A man lay pinned under his overturned snowmobile, the weight of it spread across the backs of his legs. The left leg felt broken—electric hot despite the cold. He’d kicked and scrambled, but nothing. The machine couldn’t be righted because of the heavy toboggan hitched to its tail. The toboggan carried fuel, gear, and food for two. But he was alone, twelve miles from the forestry road where his truck was parked and five miles to his destination at the back country hut. Around him, the midday sun had worn down the meadow’s snow like an old pillow. Now the temperature was dipping and the wind quaked the spruce at the woods’ edge. He watched the boughs shiver, thinking he’d soon be shivering, too. It would get dark a little after four. He guessed it was sometime near three. His name was Henry Fells. Henry was a biologist.
He’d been riding too fast, distracted and half-blind from the blinking snow, when he mistook a snowdrift for a bank in the trail. He’d turned hard at the drift and wobbled on its crest before the machine canted sideways and toppled. He jumped and scudded on his belly but the machine rolled behind, catching him. Now, he kept thinking about what he could have done differently. If only he’d been paying closer attention.
Or if he’d leaned hard uphill instead of jumping off the machine.
Or if he’d rolled sideways instead of sliding.
Or if he’d convinced Chelsea to come along, like was planned.
Or if he’d not spent an hour arguing with her on the phone from the roadside, draining his battery.
They were supposed to meet early that morning at a trailhead near the western edge of Algonquin Provincial Park and snowmobile to the hut. No one else knew he was out there. His wife Susan thought he was in Toronto, presenting at a conference.
No matter how he contorted himself, no matter how he kicked and writhed, he couldn’t pry his legs free. He had his wallet, a lighter, and a folding knife in a pocket inside his thick snowsuit. He had his useless helmet and a hefty tree branch he’d scoured from the hard-packed snow. He had five possible outcomes in mind—
Two: Rescue by passing snowmobilers or cross-country skiers, which seemed unlikely because there’d been no other vehicles at the trailhead.
Three: Self-rescue by wiggling free.
Four: Susan could get worried or suspicious when he didn’t call from the fake conference. She’d call his colleagues or maybe even his research assistants until she somehow, improbably, alerted Chelsea.
Five: The opposite of four, starting with Chelsea and ending with his wife.
Chelsea was one of Henry’s five research assistants. Each helped him study the interspecies breeding of eastern timberwolves and coyotes in the park, the only place in the world where they interbred often. The hybrids were called coywolves and Henry was arguably the world’s leading coywolf expert.
Henry didn’t think of himself as the type of man to take advantage of his stature in his field. But he thought this was different; he thought that he and Chelsea were in love. It had started six months before, when he’d taken all of his assistants out for beers after the publication of a paper in Nature. It was midsummer and the days were long and buggy. They sat on the deck of a craft brewery favored by hipsters and grad students. As they drank, they talked shop.
“The way I see it,” Chelsea said, “You should be thrown in jail for killing a wolf.”
“And what about livestock? Problem animals? Indigenous rights?” Henry liked playing devil’s advocate.
“Fuck them,” she said. “Fuck them.”
It sparked something in him. Her brash self-assuredness, a trait he’d never had. His other assistants peeled off, one-by-one, until it was just the two of them, both quite drunk. They made their way to the parking lot where they lingered and rambled about wildlife. When she said something funny he reached up and touched her arm. It didn’t just happen. It wasn’t unthinking. I’m going to just reach up and stroke her arm, Henry remembered thinking then: I’m going to regret it.
“Aren’t you married?”
“We’re separating,” he said, lying like his slurred words could just make it true.
He got in his truck and drove home drunk, feeling afraid and raw-nerved. In the morning he kissed his wife on the shoulder and told himself never again. It must have been the alcohol, the smell of summer, the fact that he’d been in the field, away from Susan, for too long. It would be another six weeks before he and Chelsea would have sex, in the middle of the deep woods, in a canvas blind set up to monitor a coywolf den. She was only the second woman he had ever been with—a fact he didn’t tell her. While they coupled, mosquitos bit him on ass.
Henry lay motionless.
The shadow of a fast cloud covered him and left. His teeth began to chatter, followed by a full-body shiver, followed by a bolt of pain that shocked his body stiff. It swelled and went, replaced with something resembling resolve. An excitement in the absurdity of it. All his life, he’d read stories about situations like this.
First, he focused on the good leg. Tightening and letting loose the muscle of the calf and thigh. He found a rhythm—contraction and release. A hundred times over. A hundred times more. His good leg was gaining some wiggle room. He moved it a little at a time, like rocking a snow-stuck car, but the hook of his heel would not come free.
He switched tactics, focusing on his hips. He lifted and thrust his pelvis, gaining space. It looked like he was making love to the snow. In this way he rocked the machine for fifteen minutes, just enough to free his good leg. When he wretched it loose, he was forced to prop it upwards on the machine. Every few minutes it’d begin to numb and he’d flex and fidget until the prickly feeling subsided. He was exhausted, cold, and nearly snow-blind. He thought of Susan. She wouldn’t be expecting his call for another three hours. And, when he didn’t call, she might not notice or care. He realized he hadn’t needed to say he was at a convention. Telling her he was doing research in the park would have been enough.
