Tuesday, June 3, 2014

June 3: Winter's Walk

The quilt laid heavy on me when my father came in to wake me with a shake.  His scent of pipe smoke & pine needles had already filled the room before I reached consciousness.  By that time he was already gone.  I slid out of the warm comfort of my bed and the chill perched on my nose and cheeks now spread over my whole body as I raced to get my long johns on.  I pulled the pants onto my scrawny legs and the tight shirt onto my torso as I reached for my sweater, trousers, coat, hat, and wool socks; frail protection from tree cracking cold outside.

By the old wood stove I found 2 of last night's biscuits. I ate them dry with the small tin cup of hot chocolate, warming me against the early morning chill.  My father  preparing the snow shoes and his pack for the day with the silence and efficiency of well worn experience.  I pulled on my boots and tucked the trousers in against the invasive snow.  He put the shoes down next to me and I tested the bindings.  No man should rely on another for his own safety.  I took the butcher paper wrapped cheese and bread he offered me and put it into my haversack.  Checked my knife for sharpness and the lanyard for signs of wear.

My father looked at me standing at his elbow, looking up at him, and he turned and opened the door with a click, creak, and a whoosh.  The storm invaded the cabin and nearly gutted the stove and lanterns with the icy breath carrying snowflakes over the threshold and onto the smooth floor.

Burying my face into my muffler we stepped outside and latched the lock.  I sat on the old stump by the door to tie on my shoes, while father merely bent down for his.  My just warm hands tightened against the bindings trusting my fingers to do the job from memory the blowing flakes blind from my eyes.  He waited until I  finished and with a thoughtful pucker and a squint he surveyed the forest around the cabin and set off across the snow.

We traveled through our small clearing and began to weave our way through the old wood, creating a new path to a new place.  Even with the snow shoes my legs sink into the snow and I labor behind him, following his form as he makes his steady pace through the wind and swirling snow.  At times I am close enough where I see the stitching on his warn canvas pack.  Other times the distance shadows his form becoming just one more of the shadowy obelisks obscured by the stinging wind.  I keep my head tucked down and my shoulders up as I follow the slowly filling foot prints of my father.  When the wind blows and every step is a triumph time becomes meaningless.  Just as the chocolate in my veins begins to freeze in the tips of my fingers and my mind forms arguments to turn back the howl of the wind becomes less odious and the skies begin to clear.

It feels like an abduction, when the hood lifts and you find yourself in an unfamiliar place surrounded by unfamiliar people.  We stride through a part of the woods I do not recognize, trees I have never met.  Our path behind us now bears the crisp stamps of the snowshoes but in the distance I can just make out the steps we trod in the storm, filled in and blown over.  The trees glisten with ice and snow as the sun breaks through the clouds and casts lances of light on the world below.  I lift my head out of the muffler, frozen in place by packed frost.  I catch a shaft of light coming through the branches and it warms my face and banishes the chill.  We carry on.

The forest transforms.  The snow is just as deep but less laborious, the brightening sky above.  As my discomfort decreases I notice things that did not matter before.  My knife handle pushes into my side with each step of my right leg,  I slide it back on my belt.  My right binding has loosened and I lean down tightening it.  I hear the soft wind chime of the ice cracking on the tree branches.  As we continue to trudge through this frosted place I become more aware of the silvan denizens surrounding us.  I feel their unblinking eyes on me as I pass.  Nervous.  Curious.  Those few hardy species staying here through the winter, keeping this place alive though the trees hibernate and the song birds have flown.  Not everyone can just leave for a tropical paradise when the world wills a change of seasons.  I see the tracks of a snow shoe hare.  Still crisp, it must have gone by since the storm stopped.  Close enough to be seen but hidden in its native land.

We come to a clearing and father skirts along the edge of the meadow until he finds a fallen log lying just outside the reach of the shadows.  He pulls his oil-cloth from his bag, brushes the snow from the log and we sit down on the cold but dry canvas.  As my father pulls out his food, I reach into my bag and extract the butcher paper wrapped in brown string, carefully wrapped and secured just as the food inside was carefully crafted.  It is better to not do something than to not do something well.  I remove the stiff mittens and untie the string, trying to balance my small meal on my lap.  My father hands me a cup and I hold it while he pours in still warm coffee.  He drinks his coffee black and thick and I fight the grimace forming on my face as I drink it and feel the warmth spread through my chest.  I bite the cheese and tear off a piece of bread as we just watch the meadow before us, now covered with thick snow.  With gusts of wind the drifts cast off spray like ocean waves and the tall pines shake free a dusting of snow, catching the breeze and dancing through the bright blue sky to loose themselves in the ground below.  Shadowy forms move through the distant trees and a rabbit crosses through the clearing.  I tear a piece of bread with my teeth and it stops, stands up on its hind legs, sniffs the breeze, turns and dashes off in a different direction, casting up snow all around as it makes its zigzag sprint to safety.

