Tatiana, the dorm leader for the day, jumped feet first into the dark gray water, followed by Liberty. Shin hesitated, gauging the roll and pitch of the boat in the swells, and jumped.
Luck of the Dragon: Cold Comfort
© 2010 by Walter D. Reimer
(Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
The water was like a chill slap in her face and her exposed fur went sodden almost immediately as she swam to shore. A splash behind her told that Brigit had just jumped in. Water was seeping past the gusset in her trousers and filling her boots by the time she waded through the surf onto the rock-strewn beach.
The weather was threatening to close in again, but for the moment the wind was relatively calm as the quartet checked to make sure that no water had gotten into their packs and set about grooming the salt from their fur. Dry clothes were the next order of business, and as Shin fastened up her Sidcot suit Tatiana asked, “Should we take a look around first, or seek shelter now?”
“I say we scout ‘round a bit,” Brigit said. The Irish girl turned, grasped her muzzle and blew her nose.
“And get caught in a blizzard?” Liberty snorted. “I vote we find shelter first. Plenty of time to go exploring later.”
“Shin?” the Russian sable asked.
The red panda replied, “I’m with Lib. Sorry, Brigit. We get out of this fast, and after the storm we look around.” She smiled at the Irish setter. “Besides, we might find a better spot afterward.”
“Which leaves us tied, two to two,” Tatiana observed. The sable lifted her muzzle and regarded the sky. “We look for shelter,” she declared, and the four gathered up their packs and other equipment and started moving a bit further inland.
The island was at first glance maybe five hundred yards or so square, mostly rocks with some deceptively shallow-looking spots. One or two likely areas were considered and discarded.
Finally, with wind-driven sleet starting to fall, they found a rock overhang facing roughly due east that would provide a simple roof. Shin and Tatiana started hollowing the place out further while Liberty and Brigit piled rocks up to make two low walls. A tarpaulin served as the door, and although the shelter was low (they would have to crouch or crawl in order to get inside) it would shield them from the wind.
“Not th’ best o’ places,” Brigit panted, wiping moisture from her muzzle, “but it’ll do in a pinch. Anyone see any driftwood for a bit of fire?”
“I thought I saw some near where we landed,” the red panda said. “I’ll go get it.”
“I’m coming with you,” Liberty said, the half-coyote snatching up a coil of rope. The two knotted the lifeline through their belts before venturing out.
The weather started to get worse as they scavenged up an armload of wood each and headed back the way they came. The temperature dropped further and the sleet changed to freezing rain, then to snow. “I used to think some snow was a treat,” Shin shouted over the gale.
Liberty nodded and shouted back, “I think it’ll only get worse. The sooner we get back, the better.”
By the time they reached their shelter, the storm was driving the snow so hard they could barely make out Brigit’s red headfur. The Irish setter waved them in and helped carry the driftwood into the makeshift cave. “I was hopin’ ye’d no lose yer way,” the canine said as she secured the tarpaulin over the entrance with a few heavy stones.
“Thanks for looking out for us,” Liberty said, vigorously brushing snow from her face fur. She looked around the place.
The wind was driving snowflakes through the small openings in the wall as it piled up. That, in a way, was a good thing; as the snow packed against the walls of their shelter it would help insulate it. A makeshift flue in the roof acted like a blowhole, the wind moaning as it blew past it.
Shin was busying herself with the kukri, chopping the wood into small chunks before taking the chips and gathering them into a small pile. She struck a safety match and lit the pile, then blew on it gently until it started to catch. “It’s wet,” the red panda declared. “It’ll smoke a bit.”
“We will try to set up a chimney,” Tatiana said, “after the storm. Is there enough of a draft?”
“Seems to be,” Shin replied. “No worry about suffocating, I think.”
“And they were telling me about my optimism,” Liberty said. “Besides,” she added, looking over Shin’s shoulder, “it doesn’t look like it’s catching.”
“I did say it was wet.” Shin looked at Liberty, then looked over her other shoulder at the sable. “Anything you can do here, Tatiana?”
The New Havenite asked, “You’re asking if she can do a parlor trick?”
“If it works, it works. I won’t complain.”
“Anything ye can do’ll be helpful, Tatiana,” Brigit said.
Put on the spot, the Russian girl looked a bit uncomfortable. “All right,” she finally said. “I didn’t want to do anything – like that – but if it will help, then da. Don’t watch.”
