Saturday, 21 September 2019

Chapter Seven: Sam: Day 30

Dear Chloe,
I wasn’t going to write today, but I just realized that it’s the 30th day since the accident. The Self-Help books say it takes a minimum of 21 days to get an old mindset out of your system. Giving up smoking or drinking, going vegetarian… Never using your phone, or never snacking again.
It feels like time to check accounts. I haven’t eaten anything processed or manufactured in weeks. I’ve been walking every day. I’ve lost a ton of weight. I sleep light; and can hear a rabbit moving. It’s funny, I never thought about it while it was happening, but I’ve changed in ways other than my diet.
When this started, I was shaking uncontrollably every time the wind blew. Yesterday, I built a small fire, stripped off my clothes and took a wash in the lake. The water was freezing. I mean, literally, freezing to ice around me. The jolt of that was better than coffee.
Oh my god, I just realized: I can’t remember the last time I had coffee! You’d think that would be hardwired into my soul by now. I also can’t remember what color Liz’s hair is. She’s dyed it once or twice, and I honestly can’t remember which one is real, and which one is her current favorite. It’s like something in my brain has rejected the useless facts.
I bullseye'd a rabbit with my slingshot the other day. He knew I was there, ears pointing in my direction; but he was being very careful not to make a move; just in case I hadn’t seen him yet. When I shifted towards him, he bolted; but I had already released the stone. It was like I knew which way he was going to hop. I have that in my head now, but I don’t remember my ATM Code anymore.
Fireplace is constructed. I decided not to hunt today, and put all my time into making clay. I had to use up most of the dried grasses in my tinder pouch to give it structure enough. It was difficult, keeping it together, putting it all there in one piece. Flat rocks from the creeks and inlets; to hold it up until it can dry out. It ended up taking me all day. I have no food now, but my snares are in place for tomorrow.
I would say that this ability to skip eating for a day is another change to my life; but I’ve been counting my ribs, and I think I’m losing too much weight. A dangerous amount, in fact. I’ve been hungry all this time, and I’m just noticing now that my body’s continued to eat itself while I was busy scanning the lake.
The fireplace is ready; and so are the pots. All that’s left is to let them dry. Tomorrow’s mission: Increase food production.
Dear Chloe,
The barometer says the weather is about to turn bad. I’ve spent all day weaving fish traps out of cattail stalks and very thin sticks. I had to wade out into the lake to place them, and then retreat back to my fire. My toes are taking longer and longer to turn pink again; and it may be for nothing. I have no idea how close the fish come to shore when the surface is frozen over; but I can see small, dark shapes moving under the ice.
In prep for the weather, I’ve layered more debris on top of my survival shelter, and collected more firewood. I was meant to be working on food today; and I got nowhere. I also layered some protection around my new ‘house’, hoping to keep it together until I could finish building it.
Update: The storm hit, sure enough. It came out of nowhere; so I’m extremely glad I took that barometer. The shelter can survive this, the storm layering more snow on top as insulation. I can barely see my ‘construction site’ through the snow; and I think I picked a good spot. The rock wall is protecting it from the worst of the storm; and my ‘wall’, mid construction, is helping to protect it from most of the rest.
I have to hunt. I haven’t eaten in two days; and I have nothing left on my bones; but if I go out in this, the wind (which already feels like I’m being slapped in the face with a box of needles) will strip me to my skeleton; and then arrange my bones in a variety of humiliating ways; purely because the wilderness finds me so pitifully laughable.
So, as the dark closes in, and I feed the last of my firewood into the flame; I have noticed something interesting. My ‘nervous habit’ of creating cordage has now left me with three feet of strong cord, woven tightly together. I pinned it down with my foot, and stretched it out; to discover a strong ‘twang’ sound when I plucked it.
Like a bow-string.
Dream Journal:
Chloe’s cabin is the size of a large motorhome, with a second level just large enough for her sleeping place. Not a bedroom, because it’s more of a loft; and there isn’t a bed; just a large futon mattress; with flannel blankets. I had expected her to have bear-skin blankets or something.
