Winter Holidays - Story 6 - A Place by the Fire by Nickolas Urpi
The air was thin. Thinner than the ice that had formed gently over the lake, as though it were calling for a skin. She woke to the sound of footsteps in the kitchen. Her streaming hair draped over her eyes, filtering her eyesight. She could see shadows moving from the dimly-lit kitchen. Heavy boots thumped across the floor, casting shadows across the bottom of the door.
Diana raised herself quietly from her bed, feeling the chilling bite of winter crystalize on her skin. She was careful not to wake her brother, who slept quietly by her side. She pulled the covers over him again and pressed her hand against his warm forehead.
Her robe was frayed and old, and slightly too small for her, but it was warm and felt like her mother’s arms used to feel. She entered the kitchen. He was there, reaching for his rifle from atop the mantle. He had started a fire and had eaten very little. He turned just as he was lifting the barrel from its hold, when their eyes clutched each other.
When he had gone, Diana put more wood on the fire and began to heat a pot of cornmeal. The door opened from the bedroom. Her brother emerged from the room and fell into the chair by the kitchen table. Her cracked lips curled into a smile and her cheeks pinched together. He sat down blankly and stared at the hot bowl of cornmeal before him. He lifted the milk carefully and slowly poured some over his meal.
“Father’s in the woods again,” she said to him, stroking the back of his hair. “He’ll be back soon.” He was bigger than she was, but younger by one year. “I’m going to need you to go cut some wood and bring it inside. Can you do that? Ike... are you listening, Ike?”
“Good boy,” she said kissing the top of his head. “Now be careful, the cornmeal’s hot. I have to go feed Ginger. I’ll be back, okay?”
She watched him stare at his meal as though he did not recognize a cornmeal breakfast. She lifted her coat and put it over her, removing her mother’s robe. It was yellow, the same color as the light when it comes streaming through the kitchen window the last days of September. She embraced it, soaking in the last of its warmth. As she did so, she remembered the conversation she had with her father before he left (her first thought was of his cold brown eyes locked into his closed cheekbones).
“You’re leaving again,” she said.
“Yes,” he said. “I saw a buck yesterday on my way back from town. I’m going to get it. There should be enough for the two of you until I come back.”
“Will you be back soon?”
“I’ll be back when—we need food,” he replied.
“Will you be back before Christmas?” she said to him. He did not reply. “Like every Christmas, then.”
He did not look at her, but gruffly said on his way through the door, “Take care of your brother.”
Ginger was an old creature, but she still lasted the winters on less and less hay every year. Diana lifted a fork-load of the dried feed into Ginger’s solitary cell. The barn was smaller than the cabin, with only Ginger left to occupy it. Diana often wondered if Ginger could feel loneliness, or if she knew there would always be someone there to care for her and ensure she would never go hungry. Ginger let out a low moan, which procured a giggle from Diana. Her voice was different than it used to be. When she was a young girl, playing in the barn with Simon, the horse, she could squeak like a mouse.
These days, however, it was difficult to determine whether it was her father or herself speaking.
The crunching of his boots in the snow was a sound he was so accustomed to it was as good as silence to him. He walked thus, only the sound of his own thoughts left to strangle the clarity of his own vision. He wrapped up his thoughts and shoved them back down to wherever they had come from. The sight of Diana in her yellow robe was an image all too potent, however, and it stayed glued in his mind’s eye as he walked in the snow.
The trees were tipped with ice and rendered the entire forest a frozen look. Time seemed impenetrable in the forest, as though it were a black hole sucking movement away and halting feeling itself. All his emotions seemed to be pulled out of him. He could remain a hunter looking for a buck.
He stayed close to the lake’s edge, finding comfort in the bright glare of the frozen water. He stayed his motion for a moment and closed his eyes, waiting for another sound. His fur jacket trembled as the wind passed through the trees, and his face felt tightened and stretched, as though he were an orange being peeled by nature itself.
He opened his eyes. There had been a sound; of that, he was almost sure. He waited for a second sound, a thought, an instant. That instant came, and when he turned, he saw the beige rear of a deer bolting through the forest. He took off after it, low branches snapping as he pushed through, the apparition of a bear itself.
