Winter Count

Liz Betz

Rolland checks the weather and the number of animals on his sled.  He pulls up on the hilltop, sets the brake, and slips the harness from his shoulders.  This is the part of his trap line where the silver fox appeared two winters ago.

It is overcast, but the snow still gathers and reflects light.  Rolland keeps his sun goggles in place.  He looks to the east, where he sees his neighbor’s vehicle on the road.  Then, he hears the horn – Jones’ greeting.  He lifts his hand in response.

At least twice a year, Rolland uses snowshoes instead of a snowmobile to honor the traditions of trappers past.  His snowshoe use today is for a different reason, a reason less pure.   He thinks of the silver fox and how this land is hallowed by her presence, but his thoughts sour.  Because of Marilyn.

His eyes follow the trails. Raven prints appear and disappear as they land or fly.  The tiny trails are from mice while a braid of tracks tells of a coyote who follows a deer, but Rolland’s prints are those of a liar.

The lie is one that would explain to Marilyn why he isn’t coming home.  She’s to believe that he is spending the night in the survival shack. She might think he is spending a couple of nights, to do the last two loops from that base.

It must be around 1:00 if Jones is off to town for coffee.  Jones, boisterous and barrel-shaped, fits in town, but Rolland is like the slough willow that only casts a scant shadow in the wild.

Jones and he are friends because they are neighbors.  They are day and night with only dawn and dusk in common.

If it is one o’clock, and Rolland checks his watch, his progress is slow today.  He gets past the bush to the clear field. His trap line offers two options, one that leads him homewards while the second loops away.  If his sled is full or the sky threatens, he could go the shorter route, or worse come to worse, he is not far from his shelter shack, an abandoned granary pushed into the bush.  Rolland has a few survival items there and more on the sled so he could sit out a storm.  Though for the past five decades, he has always made it home.

In the season that Rolland traps, Jones feeds his two hundred cows and bonspiels, while his wife, the Mrs., serves a home cooked meal to Rolland as often as every couple of weeks.  Jones used to push himself from the table with a groan and ask Rolland if he was sure he didn’t want a woman to cook for him.  Just get married, he’d say.

His neighbor is happily married, in a large part because of the Mrs., but no one really expected Rolland to marry.  Then at the Jones’s  anniversary celebration, he met Marilyn.   Her silver hair drew his sympathy.  Somehow, she took a shine to his crusty bachelor self, and he mistook a family resemblance to Jones’s wife as a character reference.  Once she became a part of Rolland’s world, Jones slapped him on the back and told him, your life’s going change now.

He repeated the message as a toast to the bride.  Ha. Ha.  Perhaps it was a warning, but Rolland was grateful that he was no longer alone.

But as far as changes were concerned, Jones could not have possibly meant this.  Marilyn is not a happy bride.  She is a city creature, and he’s not only country but a primitive trapper.

Rolland will continue to trap for a long time yet; his health and fitness deny his 70 years. And he’s careful.  He has to be.  He works alone in the magnificent outdoors.  He’d be lying if he said he was sorry for that.

The beginning of his lie to Marilyn began when he readied snowshoes instead of his snowmobile.  Marilyn, whose first cup of coffee had yet to quell her displeasure about morning, noticed the change of pattern.

“What are you doing now?” she asked with exaggerated weariness, but Rolland answered more kindly than usual because of the stone in his heart.

“I do this sometimes.”  Because he still had her attention, he added, “I snowshoe in, and stop for my lunch at the shack.  It’s a real nice day for it.  I could make a campfire.  Want to join me?”   He glanced at her briefly. Then, he looked at the pile of her DVD’s, the potato chips on the couch, and the counter covered with empty bottles of cola.  There’s nothing to do, she claimed, out here in the sticks.

“Oh, a campfire, how elegant!  At the Shack!  Be still my beating heart.”

A few months ago, Rolland would have chuckled, thought she was play-acting, and considered his wife an exotic addition to his life.  He tried.  Half a lip darted into his cheek, and a solitary ‘hee’ escaped.

But Marilyn’s face was ugly.

“You act like it’s a resort. Rolland, it’s a freaking busted up granary!  And if I went, I’d have to pee in the snow and freeze my ass.  So.  No. Thanks. Darling.”