a month passes. autumn turns into winter and we scramble to get everything ready before the first snowflakes begin to fall. i make mulled cider and dee builds roaring fires in the hearth at night. we sit around it and drink the cider and dee tells me stories from when he was deployed. they're never about him though, always about the men he served with. i never ask dee to tell me about him because i can see in the dark parts of his eyes that some of it still hurts to talk about.
thanksgiving comes and goes. the first snow comes two days after thanksgiving. that morning i wake up to a thick, thick blanket of it. it’s still purple and predawn outside and it washes the snow a light, sparkling gray. spiderwebs of frost creep up the window pane over my bed; my breath paints the glass as i stare out. i can hear the fire popping and hissing and dog breathing quietly at the foot of my bed.
slipping out from between the covers, i tiptoe into the kitchen. i quietly make the tea and dee doesn't wake up. i can see his dark, messy hair peeking out from under the quilt but he doesn't move. his chest rises and falls.
i put new logs on the fire and huddle there, warming my hands and drinking my tea. dog nudges me in the back with his head. i brush him away at first, placing a finger to my lips, but then he whimpers a little.
"alright, alright," i hush him, padding over to the door where my boots stand in readiness. "c'mon."
i don't leash dog because i never do. i just open the door and let him romp out into the deep snow, bounding ahead like a demented rabbit. i suck back laughter as i softly bring the door back to the threshold and stand there watching him.
he leaps back and forth through the snow, jamming his big head into drifts of pure white power, sniffing around for something he can't seem to find.
i shiver in my sweatshirt, wrapping my arms around my torso. i look up into the snow covered branches stretching out overhead. each is perfectly frosted in the same soft white powder that coats the ground. everything is peaceful and still. the only sounds are the flitting of birds; like blurs that shoot from branch to branch.
i close my eyes and breathe it in for a moment. then dog barks.
my eyes fly open just as he takes off through the trees, a small brown blur in the snow ahead of him. i curse under my breath.
"dog no!" i hiss, trying not to yell and wake dee.
i run through the snow, though keeping up with him is useless. the snow swells up to my knees and makes running impossible. all the same i stay in pursuit, dodging low limbs.
black birds burst up from the treetops as i sprint through a glade; caw, caw, caw.
I keep my eyes ahead, chasing dog until my lungs burn and something beneath the snow snags the toe of my boot, already full of snow. i spill forward and crash into cold white power, sinking. the cold bites the skin on my face, my cheeks burning with the palms of my hands, sunk deep in the thick white folds.
i scramble to my feet, gasping and shivering. i squint ahead but i don't see dog. i don't even see a trace of him.
i breathe and the air burns my lungs like cold fire. i cup my hands to my mouth and my voice comes out in a cloud that drifts up and dissipates.
my shouts don't go far before the thick snow absorbs it.
i curse and kick at the snow. i look back over my shoulder but i can't see the cabin anymore. biting my lip, i deliberate. i remember what dee told me about wandering. but i decide that i can't go back without dog. what a good christmas present that would make: losing dog. he'd had him since before he deployed.
so i walk forward in the snow, following the streaks in the snow where dog had flown by. there was another set tangled with his: rabbit's.
"dang you, dog - dang you."
i walk for a long time, it feels like hours, shouting dog's name over and over again until finally it starts snowing again; big, white fluffy flakes shed from the sky like downy feathers, fluttering to the ground below. only in a sweatshirt, i begin to shiver, chills rising over my skin.
i cup my trembling hands to my mouth again, stopping in the middle of a clearing to shout "dog!"
silence. thick silence.
i have to turn back. i'm cold and i can't stay out here much longer. i turn and start trudging back through the deep snow, following my own footprints through the trees, blowing hot breath into my cupped hands. I walk and walk and walk, following my prints, sniffling. i can't stop kicking myself for losing dog. how could i possibly have let that happen? i should have been paying attention.
i keep walking until suddenly i realize i'm squinting at the ground. i halt in the snow, full shaking now as i gaze around my feet.
where are my footprints?
