Within the Wild I Sleep

Cassiar was once a beautiful, small mining community. But now it is a ghost town. This was Osbourn's home, and he witnessed it burn to the ground Christmas day so many years ago. But he did not flee to a new town like the rest who remained to see that day. Instead he daringly turns to the wild with open arms, taking on the dream he has had since a child to live in the bush like his rugged father claimed to had once done. Somewhere near the shore of Captain lake he has built his own life, a life he finds worth living. On the horizon of his home in the woods is a distant mountain. A place that Osbourn has become completely infatuated with, but doesn't dare dream of visiting the mysterious place. But as the anniversary of his home towns fall approaches, his quiet life as a woodsman changes drastically. ~ A short story for the Christmas Calendar competition. In the category of Supernatural.

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1. Tree of Life

 It was a rather brisk morning, only -25 degrees Celsius with the sun still behind the horizon. The faint sunlight of the approaching day only reflected off a few clouds high above the tallest mountains in the distance. Without a doubt it would be a warmer day. At this moment, one of the first creatures within a many mile radius woke from its sleep. It was a man. He woke just like any other day within the four walls of his small cottage. Being a creature of habit, he woke swiftly to face his long day of planned routine.

 It wasn't necessarily a habit, but a will to survive. Within this harsh, northern wilderness were hidden dangers that he stood alone against. He liked it this way. He was a man that enjoyed the taste of adventure, and the rush of danger. He enjoyed the isolation and silence. He was an admirer of the beautiful frozen land of the far northern British Columbia. He was kind yet cunning, harmless but menacing, gentle while rugged. He was known, simply, as Osborn. Well, really he preferred to be referred to as Os, but it wasn't as if there was anyone around to call him that.

 By the second he began to apply his many layers of clothing, he was consumed in his day. Once he stepped out the door he would rush to complete his tasks. There weren't many of them, but with six hours of daylight, it was sort of a race against the clock. He had to clear the roof of the cottage and the walkways that had been blanket by the nightly snowfall. Next he would make his way to the river to retrieve drinking water. The walk to the river was nothing more than a casual stroll, but with the foot of snow collapsing under every step, it took a little longer. Then finally, after dumping his load of water back home, he would retrieve his bow and quiver of arrows to take on the most challenging task. This was hunting game to eat for dinner that night. Obviously, hunting wild animals was hard, but in a frozen wasteland such as this, he was lucky to find a scrawny rabbit. And because of the lack of food this time of year, he had become rather scrawny himself. This only added to his ghostly, scruffy looking figure. Sometimes to relieve himself of his bad appearance, he would take a much enjoyed bath. If there was enough time to retrieve the water. Bathing was not a necessity when faced with the idea of going hungry that night. If hunting took Osborn to the deadline of nightfall, the usually much needed bath would have to wait for another day.

 Today, while going for his round by the river for water, from the hole he hacked in the ice, he was able to snatch a fish. Skinny it was, but he wouldn’t turn his nose up to meat. And he was thankful for the quick catch of dinner, because this only left him time to do a very important thing that he couldn’t put off much longer. This was finding a good Christmas tree to bring back to his cottage. In his opinion, this was much more important than retrieving bath water. And all it took was one opinion to make a decision out here. That was the beauty of being completely alone.

 His bucket of icy cold water was brought back to his home, and placed within a deep cauldron-looking bucket that hung above his little fire. The embers burned low, barely warm enough to heat the small, one-room house, but Osborn didn’t mind at all. He would be gone for the rest of the day and a huge fire was not something he needed to leave his mind at ease while on the path for a Christmas tree. It was a horror of his to imagine spying a stack of thick smoke above the treeline, only to return to a smoldering pile of lumber that had once been his home and had contained all his possessions. But the fire he had lit now was low enough to keep his mind at ease.

 He strapped his biggest snow shoes to his feet and slung his warmest, favourite leather coat over his shoulder and tied it up nice and tight. The fluffy wool lining within his hood was pulled over his dark hair. Once laced tightly, not much of his face poked through. All that could be seen of his face was a portion of his scruffy beard, hints of his rosy cheeks and his gleaming black eyes that reflected against embers of the fire. He now strode in the direction of the door, taking his ax that was hung from the wall just before he left his home and began to venture out into the forest.

 One look at this strange man trudging through the snow while carrying a blade would send shivers up ones spine if they were to find him suddenly. It, in a way, looked like a scene from a horror movie. A bystander would have to be brave enough to walk straight up to Osborn and remove his hood to see that he was nothing but a healthy, thirtyish-year-old man. Not too many people in the world knew him. But the few that did wouldn’t argue with the point that he had a heart of gold, and his hands cold. Of yes, his hands were cold without a shadow of doubt.

