Snow.

The hunter put his glove into his mouth, biting down hard on the deerskin, freeing his hand from the warmth. It felt good to be alone. He liked the way the frigid wind felt against his hand, between his fingers, and around his palm. 

The forest was still. The snow was recent and undisturbed. The air smelled of pine and he could feel the cold in the bottom of his lungs. It was so overcast that it was hard to tell where the snow ended and the sky began. Thin dark trees stood watch over the forest. He walked up to one and placed his hand on its bark. Gone were the days when the trees would tell their secrets. Now they only listened. The bark had worn away in one spot, exposing bare wood beneath. The hunter patted the side of the tree and continued on.

The hunter crouched down and felt the joints in his knees creak. He looked down. A pool of blood — no doubt from his prey — had melted a hole through the snow. He put his hand down into it. It was still warm and sticky, like honey in the sun. He knew he must be close. If you’re losing that much blood, you can’t get far.

He wiped his hands on his pants and reached into his pocket for a piece of jerky. He put the glove back on and stood up, slinging the old rifle across his shoulder. The once-new walnut was now full of small scrapes and cuts. He thought this gave it character. Before every hunt, he would still tear the old gun apart and clean everything, polishing the barrel to a sheen, and buffing down the aged walnut with citrus. He put the stock to his nose. He couldn’t smell the oranges any longer.

The hunter pressed deeper into the woods. He knew it was dangerous going this far, where the trees started to get thicker, but he wasn’t about to go hungry again. He knew it wouldn’t be long now; just a matter of finding where she decided to rest. He was careless before. Impatient. He wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.

He was running out of time. Even though the clouds hid the sun, he could tell it was setting by the gold color that filled the air. It’d only get darker from here on out. He’d have to find her soon, or risk being caught in the woods for the fourth night.

Even worse, he was racing against the wolves now. Usually they wouldn’t start in on him until he’d been out there for at least a week, but they were getting bolder now. They could smell the blood better than he could. They could run faster too. But the hunter had a head start. He just needed to catch up with her and take what he needed. They could have the rest.

The hunter pushed ever on into the woods. He knew he was making a mistake but he couldn’t go back now. He couldn’t go back empty handed again. He needed something, anything. A crow called from a tree, but he couldn’t see which one. By now, the trees were so thick in front of him he couldn’t see the sky except through slivers as thin as the blade of a knife.

The forest was only darker in front of him. It seemed like it got deeper and deeper, and the hunter had never been able to see how far it went. He’d never wanted to, either. He turned around and looked back, just for a fleeting moment. The sky revealed itself behind him. He thought he could see a thin tendril of smoke in the distance, billowing weightlessly into the sky. He stepped further into the woods.

In the far brush, he heard a rustling sound. The hunter crouched and pulled the rifle from his shoulder. He braced the wood against his body, pushing his chest into the polished stock. He steadied a shot on the bush and waited. He would not lose his patience. He waited for minutes, but nothing came. The hunter placed the rifle on his shoulder and went to inspect the bush.

He peeled back the leaves and saw a small trap, like a miniature bear trap. The jaws were still wide - waiting. On the plate in the center of the maw, a small red fox lay, now long dead. The fox’s orange and white fur matted together and stained a deep crimson — almost brown — from the oxidizing blood. His back leg snapped in an odd direction, and marrow spilled from the jagged fracture. Wasn’t an easy death. But the jaw still sat waiting. He must have taken the bait, but somehow hadn’t triggered the trap.

The hunter reached for the pelt and before he could even touch the fur, the trap fired. The hunter recoiled but it was too late. The jaws struck his hand and caught his ring and pinky finger. He pulled back and brought his hand to his chest. The fingers hit the plate next to the fox, still wrapped in deer skin. His blood dripped onto steel jaws, past the mouth, and onto the fox, mingling with the dried blood. That’s when he felt it. He rolled onto his back on the snow and screamed into the sky. The trees said nothing. In the distance, a wolf howled. 

He plunged his hand into the snow, digging for relief. He found none. He tried to contain his breathing and racing heart. He needed to move. He staggered to a sitting position, and brought his quivering hand up to his face to inspect it. The split had not been as clean as he had thought. He needed to cover it, and fast. He pulled the rest of the glove from his hand and tore it into a large strip. He wrapped the deerskin around his damaged hand, covering where his bare flesh met the air. 

The hunter ran with no direction deeper into the woods. Looking around now, he couldn’t tell which was was in or out. He had no choice but to keep going. Behind him, he heard leaves pushed aside, snow thrown across the snow, branches bending and breaking. He did not want to look back. He was slowing down, trying desperately to stay ahead and find some shelter. Soon it would be too dark to hunt. At that point he was as good as dead out here.

The hunter ran into a clearing and his leg hooked onto a root from one of last trees in his way. He fell hard — face first — into the snow. His rifle flew from his shoulder and landed a few feet in front of him. He lay there in the snow, and thought about how easy it would be to stay there. He just needed a rest.

He pushed himself to one knee, his damaged hand spilling blood which eroded the snow. The blood saturated the snow like ink dying into parchment. It seemed to glow in the setting sun. He stood and placed his hands on his knees. Tried to catch his lost breath. His heart raced. The hunter went over to his rifle and picked it up. After stringing it once more across his shoulder, he looked into the sky. He realized the clearing was a perfect circle, the dark thin trees pointing straight up into the sky. Something had cleared them. The trees separated, framing the moon. It was thin and wan, in the shape of a wicked crescent. A bad omen. He needed to find shelter fast if he wanted to see the sunrise.

