The fir needles beneath your boots are wispy like angel wings. The black capped chickadee’s even pitch joins the nasal notes of the red breasted nuthatch.
You pause to look deep into the understory filled with sword ferns and the glossy leaves of the huckleberry. What you’re searching for won’t wake for a few more months, but you look anyway.
She was a city girl the first time you walked with her in a forest. Her auburn hair tangling in the breeze caught the light filtering in through the red cedars. She laughed, said the smell of damp earth was like sipping coffee by an open window. With her index finger to her lip, she smiled and took your hand. Stepping off the trail, she pulled you with her and knelt by the three-petaled white flower. It was the most radiant treasure she’d ever seen. You told her these flowers and the snowdrops were first suggestions of spring nudging the chill to step aside. So angelic, she told you, a hidden holiness that reminded her of the Trinity.
Married two years later, you planted trillium in the backyard. Every February you waited together for them to bloom.
The trail turns left towards the river. The descent is gradual switchbacks that you walk one planned footfall at a time, mindful of your knees. You camped here with your son each summer. Once the kerosene stove was turned off and the valuables locked in the car for the day, you carried a thermos of hot chocolate and left the campsite together.
On the mossy rock at the river’s edge, you talked about the life cycle of salmon. In the fresh water, the hatchling feed on insects and plankton until they are strong enough to swim downstream to the ocean. There, they feed on smaller fish for a few years and then turn a dark red. They journey back to the same stream of their birthplace to lay their eggs and eventually die.
Your son asked why any living creature would venture to a vast ocean only to battle back against the current and return to a small stream. You looked up at the willows, their branches descending over the water, lightly touching the surface. The stillness you inhaled settled into a deep place your son had yet to know. You could only tell him that someday he would understand. You were disappointed when your own father said this to you. You eventually understood why sometimes there was no other explanation for some things.
Hints of winter’s arrival now play around the edges of the maples. The leaves release fiery red against the gray of the late autumn dawn. You had a maple outside your kitchen window. Every Thanksgiving, your wife cut a small branch to use in the table’s centerpiece.
You always said the tree was planted too close to the house, but she wouldn’t let you remove it. It was the last tree to turn and she loved its final burst of color before the snow arrived. Seeing her head bowed as she clasped hands with you and your son around the leaves’ warm glow at the table, you agreed to trim it back from the glass each year.
Near her end, she apologized when she forgot your name, but said she didn’t need a name to remember you. You were Earl Gray with a cookie in the afternoon, soft lichen on tree limbs, rain on the bedroom window of lazy Saturday mornings, trillium finder after the winter’s thaw. You squeezed her hand and told her she was red maple leaves and holy-white petals.
Sitting on the mossy rock at the river’s edge, you scan the stream for shadows of fish. The shifting clouds scatter light from the rising sun, allowing the trees to reflect on the water’s surface, distorting what is above and below.
You told your son he would understand someday how life remembers colors and sounds, how muscle memory and instinct drive a man forth and back to sustain something greater than himself. Your son nodded and sipped from the thermos. You ran your fingers through his hair, auburn like his mother’s, and kissed his forehead.
The salmon are spawning, creating circles on the water’s surface. The maple leaves are releasing and landing, their lobed edges spreading open as if preparing to take flight.
Karen Shepherd lives with her husband and two teenagers in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, where she enjoys walking in forests and listening to the rain. Her writing has been published in various journals including riverbabble, CircleShow, The Society of Classical Poets, The Literary Nest and Writers Resist.
© 2018, Karen Shepherd