(A short fiction I’ve been noodling around with)
I woke up in the dark coughing, my eyes and throat burning, the blue tarp I’d fallen asleep under having caved in over the bottom half of my sleeping bag. It felt heavy, and I knew instantly what’d happened, where I’d screwed up, and that I had to get out right now.
I pulled my legs up and rolled out of my sleeping bag. I tried to open my eyes, but the best I could manage was narrow slits that presented, out of focus and dim, what I’d already smelled: thick and cascading smoke. I could hear the wind howling and snow pelting the other side of the tarp. I couldn’t see but I remembered that the opening to my little lean-to was to my right. I pulled my feet up and swept my hand across to where the opening should have been, where there should have been air, but there was only snow.
It was obvious now, and I felt embarrassed that it hadn’t occurred to me before, that the lean-to I’d fashioned with the tarp wouldn’t be able to bear the weight of the heavy snow coming down that I’d blissfully fallen asleep under. Not only did it collapse the tarp, but as the drifts accumulated outside it had sealed most of the opening I’d used to vent my campfire. Had I slept for another five minutes, I’d be dead, choked by smoke and buried by snow. As it was I couldn’t stop coughing, and I couldn’t open my eyes, but none of that mattered. I had to get out.
I reached out and grabbed for my boots, from next to the fire, where I remembered I’d set them to dry. I held them in my left hand and sat up and with my right hand reached for and found the tarp, and followed it until I got to its edge, where the tarp met the snow. My eyes still burned, my vision reduced to a thick and indistinguishable blur. I rolled over, my boots in my hand, and tried to pull the tarp up and roll my body underneath it. All I could feel was the snow against my long underwear and the black hoody I had on over my thermal under shirt. It was cold and wet.
I rolled out into the snow, outside of the tarp now, in the snow, lying on my side. I pulled myself up onto my two feet just as the mouthful of the clean and cold air I breathed in met the thick smoke that filled my lungs, and I started coughing again. I couldn’t stop, and I couldn’t breathe, and I became dizzy and light headed and collapsed into the snow. I laid there until I stopped coughing, until I could breathe again, taking in only shallow gasps of air, my throat burning every time I inhaled.
I finally sat up and tried to open my eyes. They burned, too, and I still couldn’t’ open them any more than a narrow slit, for more than a couple of seconds, after which they’d start burning again and I’d have to close them. For the brief period of time I could leave them open, through the narrow slits, I couldn’t really see anything, nothing would come in focus, just the blurred white of the ground and the blurred black vertical columns of what I assumed were trees. I slipped my boots on and struggled to my feet.
I could smell the smoky remains of my campfire, and I knew they were coming from under the collapsed tarp, and I knew my lean-to opened to the east, so I was standing on the east side of the tarp. I turned in the direction the smell of the fire was coming from, and I knew I was facing west. I knew that home, my dad’s farm, was about a mile west through the woods from where I’d camped. I also knew that once I started west, I’d be walking into the wind and I’d quickly lose the smell of the fire, the only compass I had. Unable to see, all I’d have to go by was the wind pelting me in the face, and I really didn’t know if it was blowing straight from the west or if it was coming in from the northwest. It wouldn’t take much to make me drift off track, because the woods were big and swampy. I tried to open my eyes again but they weren’t getting any better, and if anything burned more that the last time I tried. I stood there in the dark, in my thermal shirt and long johns, wet, blind and cold, the snow at my feet getting deeper. A sense of panic started to settle in, a sense that I might die.
Nobody knew I was out here, and I cursed myself for being arrogant enough to think this whole winter camping thing was a good idea. My dad was always reminding me that I was just a kid, just fourteen years old, and that I was “Getting too big for my britches.” But I’d spent many nights sleeping in the woods, and it was one of the things I loved most in the world. The stillness, the purity of the air, the rhythm of crickets, the night sky that would fill up with a million stars, all within my reach, the silver moonlight. I’d slept out in the woods dozens of times before, always alone, but never in the winter. I knew from the summer and autumn nights I’d sampled that being out in the woods at 2:30, 3:30, or 4:30 A.M. was a completely different experience, that everything looked, smelled and felt different, and I was eager to discover what new worlds winter would bring to the woods in the deep heart of the night.
I started to move, took a step in the direction I’d convinced myself was west, when I heard, in front of me and to the left, the sound of something in the woods, something alive. I stopped and listened and soon I heard it again. It was the sound of a snort, and then I could hear the sound of a hoof pounding the frozen ground, and before I even opened my eyes I knew it was a deer. I opened my eyes and everything was still a blur, but at the center of the blur I could make out something dark and wet, shimmering in my blurred view. I blinked my eyes open again and this time I could see the outline of a deer, a doe, against a solid white background. The white background went up above the deer, it was elevated, and I knew it was Musselman’s Ridge. I adjusted the direction I was facing so I’d be walking directly in a line to where I’d seen the deer. A soon as I took my first step, I heard her snort again, and I heard a branch break as she ran away.
It didn’t take me long, walking with my eyes closed, to reach the steep incline that marled the bottom of Musselman’s Ridge. I tried ascending the angle, but with my eyesight blinded it was difficult, as the side of the ridge was thick with trees and underbrush. I tried to open my eyes, but they still burned. I knew that there was a fire lane cut through the woods that traversed Musselman’s Ridge at a point where the incline was less severe. I was completely disoriented, though, and had no idea where I was in relation to the fire road, and was convinced I didn’t have time to look for it.
