Her tears, somehow cold as they emerged, mingled with the melting of snow that relentlessly pelted her face as if to add volume to the fountain that poured forth from her swollen eyes. Her face was numb in the blizzard wind that scoured her bare skin in the frigid night, turning the tears and melted snow to ice on her chapped cheeks, constantly scraped by the glassy crystals that swirled around her head like angry bees before finally embedding their sting into her skin. She visualized her face as the smooth pale marble of a statue of some unknown saint in a church courtyard, an eternally sad and enigmatic expression in her colorless, sightless eyes, the carved lids and cheeks slowly gathering snow yet pocked with tiny droplets of blood where each crystalline snowflake had broken through the stiff skin. It had all become so surreal she played with the idea she was actually dead and hallucinating this walk through the woods as some bizarre after-life travel through a tunnel toward “the light”.
But even though she could barely see through frozen lashes, and the pain of snow crystals forced into her eyes when she tried to open them further, she knew there was no light ahead in this tortuous place, no end of the tunnel of trees rising on either side, their canopy above, the views ahead and behind obscured in the blizzard haze, and her other senses dulled by the persistent hiss and scraping and numbing cold of the storm. It was as if she walked in a bubble of her own suffering, made worse by a few falls into the deepening, drifting snow that chilled her to waves of uncontrollable shivering and obscured her footsteps, and the smooth path of what she dragged behind her. She had thought to follow her path back if she felt in danger at any point, despite any consequences, but as if to mock her the storm had worsened quickly as she traveled, its force not even broken by the dense woods, and closed in around her. Though these woods had often been a refuge, the isolation created by her dulled senses and deepening cold had made it unfamiliar and hostile. Fear began to push aside the veil that blinded her senses as she slowly acknowledged the reality of her situation.
She stopped, caught her breath, tried to still her shivering and looked around, trying to focus on objects, rocks, trees, things that were solid and tangible, trying to find a familiar pattern that might identify where she was in the woods. The wind and snow pressed against her, forced into her eyes and nose and mouth, invasive, almost smothering, even when she turned to face behind her, away from the wind. Is this real? Am I freezing to death? Was her life really in danger? What had she done? None of this was what she’d intended. She knew it would be risky at night in winter to begin with, but she knew these woods, even with paths covered in snow because their shape was easy to find as they wound clearly among the tree trunks, free of brush. Animals also trod the same paths, those familiars with whom she felt a kinship as she walked, alone, for that welcome respite of solitude and silence. She had often wanted to simply stay once she’d entered the woods and shed the cacophony of everyday life, feeling the relief, breathing more easily, smiling, feeling graceful and balanced and in time forgetting her own self, simply feeling a member of this woodland community, even in winter.
But that familiarity was not true knowledge. She only knew what she enjoyed and found familiar, not all that was there, and certainly not the woods in a life-threatening blizzard.
I got myself into this. I knew I didn’t really know the woods. I walk everywhere in all weather, but not in the woods. I should have known I wouldn’t be able to handle the weather and finding my way. Was it really worth it to take a shortcut through the woods because I didn’t want to walk all the way around on the streets, even though I was leaving later than I’d intended? Am I going to die in these woods tonight because I had to get this rocker out of someone’s trash pile and get it home before the storm hit?
This short story was a submission for the Winter 2016 Writer’s Weekly 24-hour Short Story Contest. You sign up ahead of time, and on the day and time the countdown begins, always a Saturday, the page on the WW website that includes the topic goes live and entrants get a link in e-mail. I actually won a sub-award, one of 15 door prizes.
I don’t remember the topic exactly and didn’t copy it down, but I do remember that in it the person was dragging something through the woods at night.
You don’t need to use the exact text or even the scene described, just use it as a starting point. The instructions said they liked surprise endings. With my recent experiences outdoors in sub-freezing temperatures and musings on the tenuous nature of life, I thought I’d share this story this Sunday.
Several years ago I was driving home on a Christmas night, traveling along a dark two-lane road in a somewhat rural area that was familiar and fairly close to home. As dusk fell the light dusting of snow around me was tending to violet and the perfectly clear blue sky above me was also shading to violet in the east. As I turned a bend in the road I met with surprise a big bright and creamy full moon that had risen above the uneven line of pine and deciduous trees nearly silhouetted against the sky on the horizon. I smiled at the pure beauty of the scene and as I drove along, the moon seemed to follow me on my left.
