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A Winter's Reprieve
That twinkle! Ah! There it was again in that bright azure. How fascinating, it was, the allure of that instant that always caught his attention.
Those eyes. You could see them in the dark, you could. Yes, how they beamed with life! They made him smile every time he looked at them. They seized his breath.
He couldn’t help but laugh, a small, slight chuckle as those eyes slowly made their way up to his and locked in place. His breath would catch for just a second and he’d smile, and this thing that flushed through him just made him laugh at the joy of the moment. He couldn’t help it; he just had to let it out, all that pent up emotion and thought colluding and colliding within him. He just couldn’t help himself!
His smile was nothing if not contagious. She looked up at him with that twinkle in her eye and smiled, her lips parting for a curtain of perfect white teeth. She held his arm and spoke with a firmly gentle tone, “What is it?”
That just made him grin more. “Nothing…”
“What’s so funny!”
“Nothing!” He laughed a little more, enjoying the moment.
The moment. He lived for these moments, sitting atop the old picnic table, feet together on the bench, next to her who sat the same way, looking out upon the lake bordered by a scattering of hemlock and juniper trees, the still water reflecting the vibrant green despite the hushed cold that hung in the air, the sign of winter’s coming chill. Both he and her wore light jackets and settled in close to each other under the guise of the cool, crisp weather.
It wasn’t nothing that made him laugh, of course, the both of them knew, but it wasn’t something that could be so much construed with mere words, either. The forthcoming silence let them both reminisce upon the real reason of their current company. They both pondered, albeit with a passivity that allowed the present moment to be just as important as the past.
“I like to visit this lake and think,” he said with a partial softness. “I visit year-round, no matter the weather. This place, especially, because it is always quiet, always peaceful. You see, in the summer people swim and canoe and run and yell all up along the southwest shore, and its beach has worn and dirtied with use. But here along the southeast… It’s a small beach. Serene. It’s nice here.”
She stared out on the waters as he spoke. “Don’t you ever come here with friends? With others?”
“Yeah, of course. Never parties, though—I know you like parties—and never too many people at once. I prefer to enjoy this side of the lake as though nature was our master, and not the other way around.”
“We are nature’s master?”
“Yes! Aha,” he laughed again, this time at himself. “A little dramatic, I suppose. But if you bring too many others it’s easy to forget the real reason why you came out here in the first place, you know?”
“Mmm,” she murmured, resting her head on his shoulders, once again lapsing into tranquil silence.
The air grew colder with time, and even as the two walked silently back to the cabin a bit of snow began to fall, softly, just slightly enough to paint a little white on the hemlock and juniper. They left that place by the lake quiet, and it remained that way into the night, the air blowing lightly through the trees every once in a while, the critters and creatures of the lake and of the forest around it quiet, sleeping, nestled in their hidey holes and their burrows, waiting out the cold that continued to slowly grow in frigidness. The next day came and went, as did the next, the snow building and the air chilling. Silence ruled the lake.
His footsteps were defined in the thin layer of snow that had started to build up, a pure white blanket unblemished by any other track. He walked with hands in the pockets of his jeans to keep them warm, and the hairs on his arms prickled in the cold, unprotected by his T-shirt. He could see his breath every time he huffed, and the tips of his ears and nose were starting to numb. He didn’t care, though: he was walking back to the picnic table to have time to himself.
He reached the old wooden thing and sat on it as he had before, the planks creaking softly in reply. The snow still slowly drifted about, but the table was shadowed by the protective branches of a rather large tree that stood behind him. He looked about and breathed in slowly the crisp forest air with that tang of ice that pierced his lungs. It was refreshing, he thought as he gazed out upon the lake. This time to be out here in such a beautifully innocent place was well worth the cost.
Movement. There…! Along the west shoreline a deer trotted forward from a copse of trees. It looked about attentively, ears flicking, and then bent its head down to the cold water and drank.
He smiled. He had to, he just couldn’t help it.
Something startled the glassy-eyed creature. It perked up, a few drops of water dripping from its muzzle. There was a long moment where it stood perfectly still, watching, waiting, listening. It looked directly at the young man who studied him so quietly. Then it darted back into the trees, and he saw it knock the snow off a low tree branch, and the thing swayed to and fro for a time after the deer had disappeared, until it finally came to a stop and the scene became as it was before.
He sighed and watched his breath dissipate in the air, and then he shivered and rubbed his arms for warmth. It was foolish of him to step out the door with only a T-shirt for protection. But he didn’t mind, he argued. He didn’t care. The cold didn’t bother him as much as it bothered others, as long as he had the moment to enjoy the lake.
