Creative works by author Dan Foley.

Of Smoke and Snowflakes

Of Smoke and Snowflakes

 

Phil snapped a twig in half and fed the pieces to his fledgling fire. He was two miles from his cabin and there was no way he could make it back before nightfall. Better to spend the night in the woods than to risk a broken leg walking home in the dark. It wasn’t the first time he had spent the night out, and it wouldn’t be the last, but it was inconvenient as hell.

“Well, at least I won’t go hungry,” he said, to no one in particular as he eyed the raccoon he had already skinned, cleaned, and spitted. Coon wasn’t his favorite game but it would do. He talked to himself a lot these days. It was just to hear a voice more than anything else, and it made him feel a little less alone.

After feeding several more twigs to the fire, he started adding slightly larger sticks. Soon he would be able to add some of the smaller branches he had collected. Eventually he would work his way up to the logs and firewood he had stored in the small cave that would be his shelter for the night. It wasn’t really a cave, but that’s how he thought of it. Actually, it was just a sheltered area formed by a jumble of boulders on the side of a hill. It was one of several hidey-holes he had created in the woods surrounding his cabin. Each was a sheltered spot stocked with dry wood and a few canned goods. This was the first time he had needed to use one of his shelters and he was glad he had had the foresight to find and stock them.

As Phil sat on his haunches feeding the fire, he thought about all the things he would keep in his pack for future nights he might be stuck away from the cabin. Sure, he had his tent, a lightweight, one-person model from LL Bean, and his down-filled sleeping bag, guaranteed to -20°F, but that was about it. It would be nice to have more than the bare necessities. For instance, a few candles and a paperback book would be welcome. It was going to get mighty fucking boring after the sun went down. Ah well, live and learn.

He was stuck out here, three hundred miles from anywhere, until June 1st. That’s when Binky would fly in, land in the lake, and cart him and his cache of pelts back to civilization. And, depending on who was the better (or luckier) trapper, he would either score big or lose it all.

That was the bet, made after a night of drinking – alone in the Canadian wilds for eight months, from October 1st to May 30th, trap as many animals as possible, winner take all at the end.

“I wonder how Adam’s doing?” Phil said to the coon as he suspended it between two ‘Y’ shaped branches he had erected on either side of the fire. “Shit, I wonder if he’s still out there? It would be just like him to bag ass early, ten grand or no ten grand. Then he could laugh all winter while I freeze my ass off out here.”

That was the other side of the bet, the earnest money. They had each put up ten thousand dollars before leaving – Phil had insisted on that just to keep Adam honest. If either one of them came back early he forfeited his earnest money. If they both came home early, the bet was off and no one lost. The thing was, there was no way of knowing if the other guy bagged it. If you wanted out, it was a ten thousand dollar role of the dice. That made things interesting.

When the coon started dripping grease into the fire, Phil selected a can of beans and a tin of black bread from his stores to complete his meal.

“Shit,” he swore when he dug through his pack and realized he had neglected to include a can opener with his mess kit. “Well, you dummy, that’s another thing for the list,” he told himself, as he set about attacking the can with his hunting knife. It was a sloppy job at best, and he spilled half the beans when the can tipped over, but he got it open. He had an easier time of it with the black bread – the can had a pull-top lid.

He was just bending down to scrape up the mess the beans had made when he was hit with the sudden feeling that someone, or something, was watching him. It was early November, so he had a clear view of the surrounding forest through the leafless trees. He scanned the area but didn’t see anything. He didn’t hear anything either, not even a “chick-a-dee-dee”, or the strident scolding of a Jay. It was almost eerie, as if the entire forest was holding its breath with him.

The spell was broken by the raucous call of a solitary crow as it passed overhead, making for its evening rendezvous with the rest of its kind. Whatever had assaulted his senses was gone and he shook his head at his own foolishness.

“Get a grip boy,” he muttered. “It’s just the woods.”

Later, as he sat in front of the fire staring into the embers, the feeling that he wasn’t alone hit him harder than it had the first time.

“What the fuck is going on?” he said, reaching for his rifle and peering past the dying fire, searching the darkness for any sign of life. Once again he found nothing, but this time the feeling did not go away. If anything, it got worse. Something was out there – he could feel it, even if he couldn’t see it.

He was so intent on watching the woods that he was blind to what was happening directly in front of him. Tendrils of smoke from his fire that had been drifting lazily up through the trees had stopped rising, and were now slowly swirling, forming themselves into a vague shape. When Phil finally noticed it, it almost looked like a person floating above the fire.

