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In Its Place
By Marian Elliott
Genre: Fiction Level: Adult
Category: UAA/ADN Creative Writing Contest

         In the early morning dark, the glow of a still brilliant moon streamed through the cabin window and splashed against the dark logs of the cabin wall. The bright patch of light called Jeanne from her sleep stirring her in her bed. In her half-awake state, she realized the empty sheets beside her were cold. Dan must have left early to snowshoe his trapline. He would take advantage of the full moon to light his way. She had a dreamlike memory of him pulling the bed quilt up around her shoulders, saying he would be back before dark.

         Jack was onto her wakefulness now, in his usual spot beside the bed, his paw pulling at the blankets while his busy tail drummed on the bedside table. She turned to give him a pet. He pushed his muzzle beneath her chin urging her up with his cold wet nose. "Okay boy, I'm coming" Unfolding her achy joints, she dangled her legs over the side of the bed and lowered her feet into her waiting boots sitting ready to save her from the cold floor. Embers still burning red in the wood stove told her that Dan must have stoked the fire before he left. He would want to keep the cabin warm. She added a piece of dry birch to catch on the smoldering coals and turned the damper down.

         At the front door, Jack patiently waited, his nose pointing the way out. Jeanne pulled her anorak over her pajamas and when she opened the door the cold on her face reminded her to get her hat. Outside, the setting moon was throwing long shadows and lacy patterns across the snow. The yard was bathed in the white light of moon glow, bright enough for her to see her way to the outhouse.

         Jack stood by the door on her return, happy to cut short his morning romp. He followed her inside looking for a treat. Jeanne lit the lanterns, made coffee and toast, then curled up next to Jack on the couch with her quilt and her book- a good one, Alice McDermott, her favorite author at the moment. Jeanne could easily read the winter away with so many good books lining the shelves over the bed, sitting in piles on the table next to the chair, on the floor next to the table. They filled more shelves up in the loft. But Jeanne was wary of reading the winter away. In the midst of January, winter was always lurking, and Jeanne was on her guard lest winter grab hold. So when the chickadees arrived at the feeder at first light, she put the book down and got up to take on the day.

         Jeanne was wise to the ways of winter. She knew how it could fill the cabin with the dark and the cold, lure her into her bed, wrap her in down, and when it had her sufficiently seduced, seep slowly into her soul. Winter made it too much of an effort to get out of bed. It rendered her dormant, like a bear asleep in her den. So she kept an eye out, watched for it creeping in, did what was needed to keep it in its place. She kept dry spruce and birch stacked by the stove ready to feed the fire. She burned the lanterns to cancel the gloom. She baked. Bread and cookies often filled the cabin with delicious smells of good things to eat. Whenever it got too quiet, there was music on the radio to fill her ears.

         And if winter still skulked in the corners and rattled at the door, she left the books behind and went to feast her eyes on the sun. It had been weeks since the sun stopped coming to Jeanne's cabin, stopped rising high enough in the sky to show its face above the southern ridge. Since then, her valley sat in a dim light, a subdued world of neutral shades and white. Without the sun, the green in the spruce seemed black and birches' subtle pink and amber faded from the landscape. Willow and alders, rose and berry bushes were still sticking out of the snow, all painted from the same colorless palette of grays. Even the birds were dressed for the season: variations of black and white feathered the chickadees, woodpeckers, gray jays, and ravens. Ptarmigans changed to white feathers just for winter. Down by the creek, the elusive dipper matched the dull dark gray of the water without the dapples and gleams revealed in its feathers by the sun.

         But when alpenglow warmed the far off tundra hills and the frosty treetops began to glint and sparkle above the cabin, when she could see hints of blue in the winter white sky, Jeanne was reminded of the sun behind the ridge. She looked forward to the day when sunshine would finally fall on the snow at the top of the south-facing slopes and she would mark its progress, watching every day as it moved another foot or so down the hill and worked its way to the valley floor, knowing one morning finally the sun itself would show its face and splash its warmth through the cabin windows onto the kitchen table and up against the pine paneling of the pantry door, and bring color to her world again.

         And while she waited she went to find it where she could. Today, she would ski out of the valley and head for the north ridge. She knew a high bench where she would have a clear view all the way to the river. If she could get there in the short window that was her day, she would look to the west and see the sun in all its warm glory when it came out from behind the hill and hung over the river, only briefly, already getting ready to go down.

         Jeanne wore her wide backcountry skis with strap bindings that would accommodate her winter boots. Her feet would be warm. In her daypack, she carried a thermos of hot tea and some trail bars. She had dog biscuits for Jack. She grabbed some hand warmers to put in her gloves.

         Yesterday's light snow covered the debris of twigs and spruce cones and birch seeds the wind had gathered in the trail. The fresh cover provided the best conditions for a perfect glide, not too slick and icy, not too deep, and cold enough not to pack up under her heels.

