A Short Story (which may be about echoes)
Withstanding the blast of cold and ice, and wind for over a hundred years, the cabin stands next to the frosty lake as unwelcome as it will ever be. Outside, a tall man is chopping firewood. After splitting a dozen or so pieces, he adds them to the stack on the edge of the woods, which has accumulated to almost his own height. James Caldwell hasn’t been an outdoorsman long but the calluses on his city-born hands are now tough. And the soreness he used to feel from physical labor has been replaced with deep black sleep.
The twilight had brought side-blown snow and an amber light appeared in the south-facing window of the cabin. Now, with his boots off, he sits by the roaring fire and heats a combination of meat and beans in a stainless steel pot. The crackling of the fire his music, James did not think about the future at all.
What brought James to this place was part fate and part choice. Though it didn’t have to be Susan who played the role, she was suitable enough to play the woman who gave him so much to hope for, who never embodied what had been hoped for and who left in such a sudden way. She seemed to cloud his perceptions, when he was with her. And when she left, that murkiness did not leave him. And that feeling slowly melted into simple emptiness, which followed him like an unwanted passenger sitting in his car.
Any woman he considered falling in love with, from then on, would then be tainted by Susan’s distinctly evil brand of feminine destructiveness. And James would achingly imagine this new woman as, in the end, possibly providing much more pain than joy, no longer feeling the headlong instincts of needing to have women on a whim.
What he sold to afford the acres, he has forgotten now. He had brought essential items for bedding, hygiene and food preparation, as well as the layers to survive winter and the necessary tools to adapt to the wilderness.
James usually read as he ate. He had brought a small library with him. Its shelves took up the most room of anything in the cabin. Most of the books were loved. The other, yet-to-be-read ones were old gifts. He listened to the wind whistle through the cracks. Every so often, a clump of snow might completely bow a branch and send a small avalanche onto the roof; he would hear a sound similar to a pillow plopping on a down-comforter, and feel a jolt which made him quickly question the fortitude of his home (inevitably re-assuring himself the structure was sound).
Though his food was cold, he sat with one hand holding down Gravity’s Rainbow and the other idly prodding around his fork. Fixated on the words, he suddenly awoke from a daze by the chatter of an owl that seemed too close for comfort. He looked out the east-facing window and could see its head in the fog-shadowed moonlight. He marked his page and stood up from the table.
As he approached the window, searching in the darkness for the rest of the story, being piqued by the tip of the iceberg that was the owl screech, he was reminded of Susan and the way she smiled…such sleepy-eyed optimism in those smiles… As much as he hated to think well on her memory, he still had a weakness in his heart for her, and that image remained. The owl flew away into the charcoal sky, swirling snow in its wake. He stood there looking at the snow circling in the air outside and watched it inevitably tumble to the ground. He thought about his father.
James took a deep breath and looked at his boots placed in the corner of the cabin. He changed into thicker pants and put on a thick wool sweater. He sat on his single bed and put on a pair of tall wool socks, then stepped up to his boots and put them on swiftly. He grabbed his jacket, scarf and cap, and bundled up for the freezing world outside.
He walked on a path he had trod himself, which was mostly lit by the moon when it wasn’t cloudy, and ran around the lake, to the south, and to the foot of the mountains, to the west. He trudged on for a half mile and found cover in a small cave at the foot of the mountains. There he sat and watched his breath, a white fog, illuminate the nothing around him. For a while, he thought about a part of this novel he read in college; being in a cave and letting the meaning of words become shattered by the echo. But this cave was nothing like that one. This was small and receded almost as soon as you could fit inside. It was there that James did something that an on-looking child would find remarkable and what a civilized man would find strange and self-destructive.
There in the small wind-hollow, he took off his clothes, folded them neatly and stowed them on a rock of proportionate surface area, and started singing:
Oh, momma, they catch me, they put me ‘way for good.
Oh, momma, ain’t gonna’ live my life by should.
One, all ’lone, dies one under the bowers of Heaven.
Oh, let the win’ be my guide, now. Sun’s risen.
If there was a chorus, he turned pale before he got a chance to sing it. As quickly as he could regret his undertaking, he put his clothes back on and started doing calisthenics. Then, as he let out a long sigh, he stepped into the snow and walked with the westward-wind snow blowing in his eyes.
