Beyond his window was winter. It had finally arrived. A long-awaited smile cracked beneath the surface of his leathered skin. He inhaled the cold air that had perpetrated beyond the pane of glass. At Last.
“So, you have returned to me.”
The empty world gave no response.
He watched the frozen landscape, and the moon that had been impaled on the highest peak, and nodded. This was how it was meant to be. Finally.
Then, the noise.
He knew that he couldn’t be dreaming because he never dreamt. He had never told anyone about this. Well, he had nobody to tell. He was pleased that he did not wander in the nocturnal world of daily flotsam. He never read a newspaper or a book. He found them annoying distractions to the business of life. If he ever allowed the truth to be told, he would have admitted to not being able to read. It was a skill that was beyond him and one that he really didn’t need. A book was paper and it could be burnt, but wood was better.
The noise was from outside. The one that woke him seemed to be distant, but the one that he now heard was much closer. It was outside of the house. A long time ago, in his father’s life, there had been wolves that roamed these mountains. They would pick off lambs in spring; move in groups to worry herdsmen with their goats. And every now and again, at certain junctures of brashness and bravery, they would even attack dairy cows. He had grown up fearing these creatures whilst wishing that he could be given the good fortune to encounter one, face to face, in the open, an even contest of skin and nerve.
There was scratching at the door.
In the room above the cellar’s stairs was his gun. It had not been used since the dog. Tonight he reached for it, took a box of cartridges, loaded, then made his way to the door. Whatever had been making the noise was not doing so any more. It was probably a stray mutt from the village below or a tourist dog that had decided to stay on for the winter. None of them went hungry when the tourists were around , but as soon as the season was over they were like vagabonds and scavengers, raiding refuse and even sneaking into homes to steal what they could. Whatever pedigree they were, to him they were vermin that needed to be dealt with. His hand caressed the gun and his finger stroked the trigger.
Alive, he thought, at last.
The scratching was getting louder and more frantic. Whatever was out there wanted to come in. Perhaps the sudden snap in the temperature had cause the creature to search for shelter. Perhaps it could be running from some other creature, prey and predator. Either way, it would get a shock. The gun was firmly in his hands, cradled, one might say. He placed his hand on the key and turned it slowly. As if in response, the scratching increased in intensity and rapidity. The door was being pushed with a force that he had not reckoned on and he almost stopped, a shudder of apprehension warning him of the unknown. He had climbed the high mountains, survived the worst of the storms when others had not, and had outlived all of those who thought they were his betters. As the frantic activity continued to escalate, he opened the door.
Something pushed hard from without. It was but a momentary force, but he felt it.
“I have a gun,” he warned whatever was there, regardless of the sense in it. Then he pushed it shut again and turned the key. His old heart beat a manic rhythm and he felt something that he had not encountered for many, many years; fear. He waited and panted away the panic.
Minutes moved indifferently by as he leant his shoulder against the wooden divide. The beating of his heart was joined by a throbbing pulse in his temples. An urge to shout, to scream defiance, to offload his firearm into the timber, ran along in his list of possibilities, but he resisted them all.
Time passed and his heart slowed. The throb in his temples was now only a dull reminder of itself and the pressure his shoulder was exerting on the door eased. There was no scratching, no sound above a vague wind falling down from the peaks.
“Nothing, you stupid old fool. Nothing,” he reassured himself. “It was only the wind that pushed the door. That and your own imagination.”
Yet, he had no imagination.
What he could do, what he should do, was to open the door once again and shoot whatever had caused him to be so afraid. He remembered someone, some time long ago, saying that there was ‘nothing to fear but fear itself’. That was a good thing to say and that was something that he had remembered down the decades. Now the line came back to him and forced him to act.
His hand reached out for the key once again. He forced it to be steady. He inhaled deeply and began to turn.