         Jeanne followed the trail out of the yard and along the narrow ledge cut into the cliffside behind the cabin. Dan had spent a long ago summer with pick and shovel carving out this trail so they wouldn't have to climb the steep hill, at one time, their only way out of the valley. On the other side of the hill, the way became more gradual. In the canyon below, the creek made hardly a murmur, muffled by mounds of snow along its banks. Jack trotted before her, full of energy, grabbing bites of the snow while his tail spun in circles, his happy way of wagging. Mostly wolf, he was in his element, transformed in the outdoor air to something more wild than the sleepy cabin dog of the morning.


         Just past the cliff, Jeanne came to her first challenge, a short downhill slope. Not very steep, but steep enough to get her going downhill faster than she would prefer when she was just starting out; she approached it with caution. It wouldn't do to fall and watch the precious daylight tick away while she dealt with the bother of getting back on her feet. A little snow plowing with the skis, and she came to the end of it, confidence restored for the trip ahead. Ten more minutes along the trail, it was time to work her way up to the top of the ridge. The route rose through a wide clearing, following natural contours diagonally up the slope. She went straight at the first incline intent on assaulting it quickly and getting it behind her, only to find herself gliding backwards to the bottom in short order. Tromping forward once again, slapping her wide skis down hard for traction, stabbing poles into the ground, using all her strength to hold herself in place, only got her a few more feet forward than her first attempt, and once again she was sliding backwards down the hill. All of her effort was only wearing her out. When the next try was no better than the first, she gave it up. She would have to take it one side-step at a time. She moved her skis off the packed trail, into deep snow and set them parallel to the slope. Sinking a good three inches or more into the powder, just deep enough for a good hold without making the climb too hard, she side-stepped up the hill. Slow and steady played in her head all the way to the top.

         Encouraged by having the challenge of climbing the slope behind her, Jeanne fell into the pleasant rhythm of kicking and gliding across the snow, a new spring in her stride. Jack frolicked along before her, pointing out every weasel track and dainty vole trail and a scattering of tracks she thought might be ptarmigan. He poked his nose in all the holes he discovered, then lifted his head to scan the countryside for what his nose would find. A set of fresh moose tracks crossed the trail, headed toward the creek, and now Jack stood pointing that way, head slightly lowered, on alert. When Jeanne caught up , he would lope ahead only to stop and take up his curious stance a few yards further down the trail. Since they were alone in the woods, possibly full of creatures they couldn't see, Jeanne found his behavior disquieting but she shrugged it off. If it was a moose she told herself, Jack's presence would keep it away.

         Up ahead, amidst a grove of trees just off the trail, Dan had built a bench for summer trail breaks, when the way into the cabin was on foot with all the gear and supplies on his back. A good spot to take a break and have some tea. She found the bench buried under a pile of snow. Remembering the time she carelessly plopped down on the snow covered bench, and, in her slippery ski pants, promptly slid right down on the ground, she made a point of clearing the snow off the seat, then used her skis to tamp down the snow in front of the bench. Carefully she maneuvered the tails of her skis backward under the bench until she inched up against the edge of it and lowered herself carefully down. She had a comfortable perch. Jack came and sat on the packed snow in front of her, watching her open her pack, knowing a treat was on the way.

         Jeanne didn't take long to drink her tea and get back on the trail. She needed to keep moving to stay warm and the sun wasn't going to wait. Soon she and Jack came to the spot where she needed to veer off toward her lookout spot. In the deeper snow, her progress slowed somewhat, and ahead of her, Jack soon tired of breaking trail. It wasn't long before he decided to follow behind, her ski tracks providing him a path. After winding through a stand of birch and spruce, she came to the top of a small rise and looked out over a field of alders right in her path. Alders were a good thing to avoid. Some lay buried beneath the snow which tended to collapse into the alder branches and more than a few times had trapped her skis. So she skirted around the edge of the alder patch and found herself on the rim of an open meadow, a deep bowl. She could see where a stream ran beneath the snow by the depression it left tracing its course. Water was probably running freely under the snow and the last thing she needed was to get wet. She scouted out a route where she thought the stream bed appeared narrower, thinking her skis would better span the depression there, but just into her descent she realized she may have cut her path too far to the right. A deep hole loomed ahead. Too late to correct, her left ski would miss it, but her right ski crashed down into the hole, catching her in full glide sending her sprawling into the snow.

         She ended up with one ski buried, the soft powder giving out beneath her. As she got her backpack off and worked to dislodge her ski, her immediate concern was to get away from the stream bed as best she could so that her floundering and sinking in the soft snow wouldn't leave her wallowing in the stream.  She began wriggling through the snow, pushing on her poles to get purchase. When she thought she must be a safe distance away, she began the task of getting off the ground. She was well past the age of agility where she could just bounce back up on her feet, particularly in soft unpacked snow with no firm platform to lean on. The open bowl she had gone down in had no handy bush or tree in arm's reach, so she needed to resort to using her poles to push herself up, but she had never mastered this particular maneuver. Each time she thought she almost could get up, her skis would slide out from under her and she would end up back in the snow. She needed more strength to keep the skis in place. Worn out from her efforts, she laid back in the snow to catch her breath.