Startled, he jumped back and tripped over a piece of firewood. Scrambling to get away from the figure, he kicked the wood into the fire and a riot of sparks erupted from the disturbed embers. Rising with the smoke, they entered the figure and immediately swirled and danced within it. Phil watched, mesmerized, as they found each other and coalesced into twin, glowing, red balls that positioned themselves as eyes within the smoky figure.

“Shit!” Phil exclaimed, crabbing away from the fire, not wanting to believe what he was seeing. Impossibly, the figure floated after him. He retreated until his back slammed into the boulders that made up the back wall of his camp. Pinned against them with nowhere to go, he could only wait for the figure to engulf him.

When the first wisps of smoke touched his outstretched hands, it chilled him to the bone. When it reached his face he could smell damp earth and rotted leaves mixed in with the acrid smell of the smoke.

“No!” he yelled, wildly flailing his arms as if trying to swat a bee or wasp from in front of his face. The movement scattered the smoke and left him breathing only the cold clean air of the November night.

What the hell was that? he asked himself when he finally calmed down enough for rational thought to return. He could still smell the smoke on his clothes, and tendrils of it rose from the fire and rippled across the moons face, but the feeling that he was being watched was gone, dissipated with the phantom from the fire.

While he watched, a log shifted, sending a shower of sparks skyward. They swirled within the rising smoke like a hoard of angry fireflies. When a slight breeze blew the smoke and embers away from him, Phil felt the tension go out of his shoulders and he relaxed.

“Jesus,” he said, and laughed nervously. “A little smoke and fire, and I’m seeing spooks. I’ll never make it to June if I keep this up.”

By morning Phil had convinced himself that the events of the previous night had been nothing more than a bad case of nerves and an overactive imagination – an imagination that had gotten him into trouble more than once in the past. Nevertheless, he had a cold breakfast and decided to wait until he got back to his cabin before making himself a cup of coffee.

For the next three weeks Phil kept to a set routine. He had three trap lines that he checked on a six-day schedule. This allowed him to check every trap at least every other day. Any less often and scavengers were likely to ravage the pelt before he could claim it. Any more frequently and most of the traps came up empty. He took the seventh day off to relax, clean and work on his extra traps, and plan for the following week.

This week his schedule was thrown off by a storm that forced him to stay inside well past noon. Starting as late as he was, Phil knew there was no way he was going to finish his trap line before it got dark. Well, there was nothing for it; he would have to sleep out tonight. And, as luck would have it, it would have to be at the boulders.

“I’ll just get back early tomorrow night,” he reassured himself as he headed out.

Phil spent the day trying not to think about the last time he had spent the night at the boulders. He knew the smoke figure was just in his imagination, but it had seemed so damn real. And, every time he had passed the spot since then, he had had the feeling that someone was watching him. He knew it was foolish, but he just couldn’t shake it.

When he finally reached the site, he had almost convinced himself not to make a fire. But if he didn’t, he was admitting the figure in the smoke was real. If he believed that, he wouldn’t be able to stay in the woods. So, after setting up his tent and laying out his sleeping bag, he set about making one.

The feeling that he wasn’t alone didn’t hit him until well after dark, but when it did, it was so powerful he knew it was more than just an overactive imagination. Suddenly, he knew he was not alone anymore. It was more than just a feeling of not being alone, Phil realized. It was much more. Then, like before, the smoke from the fire started to swirl and fold back upon itself, taking on the shape of a person.

As it grew, Phil was buffeted with a barrage of feelings . . . anger, loneliness, despair, but most of all, a yearning for companionship. And, almost as if that was a cue, he knew the figure in the smoke was a woman.

“No!” Phil yelled as it reached one hand out to him, “No!”

Before the figure could move any further, a gust of wind blew through the campsite and tore it apart. It started to form again, and again, but every time it did another gust would send it skyward, or off into the dark, where it rapidly fell apart. Then the feeling that he was not alone was gone, and the fire returned to normal.

When the first snowflakes started to blow in with the wind, Phil doused the fire, crawled into the tent, and slipped into his sleeping bag. Sleep was a long time coming. When it did come, it was filled with dreams, dreams that weren’t his.

 

He was running, running through the woods. He could hear the trapper somewhere behind him, the noise he made crashing through the underbrush louder than the blood pounding in his ears or the rasp of breath in his chest. He wanted to stop and hide, but the woods were bare and provided little cover. Then he saw a cleft in the boulders, a small hollow into which he could crawl. He could make himself small; his brown robe would blend in with the dead leaves and other detritus blown into the crevice. It wasn’t much, but it was the only chance he had.

Waiting in darkness and fear, his breathing so loud it sounded like wind in the trees, a hand on his shoulder tearing him from his hiding place, the bearded face of the trapper, the blow that knocks him to the ground . . .

