Frost Bite part 1
"I can't go back to yesterday- because I was a different person then."
The storm was getting worse, and I still had no shelter. My fingers and toes were numb despite the thick, well insulated boots and mittens I wore. The wind tugged at the hood of my parka and somehow chilled my skin even through the layers of clothing I wore. The beam of my headlamp revealed nothing but a cone of swirling snow, ice covered pine trees, and fog. I had lost my bearings a long time ago; now I was stumbling blind through the blizzard. The first rule when you get lost is to stay put, but at the moment staying put would mean freezing to death.
Every step I took was against knee deep snow. I’d been tired even before the storm, and moving would only become more difficult as I used more energy. With a mounting sense of fear I swung the beam of my headlamp back and forth, looking for someplace safe. The weather would only get colder as the night wore on. Out here in the open I had little chance of survival
Left, right. Left, right. My legs burned with exhaustion. Pine trees seemed to form straight out of the windblown night. I needed to rest. Resting would probably kill me.
I started searching through my pockets with hands clumsy and stiff from the cold. I didn't have very many items on me, as per instructions. For some reason that disturbed me more than the thought of a slow and lonely death by hypothermia.
Finally I found it; a tube of camouflage face paint. As carefully as possible I drew a shape on the back of one glove, then a slightly different shape on the other. Doing this was important for some reason, though I didn’t remember why. Straining against the thick fabric of my parka I scrawled another on each of my shoulders as far back as I could reach. They weren't random shapes, I realized. There was a purpose to them, a sort of logic that tickled at the back of my mind like something half remembered.
I would have gotten angry had I had enough energy. What was I doing? Scribbling on myself while I should be trying to survive! I almost threw the paint tube away in disgust, but instead scrawled one last mark on the parka over my sternum. Done.
I felt better for finishing the task, like I had written a note for my family. If I had any family to speak of a note would have been a good idea. The closest thing to a relative, or even a friend, that I had was Jack, an old pilot who’d fought in the Gulf War. He was gone now, taken by Parkinson’s disease, but I was still grateful to him. He’d paid attention to an insignificant orphan. Had acted like that orphan was as good as he was. In a way it was his fault that I was here in the first place.
I needed to focus- I couldn’t let my mind wander right now. Left, right. Left, right.
A snap sounded above the howling wind. Then another. The trees, I thought. The trees are freezing. The thought seemed hilarious. "Frozen trees!" I mumbled. "Pine-sicle! Ha-ha! Ha..."
Something was pressing against my face. Snow, I realized. I wasn’t walking anymore. I needed to get up. Had to get...
I strained to lift myself, but only managed to flip myself over on my back. I was feeling much warmer all the sudden. Why was it so urgent that I get up? I couldn't remember. It was hard to think. I was so tired. Why not rest for a little while, and then keep going to... wherever I was going?
One last time I tried to get up. My body felt like it had been cast from lead. A few minutes, I decided. A little rest.
The beam of the headlamp shined out still into the harsh night.
But I could no longer see it.
Alar grumpily flattened his gray and black feathers against his body. The snow somehow managed to prickle against his skin even so. This wasn't a night for gryphons, he thought. Too windy to fly, too cold for walking, and far, far too much snow. Soaked feathers and fur took hours, if not days, to dry out.
All the prey had hidden from the storm, tucked away in their burrows. As should I, Alar thought. The image of his nice warm den and a good strong fire cheered him greatly. All that would be missing would be some good fresh meat. At least he still had some venison from the last deer, dried over his fire. The thought made his stomach rumble and Alar licked the edges of his beak with a long tongue. He tried to ignore the ice that formed on his face as the saliva froze.
As he walked he noticed something odd. There was a faint light coming from a stand of trees off to his left. Even with his keen eyes Alar nearly missed it. Curious, he crunched his way towards it through the snow.
Another one? Alar thought as he spotted a human figure lying in the snow. Bizarrely the light seemed to be coming from its head. Humans needed to just stop coming to the mountains, the gryphon thought. This was a dangerous place, it was true, but around here humans seemed to die without any aid on his part whatsoever.
There might be some fresh meat tonight after all, Alar thought. Human meat wasn't nearly as good as a nice fat elk, but if you cooked it right...