         Gazing up at the sky, watching the clouds go by, she was thinking how lovely it was just lying there in peace, how pleasant to just wait for someone to come to her rescue. She let the tension drain away. But her reverie was soon interrupted by winter's cold seeping through her many layers of clothes. There was no one in the neighborhood to come to the rescue, and Dan wouldn't come looking for her until after dark. Jack was standing over her, urging her up, impatient with this turn of events. She would have to rescue herself, and that meant she had to face what she was trying to avoid. The skis would have to come off.

         Her bindings were not easily released. She would need two hands to open them; one to press the clip holding the strap that went around her boot, while the other pulled the strap out. She bent her knees to pull her leg up and bring the bindings within her reach, but with nothing to lean against, she found it was difficult to get a good grip. One more dreamy reverie watching the clouds before a last ditch effort. This time the binding opened and she pulled her boot free. With one ski off, she was able to get up without removing the second ski. It finally occurred to her, she should have just done that to begin with, In a hurry now, aware that this misadventure had used up much of her precious time, she got her boot back once again secured to her ski. Working her way across the depression and up the other side of the bowl, she reminded herself to find another way home.

         Deep in the woods, Jeanne skied in the stillness that comes with new snow. Nothing stirred. She noted no calls from the birds. Nothing to hear but the rhythmic swishing of skis. Then something else. It seemed to come from the skis, a strange and subtle beat. She wondered what could be wrong, if her bindings might be coming loose. But it wasn't her skis. It was somewhere far off, behind her. She thought perhaps the wind, then remembered there was no wind and in any case what she was hearing was far too rhythmic. It beat a more slow, steady, pace than was natural for the wind, more human like. She came to a complete stop thinking to quiet her racing heartbeat, her rising panic dampened somewhat by the lack of any concern in her usually watchful companion. Not even a curious prick to his ears. "Do you hear that," she whispered to him, but he merely wagged his tail and looked at her quizzically, his head tilted slightly, like he was trying to understand what the question was. It was awkward to turn to look back towards the drumming behind her, steadily coming closer, but she made the effort to twist about, and, as she did, her gaze followed the sound up into the sky. There, a solitary raven flying above them, his head cocked just enough to look down at the little tableau on the ground, his wings beating with a steady whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. She stood for a long moment in awe watching the raven, listening to its wings moving the air as it worked its way down to the river.

         When she started out again, the awe of that moment went with her. How to explain it? The full measure of quiet doesn't fit well into words. Words are inadequate to touch the feel of it, the palpable presence, the sense of something alive. She thought it ironic that silence is spoken of in terms of the sounds it brings to the ears. The drop of a pin, the little squeaks in the snow,  beneath the weight of a snowshoe, ones own breathing, the rhythmic beat of a bird's wings in flight. "Today it was so quiet, I could hear a raven fly."

         Pressing on now, Jeanne soon found herself near the edge of the ridge looking down on the valley and knew she was getting close. A new bit of incline was before her and she headed for it straight on. Slapping her skis down hard, getting the bases to grip, seemed so simple when not an hour earlier she couldn't make it work. At the top of the hill, her destination just ahead, she followed a curve around a knoll, and finally came upon a golden light drenching the snow, gleaming on every frosted twig and curling tendril. Shafts of light streaming through the gaps in the trees were full of sparkles, frozen moisture in the air glinting in the sunlight and floating gently down to settle on the snow, a dusting of diamonds. She turned west, and there it was: the full face of the sun shining through the trees. It hung framed in the canyon where the south ridge gives way to the river before rising back up on the other side. She moved a few feet for an unobstructed view, and she gazed on the fullness of it, a quiet version of its summer brilliance. Warm shades of pink and yellow painted the sky. With Jack sitting quietly beside her, she drank it all in and let it fill her up with the sweet taste of triumph. As she watched the sun angle low toward the horizon, she was tempted to see it all the way down, but she had to think about getting back. She didn't know what the woods had in store for her, and there was always the chance she could run out of light. She had found what she had come for; she had conquered one more day of dark. She let it go and started for home.

         Jeanne took a different route back to the cabin, avoiding the short cut and sticking to the trail following the edge of the ridge above her valley. She hoped it posed no surprises. Jack, tired now, had lost his frisky edge and was trotting steadily along behind her. "I know, you're tired, boy. Me too." Nearing home in the gathering twilight, she looked down from the ridge to a welcoming yellow glow shining warm in the cabin windows. Dan was home. He'd have the fire crackling, something smelling good on the stove. He'd have good stories to tell of his day in the woods. She would have some stories of her own.

         She quickened her pace.


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