Life Up High

 
Art by:  Paul Riebe

Art by: Paul Riebe

 

Wilben’s family has lived in the mountains for as long as he knows. There’s a picture album with a shot of his great-great-great grandparents sitting next to each other, curled up in bear furs, sitting in a hollow of snow, next to them is their pet crow. Wilben knows the exact spot that picture was taken, he passes it almost every day on his way to search for golden pine needles.

The open door lets in a blast of frigid air. Wilben knocks his snow-covered boots against a wood post planted there for that very purpose. The post is beaten, having been whacked thousands of times.

“Shut that door. Goodness it’s cold today,” says Yenna, her arms crossed she rubs warmth into her shoulders. She waits until he’s gotten his boots off, leans in and gives him a kiss. “Was your skin any colder and I think our lips would have gotten stuck.”

Wilben smiles, “That wouldn’t be so bad, would it?”

“I think it’d be funny for about three seconds. How’s the mountain?”

“Grumpy. Going to have to go out after the next snow and blast the big slope.”

“Do you know why your father cleared so many trees?”

Each year the big slope fills with snow and, without intervention, an avalanche is guaranteed. An avalanche will happen with or without Wilben doing something, but the later he waits, the more snow will build up. Getting the timing right for a blast is “As much science as it is art,” Wilben’s father always told him. Before Wilben’s father cleared two-thousand trees the big slope was not the avalanche breeding ground it is today.

Wilben takes a seat at the kitchen table. His beard has begun to thaw and water drips onto the table. Yenna tries drying her husband’s beard as he’s about to talk, they both laugh. Yenna puts a towel on the table to catch the water. “Thanks,” says Wilben. “Haven’t I told you why? I feel like this has come up before.”

Yenna waggles her hands in the air, almost rolls her eyes, “Yeah-yeah-yeah, the Lumbears. I know, but we’ve never had issues with them.”

“My father did, were always trying to rip this house down. Came close once, but something scared them off.”

Yenna shrugs and rocks her head side-to-side. “I know your father wasn’t one to tell tall tales, but what would scare a Lumbear?” Yenna lifts the kettle from the stove, pours steaming water into a mug, spoons a mixture from a jar into after the water. The smell that fills the room is at once earthy and sweet.

“You got chocolate powder?” Wilben asks.

Yenna sets the mug in front of her husband, kisses his cheek. “Yes, from the Nolks. Did you go and talk to Ingram yet?”

Wilben shakes his head, takes a deep drink of the chocolate drink. “No. Meant to yesterday. Got busy with patching the roof and the south chimney.”

“You fixed it, right?”

“Mmmhm.”

The sun is full, the sky clear, the birds are singing. Sun twinkles off the fresh snow. Wilben looks out of the double-pane window and thinks life up high is nice on days like this. The view from here stretches as far as the eye can see. Four of the Cragmaw’s six rivers, fed by ever-melting snow, merge to form Basin River. When the air is as clear as it is today, Wilben can see the little huts that line the Basin. He stands at the window for a time, his breath fogs the window.

From the corner of his eye, up the mountain, he catches movement. A blur of motion too big to be any forest animal. The shape shifts, splits, reforms. “Oh no, shit,” he mutters under his breath.

“Mmm?” Yenna turns in bed, pulls the covers closer.

Wilben grabs the binoculars and looks to where the shadows in the trees continue to move. “Lumbears,” he says, half to himself. Within two minutes he’s stumbled himself into his heavy snow pants and thick winter jacket. He rushes downstairs and can hear Yenna calling after him, asking him what the matter is. Wilben steps into his boots and begins tying them as Yenna comes downstairs with a blanket wrapped around her.

“What’re you rushing out for?”

“Lumbears, just spotted at least six of them in the trees.”

Yenna gasps, “What’re you going to do?”

“Lure them onto the slope,” Wilben stares his wife in the eyes and pulls the shock pistol from its holster.

Yenna shakes her head, “Wilben, that’s crazy. You’ll be swept away with them.”

