It was a miracle they found the cabin at all. Thom had the topographical maps and one compass, Julian another, and Marty an infallible sense of direction. They’d been friends since university, though Marty had left after his second year to start up the social media network that Julian, a lawyer, and Thom, a history teacher, took pains not to envy. Occasionally, over drinks, Julian would mention Marty to his date. If she asked the wrong questions, or pressed him for details, he calmly paid the bill and never rang again. He wrote poetry, a slim volume of which had recently received a minor award.
For one sacrosanct week each January, the three vanished into a region as rugged as it was remote. It was part of their pact to carry no gps devices, no transceivers, no modern technology whatsoever. If it were up to Marty, they wouldn’t have even packed whistles and emergency flares. Last year they’d trekked through rainforest to the Kaieteur Falls in Guyana, but the crocodiles eyeing their canoes from the riverbanks reminded Thom of his deputy department head, and this January they’d gone back to cross-country skiing.
A light snow was falling at the drop-off point and for the first few hours they made excellent time. During a break they squabbled amicably about the route, their face-off as warming — and as familiar — as their hot chocolate. Marty often reminded Julian of a pit bull, albeit a lovable one. Julian favored the pillowy glades for the climb to their cabin, while Marty had studied the satellite photos and was all for striking northeast across a sharp ridge where there would be a couple of decent chutes and a jagged forest run.
“I’m a bit out of shape,” Thom said apologetically. “The new baby and all.”
By the time they huddled for a hurried lunch, no one regretted settling on the soft option, not even Marty. Snow was falling heavily now, the wind corrosive, reducing visibility to instinct. To go back, however, would be foolhardy: back to what? The chopper wouldn’t be returning for another week, and in any case it would be grounded in blizzard conditions. They emptied their flasks and ate a high-energy bar each, then broke out a crevasse rescue rope to secure themselves to one another. They let Marty take the lead. In an hour it would be dark, but they ought to reach shelter by then.
“This isn’t skiing, it’s shuffling in a chain gang,” Marty grumbled. The weather had no earthly right to thwart their plans. If the others decided to spend the next few days holed up in a cramped cabin without even a cross-trainer or set of weights, he, Marty, would ski on his own. Not that he’d desert his mates, of course not, but a good run within a five-mile radius of the cabin wasn’t desertion by any man’s definition. A snowstorm hadn’t defeated him yet. Julian would make his usual dry remarks, and Thom — well, Thom might be getting too middle-aged, too housebroken for this sort of thing.
Thom stopped. The others lurched, nearly fell.
“Watch it!” Marty bellowed.
“What was that?” Thom asked.
“What?” Julian asked.
“Didn’t you hear it? Something was growling.”
They peered about them, only Marty keen to encounter a hungry specimen. Snow was accumulating in the vents of their goggles, and Thom’s were already so fogged up that he pulled them off in frustration, upbraiding himself a moment later when snow coated the inner lens. He squinted against the claw and bite of the storm, its blind frenzy, straining for a glimpse of what was out there, straining for a silent roar, straining.
“It’s just the wind,” Julian said. At home he wrote every morning for two hours before breakfast, his passion for an immensely complicated technical challenge not limited to jurisprudence. Whatever use he might later make of this storm, whatever voices it penned, he was not about to encourage Thom. Last year that fuss about the crocodiles! It had been all he could do to keep Marty from feeding Thom to a somnolent granddaddy.
“I know an animal when I hear one,” Thom said.
They waited for Marty to sheath his hunting knife, then set off again. The wind was at their backs, driving them onward with howls, with icy breath, tracking its quarry in a hunt to sweep the land free of intruders. By the time they stumbled through the cabin door, halfway to snowmen, night had swallowed the white darkness of the storm.
Julian switched on his torch and swept the beam around the log cabin. Warmth their first priority, he was relieved to see the promised wood-burning stove and a neat stack of firewood. The wooden ladder would lead to the sleeping loft, but it didn’t look as though they’d able to stand upright except under the gable, he himself possibly not at all. Aside from trips to the woodpile and outhouse, they’d be spending their waking time downstairs.
After shrugging off his backpack, he clumped across the room, positioned the torch on the floor, and knelt in front of the stove. It was customary to leave crumpled newspaper and kindling on a small bed of ash, ready for newcomers. He stripped off his gloves and reached for the box of matches. In the fraction of a second before the paper caught, his grief flared, the fee for loving too well. He would never forgive his ex-wife: “At least you got a book of poems out of it.”
Julian watched while the tinder went up in flame, the sudden lash of heat a form of flagellation. He always insisted on lighting the fire, on crouching within singeing range. Whoever serviced the cabin was evidently dependable: the firewood proved both seasoned and dry, soon burning with a throaty rumble. He fed the stove a few more pieces, then rose to remove his outerwear before it began to drip, his gaiters especially. There was a drying rack near the stove for just this purpose.
“Thom, why don’t you collect a bucket of snow before taking off your — ” Julian turned to address his friend, who was in charge of the evening meal. “Thom?” He swung round, raising his voice. “Marty? Thom?”
The room was empty except for the small figure of his son.
When Julian was seven, he saw his first ghost. On a rainy Saturday afternoon, he’d been adding Thor’s great hall of Bilskirnir to the Lego kingdom he and his dad were building in the seldom-used sitting room. The black stool made a tall, gleaming, austere portico, behind which stretched the magnificence of the piano. Julian would be allowed to play on it once he began lessons, his mum had promised. She read to him most nights, but it was his dad who had the patience to return again and again to Julian’s beloved volume of Norse myths, whole sections of which he could recite by heart.
Julian was on his belly under the Steinway, constructing a long fire down the middle of the banquet hall, with benches and tables on either side for feasting, when he heard faint strains of music. Alice liked to listen to the radio while she dusted or ironed, but since he was trying to work out whether to dismantle the mountain that hid the three kettles of Sutung’s magic mead for more blocks, it didn’t occur to him that she had the afternoon off. Odin, god of the gods, would find the mead no matter where it was kept. And half a hall was worse than no hall at all; Thor would never countenance a ruin. Julian made up his mind. He’d rebuild the mountain as soon as his mum brought home a new box of Lego. Next week, she’d said. The last few days she’d been too busy at the office. His parents believed in keeping their word, even to a child. Especially to a child.