DEADLY LONELY QUIET WILDERNESS
By Lazar Trubman
A glade on the hill; on the glade – an old hut. Couple of windows, dilapidated roof, crooked porch crying for a fix. And wilderness for miles on end. No one remembers who built it more than half a century ago. Old villagers talk about some men who showed up in the fall of 1960, knocked down a few pine-trees, sliced off the bark and within a week, using four-five axes, put up a living space for anyone to use. You walk into a hut like this – it’s cold, no feel of a human spirit. On the walls, in the corners – mold as thick as a fist, dank smell of a stagnated smoke. Then someone shows up and starts the fireplace, and half an hour later it’s warm and homey. You can take off your coat, add more logs into the fire. Walls get warmer, your soul thaws out, and you feel happy. Soon drowsiness envelopes you, and there is no strength to do anything. You light up a cigarette and think. It’s good to think when you’re alone. Dark already; just the bright-red pile of logs playing a shadow game on the walls and on the ceiling. And you remember things from the past. Ancient things. How you for the first time saw a girl to her door. Walked next to her, silent like an idiot…
… This time it was an old man, Willie, sitting in front of the fireplace, sucking on his pipe while his cigarettes were getting dry. Felt at ease this evening. Since a very young age he roamed around the wilderness, hunting. Squirrels mostly, foxes, rarely a bear. For that occasion he always carried a few cartridges with a case-shot charge in the pocket of his knee-length sheepskin coat. Loved the wilderness. Especially in wintertime. It’s so quiet that your head hurts!
So, old Willie was sitting there, smoking. Suddenly some shuffling of skis outside; then quiet again. He thought that someone glanced into the small window. He put aside the pipe, stood up. Someone knocked on the door.
“Anybody home?” A young voice, hoarse because of the cold and a long silence – a man can’t really talk to himself. “Not a hunter,” Willie thought. “A hunter wouldn’t knock – just walk in without asking.”
“Come in!” said.
The stranger behind the door unfastened the skis, placed them against the wall. The door opened slightly, and in the white cloud of exhalation Willie barely discerned a tall young man in a quilted jacket and a black military hiking cap. “Who are you?” he asked.
“A human,” Willie replied.
For some time they just looked at one another in silence.
“Are you by yourself?” asked the young man.
The young man walked to the fireplace, placed the wet gloves under his armpit and stretched his hands as close to the burning logs as possible. “It’s cold as hell!” said.
“It is,” Willie agreed and noticed that the young man didn’t have a rifle. So not a hunter obviously. Not by his face or clothes either. “It’s going to get colder though before it gets warmer… You’re dressed lightly for this time of the year,” wanted to ask about the rifle, but decided not to.
“That’s alright,” said the young man. “Are you alone?”
“I am. You asked already… Have a seat,” Willie offered. “Want some tea?”
“I’m not a tea drinker, father,” the young man’s accent wasn’t local, a big city’s rather. He lit a cigarette, and Willie had a chance to see his face better – handsome, pale face with fluffy eyelashes. He inhaled hungrily, opened his mouth slightly – and two golden front teeth flashed in the barely lit hut. Obviously a city fella. Had a week’s old beard, looked emaciated. The young man intercepted Willie’s gaze, stroke a match and looked at him intently. Willie memorized his look: straight, brave. And somewhat frozen. “Women love men like him,” thought inopportunely.
“Have a seat,” said again. “Why are you still standing?”
“Alright, I will… Anyone else is coming?”
“Right now? Nah, it’s too late…” Willie moved to the end of the bench, looked at the young man’s hands again: not working hands, but the young man was evidently strong, and Willie liked his smile – simple, restrained. And those golden teeth… Handsome man. “Are you a geologist?” asked.
“You know: men and women running around the wilderness, looking for something?”
“Oh! Yes, I am.”
“Without a rifle though…risky.”
“I fell behind my people,” the young man explained casually. “How far is the town?”
“Forty miles…maybe more.”
The young man closed his eyes and for a short while sat still, enjoying the warmth. “Tired,” said.
“How long have you been walking alone?” asked Willie.
