Touch: The Journal of Healing




    by Tim Falkenberg

A wind blew across the snow-dusted prairie. It came in gusts; first gentle, silent, then harsh, driving, and shrill. Frozen bits of snow rushed by, falling thicker every minute, accumulating in tiny drifts, clinging to the small crags of rocky outcroppings, the shivering blades of grass that covered the prairie, and the corpse of a horse still wearing full tack.

In one such drift next to the horse lay an anomaly in the otherwise uniformly windswept landscape: the barely discernable imprint of a boot. While the snow around the boot print lay lightly, here the snow had been compressed. In that instant of compression, the snow had melted, run together, and then frozen once again as the boot had been removed. The resulting print thus endured the driving wind and snow so that one might follow that print to another, and that print to yet another, and another, all forming a line of prints that led to a fire under a barren pecan tree.

The fire was unimpressive. It was small, constructed of fallen twigs and a few broken branches. On one side two slightly larger branches had been arranged on top of one another to form a meager windbreak. The yellow-orange flames of the fire would lick over the top of the break and through the gaps between the branches whenever the wind momentarily abated. A small ring of partially exposed earth surrounded the fire where it did battle with the invading snowdrifts. Just outside of the ring rested a snow encrusted boot, small droplets of water sweating down the sides of its black leather.

The boot belonged to a man; an old man, but one whose arms, beneath the sleeves of his jacket, were corded and firm, and whose legs, covered by the scratchy flannel backing on his jeans, had not yet failed to carry him well. The man’s face, pitted with the wear of age, was obscured by a hat pulled low and a bandana trying unsuccessfully to cover both his ears and neck. His eyes were deep set, their color indiscernible, hidden by the shadows of his own brow and his hat. The blowing, freezing specks of snow stuck in his beard, but this only made it seem thicker, as the snow did nothing to change the beard’s color.

The old man sat before the fire with his back resting up against the naked pecan tree. They might have been brothers, the two frosted figures; the only real difference between the two was that the tree’s arms reached out while the old man hugged himself for warmth. It was as though the tree, which had already provided fuel for the old man’s fire, was stretching out towards the heavens in appeal. The tree was dormant for the winter; it was part of its fate to die before blossoming in life anew each spring. Perhaps the tree sensed that its compatriot had no such future; that if the old man died that evening, frost covered, from cold, there would be no new birth in the spring. And so the tree did all it could to protect the man from the ever-worsening weather.

It was growing dark, and the old man was tired, but he did not close his eyes. The fire began to burn low. The few small coals that there were gave off heat, but without fresh fuel the fire would die out in the night. The old man fingered the zipper of his coat, attempting for another time to draw it higher.

I should just lie down, thought the old man. My life has been full. I may return to the dust in peace.

There is no one left who needs me, he said to himself.

Then the old man rose; slowly, painfully, for his back and ribs were bruised and his joints stiff from sitting and from cold, but stand he did. He did his best to pull his bandana up further over his face, but it did little to guard against the wind’s assault. With deliberate footsteps, he began casting about the pecan tree, looking for any more fallen branches. He found a few twigs nearly buried in the mounting snow, but nothing more, as he had already gathered and burned the larger pieces that had fallen.

This will not amount to much. It was hardly worth the effort, he thought.

He used the twigs to carefully rake the coals into a concentrated pile against the remnants of his windbreak, and then arranged them on top of the coals. He sat down again, back to the tree and legs pulled up as close as he could bend them to his chest. The fire warmed his shins a little.

The wind was blowing harder now, colder, carrying sideways the snow that fell thicker still. The old man dipped his head into the wind, employing his hat to shield his face. A blizzard was coming. He had always scoffed at the idea that one could feel the weather coming in his bones. That was the tall tale of men who were old when he was just a boy. But despite himself, he felt that a blizzard was coming, felt it with the surety one feels when, as it has ever been, two plus two again must equal four.

The old man set to thinking; it helped him forget about the chill that was invading his body, seeking out every crevice in his being and wrenching him open with cold. He saw, as though from a distance, himself, two mornings prior. It was early, before proper light, when the sky was just beginning to brighten on the horizon. The air was crisp and the ground firm. He walked from his house to the barn, where he saddled Aellia, his wife’s blue roan mare. He led her out, mounted, and turned towards the distant mountains. They called them mountains, he and his wife, but they were really just big, rocky hills, barely more than bumps on the horizon when he set out. He rode all day before stopping to make camp, the mountains gradually growing before him. A breeze started to blow when he awoke the next morning, and specks of snow began falling intermittently not long after. By noon the old man was among the mountains’ foothills, specks of white obscuring their red-brown hue. The river cut in front of the mountains there, appearing to circle around the two that were closest, and it was there that Aellia stepped into a gopher hole. The old man remembered it in a flash of images rather than anything fluid. Riding, pitching forward, rolling on ground, Aellia squealing, rolling, trying to stand, collapsing again, sides shivering. Incredibly, but for a few bruises the old man had risen to find himself unhurt. When Aellia stopped thrashing he carefully approached her. Her right front leg stuck out sideways at an angle it was never intended to go, and her side was lacerated in several places, this from rolling over pieces of the painted ceramic jar that had fallen out of the saddle bag and broken on the rocky ground. The horse passed out, her powerful body now limp before the man.

There was nothing to be done. The old man removed his saddle bags from the pommel of his saddle, tucking a rolled blanket in one side, next to his canteen. Then he carefully collected the shards of the ceramic in the other, and, swinging the bag over his shoulder, began to walk back the way he had come. The wind blew cold but gentle still when he first set out, but soon became cutting. The ground, already frost covered, became snow covered and increasingly more difficult to walk through. The old man had stopped at that lonesome pecan tree at dark, tired and sore.

The twigs the old man had added to his fire quickly burned out. He continued to sit there, as though in a trance. The snow began to gather in drifts, encroaching ever closer on the territory which the fire had marked out as its own. Fat flakes poured down, swirling in the tormented air. The fire died down. Ashes began to mix with snow. A cutting gust of wind lifted still warm ash off the top of the nearly extinguished fire and blew it up under the brim of the old man’s hat, into his face. He jolted.

Lifting his hand, the old man wiped his face. He held his hand out before him, studying it, observing the gray-black streaks that now painted it. After a minute, the old man dropped his hand, rose to his feet, and, turning away from the pecan tree, began walking again out into the swirling, clawing whiteness.

© 2012  Tim Falkenberg

Tim Falkenberg is an emerging writer from Southlake, TX.  He has written several short stories, dabbled in writing for both film and video games, and is currently at work on his first novel.  He has served as the Fiction Editor for the journal Kodon.

Copyright © 2012

Touch: The Journal of Healing

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