by John King
Paul remembered the Dene man who traps from a log cabin in the forest. They called him Tobaccojuice. He invited Paul and Brigitte into his cabin late one evening when they had knocked on his door.
Tobaccojuice gave them coffee and asked they sit with him beside the stove. He presented them some chairs, and the couple sat down. Then Tobaccojuice told them a story.
When the Dene traded with the Hudson Bay Company a hundred years ago, there was a group from his tribe who trapped more beaver than anyone else. Tobaccojuice said people from other tribes, jealous of their catch, started talking about a woman among them who sold her soul to an evil spirit that hunted humans. When they began their trek to trade their furs at a nearby frontier post, a competing tribe slaughtered them at the banks of a lake known for good fish.
He said there were ghosts under the ice from when they were slaughtered for the animal skins they carried to the fur post. He said when you pass over the ice you can hear their screams. But sometimes it’s just the wind, he said.
When Paul and Brigitte left, they shook Tobaccojuice’s hand and thanked him for the company. They asked him about where the lake was, and he told them.
Paul remembered listening to Tobaccojuice tell his story as he walked with Brigitte in single file through the forest. They were four months into their time living across the sandy forest looking for oil in the dirt. It was late November, and the sand lay frozen under a deep blanket of snow that had covered the region two days ago. It had been the first big snowfall of the season. Paul and Brigitte weathered the storm in their company trailer sipping brandy while they listened to the radio and talked about their findings. They worked for an American oil company. They were gathering information about the region before the brass moved in to start digging for the oil found in the sand.
Now that it was winter, the place was different than it was in summer. It was a strange country to Paul. Of course Brigitte loved it and wanted to stay on longer. She wanted to record the stories the aboriginals told to her. But he missed their life in Seattle. He told her not to bother and she grew angry and silent. They hadn’t spoken much since morning when they fought. He woke her up after a video conference with the bosses back in Texas. They weren’t happy. Shares were down and investors cranky about spending a few billion on a project that wasn’t for certain. Of course they knew it was for real.
The temperature was dropping fast. The engineers called a day ago and warned them about a storm to hit tonight. He knew they shouldn’t be out. Maybe they should even be back in town – that tiny village at the end of the road.
While lost in thought Paul didn’t notice Brigitte had stopped ahead of him and he bumped into her.
“See that?” she asked.
They had been walking through a thin forest of pine trees somewhere at the outskirts of their camp. Paul watched the air escape from her mouth before following her gaze. He liked to watch her breathe, his eyes almost always drawing to her full thick lips that turned deep pink in the cold.
“There’s something ahead of us,” she said.
“You sure? We’re pretty far out. Be no hunters here this time of year, you think?”
“Don’t know. They’ll be out anytime.”
She shivered and bent down to take off her backpack.
She unzipped the top and pulled out a pair of binoculars. “Be getting dark soon,” she said.
“Yeah. Better we get back to camp sooner than later,” he answered.
Brigitte had been a photographer when he met her at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It had been the last leg of her journey across the globe. They met when a Navajo girl proposed Brigitte take a picture of her. He had found them while taking a hike along the Colorado. The Navajo girl smiled at them and after Brigitte took her photograph the girl disappeared among the tall rocks. They looked for her, but didn’t find her, and spent the night together.
Two years later on her twenty-fifth birthday, Brigitte climbed Mount Everest and hugged a Sherpa at the top of the world. He was jealous of her when she told him about it, and drank that night knowing he could never be better than the world she so loved.
“Could be a moose or deer,” Paul offered.
“Have we been here before?” she asked.
Paul dug out the map and traced back the land they had covered the past week. “Don’t think so. Why?”
“You see anything?”
She had lifted the binoculars to her eyes and was scanning through the trees. “Oh shit,” she said, dropping the binoculars.
“There is something out there.”
“What is it?”
“Is it that damned old Indian?”
“Don’t think so.”
“Come on, lets go.”
She was silent for a time before putting the binoculars back into her backpack. “How far we out?”
“About an hour hard walk. Be getting dark in two hours.”
“There’s something up there.”
“Let me take a look.”
“Nah. It’s good. I’m going to check it out.”
“Like hell you are.”
She lifted herself up and started forward. Paul grabbed her arm and held her back. “Brigitte, the gun’s back in camp at your orders. We don’t have the time or protection to go hunting right now.”
“I don’t know Paul, but it’s not an animal. It looks human. We gotta go and check it out. Come on.”