my eyes dart back and forth over the snow and through the trees, i can't find them. i can't see the smudges in the snow anymore.
i take an unsteady breath and hear dee's voice in my head, telling me to stay calm, telling me to think everything through, but it's hard.
i run back through the curtains of white, retracing the footprints i've just made, squinting and blinking to see through the flakes as they fly around me, thicker and thicker. i'm panting for breath and shivering fiercer now. my head feels light and i'm so tired. i need to stop. i need to stop and breathe for just a moment.
my knees buckle and i settle onto the ground, gasping and shaking, binding my arms around my quivering torso. i see the limbs of the trees vaguely through the whirl of the blizzard. i crumble slowly, i barely notice until i feel the snow against my face. i am curled up on the ground in the fetal position. i am not gasping anymore. my breathing is quiet.
i see the tree arms, shaking like i am inside. then my eyelids sink and blot them out. i fight to stay awake, but everything is blurry and heavy. i can't stay awake.
dee is the last thing i see in my mind as i drift off, numb.
when i wake, my face is warm. warm.
the crackle of flame makes its way through my muffled hearing. i can feel the delicious sting of heat against my skin. i open my eyes just a crack. i see blurry red and orange and honey brown and white frost staining windows. then it flashes away to black as my eyelids collapse again. i can't think. i just drink in the warmth, shivering still, but now i feel the heavy thickness of wool spread out over me.
i run my tongue over my lips, taking a sip of air. i finally manage my eyelids again. blinking then focusing hard enough to see.
the honey oak transforms to red. the orange to gold. the red to fuchsia. i sit up slowly, turning to look around me. there are canvases everywhere, there is color everywhere; the most majestic trees you ever saw, made of fiery splashes of color.
where am i?
i look around at the walls now, the ceiling and the furniture. it's all wood slats like the inside of our cabin is. the furniture is all handmade, i can tell; worn and warm and blinking in the firelight. on the chairs and table are paintings of trees and meadows and wild babbling brooks. there's smaller canvases on the walls of robins and nuthatches and rabbits and a badger. i can't help but stare, wide eyed, at the wonder of it all. i've never seen anything like it before.
then i hear a big sighing grunt, the kind made only by sleeping dogs. my head snaps around to the hearth, all warm and glowing in the dimness. i see a fuzzy outline of a dog, but not just any.
"dog!" i leap out from under the blanket and fall off the mattress i didn't even realize i was sprawled out on until now. dog lifts his head and i hug his neck, burying my face in his thick fur. he smells like fresh air and cedar.
a creaking splits the air with a fresh gust of raw wind and swirling white. still clutching dog, i look up as the door opens. a figure steps inside, so wrapped in wool i can barely make them out; a thick coat and a scarf wrapped up around his face; a hat pulled down. his arms are full of fresh split cedar wood.
my heartbeat quickens in my chest when he turns and i see the eye patch.
"and she's awake," he says, stamping off his boots. caked white powder flakes all over the floor. he walks over to the hearth and spills the wood into a pile.
"excuse me," he says.
i wriggle out of the way, still holding onto dog, whose tongue is hanging out now. i watch the man with one eye as he takes a couple logs and tosses them into the flames. golden flecks dance up the chimney. he squats there for a moment, extending his hands to warm them. he rubs them together briskly, saying nothing.
i stare, forgetting what dee always told me about how rude it is.
"well, well, now you must be mr. desmond's niece," he says, looking over at me after a moment.
"i am, yeah," i stammered after a moment.
a chuckle rolls from his chest, warm like the fire. "what were you doing out there in weather like this? my goodness, you could have froze!"
i am still staring. i say nothing and after a minute he goes on.
"i found that dog of yours first - scratching at my door he was," he chuckles and shakes his head, standing up now. he crosses the room. "i went outside and the wild thing wouldn't stop running around - bounding through the snow, sniffing and barking. i had to chase him to get hold of him. that was when i found you."
"you fell unconscious."
i breathed a relieved sigh, shuttering at the thought. "i'm grateful, sir."