I had just driven first my brother back to the nursing home where he was living while recovering from a traumatic brain injury, and then my mother, who was living in personal care in the after effects of lung cancer and congestive heart failure. I had cooked a Christmas dinner at my house, set everything aside to keep warm and gone to pick up each of them. We ate our dinner and I packed a few leftovers for each of them before getting them back in time for dinner medications. Now I was on my way home to pack up the rest of the dinner, wash dishes and clean up my kitchen.
Deep in thought about these two and about my own life since they’d suffered their illnesses, I considered our day then moved to other Christmases, other holidays, other family members, other homes. In my distraction I slowed down with the rises and falls and bends in the road in the growing darkness, but was still aware of that full moon following me out of the corner of my eye.
A small valley opened out on my right, a familiar thing to one who walks the woods and valleys in Western Pennsylvania: a level area filled with young trees, scrub and brambles which had recently enough been the rich bottomland field of a farm, bordered by a narrow stream, and behind that a rather steep tree-covered hill. These small valleys appeared on both sides of the road, and with a little traveling the valley would rise up into a hill that bordered the road, up and down, the road, the landscape, the rhythm was comforting, like rocking slowly in a rocking chair.
But as I passed this little valley I noticed movement. I knew it was probably just a deer as this was the time of day they moved about and that was the perfect area for them to be having an evening meal. Though I hadn’t been facing that direction and didn’t actually see anything directly, the movement hadn’t seemed to be a deer, it had seemed human to me.
That was not a problem, really, the little valley was essentially someone’s back yard and it would not be unusual for them to be walking around there even on Christmas, but something about the figure had also seemed familiar, I had no idea why. Even though I wanted to get back home and clean up my kitchen, I slowed down and pulled to the side of the road. If there’s a possibility, I like to pursue these little ideals that arise, stopping to explore, but I rarely have time to.
I had passed the valley so it was now behind me, but I backed up along the berm of the road to a spot where I could see the valley.
That silent pale yellow moon still shone on my left, risen slightly higher above the horizon than before, shone directly into the little space, lighting the snow cover to a pale silver violet and the tree trunks to varying shades of pale gray against the charcoal-shadowed hill in the background. Everything seemed still, but I detected movement flitting among the trees, thought I saw the glint of moonlight on hair, on an arm, a dress. I opened my car window and shut off my radio and then my car’s engine. If those were people moving down there, they should be crunching in the snow, but I heard no sound in the crisp, clear air.
But I felt such a strong presence. Quietly opening my door and standing up in the bits of snow and gravel at the edge of the grass along the road, I heard only far off sounds, a plane in the sky, a car traveling somewhere, a dog barking. The air was so clear I thought I’d hear sounds from miles away traveling quickly through the cold, windless darkness, leaving little virtual contrails as they moved through the infinity of a cold winter night, but nothing came up from the valley, neither from hooves nor feet.
And if I was reading this and didn’t know the story I’d be yelling, “You idiot! Get back in the car!” No, this isn’t going to turn into a made-for-TV movie—you are safe to read on without fear. I am cautious and always aware, but didn’t feel in any way threatened, in fact I felt safe and welcome.
As I stood there, one hand on my open car door, I thought I recognized one of the figures out of the corner of my eye, and as it is with focusing on subjects in near darkness the figure disappeared when I looked directly at it. But I knew it was my mother, walking quickly and gracefully as she had done when young, laughing soundlessly over her shoulder before disappearing into the darkness. Then I saw one of my aunts, also laughing but in a conversation with someone else, happy for once in her life. And as I stood there I saw other relatives, my brother and sister, aunts and uncles, even ones I’d never known and only seen in photos, just a few seconds each, and all were happy and laughing and moving here and there, the little valley was full of these specters.
Then I realized that each of these were the people I’d been thinking about as I drove along. Had I manifested them? Was I hallucinating? I hadn’t even had a glass of wine yet, waiting until I was back home in my warm kitchen in my stocking feet and wearing an apron, washing my dishes and singing along with the radio.
