by Michael Kingswood
The wind rushed past, making the thin wooden sides of the tiny cabin Nancy huddled in shudder. A high-pitched whistling advertised its penetration through the cracks around the cabin’s latched door, and she shivered as what warmth there was fled before its incursion.
She wrapped the threadbare wool blanket that she had found tucked beneath the cabin’s clearly handmade cot, hewn from roughly cut logs, around herself, burrowing in as deeply as she could and wishing the unstained planks that made up the cabin’s floor could open up and take her in, to help preserve the heat.
The room was dimly lit from flickering flames within the cabin’s only other piece of furniture: a tiny wood-burning stove nestled into the rear corner opposite the door.
The flames bravely strove against the encroaching cold, nibbling at the lone log inside the stove. She longed to throw more on, but a glance at the piled fuel in the other corner, minuscule when she’d first found the shelter and even smaller now, told the futility of that idea.
There probably would not be enough to last the night even at this slow pace; if she used it all now there would be no more defense against the blizzard outside.
The wind howled past again, and Nancy barely held back a sob of misery, her breath misting in the air in front of her face despite the fire’s best efforts at sending heat.
Nancy looked away from the stove toward the cabin’s lone window, hoping against hope to see some glimmer of dawn, but she saw only blackness turned grey from the condensed fog of her many breaths turning to ice as it congealed on the warped glass.
Thinking back to her last meal, the granola bar she had crunched down hours ago when she was halfway up the mountain, and before she realized she would not be able to outrun the weather, Nancy felt her stomach growl and she cursed herself for not bringing more supplies.
But it was just supposed to be a day hike; no need to pack a full pack.
Lord, please let it be morning soon.
As if in mockery of her desperate prayer, the wind howled again. Nancy wanted to scream in protest against its mockery, but she dared not use the energy. She needed every little bit to keep herself warm.
Scrunching closer to the stove, as close as she dared without actually touching it, helped a little. Very little. But it helped.
But there was only so much good that would do, and it was like both she and the stove knew it. The log within popped, sending a little shower of embers into the confines of the stove’s interior along with a briefly-increased flash of heat.
Two of the orange-glowing bits escaped the stove’s open door, floating upward in the air of the cabin’s room like little fireflies for a moment before turning from yellow-orange to red and then black as the residual heat in the embers fled and they fell, lifeless, to the floor beside her.
That would be her before the night was done, unless she did something. She had no doubt of it.
Again, Nancy looked toward the little stack of fuel for the stove, and she racked her brain for some way, any way, to increase it.
Her eyes dropped to the floor boards that she sat upon. They were unstained but well-sanded, carefully prepared and laid down. Held in place by nails at intervals, pounded into the joists below by the builder.
If she could maybe pry one up and break it into smaller pieces…
But how? If she had her full pack that she used for multi-day excursions, she’d have a hatchet and a collapsable saw. But in her day pack, she only had the granola bar she’d already eaten, a small knife, a flashlight, and some water in a camelback-style bladder.
Nothing that was up to the task she was contemplating.
Another pop from inside the stove, and Nancy swore. What kind of a dolt builds a cabin in the woods and doesn’t stock it with tools?
Same kind of dolt who doesn’t check the weather before going hiking, her mind answered back.
She snarled at that voice inside her, but the snarl lacked heat, like everything else around her, because she knew it was right.
She’d been dumb, and now she was paying the price. And if she didn’t figure something out, and soon, she was going to pay the ultimate price.
Pulling the little blanket closer around herself, she hunched her head closer to the stove. After a few minutes, she realized she was no longer thinking; she was praying. Calling out to a God she wasn’t sure she even believed in for help, for a way to make it through the night.
She found herself promising Him things that she never would have even considered before, and she tried to chide herself for fleeing rationality in her growing panic.
But again that voice pushed back. Because when there was no other option, why not try God, if only to comfort herself?
Nancy really was beginning to not like that voice at all.
The flames within the stove were growing more dim now, the log reduced to more glowing coals than anything else, and she realized she needed to add more fuel or the fire would go out completely. And who knew if she’d be able to get it started again.
She had to hold back her eagerness for more heat, moving deliberately to the wood pile. She picked up one piece. Then, after a moment, selected a second. She couldn’t afford to use it up too soon, but the greatly diminished fire had taken its toll on the temperature in the cabin; it was noticeably colder than it had been just a few minutes ago.
No sense saving fuel if saving it just meant she’d freeze to death anyway.
So she put both pieces in the stove. She watched as the first and then the second caught, then she swung the door shut, recalling finally something she’d read about how closing a stove up would slow the rate of burn for each piece of fuel. Couldn’t hurt.
And it seemed to help. Almost at once, it seemed like the cabin was warmer. And was the wind less fierce, or was it her –
The entire cabin shook, and there was a thump and a crash, like something had struck the building’s side. The wind shrieked anew, as if calling out a challenge, or mocking her weak attempt at fighting the inevitable. Then another thump, and Nancy looked to the right, toward the side of the cabin where the noise was coming from.
The right hand wall, when looking at the door. Something had struck the wall twice. What – ?
