Thomas J. Crowe

Winter Woods

1

Jack Bowman was three days into his twelfth year on Earth when he decided he would go to the edge of the property, where the family farm met the aspen trees, and walk along the fence and see what was what, and maybe he’d build a snowman or make a snow angel, or maybe, just maybe, he’d meet someone from a neighboring farm making their way down the road into Midian and he’d get to talk and break the silence that always seemed to hang about the house and the land.  Once he got down to the southward fence, he’d turn back and come up the hill to the house and by then his father would be awake and making coffee and maybe frying bacon in a pan, and he wouldn’t ask where he’d been or what he was doing going out so early in the morning when there might be wolves or a stray coyote or perhaps even a mountain lion coming down through the trees.

The mountain lion would also be intent on seeing what was what down at the fence separating the farm from the wilderness: the only thing Jack Bowman had in common with the mountain lions of the world. 

An empty world in which stood a near empty house on the edge of a forest of aspen and pine: as Jack zipped up his coat and pulled on his mittens and shoved his feet into his snow boots, he thought idly of a rock on the Moon, a grain of sand on the bottom of the ocean — they were not nearly as solitary as he felt.  He knew why he had this desolate feeling, cold as the fresh fallen snow but not nearly as pure and white to the eye: his mother would be dead a whole year come Christmas, and that was only two days off.  His dad did not speak of this fact.

Jack got up from the chair by the door and pushed out into the cold pre-dawn and he stood a moment on the porch and breathed in the frigid air before readjusting his scarf over his mouth and cinching the hood of his jacket tighter.  He stumped down to the snow, walked across the yard past the barn, stopped by the barn door, which was ajar, and peered inside.  The stalls were empty, had been for some months.  Once, two horses lived here.  He remembered his mother used to hold him and walk with him down to the barn and they’d stand near the stalls and approach the chestnut mare with the star and two white socks and she’d let his little hand touch the star and the horse would wicker softly and nuzzle his face, always so gently.  That is what he wanted to remember.  Though his mother died first, it was when the horses were also carried off by some unexpected and mysterious ailment that she died in truth.  With the horses in their stalls in the barn rather than in the ground, Jack could at least tell himself that some part of his mother remained nearby: the love she had for the horses a kind of imprint that he could sense in the warm steam of the horse’s breath on a chill morning such as this, or feel in the wiry hairs of the mare’s black mane.  But not a week after his mother passed, the buckskin gelding adjacent to the mare fell to his knees with a scream that sent him and his father running across the yard, the flashlight beam dancing crazily before them.  His father put both hands to the door and pulled and lurched into the barn to find the gelding on his side, breath blowing in spasms, blood pooling from his nose, spattered over a bale of hay.  The mare stood in the corner of her stall with her head down, as far away from the gelding as possible.

“Jack,” his father said, “go back to the house.”

“Dad, what’s wrong with him?”

“Go back to the house I said.  Go upstairs and stay in your room.  Don’t come down for any reason.  Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“Good.  Now, go back.”

And Jack did so.  He went back into the house and up the stairs, but lingered on the landing.  His father came in and stumped through the kitchen to the garage.  There was only one reason he’d be going there.  He came back a few moments later, a .306 Remington rifle held in the crook of one arm.  He noticed Jack standing at the top of the stairs and stopped and, looking up, said:

“I think I told you to go to your room.”

“What are you going to do?”

His father didn’t reply all at once.  He stood at the foot of the stairs in silence and the longer he stood motionless the more his shoulders seemed to slump.  Then he said:

“I’m sorry, Jack.”

Jack didn’t ask the question again.  There was no need.

“Go to your room.”

Jack watched his father go back out into the cold.  Jack watched from the window.  His father disappeared into the barn.  At first, nothing.  Only the night.  Then a sudden flash and a rifle crack, followed by a second flash, a second crack.  The night again.  And the silence.  Then his father coming back to the house through the dark.  He dropped the rifle in the entryway.  Jack heard it fall.  It was empty.  No danger.  He heard his father collapse into the armchair near the fire where embers still glowed.  The legs of the chair scrapped against the wood floor.  He heard his father weeping.

Early the next morning, Jack watched from the porch as his dad and one of their neighbors, Fred Harris, dragged the now frozen carcasses from the barn with hooks and chains attached to Fred’s pick-up.  The two men wore gasmasks all the while.  The flames of the fire which immolated the bodies of his mother’s horses glinted off the glass eyepieces of their masks.

2

Jack Bowman walked along the fence, one eye trained on the forest edge and the denuded aspens amidst the new growth pines: silence, silence but for the icy breath of wind chilling numb the front of his face.  When he stopped, and if he listened, the woods, which seemed to be wrapped in sleep and motionless, came alive with sound.  Somewhere a branch snapped as snow melted loose and came down in a heap and, as in all seasons, the wind murmured in the branches and icicles hanging from the thin branches of the leafless aspens shook with a sound like glass.  Sometimes they broke off and fell into the snow. 

