“You speak English beautifully, Lesya,” Jack said. “What is your native language?”
She offered him the tiniest of shrugs, and she might have blushed, just a bit. “I have always had more than one language. Tribal tongues. The words of travelers. Other languages, too.”
Jack thought of the books on her shelf and wondered who had taught her all those languages. At her age, which must have been around his own, give or take a couple of years, her fluency would have amazed him were it not for the way these past few days had redefined words like amaze and astonish.
Lesya rested one hand on the back of a chair as though she needed it to keep from falling. She studied his face a moment and then glanced away.
“You haven’t told me your name,” she said.
“Jack,” he told her. “Jack London.”
“London!” she said, eyes alight with excitement. “I’ve heard of London.”
Charmed, he caught his breath. Simply being near the girl confused his thoughts. He wanted to build something, to hunt something, to defeat another man to win her affections. The instinct filled him with new vigor, though there were no other men about to test his mettle.
“It’s only a name, sorry to say. But I hope to travel to London someday.”
A trace of regret crossed her face. “That would be wonderful.” And then she fixed him with a hard, probing look, all her shyness fleeing. “You were about to leave. Why did you want to go?”
“I…,” Jack began, but he did not know how to continue. Here she stood, this impossibly beautiful girl surrounded by impossible things, and yet she behaved as if her home must be perfectly ordinary. A witch? Perhaps. But he looked into her eyes and he did not see a witch.
“Could I leave?” he asked.
“Of course!” she laughed. “This place is still the Yukon, although my garden is a…unique part of it.”
Lesya shrugged, glanced aside, as if she wasn’t sure how to explain.
“You saved me from the Wendigo,” he said, breaking an awkward silence. “But how did you get me here?”
“I carried you,” she said, as if this were the stupidest question she had ever heard.
A slip of a girl, thirty pounds lighter than Jack himself, even with the weight the long winter and the slavers’ march had winnowed from his frame, and she had carried him. And she thought nothing odd about it.
“This place, your cabin…you know the trees are alive?”
Lesya smiled, rolling her eyes a bit as though indulging him. “Of course. Aren’t all trees alive?”
“Not generally the ones used to build houses.”
The girl frowned, not quite petulant but certainly dismissive. “Well, that’s a pity, don’t you think? This way is much better.”
Hard as he tried, Jack could not think of any way to argue the point. Could it be that Lesya did not understand the extraordinary nature of her home, or was she simply playing coy, and far less innocent than she seemed?
Again he glanced at the door.
Crestfallen, she stepped aside. “If you are so determined to leave…if my hospitality and my home displease you so…I am sorry to have brought you here. Go, if you must.”
“It’s only that—”
“You are frightened.”
He started to nod, but caught himself. “Not frightened, just…” But he couldn’t think of a better word.
Lesya stepped nearer to him, so close that he caught her intoxicating scent again. Her chest rose and fell with each breath, and she reached for his hands and took them in her own, searching his eyes.
“Stay and heal, Jack. Perhaps this part of the woods seems strange to you, but it’s home to me, and there is nothing here to fear. You are safe with me.”
Where their fingers touched, a spark traveled up his arms and raced through him. For a moment he felt the same intimacy that they had shared beneath the furs, terrified into silence as the Wendigo passed by, hungry for their flesh. How long since he had been this close to a girl? Too long. And he had never been so close to one as lovely and delicate, as open and earnest, as Lesya.
If she was a witch and had bewitched him, then Jack welcomed it. A girl like this did not need magic to make a man breathless and eager to please. And when she said he would be safe with her, he believed her. She had kept him alive right under the Wendigo’s nose. That seemed proof enough.
“I should finish my stew,” he said.
Lesya squeezed his hands excitedly and nodded. “Yes, you should. And I have wine, if you’d like some.”
Jack grinned. It wasn’t whiskey, but wine would do just fine.
