Eyes Before Dawn

(Commended, Segora Short Story Competition, France).

Blackness and the darkest of thoughts. Always this panic just before dawn sets in. The faintest twitter of birds and my mind flicks to her eyes; there is terror within, I hear her little voice with the soft press of her hands but she has slipped away now.
This is why I am up and moving before the light can break. My blanket tucked away in the leather satchel and my boots open at the mouth. A quick inspection of the blisters on the edges of my feet and about my toes. I have packed soft fern leaf into the toe of my boot for everything depends on this. Once again I head north into the sun, the rigid, canvassed weight bearing down into the leather shoulder straps supporting my burden.
Let the river run. The morning is most comfortable as the sun’s rays peak over the ridge, striking my frozen face. I pick my way through tumbling rock but I cannot cross until I am sure of the widest passage. A calm strait of white-capped river current and I need to cross this morning so that I will be dry by nightfall. Hours pass but still I have not found a magic place so I resolve to build a raft. Not for me, just to take the weight on my back and wide enough for me to hold on to as I drift across. I spend hours selecting wood that will float and cutting the cabbage tree fronds and flax to use to secure my load.
I am in the icy water now. It sucked the air from my lungs so I gasp at the shock. My boots, jacket and rifle are secured up on the raft, together with the weight wrapped in canvas and my satchel perched on top, but my woollen socks are still on and kicking about in the water. I am moving backwards away from the mountains, back the way I have come but slowly I make my way over just before the wide neck of the bend where flows have slackened. With great effort I lie flat in the middle, where the current pulls strongly and I concentrate on kicking with my head low into the water. Finally my toes barely scrape the stones beneath. I will make the far bank.
A moment to rest, exhausted after I pulled the raft up onto shore. I dry my numbed feet in the sand and gravel and my clothes and socks are discarded over the larger rocks. The rifle has been dried and wrapped and put away again in the deerskin that I use to protect it from the rain. I have not lost my boots for without them I could not complete the journey. A moment to reflect, to think of you my wife, Margaret Elizabeth, what do you do at this very instant? Did you feed our little mouths and did you spend a moment to think of us? The sun touches my skin but small tears are sliding; I must unpack the raft and stash it here so that I can use it for my return.
North over these mountains. The fear of that dams back those maudlin thoughts, preparing me for the grand effort ahead. The ground undulating as the marshy area falls away and I begin the rise and fall of the approaches up to the range. The bush thickens about me and after some time there is a canopy, growing higher and there is no clear path but room to pick my way between the bracken and scrub. A tiny fantail follows, darting and dancing like a pixie across my wake.
I begin to feel the push of an incline. I am not stopping for lunch, there are only the scraps of meat wrapped in muslin that Margaret stowed in the deerskin. I will conserve this to cross the snow. It is a question of timing. I must make the snow line by late afternoon, not too close but within striking distance so that I can spend the next morning searching for the lowest saddle.
“Skirt the snow line,” Toss told me in the firelight, his chin on his knee. “Find the lowest point, try to get over in a day. Once you are up on that ridge look for the valley and if you cannot see it, turn back for the grace of God. There are men still up there who will never be found.”
I won’t make the snow for two days yet. The endless up and down, always slowly rising, falling away, yet rising more than it falls. I feel the ground harden. Rising, falling, up and down until my mind is cracking with it. Judging the hours before the sun sets, longing for that moment when I can build a fire and dig in a shelter from fallen branches and silver-backed fern. Cutting out sod with my knife if needs be and using clumps of earth to shelter from the wind. Each night I get better at building my tiny house, better at selecting the materials, faster at tying the frame. The same little shelter, over and again each night and the routine doesn’t help.
Just that one problem. Always at night after the wood begins smoking and the dry ferns in the shelter packed ready to take my tired bones, the question of what to do with the canvas bundle. Heavy, rigid it must be stowed off the ground yet sheltered from the rain and out of reach of the bush rats and birds. I can feel them in the dark waiting for that moment when my eyes fall lidded so they can claim their reward. I have a metal spoon on a tin mug that I use to scare these thieves away.
Morning falls softly and I wake to that noise of bird calls just before the dawn. There is a fine drizzle blanketing the ridges. As long as I can make out an insistent fuzzy ball of light in amongst the grey cloud I have bearings. At any rate I must head up the incline. I can sense the snow now. The drop in temperature, a crisp dryness where before all was humid and wet. The mosquitoes that fed at my ankles and wrists have long since gone. All I need is the rifle dry and perched ready near the fire. The smell is rife now, the smell of the canvas bundle, and I place it far up on a rocky outcrop, well in view but with the rifle pointed toward it, and it doesn’t bother me. Next to the bundle I place berries and a smear of the honey I kept in the satchel and slowly, quietly I grease and clean the weapon. At last in the gloom I can make out the plump, white chest of a wood pigeon, feeding on the berries. A single crack of the rifle and I have him in hand ready for the plucking.
This will keep my mind busy. For in the darkness the same sense of panic, the chilling fear and awareness of dawn’s fanfare. The blackness and the darkest of thoughts and her young laughter as she gushes forward, soft kisses and warm skin. I rise quickly toward the canvas bundle and I will not linger now. Within moments all is packed up on my shoulders, the meat wrapped in muslin and stowed away in the deerskin, fur inwards, along with my rifle, and I make my way upwards.
