Tracie Renée Dawson

Winter Song

 

Did you car­ry a body once it had died?
For how long and how far?”

—Mary Ruefle

You know the love­ly thing about you?” he said.

            It was sun­set when we reached the top of Mt. Fuji and decid­ed to fin­ish off the hon­ey. I shushed him as I dipped my hands into the last jar and, with fin­gers syrupy and wet, scrawled sticky lines of unmei—des­tiny, that is, one of the ten words he’d taught me—over and over onto his skin, start­ing with the small exposed square of his ankle up to long line of his throat, washed orange in the glow of late sum­mer. A long while lat­er, after it dried, when the stars had reclaimed the sky, he brushed sug­ar crys­tals from his eyes like sleep as he fin­ished the thought. 

            “You nev­er do things the easy way.”

#

The doc­tors use words like benign and min­i­mal­ly inva­sive, they tell me they’ll call in the morn­ing when I can pick him up, but when they call instead they say only that they lost him. How do you lose a whole life, like car keys or a sock? Their words are all used up when they show me the body. I have no words, either, because I was not there when he went. I was at home, sleep­ing, wait­ing for the call say­ing he could come home. At the end did he know how much he was loved? Or did he hear only the hum of ter­ror?

Months pass, and I still have no words. I have only the keen­ing, the ache. The silence. The flit­ting shad­ows, the shapes, that make me think him then real­ize I’m grab­bing a door­knob instead. I start fold­ing cranes, because if I can get to a thou­sand I can wish the shad­ows away. There’s a word for an act this des­per­ate, but I can’t remem­ber it.

The cranes I make with spare card­board have a wing span almost two yards long, but most are sized like base­balls, eas­i­ly palmed. Some are as small as dimes. I say the steps to the room as I fold, because I nev­er learned any prayers. The folds are my prayers, mur­mured as I make each crease: moun­tain, val­ley, val­ley, inside, reverse, col­lapse. Soon I am low on paper, and cut mag­a­zines into squares, leav­ing behind smudged newsprint, scrapped arti­cles and ads. It is the cranes that tell me the stock mar­ket isn’t doing well. They tell me there were no sur­vivors in the plane crash on the Atlantic. I become enthralled with these new words. When I get to a thou­sand, I keep going, so the room teems with cranes. I’m halfway through creas­ing a New Variorum edi­tion Hamlet into 182 ping-pong-ball-sized birds when I real­ize it has to end.

The mov­ing is easy; I sell most every­thing. The new town sits clos­er north next to a quaint marsh with real cranes. I pack my clothes into one suit­case and a few books into anoth­er. I also take his favorite sweater, worn in some places and need­ing darn­ing but still hold­ing his scent. The man next door, who walks his dog every morn­ing at six, comes out to help, but I tell him I’m fine and car­ry the suit­cas­es down to the car alone, stop­ping only once to rest. I tell myself I am strong, like apri­cot pits. The cou­ple above plays their music too loud and their kids run every­where, at all hours, nev­er walk. They watch me when I get the mail, then laugh glibly when I trip over their half-buried toys in the yard. It’s a mess. There are green sol­diers in the hydrangeas, tiny cars in the gera­ni­ums. The last thing I do before I go is pick the lit­ter out of the com­frey and dig it up, replant­i­ng it over his grave across town. He always liked its nau­tilus curl right before it bloomed.

#

We took a brief rest next to a shrine at the last way­point. A riotous sense of vic­to­ry began to stir. Our hik­ing sticks had ten sou­venir brands, one for every sta­tion.

            We strug­gled up the rest of the moun­tain at a bul­let climb, ignor­ing the alti­tude warn­ings and nau­sea along the way, want­i­ng to make it to the top before night­fall. My vision went red more than once with sky-sick­ness, or maybe just the sun. The air was so thin, as if to say, there is no need for these strug­gles night after night.