There is a wolfskin rug on the floor in front of her fireplace. The benches are thick lumber. It’s halfway between a frontier house and a treehouse. There’s room to walk around, but everything’s in easy reach. The firewood is stacked outside, and there are endless shelves, filled with clay pots and glass jars full of preserves. It’s very organized.
There’s only one chair, but Chloe leaves it for me. It’s only fair, in her opinion, since she takes the bed. I sleep wrapped in a sleeping bag, in a hammock that Chloe strings inside.
When I first started building the place, it was the dead of summer.” Chloe explains to me. “I slung my hammock over a campfire to smoke away the insects, and let the sun decide when my day was over.” She brings over the tea, made from leaves she’s collected outside. One mug for her, one for me. The handle of hers is insulated, and she sets it beside her fireplace to stay warm. “I’ll tell you the truth, babe. Some summers; I go hiking to the other side of the valley with just that hammock, and a backpack. I can stay out there for days, catching my dinner as I go.”
I can’t imagine that.” I admit. “Is there nothing about civilization that you can’t live without?”
There is more actual life in this valley than a dozen major cities combined. None of them need civilization to survive until something goes wrong. And more things go wrong in town than out here.”
Profound. I thought you’d say ‘toilet paper’.” I quip in return, and she laughs. Her laugh is musical, and I find that I want to hear it often. “Seriously, though: I bet those animals would live longer if they had a veterinarian on call.”
Live even longer in a zoo; but that’s not where animals belong.” Chloe comes over and sits down. She drops into a crouch and is cross-legged on her bearskin in less time than it took me to sink into her easy chair. “And for the record, I do collect toilet paper on my monthly supply runs. One time I deliberately left it off the list, just to see if I could do it. I used moss.”
Sounds icky, I know; but during the Second World War, they used moss to dress wounds when supplies got tight. Highly absorbent, antibacterial properties…” Chloe shrugs. “Good enough when there’s nothing else. I still harvest moss all the time on my hikes. Good for injuries, bedding; even to help start fires.” She pats the wolfskin. “You did really well today.”
The hike? Yeah; I’ve bushwalked before; but never off-trail.”
She pats the rug again, and I slide out of the chair to sit down next to her. The fire was deliciously inviting. “Anyway, your turn; isn’t it?”
I reach up and grab my kindle. “Speaking of things from civilization that make life easier.”
She chuckles as I start reading from Robert Frost.
Dear Chloe,
The first dream I’ve had of you in weeks that didn’t end with the Cougar. For some reason that’s more unsettling. I know he’s still out there. It’s almost worse to be stalked than attacked. I mean, I know he has a life outside of me; and it sends the wrong message to be so clingy; but I know he’s still after me.
The snowstorm hasn’t ended. It eased up a bit around dawn, so I ran to the construction site and got more firewood. I’ve been bringing snow up to boil. Drinking plain water isn’t tasty, but the ‘hot’ helps.
I have no idea if I’m doing this right. Making a bow. I used one of the ‘poles’ for my new house; and halved it down the middle; the way I did when making cordage. The knife blade, hammered into the end of the pole; until it parts. The wood grain parts in an almost straight line, unless I cut through it.
I remember your bow, Chloe. It was beautiful, smooth and polished. You said the bowstring was made of sinew. I have no idea how to harvest that, or how to prepare it, so I hope bark cordage is enough. After my visit last year, I spent some time looking up bushcraft videos. There are all sorts of ways to shape the bow. I don’t have time to smoke it; or waterlog and bend, nor do I have the equipment to try. I figure the shape might be enough. I don’t need it to last all winter. Just for the next few weeks. If I’m lucky.
The kitchen knife is not made for whittling. I had to dismantle the adze, and use the stone as a chisel. Another task that will take multiple days. Which is good, because I don’t have any arrows yet. I’ve knocked down two birds; so I have feathers. Next step is to find the shafts. I need long, thin, and very straight. Not that easy to find.
I also have no idea where to find arrowheads. I know that Chloe had professionally made arrows; and reused them. I saw her try to make her own, once or twice. She only filed the end of the shaft into a point and then burned them black in her fire to harden them up. That’d be enough for a bird; but I don’t know what that would do against a wolf. Or a deer.
