Sunday, December 2, 2012

December Excerpt: Shadows in Winter by F. Jay Fuller

Excerpt from Shadows in Winter
F. Jay Fuller
Published by Cool Waters Press

Jaakko had been gone a while before it dawned on me that he was going to be gone for some time. At first I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. There were plenty of things to read–Jaakko’s notebooks had a strong allure, as did some of the other items on the bookshelves. But I was restless after being cooped up indoors for several days. What I really needed was to be outdoors in the fresh air. It was a beautiful day, cold and clear–a good time to explore the valley while pondering my future.

So after whipping up a quick breakfast of oatmeal and toast and chasing them down with another cup of coffee, I grabbed my coat, put some supplies in my pack (including a fire tinder kit, bread and jerky, my knife, a pair of binoculars, and drinking water), wrote a short note to Jaakko, and headed out the door. Jaakko and ZoĆ« had gone off toward the southeast, in the direction CB had led us into the valley. Although I hadn’t seen all there was to see at that end, I hadn’t experienced anything of the lower valley to the northwest. Besides, I didn’t want to run into Jaakko. I wanted to explore on my own.

The creek was the obvious place to start. I knew I couldn’t get lost as long as I stayed between the valley’s steep walls, but the creek provided a consistent reference point so I’d know where I was at all times. I dug my poles into the crust and set off toward the creek. When I got there, I turned left and headed downriver. 

The ski conditions were perfect. The valley floor was reasonably flat, the snow clean and the crust firm. I could have put some effort into it, turning my trek into serious exercise, but I chose instead to take my time, stopping frequently to check out the wilderness with my binoculars.

Moving away from the creek at a point where it made a sharp bend toward the opposite cliffs, I went over a small hillock and down through a stand of spruce. As I passed through the trees I heard a faint twittering. Somewhere under the snow-laden boughs a flock of songbirds was flitting about, oblivious to the cold.

Taking off my skis, I pushed my way in, squatting down to see up through the tree’s limbs. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t catch a glimpse of the little birds. Every time I moved, snow slumped from the branches and fell on my head, alerting the birds to my presence. Deftly they’d move to the other side of the stand and take up their twittering again, almost as if they were daring me to make another clumsy effort to find them. Exasperated after several failed attempts, I gave up the one-sided game of hide and seek and made a mental note to ask Jaakko what kind of birds they were.

Bending over, head down, my mittens scraping the tops of the drifts, I crashed and stumbled my way back through the coppice, tripping over hidden obstacles and snapping off dead branches as I went along. I was just about to break into the clear when I passed under a crooked spruce that had lost its lower limbs. Standing erect near the trunk, I took a moment to straighten my back and knock the snow from my shoulders.

I was surprised to discover I wasn’t alone. Staring at me, from a perch not more than a meter from my face, were two tiny, coal-black It was an ermine, resplendent in its white winter coat, a freshly killed collared lemming clutched in its canines.

I held my breath. For several seconds neither of us moved. The ermine didn’t want to be seen and I didn’t want it to run off before I got a good look at it. The rapid beating of its heart caused its whiskers to vibrate like guitar strings. Its muzzle was stained with the dark blood of its kill. More seconds passed and when it had had enough of my company, it let out a sharp squeak, blinked once, and high-tailed it up the tree with its lunch.

Stepping out into the open, I slapped the rest of the clinging snow from my coat. There was a muffled noise high on the northern cliffs. Three-quarters of the way up, an overhanging snow shelf had broken loose and was falling into the valley in powdery cascades. Higher still, above the exposed rock face, hung the nearly full moon. Bright yellow, its features clear and sharp, it looked almost artificial, as if sculpted from a solid block of marble and placed in the sky.

Slipping on my skis, I continued down the valley, leaving the spruce trees behind and skirting a willow thicket before meeting up again with the creek. It wasn’t long before I came upon several sets of parallel tracks going upstream. Urine stained the snow next to a dead stump. In another spot, the snow’s wind-swirled crust had been scraped away where the tracks’ creators had been digging for something. I’d never seen wolf prints, but that was my first impression, and by the number of tracks there must have been five or six in the pack. I made a mental note for Jaakko.

