Today, the mountains were pristine. The snow sat calmly, the white fuzz thinning where the sun struck hot on stone. Many didn’t hike the trails this early in the season—thick ice warded hikers off the treacherous hikes—but that thought drew Silas in even more. The paths would be empty; that meant peace, that he could revel in the quiet the snow offered up on his lonesome. Even the thermos, hanging from a clip on the side of his bag, sounded muted as it softly clanked with each step.
He navigated the path with practiced ease. His eyes slid from the ground where he would step, up to the silent owls watching him through their puffed, milky feathers gaze, to the luminous sheets of clouds sitting on the horizon. It was the closest to content he could get, with a trail of snot running down his cupid’s bow, his fingers cramping underneath the thick fabric of the mittens, and the wind tracing the back of his neck. His whole body tingled with awareness, sensing more than seeing the wildlife all around him. A rabbit bounded across the snow, an opaque blur, the water droplets on its fur spangling in the sharp sunlight. He smiled as it disappeared from sight.
It was strange how the mountains called to him. It was silent, but it was as if they were humming an ancient tune, a low vibration that he could not hear but resonated with him nonetheless. The only voice he would ever need. Here, the years passed folded upon one another until centuries snapped and faded in the endless expanse of the earth—this far from civilization, he could fancy himself a vagabond trudging through land never before beholden by human eyes. It was easy to pretend that his loneliness was a choice. Here, he had the mortality of a flea in the endless expanse of the wilderness—his insignificance was a seamless wound rather than the ragged, coagulated, screaming edges of his isolation. But that was all fine. He preferred it this way.
He unscrewed the thermos with weak hands and took a sip of hot tea, shielding the contents from the frigid air best as he could. It stung pleasantly at his mouth, like slipping into a hot bath. He closed the thermos and trudged on.
He knew, of course, how dangerous it was to hike alone in weather this cold, on trails this icy, after the snowfall that had blanketed the country. His hike was not without risk. And perhaps it was bad luck, or the odds catching up with him, that made that risk rear its wretched head.
Around noon, he crested on a fallen tree in the middle of the marked path. Its wide branches spanned outward and left no room for him to pass through or over.
He weighed his options. Of course, he could go home. March back the way he had come. But the notion of entering society earlier than he had planned nauseated him. Here, his loneliness had a purpose, a place amongst the prickly leaves of the pine trees, amongst the sharp, blinding gleam of the sunlight on the snow. So instead, he tightened his grip on his poles and veered off to walk around. It would be simple. He could follow the tree and walk right back to the other side of the path.
He followed the trunk up the side of the trail as it grew thinner and watched with extra care where he stepped. It was more of a climb that he bargained for, but he was in shape, and the exertion left him warm against the cold. It was when he grabbed onto a rock to haul himself up that things started to go wrong.
He was almost to the top of the hill. So when the rock holding him up gave way, panic set in, and all he could think was, fall forward, not backward. Using his legs to shove forward in a half-jump, half-step, he hit the top of the hill, but it was too thin for him to lie flat without falling down the other side. He swore as he began to slide down, and despite how he grappled for anything to keep him from falling, he tumbled down. Jutting rocks jabbed him like elbows, and the thin, low branches of bushes and trees swatted him and sliced at his exposed face. Finally, he hit the bottom with a hollow thud. He heaved a gasp that slid like knives down his throat and wriggled to ensure nothing broke in the fall. He had gotten his arm to move when simultaneously, he heard a deep, thundering crack, and something grabbed his forearm and tugged. Hard.
He slid across and landed with a puff just as something split where he had been lying. He took to the side to notice that he had fallen not on the hard ground but on a frozen stream, and the impact of his landing had broken the ice, which now gushed freely, collecting snow and churning. He stared at it, then looked at the fluffy white jaws that gently released his arm, then at the man crouched beside him. All he could gleam at a glance were dark eyes that reflected the bright sun with stunning iridescence. He looked back at the stream and shook his head, trying to work through his thoughts, but he couldn’t get far in the mental sludge.
