Winter Woods

by Deirdre Roche

Our car was the size of a toaster, bought out of environmental convictions and a lack of funds. The hill to the cabin was steep and muddied from snow that fell the night before.

“We could push,” Paul said.

I put the car in neutral. Together we mounted the first steep climb. We panted and held our knees. Our breath came out in white puffs.

“How are we gonna get back down?”

“I think it will be easier in the other direction,” he said. He might have smiled but his face was covered almost completely by his scarf.

We made it up to the first bend in the road. The car squished to a stop in the slush.

“I need a minute,” I said. “I don’t have the upper body strength for this.”

Paul nodded and turned around. We pressed our backs up against the trunk of the car. In front of us the road curved and then dropped off into a view of the mountain and the forest beyond. In the summer it would have been nothing but green. In the autumn the colors pop up and blaze out like postcards. In winter the trees are bare except for the evergreens and we were facing a second day snow that had lost its pure white tinge of new beginning.

“Imagine having to drive down there,” I said.

Paul watched as I pointed my finger to follow the twisted brown road that only turned paved at the very bottom of the mountain. He rubbed his hands together. We were wearing gloves and the exercise warmed us up but it was cold enough that the tips of us: our noses, our fingers, our toes started to tingle.

“You think we could just camp out here tonight?”

Paul laughed. “We’d get eaten by raccoons.”

“Human popsicles,” I said.

“You can ride in the car if you want.”

Paul was a big man, tall and broad, and I was a small woman.

“I won’t let you push me and the car up the hill.”

Paul slid his scarf far enough down his face to reveal his mouth and then leaned over and kissed the very tip of my nose.

“Ready to start again?” he asked.

I wasn’t but said I was. The last part of the hill was the steepest. It was shorter but there was no guardrail to keep us from tumbling down a ravine. We pushed slower.

“Tell me about what we’re going to get when we get there,” Paul said.

“We’re going to get hot cider,” I said, “and you are going to light a fire, and we’re going to have whiskey and pasta and then we’re going to bed.”

“Yes ma’am,” he said.

We crested the top of the hill and the car rolled itself to a stop close enough to the cabin to call it a day. The cabin blended in with the trees around it. It was made out of the same gray brown wood. Paul carried our bags inside. I put the car in park and locked it. A habit. Unnecessary since our nearest neighbor was at least an hour away.

“I read,” Paul said, as he stirred the red sauce for the pasta, “that people from the city take vacations to be alone and people from the country take vacations to be around other people.”

We had stumbled in not five minutes before with a plan of attack. The hot water was running in the shower, steaming up the small hallway. The pasta cooked in a big metal pot over the gas stove. The whiskey was where we had left it last winter: under a floorboard by the back door.

“So if we lived out here year-round we would want to take a vacation to a crowded city street?”

“Yeah. Or a cruise or rush hour traffic or something.”

On the way to the cabin the roads got narrower until there was only one lane. We only saw one other car for the last two hours, a four wheel drive that took advantage of its capabilities to drive up on the rocky shoulder and around us.

“That sounds awful,” I said.

“Yeah, but if you lived out here, silence would be awful.”

I poured the whiskey into the cast iron tea kettle and hung it over the fire. There was lemon and honey and water and some tea bags all cooking together to make a hot toddy, cabin style. We would drink them later, skin all pink, in the steaming shower.

“I can’t imagine what your parents felt,” I said, “when they first pulled up here to all this silence.”

I stood behind him while he stirred the sauce and wrapped my arms around his waist. He tapped his feet.

“We should have brought a CD player or something.” He started to hum a swingy version of the pop song we’d listened to the radio play on the drive up.

“No one owns a CD player anymore.” I aimed a kiss through his heavy sweater to the spot right between his shoulder blades.

The pasta was hot and filled us up in time for the kettle to scream. I kissed his ears and his eyes and he kissed my hands and we took off our clothes and got in the shower with our mugs of whiskey and spice.

The next morning I woke up, warm, but aware that all around me was a pervading cold. Paul was snoring, his arms flung out, asleep on his back.

“Morning,” I said, poking him and shaking his heavy shoulder so he would blink awake and consent, in gentlemanly fashion, to stoke up a fire.

He made the pancake mix and I made the coffee and rummaged through the closet until I found two pairs of matching ancient slippers. They had once been blue felt. They had the initials of Paul’s parent’s embroidered on the toes.

“Cold feet?” I asked, smiling and holding them up by my ears.

