An Unbreakable Will
“When you know who you are, when your mission is clear and you burn with the inner fire of unbreakable will. No cold can touch your heart; no deluge can dampen your purpose. You know that you are alive.”
Chief Seattle, 1780
The gentle rolling of the bus, together with the constant loud humming of the engine, lulled Tore into a deep sleep and it was several hours into the journey before his travel companions’ idle chatter woke him. Already dark outside, he squinted through the reflections in the window and tried to workout where he was.
Cross checking the bus schedule with his watch, Tore realized they must have been nearing Casper. The bus was due to make a stop soon. Thoughts of Hania came into his head, should he take the opportunity to visit him? His father-in-law’s house wasn’t too far out of town. He could break up his journey and pick up another bus in a couple of days.
Guilt sat heavily in Tore’s heart. Without Hania’s help over the last couple of years, Tore never would have survived. But the memories of his place were too raw; once things with the kids were better, Tore could come back. When his heart was stronger, perhaps, his head would be too. He’d be able to cope with the memories that would come flooding back to him.
The landscape changed to one that was more familiar. Hania’s house was along this road somewhere, if he wasn’t mistaken. He wondered if it had altered. It was too dark out there to see past the reflections in the window and even if he could, in this light there was no chance of being able to see the house as they passed. Disappointed, Tore turned his attention back to the people on the bus.
His fellow passengers were a mishmash of college kids and people who looked down on their luck. Kind of like him, really. An older woman sat across the aisle, furiously knitting some long object. Wondering if the length of it meant she had been working on this non-stop since they’d left Rawlins, Tore became fascinated by the ball of wool on her lap. It jumped and wiggled as she pulled the yarn from its confines. The ball dropped to the floor and rolled towards him. Automatically, he bent down to retrieve it.
While Tore grappled around under his chair for the skein, the bus swerved first one way then the other. Several passengers screamed and a few were sent flying from their chairs. The knitter fell forwards banging her head against the seat in front of her. Tore slid off the chair and fell between the seats. The bus continued to buck and swerve a few more seconds, before it came to an abrupt stop.
The emergency lights flickered on and the driver got to his feet. “Everyone okay?” he yelled, as he made his way along the bus.
“What happened, sir?” Tore asked.
“Freaking big stag just ran out in front of me! Hate the bloody rutting season!” When the driver had ascertained everyone was okay, he turned and moved to the door. “Right then folks, I’ll just need to go and check there’s no damage out there. If you’d all be patient for a little while longer.”
After about fifteen minutes, Tore became restless and he went to see where the driver had gone. He was knelt by the rear nearside wheel, his head under the chassis, muttering away to himself, “Is everything okay?” It was colder out than Tore expected and he pulled his coat around him.
The driver jumped in fright cussing loudly, jerking his body out from under the bus, “Huh, nope. Damn busted axle! Must have hit something on the way in.”
It was only then that Tore realized the bus was leaning into a ditch. Even if the axle wasn’t broken the chances of them getting the thing out safely was a long shot.
“Well, nothin’ I can do… just radio it in, I guess.” The driver pulled his considerable weight up from the cold road and trudged back towards the cab. From the look of his posture, he wasn’t looking forward to telling his passengers the bad news.
Tore made his way to the front of the bus and looked around. For the second time since he’d started his journey, his mind wandered to Hania. Behind him were the outskirts of Casper. Clusters of lights highlighted the large urban area. Looking back down the road, Tore noticed Hania’s small house stood back from the road, its dirt driveway winding down to it. The cabin was nothing special to look at but something about it drew him to it. He guessed it was close, maybe only half a mile back down the road.
The bus driver was now talking on his radio, “Well, how long? Huh. I guess, but there’s thirty or so passengers, what the hell am I supposed to tell ‘em?” The driver stuck his head out the window and looked towards the town lights, “Erm, dunno. Couple of miles probably… Okay I’ll get them rallied, you calling ahead? …Well, they’ll not be happy, but if it’s on our buck, just make sure they know we’re coming…uh huh…yes boss.”
Even before he finished his conversation, it was obvious to Tore that they weren’t getting out of here any time soon. The rest of the passengers were also picking up on the vibe and the mood inside was growing antsy.
“Okay, listen up folks. As you can see we have a bit of a problem. Axles busted and the rear of the bus is in a ditch. I’m gonna need a tow. Now, I’ve been on the radio and there is no way they can get anyone to us tonight…” The bus erupted as everyone protested at once, “Look, I understand y’all frustrated but there’s no use in shooting the messenger. I’m in the same situation as the rest of you…”
The driver struggled to quiet the masses and tried to explain the plan. Tore found himself wandering away from the bus a few yards, eyes locked onto Hania’s house.
Tore turned towards the driver and found the rest of the passengers already disembarked, “You might want to collect your things, it’ll be about a two mile walk so leave your bags in the luggage compartment, but grab your personal stuff.”