Phil awoke, startled out of sleep, his body covered in a cold sweat. He lay staring into the darkness, trying to erase the dream from his mind but it was seared into his memory. He lay awake for a long time before he drifted off again.

Once again Phil found himself in darkness, huddled under his robe. Again…the hand,…the trapper. The man was huge, the bottom half of his face was covered by a wild black beard. Bushy black eyebrows dominated the upper portion. Long scraggly black hair streaked with gray stuck out from beneath a fur hat. Above the beard, a bright red scar ran across his right cheek from nose to ear. His massive form was covered in furs. A necklace of bear claws, teeth, and bones was strung around his neck.

Phil felt himself lifted bodily from his hiding place. He struck out at the monster but it was like fighting the rocks he had tried to hide in. The only thing he managed to do was rip the necklace from his neck, scattering pieces in every direction.

A blow from a huge hand struck him in the face and Phil went limp, stunned nearly into unconsciousness. He felt as small and helpless as a child as the giant ripped his clothes from his body. He was thrown, naked, to the ground and the huge trapper started tearing off his own clothes. The man seemed bigger naked than he had dressed, if that was possible. His entire body was covered in coarse black hair and he looked more like a bear than a man.

Phil tried to get up but was still stunned from the blow to his face. When he looked down at himself, blood from his ruined nose covered his breasts and abdomen. Before he could see more, the man was atop him, prying his thighs apart and ramming his dick into him. It felt like it was tearing him apart.  Pain, humiliation and rage flooded through his being.

The emotions he felt in his dream ripped Phil out of his sleep. His heart was beating like a trip hammer and he was curled into a fetal position, protecting his groin. The dream was terrifying, even more so now that he was awake. He had been a woman for Christ’s sake. And someone had raped him!

When Phil emerged from the tent the next morning, he was greeted by two inches of fresh snow and a campsite full of footprints like those a small woman or child might make. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, they barely made an impression in the snow. It was as if who ever made them had floated gently on top of the snow, rather than walking on it. Nothing, not even a bird, could have made tracks that shallow. Before Phil could climb out of his tent to examine them, a breeze wiped the snow clean. They were there and gone so fast that he wasn’t sure he had actually seen them. “Maybe,” he told himself, “they were just my imagination.”

Phil wanted to believe, had to believe, that the events of the pervious night and the footprints were all in his head. Nevertheless, he knew he would never use the campsite again.

When he took his tent down, the ground beneath was a brown scar in a field of white. As he knelt in the space it had occupied, Phil found a scattering of claws, teeth and small bones.

“What the hell?” he muttered as he scrapped away leaves and dirt from his find. “Neat,” he said, as he pulled first one, then another bear claw from beneath the leaves. He found five in all, each with a small hole drilled through it. Mixed in with the claws he found two enormous teeth, obviously canines, but he had no idea what kind of animal they had come from. Ditto for the dozen or so round bones he uncovered.

Just when he was sure he had found everything there was to be found, his searching fingers came across two more small bones. “Fuck,” he swore and dropped them when he realized they were human finger bones. He hastily dug a hole in the dirt, dropped them in, and covered them. He pocketed the claws, teeth and other bones.

With his tent and sleeping bag stowed in his pack, Phil hiked out of the camp, leaving his store of firewood and canned goods, intending to move them to another site when he found one.

Back at his cabin, Phil arranged the claws, teeth, and bones on the table in front of him. To his surprise, the teeth were missing; in their place were the finger bones.

“How the hell did that happen?” he said, as he stared at the bones. “Shit, I must have buried the teeth by mistake. Damn.”

He had intended to make a necklace out of the pieces and now he wasn’t sure what to do with them. “Damn,” he swore again. He really liked those teeth. As he thought about it, though, the idea of including the finger bones in the necklace intrigued him. It was a bit of the “bad boy” he had always wanted to be. “Hell, I can always go back for the teeth,” the told the scattered pieces as he looked for something to string them on. In the end he settled for one of his spare rawhide bootlaces.

Phil considered drilling a hole in the bones to add them to the necklace but decided against it. He didn’t want to take a chance on shattering them. Instead, he fastened them on with ten-pound monofilament fishing line, wrapping them several times to ensure they wouldn’t come loose. When he was finished, the overall effect was impressive – all it lacked were the teeth. He would go back for those tomorrow.

When he went to sleep that night, Phil hung his necklace on a wall peg next to his parka. Unlike the night before, this night’s sleep was deep and dreamless. He awoke refreshed in the morning, ate a hearty breakfast, and listened to the weather radio before heading into the wood. There was another storm coming, a big one this time, but he thought he had time to check his traps and retrieve the teeth before it hit.