“I’m good.” He flipped the first pancake.

Paul had thick wool socks on. The slippers for his mom were too small on my feet so I wore his dad’s and hummed and busied my hands with tidying up the one sofa and by carting every blanket in the bedroom and closet to the spot right in front of the fire. By the time Paul had finished with the pancakes I had sofa, books, coffee, blankets, and fire set up in such perfect symmetry that we would not have to move again all day.

We buried ourselves under the blankets and ate our pancakes. We got crumbs on the old sofa and neither of us cared. We had stacks of books. And hot coffee. Everything in the cabin once belonged to Paul’s parents. There were no pictures on the walls.

“I think my mom liked it,” Paul said, after making himself snug.

“The cabin, I mean. It was her idea. At first, anyway.”

Sometime in the afternoon, there was a knock on the door. Both of us were so surprised that we popped our heads out of our books and looked at each other. It could have been the cold winter wind. We waited. The knock came again. It was the first time we’d ever heard the evidence of another person out by the cabin. Paul unwrapped himself from the blankets and stood. He went to the door and I heard him speaking to someone on the other side. The conversation was short. Paul closed the door and it sounded loud after our day of hushed quiet.

“What was that?” I asked.

“Some guy with a rifle,” Paul said.

I raised my eyebrows.

“They’re hunting deer. They wanted permission to chase one onto the property here.”

“To shoot it?”

“Yeah, to shoot it.”

“Did you give them permission?”

“No.”

I was charmed that the man with the gun had thought to ask permission. I was also glad that the chimney sent out a ribbon of smoke to let other hunters know we were there.

“You okay?”

Paul was tense. He didn’t sit down. He clenched his hands and bit his lip and then, all at once, it went out of him. He smiled at me.

“Yeah. That guy, though. Orange vest and hat and everything. For a second I thought it was my dad.”

Paul’s dad had died two years before.

“Oh, honey,” I said.

“He had a kid with him too. In a tiny vest with a tiny hat.”

“Did he have a tiny gun?”

“I don’t know. I think it might be a one-size-fits-all kind of product.”

Paul worked at a start-up downtown in a hip rundown rowhouse with an office that had an open floor plan and ancient plumbing. We met at a party where they played ambient techno and sold pricey cocktails and all of the food was vegan.

It took him a minute to calm down and then he settled back on the sofa.

I thought of the one memory I had of Paul’s father. He was dying and came to the city to tell his son. Paul brought me to lunch at a Thai place and introduced me as his new girlfriend. My first impression was of the sheer size of Paul’s father’s shoulders. He was bulkier than his son, and carried his muscle like a much younger man. He wore blue jeans and a button down shirt. He had blue eyes and was polite to me and smiled when Paul told him about how well his work was going. When he was younger the girls must have gone crazy for him. He did his best with us but he had only come up for one day and the stress of his news bore down on him until, over red bean ice cream, he said: “I have cancer, you know.”

He stirred his tea with his tiny bamboo spoon.

Paul’s first reaction was anger.

We settled in until lunch time and I grabbed Paul’s ankle under the blanket and rubbed tiny circles onto the bone with my thumb.

The next morning I got up while Paul slept. I put on his father’s slippers and turned on the coffee machine. I took the blankets in their big heap to the back door. I opened it and a raw gush of cold air hit me right in the face. Eyes stinging I shook out the first blanket. Crumbs and dust floated away on the wind. Our body heat evaporated from the blanket and the smoke from the fire lingered. I repeated the routine with the next blanket and the last. Just as I finished I heard a snap come from the woods beyond. From the back, the trees were barren and cold. There were no leaves to provide cover and in front of me, ears up, stood a doe. She was ten feet away. Her eyes were huge and blank. She stared at me. I waved. She turned on her heel and skipped back into the forest, her white tail flashing. When I carried the blankets inside Paul was standing up at the stove making eggs.

“I saw a deer.” I spread the blankets out over the couch.

“Ah,” Paul said. “Poor thing.”

We ate and read and sat in silence until, again, around the same time, another knock sounded on the door. Paul got up quickly this time, his face pulled down into a frown. The conversation was shorter than the last.

“Same guy?” I asked when he reappeared.

“No, different guy,” Paul said. “Same outfit.”