They’d grown up just one mile apart on the same road in the farm country of Southern Ontario. He played baseball and hunted ducks with her brothers. They started dating—going steady, she put it—when he was fifteen and she was eighteen, their ages a minor talking point among their families. She went off to college, and he followed her three years later.
Susan loved to tell people about their history. And every time she did, it seemed like they’d started dating earlier. Sometimes she called them high school sweethearts. Other times she said, “It’s like we’ve just always been together.” It made Henry shrink with embarrassment. What did it say about him, settling down with your boyhood crush? Marrying at nineteen? It felt so rural, so hickish, among his academic friends.
“Jesus, Susie,” Henry had said after a party a few years ago. “Do you have to make it sound we were an arranged marriage? Not everyone thinks it’s as cute as you do.”
He observed the look of deep hurt in her face, the kind that comes when expectation and reality slap together.
“That’s not what I meant,” he said, but it was.
The part of the story that that neither told was that without Susan, Henry wouldn’t have gone to college in the first place. She’d filled out his application, his financial aid. She had convinced him to study biology. She had helped edit his papers, write his cover letters, his first few CV’s.
Now, he thought about the difference between loving and needing someone. With Susan, he could never make a distinction.
Pink dusk, clear sky. All the warmth from the sun swept away. Henry was getting cold fast and had realized that if he died, no one but Chelsea would know why he was out there alone. He wondered if she would talk to his wife. Would she value the truth, or their reputations? He imagined the two of them at his funeral, unaware of each other. Susan, tall and wispy, looking even thinner in black. And Chelsea would wear a gray sweater. She always wore gray sweaters. So you worked under Henry? Susan would ask after the service, looking down at Chelsea’s wind-chapped cheeks.
Under Henry. He chuckled. What else to do?
He was using the pine branch to excavate the snow around his broken leg when he heard the yips of coywolves in the distance, followed by the howl of a true wolf farther off. Hollow, lonesome, and dry. Their communication was what Chelsea studied. In her interview for the assistantship, she’d proposed research on the communication of wolf-coyote mates. “Wolves and coyotes speak different, but similar languages,” she’d told him. “Like the speakers of French and Spanish. So how do they know what each other are trying to communicate?”
After it had started, she’d said she wouldn’t be with him while he was with his wife. Henry said, “of course.” But he didn’t leave Susan. He told himself he couldn’t hurt her like that, that he couldn’t stand to see her face in the kitchen when he said I have something to tell you. And the scorn of his parents and hers, who saw each other often. So he told Chelsea that Susan had moved out. A part of him was amazed the lie lasted as long as it had. A few days before he lay pinned, Chelsea was in his office when a colleague popped in to say what a good time he’d had last week with Mr. and Mrs. Fells.
Still—he’d been sure that Chelsea would meet him at the trailhead. When she didn’t, he called. He lied and begged and pleaded. He called her honey, said her he was in love with her.
“Just come for the research,” he’d said. “We’ll just do some research and talk.”
“Are you asking me to come, or telling me to?”
“I just want you to is all.”
“Or you’ll fire me? Or you’ll drop my name from our next paper?”
He scoffed. But now her words crept like cold air. He thought of his life from the outside in—the older scientist, the pretty young research assistant. Those predatory men on the news. Was this how it looked? What this how it was? He questioned, for the first time, what Chelsea liked about him at all. No answer came. Instead he felt his resistance to a truth he could barely name—he was in a love with her because he could be. There was no other way to explain it.
A pair of them appeared at the woods’ edge. A big male coywolf, more wolf than coyote, with long legs and muscled haunches. Behind it came a smaller, thirty-pound female, his mate. They skulked the meadow’s perimeter. The thing about coywolves was that they were more tolerant of people than wolves. They didn’t need wilderness to thrive. They haunted the suburbs of Northern cities, moving like specters, picking off cats and stealing trash. He liked to tell his students that you may have never seen one, but one has definitely seen you.
The male coywolf watched him, its eyes blooming in the low light until the pair dispersed.
Even now, he loved to watch them trot. Sometimes, when he felt stressed, he would imagine a group of coywolves running snout-to-tail through the woods like links of a great chain.
He’d observed dozens of mated pairs over the years—pure wolves and coyotes, wolves and coywolves, coywolves and pure coyotes. In wolf packs, typically only the alphas mated. But, with coywolf and coyote mates available, the structures of wolf packs sometimes broke down. Sometimes a wolf would leave the pack and mate with a coyote, forming a single family. His research as to why and how this happened was inconclusive.
The pair returned at twilight, this time with two more. They tramped the meadow’s edge.