“For a while… Got something to drink?”
“Beside tea? Vodka – can’t survive without alcohol out here.”
The young man livened up. “Great,” said. ”My soul’s been shaking for a while now: you can fucking freeze in this cold!”
Willie placed some sliced cheese and ham on a paper plate, filled both glasses to the half point. “Someone should teach you guys how to survive alone in the wilderness,” said. “Last year I found one – thawed out in spring. Was young like you, with a beard, too. Covered himself with a blanket and fell asleep. End of story.”
The young man took off his quilted jacket, walked around the hut. Wide-shouldered, stately. He looked rested already, warm; glad obviously that he found this old hut with a living soul. He lit another cigarette.
“So, what are you looking for?” asked Willie enjoying the smell of the smoke.
“In the wilderness – where else?”
‘Fate…” Willie grinned to himself. “Fate is like a lingcod – slippery: you sort of got her, and here she is, in your hands – and then pff! – gone!” he disposed himself to a long talk. “Or city people: they come in bunches and start shooting left and right: male, female – just to kill something. I would’ve cut off their hands for this kind of hunting! You kill a she-bear – but what if she’s got a couple of little ones? They’ll die! You’ve got your fur, right, but if you wait a bit longer, you would’ve gotten three! It’s a muddle-headed thing – to entertain your soul upon wild animals… Is that the fate you were talking about?”
The young man didn’t answer, walked to the window, peered into the darkness for a while. Said as though awakened suddenly, “Spring’s soon.”
“No way around it,” Willie agreed. “Why don’t you have some ham and cheese: you can’t just keep drinking?”
The young man made himself a sandwich and went back to the window; breathing slowly, he warmed a tiny round spot on the glass and for a while kept looking into the night.
“What are you trying to see there?” asked Willie. He still wanted to talk.
“Freedom,” said the young man. And exhaled, but not sadly, not sorrowfully. And reeled back from the window. “Let’s have another drink, father: my soul’s demanding!”
“How about some more food after that? It’ll wear you out.”
“No, it won’t… I don’t get drunk,” he gently but firmly embraced Willie by his neck; his eyes shined brightly and joyously. “Here you go! Cheers, my good man!”
“I guess you got bored being alone,” said Willie with a smile. He liked his night companion more and more: for being young, strong and handsome. “It’s not safe without a rifle in the wilderness,” reminded again. “A good chance you won’t survive without it.”
“I’ll survive, father, don’t worry!” the young man finished his drink in one long gulp, shook his head and began pacing up and down the hut. “I have this great desire to live, father!”
“Everybody does,” Willie agreed. “Even a wrinkled pickle like me.”
“Great desire, father!” stubbornly, with some cheerful anger repeated the young man. “You don’t know what real life is,” he clenched his teeth. “It’s soft and sweet! Like fucking chocolate!”
Tipsy Willie giggled loudly. “You’re talking about life as though it’s a woman,” said.
“Women are cheap, worthless!” the young man objected with the same stubbornness.
“It seems that a woman really shook your world once or twice…”
“She did…and the woman’s name is freedom. You don’t know what that is either. You’re an animal, father, you love this fucking wilderness; you haven’t seen the bright lights of a big city. They attract you; they’re like music to your ears! And I must be there, but I’m here… I am here, understand?”
“But not forever though, right?”
“You don’t understand,” the young man was suddenly serious. “I must be there, because I’m the only one who is not afraid of anything or anybody! Because I’m not afraid to die, understand?”
“I don’t think I do, buddy,” said Willie shaking his head. “What are you trying to tell me again?”
The young man sat down and refilled the glasses; looked tired suddenly.
“I’m on the run, father,” admitted without any expression and raised his glass. “Cheers?”
Willie raised his glass, too, waited for the young man to finish his drink.
“They’ll get you,” said.
It wasn’t that he felt sorry for his night visitor; he imagined suddenly how he is escorted out of the hut by two deputies, tall, strong, handsome, and all his youth, handsomeness and strength won’t be able to save his precious life. “It’s all for nothing,” added, completely sober now.
The young man kept silent, looking thoughtfully at the fire.
