Kelli Short Borges
Reading Time: 5 minute
"North" originally appeared in Issue 23 of Tahoma Literary Review. I loved the tension in this flash piece by Kelli. I was instantly pulled into the nearly-hopeless, evocative, and icy world of the story, and I'm sure you will be, too.
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They are lost. Bea has suspected it for hours. Her heavy boots crunch through the thin layer of ice that has settled over the once powdery snow. Overnight, an unexpected freeze has coated the vast wilderness south of Missoula, its beauty in juxtaposition to the uneasy twist Bea now feels in her gut.
“We’re going in circles.” She glances at Jacob, a sour taste at the back of her throat. Despite the cold, a thin sheen of sweat coats her forehead. Pushing her dark bangs back, she blanches, then takes a small sip of water.
“Relax. We’re fine.” Jacob replies, his tone glacial. A warning. “The lodge isn’t far from here.” Bea, lips pressed together, trails him, her small tracks mirroring his larger ones. She’s too cold to argue.
The ice beneath them cracks and crunches as they move, the blood orange reflection of sunset now splintered beneath their boots. A bitter wind shrieks through the ghost-like branches of surrounding pines, bites at slivers of exposed skin. Bea wraps her arms around her chest, rubs her hands together to stave off the chill. She can barely feel her fingers now, and wonders how long it will take frostbite to set in. She feels the composure she has struggled to maintain begin to break like the icy shards beneath their feet.
“Jacob. We’re lost. We…”
“We’re fine, Bea. Why do you always doubt me?” He stops, leans toward her, chest thrust forward, brow furrowed, face so close she feels the cold burn of his exhale on her skin. Instinctively, she shrinks, draws into herself. Tears prick the corners of her eyes, but she quickly wipes them away. Keeps moving. Follows Jacob, as she always has.
But now, as they round the next bend, there’s finally proof. They’ve only gone in circles. The hare lies dying in the snow, its small body curled under a pine tree. Even in the twilight, with the ink of night washing over them, Bea sees its eyes have dimmed. It hasn’t moved from where they saw it hours ago. When it looked like it might have a chance.
“Is there something we can do?’ she whispers.
“Only put it out of its misery.” Jacob reaches into his backpack, pulls out the gun that’s never far from reach.
“Bea. We have to. It’s suffering.” She covers her ears, turns away. The gunshot echoes off the mountains, finally replaced by the high-pitched scream of the wind.
Bea’s hands tremble as she reaches down, feels the once flat hollow of her abdomen. She cups it, then drops her hand and turns back to Jacob. Blood has sprayed across the snow, crimson replacing white. The hare’s eyes are now dull, lifeless.
“It didn’t hurt. It never knew.” Jacob looks away. Won’t meet Bea’s eyes.
The metallic smell of blood is overwhelming. Bea retches, the acid in her throat burning as she heaves. She pictures Jacob, hunched over their kitchen table after a hunt, the slice of the knife through sinew and flesh. Pictures sterile waiting rooms, the doctor’s cold hand on her thigh, the sickly-sweet ginger ale she will be given afterward. Feels the phantom weight of regret, the unbearable ache of loss.
It starts to snow, a white flurry quickly covering their jackets, their hats, their boots. The hare. Finally, all is coated in a milky haze. Everything but the blood, still warm and wet. It leeches out from beneath. Stains each new layer of white.
“Jacob, I think I know the way from here. I can lead us back.” Bea reaches for Jacob’s hand. “Please, Jacob.”
He pulls away, laughs. “You think you know the way, huh? When have you ever known the way, Bea? We’d only get more lost.”
Bea considers him, standing there. What she will leave behind. Pictures another life, a future of her choosing. Cradling the small body. A crescent of warmth against her own.
“And if I go?”
“You won’t.” But there’s a question in his eyes, the smallest hesitation. Just as quickly it vanishes, replaced by the sharp glint of certainty. It’s all she needs.
She turns, looks up into the black. Finds the northern star. Her footsteps quickly vanish as she heads into the night.
Kelli had this to say about her story:
Last winter my husband and I traveled to Iceland for the first time. I found its unique, stark beauty breathtaking, and was particularly taken by the reflection of the sunset upon the ice one evening. This image inspired the writing of several traditional Haiku, which became the seeds for my story.
Kelli Short Borges writes flash fiction, short stories, and essays from her home in Phoenix, Arizona.
Twitter: @Kelli Borges2 Website: www.kellishortborges.com