As I stumbled trying to get up the hill, colliding with trees and brush, I found at my feet a thick stick, about four feet long. I picked it up and used it like a blind man uses a cane, swinging it in front of me to find where my next step would fall, then planting it firmly on the ground to help me maintain my balance. I was creeping along when I swung my stick in front of me only to hear the sound and feel the vibration of it hitting what may as well been a solid wall of trees and brush. I opened my eyes and I could make out enough detail to tell that I had stumbled smack dab into a thicket, dark and steep and impenetrable. I held my eyes open long enough to look around, and off to my right, I could make out the blur of movement, silent, like a ghost floating on the frozen landscape. I was able to get my eyes open wide enough and long enough to recognize a deer, the same doe I’d seen before, about thirty yards to my right, ascending the ridge without a sound, when I realized it was walking the fire road, the path that would lead me to safety.
I stumbled my way out of the thicket and made it to the fire road. It was still snowing, but not as hard, and the doe’s tracks were still readable. I walked up the incline with my walking stick in hand, every now and then opening my eyes and looking down to make sure I was still on the fire road, still following the doe’s tracks, until near the top of the ridge where the tracks veered off of the path to the right, to the north. I stayed on the fire road.
I made it to the top of Musselman’s Ridge, where the fire road takes a sharp turn to the north and runs for a while along the top of the ridge before turning west again and descending the ridge where the woods grow bigger. It was the point I knew I’d have to leave the fire road to walk the last stretch home.
At the top of the ridge, the wind slowed down for a moment and the snow stopped. I tried to open my eyes and I was able to widen them enough to see clearly the familiar landmarks of the vista I’d looked out on hundreds of times before. They were all simultaneously familiar and new, the dark woods that abruptly stopped on the flat edge of our cornfield, white and flat and bright, the stems of its cut stalks buried beneath the snow. I saw the fence line that marked the other end of the field, and I could make out the gate that opened into our yard, where our house stood, strong and silent and dark in the night, gray smoke billowing out of the chimney and up into the night sky until it vanished, giving way to millions of stars that hung low against the black ceiling of the night sky. And I could see, off to my right, the fire lane where it briefly exited the woods before reentering them at the far corner of our cornfield, and standing there, in the fire lane, I could see the doe I’d been following, made tiny by the distance between us. She was standing there, looking back at me, and I could clearly see, even though it was too far away, her dark and moist eye, locked in with my eyes, before she turned and stepped into the woods.
Able to see and breathe, my survival now rested on one thing: staying warm long enough to make it down the ridge, across the cornfield and into the house. My hands were like clubs, I could barely move them, the fingers on my right hand somehow shaped to wrap around and clasp my walking stick. My face felt swollen, cracked around my cheekbones. My throat was dry and scratchy, and every muscle in my body ached, cold and rigid. The snow had stopped but the wind persisted, blowing raw and cold in my face as I started out down the ridge. I started out slowly, maintaining my balance, taking big steps in the deep snow, when, about halfway down, my right foot caught a stray and dead vine buried beneath the snow and I fell, hard on my side, cushioned by snow, and I slid down the ridge, small twigs of dead underbrush scratching and cutting my face, ripping a hole in the thigh of my long underwear. I slid down until I was twenty feet from the bottom, coming to rest when my rear end harmlessly met he trunk of an oak tree. I collected myself and took a quick inventory of my scrapes and scratches, then I got up. I’d lost my walking stick somewhere in the fall. I managed to keep my balance and made it to the bottom of the ridge, where just a narrow stretch of woods heavy with undergrowth separated me from the cornfield. I walked on, shielded by the trees from the full brunt of the wind.
Then I was out of the woods, into the cornfield, face first against the howling wind. It blew steady and strong, skimming the top of the snow off of the field and hurling it into my face. It thundered like a freight train in my ears. Gusts blew so hard as to literally knock me over three times. Each time I’d struggle to stand back up, my legs cold and raw and stiff and heavy. It took every ounce of strength I had left just to lift them high enough to keep moving forward.
Eventually, I made it across the field and, just after I passed through the opened gate into our yard, I collapsed in the snow, no more than ten yards from the house. I was unable to move, frozen, as I stared at the house, at the upstairs window to my room, then I started to see things, some real, some not, spinning around in the wind. I saw the weather vane on the barn, I saw my Science teacher, Mr. Morgan, I saw the blue tarp I’d made my lean-to out of, I saw the doe and her shiny dark eyes. And then I saw my dad.
He was shaking me awake, his hand on my shoulder, saying “Bill, Bill.” The sound of morning songbirds became clear. I opened my eyes and could see bright sunlight streaming through my windows, and I could see my dad, bent over my bed, his face inches from mine.
“Come on, Bill,” he said, “you’ve got to get up. The service starts in about an hour. Aunt Mary’s made us a big breakfast.”
I could smell the bacon frying, and I could sense that the house was full of unfamiliar people, of guests who’d spent the night.
“Okay,” I mumbled.
“Get yourself in the shower,” he said as he headed for my door. He was holding the door, about to close it behind him.
“Dad?” I said. He stopped and stood in my doorway.
“I already miss her,” I said. It surprised me, because I hadn’t even been thinking about her.
“I know,” he said. “Me, too. “ He stood there for a minute, neither one of us knowing what to say, when I threw my legs over the side of my bed and sat up.
“Okay, I’m up,” I said. Dad smiled and left, closing my door behind him. Something lying on the table at my bedside caught my eye. I picked it up and looked at it. It was a photograph, the last photograph, of my mom and dad and I, sitting with her in her hospital bed, all three of us smiling. Mom’s smile was a little weaker, but her eyes, dark and moist and penetrating, were alive, shimmering and shining.