Torvald was slumped in the snow in the exact same depression he had made a few hours ago. His life was concluded. As before, he gazed over the landscape; the hillside sloping down to the vast forest of evergreen trees, stretching out to the rolling hills and jagged, glacial mountains on the horizon, their shadows stretched long in the early morning light. It would be the final view ever to enter his eyes, and he was glad of it; this was just how he had imagined his death to be; solitary and peaceful. Torvald closed his eyes for the very last time.
Was that smoke?
Torvald’s eyes snapped open.
He’d almost overlooked a tendril of smoke rising straight into the sky. So that was where the old man was staying. The wood he had collected must have been to burn for warmth, as men didn’t have thick hides like elks. Perhaps other men would see the smoke and come to rescue him?
Torvald shivered and shifted himself in the snow. Elks often struggled to keep warm themselves before they died, not being as fat as they used to be. But the discomfort would end soon enough. Again, he closed his eyes to meditate on the life he had lived.
The man’s niece must be down there. He said she was desperately ill. What did he mean by that, Torvald wondered?
Torvald opened his eyes again. This time, he stirred and sat up slightly.
Something wasn’t right.
It just wasn’t the same as before. When he had ventured down the hill, the man had taken something from him; a sense of conclusion, a sense of finality. For the first time in a while, he felt needed, not respected and cared for but needed.
Kayna. Torvald remembered the emotion that had been tied to that name when he had heard it spoken; the kind that would drive a person to do anything in the world for another. He knew a name that he had spoken with such emotion; the name of an elk who had since passed away, just as he had intended to.
Something changed in Torvald’s heart at that moment; a change of the kind that usually determines the course of the rest of someone’s life, though rarely occurs when that someone intends to die. Working against both physical exhaustion and mental doubts, the elk once again struggled onto his hooves.
It appeared his affairs in life were not yet concluded.
* * *
The sky was clearing that morning; intermittent patches of blue were unveiled by benign white clouds which swept across the sky. The nights ahead would be cold.
Walking down the hill and into the wood, Torvald was struck by a niggling apprehension that slowed his pace. Years of conditioning had taught him that this forest was the domain of wolves; if an elk wanted to be safe, they would stay away from the forest. That had changed recently, however. In the last months of his life the wolves had grown bold and restless; they no longer considered only the forest to be their territory. They now hunted on the hills. They hunted with desperation in their eyes and had weak bodies like those of dying elks.
The clearing where he found the man last time was still that morning. As Torvald continued through the wood, hopefully in the direction of the tendril of smoke he had spied from the hill, he pondered on his argument with the man the day before. He had been content to spout his anger then; anger at being disturbed in his ‘final’ resting place, at being tricked into thinking he was entering the afterlife, at having his own death postponed against his will, by a shaky old man, of all things! But things were different this time; he wasn’t entering the woods this time due to mere curiosity, but out of a sense of purpose, albeit an unexpected sense of purpose. He still didn’t know if what he was doing was right. He had hardly forgotten the relationship between animals and men.
Torvald stopped. There, in front of him, was a structure of wood and stone; a dwelling of men. He hadn’t seen something like this since he was a calf. On one side there was a small arrangement of transparent tiles – ‘glass’ – he had been told it was possible to see through the material as if it was clear water. Cautiously, he approached.
Through the glass, he could see a bed of fabrics with a figure lying asleep on top of it; he didn’t recognise it, so he decided it must be the Kayna the man mentioned the day before. Sitting next to her was the man he met in the clearing holding what appeared to be a spike and several teeth strung together. Torvald couldn’t read human faces, but the man seemed preoccupied, distracted, maybe?
Before he could consider this any further, realisation swept through his mind. What was he doing? He was standing there, on his own, in the woods, right next to a man-made structure, looking at a man! Just two paces away from him through the wall! With a start, he stumbled back and, still uneasy on his legs, fell onto his haunches with a thump. To his horror, the door of the dwelling rattled, then painfully creaked open in an eternity which spanned a heartbeat. Old eyes gazed out, set in a weathered face with wrinkles like tree bark; thin lips pinched tightly together within a mess of disorganised grey stubble. Wide amber eyes stared back, the eyes of a half-starved yet powerful beast unsure if its life even meant anything anymore.