He thought of her. He had tried to convince her to come along, but she would have none of it. Too cold! she said, basking in the warmth of a burning log in the fireplace. Just stay inside with me, she asked with a little resolve.
Her mind was in other places, probably, comfortable in the firelight, those twinkling azure eyes wandering the winter cabin. She wasn’t as enraptured by the pure innocence of this scene as he was, and he understood that. He accepted that.
He stood a bit reluctantly and stepped down from the picnic table, and then began the brief stroll back to the cabin, hands deep in his pockets, head slightly bent forward, deep in thought. He liked having these moments to think. To relax. It was nice.
The snow quickened in pace as days passed, blanketing the area in a thick layer of white. Never did a sound cry from the forest, silence still the master of the woods and of the lake. The sky was carpeted in clouds, never letting the sun shine its brightest on the lake, turning days into a constant haze of a gray twilight. And from the lake, against the gray a soft orange light could be seen on a slight hill, shining through a window pane in a house, built strong with a traditional log cabin structure in mind, a brick chimney exhaling a light gray smoke that diffused in the air. Sometimes, the front door would open, spilling light onto the covered patio. Sometimes it would be her, shaking out boots or a rug. Other times it would be him, perhaps a steaming mug in his hands, and he would close the door and stand out on the patio quietly for any length of time. Then he would step back inside.
The snow stopped falling, decidedly, as though satisfied with the perfect white sheet spread over the land. The sky remained shrouded in gray clouds, the twilight days refusing to end.
They walked together in their jackets and their tall boots. He led her carefully through the calf-high snow, his gloved hand holding onto hers until they reached the spot he was so fond of. He saw how the snow piled on the picnic table from a branch above it, which had cracked under the weight, and he scraped it off so that he and she may sit together.
“What would your family think, us running off into the woods by ourselves?” she asked him lightly. And there: there it was again, that light in her eyes!
“They wouldn’t think anything of it,” he said, smiling. “They’re too busy dawdling with that child of theirs to even remember us leaving!” He laughed.
“Mhmm,” she smiled at that. “She’s your sister, you know.”
There were never moments he enjoyed more than that, where he sat with her in silence, in peace. Such peace was hard to find for him, in which nothing was wrong with the world, and everything was all right. Everything is going to be okay, it spoke to him. There is nothing to worry about.
But then she broke the silence. “We shouldn’t be out here.”
“Why not?” His smile wavered.
“Your family just got here yesterday, and we’ll probably have dinner soon. And…” She hugged herself tight. “It’s cold out here.”
He laughed again. “That’s kind of the point of winter!” He paused though, sensing her concern. “But if you really want to go back…”
“Okay.” He watched her step down off the table. “I’ll join you in a few minutes, if that’s alright.”
“Okay.” She left, but not before looking at him one last time, that twinkle still there, and with that slight twitch at the corner of her mouth that teased a small, hopeful smile.
He watched her go. She took a more direct, steeper path up the little hill. She had to step over a young juniper tree, its frail form unable to hold the weight of the snow that had fallen. She passed it and then withdrew from his view, lost behind the many other trees of the forest.
He felt… unsure. She was right, in a sense; he should be with his family. But he also felt drawn to the lake. He wanted to be out here. He needed it for what it did for him: he needed the peace and he needed the silence in what was now a hectic and busy life. What would he do if he didn’t have these moments?
He wished that she had stayed out just a little longer with him. He liked the peace, but he liked sharing it with others even more. With those he cared about.
He stood up, then stepped on top of the table and looked upon the lake again.
He wanted to walk around. Stepping down from the table he took his layers off until he was down to his plain white shirt—it felt too hot in his coat. He placed the apparel on the table, and then headed northeast along the shore of the lake.
Paying no mind to the terrain, he hiked while his mind wandered, feeling clearer in the brisk air now that he was free of the weight he shrugged off back on the table. There grew a doubt in him that told him he should head back, that he should grab his coat and go back and greet his loved ones and talk and laugh with them. But sometimes it wasn’t as easy as that, he thought. The heavy burdens of a modern life constantly reminded him of what he was and what he has done.
How many times have I failed? he questioned himself, shaking his head. Family somehow brought that to surface in his thoughts every now and then, and even she who he knew cared about him could remind him why he loved being out here so much: it was the isolation. He told himself it was the peace and the quiet, but that was only part of his solution; he wanted to be alone with his fears.
His feet danced over rock and he found himself on a short peninsula jutting into the lake. He stopped there, for from that spot he could see in the distance the tiny clearing and the dot of dark brown that marked the picnic table. Above it and to its left was the cabin, warm orange light emanating from the windows. More dark smoke was rising from a secondary chimney: someone was cooking with the old stove. Everywhere else he looked he saw snow-covered trees in great numbers on the fringes of the still lake.