“Should’ve done your time,” said Willie. “It’s really to no purpose…”
“Don’t tell me how to live my life!” the young man interrupted sharply. “I’ve got my own head on my shoulders.”
“Of course, you do,” Willie agreed. “How far you plan to go?”
“It’s not your fucking business, OK?”
“Parents are probably waiting,” thought Willie looking at the back of the young man’s neck. “He’ll show up – they’ll be happy. And then… What a son-of-a-bitch!”
For a few minutes no one spoke. Willie knocked the ashes out of his pipe, refilled with fresh tobacco. The young man kept staring at the fire. “I’ll stay here for a couple of days,” said, didn’t ask. “Need to get my strength back.”
“Alright,” Willie couldn’t really argue. “Why did you run though? Had a lot of years left?”
“A lot, father.”
“What did you do?”
“Never ask me that question again!”
Willie puffed at his pipe, said through coughing: “I don’t care… Pity though: they’ll catch you.”
“We’ll see,” the young man looked really tired. “Let’s sleep.”
“Go ahead,” said Willie. “I’ll wait till all the logs are burned through.”
The young man spread his quilted jacket on the plank-bed, fluffed up the pillow. Spotted a rifle on the wall, observed it slowly. “A pretty old one,” said.
“Still does the job.”
The young man stretched his feet, exhaled loudly. “You’re not afraid of me, father?” asked.
“Of you?” Willie seemed astounded. “Why would I?”
“Well, I am a prisoner…maybe convicted of murder?”
“God will punish you for murder, not people. You can run from people – not so much from God.”
“So, you believe in God then?”
“What else is left to believe in?”
“Who knows…” the young man paused for a moment. “But I’m tired of this shit about God though. If I’ll meet your fucking Jesus someday, I’ll cut his guts out in an instant!”
“Why? Because of all the lies that came out of his mouth! There is no such thing as good, kind people. Isn’t that what he always taught: people are kind, just be patient? Liar!” the young man’s voice became angry. “Who’s kind? You? Me?”
“Well, I, for example, never caused a big problem for anyone in my life.”
“What about animals? How many have you killed? Did he teach you that?”
“You don’t compare a dick to a finger!” Willie objected. “An animal is not a human.”
“Still a breathing creature – according to your fucking Jesus!”
Willie couldn’t see the young man’s face any longer, but his voice scared him a bit. “Why are you suddenly mad at me” asked after a while.
“Don’t lie! All of you sanctimonious people! Your fucking Jesus taught you to be patient? Well, be patient. Don’t drop your pants and jump on your woman as soon as you’re done with your prayer,” he paused to catch his breath. “If it was up to me, I would create a new Jesus: you lie – you die…”
“Enough of that barking!” Willie interrupted suddenly. “I let you in – and now you’re barking like a dog. Are you mad that they locked you up? Then you deserved it, and no one is guilty.”
The young man squeaked his teeth, but kept silent.
“I’m not a priest, and this is not a church that you can spit your anger around,” now Willie couldn’t stop. “This is wilderness, everyone’s equal. Remember that, or you’ll never make it to your fucking freedom. There’s always a man out there to break your spine, always.”
“Don’t be angry, father,” the young man said peacefully. “I hate when someone teaches me how to live my life. My soul is boiling every time! Hate it!” he restrained himself from yelling again. “There are no saints or kind people on earth, I haven’t seen one yet. Why invent them?” the young man rose upon his elbow, waiting for an answer.
“Cool down a bit, and you’ll understand,” Willie replied moralistically. “If not for the kind people, life would’ve stopped long ago. Everyone would’ve killed everyone else. And it wasn’t Jesus who taught me that; I learned it myself. Regarding saints though you’re right: they don’t exist. I’m not a bad man, but not a saint either. When I was as young as you are now, there was a family not far from my village, a man and a woman and their daughter of twenty-five or so. A religious family, yes…” Willie paused to make sure that he was listened to. “So once, when she was alone in the house, I enticed her into the birch-wood and…you know what, right? She was a strong, healthy woman, a virgin, too… Got pregnant, but I was married then…”
“Didn’t you say that you never harmed anyone?” the young man was obviously listening.
