Snow and Shade
He stood on the edge of the woods and looked back at the farm. The muddy cornfield he just crossed was dotted with dead stalks and pools of brown water. Beyond that, the barn tried to pull one of its graying double doors closed, but the southern Kentucky wind decided otherwise.
Just to the left of the barn, he saw the house peeking out at him. He lived there all his life, born by a roaring fireplace on a dead winter night, but the house wasn’t his. He could make out the edge of the kitchen window, the small one above the sink. And though he did not see her, he imagined his mother looking out of it. She would have watched him run from the house in terrible anger into the November morning, across the field and toward the twenty miles of cold wood and swamp in her family’s name, just outside of Gainesboro. But she wasn’t there, and she did not see him.
The sun had not yet come, or so it might seem, though it was hours since dawn. Instead, gray clouds rose from the eastern horizon hiding most of the light behind them.
The first snow had moved in before the last of the decayed leaves could fall to the ground. After only a day, the last hot breath from a long summer swept the rest of the leaves from the trees and forced the snow into the ground. Now, muck bit and gulped at his boots each time he stepped, but he was still light enough to escape, and he was still young enough to remain on his stubborn path into the trees.
He rubbed his stiff hands along the length of his arms. The regret of not bringing his coat seeped into the sides of his mind, but he had made the choice to leave it behind. It was easy to make that decision in the warm air trapped beneath his bed covers. A want is different than a need, his father had told him once as untapped ash from his cigarette fell to the floor. And a man knows that difference, he had said. And, now, he didn’t need that coat, as his mother always insisted that he did. He didn’t need anything from her.
There were two entrances into the woods and he had chosen neither, instead walking as the junco flies, straight and away from his mother’s home as fast as his thin legs could go. He didn’t run — running was what children did — but he had not slowed his pace. He knew this part of the woods well enough, even though he did not follow the paths his grandfather had made when his mother was a child, which only the deer and the foxes maintained each year since. The short trail to his left would go another few hundred feet deeper, but it would never lose sight of the edge of the cornfield. The trail to his right would go on for a long time. He had never seen the end of it.
The furthest he had gone into the woods was the last time his family had gone camping a few years before. It was also the last time he could remember his family being happy together.
He remembered walking and walking in early summer next to his mother, who took slow, steady, determined steps despite her long legs. She looked down and smiled at him as she carried his sleeping sister, her little hands grasped onto his mother’s dark curly hair. His father carried a big backpack with enough supplies for all of them to last the night. He plodded along beside them all, only carrying a great big walking stick like he had seen his father use before. They had walked for hours, he knew, but not exactly how far.
The sunlight had shone through the thousands of leaves on the trees above him, casting a soft green spell on everything below. He listened to his father hum a song he had played on the record player before, and something in the trees seemed to hum with him. Sick-kay-duzz, his mother had called them. Sick-kay-duzz, his sister repeated, still half asleep.
None of them spoke much except for his father pointing out a snake some way in front of them or his mother declaring that she was stopping to pick pink and yellow flowers here and there.
After forever, his father had announced that they were here. He didn’t know where here was, but it was in a large clearing surrounded by trees — just the right size for their campsite.
There were bees and butterflies floating above the tall grass, and a big oak had fallen over near the edge of it all. He and his sister hopped around on the log, pretending to roar like lions and stomp like elephants. They giggled and played while his father set up the tent and his mother made a fire pit out of dirt and stone.
His mother helped them hold their hot dogs over the fire. Not too close, but not too far, she said. She showed them how to blow on the dogs to cool them quicker but he wolfed down a bite without waiting. He cried out with a steaming mouth and tears in his eyes. His mother took his face in her soft hands and held her cheek against his, humming the song his father had hummed before. His mouth still burned, but he forgot to let it hurt him.
After supper, they ate peanuts too, and he and his sister took turns taking sips of lemonade from their mother’s thermos. They all laid together in the grass, looking up into the blue and watching it turn to black until they fell asleep.
