“Have a nice day, Mrs. Donovan, and thank you for the treats!”
Jack closed his mailbag, adjusted his skis and off he went to the next house, approximately four kilometres away. His long bushy beard was filled with icicles, but he was warm under the two layers of pants, three layers of upper-body clothes and gloves. The weather did not make his first day on the job very easy, but at least it was sunny.
“Ok, next up it’s Mr. Albert. Two kilometres forward and right at the first intersection,” he said to himself as he read the map he inherited from Mr. Hugh, who just retired after 43 years on the job.
It was hard to be a mailman in such a remote mountain pass where everybody’s neighbour is kilometres away, but he was enthusiastic about the new adventure. He did not mind the cold, passed his orientation exams with flying colours and was fully equipped for the journey. Skiing was his second nature and the mountains were his first love, so this seemed like a dream job.
“Three more houses to go. I should finish my rounds before 3:30PM so I will have time to get back to the town while there is some daylight. At least the way back is going to be mainly downslopes. I’m gonna enjoy some speed. I should refill my water bottle after the third house, maybe get some tea as well. It’s already cold and windy.”
He was sliding with grace on the crystal white snow. The scratching of the skis was the only sound to be heard in the forest. No birds chirping, no deers digging for grass and luckily, no wild boards to give him any trouble. Peace and tranquillity! It was a meditative repetition, a cleansing of civilization sounds, recharging mental batteries as he was draining his physical ones.
Two breaths in through the nose, one long breath out through the mouth and repeat. He was following a hiking trail that during the summertime was filled with mountaineers. People ranging from five year olds to ninety year olds would start from the town at elevation 1103m and hike all the way up to the summit, a whopping 1500m difference, but the view is spectacular. From place to place there are informational signs with pictures of the local flora and fauna and directions to springs where people can refill their water bottles.
Jack knew very well that dehydration can be fatal, so he packed 3 litres of water and a thermos with a delectable and mesmerising japan cherry tea. It was enough to keep him warm and hydrated throughout the day.
Trails of skis were his guides. The path transformed into a piste during winter and some enthusiasts practice cross-country skiing. He was thankful to his unknown guides for providing him with a little help on his journey to deliver mail. All of the people on his rounds were elders which relied on the pension he had on his mailbag. He could not falter, or they would be left without any money. He knew how important his job was and he took it very seriously.
“Ok, I see smoke. That must be Mr. Albert’s house,” Jack thought.
The way to Mr. Albert was mainly an uphill battle which wore him out. He arrived at a small, wooden, one story house, with a big garden filled with tools, firewood, the remembrance of a grapevine, an empty doghouse, a worn-out wooden table and two benches, all surrounded by a half-collapsing wooden fence.
Jack approached the house and went through the gate. During wintertime, it would take weeks before somebody would disturb Mr. Albert, so he did not bother to lock it up. As he entered its territory, the owner’s big dog started barking from inside the house.
“I guess he noticed I’m here. Hello! Mailman!”
“Who’s there?” a sullen voice asked. “Oh, the new kid! Do you have my pension?”
“Nice to see you too,” Jack thought to himself.
The sight of the mailman was usually a joyous occasion for these people. They would get some company without taking the time to go into town. Mr. Albert became friends with the old mailman after so many years on the job, but as he retired, it reminded him that he was getting old as well. The sight of the new and eager young-blood was a reminder that his best years were behind.
“Here you go, Mr. Albert,” Jack gave him his money after he removed his wet gloves. “Mr. Albert, could I bother you with some tea, please? I still have some mail to deliver and this wind does not make my life easier.
The old man went into his house without saying a word, putting Jack in an awkward situation. Would he bring some tea? Or was that a very impolite way of saying ‘goodbye’ ?
Jack adjusted his mailbag, sunglasses and gloves and was preparing to leave when the old man walked outside with a kettle.
“Be careful out there, kid!” he said. “The wind is going to get harsher soon and you don’t know these places all that well, I’m sure. Whatever you do, don’t stray off-piste and don’t linger. If you don’t get to town before sun-down, you could die.”
“Thank you, Mr. Albert! I will try to hurry. See you next month!”
And he left.
Mr. Albert was right. The weather was not on his side anymore. The sun had been covered by clouds and the wind acted like a ghosty fencer cutting his face with miniature swords. He decided to put on his skiing mask that would leave no inch of skin unprotected.
“Ok, two more to go and three and a half hours until they will need to send a rescue team after me. Damn! I don’t remember it being this far away. I should hurry!”
