Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Old Man in December

A fiction

It was a bitter cold that greeted him as he stepped out into the endless December night.  It had been snowing for several days now, but there was hope that the storm that settled in seemingly for the duration of winter might break today.  At least, he hoped it would. 
His despair only grew as the snow piled higher.  How long had it been since he had any real reason to be hopeful?  Days?  Weeks?  Months?  He really had no idea.  All he knew is that when the mill shut down for good, that was the end of the life he had known, and the comfort, meager tho it was, he had enjoyed.
He lived alone now, well, alone except for the scrawny cat that also called the small cabin home.  He had never even bothered to give the animal a name.  It just showed up at his door one night (come to think of it, one year ago tonight, in a blizzard not unlike this one) and decided that the old man and his small fire were preferable to the cold and snow.  Even now the cat was asleep in front of the fading embers of the last of the firewood.  He wished he could be as blissfully unaware of the world around him as that damned cat!
He was out of work, and nearly out of money.  His wife of so many years was gone – taken by the cancer that had turned her once lively body and infectious smile into a living skeleton.  Death had been a relief for both of them, he thought guiltily, and he grieved her loss every waking moment since – and often long into his troubled dreams.
The children, too, were long since gone, set off into the world to discover lives and loves of their own.  Two of them, actually.  A boy who looked frighteningly like he did at that age, and a girl who looked so much like her mother that it tore great holes in his heart to see her.
And so he simply didn’t.  Not since her Mother died.  Probably never again.  He knew that there were a couple of grandchildren, but seeing them meant seeing her, and while he knew that he desperately loved his children, the pain of the memory of his wife was too great, and he was just not strong enough to deal with it.
Perhaps next year.
Or, more likely, never.
He shaved today for the first time in weeks.  No reason, really, just that it seemed the thing to do, even if it didn’t make any sense.  After all, he was going out into a storm, in the dark, with the hopes to find a little food and firewood, and maybe, just maybe, a reason to keep going on.
Oh, he wasn’t depressed to the point of actually considering ending things.  To the contrary, he had just reached that place where he didn’t care one way or the other.  If he woke in the morning, fine.  If not, just as well.  At least then the pain would stop.  And the loneliness.  He wasn’t actively looking for that final train to the great beyond, but if it stopped today, so be it.
So he shaved, dressed in his warmest winter fare, and set out into the darkness of the slowly ebbing storm.
* * *
Just how long he had been walking in circles, he didn’t know.  It seemed like hours, but that wasn’t possible!  It was still dark, and if he had been out there as long as he thought he had, the storm was either worse than anyone expected, or he had simply lost track of the time and had not been out as long as it seemed.  What concerned him most wasn’t the seeming strangeness of the way time was somehow stuck, but that he was genuinely lost in a forest he knew like the back of his hand!  What a clich√©, he thought – ‘like the back of my hand’.  And yet, it was true.  He had been in around these woods his entire life.  He couldn’t remember ever not being here, so to be lost, well, this was worrisome indeed.  He didn’t recognize a single tree or rock; not a single familiar landmark was visible.  Not that he could see all that far in the storm, but even if he had been out here as long as he suspected, the lack of daylight notwithstanding, he still should have known where he was.
And if he was lost, who would take care of the damn cat?  What a thing to think of!  Here he was, in a part of ‘his’ woods he didn’t recognize, not certain of the amount of time he had been out in the storm, clearly confused and possible in danger of his life, not that ‘that’ mattered to him any more, and all he could think about was who would feed the stupid stray cat!
* * *
He surely must be hallucinating!  It was dark, and he was lost.  There was a storm raging around him, and he was, for all practical purposes, a thousand miles from any sort of civilization.  His small cabin was the only thing for miles, and he wasn’t sure where it was.  But through the howl of wind above him, he thought he heard singing!  It was all around him, coming and going, and there was no way to determine either the source of the sound, or direction, so he just thought it must be snow sickness or something like that.  He didn’t think he’d been here long enough for that, but who knows?  He had reached the place where he had no idea where he was or how long he’d been there.  What’s a little strange music added to that particular mix?
It’s funny how things come back to you.
He hadn’t thought about that December, or that Christmas in years.  It must have been the music that triggered the memory, although he still couldn’t quite place it.
And he was starting to worry.
There was a small clearing just ahead of him.  It seemed vaguely familiar, but only in a mist shrouded sort of way – like what you think you remember in those moments that come somewhere between being asleep and awake.  And it had a shelter, of sorts – a small lee in the nook of a large tree that seemed to be oblivious to the gale around him.  He knew the danger of falling asleep in the storm, but he was beyond caring when he curled up under those inviting branches, and drifted off into that netherworld of the vaguely familiar music, and the long forgotten memory of his distant childhood.