A little farther along, the valley floor dropped off sharply several meters into a wide treeless basin. Here and there, large boulders and rock pinnacles projected from the snow along the face of an escarpment. A frozen waterfall marked the spot where the creek tumbled over the edge. I could hear the water under the ice gurgling and hissing as it poured into the depression Thin pillars of fog rose above the basin’s surface and dissipated in the cold air.

Traveling along the edge of the escarpment toward the southern cliffs, I negotiated a route between the boulders and pinnacles down to the basin’s floor. I hadn’t gone far before I noticed the conditions in the basin were quite different than elsewhere in the valley.

Up until now, the only things I’d seen projecting from the snow pack had been trees, rocks, and the occasional bare shrub, but scattered here and there across the depression were clusters of dried leaves and depleted seed heads of grasses and forbs. Bending over to get a closer look, I brushed snow from a clump of bunchgrass and found the snow pack remarkably thin and soft. Then I detected something else– a faint stench, like rotten eggs. I’d smelled that distinctive odor many times on family outings to Lassen Volcanic National Park and the adjoining Warner Valley. It was hydrogen sulfide.

Standing up, I scrutinized the depression’s topography. The signs were obvious – the basin was a geothermal zone, a hotspot similar to Bumpass Hell and Devil’s Kitchen, places where the heat rising from Earth’s interior came to the planet’s surface. Through the gossamer haze crawling along the surface, I could see clear aquamarine pools of water where the ground was warm enough to melt the snow and keep it from freezing into ice. Each pool had a thin tendril of steam curling into the frigid air.

Pushing off I continued on, cautiously skirting places where I thought the snow looked too thin or too soft to support my weight. Once out of the thermal zone and back on solid ground, I slipped out of my skis to take a short break and consider my options.

Up to this point the valley had been fairly wide, with the creek meandering through undulating meadows and isolated stands of spruce and dwarf willow. But just beyond where I now stood, and below the thermal depression I had just crossed, the valley abruptly narrowed and deepened. Piled at the cliffs’ feet on both sides were mounds of loose talus and scree composed almost entirely of large angular boulders.

The waters of the creek, which had been placidly flowing along, were squeezed into a constricted series of ragged falls and churning rapids. From my vantage point, I could see no trees – no shrubs – just enormous blocks of rock covered with ice and snow. About 500 meters farther on, the valley flattened out and turned sharply to the northeast. I could only guess what lay beyond the bend.

Finding a decent place to sit, I plopped down, pulled the jerky out of my pack, and started scanning the landscape with the binoculars. For many minutes I checked out the scenery on the north side of the creek in and beyond the geothermal zone. I spotted one set of boulders where I thought I might be able to get across to the other side, but after my adventure under the ice the day before, I wasn’t keen on tempting fate by trying to cross the creek again.

A light breeze came down the valley, spilling off the upper terraces and out over the basin, stirring the pillars of steam to dancing. I looked to the south, watching the subdued arctic light play through the wispy towers. When the steam parted, I could see that the southern cliffs in this part of the valley formed a vertical wall that came straight down to the thermal basin. At the wall’s feet was a turquoise pool with a huge cloud spiraling from its surface. But before I could sharpen the focus on my binoculars to get a better look, the wind died and the towers of steam obscured my view.

My curiosity was piqued. Clenching the remainder of the jerky in my teeth, I secured my pack and threw my skis over my shoulder. In seconds I was hiking toward the southern cliffs.

Staying away from the soft snow in the basin, I made my way along raised mounds of earth that ringed the depression on the downstream side. In several places large boulders were embedded in the mounds, forcing me to find ways to climb up and over them to make any headway. Every once in a while I’d catch a whiff of sulfide on the air and cross mushy spots where the snow had taken on a yellow cast from the sulfur precipitates leaching up from the warm soil.

As I got closer to the base of the cliffs, I could see more and more of the pool’s blue-green water through the vapors. Then I came around a protruding boulder and the whole pool suddenly came into view.