“Not if I can get out of the path.”

“And if they’re right on you?”

“I’ll figure it out.” Wilben finishes with his boots and pulls the door open. Yenna is next to him.

“I don’t like this.”

“I don’t either, but I have to try something.”

Wilben sees six Lumbears milling around in the trees, can’t see what they’re up to. A couple hundred yards behind him sits his home, another hundred ahead is the cleared slope. The trick will be getting across the slope, drawing the Lumbears attention, then setting off the avalanche with the Lumbears in its path. One of the Lumbears bends down, tears something off a fallen mass, shoves one of the other Lumbears away. Wilben squints and thinks the Lumbear is holding a leg. The Lumbear squats and begins to eat.

Good as time as any, Wilben thinks and sets off for the slope. Every few steps he looks back to see if the Lumbears have spotted him, their eyesight is at least three times better than his, but they’re too busy with what they’re eating to notice him. Wilben makes it to the slope, a forty yard section cut out of the forest, and can tell the snow is set to avalanche with the slightest provocation. A good sneeze could set it off. Well piss, nothing to do but try and make it across. Going uphill and crossing would take far too long and going down isn’t an option.

Wilben takes in the view, sees Basin river, and grins to himself. He thinks, Now or never, and sets off taking each step as careful and easy as he can. Halfway across he hears the Lumbears howl, crashing sounds follow. Trees being swiped by huge claws, branches being torn free, frozen patches of snow shatter. The howls continue. Wilben doesn’t dare turn. Any unnecessary movement could be the excuse the snow needs to let go of its weak grip on the slope. With less than thirty feet to go Wilben sees a shadow moving through the trees ahead of him. Like thick smoke come to life the shadow wraps around trees, defies gravity, swirls, gathers, spreads, and writhes its way towards Wilben.

Ahead is the shadow, behind are the Lumbears, and where Wilben is standing—in the path of an avalanche ready to come down at any moment—might be the most dangerous place of all. Alright, now what? Can’t stay here, sure as hell can’t go back. Guess the only thing to do is go on forward and hope this…whatever it is, doesn’t want to eat me. Behind him Wilben hears the Lumbears frantic howling die down a bit. Seems they’ve seen the shadow too and aren’t so confident about following after Wilben. Somehow the snow has kept its hold, but as that thought crosses Wilben’s mind he hears a long splintering cr-r-rack. The whole mountain seems to move and the snow he’s knee deep in shifts a foot toppling him over. Another dozen feet and he’ll be off the slope and into the trees. The trees where the shadow is moving ever closer. At first glance it had looked like smoke, but now that it’s moved closer Wilben sees hundreds of birds.

The snow lurches again and Wilben is thrown down slope a few feet. He pushes himself up and gives up on being careful, with all the strength he can muster he heaves himself towards the trees. Wilben wraps himself around the biggest tree he can reach as hundreds of black birds fly through the trees towards the Lumbears. The snow begins to slide, slow at first. It looks as if the whole mountain is coming undone. Wilben pulls his hood snug, holds onto the tree, and watches the birds swarm the Lumbears.

As the snow gathers speed the birds dive bomb the Lumbears, confusing them, herding them like dogs with sheep, right into the path of the snow. Too confused and bewildered to see what’s happening, the Lumbears, swatting the air, stumble into the avalanche. A minute later it’s all over, the birds have flown on, the Lumbears are somewhere far below, and the slope is still.

Yenna throws herself into his arms. “When I heard…Oh, god, I thought. I was watching, I saw the Lumbears rush you…what happened? What was that shadow?” she cups his face, looks him over, up and down. “What happened? Wilben? Why aren’t you saying anything?”

Wilben laughs, “I didn’t want to interrupt you. I’m fine. It was birds.”

“Birds?”

“The shadow, it was a huge flock of birds. Same as the one in that picture,” Wilben looks over at the shot of his great-great-great grandparents sitting in the snow, the crow nearby. “My dad said they we our family’s guardians. Never understood what he meant until today.”