The clumps of trees are black when it’s night and winter. Bristles on the pine trees, bare branches on the oak trees, thick trunks and limbs standing tall in dense bunches. Things hide in there. Life decays, water freezes, animals sleep, people lurk. It’s our own little forest right outside my bedroom window, enclosing the old house and hiding it from the traffic, the neighbors, the stars. Normally during this time of the year, I shuffle inside past it all, grumpy at the cold and stealing furtive glances over my shoulder, but tonight I sit sideways on the car seat with the engine off, the door swung open and my legs propped up.
Keep yourself busy when you’re stuck in the cold. Never let yourself get sleepy. If you fall asleep, you won’t wake up. It seems like it was the mantra of every grade school teacher that I ever had, all of them arming us with wisdom to survive the Antarctic wilderness. But here, now, I can see how it would happen. Snow collects wordlessly in neat lines on tree branches, melts into the knees of my jeans, blankets the ground. It’s just me, frozen through but not cold, and I don’t want to leave.
I prop my elbows on my knees, my chin in my hands, and I stare. No squirrels creak through the fallen branches, no wind blows through the dead leaves, no neighbors walk from cars to home or home to cars. Everything is still. The windows leak yellow orange orbs that float out into the night and fall away, leaving the pond and the trees to sit just beyond their reach.
I shiver when it’s 75 degrees outside and everyone else is wearing shorts and t-shirts. I always bring jackets along with me to restaurants, and I pull the covers all of the way up to my chin even on summer nights. But here, now, the winter doesn’t even touch me. It sinks into my eyes and dances across my cheeks and settles wordlessly into the earth around me.
I could stay here in the quiet forever, until my eyelashes freeze and the snow piles silently into a hat atop my head.
But I don’t.
Instead I walk inside, home from class, away from the cold and up the creaky old steps that would betray even the quietest intruder and into our tiny apartment. Brandon’s there, browsing the internet or doing homework or watching TV.
“How was class?”
It was fine, maybe even great. A textiles class, two nights a week until ten o’clock, dying fabrics and making scarves and sewing bright swatches together into quilted pictures. I love it because I love art, but I don’t like school, and I don’t like the city, and I especially don’t like the feeling of being in the middle somewhere, lost between homes.
I love this place, our first apartment, but underneath the charm of the planters on the back balcony and the freedom to come and go just exactly as I please, the place still speaks to me with stress and uncertainty and cold, windy snow in its voice.
And so we leave a lot. To visit family for a month over Christmas break, to celebrations on the weekends, up to the mountains to a tiny little cabin that Brandon’s parents own, quiet and small with a fire pit and orange lights that leak from the windows in the evenings.
We leave the cabin in the mountains and walk, late one night, under the black shade of the trees that line the dirt road, flashlights in our hands that are turned off, words in our heads that aren’t being said.
Black in the mountains is different than black in the city. You hold your hand up to your face, but you can’t see it even as you wiggle your fingers; the trees stand solid beside you, but you can’t see them as you pass them by; the ground is somewhere not too far away, but you can’t see it as you step. It’s solid, the black, sinking right through you, and it’s quiet. No hum of the refrigerator, no buzz of the street lamp, no anything.
We head through the blackness to the clearing a few minutes away, a field where bullfrogs sit hidden in the pond and croak into the night. The horses are there in the distance, too, beyond the fence. I can’t see their faces or their bodies, but I can hear their heavy sighs, the rustles of the hay or grass as they settle to sleep. The ranch sits even further in the distance, up the hill, and it’s devoid of ranchers riding their horses, guests eating at the restaurant, drinkers drinking at the bar. Everything is still.
I look up, and the sky is magnificent. Crystal black, dotted from here to the very end with billions of stars.
I’ve never seen the Milky Way before. Born in the city, raised in the city, my clearest and fondest memory of the sky is lying flat on my back as a kid in the vast, deserted parking lot of my grade school, feeling the blackness stretch out all around me. But the Milky Way splashes herself across that blackness, now, brilliant pearly white from one end to the other, and it gives me a crick in my neck. I don’t want to look away.
We stay there in awe, heads tilted upward, eyes searching, world sleeping, and when we finally start to walk away, I’m not yet ready to let go.
It’s why I still remember the leaves.
Not bright, firehouse red, but deeper, like geometric pools of blood, a majestic beauty piercing me straight through the eyes.
One day, one year, we take a trip from the cabin up a winding dirt path to a lookout that sits high in the mountains, the autumn trees standing as a shady canopy as we walk. A lone old bench sits looking out over the valley, and there’s nothing that’s not still. The valley stands vast and huge, like the mountains that surround it, and all of the life is hiding, tucked away in the weeds and sleeping or perched in the trees, watching. The air doesn’t even talk. No crickets, no billows of wind, no birds chirping. Still.
It stays that way, soft and sleeping, until we walk through the leaves. They make that fallen leaf noise that all fallen leaves make as you walk through them. Like shuffling papers underfoot, stepping with careful steps through piles of love letters that have been saved over the years and are crinkling at the edges. Some of the leaves are matted to the ground with old rain or new dew, and those are the ones that attach wordlessly to the bottoms of my feet so that I may go home and read them later. But it’s the papery ones, the crisp and cluttered ones, that somehow seem the quietest. Their crackles pierce straight through all of that stillness around me, through everything that’s not there, and the silence is louder then than it even was before. Like in a movie when a woman shatters a vase against the wall, throwing a great quiet into a situation where wordlessness was the problem in the first place.
