Snow falls. Like sheets suspended and lowered it blankets the ground, ubiquitous. It comes down through the forest, skirting by outstretched branches and their needles and cones. Accumulation hushes the frozen soil, piling on and pressing down slowly, a soft suffocation.
The trees shoot up from the grip of snow, defiant. Their spread, miles in each direction, is incomprehensible, tamed only by elevation in the highest – hallelujah. Each layer reveals the unknown, feared in its own right, but terrifying when uncovered as identical. More and more trees, towering overhead, lain out on all sides as a tunnel without direction, and the only new thing is that falling snow.
It fills the tracks left by the men, passing through the woods. Their breathing and boot steps huff and crunch through the quiet.
One man is sick. He coughs into his fist and rubs the spit into his overcoat. His beard is gnarled and wet.
The other is wide-eyed and determined. He carries a length of rope at one side, and a compass at the other, leading.
The wide-eyed man looks over his shoulder at the sick man lagging behind. He pauses and waits. Hunched, the sick man stumbles forward and then stops. He wills his breath to slow, to cease. He stares at the white ground, listening. Just as he is to become a statue he lifts his weary head and spies his partner.
The two men share a look, and the sick one grunts, wipes a clump of matted hair from his eyes, and waves the wide-eyed man forward with a feeble gesture. The wide-eyed man obliges. Holding back a warm smile, he wraps the rope tighter around his gloved hand and carries on.
Labored breathing fills the air. The journey continues.
If only for a moment. In a slow-motion tumble the fevered man falls over in a heap, billowing fresh powder in plumes. His impact is muted by the mass of flakes infesting the air, jumbled and hurrying towards the floor. He lets out a whimper and his wide-eyed compatriot swivels around to see him.
He is a dog in the snow, barreling toward the fallen man, diving to his side. He grabs him, hugs him across the torso and brings him up and alive. Peering into his face he grabs his doughy cheeks, thick with beard, and implores him to snap back to life. He shakes the man, and the man recognizes him. There is more left in him, but not much.
The wide-eyed man places his shoulder against the sick man’s chest, gathers his strength, and lifts mightily. His knees crack under the weight. Each breath becomes a puff of smoke, hanging in the air like wandering ghosts before disappearing into the ether. He stares into the assault of snow and envisions a path sheltered from above, illuminated before him. He lets his boots do the carrying.
At the top of a small rise the wide-eyed man stops for a moment and sees a break in the trees below. The snow has stopped and he can hear the faint trickling of flowing water. Somehow his eyes get wider. They both stand there, resting and listening to the creek below. He releases his partner and stretches his back and legs. The sick man begins to lower himself with the greatest care and sits down. Gathering up his knees he brings his body together and keeps warm. For a moment he just shivers and stares down at the creek.
Looking right and looking left the creek wanders off the mountain and off toward somewhere. The bank on which the men are perched polished off a sizeable portion of open space where the creek could breath free of the hemline of the trees. It is easy to imagine a shovel-wielding god carving out its path, angry at the spawning of the trees and wishing it had never birthed them.
The wide-eyed man gives a long look to the seated sick man. He grips the rope and chews on the insides of his lip, hesitates and then asks the sick man if he is ready. The sick man coughs into the snow sending flakes scattering. Adjusting his legs he does not reply. He stares past the creek on into the darkening forest beyond it.
Kneeling, the wide-eyed man places a hand on his companion’s back, patting it twice, making a dull packing sound against the leather of his coat. The sick man looks up at him and feigns strength. His eyes betray him. The sick man is unconvinced. He is at the end of his line. The wide-eyed man grabs his hand and shoves a shriveled piece of mapping paper into it. He points to the creek on the map. He points to the creek below. The sick man sucks in a deep breath and attempts to hoist himself. His partner rises with him, but he pushes off, claiming independence. He brushes the snow pack from his body and without a word he starts on down the bank.
The flowing water is visible as traveling bubbles just beneath a layer of ice and at open patches along the stream. Up close the frozen engineering is evident – white lines and fissures etched out on the surface in evolving detail.