“I also told you that I’m not a saint! I didn’t rape her though, wearied her with kindness, but all the same – another child without a father. A grown man by now, maybe a hunter like his dad…”
“You gave him life – didn’t kill him,” the young man was suddenly on Willie’s side. “And probably saved the mother: if not for you, she could’ve never known a man, never had a child. So if you ask me – you did a good thing back then.”
“Well, good or bad – it’s all in the past now…more bad than good though…”
“Anything left in the bottle?” interrupted the young man.
“Vodka you mean? Some… You can have it – I’m done for tonight.”
The young man emptied the bottle, wheezed again. “This is not the way a man should have his drinks. It has to be a beautiful thing, nice music, expensive cigars, champagne, gorgeous women… Quiet around, cultured…”
“What did you do before prison?” asked Willie – wasn’t interested in a bright city life.
“I was an ambassador in a foreign country…kidding!” the young man fell silent; then informed sleepily, “That’s it for me, father, I’m gone.” And fell asleep momentarily.
The logs in the fireplace burned out; Willie waited till the last sparks died in the ashes, shut the chimney-flue and laid down next to the young man. The wind outside the hut dropped, the world around seemed quiet and at ease, and minutes later he was asleep, too.
… Voices of two or three men outside the hut awoke Willie after midnight; he remained still for a while, not sleepy any longer, but somewhat unsure of the surroundings. The young man was already sitting down – as if he never slept. “Who might that be?” asked.
“How the hell do I know,” Willie replied angrily for some reason.
The young man walked to the door, listened to the voices for a short while; then shuffled over to the wall looking for the rifle.
“Don’t even think!” warned Willie. “You’re dead meat if you try.”
“Who are they?” the young man asked again.
“I already told you: I don’t know.”
“Let’s lock the door: we don’t have to let them in, right?”
“Man, you’re a fool! There are no locks on the hut… You better go back to sleep and don’t move: I’ll do the talking.”
“Listen, father…” the young man couldn’t finish: someone stepped onto the porch and pushed the door. “Ah!” said in a deep voice. “I knew someone was in here. Come on in, guys: it’s warm!”
“Shut the door,” Willie said angrily, “or it soon won’t be.”
Two more men walked in; Willie knew one of them – the county Sheriff. Every hunter had to deal with him, especially during the hunting season.
“Willie, right?” said the Sheriff, a tall, overweight man of fifty.
“Well, why don’t you meet and greet a few late guests?”
“Do I look like a greeter to you?”
All three began taking off their coats.
“Missing hunting?” asked Willie not without irony.
“A little… And who is that?”
“A geologist… fell behind his group.”
“Got lost, then?”
“I haven’t heard about any geological groups in the county… Where was he going?”
“Couldn’t talk – almost froze to death. I made him drink half a bottle of vodka – now he sleeps like a corpse.”
Sheriff lit a match, brought it to the young man’s face. Not a muscle moved, and the breathing seemed to be even and quiet. “You pumped him up pretty good,” said as soon as the match went out. “How come we don’t know anything about the group though?”
“Maybe it’s a new one?”
“Nah… Looks like he wondered around for a while,” Sheriff thought about something, added, “Well, let him sleep – we’ll find out in the morning… It’s time for us to have a nap, too, right?”
“Right,” agreed the other two. “A lot of walking tomorrow.”
Moments later everyone was asleep.
… Willie awoke as soon as the day broke around six o’clock. The young man was gone. Everybody else still slept. Willie got off the plank-bed and found the matches. Hadn’t thought about anything bad yet. Struck a match: his rifle was gone, too. Without wasting any more time, he put on his coat, took one of the three rifles stored in the corner, made sure that the cartridges were still in his pocket.
Early dawn was just coming into its own; it got warmer during the night. A wide fog patch covered the daybreak’s weak colors. Willie put on his skis, stepped into the young man’s ski-track and went on. “You son-of-a-bitch,” swore under his breath. “Decided to go – go, but don’t steal the man’s rifle!”