The next house was several kilometres away, so he picked up the pace. There was no time to day-dream. It was his first assignment and the elements would put him to the test.
After almost one hour and a half, he finally reached the next house.
“Strange! No smoke, no lights, nothing! Oh, there’s a note!
‘Dear mister mailman,
We are away for a few months visiting our grandchildren. Please put the mail inside the mailbox and please take this note with you and throw it away so people won’t know that we are away for a longer period of time.
Mr. and Mrs. Pope’
Some more tea would have been good.”
Jack did not waste time as the clock was ticking, the snow started falling and the wind strengthened. The visibility was drastically reduced. He pondered if we should return to base and come back tomorrow, but his youthful confidence got the best of him.
“I can do this! Just one more house, no big deal. In and out!”
Jack’s pulse was high-up. He had no more tea left, little food and some water. It occurred to him that the decision to go on may have not been the smartest one, but it was too late to back out.
It was difficult for him to see even ten metres ahead because of the incipient blizzard. He was focused, mental-mapping the path to the next house. Stray off-piste and he would be in big trouble. After half an hour a thought had crossed his mind:
“Am I on the right track? I haven’t seen any informational signs in a while. This damn snow and wind are very disorienting. I know that this last house does not have a clear path. It’s not on the trailway. It should be through here.”
Jack took off his skis and started climbing through the trees. He had to take a shortcut - or what he thought was a shortcut - to make time. He did not pace himself, had not been controlling his breathing and was starting to get worried about his situation as fatigue was creeping up on him. The mailman refused to admit that he was lost. His phone died a while ago because of the cold.
He had been climbing through the forest for some time with the skis on his right shoulder, the mailbag on his left shoulder. Jack had been keeping his head down to protect himself from the howling wind and did not see he had been walking towards a wild boar that locked him into its eyes. When he raised his head, it was too late. The snow around the boar had red droplets. It was hurt and Jack was getting closer to it. Too close!
His heart skipped a beat. Both legs froze in place. Even his breath had slowed down. They were less than 10 metres apart. That was a declaration of war.
As Jack took one step backwards, the boar charged.
Fight or flight!
Jack threw his skis towards the wild animal, but with no result as they smashed into a tree. He started running for his life.
His heart wanted to break through his chest, his brain filled him with life-saving adrenaline. He ran down the slope to try to reach the trailway while yelling and throwing branches at the angry animal. Any help was kilometres away. He dodged trees, jumped over fallen trunks, panickingly panting, but the boar would not let down. The animal finally caught up to him, and smashed its tusks into his calf. Jack yelled in terror and pain and fell down the slipery slope, rolling like a log until a tree stopped his descend.
Jack was pinned by the pain. His head was aching, his leg was bleeding, his hopes were fading. The faiths took a little pity on him and the boar had enough and walked away. All he could hear was the wind, his teeth chattering and his heart beating. He could barely see his own hand in front of his face. The snow did not let-up.
He lost his bag, his skis and his supplies. All he had left was his headlight and the radio.
He turned on the light and reached for the “talk” button.
“This is Jack Dors, the mailman! Can anybody hear me? Over!”
“Can anybody hear me? My name is Jack Dors! I am hurt and lost! Please, for the love of God, I need help!”
As with each second passing, his chances for survival dimmed. He tried to stand up, but the exhaustion and the wound got the better of him.
“Please, help me!”
Hope was lost. Darkness enveloped him and his mind. Tears were warming up his cheeks. He thought he saw a silhouette passing by and yelled towards it, but it was just a mirage. Slowly, exhaustion became drowsiness. He was falling asleep for the very last time. With his final bit of energy, he tried one more time:
“This ... Jack ... mailman ... bleeding ... help...”
And he closed his eyes.
“Is this dying? Slipping softly into an eternal slumber? I was cold, but now I’m a little better, I guess. My back feels ok and so does my leg and head. But I don’t wanna die, just yet. I have more mail to deliver. I want to get married, have three or four kids and build a cabin in the woods. Is heaven real? I can feel I’m being lifted. I can see the light...”
“You’re going to be alright!” said the mysterious man as he carried Jack on his shoulder.
“Bruce! Bring that sledge, fast! Come on, this man is dying! Hurry, hurry! Lay him down! Cover him with the blankets! Thank God we heard him over the radio. Good job, Betsy, you ol’ bloodhound! Bruce, call the mountain rescuers, now!”
Writer's note: To enjoy the story to its fullest, it's advisable to also read "Nose of a bloodhound" => https://blog.reedsy.com/short-story/709ooq/