But here they were in this magical little valley and what had made me slow my car, had drawn me out to experience it was the joy in the scene, they were all enjoying themselves, happy and laughing, something that had not always been so in real life. Here they all were together in this little parallel universe.
No, I had been thinking so deeply about them all, remembering where I had memories or simply imagining those who I’d never met. When I create a scene for artwork or writing I visualize it pretty completely and for a while as the goal of my work it is very real to me. In that manner of visualizing, in that dusky time of day when I feel the veil of reality thin and the closeness of those who aren’t with me along with that magical moon and its light among the trees, my thoughts for those brief seconds became real, and I saw them as I wanted them to be, or perhaps as they really were without the worries and weariness of everyday life, happy to be together.
On a dark, misty, not-quite-raining Sunday afternoon just before Christmas, I walked across an uneven, wet parking lot toward Dollar Tree, my mission: three or four pairs of 2.75 or 3.0 reading glasses that I could leave around the house or carry with me as need be since I was recently finding myself unable to read smaller text. I’d probably also pick up some other one-dollar-doodads that I really didn’t need.
It wasn’t cold, just dreary, especially since we had had a very pretty snow a few days before that had mostly melted leaving piles of dirty ice in parking lots and cinders and salt on the streets and caked on cars.
Ahead of me I saw an older woman emerge from the passenger side of a neat, clean silvery sedan parked near the end of the row and close the door, leaving someone, presumably her husband, behind the steering wheel.
She was slender and slight, dressed in an unwrinkled light blue poplin raincoat belted at the waist and had no hat on her short, mousy-gray permed hair. I thought of her leaving a very plain white Protestant church with a wreath on the front door, her husband in a navy blue suit, holding the passenger door for her as she got into the car; she had asked to stop here on the way home for something. She walked quickly with her head down and did not look up at me as I passed her but only glanced sideways without raising her head or turning in my direction, and said nothing.
I admit my outfits can look interesting at times, with my penchant for making and wearing colorful crocheted berets and hats, sometimes adding a scarf over a sweater or two and usually a long skirt with colorful tights and clogs or boots of some fashion. Some people say it looks cute or “funky”, some people just look, and I know that it often looks like I couldn’t decide what to wear or like I’m packing extra clothes, and while I’ve overhead “bag lady” I still get plenty of compliments. But my outfits are generally a reflection of what’s going on inside my head and heart and this is different every day and rarely monochromatic.
Even though the older woman didn’t look like the typical Dollar Tree patron in that area, in fact, she didn’t look like the typical patron of anything in that shopping center, she certainly looked as if she was heading for the door. Reaching the door ahead of her, I opened it and held it for her to pass through.
She stepped up on the sidewalk and hesitated, looking at the door, then glancing at me, as if she wasn’t sure she trusted the situation, as if I might close the door in her face or hit her with it. I smiled when she looked at me and nodded my head, and that seemed enough to encourage her to trust me as I held the door for her. She nodded at me, not making eye contact, and hurried past me into the store with short, quick, silent steps. I entered behind her and let the door close behind me.
Dollar stores are generally a little chaotic, but before Christmas they reach a peak of excess that is generally overwhelming. The merchandise displayed in no particular order turns into areas of color and texture and blocks much of the light from the ceiling fixtures, the scents of candles, perfumes and spices float in from everywhere, and once you add in the musical cards, conversations and Christmas music piped in from above, even the most focused person can become completely disoriented.
Patrons dressed in winter clothing wander up and down the aisles and among the displays of stuff clutching an armload of t-shirts and window cleaner and kitchen utensils and a box of rotini pasta with startled expressions darting about for anything they might have missed and would regret not purchasing when they got home. Maybe it’s a merchandising tactic by the store, but when everything is $1.00 you don’t need to worry about appealing to customers, and shoppers can afford to lose focus and pick up a few things they hadn’t come in for but might use later so it’s worth a cruise around the store.
