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Dusk in Kalevia: Chapter 11

A downloadable package of this chapter (.pdf, .epub, and .mobi) is available in the Sparkler Monthly Issue #018 back issue.

Inside the summerhouse, Kaija was shielded from the wind, but the stillness made it feel almost colder–as though the very air had frozen solid. She looked around the single room at the scattered remnants of summers past: a fishing rod, a camp lantern. Someone had clearly lived there and possibly would again, but in the dead of winter the thick dust was undisturbed; there were no signs of recent habitation save for the droppings of field mice on the floor. For now, this was a dead place, slumbering until the thaw like a frog in the ice.

She voiced a single word, reminding herself of her only hope for survival.

Fire.

There was a stove in the corner with black drum sides and a pipe going up to the roof, and beside it, a neat stack of birch logs sat in a metal box. Kaija opened the flue and stuck her head into the stove just above the thin layer of ash in its belly, listening to the wind howling down the chimney. Fuel had been left out in the basket, ready for a summer evening–twigs and curls of bark, an old yellow newspaper, and a box with a few long matches remaining.

Kaija stared down at the newspaper with a weird sense of dislocation; she recognized pages that had run through the presses last summer. The heat and noise of the print shop in her mind energized her enough to crumple the pages up into little balls and build a mound of them on the tiles of the stove.

Kaija began to narrate her actions aloud–slurred musings in barely intelligible Kalevian as she broke twigs and rolled paper between her palms. It kept her focused. She had begun to shiver violently again, her hands jittering all over the place and her teeth chattering like a wind-up toy. She dropped a log, the sensation in her usually deft fingers severed by the cold. She struck the back of her fingers against her forearm, grateful for the little sting and the slight flex they gave to let her know that they still lived.

Kaija felt like a fool for having let this happen to her, but her past could not be changed, and why worry about the future when its continuation came down to the burning of three matches? She gripped the first, struck it on the box, and shielded its flame in her trembling hands–but her movement was uncoordinated, and the flame guttered and died before she touched it to the kindling. The second match, however, managed the journey into the stove, passing on its flame to the mound of sticks and paper within. She caught a whiff of wood smoke–the calming smell of combustion and salvation.

Reality was starting to slip away, her thoughts vacant and troubled. Her clothes were strangling her; she suffered at their heat. She knew this was wrong–she couldn’t possibly be warm yet–but she began to remove them without thinking as she stumbled around the room. She peeled off her coat and her sweater, struggled with her boots, and let her pants fall to her ankles until she stood naked, staring at the blossoming fire with the wonder of a prehistoric woman.

As the logs caught, Kaija paced. Her woozy brain told her that so long as she was moving, her blood was moving, which led her stumbling back and forth for a few minutes until her leg hurt too much and she collapsed on the bed.

It was set into a little cubby in the wall, covered by a faded quilt, and it whispered promises of sleep impossibly sweet. It took enormous effort for Kaija to resist its siren song. As a distraction, she grabbed the quilt and shook it, releasing a cloud of dust and a musty odor. Her nose wrinkled as she brought it to her face and sniffed its faint, waterlogged smell. This is the eventual fate of all things in a summerhouse, she thought. The lake crept into them, and they forever kept the smell of the damp close to their core. She wrapped the quilt around herself and settled in front of the stove to warm her hands.

They woke slowly and painfully, announcing their resurrection with an intolerable itching that wormed its way down to the marrow of her finger bones. The skin had not developed the waxy pallor of severe frostbite, but had instead gone mottled; red and white patches bloomed across it like streaks of fire crackling under the surface. She was tempted to rub them, to tear at them in agony, but remembered something Martin had once told her about frostbitten skin while they had walked in the woods together.

Maybe in another life he could’ve been a doctor, she thought. He always did care too much when someone was hurting. Poor Martin. Oh, well.

It was that train of thought that forced Kaija to finally examine her wounds. She slid her hand down her leg, feeling the way blood had thawed into a horrible, sticky dampness on the skin near the gunshot wound; she then touched the top of her shoulder, near where it throbbed with every beat of her heart. It was becoming increasingly clear that the dizziness she felt was not just the effects of hypothermia, but blood loss as well. She had been avoiding looking at the wounds, afraid of what she might see. She took a deep breath and peered down her thigh.

The bullet hadn’t pierced her leg so much as carved a groove along the flesh–a narrow, curved gap through which bloody muscle glistened. There wasn’t anything to stitch up, since there were no ragged edges of skin to pull together, nothing much she could do for it besides try to disinfect it and dress it the best she could.

She got up and looked at herself in the dark-speckled glass of the window. In the reflection, she could also see the small chunk that had been torn out of her trapezius–less severe than her leg, but still leaking blood and threatening infection.

In the cupboard she found a bottle of vodka, a cast-iron saucepan, and a few speckled camping cups, all of which she brought over to the fire. She tore her undershirt into strips slowly and meditatively, and stared for a while at the raw red channel from which her life slowly ebbed, before finally working up the courage to unscrew the cap from the bottle. She took the corner of the quilt in her mouth before she poured.

Even as she screamed she was taken aback by the sound of her own voice–ghastly through the blanket between her teeth–as the spirits coursed over her open wound.

She surely passed out for a few minutes, for when she opened her eyes, the room was finally beginning to get warm. She wrapped the quilt more tightly around herself on the hard floor and reached for the impromptu bandages. As she bound her leg, she alternated taking sips from the bottle and dabbing her shoulder, enduring her pain through her fear of gangrene.

Once she had recovered some of her balance, Kaija shut the stove. A water supply was the last thing she needed before she gave herself over to exhaustion. Saucepan in hand, she limped over to the door to gather some snow, wishing she have didn’t have to bear the cold again until she was good and ready. She only reached outdoors to nudge some snow off a nearby bank, slammed the door shut again, and set the full pan beside the bed to melt. And finally, mercifully, she pulled herself into bed.

Now there was nothing to do but wait. Survival was out of her hands. Miserable and weary beyond belief, she curled up around herself and hoped that this was a sleep from which she would wake.

Proceed to Chapter 11, page 2–>