“You saved me,” he rasped. The dog that had hauled him from the frozen stream began to circle them, barking. A huge Great Pyrenese. It came back up to Silas and licked him across the nose. One word from the man and it settled, snuffing the white powder out of its nose and shaking its great coat. The man tugged Silas up with incredible strength for someone he guessed to be about sixty. The wind was beginning to blow, picking up the snow and spreading it in wild swirls. Silas zipped his coat up and wrapped his arms around his chest against the sudden frigid air. The man said something, but the whistling wind curling against the pine trees swallowed the words. He waited a moment, then tried again; his words were coiling, foreign things, not English.
“I’m sorry,” Silas said, “I don’t understand.”
The man pointed somewhere behind him. “Warm,” he said, thick accent blocking some of the sounds.
Silas shook his head. “No, I can just go back up the trail.” He clumsily pointed to the path. A steep climb, he now saw, but he would be alright.
“No,” the man said, muttering again in his language: Silas guessed it was French. “Warm,” he repeated, sounding bothered. The dog barked and trotted back to Silas to nose against his hand. Silas ran his fingers against the fur, scrubbing at its head. The man turned around and began in the direction he had gestured, using his poles to propel himself forward with astounding agility. Silas gazed down at the Great Pyrenees, then began after him with a sigh.
His body pulsed with wayward aches, leaving him weaker than he thought. He panted from the trek and grudgingly realized that the man was right; he would have never been able to climb back up, not in his weakened state. It was burdensome trying to keep up with the man’s grueling page, and he lost him within the trees multiple times, having to rely on the Great Pyrenees to lead him to its owner. They came to another stream, where the man was waiting with his poles. He gestured for Silas to go ahead, and he did, only for the man to grab him and pull him back a step. Silas shook him off with an aggravated huff and turned around to face the man with a look. The man put his black pole where he had been about to step and shoved it through an unseen layer of ice. Silas shook his head, incredulous at the theatrics, and tried again.
They went on like that for what felt like hours, the man monitoring his steps with wicked attention, hassling him away from danger. Silas used his poles to seek out safe places to walk, and every few minutes, the man would grab him without warning and haul him away without a word. Silas tried to make him go first, but the man stood like black iron, unbudging. With each rough shove, Silas grew a confusing mix of irritated and admiring; he tried to see what the man saw, tried to look for the hints that he was about to make a mistake, but there was simply something the man knew that he didn’t. Finally, they reached a little footbridge. A thin layer of ice coated the wooden boards, and the man grabbed his arm without a word, keeping him steady as they wobbled across. On the other side, Silas wrenched to a stop.
“Break,” he huffed. The man looked alarmed at his lack of stamina, and Silas resisted the urge to roll his eyes. He spotted a fallen tree and brushed off the thick pile of snow, sitting to catch his breath. Silas shrugged off his pack and took off the thermos, offering it to the man. The man shook his head, nose wrinkled. Silas snorted, taking gulps of his own and rubbing at his aching muscles.
“So, what’s your name?” Silas asked after a long period of quiet. The man stared blankly. Pointing at himself, he said, “Silas. I am Silas.” The man frowned and repeated his name with a thick accent, and Silas nodded. “That’s right.” He pointed to the man, who said something quick. Silas gestured for him to repeat it, and slower, he said, “Al-bear.”
“Albert?” Silas said, pronouncing the ‘t’.
“Non, Albert,” Albert said, with the french pronunciation.
“Okay, Al-bear.” Silas huffed. He pointed to the Great Pyrenees. “And that one?”
“Clothilde.” The man’s—Albert’s—stony demeanor melted a bit, and he whistled her over, rubbing her ears with his weathered hands. He lets her go to take off his cap and scrub his hand through his gray hair. Clothilde trotted over to Silas, allowing him to do the same, digging his fingers through her thick fur and murmuring, “Good girl. You’re the only nice one on this whole mountain, huh?” He pressed his face to hers and scratched her back before letting her go, sniffing around the area around them. When he looked back at the man, there was something different in his scowl.
“No far,” he said. “Safe . . . safe in time.”
“Uh, oui.” Silas grapples with his memory, trying to scrounge up the French classes he slept through in college. “Je comprends. I understand.”