I lost track of the older woman as she entered the store and turned right past a display of fake red-and-green-and-glitter poinsettias wrapped in sparkling red and green foil. I remembered where the display of reading glasses was, so I headed straight into the store, past the line at the front to the end of the counter where the spinning racks of reading glasses and sunglasses were displayed.
I don’t know what was playing when I came in, but above the din I heard gentle piano chords begin a melody joined by strings, not at all unusual for a holiday tune but when it led into the first words of “Let There Be Peace on Earth”, the Vince Gill version, I smiled. I knew this song, and I really loved its clear message accompanied with a simple melody. Vince Gill’s version is very straightforward and unadorned, not a big resounding production, and I find that very comforting.
Let there be peace on earth
and let it begin with me.
Let there be peace on earth
the peace that was meant to be.
In addition to my interesting clothing I also tend to sing along with anything I know, but it’s often completely unintentional as familiar words and melody flow through my thoughts and I simply begin to hum or sing—not loudly, but people can hear me. Of course, because I knew this song I began to sing along, softly, as I spun the glasses display and tried on one pair after another, purple, silver, flowered, tortoiseshell, looking in the teeny mirror to make sure I wasn’t completely over the top and picking up other packages to see that I could read them.
With God as our father
brothers all are we
let me walk with my brother
in perfect harmony.
I also looked around the store to see how the vision was with the glasses, even though they were meant for reading. A display of greeting cards began on the other side of the glasses display, and I saw an African-American couple who had been pulling out one card after another reading and laughing or discussing. An aisle of figurines of all shapes and colors and subjects opened up beyond the sunglasses display, and there I saw a woman and girl softly speaking Spanish, likely mother and daughter, picking up various figurines and discussing them.
Let peace begin with me,
let this be the moment now.
Now, however, I noticed that the mother and perhaps daughter, too, also seemed to be singing along with the song; their lips moving slightly as they browsed their shelves, and they seemed to be singing in English.
With every step I take
let this be my solemn vow…
I know I was staring at them trying to focus and determine if they really were singing along, and the mother looked up at me with a smile of recognition as her lips and mine moved with the same lyrics. I smiled back; we didn’t know each other, but we certainly had something in common.
…To take each moment
and live each moment
with peace eternally.
We kept singing softly as our glances broke apart, but we kept smiling.
Let there be peace on earth
and let it begin with me.
I turned back to the glasses display, finally on the fourth pair, while the song went into an instrumental section. When the song began again, with the child singing this time, so did I, and so did the African-American couple looking at the cards. I looked at them, they looked at me, we smiled and kept singing softly.
With God as our father
brothers all are we
let me walk with my brother
in perfect harmony.
I was overcome, and as is also typical of me in emotional moments, my eyes brimmed over and tears dropped down my cheeks. I glanced down and pulled a used tissue from my pocket, dabbing at my eyes, but kept singing.
To take each moment
and live each moment
in peace eternally…
Far too emotional to consider browsing the store, I turned to the counter with my glasses to check out. Just then I recognized the older woman’s blue raincoat already in line. I stepped in behind her. She was holding several stuffed toys and humming the last bars of the song.
Let there be peace on earth
and let it begin with me.
That really finished me off. I found another tissue as I began to wonder about this woman who was so uncomfortable in these surroundings.
Because she looked too old to have young children of her own, and she appeared to have the means to buy better toys, I wondered who the stuffed toys were for and why she would go to Dollar Tree to buy them. I imagined a scenario of some single mother she had heard about in church, a neighbor or perhaps an errant daughter with her grandchild; the sermon had nudged her conscience and she was acting as quickly as possible. Perhaps that was the reason for her apparent discomfort, or perhaps she stopped here after church every Sunday but didn’t want anyone to know she was helping someone. I knew my imagination was running away with the facts, but the whole experience had opened a flood of ideas that I could barely follow.
When radio stations pledge to play Christmas music from Thanksgiving to Christmas they really have to lower their standards to keep the selections varied, and while some pop holiday hits have become classics, others are just inane. But then, anything would be inane after that experience. I somewhat like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, but not right then.
The one thing I do know is that there in that discount store, among that mixed group of us—the uncomfortable older woman, the Spanish-speaking mother and daughter, the African-American couple, myself and possibly others—there was peace on earth, at least for those minutes when our hearts met in the simple wish described in the lyrics. And perhaps they each carried it away as a tender memory, just as I did.