Tore thanked him and quickly went back to retrieve his backpack. Jumping down from the bus, something pulled him away from the direction of Casper.
“Sir, town’s this way,” called the driver.
There was no time like the present. Fate led the bus to breakdown here and so fate would guide him, “It’s okay, I’ll make my own arrangements and meet you back here tomorrow,” He called over his shoulder, his focus still firmly on the cabin a mile down the road.
“Suit yerself but if you’re not on the bus when we set off, I won’t be able to do anything about it an’ I have no idea what time that’ll be,” he said.
Tore waved his thanks, “That’s okay, I’ll keep my eye out for you guys returning.” The driver shrugged at him and turned around, hurrying off to catch up with the grumbling passengers.
With every step along the road, the house loomed closer and Tore’s heart sped up. Gulping back the dread that started to rise up his throat, he turned onto the dirt track that led up to Hania’s. The place was dark. His watch confirmed it was just after nine. What if Hania was away at one of his tribal meetings? Pausing to grab the mail from his father-in-laws bulging mailbox, he took a couple of calming deep breaths before continuing down the driveway.
It was seven years since Kachina died here. The images of his beautiful wife lying on the floor outside Hania’s house filled his head. An overwhelming panic rushed through his veins. Bent double and gasping for breath, Tore fought to pull himself together enough to carry on. His palms sweated and his heart rate doubled. Taking a few deep breaths, he swallowed back the nausea racing up his throat. He couldn’t do this. This was a mistake. The bus, he needed to go back to the bus. But that was the coward’s way out and Tore had already been down that route, he was not going to make a return trip now.
Stumbling forwards one step at a time, his body grew heavier as the distance shortened. Outside Hania’s door, it was all he could do to stop himself from bolting back up the driveway. He shuffled from foot to foot as he waited for an answer. As the minutes ticked on and on it became obvious Hania wasn’t home. It was stupid to have come here. Undecided about what to do, something in the overgrown border by the door, caught Tore’s eye. A familiar small, clay rabbit sat hidden amongst the weeds. Picking it up and twisting its head the thing broke in two. A small brass key to Hania’s door still lay in the hollowed out ornament.
As Tore opened the door his, apprehension grew. The memory of Kachina’s murder was suffocating him. Sweat made his palms sticky and clammy and his stomach rolled as the bile threatened to choke him once more. As the solid door clunked behind him, a deathly silence descended all around.
Closing his eyes he took some deep breaths and braced himself against the ghosts that he thought would be waiting for him. As he struggled to fight back the panic that was coursing through his veins, he opened his eyes slowly and let go of the breath he was holding.
The house smelt stale, a thick layer of dust covered all the surfaces. Reaching for the light switch, he half expected the electricity to be disconnected. The light blinked once, twice, then its dim glow illuminated the shadowy interior. Gasping for breath, Tore reached out a hand to steady himself as his legs turned Jell-O. The place was exactly as it had been on that last day, but it was this lack of change that affected his equilibrium. Except for the amount of cobwebs and dust lying about, it could have been seven years ago.
The house was at once claustrophobic. His lips immediately dry. He needed a drink! Why had he come, what was here for him? Even if Hania were home, Tore feared facing him. The guy lost his daughter because of him and then he ran away from his responsibilities as a provider and a father to Hania’s grandchildren. He took another deep breath. Yet Hania did not desert him. His father-in-law never once laid any blame for what happened at Tore’s feet. In fact, for two years he watched over Tore, visited him in his time of need, and attempted to guide Tore back onto the right path.
Tore shook his head, trying to dislodge the negative thoughts that threatened to derail him again. Self-hatred, his own feelings of inadequacy and self-blame were what almost destroyed him. Erik was the one responsible for Kachina and Annike’s death. He was as much of a victim as them. No more guilt trips. Move on Tore, have you forgotten Hania’s words already? That’s why you were on the goddamn bus after all. Dredging up this stuff was poison. He fought to keep the negativity from forming in his head, Tore needed to feed the right wolf this time.
Tore tried to distract himself from the conflicting emotions and began shuffling through the huge pile of mail he’d carried up from the mailbox. As he sorted through the circulars and bills, it became obvious that Hania hadn’t been home in a long while. Tore sighed. He should have stayed with the bus driver and headed into town, still there was no other choice he would have to sleep here now. The chance of catching up with the other passengers was slim. It looked like a night at Hania’s was his only option.
Wandering down the hallway, he found himself outside the old room where he’d slept with Kachina. A feeling of dread pooled in his belly once more. Standing at the threshold, he took some deep breaths and braced himself against the flood of emotions as the light flicked on.
The stark fluorescent bulb illuminated the colorful pictures of mythical creatures and brave warriors that hung along the walls in small wooden frames. There were dozens of hand drawn sketches with the exotic names of Hania’s friends carefully written under each one in Eva’s childish hand. Stopping to look at them, he found their names eerily familiar. Eva and Johan’s renditions brought them to life but Tore’s memories of meeting these people came flooding back.
