The Wild

Page 16


He opened his eyes to see a stone hearth in front of him, fire crackling inside, and he ran out his tongue to wet his cracked lips. His face felt dry and tight in the heat from the fire, and any movement, any expression, brought him pain. Still, he smiled and pulled the blanket—for someone had covered him as he slept—up to his neck.

But now fully awake, he realized that he actually felt too hot. The very idea seemed absurd, but nevertheless, he threw off the blanket and welcomed the chilly draft that eddied across the floor.

Jack sat up and looked around. Stiff and aching, he felt a hundred years old, but his pains were forgotten as he took in his surroundings. At home he would have considered this a simple cabin, but in the rough, remote terrain of the Yukon Territory, it seemed quite remarkable. Though a single room, the cabin must have measured forty feet square, and its floorboards and beams gleamed as though freshly cut, their lines as perfect as if they had been put in place by a master builder.

The huge stone fireplace interrupted one wall, but on the opposite side of the cabin stood a heavy black iron stove, its pipe rising up through the roof. There were doors front and back, and beside each one—and this surprised Jack the most, so far from what he would deem civilization—was a tall, many-paned window of warped, handblown glass. Sunlight streamed in through those two windows, and beyond them he saw forest.

Heavy furs had been stretched on the floor as rugs. At the front of the cabin there were two chairs arranged by the window to catch the best light, and beside the door a shelf laden with books. The sight of those volumes, some bound in cracked leather and others titled with gleaming gold filigree, made his heart leap.

The rear corners of the cabin were given over to living space. Nearest Jack, on the hearth side, a bed sat in the corner, head-and footboards simply yet elegantly carved, mattress hidden beneath a French floral coverlet. Opposite the bed, in the corner beside the stove, a small, round table had been draped with a white lace cloth, and two chairs were snug against it, presenting what passed in this cabin for a dining room. A cupboard held a rack of dishes, bowls, and glasses.

The table had been set for one. The smell of cooking lingered, but he had barely noticed it before. Now, though, the sight of the white bowl on the table, the fork and knife and spoon just so, made his stomach roar with hunger. A cramp fisted in his gut, and for a moment he only sat there on the floor, clutching at his belly. When the cramp passed, Jack staggered to his feet, for he had noticed perhaps the most important thing about this strange place.

The pot on the stove.

It had been set to one side so that the contents would stay warm but not cook any further. Feeling more than a little like Goldilocks, and bearing the warnings of such tales in mind, he walked gingerly across the cabin. With every step, he noticed things that he had been too overwhelmed to take in before. His boots sat on the floor by the stove. His feet ached, and his socks were thin and worn, but the boots had been set out to dry. Likewise his jacket hung on a hook by the door, as though he himself had made a home here.

But the prospect of food crowded out all other thoughts. He took a breath, staring at the pot, and then uncovered it, only to find himself awash in aromas that made him sway with hunger. Someone—the girl? Was the cabin hers? How had she brought him here?—had made a stew, and his mouth watered at the rich, meaty smell of it. A wooden spoon lay on the stove, and he picked it up and stirred, glimpsing carrots and potatoes and cabbage, but even better, dark chunks of meat that he thought must be rabbit.

Jack debated the wisdom of eating food left by a stranger, but only for a moment. Hunger overrode any hesitation. After all, what else was he to think except that the stew had been left, and the table set, for him? And he could find no logic in suspicion. No one would have gone to the trouble of bringing him here only to poison him, especially not the girl who had saved him from the Wendigo.

He frowned. Was that what had happened? She had hidden them under the furs, yes, but had the Wendigo simply missed them, somehow? It seemed impossible. The monster should have seen them and, if not, should have smelled them there. And yet it had been entirely blind to their presence.

The idea that the girl had done this nested deep in his thoughts. There must have been some trick to it, perhaps some musk in the fur that masked their scents. What else could it have been?