Or a Cougar.
It’s my first multi-day stay ‘indoors’ for a long while. I’m trying madly to keep busy, but it’s not helping. Even through the storm, I can hear the wolves calling to each other. I’ve dug out the entrance to my shelter twice as the snow piles up. If I get snowed in while I sleep, I’ll wake up dead from suffocation.
My brain is running wild again. I keep remembering things, but I don’t know where I’m remembering them from. I can feel it slipping away. My old life. And you know what’s really strange? I don’t miss it as much as I thought I would.
I've been thinking about all the things I didn't say to dad. It came to mind when I realized that I haven't actually said anything out loud in almost three days. Just the sound of my breathing, me feet crunching the snow and ice, and these letters to you.
Dad was old school about communication; but I always
I get the feeling that there was a lot of things my dad didn't say to his own father, and vice versa. He made the point of making sure me and Liz knew how much he cared about us. She and I always told him the same, but when mom took off, he got a lot more reserved about it. I think that's how it is. You put your heart on the table, and you can't just take it back.
Dad and I didn't leave any of the important stuff unsaid. I'm glad for that now. I'm learning how terribly fragile morale can be. Enough food to not feel hungry and the crackle of flame; I can conquer the world. Hunger gets into the third day, and I want to curl into a ball and die. I'm glad that my father and I didn't wait to sort these things out, but... Even if I could remember every single thing that he and I ever said to each other, even if I was at peace with every single thought that he and I had ever had, there's still all the stuff that we hadn't thought yet. All the things we could have said about whatever was to come.
I wonder what he would have made of me now. What would he think?
A while ago, I wrote about how my brain just wouldn’t shut down. I was reeling from one thought to another, to another, to another. I was reliving my favorite youtube channels, mentally writing memos about why I was out of the office…
I can see it now. I was detoxing. Civilization is like a narcotic. I didn’t even notice it, but I had to come down from the Overload. Every second was nothing but noise, and light. I had a dozen podcasts running in my ears every second I was out. Youtube channels and Blu-Ray TV series running in the background every second I was home. Half my neighbors kept the TV on around the clock, just to feel like they had people in the house; and so did I.
In fact, now that I think of it, that goes for everything. The food I eat here doesn’t have salt and ketchup all over everything. In fact, the food here is the only food I’ve eaten and known the origin of. It just hit me that I have no idea where anything I’ve eaten in my life came from.
My dad always said that a fish tastes better when you catch it yourself. I always figured that was psychological, or for that matter, because of freshness. But now that I think of it, I remember news stories about meat in delis and supermarkets being pumped up with water to make it weigh more, or loaded with chemicals to make up for conditions in the feed pens where the meat comes from.
The whole civilized world is a study in mass distraction; and I was so used to being overloaded that when I came here, I thought the silence would send me insane. Does a crazy person know that they’re crazy? I can smell the weather coming now. I can feel it when there’s something moving behind me. But I can’t remember my favorite podcasts.
Chloe, I wonder sometimes if you enjoyed the company of my Kindle more than me. We loved all the same books, and I loved reading to you. I guess the woods are a good place to read, but a lousy place to find books. Remember we met in a used bookstore? You wanted to know you'd enjoy them. Books are heavy. Kindles in solar panel cases are light. I showed you mine and I suddenly had an invite.
It just hit me that I should be more lonely. But I’m just not. Who’s back home? My sister left the country; mom dad the rest of my family is out of the picture. I don’t have that many close friends in Real Life. Most of my long-term friendships are online. Not even phone numbers. I have closer friendships in this valley than I do in civilization.
Stop thinking like this, Sam. You’re going to go crazy.
Dear Chloe,
The storm has broken. So has my fireplace. After two days of stormwinds, the ‘construction site’ has broken down; and knocked over my attempt at a clay fireplace. That was two days of work well wasted.
This is bad. Everything’s soaked through; and if I can’t make a fire, I don’t eat. I haven’t eaten in two days. None of my lake snares worked at all. I (successfully) made hooks from thorns on bushes, but I reeled them all in and found the lines were tangled. Of course they were. That’s why you put a sinker on the end, closer to the hook. To keep the line straight. A rule of fishing design that has been perfected for a thousand years, and I didn’t do it. Because I’m an idiot. I’m an idiot who’s going to starve to death next to a broken fireplace. I’m an idiot that-
Okay. Had my tantrum. Time to work again.
