The wind is bitterly cold. He struggles with each step, his head bent down to avoid the stinging flecks of ice. His feet, though he can see them, no longer seem a part of his body. They are solid hunks of ice, numb and burdensome. He wiggles his toes. Actually, he tells his feet, via his brain, to wiggle their toes. No response. Perhaps they have given up. Don’t need them anyway, he figures.
Right, left, right, he slogs through the drifts. The march is interminable, the cadence unchanging. After a while he sees another human, a man, trudging through the snow toward him. He can scarcely believe his eyes. It has been weeks, maybe a month since he has seen anything but white. That was before the storm hit. Snow blankets everything now. Indistinguishable lumps and hillocks could be cars, buildings, skyscrapers. He hasn’t a clue. This man, this non-snow being approaching him, stands out from the pale like a flashing beacon. The stranger is moving, not collecting icy dust. This man is alive.
The two men make slow progress. “Hello!” he calls, waving an arm. The stranger waves in return. Haven’t spoken in weeks, he muses, what sort of conversation can one have after such a dearth of words? A familiar, pernicious dread roils his guts, like those hunger pangs from ages ago, back when there were things to eat. What could I say to this man, today or tomorrow or two years from now, that would do any goddamn good?
Finally they are face to face, fur-lined parka hoods and head wraps obscuring all but their eyes. His are brown; the stranger’s gray. He pulls his wrap down and repeats his greeting:
The stranger’s jaw is motionless; no sound escapes those enshrouded lips. Slaty, limpid eyes, set deep in a face the color of mahogany, regard him coolly, calmly.
He is taken aback. Is this a dream? The stranger’s voice rings clear as a bell, though no words are spoken. A little afraid and completely mystified, he stumbles on:
“How did you…what…how long…Please, tell me who you are.”
It is of no consequence. Are there others?
“What? No, I’m alone. Haven’t seen anyone, or anything, in weeks…”
So be it. Take heed, traveler—the winds are shifting. You feel hungry, cold, tired, despondent. Cast these cavils aside. You fear death and the unknown. Banish these thoughts outright, for they are ruinous indeed.
“But…what am I to do, then? Abandon self-preservation and just lie down and die?”
You dwell on defeat. Too often your woes outweigh your joy. Traveler, you must distance yourself from these trifles, clear your sullied conscience, and take a moment to simply breathe.
The stranger reaches out and grabs his gloved hands, placing a small, almost weightless pouch into the cup of his palms. Turning from him now, calling out through the swirling flurry:
There is always hope.
“Wait! What is this?”
He looks down at the pouch. Tanned, deeply creased leather, cinched tight with a woven drawstring. Pulling off a glove with his teeth, he works the string with bare fingers, carefully upending the pouch into his other palm. A tiny salamander, barely as long as his pinkie, tumbles out, blinking sleepily. Chocolate-brown, with a copper stripe running down its length and a pair of black, glassy eyes dominating its puny skull, the salamander appears at ease despite the cold.
Bewildered, he places it back in the pouch and tightens the string. Gently tucks it deep inside his breast pocket, his only possession in an austere existence. Scanning the horizon, he sees no sign of the stranger. Gone. Vanished without a trace.