He got closer, and Alar wondered at the source of the light. Curious as ever Alar probed with a talon at the human's head. There seemed to be a strap of some sort holding the light. Carefully he hooked a talon into the strap and pulled. The light came free and flew off into the snow. Alar batted at it like a cat, then picked it up. For a few minutes he waved his prize around, watching the shadows sway back and forth. He knew that a grown gryphon should be more serious, at least according to his peers, but he couldn't help the way he was. Alar turned back toward the dead human.
They always wrapped themselves in layers of... stuff. It was interesting, but also made it much harder to get to the meat. Alar stuck the light in his beak to get it out of the way and started pulling off some of the obstructing layers. He examined each piece as he did, wondering about the function of every object. And paused.
Drawn roughly on the back of one of the objects was a symbol he knew well, a mark taught to every gryphon at a young age. A death mark. A prayer, of sorts, that a dying gryphon would be able to fly again after the darkness.
Alar found what might have been a foreleg had it been a gryphon. There was another death mark. Alar guessed that if he were to roll the human over he would find marks there as well.
Alar's curiosity flared. He wanted to find out, but of course, the human couldn’t tell him. And he knew that not knowing would annoy him to no end. Alar turned to leave. Well, at least he had this light thing, right?
There was a sound, the nearly silent hiss of an inhalation, almost lost in the howl of the blowing snow. It came from the human.
Everything was dark and fractured. I couldn't hold on to any one thought for longer than a moment . Or it might have been an hour , I had no way of knowing. Memories rose into my mind like drowning swimmers seeking air. I’d always heard that death by hypothermia was almost relaxing, peaceful even. This was not even close.
I was back in the orphanage, clutching my threadbare wool blanket to my shoulders. The gray concrete dormitories were cold even in the summer, and colder in the winter.
I was watching a younger boy pressed up against a wall by a group of larger ones.
I was feeling the crunch of shattering bone under my palm.
I was watching as teachers led one of those larger boys down the hallway. His arm bent unnaturally backwards at the elbow. I was looking down at my own hands, shocked at what I’d done.
I was reading the notes that the therapist kept on me. One phrase in particular had stuck in my mind. "Trouble socializing with his peers, but very clever. Possible signs of past education. Where?"
Every so often I felt a sense of movement. I hoped it meant that I was being rescued.
The entire point of being out here was for me to learn how to survive cold weather. It was part of a year long survival course that had taught me how to do the same in both forests and deserts. But this time, in the arctic section of the course, something went very wrong. I later found out that the worst blizzard in decades had ripped into the area with almost no warning. Back at base, the SERE instructors were trying to find all the trainees still out in the storm. Including me. But then and there, all I knew was that things had taken an abrupt turn for the worse. The only explanation that I could think of was that I had failed to prepare.
One moment I was drifting through fragments of memory, and the next I was shivering so hard I thought I felt my guts rattling. Every muscle shuddered, like I was having a seizure, my head bouncing against the ground. I couldn't stop.
Then there was something beneath my head, cushioning my aching skull. "You're safe," a voice said. "Just rest." I wanted to ask who they were, how they’d found me, but didn’t have the strength. Blackness again claimed me, this time the peaceful calm of sleep.
This time I woke slowly. The first thing I saw was a rough stone ceiling like that of a cave, lit by the flickering orange light of a fire. The smell of burning pine wood hung in the air, mixed with aroma of cooking meat. Out of my field of view someone was humming tunelessly to themselves. I felt both warm and relatively rested. How long had I been out?
"Humans are a lot tougher than I thought," someone said. "But take it easy for a little while longer." The speaker had an odd accent that I felt I should know from somewhere. After looking around, I sat up to a chorus of aching muscles. Creakily I walked over and sat down next to the fire.
The speaker looked like a giant bird, a falcon or an osprey maybe, but with four legs, pointed ears, and a long tail tipped by a spray of feathers. I didn't really care. I hadn’t been rescued after all- I was hallucinating the entire scene, cave, fire, giant talking bird thing and all. But a hallucination was more pleasant than the alternative of simply watching myself freeze solid. Might as well go with it.
"So," I said as I rubbed my hands together in front of the fire. I noticed that one of my gloves was missing. "What exactly are you, anyway?"
The bird, a male judging from the voice, cocked his head. "Awfully calm about this, aren't you? I was at least expecting some disbelief!"