When he reached his plot of land, though frozen to the bone, he walked with a certain contentedness as he approached the cabin. He smiled as he put his hands on the knob, knowing what awaited him inside: his roaring fire; his always-hot pot of tea; his dry clothes, and his comforter. He fell asleep, slightly after he stopped shivering, reading by candlelight and, a moment later, woke up to blow out the flame. In that moment of dreaming—brittle, loose teeth falling out—he felt a shiver of terror.
When he woke up, he dog-eared his page and brushed his teeth, singing the tune to a song whose melody was borrowed and whose lyrics were passed down through the generations, yet a song his grandfather never sang to him.
From above the frozen waterfall, she could see the low, white valleys below burning in the kindling of sunrise. Melody Berger sat atop the giant crags and looked deep into the horizon, not minding the cold now working its way into her toes. As she sat there, meditating in no way, shape or form, she heard James’ distant tune. She thought she distinctly heard the words “one all alone dies,” thought it was some elegy, something a mother might say to her daughter when she arrives to heaven.
Chasing the echo, that minor progression within all alone, her mind compelled her to harmonize, and triggered a blind sense of yearning, like that of a man watching a woman on the subway. She stepped steadily. With each step feeling a foot of freedom from the world she escaped being out here. Stepping down the rocky path, which soon turned to a path made of marble-small stones, then grew to a more fine mixture, as she descended past the largest pine on the snowy hillside, into the dirt trail leading down to the forest. Ear-buds on and with blood-hound instincts, Melody hummed and skipped along the widest path. The trail became icy and slick, so she turned left onto a small path, which seemed to run parallel. The trees hung low and with a great density. She easily matted down the day’s snow, which sat, virgin, atop tall grass. But she wondered sometimes if she were even on a trail at all. She began to feel the cold. Walking, now, past one of the infamous teepees, erected either authentically or in homage (it stands about twelve feet high, maybe just ten; she frequented the nostalgic abode with her friends who smoked), she remembered…
…for Melody Berger, memory is eating food cooked using trans-fat—feeling the worst of life but only tasting the best. Her memory is an emotion… Her memory enveloped her as she unknowingly chose a new path in the trail. Heading far north, now, her shoes becoming soggy, Melody begins anxiously fearing for her safety. But her forgetfulness allowed her to let the feeling slip away, and echoes of James’s song simply re-filled the void. What she needed, she thought, pragmatically, could only be in her mind, for seeking to satisfy another has only disheveled. This is supported by the fact that she wanted nothing she has had before because nothing could ever be as good as those memories seem now. And because what was evil could never be repeated again…
She is lost. She stands still, looking for what could be loosely interpreted as a path, and only sees the path she has made. Unaware of how wet her feet actually are, she only lets the uncomfortable feeling agitate her and this clouds her knowledge of the forest. There should be the main trail, she thinks, just a hundred yards south of here. But she is uncertain and stands silently for a moment.
One all alone dies, and the E-flat-blues melody around it, plays in her head, her iPod already exhausted and ready to freeze. She lets out a sigh.
Hey, you, girl. An immodest, squirmy voice becomes the world.
She turns around and she sees nothing. No strange traveler with a knap-sack of useless items for trade. She spins a full revolution. Twice. Then, she hears it again.
“Hooo,” an owl is perched on a bare branch, its body facing away from her, its eyes looking directly into her eyes.
She stares into the vacuum, the rings around the eyes.
“Hoot-hoooo,” it sings as it launches from the branch and spreads its Gothic wings.
She chases the owl, unheralded, into the dusty-snow infinity ahead of her. She tastes the snow and trips occasionally on roots or fallen trees but she does not lose sight of the owl, which now seemed old or wise. She begins to feel exhausted. Ahead of her, she sees daylight at the end of the forest.
James stood shirtless in his bathroom, looking into a small circular mirror, as he shaved, rinsing his razor in a bucket half-full of warm water, a white nebula of shaving cream. He looked in the mirror at a man too young to be forty but whose wrinkles told whiskey-strong stories. Though the salt-and-pepper hair of his early thirties was diluted with salt, he was still able to smile as he brushed a comb through his full head of hair. His brown eyes teased shades of blue and sometimes gold, and reminded him of his youth. He moved in close to the mirror to search for stray hair he missed with the razor. In that lean, that moment in which he became slightly dizzy, losing himself inevitably in the scope of just himself, he looked into the mirror and only thought of his rushed childhood—it rushed by him, see—and he leaned back, snapping into a world in focus. He looked at the patchwork of freckles on his left temple.
