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.