It was beautiful, he knew. But he wasn’t sure why.
Of a sudden a bird chirped in close proximity. He twisted his head at the sound but by some misfortune he lost his footing, and so he fell against the outcropping of stone on his side and slid down.
First his head went under the icy water. Then his shoulders and his entire torso.
Cold. Mind-numbingly cold. he fell facing the dreary sky and now he watched the gray expanse ripple and swell and fold and furrow through the broken surface of water. He exhaled through his nose and watched the tiny bubbles flutter up to the top and disappear with a silent pop.
He couldn’t say what went through his mind in those few seconds. But then he was pulling himself up by leverage with his legs, and when his head broke the surface again he was stunned. The water poured off of his body and his shirt was soaked. He acted without thinking, running a hand through his short hair and peeling his shirt off, knowing full well the thing could give him mild hypothermia if he kept it on long enough. Hands shaking, he pushed himself up and wiped as much water as he could off of his body. He wrung his shirt out and, breathing a little heavily, he noticed the lake again.
Nothing had changed. The smoke still rose from the chimney and the snow still covered the trees and even as he watched the water of the lake became still. He was surprised it wasn’t frozen over.
Stepping back, he sat down against a particularly large rock and controlled his breathing.
The world was the same as ever, but he felt as though he was not. What had just happened? That question was not so much directed at the accident as much as it was focused on himself, his ideas, his beliefs, his essence.
He laughed at the thought: he was no longer feeling the urge to stay out there. Maybe it was nature’s way of telling him he no longer needed it!
But I do. I do need it, he thought. He wasn’t afraid of the water, of the freezing cold. I’m not afraid to be hurt!
He stood up, then. Taking his wet shirt in hand, he began the walk back to the picnic table.
I need it, but not now. Not right now.
It was only moments after he left that a deer with white spots in its hind emerged from the trees. It trotted over to that rocky peninsula slowly, taking its time. It paused once, alerted by the chirping of a bird in a nearby tree, its ears flitting back and its glassy eyes inert. Then it continued, finding the spot where he had fallen. It lowered its head and sniffed the ground where he had sat with his revelations. Then it looked out upon the lake. It stared at something in the distance for some inexplicable reason, and then cantered away into the trees.
As much as he wanted the serenity of a quiet life, he needed what he had left behind in the cabin. As much as he wanted to stay and watch the lake never change, he knew he needed to change himself. When he looked down at his reflection in the water he didn’t want to just see the marks of his past. Sometimes, he knew, you needed a ripple in that reflection to show why that past mattered in the first place: to build a future.
He grabbed his clothing abandoned on the picnic table and put the coat on, wadding up the rest in the crook of his arm. He walked back to the cabin. Once he reached the patio, taking the steps up one by one, and once he stamped out his boots, he looked back out on the lake. Then he opened the door.
The smell of roasted turkey filled his nostrils. The warmth of a welcoming fire enveloped his body and made his cold hands buzz from the sudden change in atmosphere.
What did he need? Peace. But it wasn’t peace he could gain from isolation. It was the peace of mind that came from love and acceptance. It was the peace of mind that came not from knowing everything was fine, but from just believing in it. Hope.
“Was that him…?” he heard her voice call from down the hall.
He strode forward into view of the dining room.
Life was at times a struggle for him. He accepted that. But it couldn’t be forgotten, and it couldn’t be thrown away. He couldn’t just turn around and let it go knowing that once he turned back to face it nothing would be any different. He had to acknowledge it. He had to embrace it.
They were all sitting down for dinner. Food lined the center of the long table, places set—an empty seat prepared just for him—and his little sister sat in her high-chair next to their mother and chowed down, mashed potatoes squished all over her chin and her lips. When she saw him she squealed and cried out his name, waving a messy hand in the air.
He couldn’t change his life in an instant. No amount of sitting and staring at the wilderness could transform what he realized would take time to improve. He wished he could change with the snap of his fingers, and it was the wishing that had kept him in the dark.
“What in the world happened to you?” She got up from the table and approached him.
“I… went for a swim.”
“Are you kidding me? It’s freezing out there!” She touched his arms for a second, and then took the bundle of clothes from him and turned to go set it down somewhere.
But before she could he grabbed her wrist and drew her in for a hug. He held her and she relented, dropping the clothes and wrapping her arms around him.
That twinkle! Ah! There it was again in that bright azure of her eyes. Was life not worth living for such moments?
“You’re so dramatic,” she muttered, laughing.
He smiled in that moment. He had to. He just couldn't help it.