Hiking down, I took off my pack and squatted on a boulder near the water’s edge. For a long time I simply gazed at the water, fascinated. If I stared down into the pool it looked like a giant, unblinking blue eye – the colors becoming richer and darker as it became deeper, until in the center the sapphire iris melted away into the fathomless black of the pupil. But there was more to the pool’s character than appearing to be an eye, for if I shifted my perception ever so slightly, pulling my focus back from the depths, the pool became a mirror reflecting the sky on its still surface.

I became mesmerized, visually playing with the pool’s dual personality–one moment immersing myself in its depths, swimming deep into the heart of the Earth–the next leaping from its placid, steam-laced surface into the heavens, becoming one with the winds and flying with the clouds.

I began to see the pool as the mirroring eye of the universe, capable of taking in all the wonders of the world at once. It was a lens that, every instant of every day, reflected the events transpiring in the cosmic instant. It was ever watchful, ever vigilant. Never blinking, never sleeping. Nothing that was, had ever been or would ever be passed before it unnoticed. It was the embodiment of the well of memory and the spring of possibility that Jaakko had alluded to the other night.

Looking down, I saw my image looking back at me from the water’s surface. As I looked at my face, it occurred to me that at that very instant I was seeing what the eye of the pool was seeing. A new thought crossed my mind–could it be that the eye by which I saw the universe was the same eye by which the universe saw me? Was my consciousness, in some unfathomable way, sharing in a universal consciousness? Was it one and the same? Was it only a matter of perspective that separated one from the other?

I moved my face closer to the pool’s glassy surface. My image began to blur, becoming indistinct and featureless. Then it began to change, to subtly transform into someone or something else. The transformation was nearly complete when I abruptly backed away.

A cold chill ran down my spine. Suddenly, I felt as though I was someplace I shouldn’t be, as if I were trespassing. Glancing left and right, I checked the ridge of the escarpment. Furtively looking around, I searched the edges of the forests and the base of the cliffs. Craning my head, I peered around the closest boulders. I paused, listening for any sounds that might reveal that something or someone was near. I had no idea what I was looking for, no idea what I was afraid of – only that I was afraid.

I saw nothing. I heard nothing.

Standing up, I backed away from the pool, coughing and shivering. A pulsing wave of nausea and dizziness washed over me. With spots dancing before my eyes, I struggled to regain my composure. Bringing a hand to my head, I shivered again before stumbling forward. Regaining my balance, I managed to catch myself just before I tripped headfirst into the pool. Swaying on my feet, I watched helplessly as the world began to swirl and blend together, becoming so disordered that I couldn’t tell for certain if I was looking up at the sky or down into the waters of the pool.

A fresh breeze howled off the icy cliffs, pouring into the basin to flatten the columns of steam. As the winds struck my face, the skin on my cheeks tightened and tears came to my eyes. I sucked in deep breaths as the frigid air nipped at my nostrils and lips. The nausea eased, then passed. My vision cleared. The paranoia ceased clouding my mind.

Snatching up my pack and skis, I quickly moved away from the pool, circling toward the rubble pile at the base of the southern cliffs. I no longer had any desire to linger near the water’s edge and gaze at my reflection. Although they were clear and odorless, something in the pool’s vapors were poisonous.

Clambering up the slope where the depression cradling the pool and the cliffs met, I made my way back to the top of the escarpment, and once there sat down next to a stunted spruce and took another break.

I’d only been sitting a short while when a snowy owl landed on a ledge in the cliffs. For several minutes it sat there, a white dot against the gray of the rocks. When it took flight again, it angled down and to my right, gliding above the snow pack for about a hundred meters before dropping talons-first into the drifts. Quickly it was in the air again, having missed its intended victim. Rising and wheeling back over my head, it cruised to a new spot in the cliffs and landed on a protruding boulder that was almost eye-level with my place on the escarpment. Fluffing-up, it began surveying the valley floor for another target.

Slowly pulling out my binoculars, I trained them on the owl. It was a large bird, with mottled, almost barred, white plumage and huge yellow eyes. Small, stiff, whisker-like feathers hid most of its black beak. Its feet were covered with feathers. Swiveling its head from side to side, the owl searched the valley floor, and every once in a while it would turn its head almost completely around to peer at the cliff face behind it.