It took no time at all for Paul’s father to die. He was moved to a hospice in the suburbs two weeks after that lunch. Paul went to see him every other day. I went to his apartment on those days and cleaned up. I wanted to help. Paul, ever tidy, was leaving half-drunk beers out on his kitchen counter, and his clothes in an exploded pile in the center of his bedroom floor. I swept his kitchen and vacuumed his rugs. He’d come back and smile for me and shake his head and look like he was about to cry. Then, inevitably, he would tell me a story about his mother.

Paul’s mother was tiny and Italian and had big hair and big opinions. She took Paul fishing and then taught him how to cook their catch. She insisted one summer that they learn Portuguese and they got halfway through the first book she brought home. From then on she called him macaco–monkey. She had the same deep brown eyes that Paul had and the same straight white teeth. She told the dirtiest jokes of anyone he knew. She was the only person that could make Paul’s dad laugh.

“Did you like the quiet? Growing up?” I asked.

“With Mom in the house there was no quiet,” he said.

We started coming to the cabin because our jobs were stressful. I spent a lot of time in traffic. Paul only made as much money as he could convince others to invest. The city was loud and in the winter we had no heat. At the cabin Paul and I were hard to reach. We stayed indoors and ate heavy food and made love and took long hot showers. We read sentences from our books out loud to each other. I rested my head on Paul’s belly. I put my feet on his feet. I realized that at my age Paul’s mother was freshly married and knocked up. I slept in her old bedroom. Paul’s old room was tiny and had one high window. It was where the rakes and hiking boots and fishing gear were kept. On the ceiling, faint, lingered pencil drawings of flying dragons that Paul’s mother, pregnant, had drawn in looping circles above her head.

After a few hours another knock sounded on the door. It was the same hunter and he was angry. He wanted to know if we were PETA or something. He wanted Paul to tell his son that they couldn’t go bag the deer because he owned the land and he said no. He called Paul the king of the forest.

“Who are you? The king of the forest?”

I could hear him because he was yelling. It occurred to me that this man had a gun but Paul didn’t. I got up and walked to Paul’s side in the doorway.

“I’m going to need you to get off of my property,” Paul said. His voice was calm.

The man’s eyes flicked to me. He was short and stout and had flushed red cheeks and a salt and pepper beard. His son was a stringy teenager sulking some few feet away. They were wearing matching knit caps. I imagined the mother and wife who knit them together, telling her son to listen to his father, telling her husband to try to get along with their son.

“You’re going to need me to get off of the property or what?” the man said.

He wasn’t holding his gun. He had given it to his son to hold. The kid had the muzzle pointed toward the ground. His neck made an arc downwards like a wilting daisy. I had never heard Paul’s voice so deep before.

“This is my property,” he said, “and you need to leave.”

We stood there in the doorway together. I must have looked rumpled and bed-worn but the man had eyes only for Paul. Eventually, he turned and muttered something under his breath. Paul and I stood in the cold doorway and watched as the man and the kid got into their truck and drove down the muddy path. We stood there for another moment in silence. I put my hand on Paul’s shoulder and he shrugged.

“They’re not going to kill any deer here,” he said.

Later, once we had warmed up and I shook off the shock I said, “That was brave. That guy had a gun.”

Paul smiled. “That guy wasn’t going to shoot me,” he said. “That guy was hoping to show his son something.”

“Did your dad ever take you hunting?” I asked.

“No,” Paul said. “He didn’t like it, really. He didn’t even own his own gear.”

I nodded. “Then where did she get the gun?”

I put my hand over my mouth but Paul’s face didn’t change.

“A friend,” he said.

I walked myself into his arms and stood there for a while until his heart stopped beating so hard.

That night, as we ate bean chili and sang Christmas songs too early, we heard a rustle at the back door. I opened it and out in the cold the doe was back.

“Look,” I said.

The doe stared at the light that came from inside the cabin. Her wide brown eyes were like Paul’s and his mother’s. There had once been pictures of them on the walls but when Paul’s father found her, after he called the police, he gathered up everything that had a drop of her blood on it and took it out back. He lit the pile on fire. The EMT found him there and asked if he had anyone to call.

Paul walked up next to me and leaned on the doorframe.

“She’s come to say thanks,” I said.

He leaned over and kissed the top of my head. Beyond us, beyond the doe, was a scorched piece of earth in a small circle of trees.

“They won’t be killing any deer here,” Paul said.

 

Deirdre Roche is a writer living and working in Baltimore, Maryland. Her work will appear in the upcoming issues of SLAB Literary Magazine and The Avenue Literary Magazine.

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