlos hated this place.
More specifically, he hated this time in this place. He couldn’t help thinking about it as he trudged ankle-deep through the snow, his lips clenched tightly on a nearly expended cigarette though his teeth chattered relentlessly behind them. He could feel the tiny, smoldering flame against his cheeks and the underside of his nose reminding him that his otherwise numb face still clung to his shivering skull. He thought of the noise they made, his teeth, he could hear them even louder than his crunching footsteps in the packed snow, or the sleeves of his winter jacket rubbing against his body in a rhythmic swishing pattern; the cacophonic orchestra of a half-frozen man clambering through the wilderness in a seemingly futile search for food. Have Serge teach you to hunt, it’ll be fun.
An unpleasant sensation forced itself on his taste-buds as the miniscule beacon of warmth burnt into the fibrous filter. He grimaced, plucking the burning stump from his mouth with a heavily gloved hand and casting it to the earth as if it had betrayed him. He heard it hiss to death as he leaned his body against a naked tree, placing his rifle against a nearby boulder. Gazing upwards, stretching his neck while his left hand dug furiously into his pocket for his cigarettes; two o’clock in the afternoon and the sun was casting its final rays for the day into the looming twilight. The rising moon provided enough light that a flashlight felt unnecessary, just the warm fuzzy glow from his Marlboros was all he wanted right now. Carlos pulled the pack from his pocket and shook it lightly until a couple of butts bravely poked through the opening into the frigid afternoon air. He placed the bravest one into the preformed opening between his freezing lips left by its now burnt sibling. Clenching it between his knees, Carlos slipped his hand from his glove long enough to fumble with his lighter until it finally produced a flame.
He lit the cigarette took a deep drag. Carlos didn’t even like smoking, except when he hunted. He hated the cold. He hated the way his digits became numb regardless of how heavy a glove he wore. He hated how his feet would become so cold that at times he forgot he was standing up because he couldn’t feel his own weight. He liked the smoke, or more importantly, the warmth of the smoke as it made its way down his throat and filled up his chest keeping him warm, allowing him time to rest and relax without feeling like he was about to freeze solid. Yes, it forced him to hunt upwind and frightened away most of the big game, he didn’t care, he was only checking the snares today anyhow and it was worth it.
Another long drag and he lunged from his leaning stance against the tree shaking loose bits of snow and ice from above, cascading down upon him in hard frozen pellets each one bouncing off his thick coat in hollow tapping sounds. He wiped a bit off his shoulders and some frost from around his mouth and beard, picked up his rifle, and continued on the last leg of his journey. Half a dozen snares left to check then home, sweet, centrally-heated home. He crunched onward, trying not to think of the ache building in his thighs from the high stepping in heavy boots, trying not to think about how out of two-dozen snares he hadn’t caught a damned thing, trying not to think about another week of nothing but potatoes and green-house vegetables. Somehow this hobby had become their primary source of real meat.
In their second summer after moving to this god-forsaken place, Carlos’ wife, Eleanor had suggested they build a greenhouse so they could have fresh fruits and vegetables all year long. It had seemed like a good idea at the time so Carlos had spent all summer, with Serge’s help, constructing a green-house complete with the ultraviolet bulbs and sprinklers and heating systems one would need to grow food in the darkness of winter.
Carlos met Serge during the first autumn in this place at the trading post while purchasing supplies for the winter. He was a rugged, stick of man and it had amazed Carlos that his slender legs didn’t simply buckle and break beneath the weight of the heaps of animal hides tied into a tight pack on his shoulders when he entered, his grinning mouth and yellowing teeth largely hidden from view by his bristling beard. A pleasant conversation followed, though Carlos had some difficulty translating Serge’s thick accent, and after collecting his money, Serge left. Carlos didn’t see him again until the following spring when they met while hunting. Serge greeted him as if they had last seen one another mere days ago. It wasn’t until later that Carlos discovered that Serge was something of a local legend. Though he lived alone in a one room shanty some six miles from Carlos’ own more civilized home, and travelled everywhere on foot, Serge knew everyone within a hundred miles. When it came time to construct the greenhouse, Serge knew a guy who could get them the parts for cheap. In fact, anytime Carlos found he needed anything, Serge always knew a guy. That summer the greenhouse was finished.