Lesya was as good as her word. Over the days that followed, she cared for him as he recovered. He slept the nights wrapped in furs and blankets, and during the daylight hours, when Lesya wandered the forest in search of game she did not seem to have to hunt, or gathered fruits and vegetables from her garden, he spent long hours in her bed, inhaling the scent of her from the bedclothes. When they were in the cabin together, she cooked a marvelous array of meals for him, flavored with herbs and spices from her cupboard and garden. After a few days he stopped wondering at the impossibility of the things she cultivated.
Though Lesya protested, wanting him to rest and recuperate, after the third day he refused to remain indoors while she waited on him so completely. He could not chop wood, and could only carry a couple of logs at a time without aggravating his healing ribs, but she did not argue when he wanted to help her gather vegetables for dinner. That small thing helped Jack to feel immeasurably better. He needed to work, and to have a sense of usefulness, and soon his thoughts drifted back to the journey that had brought him here, and the purpose with which he had left his own home.
Lesya made him smile, and he made her laugh. At her insistence, he read to her by candlelight after dark. Her bookshelf included a copy of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, and whenever Jack read of the passionate, doomed love of Sydney Carton for Lucie Manette, they both pretended not to notice the way his voice quavered, just a bit.
Yet in quiet moments his thoughts returned to his own home. His mother, Shepard, and dear Eliza would be waiting for some word of his arrival in Dawson. Wanderlust and a thirst for adventure had led him here, his desire to conquer the wild driving him on, but he carried their hopes and expectations with him. And though that spring in the woods with Lesya felt like paradise, as first one week passed, and then another, he became torn by his desire and duty.
She must have sensed something in him, for one morning Lesya asked him to walk with her in the forest.
Hand in hand they strolled among the trees, the sunlight streaming through above them. Beyond the clearing the forest seemed so ordinary, and Lesya must have taken different paths every day, for there were no trails worn down by her passing.
On most days, they talked as they walked. She had a way of persuading him to tell her stories of his life, and he needed little encouragement to talk of his time as an oyster pirate or dockworker. But he also spoke of his dreams and ambitions in a way that he had never revealed to anyone before, and he revealed the tale of the thirty days he had spent in jail, a hellish drama that even his family did not know. Lesya taught him words and phrases in half a dozen languages, and they discussed books they had read. But other than that she would reveal nothing of herself. Jack wished she would tell him about her life, and yet at the same time he loved the mystery of her. That she had magic in her touch he had no doubt. But he never pressured her to discuss the true nature of her house or garden, and Lesya never volunteered the information.
On that day, though, they kept their thoughts to themselves, walking as happily as lovers on an afternoon stroll in the park.
Jack felt they were not alone. A presence kept pace with them from the moment they left Lesya’s clearing. He knew it was not the Wendigo, for he would have heard it, even caught its scent, if it stalked them there. And though he had been keenly aware of the absence of his spirit guide in the days he had spent in the woods with Lesya, this presence was not that of the wolf.
Something else watched them; something brooding and grim, perhaps even menacing. Yet Lesya seemed to sense nothing, and though from time to time strange shadows shifted deep in the forest, Jack saw no sign of any real danger.
And when they stopped in a different clearing, where the trees grew tall and bent inward and the sunlight shone down so brightly that it turned the spot into a golden cathedral, Lesya reached up to caress his face, and then she kissed him, and all his worries were forgotten.
On a late morning, after he had lost count of the days he had spent in Lesya’s cabin—more than three weeks but not quite a month—Jack stood just inside the open front door sipping a cup of strong tea and studying the trees beyond the clearing. The night before, Lesya had traced her fingers along Jack’s biceps and declared that he needed more meat if he was to fully regain his strength. Though he now felt quite recovered—more healthy even than before he had left San Francisco—Jack did not argue. A look into the girl’s almond eyes, sparkling with tiny flecks of green he only ever noticed when their lips parted after a kiss, was enough to still any argument he might have within him.