Overnight, I cut notches into the bow at the ends, so that I could tie the bowstring good and tight. The branch I used is right for this. Not too green, not too dry. If it was too dry, it’d snap when I tried to bend it. Too green, and the Actually, I don’t know; but I know it’s not good.
It took me three tries to get the length of my cordage right, but it looks like I managed to make a bow. It looks like a bow, and it draws like one. I need arrows; but that’s tomorrow's problem.
I went out with my slingshot again. Having the snowstorm last for more than two days meant I wasn’t the only one feeling the pinch. I see little tracks here and there in the snow. Everyone that dug into their den for the duration is looking for food now. Including the wolves, most likely. I can still hear them howling.
Following these tracks have given me a clue to where the rabbit dens are. And by clue, I mean a drawn map; like a big arrow pointing at the entrances. The powder snow is so smooth that a field mouse is leaving obvious tracks. Of course, so am I.
So I reset all my snares; much better placed this time, I hope.
I returned to my construction site; and decided to go a different way. The clay fireplace would take much too long to dry out. So instead, I returned to harvesting lumber. Not for firewood. Chloe showed me sketches she did of her first fireplace, back when she was first building the cabin. She built a square frame out of wood, and then stood up poles around it in a tight, circular tepee shape, using the frame to hold up one section, so that the interior of the ‘cylinder’ was open on one side at the base. Flat rocks inside for a surface to build a fire on; and hopefully the flame doesn’t spread out enough to catch the chimney. Fire on the inside blackens the wood and makes it harder to catch again. It’ll make a third wall for my ‘house’ against the rock wall. After days of compulsively making cordage to stay busy; I think I can pull it off.
It sounds quantifiably a little nuts to make a chimney out of wood; so I’ll smear the leftover clay over the whole interior base after it blackened. Anywhere that a spark won’t take root is good. I was wondering what to do with the lefto-
Well, there's irony for you. Just as I was writing that, the clay cup I made just exploded. Sounded like a grenade going off.
I moved the other pot over to the other side of the shelter. I think I know what happened. There was still moisture in the clay. The water got hot, and heat makes liquids ‘seek out’. Bang. The clay shatters. My garage back home had a brick wall where some of the bricks were smashed out that way. I'm out of daylight, but I still have some clay left. I figured I could make an ashtray, or something to let me carry some hot coals around, but I think I need a plate or bowl right now more than anything. I’m using the steel mug for everything from heating water to cooking stew; I’d like a backup.
But the clay will have to sit for days, drying out, before I can bake it.
And before that, the fireplace has to be ready for me to bake in it. So I’d better get busy on that new house.
Notes: I used a sharp rock, to dig some ‘post holes’ for my saplings. They’ll be strong and steady once the others are secure against them. It’s a trade off. A stronger wall for my house, instead of spears. Speaking of that, my hunt for arrowheads has given me some interesting ideas. First, there’s the elk-bone knife. I could do that again. Of course, I need to actually knock down something with a big enough skeleton to make bone-tools.
There’s the lake. The edge is iced over, but I can see through the ice to the flat stones underneath. It’d be easy enough to collect those stones; but I don’t know how well I’d be able to turn them into arrowheads. The smaller stones are all rounded. It’d take way too long to file them down to sharp points. The larger stones are flatter; but there’s no way I could fit them on an arrow shaft, given that I’d have to use my cordage to tie them on.
So, for now anyway, I’m limited to my wooden arrows, once I make them.
I am so used up it’s not funny. I haven’t eaten in two days; and I can physically feel the wind taking my energy out of me. I feel like a scarecrow, and my stuffing is going everywhere with every step.
My boots are on their last legs. They’ve been soaked and dried out so many times that they’re completely warping out of their seams (At least once the terrain got done cutting them apart.) The soles are almost worn through in some places. If I don’t figure that out soon; I won’t get far.
