It has been snowing for eight days. Steady snow, constant, hour after hour. Sometimes heavy, occasionally just in wisps. The wind has come up a couple of times and stirred things, whipping the snow, coaxing it into a blizzard. But mostly it just keeps coming. I should go out into it every few hours to keep the path clear to the woodshed, the latrine, down to the lake. Snow tends to drift up under the porch roof and collect against the front door. Wait too long and you can’t push it away.
I’m finding it hard to muster the fortitude to tend to this necessary chore; I gave up on the woodshed yesterday. I was tired and cold and wet, and the snow was falling sideways but in big, sloppy flakes that coated my parka, sat on my lashes, the kind that usually means it’s almost done. Now I’m rationing the last load of wood I’d gathered and stacked on the floor inside the door. I put one stick on the fire just before the last flame sinks into the glowing coals. I watch my breathe, now, as a puff from my nose and mouth that disappears into the cold air of the cabin, then regathers itself as a sheen of ice on the inside of the window by my bed. My gut is unsettled, roiling in an ache that is not from hunger. I stay in my sleeping bag except to pee in the bucket, and to stoke the fire.
I miss Rex. My dog. We came out here together to live simply. He’s been gone four days.
Rex came into my life nearly two years ago, at the insistence of my daughter, Hannah. We’d been over my decision to move up here a half-dozen times, maybe more, and Hannah was in the final stages of accepting what I was going to do. Perhaps she was also realizing what it meant: that her mother’s and my decision to separate was unalterable.
“I’ll never get it, Dad. Of all places. It’s desolate.”
“It’s a couple of hundred miles. Three hours. Four with weather. Not that far.”
“Well, it’s not like people can just drop in. I can’t. Or, is that the point?”
“No, Hannah. No.” The truth in her question stung me. How could I make her see that, yes, that was part of the point, to make some space, find the quiet to discern what my own voice was telling me? But that it wasn’t about her. “I don’t expect you to understand.”
“Try. Explain it to me, Dad. What will you do with yourself?”
She had grown into a perceptive young woman, disinclined to simply accept anything of importance at face-value. The father she had known got up every day and drove an hour to work to write ad copy for eight hours, then drove twice that to get home. On weekends he had run her around to soccer games and gone to parties with her mother. She’d lived with him and her mother in three houses, each bigger than the last. What would that man do alone in a small cabin in the woods? It was a fair question, and I knew she truly sought to understand my motives. But I was impatient and wanted her to simply accept my choice.
“Hannah, look. I’ve put things off that I want to do. Study. Some writing. Other things. We’ve been through this.”
“Right. Other things. Play lumberjack? Navel gaze?” Hannah rolled her lips between her teeth and raised her eye brows. “You don’t have to go up there to be a writer, Dad.”
Behind Hannah, framed by the curtainless window over the sink, far distant but visible, golden bands of autumn aspen were woven into the green of the low slopes of the foothills. My heart beat hard, then sank heavily in my chest. I did not look at Hannah.
“I’m almost sixty. I don’t want to be a writer. I just want to write.”
Write myself into being, I wanted to say. I had lived too many years in a state of unbeing, an egg emptied of yolk and colorfully painted over, dangling like an ornament, with no life inside.
How would that sound to Hannah? I turned back to her. Fine strands of straw-colored hair had pulled free from her short ponytail and floated in a wispy mess from her temples. She was a child again, disheveled and confused. I felt a welling at the base of my throat and swallowed hard. I had felt full once, known a sense of being, when Hannah was born.
A mask of her mother’s exasperation crept over Hannah’s face. “What then? The prayer stuff? You know what Mom thinks.”
“Stop, Hannah. Just stop.” I knew full well what her mother thought. Judy had never taken my yearning for something – call it god or grace – seriously. Nor my need for silence. To her I was at best sentimental. That was a quaint idea, but you’ve grown up she’d said when I told her that I’d flirted with a vocation as a Trappist before we met. Don’t be silly, she’d scolded when I raised the idea of downsizing and taking a less stressful job closer to home, and using our precious time more reverently, look at all you have! Damn fool had been her final judgement, though she’d pronounced it with tears, I hoped, finally, of recognition.