The morning’s brilliant sunshine belied the cool air, but the bumblebee, sluggish at breakfast on the spent seed head, foretold the change to come. The season had been awaiting the moment and the moment was here, and even as the day warmed and the bees efficiently bumbled on their way, grand and beautiful clouds appeared on the horizon, slowly, quietly parading across the sky, their size and numbers more dense each hour until by afternoon the blue overhead was hung with dreamy cotton and the voice of the wind whispered high in the treetops of what was to come. The day grew darker and more quiet until by early evening all was so still and dim that when the first few whispering patters of rain began their sound was clear, though unintelligible, as if speaking a language, like that of the trees, not of this place.
The rain fell quietly all night, lovingly soaking the hardened earth of late summer until, sated, it slept. As the next morning dawned the rain slowed and stopped, the clouds parted and cleared in a reverse of their arrival the day before, leaving the sun to shine brilliantly in the blue dome of morning, but the heat was gone from the earth, once again, for another season.
I composed this story for a weekly writing challenge, “Five Sentence Fiction”. The keyword was “Breakfast”. I took “breakfast” as a time, not an event or a food because in the heat of August I was impatiently waiting for the season to change.
I remember when we courted, when I would sneak down to the tracks by the creek right after dinner, just around the bend from where my parents were settling down for the night, and wait for you.
My heart would skip a beat when I saw you there, waiting for me, I almost flew to your side but thought I should be careful, not knowing you all that well, yet each time I saw your silhouette my love was stronger and I knew you were the one.
And what silly things did we do but talk about the weather, and what we’d done that day, and what our siblings were doing, and circle around each other and peck at the gravel as if the world hadn’t suddenly stopped turning because we were together.
Just a few minutes, we never wanted to draw attention, but when I saw the shadows creeping farther and farther across the tracks I knew I had to start back for home to be back by dusk.
Who would think, all these years and all these children, and I still carry these memories of you walking to see me in the warm evening light.
I composed this photo story for a weekly writing challenge, “Five Sentence Fiction”. I took this series of photos walking on Main Street one spring evening recently, where the tracks cross the street and run along the creek where I walk nearly every day, and yet at the right angle they look completely isolated from civilization. I saw the one goose, then a female came to meet him—at a distance I can only tell them from one another by size when male and female are side by side—and they looked and acted so much like a couple of awkward teenagers. I used my 70-300mm zoom lens so I could focus on them and give a little blur to the surroundings; unfortunately in the light it was difficult to see if I was focusing on the geese and in some photos I was focusing on the tracks just in front of them. No matter, I saw a story right away and knew I could even use those photos. The evening light gave the scene an antique look. Then I waited for the keyword that would work for them.
The morning’s session had gone very well. Leaping aboard her little boat, she clamped her painting onto the easel so she could study it while she washed up and had a little bit of lunch, then she’d get right back to work on it while her thoughts were fresh.
The painting was a large pastel depicting the first tinges of an incoming autumn storm, and though the morning had been hot, the sun cooking her arms and legs and reflecting from the sand up under her hat to dry her face as she stood on the beach, she had felt the first twists of a breeze from the storm, still miles away, coming across the continent to bring autumn from the mountains to the shore. Even the light was changing, dimming just a bit as a thin haze washed onto the blue of the dome overhead like the foam of waves washing onto the beach, the entire palette moving from summery bright blue and warm yellow and white to amber and olive, the ocean darkening to teal.
This was what she wanted to capture in her painting, that moment of change, and that was why the painting had to be so big. She wanted to capture the subtle change across the sky, the dimmer tones inland and brighter tones over the ocean, the first choppy whitecaps, that pathos she had always sensed when autumn crept across the palette of the land, whether in the eastern hills she had known and loved, or the shoreline she studied now. Even the heat on her skin, the flush on her face, and how cold those tiny tendrils of cool breezes had felt on her skin, those had to be in the painting too. She set up her palette of pastels on a table next to the easel, pulling the colors she knew she wanted to the front and arranging them in the way her hands knew best without the need to look down.
