Alone, Seeking Life
By Danielle Ranucci
After her mother died on the hunting trip, after she asked her father if she could help make the grave, after he forbade her from digging, and after she watched him try to shovel a hole to the world’s center—so he could escape through it and never return, she thought—he clambered onto Earth’s surface with ghosts crowding his eyes and bought a cabin in the woods.
“We will make a new life,” he told her.
Salt flowed down her cheeks and she didn’t answer.
They left the village the next morning. She shouldered a rucksack stuffed with bullets and wrapped meat. A rifle was slung across her father’s back. It was large, brown, and heavy-looking.
Russet leaves toppled off their branches. She stomped on them when they reached the ground, but they were too freshly-fallen to crunch in protest.
Soon, they encountered a river. Her father inspected it, then made to jump across it towards the skeleton-trees on the other side. His rifle hit his back and he stumbled and would have tumbled into the writhing current had she not caught his arm and steadied him.
It was too risky to jump across with supplies, he decided.
She saw a group of rocks that led to the other side and jutted her chin at them. “Can’t we can cross there?”
He shook his head. “Those rocks are probably slippery.”
But the rocks weren’t slick with water.
“If I can’t cross, you probably can’t.” He turned away.
She stepped onto the first rock and didn’t fall. She crossed the river and didn’t drown.
She grinned at her father. He hadn’t noticed her defiance. He was trudging back the way they’d come, head hunched, the rifle jolting against his spine with every footfall. She thought to call out to him, to show him that he could make it to the other side if he tried. Then she thought better of it. He would only scold her for disobeying him.
Her father never learned that they could have crossed that stream after all.
They reached the cabin. They would make a new life here, her father said. They would live off the animals they hunted, and their only contact with the outside world would be with people in a trading-post, where they would exchange game for supplies.
They didn’t kill anything the first day. The next day they shot a quail. Actually, he was the one who killed it—he never let her hunt on her own, and even when he was with her, he kept the gun slung across his back and away from her hands. When the rifle wasn’t being used, it dangled from a peg on the wall above his bed. She asked him why. He said that she was ten years old, too young to hunt.
“But other kids my age were learning to hunt in the village,” she said.
“Never talk to me about that village.” His lips went taut.
She didn’t mention hunting again.
Years passed. One morning in late winter, her father couldn’t leave his bed without coughing vigorously.
“You eat. I’ll get better in the spring and hunt some more.” He promised her this every day when she tried to feed him from their stockpile.
Spring arrived, and he broke his promise.
She wondered what ailed him. Maybe it was cholera. No, it couldn’t be that. It must have been starvation. She convinced herself of it. Unlike cholera, she could do something about starvation. She would get food from the village, if she could remember the way there. The trading-post wasn’t an option. Her father had never taken her there.
She told her father about the village. He shook his head. “I’ll get better soon and hunt. You don’t want to risk getting killed by a bear because of my cough.”
She turned towards the rifle.
"Don't you dare touch that—" His threat was interrupted by coughs, coughs that sounded like choking, but how could he be choking if he hadn’t eaten anything?
She unhooked the rifle from the wall. The big gun felt foreign to her little hands.
“I can’t let you hunt alone.” He grabbed at her.
She backed away and loaded the gun. “I’ll get food.”
He gave her a stricken gaze, which she ignored, as she left the cabin.
Hunting season had returned, but even in early spring the trees looked skeletal.
Something moved nearby. A doe.
When she had been younger, she’d once seen deer walk to the edge of the village. They had been eating bushes. She’d thought them wonderful. They’d tried to taste as much of the world as they could before they died—berries, leaves, and bramble—even though they must have known it was impossible to eat everything.
She heaved the gun into a shooting position. She struggled with the trigger, wondering why nothing was happening. She thought of when she’d accompanied her father into the forest. He had flicked a latch before shooting.
She pushed that latch, then aimed at the doe and pressed the trigger. The world exploded beside her ear. A massive force jolted her back. By the time she had composed herself to shoot again, the doe was gone.
She considered her options. She could track the doe, or she could hunt other prey. She thought of her mother, who had once said to keep hunting until she killed her quarry, no matter if she had to climb mountains or cross oceans.
Where had risks like that gotten her mother? Mauled by a bear.
What might risks like that get her? Food for her father.
When she caught up to the doe, she would prepare for the rifle’s recoil.