I have lost count of the days now. Steeper the incline, and an escarpment of rock. No longer wet underfoot but solid and frozen with a drift of soft, white flakes up above in the birch. I wait for it to settle on my face but it never comes, the sun and wind claimed it before it drifted down. I can sense a glare now, behind the trees, above where snow begins. I skirt this line for hours looking for a low point but none will show itself. The sun has risen, high above coaxing me to make a fool’s crossing. Talking to myself, reasoning, arguing, angry, bickering. By afternoon nothing has presented itself and despite the smirking sun I must wait another day. Another night miserable like a beast, chipping flint and blowing the wispy smoke of soft and hard wood into flame. Another night chewing scraps of stringy meat hunched low in the fern with Margaret’s blanket about my shoulders.
Guarding the canvas.
I am making the crossing now. Into the beautiful snow, angling and zigzagging. I did not find a decent saddle but resolved to climb to the ridgeline to see what I could see. The falls are heavy going, my boots are cumbrous and the ridge is deceptive but curiosity burns like a flame. Just as I think I have reached it, another angle and a further ridge, not so vertical but higher in the softness. I am no longer talking loudly to myself but merely mumbling about what Toss told me, bickering with my old friend about when to turn back. Yes the sun is fiercer now as if to goad on my bad judgement. The leather straps are biting deeper into the bone of my shoulders and I contemplate leaving the rifle behind to save the weight – but no, don’t be a fool, we must continue.
At last I have reached a ridge. Lo and behold such a magnificent view and far away the light grey edge of the forest’s edge, running away to a glimpse of a valley. Nothing will stop me now. My bundle frozen solid and it is impossible to separate canvas, blanket or anything else if I do need to spend the night up here. It will not be comfortable on the lower escarpment for there is no wood, but my feet will be out of the icy sludge. My hands will thaw and I will feast on the last scraps of meat and berries for this will be the most difficult night.
I have woken again and it is too early but I will push off. I managed to doze, not quite sleep, cold against the rock until voices and eyes began to swirl about the edge of my sanity. I need to make it further down into the valley, and to wait for the sun’s arc and then to sleep.
Back into the bush now. Like an old friend for in here I can survive and it will not be painful. High in the beech forest canopy I spy two green parrots chattering, talking about us. Waiting till they can get at anything shiny on my pack. Back into the mud and the hard slog and the welcoming crunch of dead leaves underfoot. Safe again under the trees. I must stop talking to you, I am sorry my dear.
“Keep back you little demons! Away!”
When I stop tonight I will be ready for them. My rifle will be loaded and cleaned, propped within the fork of a broken sapling. The fire is blazing and there are long boughs of wood, not cut, just edged into the flames ready to be dragged up as they burn away. The bundle is stowed and I am ready to sleep like never before.
“I got you little devil! Who is king now?”
I knew before my eyes were open that it was that pair and that they would be perched on top. Now their beaks down, now eyes up and wary. Pecking away insistently at the straps securing the canvas. I knew not to move, not to commit until that last moment when I was accustomed to the soft, breaking light. Breathe, relax. I knew that the gun was primed and I needed only to tighten the middle section of my finger on the trigger. I got the male and it was sweet revenge.
No sign of his mate now.
Walking downwards coming down into a great valley of green. I can make out in the distance the gentle patchwork of green and brown and it is toward this high country pasture that I move with great speed. Great, wide meadows of salvation and settlement. Fence lines and stone walls. I no longer feel tiny blisters, the bite of leather on my shoulders. I will find a fence line and follow it down towards a track, any track and that will lead me to a settlement.
On the road now and an old man making his way toward me. A pig hunter, bearded in a battered, felt hat, his forehead shining brown and furrowed like the trunk of a native tree. With few words and a rough wad of tobacco he shared with me, I am on my way down the bullock track he indicated. Onward through the mud with not a soul to see. Gingerly now as here is the settlement I wanted. Near the entrance a tiny, white church with cottage close-hauled.
I wish to avoid any contact but the Vicar. Smoke billows from the chimney of the cottage, a woman’s lightly scuffed steps to the wooden door that I have knocked on. Grey eyes squinting, slightly shocked beneath a bonnet and pink cheeks from the heat of the stove. A small pause as she takes it all in, her nose draws back with the stench.
“May I help you sir?” A Dorset accent and she is wiping her hands over her apron. The smell of baking within makes me ache with hunger.
“Is the Vicar about if you please?”
She glances up towards the settlement.
“Do you wish me to fetch him? Can I tell what it’s about?” Her clear eyes querying, a little aghast at the rifle on my back and the dirt on my face.
“I’d be obliged if you would send him to the church so that we can discuss matters there…”
“Don’t you wish to wait inside?” she calls but I have quickly moved away.
“No Ma’am, by the graveyard if you will – please tell him it’s urgent…”
And now a flicker of understanding. These moments by the edge of the graveyard with the sun on both of us and the memories of our last days together. Talking softly, touching. I see a quiet corner of the yard with tiny gravestones and crosses. I see him making his way up the path now, memories have all flooded back. Dear, I must end this talking with you now.
“Where are you from my son?” he asks, puffed from the walk.
“Jackson’s Bay, six days’ journey over the ranges Father.”
His arms bracing my shoulders. He draws in a slow breath.
“Your child?” he asks softly.
I cannot meet his eyes and the sun warms my face now.
“She was six years old Father. Taken by a fever. We simply want a Christian burial.”