For now, we focus on the shelter. I’ve dismantled my A-frame survival shelter, so that I can use the materials. If I can’t make it work, I sleep under the stars tonight. I need a win, and fast; plus on two days without food; the fish won’t be worth another day. I either get this shelter up or bust. Burn the ships, I say!
Success! With the logs collected, and fireplace made; all I had to do is assemble the rest.
Notes: The rock wall is about six inches higher than me. I’ve hammered four sapling-width logs into the ground; and all that left was to slide the logs down between them, one on top of the other; and then tie the top of the saplings together tightly with my cordage. That gives me three walls. The fireplace/chimney; the rock ledge; and my new lumber wall. I’ve used the last of the thick logs to create a frame for my rooftop, and then laid the tarp over it. I used stones from the lake to anchor the frame on top of the rock ledge (and build a barrier to keep the melted snow from getting under the frame once it warmed up within) and then I started piling debris on top. Leaves, snow, branches. All I need is a door, and I have made a house. A stronger one. More secure. I also sharpened some wooden points, and worked them into the cabin wall; and into the chimney. Any wolf or cougar that tries to push against this one is going to be stuck.
And even better news, I checked my fish-trap before I called it a night; and I have one of the biggest fish I’ve seen yet. Seriously. Enough for a full meal.
Something else I’ve discovered… I haven’t used my Bone-Blade in almost a week. The kitchen knife I took from the Firewatch Station is going dull, but it’s still sharper than what I ground into a shiv a month ago.
My god, it’s been that long.
Anyway, with this little revelation, I suddenly realized I do have an arrowhead. It’s bone. I’ve had it filed to a sharp point, and it’s the right width. It’s also the length of a chopstick; but filing across it with the adze, I was able to break off the tip pretty neatly. I even knapped a notch into both sides of the base, so that I can tie it onto the shaft.
While my rish fish stew was cooking, I made one ‘magic bullet’ bone-head arrow; and four wooden ones.
Notes: Getting the feathers to stick was nearly impossible. (From Chloe’s arrows, I remember that the feathers have to be offset a bit, to create spin.) There was no way to half halve the feather along the quill without destroying the feathery bit completely. I put the last of the sap beside my fire, to soften it, and then used the goo as an adhesive, which did nothing; but it held the half-feather in place long enough for me to tie one narrow bit of cordage around the whole arrow shaft. I put three feather quills around the shaft of the arrow; and the sap/cordage combo holds it together.
I’ve been taking practise shots at things for half an hour. I haven’t broken any arrows yet; but they’re surprisingly easy to lose in the snow; so I have to choose my target range carefully.
So, I’m fed today, almost. I’ve done the math and decided that I need at least three of these fish a day to avoid starvation. Finding one just prolongs the agony.
I’ll have to take the magic bullet; and try my luck at hunting something bigger than field rodents. My snares haven’t caught anything yet. This isn’t like a video game, where the stuff you can collect just respawns out of nothing. If I snare a rabbit, then it’s one rabbit less the next day. If I snare an adult, then the baby rabbits starve. If I snare a baby rabbit; then the mama might keep breeding. Nature. It’s a brutal game.
Mercifully, for all concerned; I don’t plan to be here that many rabbit generations.
But the point is made. I have to go further out. I’ve gotten a fair idea of how far the wolves patrol. If I don’t go any further than them; I might get away with it.
Dear Chloe,
So, my hunting expedition was a completely heartbreaking success! I followed the lake edge for half an hour; with my bow and arrow set. The wolves don’t come too close to this end of the lake. So I followed the shoreline for a while; and after twenty minutes of walking, can you believe it? I found a beaver dam. I didn’t even know what it was at the time. But my eyes have changed. I can see the quick ducking motion of an animal diving for cover. It’s like a flare to me now.
I only caught a glimpse; but my energy is non-existent; so it was easy to collapse against the snow and wait for it to come back. And after a long while, it did. It was a beaver. When I saw that, I finally realized why this part of the lake seemed odd. The ice has expanded the surface of the lake somewhat, but there’s still a high water mark here and there. Chloe, you mentioned that the lake has been lower than normal the last couple of years; and it’s been making things harder for the fish. The fish, the animals that use it for a watering hole, the trees... Climate Change in action.