 It was a truly beautiful day, perfect for his task at hand. The sun shone bright above his head as the sky stood solidly blue without a cloud to interrupt the constant colour. But he couldn't help but let the violent images in the back of his mind stay. In the excitement of the approaching Christmas, he could only picture the horrible past that the coming holiday held as an anniversary for an unfortunate event. South of where Os stood was a ghost town that was once his home. A place that thrived from its mines. But just sixteen years ago, it all burned to the ground. And Os was there to witness it. He was only sixteen. For now, he pushed the memory away.

 These sunny days took their toll. Os had to admit, he did prefer these bright days over a cold and windy one, but there always had to be cons, even to the most perfect seeming things. The sun shone so brightly and directly against the thick, untouched snow before him on the treeless plain that he just entered. It was so intense that it reflected off the crystals and nearly blinded him. Thankfully he had thought to bring along his goggles.

 He slid the shaded lenses over his face and felt his eyes relax. No, the dreaded con of this solution was that it was harder to see the scenery. He couldn’t take in the tall pine trees whose branches stood strong against the mounds of snow that were perfectly balanced upon them. He could not see the snow capped mountains that rose over the misty horizon and scraped the skies so mystically. But he knew that if he didn’t have to wear these goggles for the only reason of not burning out his retinas, he would be able to see one, tall, lonely mountain if he faced directly north. It was his favourite of all the mountains that ringed his view on an average day, simply because it filled him up with wonder. Every time that he fixed the mountain in his sights, he wondered what it would be like to be there, to stand atop it. This thought seemed reasonable yet impossible at the same time, for the place seemed to distant, yet so near. Like a rainbow, drifting away from the chaser who traveled to one day find its treasures. Os had a simple name for this place that was so mystical to him. He called it Delizu. Mount Delizu.

 Today, he didn’t think too much of Delizu as he passed the short plain of snow to join the trees on the other side. He was heading in the direction of the river that he so often visited. On the other side of this river was the place where he would always find his Christmas tree. It had been many years and this place had not yet failed to provide him with the ideal tree.

 Os stepped up to the shore of the river and noticed the hole that he had gouged into the thick surface of ice about an hour earlier. The hole was already beginning to patch itself up with another thin layer of ice that would fill the hole in completely before the night arrived. The temperatures at day were cold enough to do something like that. About twenty feet to the right from where he stood before the hole was a shabby bridge made of logs. The several logs were sheathed with ice, but cleared of snow. That was thanks to another of Os’s daily chores of clearing snow. When he said he cleared walkways of snow each morning, this also applied to his bridge. Though he didn’t use it every day, he would do so occasionally. So to prevent the problem of having too much snow piling up, he took twenty minutes out of his busy day to make sure it was tended for. And it was on days such as these that he was thankful that he did so.

 Though the river was covered in ice, he couldn’t trust that it was thick enough to support his weight. He had once defied this thought at a time before he had his bridge built. That only resulted in falling straight through into a deep stream of freezing water. That one time was one too many for him to have to handle. But here in the wilderness of northern British Columbia, it tended to humble even the most arrogant of people. Its lessons taught one to respect the laws of the wild. Not to fear them, but treat them with respect.

 It was tricky business making his way across the river. The bridge was ten feet across and three trunks wide, each bound very close to the other. It took extra effort to maneuver across the icy surface, but he didn’t need much motivation to do so. All he had to do was imagine himself falling through the ice for the second time and he felt suddenly motivated to pay attention to the precision of his steps. He had made it to the other side with only a few minor slips, but nothing he wasn’t used to. He had lost count on how many times he had woken up before the sun rose and found himself walking above the new layer of snow, the air so cold that the consistency of the snow beneath his feet felt as solid as ice. But it was mid day now as he stepped of from the other side of the bridge. And of course, another con of the warm weather was that the snow was softer and would absorb his ever step, making it much harder to walk. Even in the darkest shadows of the trees all around him, the snow collapsed like a house of cards beneath the snow shoes that didn’t seem to be helping at all.

 Today, and like every other year, he began to trail down along side the river. If he walked in this direction for about a half hour he would meet the end of the river as it dropped into a waterfall and fell into a lake. And near this lake was where his favourite trees were. Visiting the lakes edge was one of his best part of collecting a Christmas tree. Because he had no other excuse any other time of the year to be so far out of his way. So on this day of every year he would milk his time by the lake as long as he could. But the way the sun was tilting down towards the western horizon above him through the trees didn’t seem as promising as he had hoped.