Just before he left, Phil slipped the necklace off its peg and placed it around his neck. Once in the woods, he headed directly to the campsite. He wanted to get the teeth before the wind drifted too much snow over the site. Despite the wind, when he got there the ground was still bare where his tent had stood. When he bent to look for the spot he had buried the teeth, he found them lying on top of the ground in plain sight, like they were waiting there for him. Within minutes they were on the necklace, joining the other pieces.

“Shit,” Phil swore as the first snowflakes drifted down out of the leaden sky. He still had a mile to go before he would be home, and he wanted to be there before the snow got too heavy. He considered jogging, but loaded down as he was and as dark as it was getting, he decided not to risk it. At first the flakes were no more than specks, advance scouts for the storm that was approaching, tiny things that disappeared as soon as they hit the ground. A few minutes later they were joined by an army of frozen reinforcements.

“Shit,” Phil swore again and doubled his pace. Then, something strange caught his eye and once again he had the feeling that he was not alone in the woods. He glanced around fearing he was being followed but no one was there. When he looked back the snow in front of him was swirling, forming itself into a figure. A figure he instinctively recognized.

“No way,” he told it and pushed through it before it could become more than a loose collection of flakes. It was immensely cold for a second, then he was through it and   running for the cabin. The figure reformed and floated along behind him. He risked a single glance over his shoulder and almost fell when he did. The figure behind him was denser, firmer, now it had to run on the ground, not float across it. The added weight was dragging it down.

Fear spurred him on and Phil managed to outdistance the thing, leaving it plodding along in his wake. It made one more effort to stop him by reforming in front of the cabin, but once more it was too loosely constructed to stop him and he was able to plow through it to reach the sanctuary of the cabin.

Once inside, he slammed the door closed, snapped the slide bolt into place, shrugged off his pack with practiced ease, and rushed to the window. The thing, whatever it was, was reforming in the swirling snow. Phil watched in awe and fear as the figure took shape before his eyes. At first it was like an area in the storm where the flakes stopped or moved a bit differently. Gradually it took on a definite outline, a phantom figure he could still see through, but was easily recognizable as human in shape.

As Phil continued to watch, the figure became more defined and ventured a little closer to the cabin. By the time features were starting to form it was no more than three feet from where he sat frozen to his chair in fear. The snow ghost, as Phil now thought of the thing, was using the snow to make a body for itself. Each snowflake that came in contact with it became part of the thing. Once its general outline had taken shape, the new snow that hit it added mass to the figure, filling it in. It evolved before his unbelieving eyes, changing from a crude construct to a finely sculpted figure with very lifelike features.

It – she – was obviously female, petite, no more than five feet tall with small breasts and long braided hair that fell like snakes over either shoulder. Her flat belly and flared hips were definitely those of a woman, not a child. The hair on Phil’s neck stood on end as he stared into her sightless eyes. Then it seemed to shimmer and, a second later, the process started all over again, this time right outside his window.

The figure pressed its featureless face to the glass as if trying to peer inside. Phil recoiled and staggered to the opposite side of the room. His heart jumped into his throat when it raised a snowy hand and struck the glass. Phil cringed, expecting the glass to break, but instead the hand shattered, leaving only a stump of an arm below the elbow.

The hand immediately started to reform and this time the creature waited until it was thicker and more defined before striking the window. Once again it was the hand that shattered, the window held fast. The hand formed a third time, thicker still, but when the figure tried to strike the glass, the arm snapped off at the shoulder.

The thing shimmered again and Phil knew it was going to try the door next. He had thrown the slide bolt, but ran to place the security bar into its brackets just in case. Nothing happened for several minutes, but eventually the latch on the door rattled as the creature attempted to get in.

The storm continued unabated throughout the day and into the night. The snow maiden, as he had come to call the figure, continued to stalk the cabin. The snow outside was crisscrossed with her trails – some fresh, some no more than memories – but none of them strayed more than a few feet from the walls of Phil’s refuge. His nerves, once raw with stress, were now merely numb. The tension had drained him and he fell asleep sitting at the table.

Phil watched from above as the trapper who had pummeled his face and then raped him stood up and spit on the broken figure that lay sprawled in front of him – she was small, tiny really, in comparison to the monster standing over her. She flopped with the looseness of death when he grabbed her by the hair and yanked her into a sitting position. Phil knew she felt nothing when the trapper scalped her, but he cringed in sympathetic pain. He thought the man would stop there, but he didn’t. He cut off her ears, her nose and her breasts. Only then did he don his clothes, not even bothering to clean the blood from his body.

