cold, cold, cold.
new sappy wood crackles and hisses in the stove, meaning it's already been tended; coals that had dwindled overnight had resurrected to flames. i can hear a distant thwack, thwack, thwack, coming from outside. i lay there listening, curled beneath the blankets and wishing dawn would ebb back below the horizon.
every morning comes cold and too early, sneaking up on our little cabin. i'm always the last one up; dee is up before morning gets here.
sliding from my bunk, my toes touch the cold wood floor. i wrap the blanket around my body and hobble into the kitchen, sucking back curses as the cold reaches through my skin to fill my bones. the kitchen is quiet and damp and dark except for the pale yellow oil lamplight casting shadows across the cupboard.
clink, clink. two mugs.
i set the water kettle on the iron top of the potbelly stove, warming myself there until it whistles, steam feathering up into the crisp air.
i fill the mugs and stir in milk from a glass bottle. swallowing it down, i fill my belly with warmth, muddling into my boots. i whistle quietly to the shaggy pile of slumbering fur heaped by the creaky oak door. his nails tick tick tick across the floor and he shadows me out into the cold cold cold gray silence that lies beyond the cabin, interrupted only by the continuing thwack, thwack, thwack.
the woods are thick and still and the air hurts my face. the branches hang gathered like bunting, drenched in shades of rust and gold. dog weaves through the birches and maples, his nose inches above the ground. all seems newborn to him.
my feet crunch against the ground as i follow the sound of iron striking wood through the first touches of dawn. at first my uncle is only an outline in the distance; darker grays against a washed away sky. the ax swings up over his thick, wide shoulders, and comes down with a thud that rattles through my boots. i float closer like a ghost, my boots silent now as they pass over the soft ground and shuffle to a stop next to the big round trunk; sap drizzling from it's hacked away side.
when the ax comes down again, dee lets it stay put, straightening his back like someone who hasn't stood at full height in awhile. despite the cold, sweat trickles from his thick, curly black hair and rolls down his forehead. he wipes his face in the crook of his elbow and pushes up his flannel sleeves. i extend one mug and he wraps one hand around it. he takes a few big deep breaths and then drinks some down.
his real name is Frances, but no one ever calls him that he says; his men called him Desmond, his last name. and so i call him dee, instead of uncle. and he does the same for me - calls me emerald even though it's not my real name; he says i'm the only girl he's ever known with eyes like the gem stones. me and my momma; i'll have to take his word for it.
dee's eyes are the biggest and warmest brown you ever saw, and now they scan the woods as he hands his empty cup back to me.
tipping my head back, i look up at the towering old oak, it's spidery arms reaching for the leaves it had long since lost. dee looks at me and then up at the tree, resting one thick, strong hand against the rough bark.
"good morning, emerald," his voice a gruff mahogany.
"good morning," i say.
dee is tall and strong, and barrel chested. his arms are thick and one is scarred, a "tattoo from afghanistan" he calls it, though never explains how he got it; only that it was part of why he'd built the cabin.
"where's dog?" dee asks suddenly.
shivering in the blanket, i keep it wrapped around my shoulders as i twist around to glance through the shadowy trees.
"i let him out," i say. "i'm sure he's just over there."
dee gives a stiff nod, but then says "you watch him carefully," as he yanks the ax out of the tree's side again. "you don't let him wander - and you don't wander either."
dee stands straight and drinking in the air for a minute more, before giving a delayed nod. he swings the ax forward and little bits of soft tree flesh burst away like confetti.
i crunch back to the cabin, craning my neck to see around the trees, looking for dog.
i see blankets of golden needles covering the ground like silk. i see big, thick oaks, and white patches of overcast light coming down through the gray now. i see a cardinal dipping through the colors of the morning and i hear the wind against his wings. but i don't see dog.
i set the mugs on the sill of one of the two windows carved out the front of the cabin like gaping eyes. i shoot glances over my shoulders, hoping dee is still working. i hear the thuds of his ax.
my footsteps quicken as i dodge around the trees, puckering my lips to give a short, swift whistle. "dog," i whisper. "dog, come here,"
my voice is soft and swept up in the quiet as a breeze swells from the ground to push through the birches and sway the pines. i bite my lip as i stop, looking around me for glimpses of tan and charcoal fur passing through the trees like ghost.
"dog," i whisper again and again, walking farther and farther.
the thwacking sound grow more and more distant.
i keep walking and walking; listening to the birds chatter and my quiet exhales as they puff into the hard new england air like clouds.
finally, i hear a scuffle to my left, where a cluster of brambles and blackberry bushes lay. i stop, frozen.
i step closer, reaching out to brush aside the scruffy branches. my jaw stiffens.
dog digs among the brambles, his nose to a rabbit burrow.
i'm not sure how far i've walked, but i know its farther than i have before. i've never seen anything out here in the woods - nothing but trees and the sparrows and the bushes full of berries in the summer. but here, the trees stretch away to circle around a hollow; around a little house that stands as quiet as the trees. no smoke rises from the chimney and the windows are black.
i sink back in the brush, softly whistling for dog.
he digs and digs and doesn't listen to me. my lower lip is pinned between my teeth.
i peer through the branches, catching snatches of the logs and mossy roof; a bewildered feeling filling my belly.
"psst, dog - dog, come!"
finally, dog pulls himself reluctantly away from the hole. he follows me back through the woods, and we move quickly and quietly back over the soft prints my boots made in the soil. in fact, i run. dog bounds along at my side.
soon i hear the thwacking of dee's ax again, and with it, echoes in my mind of words he had said to me ten thousands times over:
"it's good to be out here - out here alone. where things are real, em."
i'd always agreed. but now i can't help but glance over my shoulder, back to the brambles where the little house stood.
the little house in the hollow that i've never seen before.
hey sweet soul <3 i hope your week is treating you like gold. i thought since it was autumn now it was time for a new story. these cooler, drizzly vermont days drench my head with story. this one came to me yesterday and was still in my head this morning, so here you go. i hope you like it. i recommend listening to the violet hour by the civil wars while you read it.