That was a long time ago. Things had changed since then. His father had left, so his mother had no one to yell at but he and his sister. If he ran away, his sister would be the only one to miss him, but she was just a kid. She still picked fights and put blame on him, and his mother always took her side.
Just like his father, his mother had left him, but in a different way. Her body was still there in his father’s old armchair, staring into the fireplace with unblinking eyes. But the person inside her — the one who smiled at him with bright teeth, the one who held his face to hers, the one who swept his hair out of his eyes while he was about to fall asleep — that person was gone. That person had gone the same day his father had gone.
His father had left a note on the table and a ring on the countertop, and she had left even less: an empty shell where his mother used to be.
Go then, his mother had said. Go. All boys grow into men, and all men outgrow women. Just like her father had left her mother, just like his father had left her. Go, she said.
So he went.
He went slowly, placing his palm on the belly of the trees as he passed them, looking up along their trunks, tracing their naked branches as they shivered in the cold air. He looked around, too, and noticed that the trees weren’t as close together as they were around the two paths he had always taken, that the woods seemed wider than he had known before and he could see much further between them. Twigs and broken bark snapped and crunched into the dead leaf carpet as he laid each foot down and picked it up again, almost automatic. He made sure not to look back toward where he started.
As he went on, his trudging feet overtook all other sounds. The familiar cardinals and squirrels were missing; nothing fluttered through the air above him or chirruped down at him from its restless nest. The woods were still.
He did not worry about coming upon a coyote or some great bear or another man fleeing from the law or craving for his blood. None of them would come. He hadn’t brought his books of fantasy and forbidden adventure. He left them behind, along with his love for them, on the side table next to his bed.
He had run from his mother that morning, hours and miles ago, but he couldn’t be certain of how many. Fatigue had finally found him, just as the weather had finally caught up with the world. Looking into the distance, he watched tiny white sprinkles fall to the earth. He bent his head back to stare straight up at them, but as soon as he did, they disappeared, fusing with the grayness in the sky.
All the while, his legs moved on their own. He didn’t know the way, but he knew where he wanted to end up. The clearing in the woods where his family had last been together was somewhere in these woods, and the memory of that day had been suspended in the back of his mind ever since his father — and mother — had left him.
He squinted his eyes into half moons and peered out into the murky air stuck between one tree and the next. His weathered boots dragged up a mix of dirt and decay and, now, snow every other step as he shuffled on. He no longer laid a feather touch upon the trees as he passed by, but grasped at them. His back swayed with each breath he heaved into himself, but he could not keep the air in. It fought in his chest next to his heart, both kicking and stammering, and his hands seized up. He draped his neck down to see them shivering and he felt them fill with invisible needles. He pumped his fingers to push them out, but the pain rushed back within seconds. His head reeled and the great trees around him blurred into white.
As his foot snagged on a root jutted out to grab him, he stumbled.
His mind slipped away and dreamt of the days he spent the summer before, sitting in the shade behind the barn, his back to the slats and the tall yellow grass hiding his body from the rest of world.
The scalding sun and the scorn of his mother were hot enough for him to plant himself there in the coolness as he watched the wind ripple through the long grass with blotted patches of buntings and flycatchers soaring above. He watched the blobs of birds join together and then shift in unison from one massive shape to another, a thousand dots that were all but connected. He pressed the ridge of his neck against the painted beams behind him and scrunched his head up and down until flakes of paint rained into his hair and onto his shoulders like little ice chips. As they melted down his back, he shivered and smiled, shutting his eyes from the bright sky.
After hours of lazing, the shade would slide away and he would slowly reheat, and the thought of his unfinished chores slipped back into place, a familiar voice echoing behind them. He reached out to his side as far as he could without taking the effort to get up and move, and he plucked up as much of the long grass as he was able. He laid out his new collection in a careless pile and went back for more, this time reaching further still, stretching until gravity overcame him and slumped his whole body over.
Lower and cooler and closer to the ground, he gathered up his pile of grass and covered himself with it, a brisk blanket to lull him to sleep. His eyes slipped closed again as he wiggled his body, starting with his shoulders and working his way down to his hips, and made a small pocket to hold himself in the ground. The cold dirt radiated up through his shirt and denim pants and the sweat that clung to the back of his body froze in place.
