by Lee Dresselhaus
On the twenty-first day after the crash, the dog spoke to him for the first time.
“You’re dying, you know,” the dog said.
“I know,” he whispered weakly. The wind blew at the fur-lined hood of his parka and swirled tiny gusts of snow around his huddled body, whirling around the icy rocks he had hidden behind hoping for some relief from this latest in a series of sudden, blinding windstorms.
“I think you might die soon,” said the dog. “You don’t look like you have another day’s travel in you.”
He raised his head and pried one eye open to look at the dog then ducked his head quickly as he felt the thief with the icy fingers, the wind, reach under the hood and steal some more of his precious body heat. He fought the urge to turn the dial at his waist and switch on the insulated suit he wore next to his skin. Batteries too low, he thought, save ‘em for when you rest.
How many days without food now? Three? Four? And a century since he had been warm and in the cockpit of his plane. I don’t hear that dog talking right now. No food. Hallucination. He peeked at the dog again, and it said, “Well?”
I’ll be damned, he thought, then mumbled half to himself and half to the husky, “Okay, I’ll play. What’s it to you if I do?” The words came painfully through lips that were cracked and stiff with frozen blood.
“Why, food, of course,” the dog replied in a matter-of-fact tone, “the sooner you have the courtesy to die, the more likely it becomes that I’ll manage to survive.”
“I see. I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t roll over just yet. I’ve still got a little time and strength left.”
“Perhaps. But what’s the point? How much further can you go? Another five miles maybe. At the most, ten. And that will get you exactly nowhere out here. And tonight when you sit down and aren’t able to get up again, the place will look just like this one, so I really don’t see why you’re bothering with the effort of going on at all.” The dog took a long look at the man and burrowed a bit deeper into the insulating blanket of a small snow bank.
The wind began to slow, gradually slacking until it died altogether and the man raised his head and looked at the dog. He pushed himself to his feet and stood swaying in the dazzling, sunburst world of ice. He didn’t say anything to the dog, but consulted his compass and turned and lurched southward, his snowshoes making squeals and crunching noises in the dry, bitter snow.
There was a noise to his left and there was the dog moving along a few feet away, lean and hungry and traveling with a low energy-conserving glide. The man looked away and concentrated on moving for a time before finally having to sit and rest.
The dog came to within a foot and sat also, gazing at the man with empty, yellow eyes.
The man met the gaze and finally spoke to the dog again, “Tell me — if you think I’m that weak, why don’t you just go ahead and finish me off now? That would save a lot of worry on your part, wouldn’t it?”
The dog cocked its head and seemed to think for a minute. The man was just deciding that their earlier conversation had been a hallucination after all, when the dog replied, “Yes, I suppose that would save me a certain amount of worry, but for right now there are several reasons that I don’t.”
“Like the fact that you’re still strong enough to be able to hurt me when I do. Oh, I have no doubt that I could, but if I get hurt trying, I’ll die out here for sure.”
“That would be a heartbreaker, wouldn’t it?”
“What’s this, Fowler? Animosity? It’s nothing personal. After all, you would have shot me for food days ago if you hadn’t lost your pistol, and I don’t begrudge you that.”
The man nodded his head slightly and looked away, silently acknowledging the truth in the dog’s observation. He sighed, “Yeah, you’re right. And I don’t have the strength to kill you now, or I would.”
“Right,” the dog replied cheerfully, “See what I man? Nothing personal. Just survival for one of us. And since I’ve got a few days left in me and you don’t, I think that one will be me.”
Fowler grunted and struggled to his feet. “I wish you wouldn’t be so damned happy about it. Man’s best friend, my ass,” he said, and started off again with the dog following.
On the morning of the twenty-second day, Fowler awoke to find the dog staring at him, searching with the wolf eyes for signs of the gathering weakness that would tell him when it would be safe to move in. Fowler flexed his fingers and toes to make sure he still had them and managed to get to his feet again, which surprised him as much as it did the dog.
A wave of dizziness swept over him and his knees buckled, but he caught himself before he went down. The dog had edged forward a bit but backed off when Fowler managed to right himself. The man looked at the dog and smiled a bitter smile with his painfully cracked lips.
“Disappointed?” he asked the expectant-looking dog.
“Yes,” replied the dog, the low growl in his chest betraying his impatience.
“Tough,” the man said and started trudging southward again.
“Fowler, I don’t see why you persist in this... this... useless walking. You can’t make it through another day of this.”
“That’s what you said yesterday, remember?”
“Yes. But you surely must know that this is your last day. Why don’t you just lie down and die and save us both a great deal of trouble.” Another growl rumbled forth.
“Losing our sense of humor, are we? Well, I’m not ready to do that just yet. Sorry. How rude of me.” He kept walking, panting with the effort that simple movement took. The dog, as usual, walked a few paces away and watched him closely.
