They were right about the weather.
Gray. Like a chalkboard that had been sponged down at the end of a long school week. Just the faintest drags of white in places. Haunting memories of words and numbers. In the sky, a warning. The snow will be here before the day is finished.
They, the men in the coffee shop in town, seemed to think they held sway over all things, most of all the weather. It irritated him. But then, most things tend to grate at a man who exists on the outer edges of the world.
The coffee shop and the men within it, with their tired, frizzy beards and faces that showed countless mountains and valleys in sharp relief, were his link to everything that happened outside of his own Airstream. What the eager old amateur newscasters didn’t get to, the newspaper he bought there filled in.
He spread it out now, section by section, on the rough wood of his kitchen table. Then he moved, left to right, beginning with the front page and following with sports. Sports were what he missed most. The squeak of sneakers against hardcourts, the crack of ball against bat, the tumble of men over men just short of an endzone. It was impossible to draw those sounds out of the newsprint, try as he might.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
The sound was rapid, persistent. He got up, anxious for the invitation into the woods. The tree branch, a friend, was a maple. One spindly arm extending from a large trunk and leaning against his window, naked now and free in its movements. It was often what roused him and brought him outside, and for that it was considered almost human. At least, it was kinder than most humans he knew. And that was enough.
He wrapped a heavy flannel scarf around his neck but wore no coat, and the cold bit through his thermal shirt until it settled deep in his bones. He liked to feel it. He liked to feel everything these days, to feel life, a connection to something. Moving through the trees, he leaned back and inhaled the air, the scent, the woods themselves, and their embrace tightened around him. It was a thing you could feel if you knew how to pay attention.
Up ahead, a twig snapped and his attention focused in on the sound. Too large to be a squirrel. A deer? Likely. He moved as quickly forward as he could afford while preserving his silence. This was something he was desperate for and he never missed an opportunity to encounter it. A living thing with a heartbeat, something that walked and maybe even thought, though he wasn’t sure of the science behind such things. Something close to a human, but not quite.
There is a moment when you encounter one of the sweet inhabitants of a tame forest...when their eyes meet yours. There is understanding there. And he craved that understanding with his entire being.
Not far now. He was sure he was close when the sound of foot meeting earth repeated, to his right this time. He pivoted, continued his pursuit. The branches were thick and he pushed through them, one after another, gently, fatherly.
When the final tree of separation was breached and he found the source of the sounds, he was taken by complete surprise. She wasn’t a girl really, more of a woman, although she was so tiny it was an easy mistake. Dark hair fell in soft waves to her waist and her clothes were simple. A long, blue felt coat covered most of them. He noted that a button was missing, the second from the top.
Her eyes. They were a deep honey brown, large for her face. They were kind. He knew about such things. They stared at each other in silence, taking stock of one another, absorbing the shock that comes from finding something where it doesn’t belong.
It is cold out here.
The words broke through the sacred silence and he instantly wished he could take his back. It was foolishness, really, putting sound out into the space that was perfect in its absence. But it was done. They stood silent again, and he was impressed by her lack of awkwardness. No shifting, no fidgeting.
I have a place just back this way. You shouldn’t be out here alone. Snow is coming.
He turned and she followed, wordless, back to the Airstream. It took about five minutes, and by the time they arrived, the first whisper of snow was whistling gently through the air. Just a few specks, dust-like. He nearly disregarded them, but she didn’t. Her hand upturned, she caught one tiny piece in her palm and offered it a sad gaze. Then she closed her fist around it, as if one could capture and keep such a thing, and followed him into his home.
There had been one of those back through the miles and days, but it had burnt down in the flames of -well- all of that. Now this was it. It did well enough most days.
How do you take it?
A shrug. Embarrassment?
However you like it will be fine for me.
She settled onto the bench seat opposite where he usually sat and eyed the newspaper, still spread out neatly, upside down from her vantage point. One of the larger headlines threatening an impending war somewhere or other must have stood out to her, because she reached a single finger across to it and let it rest on top of the capital W. She left it there for a moment, her brow furrowed, then dragged it back along the table in the spaces between the sections.
You read this every day?
I like to know what’s going on the world. You don’t?
I know well enough without one of these.
He brought over the coffee now, black for him and in spite of her direction, lightened with milk for her. She took a sip and offered a smile of approval as he settled into the seat across from her.
Where are you from? If you don’t mind me asking.
She looked thoughtful at this, as if it were a hard question to answer. Maybe for some people it is.
Far. Very far.
Oh. Well, what brings you out here, into the woods on a day like today?
I needed to think.
She paused then, looking at him over her coffee. She still wore the coat and on closer examination, he saw that the sleeves were worn at the ends, frayed and pilled. Yet she wore it like a royal robe. There was a dignity about her. And certainly beauty. That was beyond a doubt.
I suppose you were there for the same reason.
There? He thoughts about this. The woods? Reason? Oh, right, to think, she must mean.
Yes, I guess I was.
You live here alone?
Yes. I do.
You have no family?
No. I did. Not now.
She sipped her coffee noiselessly, closing her eyes as if it were her first cup and every drop was to be savored. When she looked at him again, it was with a compassion that bled through the air.
I have a family.