It was getting lighter by the minute, the day promised to be warm and cloudy. For a while he went in silence. Wasn’t really mad, hurt – yes, but not mad. A mile later it was already light enough to see the ski-track way ahead of him. At some point, the young man stopped for a minute: Willie could see a cigarette-butt and a burned match. “Just look at that: he even stole my cigarettes!”
He quickened his pace and half an hour later saw the young man a couple hundred yards ahead of him, down in the shallow gully. He walked in efficient, even steps, not hurriedly, but purposefully, rifle behind his back.
“Not bad for a city boy,” Willie had to admit. He abandoned the ski-track and went around the young man, using a mound on the left hand side to cover his maneuver. He guessed that their paths will intercept each other at the cutting in the forest and had no doubt that he would be the first one to reach that point.
“I just want to see your lying eyes, you ungrateful thief,” he muttered not without malicious pleasure, bearing down on the poles. At the same time, as strange as that might seem, he really wanted to see the young man’s handsome face. Something very appealing was in that face. “Maybe it’s not really surprising that he is trying so badly to get to his city life,” Willie reasoned, wiping the sweat off his forehead. He reached the cutting in the forest and stopped behind a thick pine tree: the young man wasn’t there yet. Checked the cartridge. The rifle was new, still smelled of rifle oil. “Law people should’ve known that one doesn’t go hunting with a smelly rifle or strong tobacco,” thought shaking his head. “My daddy even taught me to gargle with fresh tea to kill the bad breath and wear washed clothes!” He interrupted his own thinking: the young man just crossed the cutting in the forest, stopped and looked around – and right there and then Willie appeared in front of him, rifle at the ready.
“Hands up!” ordered loudly in order to strike dumb the thief.
The young man threw up his head, and unhidden horror reverberated in his slightly slanting eyes. “Father?” said hoarsely. “You almost gave me a heart attack!”
“I thought you weren’t afraid of anyone?” said Willie adjusting the rifle to the middle of the young man’s chest. “Alright then,” ordered in a business-like tone of voice, “bring the rifle in front of you without taking it off, break it and throw out the cartridges. Then empty your pockets: I want to see sixteen cartridges – don’t make me count them twice…”
“Then step aside and don’t move – or I’ll make your chest look like a sieve.”
“Didn’t you tell me that I won’t survive in the wilderness without a rifle?” said the young man stepping away from the cartridges.
“And that gives you the right to steal?” asked Willie counting the cartridges. “Now throw me the rifle and don’t move!”
The young man did what he was told.
“Now sit down where you stand and throw me my cigarettes.”
“I’ll have one, too, alright?” said the young man.
For a while they smoked in silence.
“Did they leave, the three men?” asked the young man.
“Still sleeping,” Willie answered. “They’re good at sleeping – not so much at hunting. Came here to get away from the boredom of a small town,” he exhaled a huge stream of smoke to the side. “Bored with their wives, too, I bet.”
“Who are they, father?”
“Managers of some kind… Did you really think that I wouldn’t catch you?”
“I hadn’t thought about that at all,” the young man hesitated before asking, “One of them you know, right? He even called you by name once… Who is he? Didn’t look like a manager to me.”
“Oh, that one… He’s from the Social Security office, met him a few times when I applied.”
The young man looked at Willie inquisitively. “You’re lying to me, old man,” said. “Do you really want me back in prison because of the rifle?”
“Back in prison? Are you crazy?”
“Sell me the rifle then. I’ve got money.”
“No,” Willie replied firmly. “Should’ve asked me yesterday – I probably would’ve.”
“I wanted to, but then those men showed up…”
“So you decided to steal it,” Willie dropped the cigarette butt in the snow. “Where I’m from, we cut off arms for stealing.”
The young man wanted to object, but said instead: “Thanks for not giving me away yesterday.”
“It doesn’t matter: you won’t make it to your freedom anyway.”
“Forty miles through the wilderness? Not in your shape.”
“I’m in pretty good shape, father, but without a rifle…”
“Don’t even try!”
“I’m ready to start a new life, an honest one…”
“What about champagne, women and bright lights then?”
