I put an arm around Kanu’s shoulder and give him the map. He looks at me from within the hood, eyes wide, an acolyte chosen for a sacred but painful act. His eyes wet from the cold – probably.
“We’re here,” I point at the map. “You’re the navigator now.”
Within the trees, the comfy crunch of snow gives way to swishes and snaps as it thins out from a few inches deep, to a few centimeters.
“Perfect,” I say. “Our tracks will be hard to follow in here, but their tracks will be easy to follow when we go to find the other points.”
They nod, accepting my authority. Most of leadership is pretending you know what you’re talking about.
“Left, I think,” says Kanu. And quickly we find the first point, just three or four layers of trees into the forest. We all touch it with our hands while Ashley films it in close up on her phone, then curses the lack of data signal to upload it. After touching it, Marilyn and Ashely take off their gloves, take out a bottle of disinfectant hand-gel, and wash their hands with it. Marilyn offers the bottle to me. I decline with a smile. Then Kanu takes it, and pours some into the palm of his hands, disinfects his palms thoroughly, and then hands back the bottle.
Marilyn then reperforms the ritual, this time washing the bottle too, before putting it back in a coat pocket.
“Where to next, Kanu?” asks Ashley, making me realise I am staring with my mouth open.
“The next one is a bit deeper, near a sort of opening by the look of it.”
“A clearing?” I ask. “Should be easy to find then.”
“I don’t think the distances are to scale,” he says, frowning.
“I think the bellhop just drew the map this morning,” I say.
“Isn’t orienteering supposed to be based on real OS maps… or something… maybe?” ask Marylin.
“Something, maybe, yes,” I say teasing. But Marilyn’s face drops in untempered horror. I try to reel-in the mild dig, “I mean, I think they must’ve lost the real maps. Or maybe the bellhop just installed the points this morning as well.” I laugh nervously. Marilyn laughs nervously.
“Come on, Dad,” Kanu sighs.
I keep looking over my shoulder to see if the hotel is still in sight. At the moment it is.
“That looks like this on the map,” says Kanu, pointing at a tree with a huge wart, then pointing at a sketch of a distorted tree on the map.
“And this is the clearing,” says Ashely, stepping into a opening in the trees about thirty yards in diameter. Here the snow is thicker, without any canopy to catch it on the way down. The blanket is broken occasionally by thick stumps poking through the snow.
“This clearing isn’t natural,” I say, pointing at the castrated trees.
“Why would they cut down the trees and make a clearing here?” ask Kanu.
“Looks like the trees were a bit thinner here anyway. I guess it was a meeting point or camping point for the hunts in the past,” I say.
“But the hotel is right there, we can still see it,” says Marilyn.
“Ah,” says Kanu. “Now the map makes sense. These are supposed to be tree stumps. The point should be on this one here.” He walks up to the stump and kicks away a little drift of snow leaning against it. It reveals the white and red orienteering square.
Marilyn and Ashely touch it, then repeat the ceremony of disinfecting their gloved hands. Kanu touches it.
“Don’t cheat, Dad.”
Ladies first, I almost say, before biting my tongue. I lean down to touch the square. As I lower myself I notice something in the snow. Little depressions that I thought were just melted pockets of snow. But they’re not random. They’re ordered. Tracks of little feet, children sized feet, weaving around the clearing.
“Footprints,” I say, to myself.
“What?” says Marilyn, then lowers to her haunches and looks closer. “They are feet.”
“It could be an animal,” says Kanu.
I grunt a non-committal answer. Ashley is dismissive and wants to move to the next point. A competitive vein is starting to show in her. Swollen and ugly blue, rising to the surface, pushing against my mind. I smirk. There is some sort of edge inside her, unblunted under the androgynous cloak.
“Let’s move on then,” I say.
Then something clatters through the treeline. A blur of stumbling grey. Something on four legs. Crashing; snorting. A grey furred stag, felt antlers scratched and chipped. Deja vu. A flashback to our journey. But this one is older. His eyes lock onto us. Marilyn is squealing something languageless.
“Stay still,” I say. “It’s limping.” Dots of blood are dripping from its hindleg onto the snow. It has been shot.
I can hear Marilyn hyperventilating behind me. “Breath from your tummy,” I say in a level voice. I can’t tell how Kanu and Ashely are coping. I daren’t take my eyes off the beast.
It makes eye contact with me for a moment – then its gaze is locked. “Got you,” I whisper. I let its untamed emotions seep into my mind. Inviting it. Welcoming it. The pain of torn muscles. Of torn pride. The fear he is no longer strong.
Give it to me.
He snorts again, shaking but keeping his eyes locked. His breath calming.
“Walk out of the clearing slowly,” I say to the others.
Show me what you felt, I tell the stag, without words. >A big group of smells
>Beasts on two legs
>At their feet, smaller beasts with four legs
>And something else
>A small silhouette
It breaks eye contact and limps off. When it approaches the tree line, it looks at me again. Then vanishes into the forest.
When it is out of sight, I can no longer draw its strength. I drop to my knees, exhausted. I try to keep my head up, but when I feel the snow on my face, I know I am fucked.