“That’s it, isn’t it?” Hannah’s eyes softened, her chin trembled. “You have to do this.”
I shuddered at the expression of my need, Hannah’s realization of it, on her face. I could only nod yes.
“You can’t leave. Dad. You can’t. You’ll be alone.” Hannah took my hand and fixed her sharp green eyes on mine.
“What would you have me do?”
We agreed on a dog. Hannah made her case and our discussion was short. A dog would provide a measure of safety, she argued. Against what I was unsure. And it might be pressed into service as a beast of burden, a sled dog. I was bemused by her arguments, and touched by the earnestness with which she made them. In the end all it really came down to was that I could not be alone, for her sake. As for me, the idea of companionship without the demands of conversation or the need for explanations came to feel comforting, alleviating a misgiving I’d not, until then, recognized or, perhaps, been willing to admit.
I didn’t want a puppy. I knew that I wouldn’t have the patience for training a dog in the woods. Hannah agreed and insisted on a rescue dog. We went to the shelter and before I had finished introductions Hannah had found a dog, or it had found her. She was on her knees; he had finagled his head through the widely spaced bars of the enclosure he shared with three other dogs, pushing hard onto her hands, which held him firm but tenderly. She scratched his ears; he whimpered and waggled.
“Dad, it’s him. What do you think?” As I approached the dog pulled back a tad, dropped his rump slightly, and slowed his wagging tail. He watched me, not quite warily but, still, a little unsure.
“There. You are handsome. You really are.” With one hand Hannah stroked the dog’s ear, his neck and under his chin. He raised his brows, alternating first one then the other, and cocked his head. With her other hand Hannah took mine, guiding it to the dog’s head, and together we rubbed the length of his neck and shoulder.
He really was handsome, and good natured. He had a thick coat, straw-colored and mottled with black, and cropped ears that he held up proudly. The rescue folks almost never know for sure what breed a dog is that they get, or their age. The woman at the shelter guessed he was about three years old and mostly shepherd, maybe with some black Lab or something else. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that this dog and I would learn what we were together.
“What’s his name, Dad? What should we call him?”
“His name? I don’t know. I don’t know what to name him.”
Hannah contemplated the dog for a few moments. “He’s Rex,” she told me, and then to the dog: “Yes. That’s who you are. Rex.”
The dog, now out of his cage, perked up his ears and pressed close to Hannah. He nuzzled my hand with his snout, then stood back, looking pleased. “Rex,” I said, kneeling down beside Hannah and pulling the both close. “Yes.”
We lived with Hannah for nearly five months while I searched out and closed on my cabin in the mountains. Those months together passed quickly and, like a green flash at sunset, before we were ready we were gone. Rex had grown comfortable in Hannah’s home, staying closer to her than to me. The truth is, I had grown comfortable too. My decisions behind me, I felt a hint of peace in our transient existence, and the din in my head was muffled, my urgency less strong. Still, I was wary of this comfort and the trap that it represented. I had set out my path and was resolved to take it. We had to go.
Hannah and I spoke little in that time, not out of malice or expectation, but because everything had been said and we were satisfied with our accommodation. What she wanted me to know she told to Rex.
“Come back, Rex. Sometime. Please,” she told him, holding his snout and locking her eyes to his when the time came for us to leave. “Ok? You belong here.”
She sent us along, each with a kerchief she’d sewn.
Rex took to the woods easily. It was as though he’d been raised in the forest, the way he seemed to intuit his way around, followed the smells, knew what to chase and what not to. Once, while we were scouting the property boundaries he’d raised up stiff, alert to something I couldn’t see, then backed up, twitched his nose back over his shoulder, directing me. I moved back and he stepped forward, in front, chest high, ears perked, nostrils pulsing. Then we both saw it, at the edge of the woods far down the trail where it bends east, a lone wolf. A quiver shook me and I reached for Rex’s collar. The beast locked its gaze on Rex, and Rex leaned hard in its direction, spellbound and tense. He took a step and I reflexively pulled hard on his collar. “No! Rex. Stay!” He stopped, looked up at me, his eyes distant. When we both looked back up the trail the wolf was gone.