Thankfully the walk wasn’t long. Within what seemed like a quick, casual stroll the sound of the intense rush of a waterfall hit his ears. It was a triumphant moment standing on the cliff next to the waterfall. Os glanced down to see where the lake intercepted the fall of water about fifteen feet below. This was the one part of the water that never seemed to completely freeze, even during night. But today, on a warmish day with the sun beams hitting the huge, wide open lake, its field of ice melted away. Just for a quick moment, Os took off his goggles to take in the scene in its entirety. He took in the glistening surface of the freezing water, the small, snow swept islands and the mountains that stood so far in the back ground that they could had been different planets. It all seemed so distant to Os. It made him feel so small.

 It was a long, humbled moment that he stood there admiring the land, but the setting sun entering his view triggered the thought of his time limit to budge through to get his attention. Os woke form his trance and turned back to face the land he stood on, and sadly, was forced to put his goggles back on.

 There was a slope next to the edge of the cliff that he was to follow to reach the prime spot for the trees he desired. It was an awkward journey down the steep, snow covered slopes. He didn’t exactly walk, but rolled. But anyone would have to admit that it was kind of fun. When he reached the bottom, he found himself sitting a the edge of the forest that rimmed the lake, and spotted within the tallest of the needle trees were the little Christmas trees that he had his heart set on. A smile grew on Os’s face as he spied up at where the stray sunbeams entered through the gaps in the canopy of snow-covered branches. The spots of sun landed on the forest floor that were almost completely absent of snow and seemed to be lighting up a pathway for him. It was now that he wondered how long this path to the perfect tree would be. When he left this mystical forest, would the sunbeams still be there to light his way back? Or would all he have left to accompany him back on his journey home be the creatures of the night, stirring in the shadows, watching him...

 

 Sweat erupted upon his brow as he sent his ax flying at the trunk yet again. Beautiful tree it was, and a hell of a lot tougher than it looked. He had been working at its trunk for ten minutes now. It appeared that there was only a little left to chop, but who knew how long that would take. It was as if the trunk was made of stone. Perhaps this was more trouble than it was worth. The only thing that was driving Os to keep hacking away at the stump was the sun that was beginning to hang dangerously low at the horizon. Every few moments Os found himself glancing over at the lake through the trees at the horizon, as if he were afraid that the sun would disappear in a flash.

 Os couldn’t help but letting out a hoot of happiness as the tree finally tumbled to its side, landing with a loud swish of its needle-covered branches. Finally allowing himself to catch a breath, Os dropped his ax next to him and flopped to the ground as well. All he needed was one moment. Just one moment to redeem himself. He lay there on the freezing cold ground that was beginning to inhabit little tufts of frost. He needed to hurry, but at the same time he felt he needed to take his time.

 For many moments he just lay there, huffing and puffing, watching the sky between the trees turn from an orange tinge to a twilight purple. And he still didn’t care. He even felt like he should just fall asleep right here. No, he couldn’t. He’d be frozen solid by morning.

 A sudden sound of movement to his left shocked him out of his daze and he sat straight up to look at it. His sights were drawn to a movement between the trees... out on the water. He noticed the moving water breaking through the thin sheet of ice ever so gently. He saw its dorsal fin stick up like a black fang and a puff of vapour from its blow hole.  Os was too caught in amazement to wonder how or why there was a whale in the lake, he just watched its every move with admiration. He watched it break up a large portion of ice, enough for it to swim in. The whale hung out in the little pocket of ice-less water for several minutes, puffing more clouds of vapour and letting out majestic calls that echoed through the air. The sound hit Os’s ears so gently that he felt like he wanted to shed a few tears at how beautiful it all was. But eventually, the calls disappeared and the water began to still. There was a flush of disappointment that ran through Os’s chest when he noticed that the whale had disappeared, somewhere beneath the surface.

 Os waited for a long few moments, wondering if the whale would come back. He just didn’t want to accept the fact that his first encounter with a whale was over. But the sight of the ice slowly closing up around the patch of open water killed his hopes just as well. Very soon, he would have to accept the fact that it was time to go, that he had pushed his time here far too long.