* * *
It was Christmas morning!  How, or why he was here, reliving this particular memory, he didn’t know, but here he was!  Christmas morning!  He was nine years old.  And he was a confused little boy.  Happy and mad at the same time.  And very, very confused about an awful lot of things.
Of course he was excited about it being Christmas, in the naive sort of way children are.  He was old enough to know that with five children, of which he was the eldest, there wouldn’t be much of a Christmas (the gifts were what Christmas was all about at that age) and yet he somehow held onto the feinting hope that maybe ‘Santa’ would come through this year after all.  It was somehow strange and exciting at the same time.
It had snowed last night, despite the forecaster’s promise that there would NOT be a white Christmas this year, and the funny memory of his younger brothers and sisters bemoaning the prospect of Santa not being able to land his sled without snow brought a smile to his face.  For some reason it never dawned on any of them that they didn’t have a chimney for Santa to slide down.
This was the year his Uncle had come to visit.  Before the week was through, he would have shown them how to turn all that snow in the back yard into a real igloo, and after spreading the floor with a huge plastic sheet and about a foot of straw, they would spend the night out there, much to his mother’s despair.
This was the year they took the long trip Christmas day that he always looked forward to: ‘over the rivers and through the woods’ to his Grandmother’s house, a place bustling with activity, noise, and absolutely the best gingerbread cookies in the known universe!  There would be a stocking on his Grandfather’s mantle with his name on it, and it would be filled to overflowing with fruit, nuts and Christmas candy – and not a few small trinkets that nine year old boys love.  And there would be that huge twelve foot tall tree in the big bay window that his Grandfather cut from someplace in these very woods.
Oh, it was a good, exciting time for him.
But there were other things that troubled him.
He adored his Mother.  He worshiped his Father.  This was all well and good but for one tiny little detail.  His Father was no place around, and hadn’t been for several years now.  Of course, he thought it was his fault that his Father had left them.  It was years later when he finally recognized that sometimes in life things just happen, and its out of his control, and, more importantly, not his fault.
He would realize, too, that his Mother missed him as well, and was lonely, and that it was that loneliness that had introduced her to the man he was now supposed to call his Father, although no one had really made much of an issue about it.  He suspected it wasn’t going to change, what with the understanding that some of the children were his.  Not brought with him, as it were, but his and his Mother’s together, so he guessed he might just as well accept that this was the makeup of their family now, like it or not.
And he wasn’t such a bad guy.  A little distant at times, but always kind to all of the children.  Actually, as he remembered, there really wasn’t any of that ‘my kids, your kids’ stuff that he could remember – they were just sort of ‘the kids’.
There was another thing that made this particular Christmas special, he suddenly realized.  It was the Christmas he got the new ice skates!  Of the close circle of friends he kept, he was alone in having to sit on a log on the side of the lake and watch his friends skate.  This year he would finally be able to join them!  It was many years later, when he had children of his own that he finally understood the sacrifice his new ‘Father’ had made to get him those skates, and his sadness that he never really got to thank him for them.
How strange life can be.  He was lying there asleep in the meager shelter of a few branches of a huge tree he didn’t remember in a clearing he’d never seen in a forest he’d known all his life, in the most improbable of circumstances.  He should probably be dead, and, given the nature of the circumstances and the dreams, may very well be.  If this was death, perhaps it wasn’t so bad after all.  But here he was, and here he found himself crying in his sleep over the memories of the happy times from this particular Christmas, and from the sadness that came when he realized how much he could have done; and certainly should have done; but never got around to doing.
If anything, he thought, if this was death, it would be more enjoyable if that particular memory would go away.  But then, maybe this was hell, and the reliving of the ‘should have done’s but didn’t’s’ were what made hell, hell.  He just didn’t know.  He wondered, too, how, if he really was dead, or even just sleeping, why was he crying?
There were other Christmases that he remembered, but for some reason this one, the one when he was nine; the one when he got the skates; the one when he built the igloo and slept out in it; the one when he finally accepted the new man who shared his Mother’s bed and seemed to make her happy; this was the one that seemed fixated in his consciousness for the time being.
* * *
The wind around him had become still, and somehow it didn’t seem so cold.  He didn’t know where he was.  It had all become a blur to him.  He remembered going out to hunt, and perhaps bring home a small rabbit or squirrel for himself and the cat, and gather some firewood to keep the small cottage warm.  He remembered that it was storming.  He remembered that he should have known these woods.  And, he remembered that under no circumstances should he go to sleep in a storm.  But then, he didn’t care.  At least he thought he didn’t. 
The music and the sound of the wind faded into the background of a much different noise.  He thought for a moment that he heard someone calling his name.  That was impossible, of course, he was alone in the woods.  And the voice, that was so familiar, well, that was impossible too.  She left with her new husband, went off and had children of her own, and that was the end of it.  By his choice, because of the way she reminded him of her Mother, he simply chose to not respond to the invitations to visit each year.
Yet, the sound of the pounding was growing louder and more distinct, and he was sure now, that somehow out here in this clearing in the middle of one of the worst storms in years, he heard his now grown little girl calling his name.
Impossible!  They never come here, and besides.  I’m dead – or dying, and alone in the woods.
I hope the damn cat is OK.
These were the thoughts running through his mind, in the strange forest dream he was having, when the cat bit his ear, offering a rather rude awakening from what surely must have been his last moments of life.
There was a pounding at the door, and the voice he heard in his dream was on the other side of it, calling loudly and impatiently for “Daddy”!
That must be her, he thought, as the world around him began to slowly coalesce.  She always called me “Daddy”, he remembered, even as an adult.
It was a while before he opened his eyes, and a few moments after that when he realized that he was not, after all, lost in his woods and dying in a snow drift under some god-forsaken tree.  There was music – the unmistakable sound of children – his grandchildren – singing Christmas carols on his porch, and the still impatient sound of his ‘little girl’ wondering if he was going to make them stand out there all night!
And suddenly it all dawned on him.  It had been a dream!  And the dream was to remind him to take hold of what he had here and now.  To not wait until it was too late to say thank you, and I love you.  To not withdraw into a world of fears and regrets, but to grasp the here and the now and hold on to it for dear life!  To see and love the memory of his wife through the eyes of the daughter who so resembled her mother.  To hear again his own laughter through the voices and smiling eyes of grandchildren he had know of, but not known.  And his son, with his wife and their child, they were also here!
The snow had stopped, and the sun was shining.
It was Christmas day.  A day he thought, at the onset, would probably be his last, and it had been replaced with a new hope, and a new life, and a new desire to venture out boldly into the world and love the family and life that he had been given, and with no regrets.
And somewhere in the midst of all the hugging, crying, and laughter, the cat just sat back on its perch and smiled in the all knowing way that only cats can when they see a miracle.
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