We finish our meal, carefully fold up our butcher paper wrappings and gather up the string, pack them away and I stretch my tired body as my father carefully folds up the oil cloth and stows it in his pack before he shoulders it.  He looks at me from under his frosted, bushy auburn eyebrows and we make eye contact.  He turns and continues along the edge of the clearing.  You never know which meadow conceals a pond or den under its downy blanket.

Shortly after, we come into an area much thicker with underbrush and the landscape begins to rise and fall with small hillocks and ridges.  The snow is still thick enough in this area where we need the snow shoes but they make a racket catching on the branches as we weave through the bushes and trees.  The snapping twigs and rattle of shoe on shrubs echoes throughout the forest; we are no longer the silent visitors.  I feel like an invader in an unwelcome land, we have disturbed its peace.  My patience wears thin and with it the undergrowth seems to loom with greater difficulty and longer thorns.  I get well and truly stuck as I try to pass between 2 raspberry plants.  Unable to extradite myself I frantically shake my right foot to free the entangled shoe.  I feel a heavy hand upon my shoulder and I freeze, looking up at my father who looks past and beyond me.  There, just into the next depression stands a magnificent stag. His chest extending and crown held high.  He must have entered the dale with great speed as the snow kicked up by his flight still swirls about him in this, his throne room.  He stares directly at my father; chest still heaving, expelling great streams of steam from his nostril.  We hear the slow chuff chuff of his breath like a locomotive pulling into the station.

His slick fur glistens with perspiration and though he is well run he does not carry the bearing of the fugitive.  His many antlered crown spreads majestically about him and the trees seem to make way, bowing down to let his majesty pass.  Bound muscles ripple with a snort but he stands staring eyes locked with another of a different but similar kind.  The snow settles upon the ground and stillness again fills the forest, the gentle tinkle of warming ice and soft whisper of a forest wind the only sounds upon the air.  A raven alights upon a distant branch but I do not want to shift my eyes lest in the stillness I lose sight of this creature, still as one of the trees in his hall.

I hear my father's gentle breathing.  I am close enough to smell his breath and feel his presence.  Lithe for his size but immovable he stands, securing me to this place in the woods.

A black, snarling shape rends the stillness as it leaped from the treeline.  A shadow, stretched across my vision and latching onto the throat of this magnificent thoroughbred.  He continued staring though my father as this beast pulled both of them down into a thrashing huddle on the ground, not breaking the thread connecting them.  The buck rose up with a mighty howl and tossed the great black wolf aside with a shake of his head.  But the king had lost some of his dignity and blood streamed down his glistening flanks.  Now one after another sons of Fenrir joined the ambush yelping and snarling.  Black, gray, red, and white they came.  Snow flying into the sky shushing against the backdrop.  Old leaves and earth soiled the pristine covering as they fought.  The hart threw aside the attackers with his mighty antlers.  One wolf crashed into a nearby pine and after a cut off yelp lay silent but the pack continued inconsiderate of their loss.  The stag backed away with head held high engaging the pack as they came, attempting to avoid their encirclement.  We watch as first one then another predator latches onto the spectacular creature and pull it down.  He thrashed and fought but soon the whole pack had piled on to the animal and in a chaos of noise and movement the brown swirled snow became sullied with red blood.  Down the great mass of animal strength fell to the ground.

Tears stung my eyes and froze to my hot cheeks but I forced myself to watch.  His courage demands it.

The deed done, what had made the creature so magnificent carried away on the wind.  I looked to my feet.  I glanced at my father and I nodded into his red rimmed eyes.

We turned our back on the scene and made our way back home.  The foot prints have blown away and so we walk on new snow surrounded by different trees.


Scipio Africanus said...

That was beautiful.

Khusrow said...

Thanks Scipio. I wrote the first version in 6th grade. It has strangely been stuck in my craw ever since. Finally needed to try and do it some justice.