She found the doe nibbling at a branch. She aimed with trembling fingers. The recoil made her miss again, the doe dashed off, she raced after it, she wouldn’t let it escape, not this time, but—
It was already gone.
She stalked through the barren underbrush. She heard a sigh that grew to a rumble as she came upon a river. It had to be the one she and her father had almost crossed years ago, because its opposite bank was crowded with fresh vegetation, and seeing that river had been the only time she’d witnessed the stark disparity between life and death she saw now.
If this was that river, she could cross it and get food from the village. She felt in her pocket. Yes. She still had the leftover money her father had given her after buying the rifle for the hunting trip.
“Damn the shop clerk. Why did he think he could cheat me out of my cash by saying the trigger was busted and that it needed to be repaired? It wasn’t busted. He just didn’t have the safety on.” He’d pressed the money into her hands and had given her a weary grin. She had smiled back hesitantly.
“Maybe the clerk didn’t know that you were an experienced hunter,” her mother had said.
Brightly-wrapped candy-bars had twinkled from a nearby shelf. Her father had tugged her out of the store before she could reach for one.
“We’re never going there again,” he’d declared.
Something moved. Maybe a bear. No. On the near side of the river stood the doe. She gasped, aimed, and shot. The animal jolted, staggered, and collapsed. She grinned and approached the corpse.
Droplets formed a crimson pool so deep she could drown in it. She heard a faint whimpering sound above the river’s roar. The sound came from a nest of deer fawns. The triumph drained from her. She had orphaned the fawns, condemned them to die, because if the doe hadn’t survived, how would they fare on their own? They wouldn’t.
She reached for the doe’s leg. The fawns fled into the bramble.
The leg was cold.
The river howled past her. She hauled the doe away, towards the cabin. Her legs shook. The head of her rifle dragged on the ground behind her.
She reached the cabin and looked through its window. Her father was sitting up in bed. He stared ahead of him with wide, haunted eyes. His cheeks were wet.
We will make a new life.
She looked at the doe-corpse and saw only death.
She entered, hung the rifle over the bed and, looked at her father. He was lying back down. The back of his hand glimmered with the tears he did not want her to know he’d shed.
“I’ve brought you food.”
He was silent. She skinned the deer, prepared it, and offered it to him. He ate.
“You won’t starve.” She smiled.
He coughed and shook his head. “No, damnit. I’ll die.”
She realized that he was trembling, and that his face was flushed with fever, and that he was crying.
“Are you sick?”
She didn’t know how to make medicine, the ground outside was too barren for there even to be herbs, she’d been a fool to delude herself into thinking he’d been starving, and now he would die, and—
“I can get medicine from the village.” Her breathing quickened. “I’d be back after sunset, but I can do it! I will do i—”
“Do you remember how none of them let me borrow a shovel to bury your mother?”
She shook her head.
His eyes blazed with fever. “They thought I would blame them for her death, since they sold us the rifle, so they didn’t want anything to do with me, even though your mother and I were foolish to think we could go hunting on our own, the two of us and nobody else. There’s no damn way they’d sell you medicine for me.”
“Don’t. Just don’t. It would break me to go back there, seeing all those bastards with their wives, laughing at sunsets and not giving a damn for anybody but themselves, and if it breaks me it’ll probably ruin you.” His eyes turned hopeless. “You’re more likely to get mauled by a bear than you are to get medicine from them. Best to stay safe with me.”
She seized a breath. “They won’t withhold medicine—” It was too late. Her father had died, leaving behind fever’s ghost.
Surely the warmth from her hand would keep his from cooling, but his fingers chilled between hers until his hand was as cold as the doe-corpse’s leg.
She was alone.
She didn’t have a shovel to bury him with. She lay him outside behind the cabin and stared at the dead grass under her feet and at the shriveled branches and at the rotting wood of the cabin’s exterior wall. She had never noticed the rot there before. Maybe she hadn’t wanted to notice it.
The sun was setting. She coughed and shivered. Heat blazed through her veins. The last traces of winter, she convinced herself.
She didn’t know where she could go, but she thought of the village.
She slung the rifle across her back and came upon the river. The fawns had returned. They were crossing to the other side of the stream, the greener side, the living side. They would survive there, she thought. They would find food there.
She didn’t cross with them. If she left the cabin, she might never find the village. She would probably get mauled by a bear first. Even if she did find the village, it wouldn’t take her in.
She turned away from the river. Those rocks were probably slippery, anyway.