For the strength of the pack is the wolf,
And the strength of the wolf is the pack.
-- Rudyard Kipling
The howl wakes me, calls me from one darkness to another. I open my right eye, for my left eye is a throbbing slit. Bare branches. Twilight beyond. I’m on my back. Outside. Somewhere. I’m alive. Barely.
My head pounds and I raise my chilled hand to it. I can’t feel my fingers, but by their bloodied bruises, numbness is probably a blessing. Their icy tips touch my swollen face but the relief is fleeting, for as sure as I feel my cold hand upon my forehead, I can feel the fingers of a deep chill spreading from the frozen ground beneath me, raking up my back. As I roll onto my side on the snow, the pain in my ribs chokes my breath and I gasp small clouds of steam. My whole body aches.
How long have I been lying here?
The thin layer of snow covering my legs shifts as I move. Bruised, but not broken, thank God.
I sit up and blow into my hands, the heat of it stings my reddened fingers and I tuck them into my pockets, surprised to find a pair of woolen mittens that must be mine. I slip them on and try to stand as shivers wrack my body. Whatever happened to me, it hasn’t killed me, but lying in this frigid snow surely will.
Standing takes more effort than I thought. I stagger a few times and when I finally get to my feet, everything spins around me. Gripping a nearby birch trunk I close my eyes and take a few cool breaths, a jabbing pain in my side keeps me from breathing deep. After a few moments, the spinning slows and I glance around the clearing. A gorge of sorts, with a fifteen foot ledge behind me and a slow rising slope ahead. A river bed, perhaps. Yet, none of it seems familiar.
“Hello?” I call. The yell echoes in my head, pounding against the inside like a spoon in an empty pot.
No tracks lead in or out of the clearing. Not even mine. Odd. The dusting of flakes wouldn’t have covered them completely. My boots crunch in the snow as I turn.
Surely someone is looking for me. Must know I am missing.
“I’m here!” The ache in my side grows stronger with every breath. It needs looking at. Soon.
I don’t want to yell again, but it might help them find me. Holding my bent arm tight against my aching side I squeeze out the sound like an old bagpipe. “It’s me, it’s...”
I stop, let the steamy words dissolve before me.
Who am I?
Panic grips me. I look around for help but the oak, birch, and pine trees stand in cold silence. How is it I know their names, but not my own?
Slumping to the ground, I look up at the great dark sky as the cold truth settles upon me. Lost. I am completely lost. I know neither where I am nor where I’m from.
Homeless. Nameless. Hopeless. Yet, try as I might, nothing comes to mind but the fat flakes drifting down from the endless winter black.