As he walked along the fence, he imagined other things hidden from view but clear to the ear: the two horses, now dead, running free among the leaves, or his mother smelling of summer, fresh fallen rain, and dew upon the grass, walking in a winter world where she didn’t belong: she would beckon to him if he caught a glimpse. 

Jack ran his hand along the boards and thought he really could just climb the fence and run off into the woods.  No reason to.  Did he need a reason?  The woods were enough of a reason and at least he wouldn’t be back here with the empty barn and the desolate house and his memories.  His father told him that you carried your memories with you, but he wondered if that was true.  It seemed if one were surrounded by the reminders, then one could not help but remember, but what if you lost yourself in a wilderness where everything looked the same yet was endlessly unfamiliar: trees, plenty of trees, but streams as well, and ponds, and fallen trunks, and hidden mountain lakes: in a wilderness where nothing was accustomed, would there be cause to remember anything at all? 

There was something comforting in the thought.  The solace of oblivion: that is what he would find out there.  He was twelve, but he was smart enough to understand what lay beyond the bounds of the Bowman farm.  He would die of hunger, or he would fall and break his leg and succumb to an infection, and that only if a wild animal didn’t find him first.  He would be alone when he died.

Jack was lost in this reverie when his name came to him from amongst the trees.  He stopped midstride and turned and looked through the slats in the fence, peered into the trees looking desperately for that voice, that bright beacon in the distance that he glimpsed in dreams out the corner of his eye but never quite saw straight on, his mother shining as though she were a piece of the sun, walking along a softly flowing stream flanked on either bank by green grass, a summer stream flowing free through a wilderness of snow.  He heard it again, the far off voice — “Jack, Jack” — soft as wind through the branches — “My darling boy, my beautiful boy, come here, come here to the summer stream, come here to me my darling, my beautiful boy” — and he found himself climbing the fence and clambering over the top and falling three feet to the soft snow.  It wasn’t until he was on his back in the snowbank that he felt the pulsing pain in his right hand and saw that his glove was snagged on one of the slats.  He sat up and looked at his hand, shaking and pale in the cold but for a fresh bloody gash starting at the base of his palm and angling towards the right side of his wrist.  But the voice still called and when he heard it, the pain seemed to diminish, a dull pulsing in the distance.  Soon he was on his feet again and headed into the trees, and he was sure that up ahead he would find the summer stream briskly flowing.

3

Jack did not find the stream with the long grasses and the cattails and the rushes flowing.  The voice that had beckoned him into the woods was silent now.  Jack turned around, certain he would see the fence to the Bowman farm with his glove snagged on the slat.  Instead, he saw only trees grown close together and fresh fallen snow and cold and grey, a grey sky above, brightened by the oncoming sun, but with no suggestion of warmth and every shard of the sky the same dull featureless grey.

He came to his senses.  The pain in his hand returned.  The gash in his palm still bled freely.  His gaze fell to the snow and followed the drops of red in the white; he began to follow them, sought out his footprints along the way.  He would be led back home.  What had he been thinking hopping the fence and coming out this way?  What had he been looking for?  The voice, or oblivion?  Now, Jack only wanted to get back inside.  His father would be up frying bacon and getting the pancake batter ready.  His father would smile at him as he came in.  “Don’t track in the snow,” he’d say.  And they’d sit down to bacon and pancakes and syrup made from real maple sap, and at some point in the meal Jack would notice his father looking at him over the rim of his coffee mug and the grief that they both felt would be mingled with the simple happiness that comes with a fresh pot of coffee, a couple strips of bacon, a pancake or two, and the company of someone you loved and who loved you just as much.  That was the thing.  Yes, his father had shot Mom’s horses and he had been powerless to stop Mom from dying, and yes, in the first few months after she died, Jack had found himself hating his father for that powerlessness; even though he knew it was stupid and he knew it was unfair, it gave him a moment’s reprieve from grief.  Jack found himself remembering the conversation as he stumbled through the trees, trying to find his way back home.

On a night late in May, a night that was unseasonably cool for that time of year, father and son sat down for dinner.  In the dim light of the bulb overhead, his father looked wan and worn out.

“There must have been something you could have done.”

“No, Jack.”

“Why not?”

“It happens like that sometimes.”

“I don’t like that.”

“It doesn’t really matter what you like and what you don’t like.  Things happen the way they happen, and yeah, that is infuriating, but that’s the way it is.”

“You should have done something.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know.”

“Like what, Jack?”

“I don’t know!”

