I was in the woods and my leg was caught in a trap. The teeth bit into my flesh, down into bone. Sometimes I tried to pry the jaws apart with all my might, until my fingers were bloody and raw. Sometimes I tried to use a stick to lever the teeth apart. It was agony, but I kept trying, because I had to get my leg out of the trap. Sometimes I just sat there, because the jaws would not open, and tried to pretend I didn’t feel the pain.
A man saw me. I didn’t pick up the stick, but I kept it by my hand. He walked toward me slowly, and knelt beside the trap. Carefully, he reached out and touched the metal jaws, then my leg. I watched him. He had a bag on his back, and from it he took a carved wooden bar and a wedge of wood. He must have seen my distrust, but instead of looking hurt because he had given me no reason, he only seemed sad. He worked the wedge into the teeth of the trap, then the bar and began levering the teeth apart. It hurt, and I did not make a sound. I kept my hand by the stick.
The teeth came out of my shin, and very gently he helped me lift my leg away. I kept my hand by the stick. Carefully, he studied my leg. The wounds were deep, the bone cracked. He took bandages and water out of his pack, and began to clean the ragged holes before he carefully bound them. I felt better when he seemed to know how. I did not think he was the trapper, but I knew I could be wrong.
He offered me his hands, and I took my hand away from the stick because I knew I could not stay here wounded. He helped me stand on my whole leg, then held me close to limp beside him.
He led me to a tiny hut built into the earth. Inside he sat me down, and I ate the meat and fat he gave to fill me as he sat by the hearth, grinding herbs I knew by smell in a mortar. With hot water and his own breath he made a poultice, and when it had cooled, bound the warmth of it against my wounds.
Then he helped me to stand, and laid me down on his bed.
He let me stay with him, in his little hut, to share his water, his fire, his food, while my leg healed. I marked the door and the window, and the heavy objects that could fit into my hand. He helped me walk when I needed to, cooked me food, reached for things when I could not. He slept beside me in his bed, but he did not use it as an excuse to hold me, or ask to be held. He never acted as anything but a host to a guest, and dread gnawed a hole in my gut.
When I could limp on my own, I started cooking, any small drop to dissolve my debt. Some days he brought back hares, or grouse, but they were snared cleanly around the throat, their legs whole and unshattered.
I butchered that morning’s hare, sitting on a log with my game leg stuck out in front of me. I pulled the skin down the muscle in a seamless tube, leaving the hare naked and pink in the sunlight, when I fumbled.
I had dropped the knife, and silently, the man knelt in front of me and reached for it. When he lifted his face again, I brushed his hair out of his eyes. He stopped, to stare up at me. I brushed his forehead with my fingertips, then his brow with my thumb, then I cupped the side of his face with my hand, and began, in some way, to accept. He understood. I was glad he understood.
Something stared at me from his face, a contentment, a knowing I did not share. I had to fight myself, to accept, to not throw him away from me in fear. But I was afraid, even though I was looking into my own face, my own eyes.
I gripped his arm to limp to the stream, when something in my small step twisted, buckled, failed. Pain and shuddering numbness streaked up my leg and I cried out. He moved closer and held me under the arm, but panic flared through me and I shoved him away. He stumbled and I heard him fall as I tried to lower myself to the ground
It feels like needles are prying my bone apart, and the muscles in my calf spasm. I pant against the pain, as if I can pant it out of me.
My hand finds a rock, and grips it tightly.
I want to pretend he’s not there, that he doesn’t exist. I could just get up, and hobble back inside the hut. It’s what I want to do, but I know it will be worse if I do.
I still pant from the echoes of the pain, and I almost shake as I force myself to reach out and touch him. I only reach his leg, and pat it. I rub his thigh as if that will tell him more. It’s all I can manage.
I close my eyes because I don’t know if I can watch his face. I’m afraid to see hatred, or hurt, that I don’t want to bear. So I blind myself, and touch him to prove to myself that he’s still there and I hate myself for needing when I’m so terrified of being needed.
When I open my wet eyes, as if to prove all my fears he’s watching me. I’m too terrified to read what’s there, but I listen to my hands, and it’s enough.
I hear the man return to the hut, and he stumbles.
He crumples against the door frame, gray and white-lipped, and I see the shaft of a quarrel growing from his chest. His pale lips move, trying to warn me, to tell me there is danger, but of course there’s danger there’s an arrow sticking out his chest. I stand and limp over to him. His lips still make feeble shapes, but I duck under his shoulder and drag him to the bench. He gasps as I push him down on it.