Ike’s motions were slow, not from heaviness, but from the distance between his mind and his work. Then he would remember where he was and would bring the ax down on the wood, splitting it through the core. She always worried he would hurt himself, and oftentimes she would take it upon herself to chop the wood, but she felt trusting that day, of Ike, at least.
She took her hands out of the water she was cleaning her pot with and wiped them on her apron. It was then that she first noticed the change. Her hips were round and firm and she felt her way up to her chest, which was fuller than it had been, and had grown out. She was taller than her mother had been, but not as strong. Even her arms were tighter and more muscular than she remembered them being. She felt her face. She knew what she would look like, something older and thinner, but she wanted to feel it anyway. She closed her eyes and drew her fingers up her neck to her cheeks. It felt like parchment, drawn and immutable—fixed. She sighed, exhuming in that one breath her present and future worries, postponing them to another time. She had to finish cleaning the pot... there was so much to do....
He could no longer see the deer. It had sprung out of his line of sight. Nevertheless, he continued to run, the heat of his legs burning against the cold bitterness of the snow, which jumped up all around him. It began to fall now, from that impenetrable whiteness of the sky. It stuck to his eyelashes and splattered against his beard, dousing it with its wetness. He could feel his lungs tremble with shock as they were forced to swallow the cold air.
The deer had stopped moving. He leaned over and caught up with his breath, then lifted his rifle into the air and pointed it at the deer. He sighed and lowered his weapon. It heard him emit a sharp yell and bounced away into the wilderness. “A doe,” he said. “Dammit!”
A sharp splintering, crackling noise suddenly filled his ears. He looked up, and saw an old branch, saturated with snow, break away from the trunk of the tree and descend upon him. He tried to leap out of the way, but the monolithic and mangled branch fell on his left leg, pinning him in the snow. His scream reverberated across the forest, making the trees shiver.
He placed his rifle down beside him and tried to lift the branch from atop his legs. He lifted until he was red in the face but could not get it off of him. He gave up and leaned back on the tree he was pinned against.
“Why, God?” he yelled out between tears, as the snow continued to fall indiscriminately. “Why me? What have I ever done to incur your wrath? Why not leave me as I was? Why send down suffering on me? Why? Why, God?” There came no reply, only the continuous fall of the snow.
Diana slowly pushed the needle through the thread, tightly pulling the elegant maroon fabric together at a single point. It was difficult, but she knew that a woman in the town was expecting it before the twelfth night. She was paid handsomely for the work, but she loved to handle the material itself, feel the smoothness of it, and observe the elegant patterns richly embroidered in gold and silver, perpetuating the feminine charm of the dress.
Her heart jumped, however, whenever she heard the thump of the ax descend on the wood, the cracking of the wood bursting through the air, and the pieces falling helplessly to either side. Images of him chopping his own leg into two halves continued to haunt her. It recurred in her mind more vividly than any other image, even those of her mother. Memories were less potent than that fear, fear that he would harm himself.
She jumped up suddenly and grabbed her winter coat. She opened the door, flurries landing quietly on her eyelashes. Ike moved from one log to another, his monotonous and somnolent movements, methodically slicing the wood down the middle. He rarely lodged his ax into a log and had to stick his foot on the log to remove the ax. Again, he plunged his ax into the center of the wood and Diana watched as the wood split open—the rich oily purple flesh of the cedar lay face up on either side of the stump Ike was standing over.
“Ike,” she said. He turned to her, his eyes like a blanket of coal-black snow. “Ike, go inside, and... and I’ll finish up here. You just go on inside.” Ike did not move at first; he only stood there in the snow, staring at her. That aggressive tone that most often accompanies fear and care boiled up from Diana’s throat as she said, “Ike, did you hear me?” He lifted the logs he had cut on his shoulders and entered the house. She went over to the ax and began to chop wood, knowing he would sit in the chair and stare at the fire, watching the fluid-like substance dance its way into different shapes.
The sound of twigs snapping brought his mind back into the present. It had stopped snowing, as though time had been frozen around him. He was thoroughly drenched in the snow, and his skin was beginning to contract. He could no longer feel his left leg, still crushed beneath the snow-laden branch.
