This story is by Cathy Ryan and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Martin shoved into the cabin with the wind hard against his back. Cold and snow shed from him into the toasted warmth. “Meggie?”
The cabin was only two small rooms. She hadn’t felt well this morning and he’d told her to stay in bed while he tended their livestock. It was storming, brutal outside and she didn’t need to face that, though he must feed, regardless of weather.
“The hens are laying,” he called. He cradled four brown eggs in his mittened hands.
Silence. He tensed with sudden unease.
He glanced at the eggs in his hands and then at his feet.
His tall, laced boots were encrusted with snow that dripped onto the doormat. He didn’t want to drip onto Meggie’s carefully clean floor, but he couldn’t remove the boots until he set the eggs down. “Should have taken a basket,” he muttered. This was all still new to them, this homesteading wilderness life. There was much to learn.
He pulled the mitten off one hand with his teeth, then slipped the eggs inside the empty mitten and set it safely on the floor. The knotted bootlaces yielded to prying fingers and he eased the boots off.
Sock-footed and pleased, anticipating her delight at the new eggs, he carried them to the shelf under the window. They called it their butler’s pantry, half mocking their former affluent lifestyle in the ‘lower states.’ Alaska seemed almost a foreign country compared to suburban Virginia.
He started to check the fire, but her persistent quiet worried him. “Meggie?”
Six steps to the bedroom door. He pulled it open wider. Snow-dimmed winter daylight brightened the room. Meggie lay on the bed on her side, covers pulled to her ear.
He sat on the bedside, touched her shoulder. Fever radiated through the blanket. “Honey?”
She moaned and turned toward him, eyes closed.
He stroked dark hair from her forehead. “Did you take something?”
They had come prepared with basic medicines and a book that recommended bed rest. She was pregnant. She mumbled, “Acetaminophen,” then rolled back onto her side.
He snuggled the blanket around her and consulted the book again.
The fire flared with a sudden blast of wind and he trimmed the stove damper. They’d been warned about storms like this. “Stay inside until the wind stops. Outside, you’ll get lost and die.” He couldn’t even find his way to the barn today without the guide rope to lead him, and it was only steps away.
The cabin was solid though, well-caulked and sturdy. They had a good stove, wood, and food. They were safe inside. Still, he paced before the window. Back home, the snow was never like this.
An hour later, he found her burrowed deeper under the cover and shivering. He roused her for a sip of water. Trembling, she clutched the mug with both hands.
“I’ll get another blanket.”
She slid her hand beneath the cover and he drew it aside. Her gown was speckled with dark blood.
His lips and face went numb. The baby was due in July. Not March.
“Get Paula,” she said.
He glanced through the open doorway and out the front window at the raging storm. Paula, the midwife, lived a mile away through the woods. Fifteen minutes there and fifteen back again – in July. Not in this storm.
He drove fear from his voice so Meggie wouldn’t hear it. “Let me look.”
Maybe it would be alright. He had helped to deliver a calf once. A calf, not his child. Maybe the bleeding would stop; he wouldn’t have to go. This blood was dark though, not fresh. The odor was foul. “Lie back, sweetheart,” he said, carefully calm and reassuring. He raised the foot of the bed and pressed a towel beneath her and another between her legs.
He pulled the blankets under her chin and tucked her hair behind her ears. She shivered so her teeth chattered. He fetched a third blanket and his cell phone. No bars. He knew there would be none in such a storm. “Damn.” They’d been warned to get a radio. She’d refused.
Thrusting his fingers through his hair, he glanced sideways out the window. He was often afraid since they came to this isolated backwoods. Meggie, though, she loved the challenges and the unexpected. She mocked his fear. “Chicken?” she’d say until he gave in rather than argue. He’d begun to hide his fear from her, in favor of peace. Now, staring into that storm, fear chattered in his face, dared him to ignore it.
He retreated into the dark room again. Even here, the wind howled at the roof. The bleeding had not stopped. He knew it wouldn’t. Still, it made no sense to go for Paula, not into that storm. Especially not now, when nightfall with its lethal cold might catch him. He turned to Meggie, willing her to agree it was too dangerous and beg him not to try. “Go,” she said.
Silent, angry, he left the room to pack the stove and damp it. This is insane. He pulled on his winter gear and went to her bedside, trailing wet footprints, hoping for a final reprieve. Voice low, he said, “I’m going.”
Outside, the wind snatched his breath. Teeth clenched, he pulled the mask up over his nose and paused on the porch to set his bearings. His head pounded with outrage that she would send him into this. ‘Let’s homestead,’ she’d said. ‘Let’s have a baby.’ It’s always a joke to her and you just go along.
Compass in hand, he stepped into the blinding swirl. Knee-deep snow impeded every stride. He churned through it.
‘We’ll stay home,’ she’d said. ‘We don’t need snowshoes.’
Every. Damn. Thing.
Snow broke over his thighs and wind erased his trail behind until finally, panting, he had to stop and breathe. A blast of wind half spun him as he checked the compass. “Shit!” He’d been bearing too far north. He set out again, panting and flailing. The hammering, shrieking wind drove all thought from his head but one: move or you’ll die out here. He slammed into a tree. Grim, he realized he’d only crossed the cleared yard. Now, he needed to go through the forest.
Inside, the trees writhed under the howling wind. Loud pops warned him of breaking branches, widowmakers. He could only stop in terror as they fell, with no clue where they would strike. Finally, a roar at his ear and a blow struck his left arm and threw him to the ground. Snow and needle-covered branches pressed over him like a heavy blanket. He lay gasping against pain, his arm pinned and surely broken. He couldn’t see his hand.
The trees around him were hidden by driving snow. He had no idea how long he had walked, or for certain if he was nearer Paula’s or home. Resting, panting, he realized, This is really stupid.
“Stupid,” he agreed and laughed.
You’re the practical one. You should have said no!
“She’ll leave me. She said she would.” Tears welled at the memory. “She won’t tolerate quarreling.”
So, one of you dead is better?
He sighed. “You picked a fine time to figure this out.” Cautious, he flexed his fingers and nearly cried with relief when they moved.
He twisted, placed a boot against the branch, shoved, and pulled his arm free. His hand was bare, scraped, bleeding. The compass was gone.
Desperate, he scrabbled in the snow and found nothing. Daylight was fading. He must go on. If he waited, he would die and she would be alone.
Pushing to his feet, he turned, searching for a clue to guide him. Guessing that west, home, was toward the lighter sky, he chose. Head bent against the wind, his left sleeve pulled over his bare hand, he stumbled forward. This time he didn’t pause, even as widowmakers crashed around him, but pressed on, thinking of Meggie. “She needs you now.”
Darkness fell before he cleared the trees and he knew he’d chosen wrong, but he could only go on. Finally, he staggered into a wall.
Thinking it was fallen trees at first, he placed his mittened hand against the logs. Cold-numbed and slow-brained, he pondered the stacked logs, then realized with sudden joy that it was the side of a building. Hope flooded him. He had reached his own barn.
Next morning, the storm slackened outside the window. The baby, born putrid during the night, was wrapped and tucked under the porch eave, safe from predators. Meggie would want to see it when she awakened. Her bleeding had freshened at first but then diminished. She’d recover. Martin wondered if their marriage would.
They had not planned a cemetery. They had not planned enough, but he would trust his fear now, dare to disagree, and hope for better. Besides, the hens were laying and spring would come.