But not here. Here, the water is still higher than the rest of the lake. It’s because it’s dammed up. And I happened to see the beaver as it came up to survey its private part of the lake.
And the second it came up for air, I nailed it through the head with an arrow. Dumb luck. I was aiming centre mass. Getting the furry body out of the water was a lot harder. I don’t have waterproof gear, and was half an hour from my shelter. It took me almost as long, crawling along the beaver dam, to haul the thing to dry land. I didn’t think of it at the time, but that dam was remarkably well constructed. Making all that noise also scared out the other beaver. A slightly smaller one that saw my latest kill and let out a mournful sound. Whoever said that animals don’t have emotions was an idiot. It was such a heartbreaking thing. I killed a furry, four legged family with the sole intention of eating them.
The second beaver was trying to decide if it was more scared of me or sad about the loss; but it was enough time for me to get my bow again. So this was an incredible day’s hunting, by my standards. I’m guessing these things are at least thirty pounds apiece. It took me an entire day to inch my way back to my Camp; dragging them along behind.
The Wolf Attack on my last shelter has taught me the value of keeping my stores hidden. I don’t have a deep snowdrift directly outside my House. It’s too sheltered by the ledge for that; which is exactly why I chose it. So I have a meat locker now. I found a fallen tree that had rotted out over the summer. The trunk is nearly hollow. If it wasn’t such a job to get the snow out of it; it might even have been worth trying to turn the thing into my permanent base. As it happens, full of snow and still solid on three sides, makes it the perfect place to hide my meat; and keep it frozen.
The Beavers were well fed; all their organs are good and healthy (as far as I can tell); and what’s more, the section of the lake that they kept dammed up has fish in it. I’m going back to lay my fish traps in the morning.
There must be a good fifteen to twenty pounds of actual meat here. I eat tonight!
Cancel the fishing. The Barometer says I can expect more snow overnight. I was lucky to get everything done before nightfall. I mentioned I was paranoid about having the smell of meat coming from my House. So I had to get every last bit of meat and gore off the Beaver furs. Those pushpins from the Firewatch Station are just barely strong enough to keep the fur stretched out against the lumber interior of my shelter.
I’ve got to do something with these rabbit skins. Until now, I’ve been using them as pillow-cases, of a sort. I’d stack one end of my bedding higher, and lay the furs over them for comfort. Now, I’m wondering if I should use them to patch my clothes. I used up my underwear for the slingshot; maybe it’s time I did something about that. Rabbit skin is no good for moccasins. Too thin, too fragile. Maybe a headscarf? Something to keep the wind off my eardrums? It slices into my ears too, and it’s strong enough that it finds its way deep.
The pot I made has been holding nothing but water since I fired it. Tonight will be its first test as a cooking pot. It’s the first time in over a month that I’ve had enough meat to risk ruining a batch. Also the first time I’ve had enough that I needed something larger than a single metal mug to cook it in.
The storm moved back in after nightfall as expected; so I don’t imagine the smell of my dinner will make it to anyone who’ll be interested in dropping by. My fire is still going nicely, down to hot coals that put out incredible heat without jumping up. I’m watching the logs of my chimney carefully, but they don’t appear to be catching alight. The interior of them is blackened, where they aren’t smeared with baked clay; and it’s reflecting enough heat my way that I’m actually stripped down. I’m warming my socks on a stick; the way mom used to hang them by the radiator on cold nights.
The smell is driving me crazy. I haven’t eaten a proper meal in three days; and I suddenly have enough meat to go for a week. I’m writing this to keep from pouncing until it’s cooked. Thick, rich meat; with fat on it. The fat is sizzling in the pot, and my whole mouth is full of saliva. The only thing holding me back is the time I took a bite of some uncooked rabbit; before I knew about waiting for the coals to burn low and hot.
Chef’s Review? Nothing, in the combined history of the human race, has ever tasted this good.


A Note From The Author: I hope you're all enjoying 'Dear Chloe' in its serialised format. If you'd like to read the whole thing at once, and take it with you, you can buy the whole book here in eBook and Paperback Format.