If Lesya wished to cook him a special meal, by all means he would eat it, and be thankful. The days and nights with her passed by like dreams, their lingering walks in the woods giving way to time spent within the cabin walls, warm by the fire, or over the stove with the wondrous aromas of Lesya’s cooking filling the place. She taught him more about spices and herbs than he had ever imagined one could know. For tonight she had promised caribou steaks, and this morning she had gone out to hunt.
Jack could not help but wonder how she would trap or kill the animal, how she would carry it back to the cabin, and where she would store whatever they did not eat. But he had learned the fruitless nature of asking such questions. Lesya would only smile, as if the query itself were a silly thing, and Jack ought to know the answer without having to ask it.
Left on his own, he had made tea and sat down to attempt to read Alexandre Dumas in the original French, but soon the warm breeze from the open window and the smells of spring lured him outdoors. Now he found himself focused on the trees at the edges of the clearing around Lesya’s cabin, curiosity niggling at him. Clearing really wasn’t the word, was it? He saw no sign that any trees had been cleared to make way for the cabin. There were no stumps and none of the dips in the ground that the removal of them would leave behind. Yet the trees that lined the glen were uniform as a stockade fence, ringing the cabin and gardens in a circle.
Jack set his tea on top of the bookshelf, just inside the door, but he carried his book with him. Perhaps he’d bring Alexandre Dumas on a wander, find a fallen tree upon which he could sit in the sunshine, and read. Being with Lesya made him so consistently breathless that his desire to explore the forest had been easily sated by his rambling walks with her. But they seemed to take different routes every day, and Jack liked the idea of getting to know these woods.
He couldn’t stay here with her forever, though there were times—moments when she looked at him just so, or when he held her close and breathed in the smell of her hair, or when she laughed—that he wished he would never have to go back to civilization. If this small glen was fated to be the only bit of the wild he would ever conquer, part of him could be content with that.
But only part. In his heart, he knew that he could not stay, and that parting from Lesya would be painful. Whenever he thought of his family back in Oakland awaiting news of his journey, he buried those thoughts deep. With the scent of her still in his head, his hands still remembering the softness of her skin, he put off thoughts of leaving for another day. Another week. Perhaps he could stay until summer.
Book in hand, Jack walked through the flower garden in front of the cabin. The flowers seemed to bloom more fully each day, their colors increasingly vivid, but the trees in the forest had none of their luster. From white birch to black pine, they cast ordinary shadows, and if there seemed more birdsong rising from their branches than he had heard in the wooded walks of his past, Jack ascribed that to their distance from the intrusion of man.
Now he paused at the edge of the clearing, studying the base of a tree. His gaze roamed from one to the next, and he knew that the uniformity of the circle around the house was no trick of the eye. Shifting the book to his left hand, he pressed his right palm against the bark of a tree. Its ridges pressed into his flesh, but the bark felt entirely ordinary to him.
Only a tree, he thought. Whatever magic suffused Lesya’s home—for he had long since accepted that there was magic here—a tree remained a tree. But he glanced at its base, following the knuckled roots where they plunged into the earth, and his gaze pursued an imaginary path back toward the cabin. Perhaps the roots intertwined. He’d toyed with the idea that the cabin was part of the forest, but now he wondered if the opposite might be true, if the forest, somehow—at least this ring of trees—might not be a part of the cabin.
He chose the sunniest gap among the trees and set off, leaving the glen behind. The book felt good in his hand, the texture of the cover a comfort to him, a real and familiar tether to the civilization he had left behind. The thought brought a smile to his face. The hours he had spent in Dawson City had not inspired within him any faith in its connection to civilization, but compared to this place—presumably far from even the smallest village, a tiny place of order amid the chaos of the wild—Dawson seemed a genuine metropolis.
Jack had met the challenge of the Yukon Trail and survived the cruelty of man. He had endured the elements and the rigors of the wilderness. But when he had set out to conquer the wild, to better himself and prove man greater than the powers of nature, he had never imagined the things he would encounter. Back on board the Umatilla, the Wendigo had been only a story. But in the white silence of the far north, myths took on flesh and became terrifyingly real.