Nothing in Rex’s life on macadam and cement streets or caged in pounds prepared him for the woods. No more than mine spent in the same city, boxed in steel and glass high-rise offices, could have prepared me for how to live in silence. Here together, free of the impositions of our old worlds, it was Rex who was knowing and unhesitant. I was still figuring out what to chase.
Once in a while, at night, when the wolves’ low, sad groans seemed close, Rex would lift his head, pull back his ears, and look past me through the long window over the sink.
This winter has been penetrating: cold, sharp, and dry. The ground, granite hard and brown and dead. Until now each day had been flat, the sky murky, always tempting with a possibility of snow, for which I prayed. Blessed snow. Grace. Pure white to cover the detritus of fall, the remnants of summer’s passing. But the snow didn’t come and the nights cleared, and what little warmth the day generated the night sucked away. And with it my ambition.
I managed to assuage early winter’s cold sting on my face and hands by the fire; my heart I warmed with an extra dose or two of bourbon and Hannah’s letters. She’s written me every month. But there was nothing to be done about the incessant gray that seemed to settle down out of the winter sky and into my head, shrouding my soul, making me feel as ashen as my gaunt face had become. I’d hoped that the slackened pace of winter would afford me the time I’d sought for myself; but I found it hard to concentrate, to write, read, or even to pray. The desperate need that drove me here seemed irrelevant or, when relevant, too difficult to ponder, and to what end? Instead I day-dreamed, or remembered. Those months with Hannah and Rex; Hannah as a child. Sometimes, even Judy. Those dreams, or memories, were pleasant, and yet they left me weary and wondering, tight with angst. In the cold my notebooks remained stacked on my writing table beside unopened volumes – Eckhart and Suzuki and Merton, my guides to grace – all awaiting attention that may never come.
Rex didn’t like the cold without snow either. He hesitated to go out. I couldn’t blame him. Each foray left his paws raw and cracked by the cold and rough ground, his snout encased in his breath. But Rex stuck with me, and we labored together on our routine of chores: twice weekly trips to Landry’s General Store for milk, cereal, bread, whatever passed for fresh vegetables, stock, sundries, the mail; a couple of days each week sectioning felled lumber, then splitting and stacking firewood, foraging for kindling; and, daily, fetching water from the lake. None of it easy. All of it satisfying in ways I’d not expected, and I caught myself wondering if, perhaps, it was in this work that the justification I sought would be found.
Still, I hoped for snow.
It finally came, eight days ago, and it has not stopped. On the fourth day I woke early, crawled out of my bag and heated some coffee on the stove. Outside the snow had slowed a little. I had not yet tired of it, and was eager to get started clearing the path down to the lake and to the woodshed. I pulled on snow pants over my long johns, slid on my parka, and laced up my boots, warm from sitting by the edge of the fire. Then I roused Rex from his spot by the fire. He raised his head wearily and gave me a look I saw as indignation, but he made no sound; then he twitched his tail as though shrugging off his irritation. We both needed to pee. He trailed behind me as I pushed back the snow from the door. The forest was silent and nearly devoid of color or smell. Only a hint of motion in the gentle downward float of snow flakes; the wind had slowed and the air was soft. Despite the low, gray sky the woods were bright. I dug the shovel into the drifts and piles, working steadily, warming with the labor, Rex beside me, sniffing and nuzzling the snow, flipping it up into plumes around his head, challenging the sky to make a flurry as thick as his. His tail wagged. Occasionally he pranced off the path, leaping wildly then falling, hidden beneath the fluff, only the black tip of his nose visible, a lone blemish on the unbroken white. I breathed a deep, satisfied breath. Hannah had been right: what joy I’d found in life up here was in the sharing of it, if only with Rex.