“Afraid we’ll copy it?” Shin teased, even as she blindfolded herself with her tailfur. The two canines covered their eyes, and the sable cupped her paws over the smoldering wood.
“Don’t worry, we won’t tell, Tatiana,” Brigit said. “Have ye done yet?”
“Da,” came a weary voice. The small hunks of wood were burning slowly, but burning. “I think I lie down now.”
“Need something to eat?” Shin asked. Liberty poked at the fire, her expression plainly disbelieving.
“After I rest,” the sable said.
“Rest sounds good,” Liberty said. “I’ll watch the fire to make sure it doesn’t start smoking.”
“I’ll spell ye,” the Irish girl said as she and the other two readied their sleeping bags.
They awoke later that day, as the sun was going down. The fire and the packed snow against the walls had served to warm up the interior of the makeshift cave.
Of course, the bad thing about it was that the layer of permafrost under the ground was starting to melt, adding to the humidity inside the shelter and making the ground a bit wet.
“What’s the weather like?” Liberty asked, rubbing sleep from her eyes.
Shin had relieved her after a few hours, and the red panda eased aside a bit of the tarp. “Still windy, but it looks like the snow’s stopped. Getting dark fast, though.” She saw the other two waking up and asked, “Who’s up for dinner?”
Dinner consisted of a pot of snowmelt, with a half-can of crab log broken up into it and seasoned with some chili paste to make a thick stew. It was served with hardtack biscuits and a portion of dried fruit each.
Shin sipped at hers from her canteen cup and gave a lopsided smile. “Not bad.”
“Aye?” Brigit asked.
The red panda said, “It could use some garlic.”
The others chuckled, Liberty managing a grin.
Four pairs of ears perked as the wind picked up again, howling past the doorway and their makeshift chimney. Despite the small fire and the four of them in the enclosed space, it seemed to get a bit colder.
After a while, they heard a voice and turned to stare at the New Havenite coyote.
Liberty had started singing Hard-Hearted Hannah, the Vamp of Savannah.
After a long moment, the other three joined in as Tatiana put another piece of driftwood on their small fire.
Tatiana had the last watch that first night, and Shin sat up in her sleeping bag to see the sable peering out from around a corner of the tarp. “Morning,” the red panda said. “Did it stop snowing?”
“Da,” the Russian girl said. She bent over a rock near the entrance and spat on it, then started to look at her wristwatch.
“What’d ye do that fer?” Brigit asked.
“Is old Russian test. Time how long spit takes to freeze, you know how cold it is.”
By the time the spittle froze Tatiana judged that the temperature was somewhere near five below zero. “We shall take a look around, I think.”
Brigit said, “Well, I’m in charge today. An’ I agree.”
“Same here,” Liberty said.
“I’m in.” Shin made sure her knife was strapped on. “How’s the weather otherwise?”
Tatiana eased the tarp aside and looked out. “Fog,” she said as she squinted. “Some cloud maybe, windy,” and the others jotted notes in the small notebooks they had brought with them. With reports required at the end of the exercise, notes were essential.
The journals didn’t weigh much, so (like Shin’s deck of playing cards) it wasn’t necessary to subtract an equivalent weight of food or other supplies.
The sable shut the tarp and said, “Too much fog. We should not go out just yet.” A gust of wind moaned around the entrance to punctuate her words.
“Let me see,” Brigit said. Tatiana rolled to one side and squirmed out of the way as Brigit looked outside. “Colder’n Hard-Hearted Hannah,” she said, “an’ sure th’ fog’s pretty thick. Nothin’ but shades o’ gray an’ white. But the wind’s pushin’ it along, sure, an’ we might be able to head out in an hour or so.”
“Some of us can’t wait that long,” Shin remarked.
The others looked at her, then a trio of sheepish expressions arose as they realized what she was talking about. “Well, we could rig a lifeline,” Liberty said, “or go out two at a time – “
“Two at a time’d be best, I’m thinkin’ – until we rig a line out ta somewhere suitable,” Brigit said firmly. “Agreed?” The others nodded. “Good. That way we can mind each other an’ not get lost.”
It was a bit before noon when the fog was finally driven away by the stiff wind, and the four women clambered out of their shelter. Brigit consulted her compass, and after a bit of discussion they headed down to the shoreline to the east.
From the shore they started north, with Liberty on the seaward side so they would not lose contact with the shoreline. They reached the northernmost point and followed the coast around. After a while, the terrain sloped upward and described a semicircle, penetrating into the mass of the island.