 The same second that Os lowered his eyes away from the water was the second that the whale broke through the ice once more. The sound of the whale bursting through the water hit his ears and he glued his eyes back to the water eagerly. He was just in time to see the whale erupt through the surface in a jump. Its tale left the water and its whole body entered the air. The moment seemed to go in slow-motion. Its wet body gleamed a brilliant black against the sky that was letting slip the last wisps of daylight. Its bright, white under-belly turned up and its vast fins splayed as if it were about to embrace the sky into a loving hug. But not even a mighty jump such as this could reach the sky. Quite quickly, the whale hit the peak of its jump and seemed to hang in the air before it was sent plummeting back down to the water. It was at this point that Os noticed a problem. The whale was now high above water that was covered in solid ice. Would the whale break through the ice? Or was it so thick now that it would hurt the whale? A sudden surge of fear cut through his awe as he idly watched the whale fall. But neither of what he had predicted took place. Os blinked several times to make sure he had been awake. With his own two, waking eyes he witnessed the whale disappear just as its dorsal fin touched the ice, like a ghost passing through a wall.

 “What?” Os muttered, completely dumbfounded. “What?!”

 At this point his eyes rested on the part of the frozen lake that had had a huge hole gouged into it from the whale. But now it sat solid, as if nothing had touched it. As if nothing had happened at all! The only thing that could break his disbelief in that moment was when a snow flake landed ever so gently on the tip of his nose, along with a sound that he dreaded most than all.

 A piercing howl cut through the silent night. Os ducked down on his hands and knees, swivelling on the spot in a desperate attempt to locate the source of the sound. This was an absolutely terrifying situation for him, because he was completely horrified of wolves. He had never exactly encountered one, only just saw one, but their appearance frightened him. Long legs, sharp teeth lining a long snout, and these north western wolves had huge coats. But what frightened him the most were the eyes. The one feature he remembered most about the wolf he saw one day stalking back and forth ahead on a trail Os was bound for were the two, piercing green eyes. He was not prepared to encounter eyes like that again. Especially not now. Unarmed, exhausted, limited visibility. And that howl sounded alarmingly close. He would be dead meat if this wolf decided to pounce. Would it?

 Completely forgetting about his sights of the ghost whale, Os slowly brought himself to his feet, flicking his head back and forth. He was trying to locate the wolf, but it was next to impossible. The snow fall was thickening and he had not traced another sound from the animal. He was unable to even tell if the animal were stalking in the shadows just five feet from where he stood. The thought made him feel as if he were having a heart attack. He was at the mercy of one of the most mysterious, vicious creatures he had ever known.

 Os did not know what to do. The animal was most definitely near, the howl was far too close for the wolf to not had noticed him. If it didn’t see if him, it smelt him, if didn’t smell him it heard him. The only companion that Os had at this point was his Christmas tree, what ever use it would be. The two of them just sat idly in the intense snowfall between the loosely spread trees around them.

 All Os needed was a sign that the wolf was still there, because at this point, many moments after the howl, he was beginning to question its presence. He had the exact idea of how to find out, but he didn’t know if he had enough nerve to do it. He needed to howl at it, convincing enough to make it think that he was a wolf as well. A lone wolf would have to respond...

 Os tilted his head back, cupped his hands around his mouth and let out a long, deep cry. Its hallow sound rung throughout the forest and echoed all around him once he faded to silence. A brief moment passed where Os was seeing hope in the fact that maybe the wolf had gone. But his stomach plummeted when his call was returned. Without a doubt, the wolf was standing somewhere in front of him, but somewhere that he could not see.

 It was extremely alarming. The sun’s final glow had disappeared and all that Os could see were the eerie gray clouds above and the mess of bright white snow flakes that streamed through his view. He might as well had been blind in this situation. He couldn’t see his hand in front of his face, let alone a wolf. If he didn’t do something quick, the worst was bound to happen. The snow may had seemed heavy then, but it would only come down harder and harder and the temperature wold go down with it. He could either freeze to death or stumble upon a carnivorous savage while trying to find a way home.

 Seconds turned to minutes and he was still lacking a plan. It seemed hopeless now. His mind wore itself out just as fast as his body did while he stood stone still against the harsh weather. The snow was packing up around him and beginning to do the same on top of him. By the time the snow had come up to his knees, which wasn’t long, he could feel its cold chilling him straight to the bone. Shortly after that, his legs began to wobble, struggling to support his weight as if his body had turned to a heavy block of ice. He sure did feel this way. His body had numbed like a hunk of frozen meat until he felt nothing at all. Just a touch so cold that it could had belonged to death. At this point, he didn’t doubt that it did. As his knees finally gave out and he fell forward into the snow, the last sight he could grasp was the image of the two green eyes advancing on him.

 After the countless nights that he had slept in this wild, he could have never guessed that tonight would be the night that he would lay his head to rest, and never rise again. After the action-packed life that he had lived, he never would had imagined that his last thought would be regret of all the things that he never did. The image that stood centered in the mess of memories in his mind was that of mount Delizu. Then everything went dark.

 

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