It was a wolf track. Walking, not running. In the night, sometime after the last snow. The edges were soft, but still distinct. Working in an arc, off through the forest, slowly making its way in toward…something.
Aisling kept low to the ground, listening carefully for the key to the mystery she couldn’t quite see yet. Her ears stung from the cold, but she couldn’t afford to raise her hood. She had to be sure. If wolves were nearby, she had to be ready.
Somewhere far above, animals moved through the trees, knocking bits of snow free that disintegrated into nothing before it reached the ground.
A twig snapped, echoing for miles.
And nothing followed.
She gave the area one last check, and then carried on.
The temperature was dropping fast, the blue sky turning grey and windy, as another storm approached from the west. The daytime birds moved from perch to perch, trying to find the better spot to shelter for the night. A crow watched her from high above, its head tipping every time she made a sound, like it wanted her to know that it saw her, and was not scared.
She stopped by a birch tree for a moment to catch her breath, and to see if the wolves had come this far, too.
Nothing obvious, from a distance. But then the snow had a crust to it here…they might have stayed atop without leaving a trace.
Something rustled in the brittle branches behind her, and she turned, hand on her knife, breath stuck in her throat as she listened for the follow-through.
Twenty heartbeats later, a rabbit lost its nerve and ran for cover.
She let it be. She had other things to tend to.
Down by the frozen stream, where the old tree had fallen, was a bundle of sticks and string. There were animal tracks all around the bundle, in and out of it, but whatever had been there was long gone. The creature had found her trap, sprung it, and then broken out after a bit of thrashing.
Aisling picked it up, watching the bits and pieces come apart in her hands, and let out a frustrated sigh. Days of effort, wasted. She shoved the lot in her sack, pulled up her hood, and carried on. The wolves—wherever they were—seemed a lesser concern than her bruised pride.
Out by the ravine, she heard men shouting in the distance, and tucked herself in by the trunk of a tree, sinking down until she was as small as she could be. The men were many miles off, so their voices were hard to discern. Were they angry? Or happy? Or just loud?
Algonquin men knew better than to carry on like that, so it had to be white men.
She saw, across the ravine, a fox watching her with intense curiosity. What was this strange woman doing, cowering behind a tree? Couldn’t she tell the men were too far to see her?
The fox ducked its head low and came up with a small rodent from deep in the snow. Its dinner twisted and flailed, trying to get free, but the fox didn’t care. It gave Aisling one last look and then trotted off, disappearing behind the rise.
Aisling stayed still, listening to the men shouting. They weren’t angry, she thought, and they weren’t lost. They were looking for something. Hunting for something.
They’d never catch it, making all that ruckus.
After a few more minutes, their voices grew too distant to pick out from the wind, so she stood, dusting the snow off herself, and carried on. The sooner she collected her dinner, the better off she’d be.
A half hour later, she arrived at another one of her traps—and this one was intact. A little too intact. The rope still dangled down from the tree branch above, the netting still spread out below, perfectly hidden in the snow. There were more animal tracks, all around the berries and nuts at the centre of the trap, but none crossing the line.
They’d smelled the trick, and stayed clear.
She stepped closer, frowning at the sight, but let it be. With enough time, her smell would fade from the food, and some unsuspecting creature would eventually take a leap of faith, and get caught. All she had to do was be patient. She could be patient.
She got ten paces away before her stomach grumbled and her head slumped.
She sighed, turned back and stomped back to the trap, snatching the bait for herself—and the net sprung, smacking her in the face on its way into the sky. She was proud of how well-strung she’d set it, but damn that hurt! She touched her lip, seeing if she was bleeding.
Up above was her snack, still caught in the net. She tried to reach it, but it was just too far. She jumped, but still couldn’t make it.
She sighed dejectedly and carried on.
Daylight was starting to fade by the time she made it to the base of the tall ridge—her last stop of the day, and last hope for a proper meal. She saw more wolf tracks nearby, but had long since given up on caution. She was too hungry to wait another second. She hurried along, over and under the obstacles in her way until she saw the last turn up ahead, and the rope from the branch pulled tight—yes! The trap had sprung!
She quickened her pace even more, weaving between trees until finally she could see—
A dead woman had crushed her trap.
“Perfect,” she grumbled, and made her way over.
The stranger was on her back, arms out wide, a large pool of blood soaking the white all around her. She’d fallen a long way, down the ridge—branches and bushes were snapped all along her path. Her skin was almost as pale as the snow, and Aisling paused right above her, watching her tragic beauty for a moment. Just a moment.
Were the mens’ voices calling out for this woman? Would they keep on looking, or give up in advance of the coming storm, and never find her body until spring? Or would they keep on trying, and cry out in anguish when they found her?
She thought about calling for them, to lead them to the spot…but she knew that was foolish. Best let things happen as they may.
It occurred to Aisling, standing there, looking at this fallen angel in the snow, that this stranger might have something of value on her. Something she wouldn’t be needing anymore. So with a quiet prayer for forgiveness, she crouched down and opened the poor woman’s coat, searching for—
She paused when she saw the source of the bleeding: a hole in her side, just above her hip, still glistening red.