It was good to come in when she had, even though only the intense heat had made her stop and come in for cover. She had reached that point where she was in her painting, the point where she had to leave the reality of the physical place for the surreality of the inner place, to interpret her senses and the deeper emotions she felt but could never verbalize, only paint. That was what made her paintings different. Viewers could sense the place, and not just enjoy the view. And this was why she had won the painting contest, and this little painting vacation to visit and paint in the space of her choice without interruption. The chance to be so totally focused on her work was a rarity in her life as an artist, filled with clients and shows and costs of materials and art festivals and getting the car fixed not to mention the commercial design work that actually paid the bills. This week was the chance of a lifetime.
And it was the perfect time of year too as there was no one on the beach to interrupt her focus at this time of year. She stood back from the easel and sat down to focus once more, thinking of the empty beach, devoid of tourists in early October, adding to the sense of desolation—this beach recently filled with colorful, noisy people enjoying their time away at a place they loved, suddenly silent and the storm inching its way across the sky, sly, quiet, no thunder and lightning, just that change in light.
Suddenly she heard a pounding on the door. Startled she looked about and realized she was on her boat. She had thought she was on the beach still, painting. She stood up and noticed the light was odd. Had the storm come up that soon? That pounding and yelling—was someone on her boat? She had been tied to the dock, that wouldn’t be hard to do. But she had fallen asleep–what time was it? She couldn’t see very well—was it night? She fought her way to the door, past her painting, hoping her pastels didn’t land all over the floor, she got to the door and tried to pull it open but it was locked. How to unlock it? That knocking, it was so confusing!
“Are you okay? Hey, Bernadette, please answer!” Pound! Pound! Pound!
Who knew her name here? Who was this? She suddenly didn’t want to open the door at all, and her grasp of where she was seemed to be fading.
Then she saw seemed to snap back to reality and recognized…her studio? At home? In Pennsylvania? What?
And the person at the door, it was Michelle. What was happening?
Then she realized, she wasn’t on the beach at all, there was no boat, she hadn’t won the contest yet. It was a hot summer afternoon and she was working from photos to create this painting for that contest. And she had gone so deeply into place to get the right feeling into the work, and laid down on the floor to think about it and rest her back, and…
I’ve been short of short stories here since I set up this site earlier this year. I haven’t had quite the time to write as I had hoped so I’m going to share a short story I wrote last year that I’ve been holding to post when the time seemed right, to help make up for that lack and because the season and time are right for this story.
This short story was a submission for the Spring 2016 Writer’s Weekly 24-hour Short Story Contest. You sign up ahead of time, and on the day and time the countdown begins, always a Saturday, the page on the WW website that includes the topic goes live and entrants get a link in e-mail.
Here was the topic:
A brisk breeze pushed through the hatchway, cooling her sunburned cheeks. Saltwater lapped at the hull. A mariner’s lullaby. She smiled, pondering her perfect life. No people. No stress. Just the occasional storm, and sojourns to the mainland for provisions. Just as her tired eyes closed, violent knocking and shouting erupted on her starboard side…
You don’t need to use the exact text or even the scene described, just use it as a starting point. I was kind of lost with the context of being on a boat because I’ve never been on a boat on the ocean, really just a riverboat here in Pittsburgh, or a canoe. I remember the word count was between 800 and 900 words.
I spent some of those precious 24 hours thinking how the heck I was going to be believable in writing about being on a boat on the ocean when I didn’t feel I could imagine it clearly enough, and decided I’d focus on being in the ocean or on the beach, which I could imagine. Quickly I leaped to painting, and then to the painting I included here, one of mine from 1993 after my one and only visit to the beach at Chincoteague Island, VA, as my inspiration for why I was on a boat on the ocean. As I wrote, the whole idea of the painting itself, the painting contest and even falling asleep, just fell right into place because I knew I’d easily fall right to sleep after being out in the sun on the beach painting for the morning.
It turned out to be great fun, and I remember that I got down to the last second to submit because I didn’t remember I had to reformat basically without formatting so that no special software was needed to read it. I didn’t win anything, but I liked how it turned out and I’m happy with it nonetheless.