#

The new town is cold­er, but the rent­ed house I set­tle in is iso­lat­ed, cheap, fur­nished. Small, so it doesn’t feel too emp­ty. The walls are eggshell white, bare, lack­ing in both dust and mem­o­ries, debris and mean­ing. The ceil­ings are high, though, and I hear it is usu­al­ly chilly these late months. I hang my clothes in the clos­et then put some tea on in the kitchen. While I’m wait­ing on the kettle’s whis­tle, I take a bath, as the new house has a siz­able tub. The old place just had a show­er, and that with two pres­sure set­tings: bruis­ing and off. I briefly per­mit this joy, being gen­tly sub­merged in the water on all sides, but the cranes’ sounds come through the walls and scare me. Over tea I con­vince myself they are just talk­ing, and of course they are miles away. Being echoed by the water, they only sound like they’re near the house or wait­ing beneath the win­dow.

I set a book on the table next to the bed, so the place feels more lived in, but when I go to read it the words just blur and fall away. I put many lay­ers of quilts on the mat­tress, but I end up sleep­ing on the cov­ers, feel­ing suf­fo­cat­ed by the sheets. Out the win­dow, I notice the moon is dim, half-full.

#

There wasn’t much at the ninth sta­tion, but we hand­ed our sticks over to the bran­der and took a break to fuel up.

            “I think the bees brought us togeth­er,” he said. “Not kamikaze, not fate. I was think­ing, maybe we should light incense for them on the descent, to ward off the ghosts of their dead.” 

            I start­ed to tell him they were just bees, but he spooned some hon­ey into my mouth before I could speak. 

#

In the morn­ing, the cup­boards are emp­ty so I to dri­ve into town on a gro­cery run, pulling his sweater on as I go. I always just want to buy milk, cere­al, peanut but­ter, every now and then a cheap wine, but now I can imag­ine him telling me I can’t live off that junk and at least splurge on a good vin­tage. I add bananas to the bas­ket and sack pota­toes, and opt for a mid-range Merlot. A man sit­ting out­side on a rust­ed blue trunk, hunched in the wind, wear­ing an over­sized jack­et and loose tie, calls me over. I lis­ten to his pitch as he pulls native-style bead­ed things out of his case. Then he says, Name a blos­som, any blos­som. And it takes some cajol­ing but final­ly I say, Orange, because I haven’t seen one of the trees flower in years. And with some flair, he places jarred orange blos­som hon­ey in my hands, labeled neat­ly in square hand­writ­ing with a straw bow around the lid. And the word comes to me: hachim­it­su. The edges of things go fuzzy as I push the jar back into his hands, but it falls and clat­ters on the ground. I don’t think it breaks, but he calls to me, Wait! I’m already duck­ing into the car, turn­ing away, a lit­tle breath­less and heart beat­ing hard. On the way home, I feel sil­ly and rude, but glanc­ing in the rearview mir­ror I see a misty shape step­ping out of the for­est. Braking sud­den­ly, I smell rub­ber, heat. Another glance and I see noth­ing. Going into town wasn’t a good idea.

Back home, I fold his sweater into the suit­case. The cor­ner rooms are win­try, so I turn on the heater. I try to pick up the book again but the words are still dis­or­dered. Instead I crimp some sheets into a droop­ing winged shape then turn into bed ear­ly.

#

We tried to nap at the eighth way­point with our jack­ets under our heads, but there was no sleep to be had, too many hik­ers stomp­ing past our heads, so we just car­ried on under the noon heat.

#

            I wake up shiv­er­ing, when light breaks, hav­ing dreamed of frost. Snow was flak­ing in a field of bram­bles and com­frey, then a shrink­ing, and the sea boil­ing out my pores, and the salt surge drown­ing the cranes, the new town, the old town, the nation. I wake up calm, but dis­turbed.

It was just a bad dream, I tell myself. During the night, there was a white­out, I must have heard the storm. I man­age to eat some hot cere­al with sliced banana, to help with the thaw. I pull on the sweater along with extra lay­ers and thick socks so I can walk along the pier sur­round­ing the marsh­es, crunch­ing the snow loud­ly as I go. All the cranes seem to be in hid­ing and I am breath­ing deep­er now, whether because of the dis­tance or the air. On the third cir­cle around, cheeks red with cold and numb, I resolve to come back lat­er in the week when the weath­er clears, at least twice a week. Back at the house, on the door­mat, I see the hon­ey. The same straw bow. The block let­ters. I stop to admire the lit­tle petals swim­ming at the bot­tom, then take it inside to the kitchen. I dip a spoon in, once, clink­ing the sides as a my hand trem­bles, to taste the sharp sweet cit­ric bite, then imme­di­ate­ly dump it down the drain, stom­ach knot­ted with guilt.