There are moments in time, moments perhaps not as rare as people realise, when lives previously in disarray come together and, by a remarkable coincidence of time and space, become the solutions to each other’s problems. And so it came to be.
In his indecision, Torvald continued to stare at the man and, for want of some better way to respond, he stared back. He’d been alone with no-one to talk to – at least, no-one who could talk back – for over a week now. He was confused by the events of the previous night. He was tired. Sometimes, when there is no alternative, the only thing left to do is the unthinkable.
“I thought she was all better.”
The words, though quiet, sounded across the gulf between them after the protracted silence that came before. Far from being unsettled by this direct communication between a man and an elk, Torvald breathed a little easier. Here were two very different creatures that, despite their conflict, despite their separate places in the natural order, were united on the same common ground; a yearning for company.
The man’s gaze broke away as his focus transitioned from outward observation to inward contemplation. He shut the door behind him and dumped himself in the snow shored up against the wall. He was spent.
“I thought I’d cured her.”
He glanced over at the elk with a pang of self-consciousness, then rubbed his nose roughly with the back of his hand.
“I had this relic, you see. This druid told me, a long time ago, that it could be used to cure any ailment of one with a worthy soul, but at great cost, you see. I used it on her, and nothing happened, so I went to sleep and…” he started to tear up. The way he spoke, the way his words spilled out, made what he was saying almost incomprehensible, “…and for a moment I thought she was there, talking to me. But then she ran away, you see, and well… oh, I don’t know.” The man’s face fell into his hands.
All the while, Torvald had been sat down, not quite sure what to do. This was the only man he’d ever met; from the tales and legends he knew he’d never quite envisaged men as individuals like elks, each with their own individual thoughts and hopes and dreams; only humanity as a force which played a role in the greater story. For now, he was content just to listen. A new tale was unfolding.
“It all seemed so real, you see,” the old man continued, “she was there, but then she wasn’t. I ran out and searched for her in the wood, never thought it might be a dream, the fool I am.” Between sobs, he chuckled dispassionately at his own perceived stupidity.
Torvald stirred, “In the most desperate of times, we’re often more inclined to believe our dreams than reality.”
The old man quietened and turned his gaze to the elk, as if surprised to find it was an animate object, as if he had forgotten that the animal was more than just a recipient of his woes. It didn’t seem normal that a wild animal was talking to him, but then, nothing seemed normal any more. He splayed one hand across his face and shook his head in tired exasperation, “I don’t know. I just don’t know…”
“The outlook is mutual,” replied Torvald bluntly. He expected the old man to continue, but he did not. They were once again submerged in an uneasy silence which, by nature, neither was inclined to break. Torvald expected the man to say more, but there was no further communication. This was not the man he met in the clearing just a day previously, desperate to exercise every means he could – and couldn’t – command to save his niece. Whatever had happened overnight, this old man had fallen into an abyssal despair from which there was no escape. He was paralysed by a depression which turned all courses into dead ends.
“Charlatanism,” the old man growled.
Torvald noticed the man was toying with the string of teeth he had been holding inside the dwelling. With unexpected aggression, the man hurled the object away, causing it to clatter against the frozen bark of a tree some way away.
“Charlatanism!” he barked.
This man was broken.
Torvald realised that he had been expecting the man to ask something of him, but it was clear that that was not going to happen.
Torvald stood with all the smoothness of the elder elk he was and calmly, his head bobbing up and down in time with the puffs of condensation from his nostrils, walked toward the foot of the tree. Regarding the discarded relic, he scooped it up with his nose, letting it slide around his neck, and wandered up to the only other person in the wood, “A day ago you said that I was all you could turn to, remember?” Torvald sighed, perhaps blowing out some stubborn resolve as he did so, “I find my death… my life… wanting. It is not that I wish to return to my herd – that time has ended, they are long gone – but I seek… purpose. Traveller, you are all I can turn to.”
The traveller rose out of the pit of despair as he raised his head up to look at the animal before him. Accrued layers of hopelessness and grief fell away as his face scrunched up with fresh emotion.