It’s not safe here, nowhere safe, never safe. I see his mortar full of herbs. I’ve seen him make the poultices, and I know most of the plants. I stuff everything I recognize into a bag, the waterskin, and all the food that won’t spill. I snatch the robe from the bed and drape it over his body, then take his wading staff, and his long digging stick, and lash cord around them. I pull his arm over my shoulder and haul him off the bench, and dump him into the stretcher I’ve made between them. He groans. My leg buckles as I start dragging him out of the hut.
The ends of the stretcher dig divots into the soft earth, leaving so clear a trail as I drag him up the hill. High ground, high ground to see. There’s a hummock up on the slope, and sweat already prickling under my arms, my leg aching and muscles trembling, I drop the stretcher behind it. The man moans, and I stuff a rag into his mouth, tie it there, terrified. It is quiet, too quiet, like all the birds have fled, and so have I.
Something moves at the edge of the wood, the faint crackle of leaves underfoot.
I see the trapper, huge, buried in his stolen skins. He watches the hut, crossbow held low. He disappears inside.
I barely breathe as I stare at the hut. And when he emerges I don’t breathe at all.
He finds the divots dug by the stretcher, follows them with his eyes up the hill. He knows we are there, knows we are watching him. He turns, and disappears into the wood.
Staring, my blood is acid and ice, and I cannot make myself look behind me, even if it might save us. The birds return. The sun moves higher. I try to break the shaft of the quarrel but it is too thick, the point shredding flesh with every touch. I do not know if I should take it out.
The blood has turned thick and crusty when I pull it out, because there is no one else to do it, and the man cries out through the gag. I press my palm to the hole until the blood stops, chew a bitter, dry herb and tuck it into the wound. The sun drops, and I huddle beside him under the robe to keep us both warm. I do not sleep.
The sun rises. I am too afraid to move, to safety, to danger.
The sun is high, insects droning, when I drag the man back to the hut. I lay him in the bed and his skin is cold, so I start a fire.
Somewhere in the night the frogs stop singing. I still. Tentatively, they begin again, even as the frogs at the edge of the wood fall silent.
I leave the man, and slip outside.
I hunker down beside the rain barrel. I hear a heavy tread on leaves and duff, and the trapper passes right by me into the open hut. A heartbeat, two, then I rise silently to my feet.
My steps are slow and measured, soundless. By the time I round the rain barrel the trapper is standing inside and the man has pushed himself into the corner of the bed, nowhere to go, his fevered eyes laced with fear. The man is no threat, so trapper has lowered his crossbow at the floor. He scours the corners of the cabin looking for me, but I am not there.
He does not hear.
I grab his hair and draw the knife across his throat, and I kill the trapper.
It takes him a while to die, blood bubbling between my fingers as I hold him down. When he breathes and moves no more, I pull the crossbow from his warm fingers, and unload the quarrel, and set them on the table.
The man is shaking, in fever, in chill from where he has pulled free from the furs, in fear. I wipe the blood from my hand before I climb onto the bed and reach for him and pull him to me. His stiff body bows into mine and he weeps as his weak fingers dig into me, because he awakened sick and alone in the face of an enemy and terrified that he had been abandoned. I rock him, and rub him, and coax him to lie down with me beside him and cover him with the robe.
When I slip off the bed, he clings to me, and whimpers. I smooth his hair away from his hot brow and pull away. He moans and settles into a fever dream.
The trapper’s body is heavy. I strip his long coat of many skins away because it is warm, and his boots, and search him. A knife, a flint, a pouch of pemmican. Then I drag his body out into the cold dark, to the edge of the trees, inviting the wolves to find him. I will feel better if the wolves come.
Inside the man is burning. I slip as much water past his lips and down his throat as I can, then wipe my mouth when I pull away.
I take the trapper’s crossbow and climb onto the roof. For days I sit on the roof and watch the woods. It drizzles, then is clear and dry. I hear the wolves come to feed, and the crows and flies and mice after.
It is morning, the dew already burned away. The sounds of the forest have warned me of nothing for days. I hear a shuffle, a bump. Bent over, the man walks unsteadily out of the hut, leaning on it with one hand, looking up at me.
I scan the woods one last time, and climb down from the roof.