He nodded at her, acknowledging the words, not sure he wanted to hear more. At least the guys at the coffee shop were loners. He didn’t like hearing about spouses and babies and things he knew to be irretrievable once lost.
I have a son. He...he is why I am here.
So they were going to talk about family after all.
Yes. He is very different. I shouldn’t be surprised. He is very much like his father.
Oh. No. My husband is not the father.
That surprised him somehow.
How old is he? Your son, I mean.
You seem young to have a twelve year old.
She ran her finger around the edge of her mug. He had chosen his best one for her, though that wasn’t saying much. It had been made by a friend -one of those luxuries of the past life- who dabbled in pottery. He hadn’t bothered to stain it, and the creamy white moved in rough ripples over the surface.
I am anxious for him.
He is...he is hard to understand.
Most kids that age are.
When he speaks, it is as if he has lived a thousand lifetimes. I’m afraid I am not enough of a mother for him.
I’m sure you’re doing fine.
There were probably more words in that script, but he didn’t know them. He was not a parenting expert by any means. But she looked so shattered. He had to offer something.
Sometimes the best you can do is draw on your own experiences and offer your children what little wisdom you’ve picked up along the way.
The deep says it is not in me. The seas says it is not in me.
She murmured the words, practically singing them, like a lullaby. His arms prickled with chills and not for the first time, he wondered about this girl-woman.
What is ‘it’?
Oh. Right. So you’re afraid you have nothing to offer him?
I’m afraid anything I have to offer he already has. Any word I might speak he already is.
If you don’t mind me saying so, you’re putting a lot on this kid. Unrealistic expectations can be dangerous.
Yes, you are right. But I think he will surpass anything I can imagine for him. There is a fury that ends with him. He himself is dangerous. Dangerous in the most glorious way possible. So much so that I can barely begin to understand it. So much that I-
She stopped herself, possibly because he was unable to restrain the look of skepticism slowly fanning across his face. Yet, she was so genuine. It was hard to reconcile, this woman who seemed so steady, with the words.
You have children?
Revisiting the question. Well, then. Silence fell back into the chasm that had opened between them and he didn’t rush to fill it with an answer. Finally, slowly, with gravel in his voice, he did.
Where is he?
He lives with his mom. We...we don’t see each other these days.
Yes. It is terrible.
Someone should tell her that people don’t just put a question like that out there. But then, people don’t show up in the middle of the woods every day either. Not people like her.
I made some mistakes. And now I’m paying for them.
She knew. She saw beyond what he said to the root of the thing. That he had lost it all. All out of his own stupidity.
It is peaceful here, though.
A place to rebuild.
Maybe. I’m not sure...I don’t know that rebuilding is possible.
Rebuilding is always possible once the storm has passed.
Has it passed?
She looked around the Airstream now, as if seriously assessing the situation. He looked too, wondering what she saw in the worn, minimalist setting. Finally, when her gaze landed on the window, she stopped, and a soft smile formed wrinkles around her eyes, deeper, richer than a girl her age should have. Beautiful.
How his fury has ended.
She looked back it him for only a moment, then gestured to what was happening outside. The snow was still barely a thought, and each spot of white against gray was distinct, countable, easily noticed. The branches stood still now, at attention, respectful of the coming storm. The sky was an ombre of grays until it was white, far above. A sun shown somewhere, though you couldn’t place it by looking. It was a gentle light.
He could feel the cold fighting its way into his little home, battling the meager systems of man, grappling for its superior position. The relentless cold.
And then her. She was more like the sun, a warmth, a steadiness. But then the wild recklessness that she released when she spoke. He was hungry for more of her. Not...not because she was a woman, but because she was somehow more than that.
The cold. His arms were starting to ache with the chill in the air. It truly was relentless. As welcome as it usually was, for some reason, here, now, he longed for relief.
I need to grab a sweater. Do you want one?
No, thank you. I’ll be fine.
He excused himself and moved past where she sat, then through the curtain that marked his bedroom. He hadn’t brought much with him to this place, so picking a sweater was a simple task. Shrugging on one that was thick and gray and well worn, he made his way back to the kitchen.
She was gone.
The table was empty. The bench was empty. The room was…
Out the door before he could even process the decision. He hadn’t expected her to stay forever, but she couldn’t go like this. The magnetic pull he felt to her was such that to rip it apart like this left him off kilter, panicked. He moved into the woods, following the path he had taken just an hour earlier. The day was dimming with the turn of the weather and flurries now moved with purpose downward, landing on and around him.
Further in and further still, until he stood in the spot of their meeting. Nothing. He turned in a circle, slowly, scanning through branches, squinting, muttering. The snow was thick now, a rapid progression of what was promising to be a fierce storm. Returning to the Airstream, the flakes were thick and generous and he was soaked when he arrived inside.
He moved to the sink immediately, and there was her cup, washed and placed to the left of it on the counter. She had been here. She had been here.
He took it and stared at it, questioning the ivory surface that had touched her hand. Where is she? Where did she go? Why?
The knock on his door jolted him out of his interrogation and the cup fell to the ground, shattering into a dozen misshapen pieces. He moved around them and thought that, maybe, it was her.
Pulling on the knob, the door resisted for just a second and then fell inward, and there she was.
I hope. I mean. I thought because it was Christmas, maybe.