The remain­ing hours in the evening, I stay busy with dig­ging at the hard-packed snow on the porch, wip­ing by hand the mud tracked into the house, and when night comes, I soothe my sore­ness with a warm bath. I wrin­kle and lounge. As the water turns not quite cold, I open my eyes to find a skink perched on the spig­ot, prob­a­bly try­ing to escape the snow too. I stare at the lizard, it stares back. We both blink slow­ly, impos­si­bly blank, as the sky dark­ens then turns black.

#

            As we sipped exor­bi­tant­ly marked up tea at a small stall at the sev­enth sta­tion, he talked with the hushed tone reserved for inside shrines as he told me about the dias­po­ra of the bees.

            “I saw just a snip­pet of it on the news while wait­ing for the fol­low-up appoint­ment, about the dis­ap­pear­ances, how the whole soci­ety was col­laps­ing. When they called my name I for­got all about it of course. It wasn’t until I was out­side that it sank in. A fear wedged itself in my spine, like a grenade with the pin half in. I mean, if I dis­ap­peared, a sin­gle per­son, who would know why?”

            “I would know why,” I say, twin­ing pinkies with him like a school­girl. “I’d dis­ap­pear with you.” 

#

With the jar washed, I return it to the hunched man. The weath­er is still blis­tery, but he is not so hunched as ear­li­er, and has shaved. He accepts the emp­ty jar, ask­ing only whether I enjoyed it. But I can­not artic­u­late the words, I stam­mer.

It was good,” I man­age to say.

We need sweet­ness to live off of,” he says, and offers anoth­er, but I decline, thank­ing him all the same.

The next morn­ing I decide to go back to the old town. I still have plen­ty of sav­ings to find a fur­nished room there. I pack all of my clothes and the books, which takes less time than I plan. I fin­ish the box of cere­al, chew­ing each bite thir­ty-two times, then wash the dish­es, dry and stack them. I unplug the heaters and turn down the ther­mo­stat. Suddenly it’s noon and when it comes time to turn the key to start the car, I find I can’t.

Because it’s just grass, I tell myself. Reluctantly I hear the truth in this, think­ing through the logis­tics of actu­al­ly throw­ing myself down on his grave and cry­ing a long while. Someone would make me get up even­tu­al­ly, then where would I go? The cold lets up but I am in bed all day under the blan­kets. As there is no paper in the house, I only mime the usu­al move­ments, some­times tan­gling my gown and the sheets. There’s a creak­ing on the steps I pre­tend not to hear and tug the cov­ers high­er.

I stay in bed anoth­er day, com­ing out only to eat some peanut but­ter and pour some wine. I’m glad he always told me to get the good stuff now. I mean I’m glad I lis­tened to him. I tear the bottle’s label and start to arrange it into a tiny, lop­sided crane, but give up halfway through and ball it up tight.

At night, I dream my hands turn splotched and grey then crack and turn to stone.

#

The sixth way­point fea­tured a shrine sur­round­ed by a small lake. We watched a leaf fall, land on the water then cir­cle out in tremors.

            “The water here is the same shade of jade I remem­ber from child­hood,” he said. 

            “The lakes back in the States are just mud­dy and brown,” I replied, rub­bing my calves. 

            “I bet this one’s deep­er than it looks.” 

            He stuck his whole arm in water and we could see his fin­gers wig­gling all the way down, scar­ing off the tiny dart­ing fish. 

            Before mov­ing on, we bought two jars of hon­ey for a cou­ple of yen from an old­er Japanese man in a west­ern-style busi­ness suit, who kept ges­tur­ing at us, say­ing, “Carbs best, carbs best,” which he explained took less oxy­gen to digest and was bet­ter for the alti­tude.