I’d been watching about ten minutes when the owl moved to the lip of the ledge. Just before it spread its wings to lift off and fly back the way it had come, I saw something small fall from the owl’s perch and land on a lower outcropping of rock. It was probably nothing more than a dislodged stone, but it might be an owl pellet – the regurgitated remains of the owl’s last meal containing the indigestible fur and bones. If I could find and dissect it, I could tell what the owl had been feeding on.

Intrigued, I used my binoculars to pick out a route along the cliff to get to the spot where I thought the object had landed. Curiously, a sunken, horizontal crack in the rock wall led to the exact location where I wanted to go.

Plunging my skis upright in the snow, I hoisted my pack on my shoulders and hiked through the drifts. The crack ran just above the point where the escarpment met the cliffs. After climbing to the crack, I was surprised to see that it looked as if someone had altered it into a narrow path, hacking out pieces of rock here and there. Pulling my shoulder straps tight, I started across.

It didn’t take me long to realize that the places where the naturally occurring crack had been altered were designed to match a specific footfall sequence. If the sequence of right and left were correct, one always faced the wall. This became increasingly important since the farther out on the cliff face I was, the more treacherous the path became and the farther I would fall.

I was perhaps three-quarters of the way across the cliff when I ran into a particularly tricky spot. Here the cliff curved away slightly and had been severely undercut by erosion, so that the path under the overhang was reduced to a narrow strip of rock. Had I not noticed the sequence earlier, I would have been stuck and forced to backtrack almost to the very beginning. But as it was, all I had to do was bend down and
hug the wall.

I held on to the rock and worked my way around the corner. Once on the other side, the path became wider and I was easily able to get to the ledge I was aiming for.

Momentarily catching my breath, I took in the view. Looking up the valley, I could just make out the smoke from Jaakko’s cabin, while directly beneath me lay the thermal depression and the unblinking eye of the pool. Across the valley the northern cliffs glowed in the half-light of afternoon.

There were owl pellets scattered on the ledge, at least a couple dozen of which were in easy reach. Picking one up and gently tearing it apart, I could immediately see by the small intact skulls with distinctive incisors that the owl had been primarily feasting on lemmings or voles.

As I picked up another pellet, I noticed a series of holes in the cliff face. Slightly larger than my fist, they were in a staggered line about twelve meters long, leading straight up to the rock shelf that the snowy owl had been using as a hunting perch.

Slipping a couple of pellets into my coat pocket, I placed my left hand into one of the holes and gripped the rock. On my right at knee level, was another hole. Fitting the toe of my boot into it, I pushed off and simultaneously reached with my right hand for the next hole in the series a half meter above my head. Cut into the rock, the holes formed a ladder.

On I went until I reached the top. As I eased myself up onto the shelf I saw the triangular opening to a cave.

Getting to my feet and pulling the flashlight out of my pack, I took a tentative step inside. Initially I was fooled into thinking that the cave was quite shallow, perhaps only a few meters deep. But after taking a few more steps and flashing the light beam deeper into the cave, I realized that I was walking through a tunnel that angled off to my right and widened at the far end.

With my next step I stumbled into a pile of wood. The tunnel’s close quarters amplified the clattering of the dry wood as it bounced across the tunnel floor and off the walls. Scared half out of my wits, I backed out of the cave to catch my breath and regain my composure. After a minute or two in the open air, I was ready to try it again.

This time I moved a bit farther down the tunnel, stepping over the scattered pieces of wood and using the flashlight to check every meter of the cave before moving forward.

The farther in I went, the more I noticed that both the temperature and humidity were rising, and the air was growing heavy with the rich, wet, musty smells of underground terrain.

Stopping where the tunnel funneled into the larger chamber, I passed my flashlight beam around to see what I was walking into. This part of the cave formed an oblong room some 13 or 14 meters in diameter. The ceiling was about 4 meters high and covered with a black sheen near the center. The floor, although uneven, was covered in a fine layer of dirt. Moving toward the middle of the chamber, I found a group of medium-sized rocks arranged in a circle. Bending down to get a better look, I found charcoal in the ring’s interior and soot on the rocks’ inner sides – a fire pit.