James pressed his fingertips against the small frosty window in the bathroom and put them to his face and let the icy feeling seep into his pores. He looked out the window, through the holes melted in the white frost, and saw a shady figure moving alone in the cold. Frozen still, half too unsure of himself to do anything else and half afraid of being seen by whoever was lurking outside, he watched for signs of movement.
But nothing came.
He relaxed his tense neck muscles and started slowly stepping to the main room of the cabin. He eyed the shotgun resting in the northwest corner of the room and the small axe hanging more readily on a nail on the wall next to the door. He crept around a bookshelf to look out of a window.
He could plainly see her, now.
Standing still in a black fleece jacket, snow pants and boots, covered in snow, Melody Berger made eye contact with James. She knew she might as well stop pretending she could be un-seen and slowly began to walk to the front door of the cabin.
Then he heard it, the owl.
The girl reached the door.
After a few breaths, slightly expecting the door to swing open without any prompting, Melody rapped on the door two times, the first a weak tumble of a knock and the second a firm one which resonated in the wood as a hard doke.
She waited a moment and began to consider running away, like a cow-tipper moving across a fenced-in field, but the door opened.
She looked up at the man, who now wore a thick wool sweater and denim, and the melody of his song came back to her. Infatuated instantly, the young woman said hello as she stared into just one of his eyes.
“Who are you?” he greeted her.
Melody looked to the floor.
“Come, come,” he said, “step inside before you freeze any more. Sit by the fire, here.”
“Thank you,” she said, “so much. I was going to get back to my car, it’s about a mile that way, but— ”
Her words filled the room like music or the smell of roses. And James could do nothing but listen.
“I liked your song.”
James looked at her for a moment and quickly looked away. Her words ended, revealing a silence much quieter than the silence that preceded her visit. That terrible -ong still floating there, panging off a piece of tin or an old leather-bound, far across the cabin, which was looking much larger than it could ever be.
“I’ve never seen anyone living here in the winter. Usually just small families living here during warm weather. I bet my dad would get a kick out of seeing you holed up here, really living. You probably don’t realize how lucky you are—”
“I’m sorry, let’s start over again,” he said, “I’m James Caldwell.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, James. I’m Melody. Melody Berger.”
For a moment, he let her name sink in—the sound of it, that is—and took his first real look at her. She was more beautiful than he feared she would be, as she approached the cabin a few moments ago. She had a pure blonde hair and shallow blue eyes. He was instantly reminded of his instinct to fall in love with any woman who looked at him the way Melody did. She talked the way most sang. Winding around him, the sound of “Melody” made him comfortable. And in that instant he damned his past and considered how many times a woman has made him say damn to the past, and just commit to plunging forward together. Many say that is the only solution—to find someone new and try again. But James had a new plan, a way to live for only him because if he didn’t right now, just right now, he would never be able to move on to live for others. He couldn’t just abandon his plan. He paced around the room, tending to a kettle of tea, often looking out the windows.
“And where did you come from?” he asked.
“Oh, I—” shivering, “my car? It’s parked at the public lot at the foot of the mountain. Just where 187 meets 32. I…I can get going if you’ve got—”
“No, please, sit, have some tea,” he said, like someone enticing a dog not to flee after it’s been accidentally let out of the yard, as they stand between the canine and the world of fences.
Melody looked nervously around the room. Suddenly it became very small. She idled herself by looking at his bookshelves. She walked towards one of them and was then drawn into, becoming fascinated with, his collection.
James took this moment to clean two mugs and find teabags, sugar and honey from a container stacked on a shelf in the kitchen, labeled Lazy Susan. He found a spoon from a similar container labeled Silverware. He took the canister of boiling water from the fire and poured it into the mugs, and put in the teabags for steeping.
By the time he had turned around, Melody was sitting comfortably at his small table, reading from A Passage to India, captivated. She read from the second part of the novel, letting the echoes resonate in her head. And she watched the space around her fill with meaning and, just as she looked up, James stood in the center, and she knew she was in love.