#

More snow has fall­en over the night and blan­kets every­thing thick­ly but the sun has start­ed melt­ing the top lay­er, leav­ing it mushy and wet. I stretch on the bed­room car­pet, notic­ing my mus­cles, my ten­dons, for the first time in months, taut, mov­ing and work­ing, ral­ly­ing. I stand to pull my leg behind me, but almost slip. I move to a quick sous-sus I remem­ber from bal­let class­es tak­en years ago but knock over a lamp, tum­bling, bruis­ing my ankle. These things take time, I say. And steps.

But know­ing me, there are no steps, it is every­thing all at once, always.

#

Today I think it is warm enough to go out with just the sweater and my cash­mere gloves, as the sun is out and water is drip­ping every­where. Snow slumps from the roof, peri­od­i­cal­ly, thump­ing wet­ly down. The trip into town is hard­er with the unswept snow melt­ing on the road. I want to speed, but I make sure to keep both hands on the wheel, music off. Snow dust­ing the trees some­times drops to the ground behind me cre­at­ing ghost­ed clouds, but after the first time I stare ahead with­out waver­ing. When I near the main road, I see the stop­lights weight­ed with ici­cles. They all blink cau­tion at me as I wait my turn. Many peo­ple throw snow­balls at the cars in jest. The honks are not in anger, only a mechan­i­cal laugh­ter. One boy busi­ly draws mon­sters onto all the post box­es. The man with the hon­ey is in front of the store, build­ing a snow­man with a lit­tle boy and girl in the emp­ty park­ing lot. I notice the CLOSED sign but watch for a few min­utes, as the girl knocks off the snowman’s head and the boy’s face screws up in tears. The man takes a top hat and puts it on the snowman’s body, giv­ing him a head and a body or maybe a head and feet, but the boy stops cry­ing. The man waves, and I give a small wave back.

I dri­ve home slow­ly yet run up the steps, slip­ping on the ice. I take to my hands and knees, going up one at a time, until I hear a creak­ing noise beside the house. Shielding my eyes with a one hand against the sun glare, I think maybe it’s just set­tling snow. Seeing only a mound­ed white blend­ing into more mound­ed white and an end­less hori­zon, I want to head inside and curl under the cov­ers and run all of the heaters at once. But I stare at the white­ness as the snow seeps through my shoes. I hear the creak­ing again, which sounds more and more like a small cry I can’t ignore. I ease off the steps and come around the cor­ner, clos­er, pin­point­ing it to a pile of snow behind a dead aza­lea bush. Kneeling, I start dig­ging. My motions start out care­ful, mea­sured, tak­ing a pow­dery mass at a time and dump­ing it in a neat pile before tak­ing anoth­er. My slacks are soaked through in sec­onds, and in min­utes I am sweat­ing with the rep­e­ti­tion. I speed up as I notice my hands are no longer in pain, are now com­plete­ly numb, blotched and pale, but I push my wor­ries aside and con­tin­ue search­ing. The cry gets loud­er. I lose a glove in the snow some­where. The sen­sa­tion of ants is march­ing inside my arm when I reach some­thing soft­er than snow. I am scared to look but it has to be done. I find a skin­ny orange tom­cat curled in a tight ball, except for one limp arm held at an odd angle, gashed, with a fight-torn ear. I look around, at the sparkling vel­vet white, the grey sky, the marsh in the dis­tance, bewil­dered.

But I take him. I gen­tly tuck him into the sweater, blood and gash and all, care­ful of his arm. He’s limp and piti­ful but nuz­zles into the warm crook of my elbow.

#

            “You know the trou­ble with you?” he said.

            I didn’t answer, con­cen­trat­ing on my foot­ing in the lava sand, sur­pris­ing­ly soft and dark like pot­ting soil. We were almost halfway up the moun­tain, hav­ing just left the last of the paved roads. Our hik­ing sticks had five sou­venir brands. He’d tied a pink rib­bon at the top of mine which he’d tugged out from under my shoe back in the famous sui­cide for­est at the sum­mit, where for a whole hour he trans­lat­ed all of the notes nailed to the trees as we went (like, Nothing good ever hap­pened to me in life don’t look for me, but also You think you die alone but nobody is alone in this world). 

You always do things the hard way.”

~

Tracie Renée Dawson is a first-year MFA fic­tion can­di­date at the University of South Carolina. Her work can be found in Rabbit Catastrophe Review and Word Riot.