These thoughts crossed his mind in the seconds that it took him to bring the bowl from the table and fill it with stew, ladling meat and vegetables to make sure he got more than just broth. Returning to the table, injuries all but forgotten for the moment, he made certain not to spill a single drop. He slid into a chair, picked up a spoon, and lifted the first taste to his lips. Rich flavors filled his mouth, and then his hunger took over. He lamented the spots he left on the lace tablecloth, but not enough that he could stop himself. Jack doubted he had ever tasted anything so wonderful, and as he dipped the spoon once more into the bowl, he felt the soreness of his gums, which reminded him of the sores on his thighs and legs, both symptoms of scurvy.

Jack blinked, staring into the bowl. Carrots. Potatoes. Cabbage. Just what he needed to stave off scurvy. The girl, or whoever had prepared this stew, was not only feeding him but helping to heal him as well. Yet none of this was what struck him so suddenly as to make him pause his spoon above the bowl.

In the wild northlands, where could such vegetables possibly be grown so early in spring? The ground had thawed only weeks ago.

He dipped his spoon again and continued eating, but now his mind grew as ravenous as his belly. As he ate, invigorated by the meal, he glanced around the cabin again. Surely the girl did not live here by herself, yet Jack spotted no trace of a man’s influence in the place. The floral coverlet alone indicated only women slept in that bed, so perhaps the girl had a sister or mother who shared the home.

Yet how did she—or they—survive?

Survival. The word echoed in his mind. His spoon clinked in the empty bowl, and he rose automatically to refill it. As he spooned out more stew for himself, he continued to study his surroundings, and the same familiar feeling of unreality began to creep into his thoughts as he had had upon waking. A cabin—or better yet, a cottage—in the woods, a fire burning in the hearth, food left out for a lost stranger…it all smacked of fairy tales. Yet he was himself, Jack London, and his injuries and his hunger were real. The heat of the fire and the stove were real. The rich taste of the stew…that was also real.

This is no fairy tale, he thought.

But around him there were hints of the impossible. Fresh vegetables this early in spring, in the midst of the wild. And then there was the cabin itself, so expertly constructed. Now, though, as Jack stood in front of the stove with his bowl in his hands, what caught his attention was the absence of certain things. The cabin’s walls were totally devoid of the tools of survival. In any other cabin he had visited—most in climes far more hospitable than the Yukon, but even in the tiny shack where he, Merritt, and Jim had spent the winter—those tools had been there, or their past presence was evident.

There were no snowshoes hanging on the wall, nor any hooks to indicate there ever had been. He saw no fishing pole, no net, and no rifle with which to hunt. In fact there were no weapons at all. Surely outside, up against the cabin, there might be some kind of enclosure where firewood would be stacked and tools could be kept—a shovel, an ax, a saw. But even if that were the case, weapons would be kept inside.

Curiosity battling with his hunger now, Jack fetched his spoon from the table and walked around the cabin as he ate, bowl raised almost to his chin. His search turned up nothing to contradict his observations. Still amazed by the quality of the cabin’s construction, he took another bite and then paused by the hearth, where the fire was now burning lower, to inspect the wall. The logs were joined perfectly, each of seemingly identical size, and he ran a finger along the horizontal seam between one and the next.

What had the builder used to seal the gaps? He walked the length of the wall, moving around the hearth, and noted the uniform nature of each log. There were no chinks in the walls, no gaps filled by rocks or sticks, and the spaces between the logs had not been sealed with mud daubing or sap.

Bowl in hand, Jack leaned in closer, peering at the space between two logs. He pushed a finger in and found it smooth. Brows knitted, he used the back of his spoon to scrape at the joining, and bark stripped away, revealing white, glistening wood beneath.

There were no seams. The spaces between the logs had not been sealed because there were no spaces; the logs had grown together. Underneath, the bark was green, and the wood glistened because it lived.

Stew bowl cradled forgotten in one hand, he turned in a slow circle, staring at the walls and doors and then tilting his head back to look at the rafters, all of it alive. He staggered toward the front of the cabin and set the bowl on top of the small bookshelf, bending to study the spines of the books. English, French, Russian, and other languages. Spinning around, with the impossible closing in on him, he stopped suddenly and looked at the floor.

Did the cabin have roots? It had to, if the trees that had been cut down to build it were still alive. Had it grown like this? Impossible. Unimaginable. But still there could be no denying his discovery. The doors and windows and the furnishings were ordinary enough, as far as he could tell. But otherwise the cabin was made of living wood.