Albert nodded once, then stood and marched on. Silas took a deep breath and followed. They walked for a while longer before a little cabin came into view. The smell of sanded pine overcame the liquid, cold smell that had clogged his nostrils. He watched with faint relief as smoke from the chimney climbed high into the Colorado sky.
Albert pushed past where Silas had stopped to admire the structure, Clothilde in tow. She bounded around on the porch with a happy bark, trotting back and forth on the lightly-dusted wood, before sitting at the door and waiting for Albert to unlock it. He did, shoving it open, before thumping back down the steps to grab some more firewood, clutching the logs under his arms. He then disappeared beyond the dark doorway. Silas thudded up the steps and followed him inside.
He had never been so grateful to be indoors. His eyes, used to the reflective snow, needed a moment to adjust to the dimly-lit hut. Most of the light came from the fireplace at the corner of the room. Albert breathed on the smoldering coals and heaved another log on the fire with a wooden thunk, setting the others down in the woven basket nearby. He moved to the stove and clicked it on, pushing a scuffed, black kettle onto the flame. While he fiddled in the kitchen, Silas looked around.
The cabin had a homely look, soft and worn. Silas kicked off his boots where Albert had, on a shoe rack that dripped with melting snow, a dirty rag underneath to catch the water. The loveseat was fraying, with wiry threads pointing in every other direction. A hazardous stack of throw pillows collected dust next to a pile of framed photos on the floor. The only decoration was a ceramic plate with two large handprints around one small one, nestled with ashtrays and empty bottles on the mantle. Something important itched at the back of his mind, but Albert spoke before the thought could come to fruition. Silas couldn’t decipher the words, but when he turned around, the man was holding a steaming mug out. He gruffly shoved it in Silas’s hands and took his own, sitting in the chair in front of the fire.
Silas curled his frozen hands around the mug, sighing at the warmth that darted from the ceramic into his sore joints. He looked down and traced the engraving on the front: ‘Père’.
He sat across from Albert. The only sounds were the crackling of the flame between them and the alternating sips of their beverages. Silas wouldn’t say anything about how Albert poured a little whiskey into his mug, even if he knew how. He watched as Clothilde curled at Albert’s feet, thumping her tail against the fraying carpet.
“Warm?” Albert asked with a rasp. Silas recalls his french teacher, a lithe blonde with a voice like flower petals. He never figured french could be spoken roughly, hard as an ax, splintered as a cedar stump. It gave him a new admiration for the language.
“Oui, merci,” he said, grimacing at his fumbling pronunciation. They both stared at Clothilde. Sensing the attention, she rolled over, legs curled in the air. Albert smiled, and the sight buzzed through Silas. The man bent down and ran his bitten-down fingers through the soft fur on her stomach. He mumbled something soft in French, then looked up as if remembering Silas didn’t speak it.
“Beautiful girl, non?” His smile was like ice on a dark road. “My boy name her. Remind me of him, you.”
“I remind you of him?” Silas asked, quiet. Albert nodded. “His name?”
“Cédric. Beautiful boy. Comment dit-on . . . obstinate. Like you.”
Silas huffed into his mug, smile hidden.
“No safe, alone, in snow.”
“Could say the same about you.”
Albert stared into the flames, the black charcoal fuzzing with smoke. “Alone a long while, now.”
“I’m sorry. . . Je suis désolé.” The words were clumsy and did not hold enough weight. He traced the letters on his mug, staring down into the black liquid. He met Albert’s dark eyes, finally seeing comprehension there. And they sat in the empty silence of grief, one that Silas thought he could escape, one that he thought he could outrun if he disappeared into the mountains. But, it caught up to him and wrapped its wretched hands around his throat.
But it didn’t destroy like he thought it would. It did not burn him up and leave desolation in its wake. Instead, they sat together, floating in the soft ache of companionship. And it was okay. When Albert passed him the bottle of whiskey, he poured it into his coffee without complaint, and Clothilde began to snore, and they both warmed and smiled at each other. The companionship was not worth how long it lasted but rather how much it was worth in the moment. And to Silas, who had been alone too long, it meant everything.