There was no duping the plants though. They knew it was winter and there was no convincing them otherwise. In the first year they produced nothing, not even sprouts. The plants knew better and they did what all good things do when the sun deserts them and the world grows dark for weeks on end. They hid. The second year had yielded a limited crop of potatoes and not much else, but by the third Eleanor had worked out most of the kinks and managed to coax into being reluctant little fruits, shriveled spinach, undersized squash and eggplant, and finger-sized cucumbers. The only crop which showed any enthusiasm was the potatoes, they always had potatoes.
Every couple of days Eleanor would make her way from the greenhouse with a veritable cornucopia of malnourished vegetables in her arms, grinning through chattering teeth at her accomplishment. Carlos would smile back and compliment her work; he always did, even though he was silently convinced that winter food tasted different than spring and summer food. Serge, on the other hand, rarely missed an opportunity to drop by and indulge in the fruits of his labor.
He cursed an angry little cloud at yet another empty snare. Only three more left. Just one was all he asked. A man could only eat wilted salad and canned meat-product for so long. With a grunt Carlos knelt down to reset the snare and marvel at his circumstance. He had once realized that he often empathized with these small woodland creatures when he found them dead in his traps. How it must feel to be simply going about your business and suddenly you’re suffocating, writhing in airless agony; or worse, trapped by a limb, wanting so desperately to get away, to be free, that you’d be willing to chew your own leg off.
Four years ago he and Eleanor had moved to the northern latitudes because she claimed it would be easier to work there. Eleanor was a writer; a brilliant writer; a brilliant, well-paid writer. Having recently finished the last in a series of wildly popular young-adult fiction, she insisted they move away from the hustle and bustle of city life and crazy fans to somewhere more secluded where she could concentrate on her next project. Whatever made her job easier was alright by Carlos; that had always been his policy. Eleanor wanted to write about this place and what better way to do it than to be there? So Carlos had quit his job as a corporate desk-jockey moved to the middle of nowhere where he could focus on his more domestic skills; like gardening and killing things. He chuckled inwardly and pitched away another spent cigarette.
Just ahead he could see the second to last trap. He could tell already from this distance that it was tripped but empty, just like the rest. He nearly passed it by, moving on to the next without resetting it just to get home before daylight abandoned him completely. But he noticed something different about this one. There was blood in the snow. Not so much as though something had eaten his catch, like a coyote, or god forbid, bear. Serge once said that these forests housed the occasional bear, but in four years Carlos had never seen one, nor had he any inclination to. His hand closed more tightly on the wooden stock of his rifle disabling the safety while he inspected the area. Carlos was suddenly very aware of his surroundings, the silence that accompanied the winter night fast approaching broken only by the almost inaudible whisper of falling snow.
He stood for long moments analyzing the scene until a sinking sensation in his stomach alerted him to having found his answer. Carlos coughed hard at the realization, his lungs reacting to the shock and anger which accompanied his find. The chattering of his teeth ceased, his jaw clenched. Kneeling he reached into a small divot in the fresh snowpack withdrawing a hunting knife.
The warmth in his chest was no longer fueled by smoke, the cigarette having been expelled by his initial bout of coughing. The fire which now burned behind his ribs was rage. Why hadn’t he seen it sooner? If someone was stealing from his traps, surely there were signs at the other sites. Was it the new snow concealing old footprints? Perhaps the dying daylight was to blame? Or was it simply his hurry to get home and out of the cold? It didn’t matter now, all the food was gone and it was his fault for waiting so long to check them. Carlos snatched a broken branch from the ground, venting his impotence by hurling it as deeply into the surrounding forest as he could muster. He pocketed the knife and broke into a rage-fueled run, back-tracking his progress. One, two. . . Four, Seven; all of them. On closer inspection every snare showed evidence of having been tampered with, he just hadn’t been looking for it.
Serge had told him, check the snares every day, otherwise the animals will get it, but he never said anything about other people stealing from him! How long had this been going on? How often did Carlos return home with only one or two catches out of a dozen or more snares; how many of those had been taken? He bent over putting his hands on his knees, wheezing in the freezing air. His lungs were on fire from the run and his stomach was tight from anger and exertion. He felt as though he wanted to vomit. Carlos panted for a few minutes, spitting periodically into the snow and eventually righted himself; standing up straight redeeming his dignity before the trees and whatever judgmental wildlife might be observing the spectacle. He choked down a couple deep breaths and began the long walk toward home.