He thought he had only imagined the sound, but when it came again, he turned to the right and saw another hunter between the trees. It was as if the hunter had always been there, watching over him in his plaid jacket with his hunting rifle in his right hand, holding onto his leather backpack with his left. The hunter approached slowly, using his rifle to keep stray branches out of his eyes.
“Hello,” he said to the hunter. “Please, can you help me?”
“I suppose I could,” the hunter replied, using his foot to remove the snow from a fallen tree near to where he was trapped. He then sat down on the fallen log. “Are you hungry?”
“Yes,” he said quickly and perplexedly. “Could you please help me remove this branch from my leg? My leg’s broken, but the branch is still resting off the ground right now; I might not have to lose my leg if we hurry.”
“There’s no hurry,” the hunter replied, putting his pack down in front of him. “After all, it stopped snowing so there won’t be any more weight unless its sinking into the ground.”
He noticed then that there was a strange glare in the other hunter, something otherworldly. The hunter tossed him some bread and salted meat. He ate it hurriedly, his sack having been tossed about when he fell.
“I saw a buck out here before and came after it,” the hunter said. “You were screaming, weren’t you? I heard you.”
“Yes, that was me,” he replied.
“What were you screaming?”
He stopped short and thought about how to answer the hunter’s question, and then clearing his throat said, “I screamed for help.”
“That’s not what it sounded like,” the hunter said. “In fact, it sounded more like ‘Why God?’”
“Well if you knew what I had said, why did you ask me?”
“I wanted to see what you would say,” the hunter replied.
In any other circumstance, he may have been frustrated, perhaps even angry, but the other hunter was calm and yet so very distant from him.
“It’s not even cold,” he said to the hunter.
“No. It’s not even cold.” They sat in silence for a while, waiting for the wind to whistle through the tops of the trees, singing in the paleness of the air. Nothing stirred. Snow did not even fall from its perch on trees’ extended limbs.
“Tell me about the trees,” the hunter said, his steamed breath vaporizing as soon as it passed his immense black beard.
“The trees?” he asked.
“Yes, the trees.”
“They’re bare and naked this time of year,” he replied.
The hunter’s face told him he was searching for more.
“What more can I say?” he said.
“You’re referring to the leaves,” the hunter replied.
“The fleshy substances of green that abound during the summer when the entire world burns with prosperity? How can you see them that way?”
“The trees,” the hunter replied. “The trees. Look at them now. Like knights having shed their glistening armor and now kneel before God. It is their shape in all its bareness—why that is where the beauty of the leaves come from. They simply are the links in the chainmail. The shape of the trees, their forms, that is where they are beautiful. Look at them, the souls of crusaders.”
“They are cold and naked,” he replied.
The hunter sighed. “Can you not surpass that and look at their form? Their shape?”
“What shape is that?” he replied. There was a moment of silence, which sliced through them. “I followed a buck here.”
“I know. I saw that buck. It led me here to you. You’ve been chasing it for a long time, haven’t you? Every time you get close though—”
“You can only catch a glimpse of it—just enough to keep you suspicious if you want it to be there or if it is there—then you keep running and running after it, and it’s always too fast for you. You can never catch it. No matter how hard you run. You can only feel it slip away, but yet know that it is still there, never feel it or see it, only know it, and that incompletely... or perhaps...”
“Or perhaps what?” the hunter asked.
He did not reply to the hunter’s question. Instead, the hunter put his hands on his knees, and, after sighing heavily, stood up and grabbed his rifle. “I’m going to have to kill you now,” the hunter said.
“No. Please,” he replied, grabbing his rifle and pointing it at the hunter.
“It won’t work,” the hunter said. “You never reloaded after you missed that doe.” He put the rifle down and looked the hunter squarely in his dark austere eyes.
“This is what I came to do.”
“I know that.”
“But you are afraid?” the hunter asked.
“Of death, no,” he replied. “I have no reason to be afraid. I have done nothing to be ashamed of. I’ve been good. I’ve done good, by many.”
“Then what are you afraid of, if not death? The dying?”
He shook his head.
“You are crying though; it must be something close to your heart,” the hunter said, kneeling within several feet of him so that they could look straight into each other’s eyes.
“I want to see my girl again. I don’t want to miss her life. I want to see my Diana again. You see, I do love her very much.”