He followed her. The forest was silent as it always is in the dead of winter. In the weeks before, the land froze as storms rushed in from the emptiness of the north and drowned the forests. They both knew one of these storms was heading in, and the temperature was dropping by the minute.
They entered a patch of birch trees. The thing about birch is they have these markings on them – these notches – that look like eyes. It always bothered Paul to be surrounded by trees watching.
“It was here I swear to God,” she said stopping.
“Brigitte? There’s nothing here.”
“I can see that Paul.”
They stood and waited for something to happen but nothing did. She carried on.
“Come on Brigitte, let’s go back. There’s coffee on and that fresh bread those elder women made us. Aren’t you getting hungry?”
“Go if you want.”
“What has gotten into you?”
“I don’t know. I feel strange.”
“Strange? Well, all the more reason to get back to camp. You know our warm trailer with heat, hot water, music, coffee, maybe a glass of brandy. All those good things. Come on honey, let’s go back.”
“We will Paul. We will. Let’s go just a little further. We still have time, right?”
Paul glanced at his watch. “Well, it’s three thirty-three. We got about an hour and a half before we need flashlights. After that, we got about an hour’s worth of light before they go out. If we’re not back in camp, the company will call at seven. If we don’t answer, they’ll track our GPS.”
“Oh come on Paul. You’re always thinking the worst. Nothing’s going to happen to us.”
She reached out her hand to him. There was a giant space between them but he reached out for her. She pulled him close to her and kissed him. They stood alone in the forest and the silent things around them closed in and watched. “Come on,” she said smiling. “Just a little further.”
“Always the adventurer.”
They moved under the gathering darkness. The clouds swirled over the trees and silence.
They broke through the forest and stood before a frozen pool of water. It was one of those lakes the aboriginals say are sacred.
The untouched snow lay out before them, as the trees leaned in sipping on the cleanness of the place.
“Isn’t it beautiful Paul?”
He looked at his watch again. “Ah, real beautiful. But we better get a move on.”
“Oh come on don’t be such a stick-in-the-mud. This is an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. When’s the next time we’ll be here? Never. Look at this place. Come on, really look.”
She turned to Paul, reached up to his chin, and made him look.
“See. Look. You’re smiling. Told you. We’ll remember this place for the rest of our lives. Paul?”
There was something strange in her voice and he turned back to her. She was staring up at him. “Paul, will you marry me?”
She took his hands in hers. “When we’re done here and back home, will you marry me?” She squeezed his hands tight and he reached down to kiss her.
“Of course I will,” he answered.
She bounced back and scanned the lake again.
“Shit,” she said.
Paul blinked as she pointed to the other side of the lake where a black spot against the snow moved along the edge of the lake – along the shore toward them.
“What is that?” she said getting out her binoculars.
He took a look around. The tops of the trees moved and the eyes of the birch trees swayed back and forth around them. “All birch trees,” Paul muttered.
“What’s that dear?” Brigitte asked as she lifted the binoculars to her eyes.
“There aren’t any other trees here but birch trees. I hate their eyes.”
She was silent as she focused her lenses on the thing coming toward them. Paul watched as the wind whirled and created a thin wisp of a tornado along the snow and ice. It moved in circles near the centre of the lake.
“Well, what is it?” he asked.
“It’s stalking us.”
A shiver ran up Paul’s spine.
“Stalking us? What’s stalking us Brigitte?”
She put down the binoculars and walked out onto the lake ice. Paul stared after her not understanding what she was doing. “Brigitte? Come on now, that ice might be too thin. Where are you going?”
He picked up her binoculars and backpack she had left and took a quick glance at whatever had been moving toward them but it was gone.
“Come on honey don’t be crazy. Where the hell are you going?” he said, turning to her.
But she was gone.
“Brigitte?” He screamed.
Paul followed her tracks out on to the ice. At twenty feet they stopped and she was nowhere to be seen. Paul spun around as the wind kicked up.
The Dene call it the blow. Sometimes people freeze to death just feet from their homes because they can’t see where they’re going.
The storm fell from the sky then, and when Paul heard the screams, he started to run. He fell down and tried to hide his face from the wind and snow. “Brigitte,” he screamed again.
A shadow moved toward him.
“Brigitte. Thank God. I thought I lost you,” he said.
The screams grew louder when the shadow stood before him. He started to cry, his tears freezing to his face as he stood and ran away from the shadow. There were ghosts under the ice, Paul knew that now. They screamed as they watched from below.
By sunrise the storm had moved south onto the Prairies. The ravens gathered on the ice because now there was a frozen body to pick at. They needed food this time of year because there was nothing to eat in the middle of birch trees.