The men travel along the edge, moving towards the mountains, up and around the rocks resting on the shoreline. At calculated intervals the wide-eyed man kneels down and brushes away some snow from the surface, examining the cold gray world underneath.
Far gone from their initial trail it begins to snow again. The men look skyward. In this open area it’s impossible to tell where the light hue of the sky becomes the falling flakes. They are just there. And as they walk upstream the sick man notices something protruding from the ice, something odd. He looks at his wide-eyed partner with something resembling excitement. Could it be?
At the oddity they strain to see through the foggy surface of the ice. And suddenly it becomes certain. The protruding thing is a boot, and the boot leaps to legs and so on until they see the face of the fallen man. The wide-eyed man gets on his knees and brushes the dirt and snow off the space above the iced man’s face. His eyes are closed and his face has lost its color. His hair is shorn and it doesn’t look the way the wide-eyed man remembers. He places both palms against the ice and finds the iced man’s shoulders. He stares at the blank expression locked in for all time.
Behind him the sick man closes his eyes. He turns away and coughs, puts a hand on his forehead and stares off into the forest. His knees shake and his breathing picks up. He looks back at the wide-eyed man on all fours, catching a glimpse of the iced man peeking through under his left arm. A branch cracks in the forest and leaves its tree. He shudders and shuffles his feet to higher ground.
The wide-eyed man’s stare is broken at the sound. He lifts his neck to the sick man and sees the backs of his knees up the bank. He shouts for him to come take a look, to pray with him and send the iced man on his way, but the sick man shakes his head.
And the wide-eyed man pounds his fist on the ice. He bores his vision through the ice and forces his energies to the man, but the ice does not crack. His beard shakes and his face tenses and reddens as he again slams his fist to the ice. He screams at the man beneath the ice and demands that he awaken. He holds the rope in front of his face as an object of removal, of safety, of aid. He hisses at the iced man that he should be buried at home, even if it means being drug through the snow. He pounds and pounds and pounds his fists at the ice until they are red and numb and he can no longer pound them. He relents, drawing his gaze to the sick man motionless on the bank.
The sick man is holding back tears and inhabiting a world of elsewhere, his glossy eyes fixed in place. His breathing is slow and shallow again, barely perceptible amongst the trickling of the stream and the burking of the falling snow. In his daze he does not hear the wide-eyed man running at him; does not have a chance to duck him as he is tackled from behind. Sick and helpless he is wrestled to the ground, faced pressed into the deep cold.
The wide-eyed man grips the rope with purpose and forces it on the sick man’s neck, pulling it tight against his throat. There isn’t much of a struggle, for the sick man just doesn’t have the strength in him. He gasps for air and thrashes his body instinctually, but the movements are languid and his breaths already choked with phlegm. The wide-eyed man drills his knees into the small of his companion’s back and treats the rope as the reins of a riding horse. Their violence takes them deeper into the snow and exposes the naked earth, concrete and ashamed.
The wide-eyed man’s wide eyes are glossed like the sick man’s and his stare is off in the forest. He holds the rope long after the sick man’s life is gone, until he notices a stain of blood on the snow ahead of him, coughed up in the last of the sick man’s struggle. He lets go of the rope and his body leans backward from his lengthy exhale. He is exhausted and sweating, and so he takes his jacket off and throws it over his dead companion.
Down at the creek he takes a last look at the iced man and nods. He drags the sick – dead – man, his face shrouded with the jacket, to an open slot in the ice and slides him into the water, pushing hard and leaving his feet exposed to the shins. Moving to a boulder near the water’s edge he scrapes a great deal of snow off of it and sends it flying to the frozen creek. It scatters on the surface and covers the iced man’s pale visage. He does the same to the dead man, and then brushes himself free of any snow on his own person. Satisfied, he pulls the compass from his pocket and throws it as far as he can down the stream. It skips on its landing and settles somewhere far out of his vision.
He starts up the virgin embankment towards the new forest, but not without pausing first and saying No matter which way I would have gone, you would have only been a burden.
And with that he wanders into the unknown.Stumble It!