“And what about your son?” the hunter asked. Suddenly the tear froze halfway down his cheek. The hunter scratched his thick black beard, as if he did not know the answer to his own question. “You cannot see him yet, can you?” the hunter asked. “And yet, you know that she believes that it is her that drives you out here, as though it were either of their faults.”
“I know. I know all that,” he said, choking on his tears, the tears melting in his own facial hair.
“You’d prefer it that way,” the hunter said. “You feel wronged and yet you feel guilty for that.”
“I can’t,” he said.
“Of course not,” the hunter said. “That’s why I have to kill you.”
The hunter stood up and began to load his rifle, when he cried out, “No, please!”
“You can’t love him for his own sake. You look for something else from him, and you can never find it.”
“That’s not true. I’ve always—I’ve always loved him.”
“Somehow I doubt that,” the hunter said, lifting his rifle. “You won’t have to worry about them. They can take care of themselves.”
“I know,” he said. “I know they can.”
The hunter lifted his rifle within inches of his face and cocked his weapon. He closed his eyes, a prayer whispered through the recesses of his mind, and he felt the sweat freezing on his forehead. Perhaps it was blood already? His eyes he kept shut as the frozen metal point of the rifle touched his temple...
He was no longer looking at the hunter, but at the trees. They appeared like balletic nymphs frozen into swan-like postures, dancers underneath an ocean-esque dome that calmed him.
“I can see the shape of the trees,” he said out loud, as though his thoughts simply radiated out of him.
“I know,” the hunter said, lifting the log off of his leg. The blood ran through his body like a tidal wave across the shoreline. He moved and stretched his leg, which still hurt, but found it was not broken at all. “It wasn’t broken,” the hunter said.
“Thank you,” he said.
The hunter walked off into the woods. He never remembered when he saw the hunter disappear into the thickness of the dried forest—it was very still around him, and all he could hear was the sound of his lungs expanding and contracting and the thumping of his heart, as it pounded its way out of his chest into the cold winter air. He looked at the tracks in the snow and saw large hoofmarks clearly pressed. He leaned down and placed his hand in the hollow of the hoofmark. He stretched out his fingers and absorbed the shape of it, feeling the snow forge itself into the symbol of the recent past of another’s presence. He followed it into the indeterminate forest.
The night was just beginning to crawl its way from the center of the sky towards the edges, like a spider stretching its dark legs across the purple dome. Diana looked up, knowing it was not that late, but still felt an uncontrollable feeling of tiredness sweep over her. The last bright gasps of the dying sun painted the looming clouds a deep orange-purple. The clouds seemed to wait like a coming army in the distance; it was a snowstorm, or so it appeared, and she knew it was not worth taking any chances. She could not let Ike come out into the snowstorm to cut wood.
“Several more logs,” she said to herself, lifting a hefty log from the pile and placing it on the cutting stump. She could hardly see it in the dying light; she trusted the dim glimmer from inside the cottage to guide her.
She brought down her ax on the cylindrical timber, trying to reduce it to firewood. It resisted and the ax, instead of driving deep into the hard-frozen flesh of the log, bounced off the edge after only slicing some of the bark off, and dug itself deep into her calf. She cried out in pain and fell on one knee. She grabbed her calf in one hand and the ax in the other, both slippery from the wet warm blood, freezing in the cold air, and tried to dislodge the ax from its grasp. A continuous tugging match ensued, until she managed to wrench the ax free from her bloodied leg. She fell backwards into the snow holding onto her leg. The sun had finally dipped behind the trees and the only light came from underneath the door to the house. She tried to lift herself to her feet but stumbled. A thick black haze descended on her just as she saw the door open.
There was a snowy hill that rose up from the ground near a place where the lake water did not freeze but remained loose and fluid. If he had looked, he would have found that there was still life beneath the glassy white surface, which lent the lake an atmosphere of death, rather than the life that was beating within. He had no time, however, because he pursued the buck, which bounded and leaped over fallen trees he had to climb over. His lungs chilled, his nostrils flared, and his legs burned as he pursued the animal. A sudden dizziness took him and stopped his movement.