There was Molega who’d helped him through his marriage ceremony and the twins, Nattuel and Nodin, who he never could tell apart. The two scared him half to death before his wedding when he’d encountered them in the forest. Next to them, there was the youngest warrior, Pilan, with his short-cropped hair. Tore couldn’t help but smile at the next one. Lakota’s picture was embellished with small pink hearts. It seemed he was Eva’s favorite. Another wave of sadness engulfed him. Tore flipped off the light and suddenly the room held too many memories.
Walking along the corridor, he paused outside the other two adjacent bedrooms. His hand hovered over the doorknob to Kachina’s old room but he couldn’t bring himself to turn it. He stepped back and stared at the other door. There were too many emotions surging through his body. One of those rooms he’d woken up in after being left for dead just after Annike was killed, the other was where Kachina and he first made love. The thought of sleeping in either of them was abhorrent. The couch would be a better option.
Passing by a dresser in the hallway, a half empty bottle of whiskey winked at him. Immediately his tongue ran across his lips. Within seconds, the bottle was in his hand and Tore was in the kitchen. He placed it on the counter and it pleaded with him. His heart constricted, the dusty glass bottle was a siren, dark and tempting. His fingers closed around the cap. It was stuck fast. Brute strength joined forces with desperation and relief flooded through him as the lid finally turned. The satisfying, gritty grating was music to his ears.
A strong, sour smell assaulted his nostrils. Placing the cap next to the bottle on the counter, an inner voice forced him to step back. Running his fingers through his hair, the whiskey chided him and the bottle winked as its amber contents glowed and beckoned. Moments later, it was in his hand and he poured its golden treachery down Hania’s sink. With the faucet turned on full, he washed away the misery that threatened him. A vitriolic crash resounded around the room as the bottle hit the trashcan and Tore felt his resolve slip back into control. Needing distance from what he’d nearly done, he moved away from the tantalizing scent and went back into the living room.
* * *
The strong early morning sunlight woke Tore from a fretful nights sleep. Even though Hania’s sofa, was more comfortable than he’d imagined, he felt far from rested. Still, partly refreshed and his gloomy mood from last night lifted, Tore scoured through Hania’s cupboards and found a jar of instant coffee. God only knew what sort of condition it would be in, but he was desperate enough for a caffeine rush to try it.
Drinking the bitter stale coffee without milk or sugar jarred his senses awake in double quick time. Taking a seat on Hania’s backdoor step the view across the meadow was breathtaking. Out there, Tore had buried two wives and a dear friend but despite the sadness that shrouded the meadow, he couldn’t help but admire its beauty. As he sat captivated by the sun creeping over the hedgerows, the ghosts of Annike and Kachina called to him. Eventually, Tore could hold back no longer. Leaving his cup on the stoop, his trembling legs carried him to the makeshift graveyard. A sudden constriction in his chest prevented oxygen reaching his lungs. It took him by surprise and he choked back the tears as he struggled to find control.
Side by side, the three most important people in his life lay beneath the dirt. Each of them held a special place in Tore’s heart. When they were placed in those graves, He’d buried not just his wives and friend but with each there was a piece of himself too.
Tore shook his head. The graves were in a sorry state. The soil, once mounded over the bodies was now sunken and the meadow weeds and grasses were a wild tangle. After all this time there was little to mark where his loved ones lay. Yet in his heart the pain was as strong as the day he wielded the shovels.
All that remained to mark their resting places, were three wooden markers with a short inscription carved into them. Running his fingers down the weathered oak, he could feel Rune’s fine craftsmanship in the cursive script that spelled out each of the women’s names.
A loathsome melancholy seeped into his pores. Tore wondered what each of the women would say if they could see how far he’d fallen? Kachina who’d worked so hard to save him when he’d lost Annike would be so disappointed in the way he crumbled.
A rooster startled him back into the present. He watched as the morning colors settled into a glorious blue cloudless sky. It was still early. The bus wouldn’t be ready to leave for another few hours. Retracing his steps back to the kitchen, Tore returned to the stoop and sipped the already cold coffee. He pondered his options while the early sun warmed him.
Dozing against the doorframe his undulating emotions were disturbed by the sound of a truck pulling up in front of the cabin. The truck sounded familiar. Was this Hania returning? A grin crept across his face. He felt delighted at the prospect of seeing this man after all. This was kismet, it was meant to be. Excitement flushed away the sadness that hung around him like a dark cloak. As he rose, Tore wondered if his father-in-law would be as pleased to see him, as he was to see Hania?
On his way through the kitchen to answer the door his mind wandered, maybe he should delay the rest of his journey for a couple of days while they caught up. After all his kids didn’t know what his plans were. What difference was an extra day or two going to make? Entering the living room the lock clicked open.
“Hania!” Tore was unable to hide the excitement in his voice.