"you can call me sol."
"sol," i repeated tentatively. "thank you. i hate to think what could have happened."
"then don't. just pray this storm passes quick so we can get you back to your uncle," i heard the sound of liquid being poured. a moment later a big weathered hand lowers a mug to me. i look up and see his face instead of his eye patch this time, illuminated by the soft golden glow of the flames. his skin is etched and weathered, and his eye is blue. his beard is thick and the color of ginger and his smile is warm as i take the mug from his hands and bring it to my lips. it tastes warm and spicy like chai.
"sir - sol, i mean," i wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. "did you paint all of these?"
sol looks around at all the color splashed canvases glowing in the soft light. then he picks one up off the rocker and sits down in it. he holds the canvas on his lap for a moment, looking it over and nodding.
"yes, ma'am," sol says. "i did."
"is that why you live out here all by yourself?" i sip the tea. it warms me inside.
"yes," he says after a pause. then he nods as if to assure himself in the declaration. "yes, the city was too loud. too many people - too many eyes staring at the only one i've got left," he chuckles and taps the apple of his cheek just below his eye.
"dee says people are quick to judge," i say.
"dee is a wise man," he says. leaning forward he extends the painting to me. i set the tea down on the floor and take it in both hands, sitting cross-legged on the floor.
"you paint beautiful things," i say, breathless as i stare at the canvas covered in bright, swirling colors. "how do you think of things like this?"
sol folds his large, weathered hands on his belly and thinks, tapping the floor with his foot to rock back and forth. "i look at the trees...the birds, the brook. i look at the sky. i look at dogs," he nods towards the german shepherd curled beside me. "i look at people sometimes too. but i don't just look at their faces or their clothes or their outer appearance."
"what do you look at then?"
"well, i look at what's behind their eyes. dreams and the like: hope and fear and light and dark all mingles together like a storm. i see hearts near bursting with all sorts of ideas and desires. i see all kinds of things."
i lower my eyes to the mug in my hands, my lips turning down.
"when i heard about you all i saw was an eye patch," i say, quietly. "i'm sorry."
"don't apologize," he says. "tell me what you see now instead."
i look up at him and find his eyes glimmering in the firelight. i look back down at the canvas in my hands, twisting my lips as i think.
the paining is of the biggest oak you ever saw, every color of autumn blazing its branches and trunk. blue and red birds float up into the sky and a round, golden sun sets in the distance.
i look back up at him, smiling. this time, i don't even notice the eye patch.
"i see colors," i say.
hours and so many stories and cups of tea and belly laughs later, sol walks me back through the woods to the cabin, dog frolicking along beside us. dee runs to meet us as soon as we're within a stone's throw of the cabin. he scoops me up in his arms and i can feel his heart pounding through his tee shirt.
"oh thank god," and for a moment that's all he can say. then he sets me down and shakes sol's hand. "sir, i am grateful."
sol and dee talk back and forth, dog bounding around our little huddle, but i'm too warm and tired and content with dee's arm around my shoulders to really hear what's being said. my eyelids are heavy and my heart is full. a moment later, sol is walking back into the woods. he lifts his hand in a wave to us and dee and i wave back.
dee carries me inside and sets me down only when we've reached the roaring fire. he wraps a blanket around my shoulders and looks at me with big soft eyes.
"my god don't do that to me again, em," he sighs and ruffles my hair. "that man saved your life."
i nod. "you were right about him, dee."
i think of how to say it, tilting my head to one side. "people are so much more than what we see or think we see on the outside..." i trail, my voice stretching into a yawn. "there's so much more inside us all, isn't there?"
i see dee smile and a moment later i feel his arm around me again. i rest my head on his shoulder and let my eyes close gently.
"yes, em," he says. "yes, there is."
i know it's after christmas, but it's still the season, and i like to make it last as long as i can. i love this time of year. i love the swells of warmth and gratitude that come with it.
so i hope you'll grab a mug of hot cocoa or tea and enjoy the last part of this sweet little story i wove for you.
i hope you had the merriest christmas!