He looked up at the snowy hill, the morning sun’s white lights washing over it. Standing upon it was the buck, the light beams bursting through its image, wrapping it with a voracious and enigmatic white glow. Its antlers jutted out to either side, crossing the light, like the wings of a bird frozen in the sky. The deer stood triumphantly atop the hill, waiting to deliver itself to him. He did not want to... and for a moment...
He raised his rifle, pointing at the magnificent creature, the cold sweat stinging his eyes, and mixing with his tears. It fell limp—he listened to neither the sound of the gun or the panic of crows, but only to the limp sacrificed body hit the snow.
An obscure image hung over her. She could hardly feel or know, only observe for a moment. The crackling of the fire danced in her ear. It was almost as if she could feel the fire on her leg...
Her consciousness recovered, and when she awoke, she stared up at the ceiling, seeing the black silhouette of a man wavering with the incontinence of the fire. She lifted her head and saw Ike mending her leg slowly and carefully, with great detail and care. She smelled soup wafting over from the fireplace.
Ike turned to her, his eye glassy and dark, and she felt a sensation and emotion of something of which she was unsure. He finished bandaging her leg and then placed it down on the cot, which he had brought down from the attic and placed before the fire for her to rest on. He stood up and walked tenderly over to the fireplace, where the licorice fire continued to exhume the smoky scent that reminded Diana so much of her mother and the motherly cares and worries that amalgamated into the indomitable force of love.
Ike brought over a bowl of the soup and placed it in Diana’s hands. She hardly had the strength to eat it, as her sinuses began to drip, her eyes began to trickle, and she could no longer hold back the floodtide of emotions that had been damned up inside her; she began to cry. Ike simply placed his broad warm hand atop hers and guided her hand to her mouth. The soup warmed as it slipped down her esophagus. Brother and sister continued to hold hands long after the soup had been drained, spending their Christmas in quietude, roundly shelled in against the cold and liquid external matter.
The door opened, slicing away the peace of the moment, and both turned to see their father, covered in snow to his beard enter the house.
“Father,” Diana said automatically.
“Ike,” he said. “Go out and put the buck in the smokehouse. I’ll cut it up later.” Ike stood up and obeyed his father.
Suddenly, his eyes gleamed and he ran to the cot and bent over his daughter, weeping at the sight. “I should have been here.”
“It’s nothing,” Diana said. “It was just an accident. Ike took care of me.”
“He did, did he?” he said to her, unable to find other words as they were merely sounds, and the music in his heart was too vast for their simplicity.
“I’m sorry, Diana,” he said, brushing his cold hand against her soft and warm cheek. “I came back for Christmas.” She could not reply, and two beings, which had not spoken to each other on Christmas since an angel had left their company, found that the bonds which had welded them together at Diana’s birth had never crumbled at all but had been forgotten and left to gather dust. That dust, however, was blown away with his simple words: “I love you very much.”
Ike walked into the house, the fresh odor of pine flying into the room and filling Diana’s nostrils. “A tree!” she said, lighting up like the fire, the wine-red dancing in her cheeks and the tip of her nose. “You brought a tree,” she said, choking on words. He could only nod.
Ike brought the tree to the corner of the room and placed it down. Its furry leaves and broad body were only matched by the beauty of its figure, stretching upwards as though it would never stop reaching for the heavens.
“Come here, Ike,” he said. “There’s a place for you here by the fire.”
Ike hesitated, and looked to Diana for comfort or admission. She gave him no indication and no order. He decided to walk and sit by his father and sister.
His father’s eyes were parallel to his, rich like melting chocolate: “I love you, Ike. I love you, son.” Ike leaned his head against his father’s shoulder and rested it there. His father placed his other arm around his son.
A father held the hand of his daughter and embraced his son wrapped in the tranquility and invisible glow of Christmas. The fire continued to burn, long after the glow of its embers had vanished.
Nickolas Urpi is the author of the literary war fantasy novel The Legend of Borach and has been published in The Copperfield Review, HCE Review literary journal, Ripples in Space magazine, and more. A Hispanic author, his writings fuse his studies of ancient history, literature, and philosophy with his crafted prose to immerse the reader in the world of his fiction through vivid settings and characters. An alumnus of the University of Virginia, he resides in Charlottesville, Virginia.