Dropping my pack, I went back and gathered up an armload of wood from the narrow tunnel. Stacking it loosely in the ring, I set my tinder and popped my mechanical flint. In a matter of minutes, I had a crackling fire that was soon giving off enough light so that I could see and explore the whole chamber.

Unlike other caves I’d been in – Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico and Lava Beds National Monument in northern California, this wasn’t a cavern hollowed out of karst by seeping water, nor was it a tube left behind by rapidly flowing lava. There were no mineralrich stalactites or stalagmites. No black, shark-toothed lavacicles hung from the ceiling and walls. This cave was an irregular space in between enormous blocks of solid rock–a void created by the titanic forces that bend and fold the earth into mountains.

But I soon discovered that what this cave lacked in geological curiosities, it more than made up for in adornment, for the walls were covered in pictographs and petroglyphs.

Hundreds of animals were portrayed, with some creatures overlapping others, as if the artists had simply run out of space and had resorted to painting and drawing over preexisting works. Lifelike horses and mastodons roamed grassy steppes in the company of herds of saga antelopes, camels, and steppe bison. Lone scimitar cats and packs of wolves hunted along the herd’s flanks. A giant ground sloth stood on its haunches. Something that looked like a wolverine snarled from a bulge in the wall. Taken together they formed a panorama of the long extinct fauna of ice age Beringia. 

But the animals were not alone. There were hand-prints – hundreds of them; large and small; red, white, and black – lining the walls near the cave’s floor. Most were solid prints created by applying pigment on the whole hand and then pressing it against the cave wall. A few prints had apparently been made by blowing color over the hand, giving the print a ghostly, aura-like appearance.

I was studying a herd of galloping Yukon horses when I heard a low thump. Turning around to face the fire, I listened for several seconds, but heard nothing more.

Moving down the wall, I found a herd of muskox arrayed in a defensive circle, their curved horns facing out, ready to ward off an attack by unseen foes. Below them, a caribou stag lazily browsed on lichen–one of the ghostly handprints marked the wall in front of its antlers.

Looking up I saw more Beringia mammals. One especially stood out. It looked like a lion. Training my flashlight upward, I studied the lines of the beast.

A high, dry rattling filled the cave.

Spinning about, I flicked the beam around the cavern’s entrance and walls. Nothing. On high alert, I turned off the flashlight and made my way to the fire. There was a hissing coming from the burning wood, but apart from that I heard nothing else. Perhaps the fire had found a sap pocket in one of the pieces of wood and produced the rattling noise when the resins caught fire and sparked. Maybe the rocks in the fire ring had shifted position as they heated.

Feeling relieved I sat down, opened my pack and pulled out some bread. I was hungry and the bread tasted great. Feeling the warmth of the fire caressing my face, I began to relax. I leaned back into a comfortable position, opened my coat, and tossed my bomber cap on the ground next to my mittens.

As I tore into the loaf, my mind wandered through daydreams. I thought about my dad, thought about Jaakko, missed my mom. Aigen’s offer of becoming his institute’s business manager briefly held my attention. But that thought, like the others before it, soon melted away and was replaced by a new subject that proved just as fleeting. I thought about flowers. I thought about clouds. I thought. . . .

I detected movement at the very periphery of my vision. Thinking the warmth might have awakened a hibernating colony of bats, I turned my attention toward the ceiling where I thought the bats would be roosting. I held perfectly still, but saw nothing.

Smoke twisted and curled from the fire pit. Warm and giddy, I watched embers rise from the burning wood. Twisting, rising and falling, they looked alive, like lantern-toting fairies taking flight. Up and up, around and around they went, flashing on and off. Smiling, I giggled like a child playing with a new toy.

Three quick thumps snapped me to attention. I sat up, my senses alert. My heart pounded and beads of cold sweat ran down my back. My head felt heavy–my face, hot and flushed. Like clear water flowing over smooth black stone, something large and amorphous silently slipped along the opposite wall.

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