An easy mist had fallen from the dark clouds above just as he began to drift off in the cold shadow of the barn when the creak of the front door shattered the silence in his head. It was followed by a slam and the shuffling of pebbles on concrete – the sound of footsteps. They grew louder and louder but kept their pace, slow and steady and determined. He knew who they belonged to.
His eyes snapped open but were blinded by the sun in an instant, as the coy shade slid away once more, this time in apprehension. A wave of heat shot up his back and boiled his skin, the dew in his hair steaming. He tried to cool himself, stamping his heels into the ground, frigid as ever below him. He bent each knee up and down, driving the plows of his feet into the frosted dirt, making two rows beneath the length of his legs. He shoved harder, using his hands to steady himself as his legs worked like machines, desperate and digging into the cold, until the dirt had parted enough for him to force himself into the hole he had made like a bulb planted in the frozen ground.
He woke from the dream with his face in the snow. He couldn’t move his arms to push himself up or his legs to kick himself over, or so the cold had convinced him. With one eye open and the other iced shut, he hoisted his head a few inches up and saw a streak of bright red hovering in the white below him. He focused his open eye on the color and realized that a shard of slate had cut through the snow and into his forehead as he had fallen. He laid there and waited for warmth to return to him.
Warmth did not come, but instead, fervor filled up within him. He flopped over onto his back and stared straight. The blurred outlines of figures stood in a circle around him, waving their arms and whispering to each other as snow whipped in a selfish flurry between them, masking their their faces and muting their words.
He picked up his head in hopes of seeing and hearing them better, but a gust of frozen air streamed down upon him. He fought it, squinting and straining. At the same time, the figures noticed he was awake and all bent over inward together. The place where their faces should have been was blank. As he looked up, brown bark and knotty eyes gazed down at him, rocking back and forth in the hearty wind.
He shoved himself upwards but his numb hands failed him and he fell back onto the ground again with his arms outstretched on either side, powder splashing up all around. He lay still for a long time, watching the trees watch him and the snow blow from side to side.
When the wind stopped singing its bitter song, he tried getting up again. Lightning shot up his arms as he forced blood into them. His legs buckled and he let himself fall halfway into the trunk of the nearest tree, which had dug its roots deep into the ground but was barely able to hold his small form upright. He leaned there gasping for air even though it was all around him.
Now that the wind had moved on, the whole woods were still again, save for the gentle downfall of fat flakes still fluttering, making a blanket out of themselves upon the ground.
Except for his own rattling chest, the woods were as silent as they were deep. He ached to hear and tried to hold his breath as if waiting for some carved cuckoo to shoot out suddenly from the stout trunk to his left. He swayed there, otherwise motionless, waiting for the shout of his mother. Instead, blood pounded in his ear and drowned out any hope of a reprieve and he stood alone.
He struggled on as the snow fell around him, and with it, the pale daylight. His steps were much shorter, though he could not feel them. His head hung low and held bleary eyes that looked into the blankness below and, when he did look up, he found much of the same. The snow was thick as ever now — he couldn’t see further than a few trees ahead, each fading into view one by one.
His head sagged back down and he plodded forward, searching his mind to remember the sight of the ground beneath the white.
There used to be green grass, he recalled, and pink flowers, and yellow ones too. And little snakes sliding around, and peanut shells, and birds chirping and sweeping through the sky. And lemonade, and bees and butterflies, and rocks and leaves and record players and campfires and the sun and the stars and the blue and the black and —
He stopped. With the last of his will, he pulled his head up. There were no more trees around him. The woods had opened up into a clearing, and he stood in the middle of it. The snow spilled down around him, masking the ground and the sky.
He considered whether this was the place where he last saw things the way they used to be or whether this was somewhere else, somewhere colder. He dropped his body and knelt there, waiting for the snow to disappear or for himself to disappear inside it, whichever came first.
Until then, the whole world was white. The gray had gone.