“I wish you didn’t have to go through this, son.  I really wish that.”  His head bowed then and his rough callused hand gripped the edge of the table.  He closed his eyes, shook his head from side to side. 

“I wish so much that things were different, that you didn’t have to live in a world like this.”  He fell into yet another silence.  He thought quietly to himself, and Jack did not speak, only watched, waited. 

“It was a strange time I grew up in.  When I was your age, I remember how scared everyone was, how frightened they were of the future, but always right next to that, they sometimes dared to hope, and as dark as the future looked, it could also be bright and full.  Everything was possible all at once, the bad and the good, and that was the frightening part, that uncertainty, and everyone went just about mad for predictions, prophecies, forecasts: anything to stave off the terror of that uncertainty.  And they could, on occasion, be sure of a thing, only to have the old fear creep up again, that the future could damn near turn out any which way, in ways they anticipated and in ways they did not, because ultimately they couldn’t have the future be what they wanted it to be.  They would only have what they got when the future finally did arrive.

“There were more of us too.  All the space that’s empty now was full of people.  So when something did change, when you saw an empty space that should have been filled by a person, it caught your attention.  Mom was here yesterday but she isn’t here now and you and I see the empty space where Mom should be.  I wish I could change that for you.  I wish I could change that for both of us.  But I can’t.  And you can’t spend your life pining after if-onlys because you won’t be able to live.”

Jack lost his footing, fell to his knees in the woods, cradled his wounded hand, shivered under a sudden gust of wind.  The trees bent and cracked and snow was knocked loose.  It fell in flakes around him.  His father’s words still rang in his head even as his father’s face disappeared from sight.  Jack’s mind had wandered and he now was more lost than before.  But then the voice that led him into this labyrinth came through the trees again, calling his name, and when he looked up, he had to squint, for it was as if a part of the sun had come to rest on the earth.  He stumbled to his feet, stumbled towards the light, all the while his name drifting towards him on a breeze now warm and smelling of flowers and wet dirt.  Jack could even hear the summer stream murmuring through the rocks.

“Jack, my son, my darling boy, you’ve come here at last.”

The brightness receded and the sight took shape: a stream running free in a summer land with long grasses and cattails and reeds and rushes growing at the margins, and on the other side of the stream in a dress of summer colors, his mother reaching, smiling.  For what felt like hours, Jack could only stare; when the stream did not disappear, he ran across it, splashed through the warm water, and fell into his mother’s embrace.  Her laughter filled the air.

“Oh my son.  I missed you so much.”

4

“Mom?  How– how are you–“

Tears sprang into his eyes and he began to sob.  She took his face in both hands and wiped away the tears with her thumbs and kissed him on the cheek, on the eyes, and said:

“There is no need to cry, sweetheart.  You should laugh.  Don’t you see where you are?  The summer stream!  I heard you.  I heard what you were thinking, even at this distance.  Do you recognize where we are?”

She turned him around and hugged him about the middle and placed her chin on his shoulder.  She kissed him on the cheek and a smile broke out on Jack’s face: his gaze drifted over the sight of the swift and soft murmuring stream.

“We came here once.”

“Yes.”

“You, me, and Dad.”

“Yes.

“We had sandwiches over there on the grass.”

“You do remember.”

“It was so bright that day.”

“Yes it was.”

“Dad took me down to the stream and we put our hands in the water and the water was so cold our hands were blue.  ‘That’s something, isn’t it?’  That’s what he said.”

“A few things might be different from when you were here last.”

“I don’t see any changes.  It looks exactly the way I remember it.”

“Look closer.”

Jack’s eyes followed the stream.  Reeds, cattails, rushes, long grass, the sleepy drone of insects.  Everything as he remembered.  Everything as he imagined.  But that wasn’t quite true.  A great tree grew at the head of the stream.  Indeed, the stream emerged from among great pale roots.  The tree itself dwarfed all others in the wood, and as for the dwelling, which leaned against its wide trunk, distant branches, hung with golden leaves, loomed over a roof of sod, at once shading the dwelling and its dark doorway and diminishing the entire structure.

“What’s that?”

“Our new home.”

“What?”

“We’re moving away from the farm.” 

His mother’s voice intent in his ear and her gentle hand prodding him towards the dwelling and its shadowed doorway and the tree with the golden leaves, pleasant to look upon; yet a worrying fear began to surface in his mind, and suddenly, comforting though it was to hear his mother’s voice again, and behind her voice, the stream softly murmuring: as wonderful as the whole scene appeared to his heart and eye, a deep unease settled over everything and it seemed to him a shadow passed across the face of that motionless summer sun; at once his mind latched desperately onto the scene drifting past him as the tree and the dark doorway loomed closer and the insistent pressure of his mother’s palm in the base of his back impelled him towards the darkness: a motionless summer sun and a shadow passing: these details leapt out at him and he saw at once that the dwelling did not cast a shadow and neither did the tree on which it leaned.