Scratching from overheard, like something dragging down the roof, and then a third thump, but not on the wall itself. Like whatever it was had landed on the ground—in the snowbank—next to the cabin.
“What in the hell was that?”
Nancy almost didn’t recognize her own voice as she spoke, but she could practically see the words in the air as the puffs of breath misted in front of her face.
She racked her mind to recall the surrounding area around the cabin, what she could see of it when she found it. The light was almost gone at the time, but the cabin had been in a little clearing, backed up against a rock face. But off to the left had been a couple tall pine trees.
She thought back to the scraping sound, and hope flared within her.
The trees hadn’t fallen; if that had occurred they would have taken the cabin’s roof down, and maybe the walls as well. And right now she’d be covered in an ever growing pile of snow as she shivered out her last minutes.
But perhaps the tree had lost a limb, and that was what had scraped down the roof?
The surge of hope grew brighter as she considered how fallen pine needles burned. Dry ones, at least. But something told her even the needles on a freshly felled limb would still work well. Not to mention the wood in the branch itself.
But there was still the problem of getting the wood without tools.
The voice popped up again, and this time Nancy found herself liking what it had to say: don’t declare defeat before you’ve even looked at the situation.
She had a flashlight in her pack. She could go outside, around the cabin’s corner, and see if her suspicion was correct. If it was, she could try to get some of that limb, as much as she could.
Even some small brambles would be a welcome addition to her tiny fuel supply.
“Go outside?” She heard dread in her voice, and it about eclipsed the sudden hope.
Cold as it was inside the cabin now, it would be infinitely worse outside. Without the walls’ protection from the biting wind… Could she even last long enough to really check out the situation, ill equipped as she was?
“Well you’re not going to last here, doing nothing,” she said to herself. And that was the truth.
Better to make an attempt and fail while daring than to sit idly and watch as the end crept in slowly, like a coward.
So she forced herself to her feet. It only took a moment fish the flashlight out of her pack, then she pulled the blanket as tightly around herself as she could, flipping it up over her head to form at least a semblance of a hood.
It seemed a mile, walking over to the cabin’s door, though in truth it was only a few feet. But every part of Nancy’s being wanted to not go there, to stay close to the stove and what heat it gave off, temporary and fleeting as that heat promised to be.
The doorknob seemed to resist her turning for the longest moment.
Then the wind gusted again, and the door swung inward of its own accord, propelled by the wind to try and smack her in the face.
She stumbled backward, the suddenly frigid air pummeling her even as a million little daggers plunged into every bit of exposed skin: snowflakes or ice shards driven by the wind and turned into cutting knives.
Nancy felt herself crying out, but over the redoubled noise of the wind she couldn’t hear it.
It was like cold and darkness had engulfed her completely, and in a panic she looked back, fearing the fire had gone out.
But the dim glow of the fire inside the stove, protected at least for now from the elements since she’d shut the door, showed that bit of heat, at least, still existed. For now.
But for how long?
Longer than she could last, now that she was exposed. She was already shivering through the blanket at winter’s renewed onslaught, and the weakness within her screamed at her to shut the door, get back to the stove.
And die. Just later.
Fine, but it won’t be now.
Nancy tried to grit her teeth, but they were already chattering. So she contented herself by switching on her flashlight. Then, leaning forward against the wind, she stepped outside.
She only thought it had been cold before. Now, outside of any shelter…Her body went instantly numb, and Nancy felt the strength leaving her limbs.
Not far to go. Just around the corner, and see what happened.
She was praying again. That she was right, and the thumps had been a falling limb. That it was usable, and that she could manage to haul at least part of it inside before she gave out completely.
As she rounded the cabin’s corner, her meager little light barely penetrated the darkness of the night, and the blizzard. But there was something up against the side of the cabin. Something…
Squinting, she shuffled forward, not daring to believe what she saw but unable to deny it.
In spite of her shivering, she found herself smiling in triumph.
She was right.
A fallen limb from the pine tree. And several bits of it had broken off in its fall from on high.
Bits that she knew without having to think on it that she could move by herself. Break with her weight once she had them inside. And create extra warmth within the stove.
Perhaps enough to get through the night. Perhaps not.
But more than before.
With the renewed strength that comes from hope, she hurried forward and grabbed hold of the largest of the limb fragments, then she hauled on it.
For a second, it didn’t want to budge beneath the growing snowdrift. Then it came loose.
When she got it inside and forced the door shut again, she wasted no time in breaking off several smaller pieces, complete with needles, and shoving them into the stove.
The answering pops, and the immediate brilliance of the expanded flame within the stove, lifted her spirits almost as much as the greater heat soothed her body.
And for the first time in what seemed forever, she felt certain she would make it through this night.
Later, as she nodded off beneath the warmth that seemed almost tropical compared with what she had endured earlier, that voice in the back of her head quipped that maybe her prayer had been answered.
Or maybe it was just random luck that the pine tree had weakened when it did, giving part of itself so she could live.
She wasn’t sure what to think.
But she’d have tomorrow to figure it out, one way or the other.
A collection of Michael Kingswood’s published stories are available here: