Wednesday, December 23, 2015

"Frost and Forest" A mistaken story


His left shoe sank in the freezing mud.  Without thinking it through, he pulled up smart and the leather came loose from his bare foot.  He pressed down to keep it from coming off and his shoe sank deeper and wouldn't let his foot back in. He pulled again.  His foot lifted free of the shoe and he tumbled back, windmilling his arms wildly.  He came up hard against the trunk of a tree in the dark.  Gray stars squirmed in front of his eyes.  The side of his head felt warm and wet.  His left foot was bare in the freezing snow blown wind and the shoe was gone.  It was the loss of the shoe that sank the whole business in.  The finality of it.  

He shoved his limp hands past the shoulder band of his rifle cartridge bag, and worked his fingers into the armpits of his thin wool coat of gray butternut.  The big Enfield rifle had been abandoned back there on the battlefield.  If he was found this way by the Confederate cavalry, they'd be red hot to shoot him sure for a deserter.  The Yanks.  Hell.  They'd just shoot him.


This far north, this wasn't his country, these weren't his people.  Winter wasn't like this in Georgia, except maybe in the mountains at times, and he wasn't mountain folks.

He peered into the blowing dark.  I'm not getting out of this one, he thought.  Not without a fire or something.  Not without a shoe.  I won't see my people again.  I won't see morning.  If this don't just lay over all.

His left foot had turned to wood.  He still had the use of the right, but it was freezing too.  His feet had gotten wet when they'd gone through the ice crossing that creek. 

He tottered to his feet.  Keep moving.  One foot in front of the other.  That's all.  You can do that.  Don't go down on your knees.  One more foot ahead of the other, now the left.

As he put his weight on the left foot it had lost all feeling to the cold.  It was impossible to balance.   There was no getting it. He held his bare fingers out into the wind as if for mercy, arms out to make sure he didn't twist an ankle he could no longer feel.

Next foot.  One in front of the other.

You got this, old coon dog, you got this.  Right foot.  Left foot.  Right foot left.  Right foot left.  Right foot left.

The sergeant major drilled them on the parade grounds in the sun and the hot sea breeze of Savannah, and didn't the ladies look on as though they were already heroes.  What did he know then about killing?  Or being hungry?  You don't know what hungry is, son, until you can dry your tears with the slack of your belly.

Right foot - left -

The left foot twisted and slipped under him dropping his face hard in the frozen mud.  His front tooth hit something hard and sent electric zings through his neck.  He lay still, breathing, letting things settle.  The snow went on falling.  A great peace moved over him.  This is easy.  Its easier than walking.  Go to sleep.  Let the Lord come for you in your dreams.

There had been a mountain lion once.

The mountain lion had been attacking his uncle's sheep.  He was just a boy.  His uncle had borrowed a rifle, a big flint lock contraption from a neighbor with powder and balls.  It was the first gun he had ever seen and the weapon was beautiful and mysterious, a long elegant machine. He and his Uncle had sat in the moonlight without speaking when on the second night the lion came for the sheep.  Without taking his pipe from his lips, the man had pulled back the hammer lined up the shot and struck the lion in the shoulder.  The animal twisted and screamed.  But it got back up.  It took a long time to load one of those rifles.  Even as it was dying the animal damn near got them.

Like that, he thought. Like that. Four paws, facing the enemy. Get up you old bastard.

He tottered to his feet, staggered, but caught himself.  He couldn't feel the left foot at all and that was a mercy.  It was frozen meat.

Up ahead, just past the profile of the trees, a light.  The light was square shaped and orange.  A lamp through oiled paper.  Someone's house.  A Yankee house maybe.  Would they take him in anyway?  He limped, dragging his foot, hands inside his coat, hunching down against the wind.  One foot shuffling forward, fighting the urge to run.  The house seemed closer, but never close enough.  Soon the window.  Soon the corner.  Turning the corner.  There the shape of a door.

His hair blew into his eyes and there was ice on his beard that rattled against his lips like glass prayer beads.  Yet the door was just over there. Right there.  And then it seemed as though the porch steps floated up dreamily and hit him in the face.


He opened his eyes and there was light, and there was heat, but no understanding.  For an instant he thought there should be the battle flag of crossed bars, he would find that and run towards that, run with a rebel yell through explosions and the death hum of bullets, show the boys he was still all there, hadn't deserted nothing, knew how to stick in a fight proper.  He'd just got turned around was all.  Any man can get turned around.  But the room was silent and the water immersing his nude body was so, so very hot and wanted.  And there was no battle flag.  No open ground or the sound of shots.  There was no fixing it.  It was a room with a bathtub.  There was movement and he turned his head.  An old woman with long silver hair over her shoulders and the face of a dried apple was at the foot of the tub pouring in steaming water from a kettle.  She saw his open eyes, looked with interest and continued to pour water.  She brought the kettle back to the fire.  He closed his eyes, drifted away, and then the dull and steady pain in his left ankle brought him back.  He couldn't move his toes.  He turned his head and looked down.  The skin didn't look right.  It was going bad, that ankle.  Then all at once the shivering came.  His body jerked, his teeth chattered and clacked.

The woman moved a chair up and sat beside the tub.

He opened his mouth to ask questions but instead rattled "T-t-t-thank you."

"Poor boy," she said.

"You got any shoes, please ma'am?"

"Shh," she said.

He lay in the tub with his body shaking and the water rippling.  Soon it all stopped.  He breathed deeply and waited.

"Here," said the old woman, and dipped hot water in a pan.  She poured it over his head.  Twice.  Three times.  "Here," she said and put her arms out, lifting him from the water.  He stood in the warm little room, feeling the pain below and the return of life above.  He felt hungry again and knew that he would live.

"Come," she said, taking a thick towel from the back of the chair, drying him gently with it, his hair, his face, his shoulders.  "Come here."  She draped his left arm over her shoulder, stood him against her and brought him to her bed.  She gentled him down, stood beside the bed a moment and just looked.

He imagined his ugly nakedness, how he looked right now, a man less than himself.  The ribs standing out, scrawny as a bird, all bones and skin.  "I'm sorry," he said.  "Don't look on me.  It will trouble you so.  Please, ma'am."

"Poor boy," she said, lifted a knee and lay down beside him.  She stretched her body to its full length, rolled him against her.  She nestled his damp head against her breast and gently held him there.  He listened to the rhythm of her heartbeat which seemed to fill the room like a soft drum tap.

"So many mistakes," he whispered into the fabric of her blouse.  "I done them all."

"Shhh," she said.

"It's indeed so."

"Yes, yes," she said.

"Shouldn't a been born.  First mistake."

"Poor boy," she said.

"Do you suppose its so?"

"Shh," she said.  "No."

The steady tap of her heart seemed more urgent. 

"And soldiering.  Man said I had to.  For his son.  Cause I owed this man money."

She said nothing.  Her hands, feather light, stroked his hair.

"I ain't cut out.  Some just ain't."

"I suppose that's so."

"I . . . I  didn't mean to."

"Mean? How?" she said.  He heard the hang sound of her "how".  Southern gal.  Could be.

"To run, I mean."

"Run?"

"Them big guns," he said.  "Sherman's big napoleons, they opened up on the line, it was all.  The line fell.  Went down like corn. Just arms and legs flying.  Heads too.  I was just done up and then them big guns finally.  It was a mistake.  It got my goat is all.  I was done up and run like a rabbit.  Oh god.  Oh god."

"Poor boy," she said and stroked his hair.

"I'm sorry."

"Shhh," she said.

"And. . .and. . . and . . . "

"Shhh, she said.

"I kilt a man, trying to surrender to me once.  I did it."

"I suppose that's so."

". . . And you ever feel like, maybe, it's all just a mistake?"

"What all?"

"All of it?  A man's life?"

"Your life?  No."

"You gotta admit."

"Things're not that way."

"What other way is there?" he said.

"Poor boy.  Here."

She did something with her hands and the wooden buttons of her plain linen blouse parted.  She lifted it away.  Her bare breast, he could see, had once been large and maternal.  It still had its roundness, but now lay deflated and sad against her chest.  The nipple was brown, rough as a twig and yet the tip still rounded like a peach bud.

"Ma'am."

"Shhh," she said.  "Take this."  She lifted the breast, shifted, leaned into him and placed the nipple between his lips.  Like a forgotten memory, his lips moved, pulled it to him, sucked.  A soft creamy bead of warmth spread to his tongue and he pulled harder, closing his eyes, hearing the steady, lovely beat of her heart.  He swallowed.  There was more.  He swallowed again and a great swelling calm came over him.

"Poor boy," she said.

There was more again.  He swallowed and the hard world seemed so very far away as his lips moved in rhythm to her heart and his hand reached to her and moved to hold her steady and close.

The room seemed a little larger.  The woman seemed a little larger.  It was all right. It was fine.  And what would happen next, that was fine too.

She settled her head on the pillow next to his, pressed him gently into her breast.  Wrapped her body around his.

The room became larger.  She became larger.  Her arm lay over him, stroking him as he drew from her breast, lips moving only, thoughts quiet. 

"Poor boy," she whispered.

He became smaller.  Soon she had to hold him in place.  Soon he was very small.  She held him to her breast and cupped all of him in her hands, closing her eyes, breathing steadily, moving her knees a little to get comfortable for the night.


The morning sun lit the thick oiled paper of the window, cheering the room.  The water in the tub had long gone cold.  In the corner of the room was a steaming pile of tattered gray butternut cloth and a unit insignia.  And one shoe.

The young woman rose from the bed, fresh and well fed, full and curved and lovely as a young animal.  Her hair, black and flowing curled over her face.  She shook it away without her hands, because in her full hands she held something alive.  The man was gone.  She left the bed, stood and stretched gently, with her hands cupped closed.  She whispered something, listened to her hands and smiled.  She went to the door, nudged the iron latch with her elbow  and eased the door open with her toes.

She lifted her hands into the cool air and opened her fingers.

A small butternut gray sparrow chirped, scolded and rolled itself into the chill air.  It spread its wings and took to the air as if it had always known how and was lost to the forest and frost.



 Copyright 2015  C Sanchez-Garcia









10 comments:

  1. Your stories are always full of surprises!

    This is so vivid. Have you ever been caught in the snow like this? It reads like a memory.

    My only crit -- would a rural Southern boy know about prayer beads?

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  2. Uhhhh. . . . he's Catholic??

    See? A new mistake!

    Garce

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  3. Gorgeous story. I feel like the trope is generally treated as horrifying (the entrapping woman who transforms a man into a beast). In your treatment, however, it reads as redemptive and I feel happy for him in the end. Beautifully done.

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  4. It's been a long time since a woman transformed me into a beast. I'd like to feel that way again. Grr.

    It is redemptive though. Thanks Annabeth!

    Garce

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  5. I find myself smiling, Garce. What a lovely story. I almost expected him to get back to the womb.

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  6. I wrote that story! It was a part of a story I posted here years ago called "Natural Acts". In one of the vignettes the guy returns to the womb. That was fun to write.

    Garce

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  7. I remember that story about the man who returns to the womb, Garce. In this one, the "poor boy" seems to return to the womb of the natural world, in which there are no mistakes, from the giant collective mistake of war. Beautiful story. I'm curious to know why you chose the U.S. Civil War.

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    1. Hi Jean!

      Civil War? I have no idea, it just sort of went in that direction. Mostly I wanted him to be a man n the run from something who had some regrets. It was fun to write. Thanks for reading my stuff.

      Garce

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  8. Lovely story, and with the refreshing twist of the woman regaining youth by feeding the man, instead of draining him. I think there's some complex message in the fact that he's turned into a bird by the very mammalian process of nursing, something that makes his change more profound and at the same time more freeing.

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    1. Hi Sacchi!

      I really liked the idea of a very old woman nursing a man into some transformation somehow. I enjoyed playing with that image. Thanks for reading my stuff!

      Garce

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