“Hey, Fowler... speaking of a sense of humor, want to hear something good? I saw you drop that pistol a week ago. Isn’t that a laugh. But you know, I figured that sooner or later you would get around to using it on me so I took the precaution of not bringing your stupidity to your attention.”
Fowler stopped in his tracks and spun to face the dog. “You knew when I dropped the gun?”
“Sure. I said so, didn’t I? I don’t have any reason to lie to you. You’re a dying man, you know.”
“You son of a bitch!” He took a step toward the dog, his voice rising in anger.
“Nice reaction, Fowler. And in my case the name fits without being an insult, doesn’t it? I thought you could do better than that, but you’re not yourself right now, what with dying on your feet and all...”
Fowler lunged at the dog but it skipped away laughing. The sudden surge of energy drained the man and he sank to his knees gasping for breath.
The dog approached cautiously. “My, my.” It stopped about ten feet away and sat, tongue appearing briefly in a doggy grin. “Now who’s losing his sense of humor?” The tone changed, the banter gone now from the dog’s voice. “Go on, Fowler,” he growled, “go on. Use it up. I can hardly wait...”
The man stopped sucking in the cold air and shot a hard look at the dog. “Not yet, my friend, before I go down you’re gonna be damned hungry.” He shook his heavily mittened fist at the dog’s face, “Got that?”
Fowler glared at the dog, took a breath, and struggled into an upright position, fighting the weakness and the desire to give in, fall down in the bitter snow and ice and rest — to let it all end as painlessly as possible. He closed his eyes for a second and then adjusted the sunglasses against his face. He looked at the now standing dog. “Damned hungry,” he said, and once more set out.
The dog, growling, followed.
Night approached, and before the temperature plummeted, the man found a gully secure from the wind and scratched a shallow niche against a snow bank, trying to spend as little of his remaining energy as possible. He pulled the survival blanket out of his small pack and wrapped himself tightly, then wedged himself into the shallow pit.
When he was settled in, he reached under the heavy parka to the small box strapped to his waist and turned a tiny dial. The suit took longer to warm up this time and he knew that tonight would be the last night for the batteries. Even though he had been very sparing with them, at first not using them at all, and then only with a miserly reluctance, their demise was just a matter of time and something he had been expecting. Sort of like himself. Just a matter of time unless he found help soon. He peeked from under the edge of the blanket to where the dog had buried itself for the night. Real soon, he thought. Because push is definitely about to come to shove.
On the morning of the twenty-third day, the dog had trouble digging himself out. The man heard the sounds of struggle and climbed shakily out of his shallow trench. The snow had frozen over the dog and it took a few moments for him to claw his way through. He finally broke free and stood panting and heaving, the wolf eyes locked to the eyes of the man.
It was the man who spoke first this time. “Three days ago you would have just stood up through that stuff. Feeling a little on the puny side today, are we?”
The dog bristled, “I’m doing fine, Fowler. Don’t underestimate me. I’ll be around to wake up in the morning. Will you?”
The man tried to shrug but it took too much, so he just pulled out the compass, found south and began to shuffle grimly that way. The batteries in his suit were dead and there would be no way to survive the deadly night temperatures without artificial heat of some kind — or at least food. He’d long lost track of when he had eaten the last scrap of food, and his strength was nearly gone.
As the dog traveled he kept his eyes on the shuffling figure of Fowler. The dog knew that soon he would eat because he could sense the growing weakness in the man.
“Hey, Fowler... not much time left now. What do you think? Half of today? Tonight for sure.” The man stumbled and went down on one knee, then wobbled and sat down hard in the snow.
The dog lurched forward expectantly, then stepped short when the man raised his head. “Come on, Fowler, you’ve had it. I didn’t count on you lasting this long, to tell you the truth. But it’s over now.” The man groaned and fell backwards, his face turned upward to the sky.
“Nothing personal,” it growled savagely, and moved in for the kill.
The morning of the twenty-fourth day came. There was a disturbance in the snow at the bottom of a shallow ravine. A hint of dog fur appeared on the surface, growing larger as it pushed its way to the surface. The fur was then slung aside as the man stood up, staring at the sky in wonder.
Made it one more day, he thought with satisfaction. He stopped and reached into the hole behind him and pulled out the pack, now heavy with the meat of the dog. He pulled a small frozen piece from the pack and popped it into his mouth, chewing happily.
The frozen hide lay where he had tossed it and he looked at it and nodded, “Looks like there were a couple of things you didn’t count on, amigo.” He sliced another piece of the raw meat with the heavy bladed knife and stuffed it into his mouth along with the other one, then picked up the hide and crudely tied it to his pack. The compass appeared in his hand and he turned to the south.
As he turned to leave, he took a long look at the bloody patch in the snow where he had killed and skinned the dog the night before with the knife it never knew he had.
“Nothing personal,” he said, and walked on.
Copyright © 2007 by Lee Dresselhaus