Jack went to the front window and froze. The cabin sat in a clearing, beyond which the forest grew dense and dark. A thick tangle of wildflowers bloomed out there, vibrant purples and blues, pinks and oranges and reds, colors so rich that they erased all memory of the grays of Dawson.

He shook his head. How could any of this be real? He thought of stories he had read in which men took the wrong path in the woods and found themselves in the realm of fairies and sprites, gone only for days by their reckoning but reemerging into the world to discover that it had progressed years in their absence.

Jack clutched the sides of his head, trying too late to deny the reality of this place. How long had he slept? Where had he truly woken? How had he come to be here?

He snatched his coat from the hook by the door, putting it on as he stumbled to the stove to retrieve his boots. He stepped into them without tying them and moved toward the back of the cabin, but as he passed the window on that side, he froze yet again, this time at the sight of a thriving vegetable garden, half an acre overgrown with a mad variety of plants. Beyond the garden he saw apple and pear trees, and vines heavy with grapes.

“Son of a bitch,” he whispered.

And then a breeze caressed the back of his neck. Even as he turned, he realized he had not heard the door opening.

The girl stood just inside, the sun streaming in around her, perfectly silhouetting the outline of her body beneath her cotton dress. Despite his fear and bewilderment, her beauty struck him speechless.

And then she smiled with such innocence and sweetness, only to blink in surprise, her face collapsing in genuine sadness when she realized he had planned to leave.

“What did I do wrong?” she asked, cocking her head. “Didn’t you like the stew?”

CHAPTER TEN

ECHOES IN OLD WOOD

JACK COULD NOT TAKE his eyes off her. Nor could he shake the regret that seized him when he realized that he had caused her sadness. In her voice and in her expression he saw not an ounce of guile. While both her home and her beauty were otherworldly, the disappointment and crushed hope in her gaze were unquestionably human.

He took a long breath, glanced around at the simple comfort of the cabin, and saw no danger. Magic, perhaps, for what else could he call a cabin made of living wood? But no peril. An errant thought whispered through his head, of Hansel and Gretel, a candy cottage, and a witch’s oven, but he did not dwell on it. That really had been a fairy tale, and witch or not, the girl who stood on the cabin’s threshold was inarguably real.

Her gaze dropped, and her lips bowed into a tiny pout. “Not enough salt,” she said, and it took him a moment to realize she was still talking about her stew. She had spotted the half-eaten bowl atop the bookshelf.

Jack swallowed, throat dry. He glanced out the window at the wild garden in the back, and a realization struck him. Where would he go? He had no idea how far he had come from the river where the slavers had camped, or in which direction. His cracked ribs made breathing uncomfortable, and though his other injuries would not slow him down, one meal would not be enough to replenish the strength and vigor he had lost, nor stave off scurvy long enough for him to return to civilization. He had no weapons, no food, no supplies of any kind…and the Wendigo still roamed somewhere out there.

“The stew is perfect,” Jack said.

She brightened instantly, her smile returning, along with the shyness she’d had when he had first seen her. But then her expression grew troubled again.

“You must be starving, but you did not finish it.” Almost demurely, she gestured to the abandoned bowl.

Fighting his doubts, wary of her and of her home but recalling the way she had protected him thus far, he took two steps back toward the center of the cabin.

“That’s my second helping.”

“Oh,” she said, nodding happily. “That’s good, then.”

The girl picked up the bowl and carried it to the table, passing within a few feet of Jack. He caught the scent of cinnamon as she passed, and his senses were overcome with the memory of their first meeting, of her lying atop him, body molded to his, of breathing in her exhaled breath and that warm sweet smell of her.

“Don’t you want the rest?” she asked as she set the bowl down and turned to look at him.

Jack found that he did, very much. His stomach growled, and he still had the taste of rabbit stew in his mouth and wanted more. A glass of water or whiskey would also be welcome. Furs and blankets and warm fires, fruits and vegetables…he wanted to stay.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

She turned toward him so quickly that it was almost a pirouette, the hem of her dress flying. “Lesya. I am Lesya.”

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