James gave her a shy smile, all-too-aware that they have been sitting in silence for several minutes, and dunks his teabag. She stands up and walks to stand next to him, to dunk her teabag in the mug next to his. To pour from his container of sugar. She stood there, looking at him too closely, her left elbow inches from his right.
“I’ve been living here seven months,” he said, allowing a pause, stirring his sugar in. “It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. And I don’t think I will never go back.”
“Where is back?”
“The weather, I’ve been preparing for. When I was a kid, my family lived in Montreal, Boston, Chicago. And New York City, I moved there when I graduated college. Think I’ve always felt more comfortable in the cold. Like our fellow men appear friendlier, we become bonded like men at war. Now, I conserve my energy, maintain just enough, and prepare my plots for the spring.”
“What do you grow?”
“I have enough seeds for a medium-sized vegetable garden. Nothing special.”
“Have you ever tended a garden before?”
“Well, not really,” he started sweating from the tea, “but I’ve read a lot.”
“My grandmother taught my mother and she taught me. I’ve been gardening since I was a toddler. If you need any help you can always ask me for pointers.”
The man felt that sense of assurance felt when a woman acknowledges a future that included him and a searing mental reminder to reject the mirage of such emotions. Before, he believed the future was everything.
He became shy, “Thank you,” he spurted out, considering whether or not to try to make a witty response to mask his insecurity, “I’m going to need it.”
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll be fine without me,” not giving a moment up to silence, “but you have got to taste my grandmother’s tomatoes.” She took another sip of tea, “I’ve never had tea like this, what is it?”
James looking, ironically smug, at his own mug and smiles, “Ah, one of my only luxuries, a special import from India.” He takes the rest of his cup in one gulp. “It has no name, it is simply what it is. Names will mystify. Savor the experience yourself. No name can sum that up.”
She smiled and became lost in his smile.
“Where do you get it?” she asked.
“I have a friend, of course.”
James took the moment of silence to strategize.
“You and I have similar tastes in literature,” he said, as he indicates, non-verbally inviting her, to step out of the kitchen and into the living area.
And she is thus prompted.
Melody becomes excited, “I know,” she says, (and in one whispered syllable says “I was just about to say that”) “I love your collection. I’m so jealous.”
“Thank you.” More a reaction than it was pre-meditated.
“People overuse the word ‘amazing’ but this is simply amazing. No dead space.” She looks around. “And you’re obviously not trying to impress anyone.”
“Thank you,” he said, again.
“Well, I really like your little library here,” she said, sincerely.
“Well, you’re welcome to take out a book whenever the mood strikes you,” he said, in that 21st century way. “That is, if you can ever find this place again. Honestly, how did you ever find me?”
She laughs, confidently, “I’ve known about this cabin forever. One large trail takes you from look-out peak straight to here.”
He nods, “Yeah, you mentioned you’ve seen other people living here.”
“The weather’s not the best today. Slipped a lot. Icy.”
“You warm yet?”
She smiled and exhaled through her nose, “Yes, I am,” she said in an orgasmic way, “that special imported tea really saved me.”
A few more warm moments passed.
Then, as if from a world unknown to the both of them, Melody’s cell phone rang and it sobered her up.
James smiled, half embarrassed at being trumped by somebody not even in the room, and half knowing he would not have to be awkward asking her to leave.
She thanked him for the hospitality but quickly left without looking back.
From above the rushing waterfall, she could see the low, green valleys below fading in the dusk. Melody Berger sat atop the giant crags and looked deep into the horizon, not minding the biting mosquitoes or the gnats and flies bumping into her legs and feet.
And she knows James Caldwell will still be out there. And every once in a while, he’ll be singing his song. And once in a blue moon, she might be sitting right here to hear it. And maybe he’ll be thinking about the sound of Melody. But, just right now, love, was not worth the instability.
She thinks about James and his song, his books and the life he made for himself. She knows she will still be chained to her friends and her parents, who are so normal. And her ex-boyfriend, ringleader of her closest friends, will always have his say. She will never have the courage to leave him forever. She will always love him. Or she will fall out of love and leave him the way she has always imagined.
Tom Hatcher © 2011