Here, though, it’s beautiful, breathtaking, and I package it away inside of me as we head back down the hill.
We go back to the cabin, and later, it’s a long car ride back to the apartment. We go back to school, back to the ins and outs, and one summer day when our diplomas are in our pockets, it’s to a new city, a new place.
It’s different from the very first.
The sky is bluer, and we eat frozen pizzas in the middle of all of the boxes. I get up early just to organize my kitchen; we go out together to buy cheap décor for the walls; we play Frisbee in the field. I don’t even have a job yet, but somehow that doesn’t matter. I’m not worried. Colors are brighter here, and they’re in the right order, and they don’t hurt my eyes when I look at them for too long.
My home is warm now, with a feeling that feels right.
It’s somewhere along the way to this new home, somewhere green or blue or dotted with stars, that I learned to crave the earth. A pink streak in the sky or a tree trunk in the woods that lies covered in a carpet of moss paints me a quieter color inside.
We go to Europe, and it’s when we’re nestled in the mountains of Innsbruck that I forget how to breathe every time that I walk out of the hotel door. The mountains are nothing that I’ve ever seen. They cut my world in half.
We decide to take the cable cars up to the very top, and the cloud is so thick when we step outside that I can barely see Brandon through the gray. The stone path stretches out in front of me, around this curve and over that one, to the left and to the right, oddly placed routes that trace the edges of the mountains. The path is too close to the edge in some places, teetering along crumbling rocks, and I don’t follow it in then. Instead I watch the tiny snowflakes swirl in the wind and fall at my feet, the ground a rich green that surprises me. It shouldn’t be there, the green. The earth should be hard and cold and the color of frozen soil, but it’s not.
I’m wearing only a fall jacket, and so is he. We didn’t have anything warmer with us to wear. The other group, the crazy ones who wanted to bring their bikes up and trace the highest edges of the Alps, they’re wearing shorts and t-shirts, and they disappear in the cloud.
Brandon takes a different route than me, and now he’s only a hazy outline that gets blacker as it walks toward me.
“I’m going to walk up to the very top of that highest peak. Do you want to come?”
But I’m shivering to the core. I need to go inside for a minute to catch my warmth, so I stay behind.
I walk into the building, a little drop-off stop for the cable car, and it feels empty and sad. The quiet beauty of the outside doesn’t translate here, where I listen to the wind whip against the walls that are lined with cheap advertisements and pamphlets. I stand at the window, watching him disappear into the cloud. I sit down on a cold wooden bench, read a booklet about the cable car excursion that we’ve just taken. Nordkettenbahnen. I shiver and bury my hands in my pockets. There’s nothing here, no person but me and no anything but me, and I’m uneasy as it occurs to me that I’m all alone, now, at the top of the Alps.
I need to be outside. I walk through the door and stand in the cloud, waiting for him to come back, to be safe. I watch the tiny snowflakes whip and whirl around me, appearing wordlessly one after another out of the cloud that I’m standing in, and I close my eyes.
This is the most beautiful place that I’ve ever been.
And it’s those moments that stay with me, attach themselves to some inside twist of my brain and take root there, crawling back out every now and then when I’m eating breakfast or staring over the dashboard out the window.
I go to a concert, in the summer time, with 20,000 strangers in sundresses and flip flops carrying $8 plastic cups of Coors Light in each hand. They scream and sing and stumble and smoke and fill the whole world right up with noise. If there’s something different about the black of the wilderness or the still of a mountain top, then there’s something as equally otherworldly about the awesome noise of a concert. The music and the drums and the singing and the crowd fill me up right from the soles of my feet and there’s nothing else, just then, but that moment and that music.
The show is delayed, this time, from a storm that rises up out of nowhere and whips through the venue, blowing straight through and taking the stagnant, 106 degree heat index with it as it leaves. The rain stops falling sideways and the winds die down and the crew removes the plastic covers from the instruments and the set. But even as the crowd cheers and the band takes the stage, the lightning stays, stubborn and indignant and here for the show.
I’ve never seen a lightning storm until now. The voices and the guitars and the drums are singing together and the whole place is immersed in one loud song, in one loud dance, in one loud moment. But even as the music hits me straight through the middle, I turn to the left, to the right, and the lightning flashes silently across the sky. One flash after another, an endless parade of jagged knives cutting through the blackness and flashing through my peripheral, hour after hour. In a place that I love so much precisely because of the sound, the silence of it knocks me over. Somehow, here, it’s nothing but quiet.
I will remember this night always.
I will go back to the home that I love, and some day down the road I’ll move to other homes, and no matter if any of those places or times make me feel warm inside or full of prickles, I will remember this moment.
The lightning will always cut silently beneath the acoustic guitar, and the snow will always swirl in the tiniest snowflakes at the top of the Alps. Somewhere, high in the mountains, leaves will bleed red into the earth.
Carrie Bachler is a fiction editor at Halfway Down the Stairs.
© 2010, Carrie Bachler