Jack planted his feet in the loam.  As he turned to face his mother, he said, “I don’t think I want to go in there.”

And another voice, sounding like dry sticks and twigs rolled together between two palms, spoke with the scent of dust on its breath: “This is the only way out.”

His mother’s eyes were filmed over, the color of fog, and the pale flesh hung off the contours of her skull and her hair looked dry and brittle and her hands, which still reached out towards him, skeletal and grey.  Jack screamed, raised one arm, as if to ward her off, and he stumbled back and away, remembering too late that he was backpaddling into the darkness inside the hut.  The deep cold of an unending winter closed over him and the bright sunlit vision of the summer stream faded from sight.  He crouched in the dark and the cold.  He knew, the same way a dog knows, that he was being watched.

5

A long time passed in the dark and the cold and he had no sense of space.  He felt as if he were in a void without end, and at the same time a blackness close and confining like a coffin, and in that space, he could not move.  When sensation finally resumed, he found himself lying on his back and beneath his head carved stone.  His arms lay at his sides.  The only warmth he felt was the blood still flowing from his injured hand.  He could only stare into the dark until at last the sound of something sliding over the ground came to his straining ears.  Two claw-like hands emerged from the darkness and between them a horse’s skull bleached by long exposure to the elements.  The figure hung over him and the two hands gripped him by the shoulders and the arms and began to pull him further into the darkness, to whatever was hid within this pall of starless shadow.  And he heard himself scream.  He heard himself shriek.  He wanted to raise his arms and fists and fight the thing off, tear at the hands that gripped him, shatter the skull that served as the thing’s head.  Or was it a mask and the thing’s true nature was hidden from him?  He wanted to see what lay behind the mask, if mask it was.  What had lured him into the forest?

The question lingered in his mind, repeated.  He felt himself lifted from the cold ground.  He heard booted feet crunching through snow.  And he heard his father’s voice babbling — I’ve got you Jack I’ve got you buddy just need to get you back to the house just need to warm you up — and when he felt his eyes open slightly, he found himself looking up as the grey winter trees passed them by and above a sky grey and featureless.  Somewhere an empty barn and a near empty house and a mother dead but better, yes, somehow better than that horrible darkness.  A darkness of a better kind took him.

6

When Jack Bowman awoke, the first thing he saw were flames and a cedar log snapping.  He was awoken by the log’s complaint.  He lay on his back, bundled in a blanket on the couch.  His father sat in the armchair by the fire looking at him.  In the dim light, he couldn’t see that Jack had woken up.

“Dad.”

“Hey.”

“I’m sorry, Dad.”

“Don’t be sorry.  I’m just glad I found you when I did.”

“I thought I heard someone calling my name and I wanted to see who it was.”

“I’ve got your glove,” his dad said, “we can mend it.  I bandaged your hand.”

“Didn’t you hear me?  I thought I heard someone calling my name.”  Jack sat up, pulled the blanket tighter with one hand.  “Dad, when I went in the forest, I saw–“

“It was the cold.  You were outside too long.”

“Dad, I saw Mom.”

His father looked at him and said nothing for a moment.  The fire glinted off his eyeglasses.

“Jack, that isn’t possible.  You know that.”

“It shouldn’t be.  But I saw her.”

“It was the cold.  You were suffering from hypothermia.  Or something.”

“Dad, listen…”

But he was already getting up and heading to the kitchen.

“I’m going to make some soup,” he said, “would you like that?”

Jack wanted to pursue the topic further, because still the question remained: what had lured him into the forest?  But he could see, just by the way his father had suddenly risen from the armchair, that he wasn’t going to make much headway, at least not on this particular occasion.  So he said, “Sure,” and nothing else.

As he watched his father leave the room and turn the corner, as he listened to his father’s steps retreating into the kitchen, a second question joined the first: had his father seen anything, and was that why he didn’t want to talk about it?  Of course his hesitation could be explained simply by his insistence that they needed to carry on after his mother’s death.  Jack didn’t stop to think why it was so hard to do this. 

He settled back into the couch and watched the flames and he thought again of the two dead horses.  His father had killed them but he wasn’t going to kill what Jack had seen in the woods: the summer stream flanked by reeds and long grass and cattails, and his mother, living, walking in a gentle summer land where the sun never set.


Thomas J. Crowe was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada, gaining his first exposure to literature through his father, who introduced him to Tolkien and Twain, Chaucer and Poe, Homer and Hemingway.  Thomas now lives in Santa Fe and is in pursuit of a degree in Classical Studies from the University of New Mexico.  He is hard at work on a novel, as well as a collection of interconnected short stories set in the Sierra Nevadas.

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