Dusk was descending. I was almost to the shed. I was tired but glad to know that sleep would come easily when I finally crawled into my sleeping bag. The snow was quickening, as was the wind. That’s when I heard them howl. First one, then a second in a long mournful pull, and then a third, higher pitched, singing. Then the rest. The quiet of winter dusk shrinks distance, I know, but they felt close. I thought I could smell their musk and the dank of their snow-soaked fur on the wind. The howling stopped. I looked to Rex, off the trail by a few feet, forelegs up on a drift-covered stump, ears back. His head cocked, first to one side and then the other, listening. And then they started again, pitifully, in need, it seemed, calling out. I glanced back toward the cabin, uneasiness welling low in my belly; my heart strained, beating hard, preparing me to flee. I fixed my gaze on Rex. He turned his head toward me, his eyes wide. In a single, beautiful, terrifying motion he leapt from the stump, over it, into the shoulder-high snow, toward the howls.
“Rex! Back,” I shouted, trembling but trying to be firm and controlled, “Rex. Here. Back!” I lunged off the path into the powder, stumbled, got up and then could only watch as he strove against the white mass, pulled along by the wolves’ cries and not mine, until he dipped over the crest of the hollow, and out of sight.
“No! No. Hannah. Rex.” My jaw tightened, and my chest. I felt the sting of tears. The cold. It was still and dark. I listened. The howls receded into the night. “Rex. Please. Come. Please.” The words stuck in my throat.
Alone, I made my way back to the cabin.
I’m running low on food. Henry down at Landry’s told me to stock up when I went for the mail. He told me, it’s gonna be a big one and you’ll be glad you did. I should have listened to Henry, but even he hadn’t thought eight days.
So I’m making do with what I have. Some cans of chicken broth and an onion. Cereal and rice. No milk. No meat. A few cans of black beans, which I don’t even like. Funny. This little cabin. My old house, too big and filled with things I didn’t want, didn’t know how I got, and my life slipping past before it’d been really lived. Empty, I thought. I thought I was starving then. I don’t know. And Judy, I couldn’t make her see how hollowed out I felt by the chasing of it.
I finished my bottle of bourbon two days ago.
My sleep is fitful now, gray and laced with fragments of a passed life. In the silence of the cabin I hear echoing the hiss of a teapot on the kitchen stove of our home in the city, low tones of the kitchen radio and Judy’s humming along. I hear Hannah’s banter, their singing together. I hear Hannah call for me, greet me at the front door at the end of my work day with a hug and a giggle. I’d not heard those things, then, above the murmurs and groans of my own head. Not what I wanted, I’d thought, but not empty.
The snow I’d dreamt of has come, but not the grace for which I’d prayed.
I roll over. Crawl out of bed to stoke the fire. On the table, my stack of letters. I read from Hannah’s last letter.
Thank you for your letter. . . Is there no cell coverage up there? Or anywhere you could go to do email?. . . it would be so much better if we could “talk” more often.
It sounds like it has been terribly cold up there. How are you and Rex doing with that?. . . Are you doing any writing? What of all those books we packed, which are you reading now? I’d like to know.
. . . Your last letter was a little sparse.
I know that you like it up there. . . I’ve respected your wish to have some time, but I would like to see you and can’t get there until spring. . . I want you to meet Paul. He’s terrific. I know you and Rex would love him. I do.
There are a million things that I’d like to tell you, but they are everyday things. . . Dad, I am worried about you and want you and Rex to come home. Come home before winter really sets in. We can all go back up together in the spring.
I take the letter with me and crawl into my sleeping bag.
I go to the door every couple of hours to clear away the snow. Nothing more. Maybe tomorrow I’ll put on snowshoes, unbury the toboggan, and try for Landry’s. It’s hard without Rex.
Or Hannah. I wonder, can she come to understand her father? How can I tell her about Rex? I hope I will see her in the spring. Her mother was right.
I should know better, but each time I open up that door I pray to see Rex there, looking up at me, matted and wet, shivering, glad to be home. I can see him there, am sure he will be there, in that instant before I pull the door open. I call for him and then listen. But the winter air swallows my cries and the falling snow buries my hope. There is silence. I haven’t heard the wolves in days.
Brian Schulz lives in north-central Massachusetts where, when not biking or walking its country roads and woodland trails, he consults with young entrepreneurs and writes fiction and poetry. He can be found at www.brianschulz.com.