16, Number 91, June/July 2013 Cabin Fever by Elaine Lowe
The cabin nestles at the back of a clearing, well off the road. To find it, drive twenty kilometres west, then north of Whitehorse. Turn left down the Hot Springs Road a piece until you pass an octagonal cabin on the right. Take the first left after that down a narrow, rutted road another half kilometre or so.
Tall spindly birch and spruce and squat pines, dormant under a midwinter freeze crowd the road. Bear right at the fork in the road and follow it slowly for a winding kilometre. Take care to not slide off the road! Stop at the end of the trail by the green Jeep. You’ll see an old fridge hulking ahead between the trees. You smile when you realize there is nowhere to plug it in.
A path to the left leads deeper into the woods. Follow it about a hundred metres. A light beckons you forward and you enter a clearing. A dog barks a warning to your right but you see the silhouette of a tail waving. Ahead lies the cabin. A kerosene lamp sheds yellowy beams in a wobbly, checkered pattern across the snow, fending off the dark evening.
You hurry towards the small log cabin, your mittened hands tucked inside your sleeves and your neck turtled down into the collar of your parka for warmth. The cabin door is closed tight, secure against the bitter cold but swings open as you draw near. A hulk of a man stands before you in jeans, his chest bare and hairy. In fact, dark curls rise from his navel to obscure his chest, face and head. You raise an eyebrow to see someone half-naked in such cold.
The dog barks behind you as you step inside the cabin. “Quiet!” the man calls into the darkness. Silence. He fastens the door, shutting out the cold that has tried to sneak in behind you.
The cabin consists of one room. To your left a crude double bed is nailed to the wall. On the bed, a slender, blond woman lies on her side nursing an infant. The woman’s face and eyes light up when you greet her. She smiles and slips under a roughly sewn patchwork quilt. She is naked.
You feel warmth radiating from a small airtight stove. It replaces the cold drafts from your entry. You sit on an upended log, your chair, and gratefully accept a mug of hot coffee. As you shuck your parka and gloves, you realize you have not been this warm all winter.
Another day you come upon the cabin during a bitterly cold day. The woman is home alone with her baby. The baby crawls and climbs now. The woman sits at a table before the front window, sewing something out of blue corduroy on a hand-crank Singer.
A crash breaks the cabin’s calm. The baby cries: she has spilled the beans. Literally. Ajar is upturned on the floor and beans roll everywhere on the orange linoleum. The woman purses her lips. Her hands clench involuntarily. Silently, she sets down her sewing, picks up the baby and puts her down in her crib, a bit roughly you think. She sweeps up the beans. Her eyes are wet stones.
That night, the man returns home. The woman shakes her head and you hear her say, “I wanted to hang the baby from her toenails today! I think I am going crazy.” The man looks down at her, his eyes sympathetic. He folds her in his arms. She seems tiny and frail. “Perhaps we could build another room off the back in the spring,” the man suggests. “Then you would have a bit more room.”
“I don’t know if I can hold out that long,” she says. The man holds her tighter.
A day arrives when you approach the cabin and see the woman pacing. She is filled with energy, her eyes bright with excitement. Boxes surround her. The shelves are almost empty, the bed is bare and the crib is folded flat. Her husband is walking to and from the Jeep, filling it wth their few possessions. It is time to warm the motor. After several tries, the jeep motor groans and finally turns over. The man leaves it idling and continues to pack.
The cabin is empty. The man peers into the stove and sees only a few glowing coals. He shuts the vent and the damper in the stovepipe. He carefully closes the door and latches it from the outside. So others can use it, he thinks. He walks slowly toward the Jeep but the woman bounds forward eagerly. The baby on her hip laughs with delight as they run. They climb into the Jeep and the dog jumps in behind them.
As they drive down the road, the woman glances over her shoulder and sees the empty fridge. The door swings heavily in the wind.
The family arrives at a small house, just at the end of the Hot Springs Road. The woman and baby inspect their new home. There are four rooms! In the central room is a forced-air heater. A kitchen and two bedrooms radiate from the centre. There is a bathroom.
“This is our very own room, honey,” the woman informs the baby. The baby wails. The woman is excited, unpacking boxes and planning the arrangement of their contents. She assembles the crib in the haby’s room. She tries to ignore the baby’s cries.
The woman flushes the toilet experimentally. She flicks the lights on and off. Indoor plumbing! Electricity! Running water! Bliss! Rapture! She turns on the tap in the kitchen. Nothing happens. She glances at her husband who sighs, bundles up and goes outside, armed with a propane torch. Fiddling and clanging rise up from under the house. He returns shortly. Water gushes from the tap. Contented, the woman smiles.
Three hours later, daylight has waned and lights are on throughout the house. The woman is setting up the crib again, this time directly in front of the forced-air heater. The baby’s bedroom is icy cold. It is too cold for the baby to sleep. Now wrapped in quilts and sweaters, she whimpers near the stove as her mother works. You cannot see the man, but hear the angry clang of tools against pipes under the house.
The woman’s eyes flash with resolve. “We’re going to beat this,” she mutters. “This is a cold snap.” She unwraps the baby, snuggles her under her blankets in the crib and rubs her back until she falls asleep.
Late in the night, the woman lies bundled in the bedroom under a heap of blankets and quilts. The mound she makes is round and tiny. She is curled up tight under the blankets, tense and motionless. Her energy works to preserve body heat, to create a pocket of warmth in which she may find sleep. But she only pretends to sleep. There is a hollow in the blankets where the man tossed and turned, sleepless and cold. Damp long johns, socks and jeans piled stiffly beside the mattress tell their story, that of frozen, broken pipes.
The man himself sits hunched under a blanket beside the stove, smoking and smoking. His fingers and hands draw what warmth they can from a cup of coffee. The dog lies at his feet. A candle penetrates the dark but the cold marches resolutely in through every crack. Frost and ice obscure the window glass. The man glares at the floor. He is chilled to the bone.
At the first light of day, the woman hears the baby cry for breakfast. She gets up and enters the centre room. “Good morning,” she says, trying to fend off her husband’s ugly mood. She strives for normalcy, busying herself with the baby, but her eyes are wary with anticipation.
Her husband speaks. “We’re going home.” This is spoken as a point of fact. There is no room for argument. And you hear no argument. The woman nods. She appears relieved to have the decision made for her.
Before the weak winter sun has fully risen upon this family, they are once more emptying shelves, folding down the crib and filling their vehicle with boxes. The motor seems eager to leave, catching the first time the ignition is turned. The dog leaps into the back with the boxes. The man waits patiently with the baby on his lap while the woman has a last look around. She walks from the house without turning back.
Down the road, left, bear right, down the path and home. The woman arrives first with the baby and opens the cabin dour. Warmth lingers in the tiny room. The man brings in firewood and feeds the stove. He stirs the ashes with a poker. Even yet, a few embers lie hidden under the ash. He piles on kindling and logs, opens the vent and the damper and waits a moment. Flames leap to life and he dampens the fire.
The woman hums a happy tune as she unpacks boxes and sets up the crib for the third time in twenty-four hours. The baby plays contentedly with her toys on the linoleum. The man smokes a cigarette and pets the dog. Peace and warmth permeate the domestic scene.
If you were to come upon the cabin that evening, the kerosene lamp would shine yellow across the clearing in square patches. The dog might bark, but you would surely find the three travellers snug in their home. You might find them half-naked. And you would never know they had moved that day, the day they found a cure for cabin fever. The warmth of home.