The world was quiet, mute with a thick layer of snow. It still fell, in large clumped flakes. The sky was gray above black limbed naked trees. There was a figure curled up in a blanket with a dusting of snow, next to a stand of cattails sticking up from the frozen-over pond's edge.
An old woman looked at the figure from across the pond. She herself wore a blanket over thick clothes. It shrouded her face. She wore snowshoes made of bent branches. She watched the figure to see if it breathed or moved, but couldn't make out any detail at that distance. She started walking slowly around the pond's edge leaving fish-shaped tracks.
When she arrived at the figure, she poked it with a stick. It moved slightly. The woman looked up at the cattails--some of them were ripped apart, the interior down hanging loosely. The woman bent down and rolled over the figure to reveal a shivering girl. Cattail down was stuffed inside the blanket and around her hands.
"What's your name?" asked the old woman. The girl was past responding. The woman knelt down and slung the girl over her shoulder. Grunting, the old woman stood up and started walking back around the pond, and into the woods on the other side. After several minutes, they came to a clearing. The woman let the girl slide off her shoulder, and down onto the ground next to the embers of a fire pit. In the pit sat three old tin cans. Behind the fire was a semi-circular hovel made of woven together branches packed with mud. Snow was hard-packed against its sides. Inside it was lined with the many furs of small animals.
The woman sat the shivering girl up, braced her with one arm, then reached for one of the cans with the other. She made the girl sip warm water, then wrapped her hands around it.
"I'll make up the fire," said the woman. She went a few feet over to a pile of branches and grabbed a handful, shaking off the snow. She moved the other cans and placed the branches on the embers, then reached into her assorted clothes and brought out an old empty lighter and a small bundle wrapped in a bit of cloth. She carefully unfolded the cloth to reveal dry tinder--shredded and dried young bark. She laid it at the base of the branches. She clicked the lighter several times. It's flint still produced a spark, if no longer a flame. The tinder caught, and she bent down and nurtured the young fire with her breath.
When the fire was secure, she went into hovel and dragged out a large blanket made of sewn together rabbit skins. She wrapped it around the girl.
"You from the south?" asked the woman. The girl nodded.
"I have to keep going," said the girl. "I thank you for your hospitality."
"You've passed the border," said the woman.
"A good three miles, best I reckon," said the woman. The girl looked downcast.
"The border is fuzzy in these parts," said the girl.
"They won't have your tracks after this snowfall," said the woman. "You should rest up here for a day or two."
"Aren't you scared of them?"
"I've lived here longer than the war," said the woman. "I may not own this land, but it's mine."
"Could you tell me what it was like before the war?" asked the girl.
"That's right, I guess I didn't realize at first, but you're young enough that you would have been born after the war started."
"Yes ma'am," said the girl.
"Why you running?"
"I stole food from a soldier's camp."
"Why'd you do that?"
"I was hungry," said the girl. "Won't you tell me about before the war?"
"No," said the woman. "I'm afraid it might make you sad."
"Why?" asked the girl, confused.
"Because this particular war won't ever end."
"That's not true. That can't be true!" said the girl loudly. The woman looked at her intently, then poked at the fire. Sparks ascended and faded out.
"We've just run out the clock," said the woman. "You might live a long life, even a happy one in the future, but we won't ever get back to where we were. We lost sight of the future, if we ever did see it to begin with."
"I don't know what that means," said the girl. The woman smiled.
"I should make you some soup to warm you up," she said. "Then you should sleep, and forget the past. Be grateful you're past the border."
The girl looked at her warily, then nodded weakly.