Into the Woods

They had taken to the trails in their snowmobiles. They were coming from all over the area, whipping through fields and woods. They were experienced enough and sensible enough to have packed emergency equipment and know how to use it. You needed to keep warm if stranded – those were not flesh and bone dog teams – and alcohol was not the way to go. One by one they converged to the cabin they would call home for the weekend. Mike was already there. He had come early to get the wood stove going, and the cabin was nice and cozy. He had brought in supplies, game as usual, that they had hunted in the fall.

The mounts were gleaming in the sun, the men exhilarated. Bob lived the furthest. He had travelled a full four hours to destination. Ray and Jeff had met up early on, in a path near their homes. The brothers always rode together. Ray had a utility snowmobile, the kind they used to haul work sleds laden with equipment. It went at a leisurely pace. Jeff’s was a two-seater, handy for those rides where they wanted to go faster. They usually shared it for the midnight ride on the ice. Steve came in with a brand-new snowmobile, destined to win any race. He had brought a new recruit, his coworker Rohan. Rohan’s parents came from India but he was born in the cold country. He too had a performance steed, royal blue, which he handled easily. The men gathered around to greet them, discuss horsepower and exchange stories.

Ray had brought the cases of beer, according to preference. Rohan fit in nicely. Though he did not know the old stories, he laughed in the right places and held his liquor. He was also an outstanding mechanic boasted Steve. He saved his bacon when his new snowmobile stopped unexpectedly. He actually carried his tools with him. “Better than a blanket,” he laughed. They drank to that. The ride had built up their appetite, though they would have eaten frightfully even without. Ray and Jeff were burly men and could be counted on to not let anything go to waste. Mike asked Rohan, uneasily, “I hope you’re not vegetarian. We’ve only got meat and potatoes.” Rohan made a face, and put on a heavy accent. “As long as it not sacred cow.” Mike looked around, unsure. “It’s caribou.” Rohan laughed and said in his normal voice, “I was just pulling your leg. I’m not religious. I’ll eat anything.” They shared a laugh and clinked bottles.

“I’ll put the potatoes to bake on the embers while you guys settle in. They should be done in about half an hour.” The sun was setting. They each took a small bedroom, except for the brothers who shared the larger one. They had brought down sleeping bags but would still wear their woolen socks to bed. They took off their heavy snowsuits and hung them to dry near the stoves. Soon, the place was all steamed up. Beer was flowing and chips were out. They evoked the hunt where they killed the moose they were about to eat, reminiscing about the beauty of the beast. Their families would feed off it for a while. Their frozen shares were waiting for them. Mike had the beast butchered and quartered in the fall. The men would be bringing the meat back to their families. “Do you hunt, Rohan?” “No, I don’t own a gun.” And so the discussion took a turn on guns, and which were the best and for what. “Ladies? Who will grill the steaks?” asked Mike. They all pointed their bottles at Bob, who got up with a grunt.

“He’s the youngest,” explained Steve helpfully to Rohan with a smile. “And the best cook,” boasted Bob to half-hearted applause and jeers. “Hey, be good or I’ll burn yours!” He took out the potatoes and stoked the fire. Soon, flames were dancing high and the steaks were sizzling. They all sat together at the table, elbowing each other as they ate the gamey meat. They drank to the moose who gave up its life to feed them and then settled to the serious business of eating. There wasn’t much talking for a while, the men focused on polishing their plates. Rohan looked a little distressed at the amount of food laid out for him. To his relief, Ray noticed it. Winking at him, he cut out a large chunk that he brought to his own plate. He cut it in two to share with his brother and that was that.

The men were subdued after the meal. Ray dozed off while the others washed the dishes and played cards. Steve went out to take a whiz. “You wouldn’t believe the moon, guys. Who’s up for a midnight ride?” They all went in the cold to empty their bladders. Custom dictated you kept your distance from each other and chatted about other things. They came back in to get dressed, six yellow stains marking their spots, keeping wild animals at bay.

Mike took the lead. He knew these parts well. The headlights picked out the trail in front of them as they roared through the woods, scaring the wildlife. They wore baklavas or scarves tucked into their hoods, to avoid frostbite on their faces. With their heavy coats and their masked faces, you couldn’t tell them apart. The brothers rode together. They had teased Rohan about bear attacks earlier, succeeding in scaring him. The fact is, you were never too cautious. Who knew what lurked in those woods?

The lake was frozen solid on its banks. The moon shone hard on the ice. They couldn’t tell if it was safe to ride across yet. In any case, there was no need. They could ride along the banks, fanning out a bit. As soon as they saw the river, Rohan and Steve jostled for position. Their steeds were chafing at the bit, engines rumbling. They escaped the slow peloton and raced ahead, giving their mounts full rein. Off they went under the moonlight and further onto the ice. Rohan was slightly ahead, and then a full length. Suddenly, he veered off-track, as something black suddenly erupted through the ice in front of him. Steve swerved to avoid Rohan and lost control, one ski hitting something and flying off in the air. He landed on one ski and valiantly tried to recover. But it was too late, and the snowmobile fell on its side, trapping Steve’s leg underneath.

Rohan was first on the scene, having circled back quickly. No one had been wearing helmets and he feared a concussion. He turned his engine off, then Steve’s. The others hurried to the site, keeping a safe distance to make sure the ice held. They killed their engines as well. In the deafening silence, chirping was heard, then a squeal as everybody turned to see. An otter was looking at them with curiosity. Its head protruded from the breathing hole. Rohan pointed at it, “that thing came out of nowhere.” The mustache was frosted, the eyes intelligent. “Guys, a hand please?” Steve was all right. They heaved the snowmobile off his leg and righted it. His leg was throbbing, but he could move it. “Next time, to your left, uh?” Rohan nodded, looking disconsolate.

Ray and Mike both had first aid training, from their coaching days. They checked for signs of concussion, asking about dizziness and ringing in the ears. They were all hockey fans and knew enough to be worried. They agreed to chill a bit and for Steve to ride in the back of Ray, while Jeff brought Steve’s snowmobile back to the cabin. There was no arguing, a bit of joking as Steve said Jeff only had to ask if he wanted his turn to drive the sporty vehicle. The drive back was subdued. Rohan volunteered to wake Steve up every hour to ensure he didn’t lapse into a coma.

The next morning, they checked Steve’s snowmobile and couldn’t even find a scratch. Steve’s leg seemed fine as well. They were glad Rohan would be riding with him. The men ate a hearty breakfast of beasn, ham and toast. They grabbed their frozen caribou meat and headed back home. Another one for the books.

***

Back on the lake, the otter is scratching the snow. On closer inspection, he seems to be tallying something. He just added one more strike in the “Animal” column. The “Human” one lies empty.

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