Fear moved through him, a genetic fear of the stalked. He dug into the suit and removed everything in his pockets. Night was gathering fast. Only the eyes of the dogs remained. The four of them had fanned out across the blue snow. Circling him. With the knife he skinned a point onto the branch. Then he banged the branch onto the snowmobile, its echoes filling the meadow. The coywolves were lost to the darkness. With the other hand he spun the flashlight in wild loops, like a drunken lighthouse keeper, hoping the light would scare them away. Everything was quiet and still for a while. Just the dry clunk of wood on plastic.
The ghost of a dog appeared to the left of him, twenty yards away. Another shot right. The flashlight caught only their eyeballs. In a black flash, a coywolf darted at him. He swung the stick. The animal was so close that he thought he clipped it on the muzzle. It was the big male, retreating with its tail and ears pinned. The flashlight caught another fleeing, then another.
He hollered “Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey” until his voice rasped. They disappeared past the flashlight’s reach. His arm grew weak from swinging the branch. He stopped, adjusting the flashlight, and heard only the faint crunch of paws on snow before the coywolf hopped the snowmobile and bit down through the snowsuit, a hot piecing of teeth. He clubbed it hard with the helmet, a dull thump on the skull, and it yelped and was gone.
He again rattled the stick against the snowmobile. Swinging it behind him, he felt it catch on some part of the machine and release. He thought of the gas line. Fuel, fire, snow. He crammed his fingers into the snowsuit, propping himself on his elbows so that he could warm them under his armpits. He’d been studying coywolves for almost half his life but had no idea if, or when, they would return.
When he regained feeling in his fingers, he cut a drawstring from his snowsuit and tied the knife to the end of the stick. He placed the stick over his shoulder and guided the blade to the snowmobile. It explored the curves of the machine until Henry thought he found the bundle of hoses near the running board. He jabbed and sawed and he thought he smelled fuel. It probably wasn’t much, only the unbled gas from the fuel pump. He hoped it was enough.
He impaled some business cards and paper scraps onto the stick and tried to light them. But his fingers had turned bone-white, retracting toward the palm. He dropped the lighter into the snow and spent five minutes blowing it dry. Slow down, he told himself. Slow down and get something right.
He exposed his wrist and rolled the lighter against the skin until the wheel began to spark. With the next clumsy flick, it lit. The wind was dead and the paper took the flame. He worked it back to the snowmobile, acting on faith, unable to turn and look.
When he smelled it, he knew. Fire grew and rippled. The meadow slowly illuminated, looking endless and shadowed. There was more fire than he thought. Some must have leached from the upturned machine. He waited a minute—waiting, waiting, waiting for melt—then he writhed and kicked and squirmed. The snowsuit caught fire near the ankle cuffs. Flames rose; he could feel their high heat. With a whoosh, something shifted. He slithered and pulled himself free.
As Henry rolled away his suitsuit sizzled in the snow. The duffle had started to burn. He patted it out, unhooked it, pivoted on his belly, and crawled away dragging the heavy bag behind him. The snow machine hissed and crackled, a tall cylinder of flames throwing him needed heat.
In the duffle were a first-aid kit, a bivy sack, food, fuel, and two down sleeping bags. He rifled through it, looking for flares. There were none. His phone was long dead. He found the big bottle of merlot for the weekend and he uncorked it with his teeth and gulped until the juice ran down his face. He cut through the snowsuit to take a look at his leg. The broken bone made a hideous burl, but it hadn’t broken the skin. He ate a palmful of aspirin and bandaged the small punctures on his arm. Then, by the firelight, he wormed himself into one sleeping bag, then the next, then the bivy. He crammed the extra clothes into the bivy for warmth and brought in four frozen granola bars to thaw.
It occurred to him that if he died he’d like to do so looking up at the sky and not swaddled in the bivy. But he zipped it shut anyway. Inside, he tried to think about warm things like soup or a shower. Instead he thought about frostbite taking his fingers or the tip of his nose. He thought of amputation. Prosthetics. His broken bone’s marrow leaching into his bloodstream. Hypothermia. Dehydration. Exposure. Infection. Coywolves.
“Sometimes it’s like you’re speaking French and I’m speaking Spanish,” he remembered saying to Susan a few weeks before, Chelsea’s words coming from him in an argument so banal he couldn’t even remember much else about it. The shame flushed him. He thought for a minute of dying, how dying would be the easiest thing. If not for the shivering, he would have written Susan a letter. But what to say? He felt lost in memories. Lost in it, lost in the ancient sentiment of the dying. He promised to change, knowing full well that every dying person promised as much.
The fire smoldered, giving off acrid plastic smoke that washed over the bivy. He ate three bites of a granola bar and gagged on the fourth. His teeth chattered and his body shook but eventually he warmed and was still. Something like faith snuck up on him, slow but unequivocal. He would live. He became certain of it. Someone would come to search for him in the daylight. He did not know who or why, or how much he would have to repent, but if he made it through the night he knew that those questions would seem different come morning. Come morning, all things would be sunstruck and known.