"Well, I'm probably already dead, so unless some guy with a pitchfork tells me to come with him, why should I be worried?" I retorted.
He looked confused for a moment, then seemed to shrug. The motion made me notice the dark feathered wings held close to his back. "Whatever. Well, then," he said, scooting a bit closer. "If you're already dead, then surely you wouldn't mind answering a few questions."
I shrugged, and he held up an object with one...leg? Forefoot? Talon, maybe? "Did you draw this marking?" he asked.
A moment later I realized that he was holding my missing glove. Visible on the back was a dark stain. "What marking?"
He looked at it, his ears drooping slightly. " Oh. It’s blurred a bit… well, when I found you, there was a symbol there. Did you draw it?"
I started to shake my head, but hesitated. There’d been something I had done right before passing out.... "I.... I'm not sure." I said, suddenly uncertain.
"Do you know what these markings mean?" he continued. "Do you recognize them at all?"
I scowled unhappily. "I feel like I should, but every time I think I do, it just..." I waved my arm. "...Gone." I finished.
"Do you have any idea where your ancestors originated?" he asked.
"What has that got to do with anything?" I said, getting frustrated. "Why all the questions anyway?"Undoubtedly it would have been more effective if I had been able to leap to my feet. Sitting cross legged on the ground I was actually shorter than he was.
"Would you like to keep shouting, or would you like me to try to explain?" he said. When I subsided, he began. "Honestly I’m just as curious about all this as you are. I can tell you a few things, at least. First of all, those marks that you placed on yourself? Those are from my culture."
"What culture? You're a hallucination!" I protested
"Am not! I’m as real as you are! You just think I’m not because it doesn’t fit what you’re used to- like how those prisoners thought that shadows on a wall were the entire world, or… I don’t remember exactly how that went.” he said.
I looked at him. “...What?”
He winced. “It was a story that I was told about how humans like everything to fit their percon- pre-”
“Preconceptions?” I finished.
“Yeah! That! Now, as I was saying, those marks come from the culture of my kind. We, gryphons that is, learn as cubs to place those same markings on ourselves if… we're about to die. Exactly what you did." the bird said.
The skin on the back of my neck prickled. "What does that mean?"
"I don't know."
Alar hadn’t been sure what he’d do with the human if he woke up. Now that he actually had, Alar was realizing what a huge risk he’d taken just to please curiosity. He’d talked with a human face to face and had actually explained about the existence of his people!
Maybe that was why that he seldom got to go home: Chronic blabber-beak.
It was hard to believe that the thing sitting in front of the fire was such a deadly threat. It could hardly chew dried meat, it's teeth were so small!
Then he remembered how many of them there were, and the human seemed more dangerous.
They were a lot tougher than they looked, too. Last night this one had been almost frozen, and now he seemed fine.
A little too fine, Alar realized. The human hadn’t asked what kind of meat he was eating, where in the cave to relieve himself. Or... any questions, actually. It looked, sounded, and smelled like a human, but there was still something different. Something almost familiar.
Alar flattened his ears in a scowl. This was important, he was sure of it. As much as he hated to admit it though, he knew that he couldn't figure this out alone. He needed help, and the only one who would help....
This was becoming a day for bad ideas.
I was folding the last of the jerky into my mouth when the bird stood up. "Stay here," he instructed.
"Where are you going?" I said.
"I'm going to see someone. They might be able to answer a few questions." Without further explanation he vanished into the dark with a rustle of feathers.
Once he left the cave seemed much larger, the shadows much deeper. I heard the faint drip-drip-drip of ice thawing in the heat of the fire. An almost silent rustle of air as it flowed around stone on it's way back outside.
I had to admit, though, I liked the quiet. For as long as I remembered there’d been someone or something making noise- telling me to go here or there, making sure that I did only what they thought best . Often they were right; if not for my efforts in school I would never have made my way into the military.. And then, eventually, to here. Wherever "here" might be.
I needed to get back to the base camp soon, otherwise they would send out search parties.
Then again, came the thought, did I want to go back?
The realization that I might actually prefer to stay here rather than continue training was... unsettling. I had worked for years for the opportunity to get behind the controls of a jet! The entire goal of my life had been flying. Was I going to give up that dream? So I could sit in a cave with a creature who I still wasn't sure was not a hallucination?
I thought about it for a long time, but the feeling persisted, the feeling that I should do just that.