“Too much booze, I guess, wasn’t really serious…”
“You weren’t drunk – I would’ve noticed.” said Willie spitting yellow saliva in the snow. “People make mistakes, I’ve made a few, but stealing is a conscious thing, fella – not an accident.”
“Enough of that, father!” begged the young man. “They’re about to wake up – and one of their rifles is missing! Don’t you think they’ll start looking for us, probably call the authorities?”
“They won’t,” interrupted Willie. “Not till the sun is way up.”
“How do you know?”
“I just know. They were pretty wasted yesterday.”
The young man fell silent, as if he finally ran out of questions. Suddenly snow began falling on the ground, warm, heavy, and soon everything was covered with thick, huge flakes.
“That’s to your advantage,” said Willie. “It’ll hide all your tracks.”
The young man watched the snow melting in his palm. “Spring’s soon,” mentioned again.
“Not that soon,” Willie looked at the young man and imagined how he walks alone through the wilderness, no food, no smokes, no rifle. “Why didn’t you escape in summer,” asked, “plenty of berries, wild apples, easy to cover your tracks?”
“You can’t choose the time, father,” the young man grinned shortly. “Alright then, thanks for the food, booze and lodging… Go now: wasted or not, they’re surely about to awake soon.”
Willie was hesitating.
“There might be a way out of it,” said finally. “I’ll give you the rifle. Around midnight, you’ll be passing my village; stop at the last house on the right. The man’s name is Scott Nelson. You can spend a night there. Tell him that, while hunting around the Sleepy Mountain, I ran out of cartridges, and my old rifle became a burden so I asked you to drop it at his house. Tell him that I’ll be home next week… Memorized?”
“Piece of cake, father! God’s my witness: I won’t forget…”
“Alright, alright,” Willie paused for a moment. “Don’t miss my village though, always keep the sun on your left hand side during the day and the moon on the right side at night… Scott’s house is the only one surrounded by a white fence…”
“Don’t worry, father.”
“Well, then, young fella,” Willie began walking away, but stopped and turned around, “Listen,” said, “something I need to tell you: the Social Security man is really the county Sheriff. It’s a good thing he didn’t wake you – a shrewd son-of-a-bitch, wouldn’t let you go,” a quick pause, “I bet you a silver dollar: as soon as I’m back, he’ll get glued to me like a bath’s leaf, “Where did he go, who is he really…”
The young man didn’t interrupt, just listened in silence.
“Enough talking, stay safe, OK?” advised Willie, tossed the sheriff’s rifle up his shoulder and took the cutting in the forest in order to get back to the hut. He almost made it to the turn, then heard some noise, as though a bough snapped deafeningly above his ear. And at the same moment he felt as if he was pushed by a few fists in the back, neck and the back of his head. He fell straight forward, face in snow. And didn’t hear or feel anything any longer. Didn’t hear how he was covered hurriedly with snow, how the young man said firmly, “That’s better, father, safer.”
… When the sun came up, the young man was already far away from the cutting in the forest. He never looked back. Thick pleasant snow quietly rustled in the air. The wilderness was waking up. Dense vernal smell of the forest stupefied and spun his head.
He felt at ease and quite happy.
About the Author:
Lazarus J. Trubman came to America as a political refugee from a small town in the ancient land of Transylvania, which for years had been forcefully attached to the Soviet Empire, after experiencing firsthand the hospitality of the Committee of State Security, KGB in common parlance. After obtaining degree in philology and linguistics, he worked as a critic for a literary magazine and later taught literature and writing at a local college. In 1990, after three unsuccessful attempts, he finally boarded the shiny Boeing-747 bounded for New York. He settled in Tucson, Arizona, where for 25 years he taught languages and Russian literature. In 2016, after retiring from teaching, he moved to North Carolina to dedicate the rest of his time to writing.
Lazar J. Trubman has been writing professionally since 1983, publishing – when allowed by the censorship – two collections of short stories and a novel “It Won’t Hurt”. Another novel, “Adaptation to the Past”, had been published in 2012.
Married, three grown children.