It was a half an hour of self-loathing later when the floodlights illuminating the meadow which served as his front yard came into view. Carlos made his way pitifully up the gravel driveway, exhausted, defeated, and feeling more shame than anger. Eleanor was at the kitchen window and spotted him approaching, she held bunch of miserable looking little tomatoes up for him to see, smiling affectionately. He shrugged his own misfortune back to her, displaying his empty hands and her face changed to a good-natured pouty frown; her lower lip protruding in an exaggerated fashion. Her eyes still smiled. Carlos smiled back, and made his way to the side door leading into the garage.
The warmth of the home washed over him in a pleasant wave, reawakening his digits and allowing him to feel the ache in his legs. Carlos set his rifle on his workbench and placed the knife down next to it. He stripped off his gloves and heavy coat, casting them apathetically on the floor. He was working the frozen knot on his boot with still enfeebled fingers when Eleanor’s voice came over the intercom.
“Hun?” She asked, pleasantly wary of his mood.
Carlos dropped one boot to the floor and leaned against the intercom button with his left hand, balancing on one foot and fumbling with the other boot with his right. “Yeah?” He released the button.
“Serge’s here, he taped the game for you.” She came back; he could hear the laughter in her voice. Carlos had only been to Serge’s home once. It was more of a shed than a home. Built on a cinder-block foundation, Serge’s home was a single room with a concrete floor, a wood stove in the center for cooking, and heat, a bed he had built himself probably a decade ago buried beneath a pile of animal furs, a gas generator, a plasma screen television, a VCR, and a satellite dish which received one channel; sometimes.
Serge made the effort to tape “the game,” any game, any sport really, and bring it and a twelve pack of cheap beer with him whenever he dropped by. He would then relentlessly insist that they drink beers and watch “the game.” When Carlos had told him they didn’t have a VCR, Serge insisted that he knew a guy who could get him one, but until then he’d bring his own. And he did, six miles on foot along with the beer, every time he came over. It became a running gag between Carlos and Eleanor, she insisted it was cute, he appreciated the effort when it was football; less when it was ice skating.
“Oh, good. What do you think he’s got this time?”
“Table-tennis semi-finals.” Came Serge’s heavily accented voice from the background.
Carlos grunted and responded quietly, “Has he been drinking already?”
Eleanor’s voice came back nervously, “Yeah, a little.” Serge was a nice enough guy, but Eleanor was never wholly comfortable around him. She really only tolerated his presence because he was the only person her husband had met since they moved here. His eyes tended to wander after he got a few beers in him and he would mumble to himself in Russian; she could tell by the tone that it was rarely anything respectful.
“Alright, I’ll be right in.” The smile which had briefly crept onto Carlos’ face was gone now that he knew he had to rein in a drunken mountain-man; despite the mysterious presence of a warm, pleasant smell wafting its way into the garage through the vents. His nose twitched, a combination of natural gas from the stove danced in Carlos’ nostrils with the savory scent of meat broth. He slid a leg out of his snow pants and pressed the button curiously, “What are you cooking?”
There was a pause and Carlos finished removing his snow pants and allowed his sock-clad feet to carry him to the door to the interior and the source of the smell.
“Oh, Serge brought over some rabbits he caught.”
Carlos’ hand froze on the doorknob. He felt his frustration bubbling back to the surface at the thought that he would return empty-handed while a drunken Russian bringing home the proverbial bacon. Carlos pushed it down, intent on having a relaxing evening of laughing and swearing at a couple guys with names he can’t pronounce play the most intense match of table-tennis he’d ever seen. Eleanor’s voice crackled once more over the intercom.
“I let him use your gear to prepare them, I guess he lost his knife. He promised to clean it. I hope you don’t mind.”
Carlos’ mind was instantly inundated in a soup of rage, his eyes silently crept back to the blade lying on the workbench.
“Honey? Are you there?”
Carlos really hated this place.
© A. Stephen Getty 2009
All Rights Reserved