Liberty called out over the wind, “Stop a moment. I want to look at something.” The others gathered around her as she edged forward. “Take a look at this.”
The rocky terrain fell away steeply for perhaps thirty feet, ending in a shallow cove. As they watched, waves broke over a submerged barrier and flowed into the cove, then flowed out again.
“A tidal pool,” Liberty said, her teeth gleaming. “Maybe fresh fish.”
“Crabs,” Tatiana said.
“Clams,” Shin suggested.
“Ye’re all after givin’ us an appetite,” Brigit laughed. “Let’s go down an’ see.”
They gingerly made their way down to the cove, noting that the tide was still high but receding. Shin took a few steps into the water, careful to not let any slop over the tops of her boots, and reached in. “See anything?” the New Havenite called out.
“Well, just . . . this,” and the red panda pulled a round, dark object out of the water and displayed it. She was careful to avoid grasping it too tightly, or the spines would go through her gloves. “Sea urchin.” She looked around. “A lot of them.”
“We’ll have to come back,” Tatiana said, “at low tide, and see what else there is to catch.”
“Right,” and Shin tossed the spiky little creature back into the water.
The rest of the island was unremarkable, covered in snow that varied from a light dusting over the stony ground on the windward side to drifts almost waist-deep in spots.
At least they wouldn’t lack for water.
When they reached the entrance to their cave, they huddled outside to talk things over.
“I make it ‘bout a hundred yards or so wide,” Brigit said, “an’ maybe twice that long?”
“About that,” Liberty said. “Sort of kidney-shaped – if you tip your head and squint at it.”
Shin’s fur ruffled as the wind suddenly started to increase. “We might find a use for your net, Liberty.”
“Aye, but not today,” Brigit said. “Let’s get inside an’ batten down.”
Notebook, Liberty Morgenstern
Year 6, I.XI (1.12.37)
Day three: Found possible food source. Will require work.
Weather remains bad. I had forgotten how cold it could get.
Everyone still working together.
Notebook, Wo Shin (translation)
December 4, 1937, Day 6
Brigit calls the weather filthy, and I agree. Spent an hour outside and still combing ice from my fur. Got some fish drying on the rocks, hope they don’t blow away.
Kill for a hot bath. And everything starting to stink in here.
“One week gone,” Brigit said as she stretched, yawned and poked the fire. They were almost out of driftwood, but had plenty of dried and salted fish laid up. Shin was still living down her oversight on that, as fish laid open to dry on rocks was an open, gilt-edged invitation to seagulls.
The Chinese girl had voluntarily caught enough fish to make up for the loss.
Meanwhile, there had been clams and a few crabs in the tidal pool they’d found, along with a thriving colony of sea urchins. Food was not going to be a problem despite the effort required to catch it. Fuel for the fire was another matter, and the weather seemed to get a bit colder each day, with thick overcast guaranteeing they hadn’t seen the sun in a week.
Improvements had been made to their shelter, with a layer of flat stones brought in to raise their sleeping bags above the level of the melting permafrost. Everyone was making use of Brigit’s tin of pandanus oil paste, but they were all wishing privately for hot baths and soap.
There had only been one fight so far, and that had been limited to a loud argument between Tatiana and Brigit.
A day afterward, neither could recall what the argument was about.
“Huh? What’s that, Brigit?” Liberty asked as she yawned and sat up. The Irish girl repeated what she’d said, and the coyote nodded. “One more week, and we can see the back of this place.”
“I thought you liked it here,” Tatiana observed.
“I do. It’s a great test of what we know. But it’s not Spontoon, or home,” the canine said reasonably. She nudged at Shin to rouse her. “Get up, Shin. You’re dorm leader today.”
“I’m awake,” and the red panda rolled over. “Liberty?”
“Have you thought about what we discussed?”
Liberty looked thoughtful for a moment, then smiled. “That question about dialectic? I might have an answer for you when this is over.”
“Dialectic?” Tatiana asked.
Shin explained and the sable chuckled. “I have to admit the Tutors were clever. They made certain we stayed together, as well as making sure we didn’t loaf.”
The Irish setter laughed, then waved for quiet as her ears perked. “Shhh!”
“What’s wrong?” Shin asked.
“Keep yer voices down – I thought I heard someone outside,” the red-furred canine whispered.
All four immediately drew their knives, always kept near at paw. As soon as they were ready, Shin swept the tarp aside and the quartet came out of the shelter, ready for anything.