He looked back down toward the horizon and saw boulders, just beyond the edge of the circle. He walked over to the stones and saw there was a small gap between them. It seemed as if someone had carved a small crevice between them. He tried to peak in but it was too dark to see. He couldn’t feel his hand anymore. He took off his rifle and small pack, and pushed them into the opening. The hunter crawled his way in. Sure enough, the inside was a small cave. The hunter put the rifle across his chest. He wouldn’t need it here. Before placing his bag back on his back, he dug into it and produced a small flashlight. The walls were bare but smooth. On one side of the room, he found not a wall but more space that fell into darkness. Better to clear the cave now before regretting it later. He walked into the void.

The cave sloped down, and he though he could here rushing water in the distance. As he pressed further, this sound grew louder and louder, building into a cacophony. He couldn’t hear his breath or heartbeat any longer. As the cave sloped down, the stone floor gave way to carved steps. After some time, these became wood planks. The steps started to curve hard to the right, and the hunter followed. 

The sound of water thundered ahead and echoed against the tight walls. He could see some light coming from the end of the tunnel, getting steadily brighter as he went. The hunter turned off his flashlight and let the cave guide him down. Finally he reached the end.

At the end of the hallway was a small door. The door was a thick, deep wood, one that was unfamiliar to the hunter. The wood was stained a deep brown. It sat in a stone wall which had been made completely flat and smooth. On the door was a round brass handle. It looked recently polished, or maybe had just become that way from frequent use. It glimmered in the light that hung in the air. He put his broken hand on the knob and turned.

The hunter had to shield his eyes as he pushed his way into the room. The room was intensely bright and deafeningly loud. His eyes began to adjust and he saw the source of the light and noise. Three walls of the room were olive green and bare, including the wall he’d entered through. The fourth wall was not so easily deciphered. It was a wall constructed of old televisions, all identical. They stretched from wall to wall and floor to ceiling. Each TV was on and showed static. They emitted a pale bluish light and a droning that was both high and low pitched simultaneously. It was as if each of them were a window into the eye of a raging snowstorm, somehow both separate and contiguous. The sound was almost too much to bear.

The room was completely empty except for a thin sheet metal desk, a slightly darker shade of green than the walls, that sat against the TV wall. Under the desk sat an uncomfortable-looking metal chair. The hunter stood behind the chair and looked up at the monolith of televisions towering over him. A ripple went across all the TVs synchronously, a wave across the pool. The pitch of the drone changed slightly as this happened. The hunter thought this must be some sort of communication but he didn’t understand it. He felt small and afraid. He knew he had come too far. 

He turned around and saw the door was gone. The walls were all completely bare. The walls seemed closer together than before, and the ceiling looked further away. He looked back to the TVs. Another ripple went across them, from the top right corner. They made a deep whirring sound he felt in his bones. He took a step backwards and hit the wall. The TVs grew louder and brighter and he couldn’t look away. A final ripple went out from the center. This signaled a crescendo of light and sound and the hunter was sure he couldn’t take it.

He woke up to the pink warmth of the sun striking his face. He lay in the middle of the cave, his bag and rifle against the nearby wall. He sat up with a start. He must have fallen asleep. He pulled his hand to his face and saw blood had dried around his makeshift bandage. He painfully peeled it off and replaced it with strips from his shirt. He looked around the room. Now that the sun was out, he could see all four walls clearly. They were all blank. There was no sign of the hallway.

The rifle hit the snow with a soft this. The bag followed, then the man. He fell onto the snow and picked up his items. The sun had just started to peak over the horizon and pink beams cut through the dark purple night. He had only finished admiring the morning when he heard a large thud to his side. Once again, he dropped to a knee and pulled his rifle to firing position. He scanned the trees in front but found nothing. Once again he rose and walked to the source of the noise. 

In the trees lay the deer. It had been a buck all along. He was huge. His massive antlers had become caught on a fallen branch and he struggled slightly in the ground. He was stuck. Once the deer saw the man his breathing increased but he became still. The man walked over to him. 

The deer was bleeding from the stomach, from the gunshot wound where the man had struck him. The man placed his hand on its side and shushed slightly. The buck’s heart pounded away and blood poured out at every beat. The deer exhaled hard in rhythm.  The man walked to the deer’s head and looked into his eyes. They were flat and dark. A black pool of considerable and unknowable depth. The man saw his reflection in them.

He turned his attention to the branch in which the antler had gotten stuck. It was hopelessly snagged, knurled around the antler. It desperately grabbed on to the deer and refused to let go. 

The man walked back to the head of the deer. He produced his knife from his hip. He placed his hand on the head of the deer. It’s breathing slowed slightly, and it made the man feel calm. He said some words to no one in particular. No one was listening. He thrust the blade into the neck of the deer, and all was still. He pulled his knife free and wiped it on his pants before placing it back into it’s sheath. He felt weak and tired. Birds cleared the trees above. Nearby, a wolf called. The man looked into the woods and saw only darkness. He sat on the ground with his back against the buck. It wouldn’t be long now.

Dust.

Welcome.