Suddenly the mens’ voices took on a whole other quality: they were hunters, searching for their kill. She hadn’t heard a gunshot—not at all, all day—so whoever this woman was, she had been lying here for hours, and the ones who did it were still trying to find the body.
That was a bad sign. A dangerous sign.
“What happened to you?” she whispered, and—
The woman gasped. A horrible, desperate gasp that sent Aisling scrambling back, reaching for her knife and nearly cutting herself in the process. She held it out at the woman, hands trembling, as the poor wretch finally caught her breath. She lay there, arms flailing uselessly, head lolling from side to side as she came back from the dead.
Once she was sure the woman wasn’t going anywhere fast, Aisling crept back up to her, knife ready for whatever might happen next.
“You’re alive?” she asked.
The woman didn’t react—she just lay there, still and stunned, gazing into the sky. It was like she didn’t hear Aisling’s voice at all. Maybe she was deaf. Maybe she had to see Aisling to know to listen. Fine. Fine. Aisling got a little closer, leaning over the nearly-dead woman until their eyes met. Or rather, didn’t quite meet; the woman’s gaze was clearly focused on something, somewhere else. She was looking straight through Aisling.
“Are you actually alive?” Aisling asked her. “Or is this temporary?”
Still no answer. The woman was mouthing something to herself, but made no sound.
Aisling tried again: “You owe me an apology.”
That made the woman’s focus change. She frowned at Aisling. “Wh…what?”
“You owe me an apology. You broke my trap. You cost me dinner.”
The woman tried to turn her head to see, but it clearly hurt too much to try. She nearly blacked out from the attempt. “Your…your trap?”
“Rabbit trap,” said Aisling. “Foolproof, too. All my traps are foolproof, but this was the best one. My favourite. And you flattened it.”
“S-sorry…” said the woman. “I don’t…”
“It’s alright, I’ll just eat you instead.”
The woman froze. “What?”
Aisling laughed. “Don’t worry, I know not to eat malformed creatures. They’re full of disease. And you, you are an ugly rabbit.” She stowed her knife and sat in the snow next to the woman. “Someone shot you.”
Aisling pointed to the top of the ridge. “Up there, I figure.”
“No, I mean…” the woman said, trying to move her arms to check herself, but hissed in pain with the slightest of motions. “Wh-where—”
“Belly, on the side there,” said Aisling. “You don’t feel it?”
“I feel everything,” said the woman. “Where am I?”
Aisling looked around herself, shrugged. “Best spot to catch rabbits. Previously.”
“How did I get here?”
Aisling pointed back up the ridge. “Someone shot you and you—” She winced at something, and shook her head. “No. I apologize. I can’t do this. I forgive you for ruining my trap, but I can’t get involved in outside issues.”
“I understand,” said the woman, and closed her eyes. “You can go. I’ll be fine.”
Aisling nodded, then nodded some more, and stood up. It was an hour’s walk back home, and if she didn’t get going, she’d actually have to worry about the wolves a lot more seriously. The cold, too, would be getting worse, the lower the sun got in the sky. Not to mention finding her way around in the dark could lead to all kinds of unfortunate accidents.
“Well,” she said. “Good-bye, then.”
She started walking, eyes locked on her destination—the only real shelter for miles—as she muttered to herself: “She’ll be fine.”
The wolves rarely came out this far anyway.
“She’ll be fine.”
And the men with guns would probably be headed home, too, to avoid the storm that would bury this whole area in several feet of snow.
She turned on her heel and yelled back: “No you won’t be fine!”
The woman looked dead again, when she returned. “You won’t be fine,” she said. “You’ll freeze to death or be eaten to death. Yes, you were dead when I found you, but this would be more dead, and I just…” She crouched down next to the woman. “You need some help?”
“I can’t feel my body.”
“I thought you felt everything.” She poked the woman’s cheek with a bare finger. Her skin was frigid, like she really was a corpse. “Feel that?”
“Good,” said Aisling. “Any other requests?”
The woman opened her eyes, and stared at the sky. “I’m a little hungry.”
“Says the woman who broke my rabbit trap.” She looked back toward home, calculating the distance, the terrain, the time it would take to get there with or without a bleeding limp woman on her back. It was not a pleasant calculation.
“You can leave me,” said the woman.
“No, I can’t. I really wish I could, but I can’t.” She checked the way back home again. It felt even further than the last time she looked. And the air felt colder, too. “We can’t stay out here much longer, so…so I’ll get you someplace warm, get you some food, see about that wound, and then figure out how to get you home again.”
“If it’s not too much trouble.”
“It is too much trouble,” grumbled Aisling. “But we’re doing it anyway.”
The woman smiled, raised a weak arm up to shake Aisling’s hand. “Thank you, Ms…?”
“Aisling. You can call me Aisling.” She took the woman’s hand sideways, gave it a little shake. “And what can I call you?”
The woman’s smile faded so suddenly, Aisling thought she had died again. She stared off into a space that didn’t exist, struggling with something she couldn’t quite put to words. When she spoke, it was a mixture of confusion and horror, and something else entirely:
“I don’t know. I don’t know who I am.”