Phil awoke stiff and groggy. Weak light filtered in from the window next to him so he knew without looking that it was still snowing. He didn’t want to look outside, but he had to. Once again the snow maiden was peering in the window, white eyes as blank as ever. She raised her hand again and Phil thought she was going to resume her attack on the glass. Instead, she opened her hand in a spread-fingered gesture, and as Phil watched, her index and middle fingers snapped off.

“Fuck,” Phil swore when the significance of what he had just seen hit him. Two fingers – two finger bones. The finger bones on the necklace, the ones he had found with the claws and the teeth. They were her bones. She wanted them back.

“Well tough shit,” Phil muttered to himself. “I am not stepping outside this cabin while she’s out there. If she wants her bones back she’s going to have to wait until it stops snowing.”

The figure nodded at him as if it had heard what he said and promptly shattered. It reformed further away from the cabin and pointed toward the woods.

“Yeah, right,” Phil said, “like I’m going back out there.”

It was still snowing when the last of the light faded from the sky. Phil hadn’t seen any activity out of the snow maiden since she pointed to the woods. It was almost as though she had given up and gone away, but he knew that was just wishful thinking. She was out there somewhere. He sat at the window staring into the dark until his eyes hurt, but it was useless. He couldn’t see anything, not even the snow, so he wearily made his way to bed, collapsed on it, and fell asleep fully dressed. His dreams that night were not filled with visions of the past. Instead, all he saw was the campsite, covered in snow like a Currier and Ives Christmas card.

When he awoke in the morning, bright light streamed thought the cabin’s windows. Looking outside, he was almost blinded by the brightness of the landscape. The storm had transformed the world into a winter wonderland. Snow carpeted everything. The only things that weren’t white were the incredibly blue sky and the black trunks of some of the trees. Everything else looked as if a manic cake decorator had smeared it with a coat of vanilla icing.

Phil looked for the snow maiden, but there was no sign of her. The figures she had inhabited were nothing more than shapeless mounds. When an hour passed and she still hadn’t made an appearance, he thought she might actually be gone. Then it hit him – every time he had seen her she had used the smoke from a fire or the falling snow to create her herself. Without it she had no form, no physical being. That gave him hope and an idea.

Phil knew that neither he nor the girl would know any peace until she had her bones back. With a clear sky and no snow on the horizon he could easily make it to the campsite and back before sunset, even walking in snowshoes.

When he opened the cabin door, he was greeted by three feet of fresh snow. It was light and fluffy and he quickly shoveled enough space in front of the door to allow him to get in and out without filling the cabin with snow. Then he donned the snowshoes and set out on what he hoped would be his last hike through these woods. When he got back he would use the emergency radio to call for someone to come and get him. If nothing else, the snow maiden had taught him life is too short to spend alone in a cabin in the woods.

It took him a while to establish his rhythm with the snowshoes, but when he did, he made good progress. But he couldn’t help feeling that he had overlooked something. It nagged at him, flittering around in his mind like a moth around a flame. The more he thought about it, the more elusive it became. He finally gave up and tried to enjoy the walk.

When he reached the campsite, it looked just as it had in his dream. He took the necklace out of his pocket, cut the bootlace with his knife, unstrung it, and dropped the claws, teeth, and animal bones at his feet.  He held the bones, trying to decide what to do with them. He couldn’t bring himself to discard them in the same pile with the others. They deserved something more. Looking around he decided to place them in the cleft in the rocks she had hidden in until the trapper had found her. It was protected from the elements and seemed more fitting than just dropping them on the ground.

As he started scooping the snow out of the crevice, the thing that had been bothering him popped into his mind. It was the snow. Why couldn’t the girl just use the fresh snow on the ground to create herself? As if in answer to his thought, a figure erupted from the snow and launched itself at him. It only managed to knock him down before it shattered into pieces. Before he could get up a second figure formed and sprang at him. It too broke apart but added its bulk to the snow from the first. A third emerged – and a fourth, and a fifth. Phil fought to get up but each new load of snow slammed into him like a blow from a prizefighter. Soon he was completely covered and the snow kept coming. He could feel its weight, pressing him, squeezing him into the ground. He was helpless, trapped in a frozen grave.  Bitter snow, laced with the pain, humiliation, rage, and now the hate that he had experienced when she was raped filled his mouth, his ears, and crammed its way down his throat.  Fear filled his mind.

Too late Phil realized she didn’t want her bones back. She wanted revenge. She had lured him back here, to where she could exact that revenge for as long as their bones lay mingled in the place of their deaths.