(short fiction originally published in Big Sky Journal, Winter 2005)

I remember the way the stars burned through the trees – stars as bright as strings of Christmas lights, wound tightly from branch to branch.  As we slowly walked onto the ice, the frozen river beneath us moaned and hissed at each new step, as though we were trekking across a thawing serpent’s back.  When we placed our ears near the surface, we could hear the hushed murmur of a world beneath us singing and whispering, the pull of liquid life we could only imagine from the frozen world above.

For a while, we kept still. We peered into the dark green slab of ice as though we might be able to see the pulsing river current with half moonlight pressed against it.  Everything was quiet.  I remember thinking how fragile these winter nights could seem, or us in them.

You wore your purple, lambswool scarf wrapped around your head and under your chin.  You kneeled on the ice, your head turned skyward, lost in the stars, remembering the red and gold pinpricks in the purple winter clouds, no doubt, as the same beacons of wonder you found them since you were six years old, the bones of the galaxy that held us.  I remember thinking how, in the darkness with just your kneeling silhouette defined, you resembled a peasant or a child lost in prayer.  And your soft breath was blue in the moon, simple pushes of moisture unfolding, wandering like ghosts.

We moved silently past dark purple river bruises emerging from snow and freeze – burled, inky, thumbprints swelling near springs and leaning willows, and we decided to instead trudge through the snow along the shoreline, the path through the trees where we knew the earth was solid.  Terra firma, we said.  Let’s shoot for that.  It was too dark, the snow and trees drifting in fade, and we no longer trusted our luck in keeping from falling through.

We smoothed a trail through the brittle reeds and brown whispering grasses, through poplar and balsam, the stars weaving in and out of branches and the sparse, fluttering leaves and clustered needles.  We moved in gentle silence, the shooshing sound of our boots through the snow and our own breathing the only sound.

I wanted to tell you then how I believed everything was still possible, that we would start again and we would be brave and hopeful and open to what came next – like soldiers who return to battle with warm visions of armistice in their hearts or like salamanders who push their sleepy snouts through the soft soil of thaw, emerging again into the sweet, open world.  I wanted to tell you how I believed in us, but I wondered if it wasn’t too soon.

During our nights together, I could still feel your body twitch and lunge toward openings of your sleep.  You murmured and mouthed words too far away for either of us to hear, your knees slowly drawing up toward your chest, your fingers clutching an invisible hold and not letting go.  I wanted to reach into your grip, unfurl your fingers one by one.  But I was swimming, too, lost in the wide tide of hope and despair, waves along the shoreline flooding and receding. 

I’m still not certain how to separate the loss that’s ours together from the loss that’s each our own and the deep silence that follows each like breathing.

Months before, we were walking along a very different shoreline – the salty white seashell mulch beachfront of Sanibel, celebrating our four year anniversary and our beaming news.  We were lighter than birds.  As though we had wings and had lost all sense of gravity, we were like children in the carbonation vat of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory – our noses pinging against the farthest corners.

Mostly I remember your continual smile, like the cat that had swallowed the canary, your beautiful smile that began with a wrinkle of the nose, teared your eyes, and the sing song laugh that usually followed – a laugh that began in silence and bloomed into the same laugh of a child whose toes were being tickled.  How I adored falling into that laugh, addicted to its engaging meter and would do anything, rob a bank, jump from a bridge, to find myself in its warmth.  It was a laugh I remember from the first time I met you – the loft party when I first spotted you in the farthest corner of the room clustered with a group of your friends. You fell into laughter watching a chihuahua play tug-of-war with a tablecloth corner, its reward a spilled cache of pretzels, cashews and a gutted loaf of sourdough bread patched with spinach dip.  When the chihuahua dove his pointy snout into the soft middle of sourdough, you were doubled over in laughter with tears rolling down your face. 

On the sandy shores of Sanibel, you were iridescent, the sweet sun warming your skin, you in your orange two piece bathing suit with sand dusting your shins, that faraway look of a woman swallowing whole new directions our lives were leading us, like the new moon emerging through balsam.

We spent the first whole day on the beach, against our better instincts.  Continually layering SPF 20 sunblock on each other’s bodies like cake frosting, you in your floppy straw hat, the sun’s warm embrace was too decadent for us to resist.

“What’s your favorite part?” you asked.

“Of this?”

“Of what comes next.”

I remember smiling.  And with seashells covering my eyes, I knew just how you looked then, leaning toward me, like a child on Christmas morning, brimming in smile. 

“The openness of possibility,” I said.  “You know how it is to look back on the early roots of a family taking shape?  Like watching old home movies and remembering or discovering pure wonder and attachment.  You catch it in the expressions of the people being filmed, how soft they are and how they respond to one another, how they connect with one another simply by a nod, a laugh.  What a thrill it is to be in your life right before the moment of home movies, of connections yet to materialize.”

“The best part for me,” you said, “is recognizing how happy I am even before what comes next.  Do you ever wonder about that?  About how grace and luck can just fall in your lap as easy as sunlight?”

That night, when we returned to our hotel room and undressed, you were still wearing your bathing suit beneath your blouse and shorts, and I held your face in the curve of my neck and breathed in your sweet, moist smell and ran my hands along the white outline your swim suit had made against darkening skin.  You were as lovely as I had ever known, luminescent in the salty hotel moonlight, just barely showing, and I felt my heart swell as I softly dusted kisses of sand from your bare shoulders, the warm, small of your back and the backs of your knees; and through billowing curtains the sweet sea air just poured into our room.

Maybe happiness is forever knitted in an arcing fall from grace, a tightrope walker without a net on a wire stretched across a windy boulevard, from high-rise to high-rise.  Can’t you imagine that tightrope walker’s face as newspapers pool and scatter so far below?

We spent our week in Florida taking morning walks along the beach, just as the sun crept and spilled into sky and the breeze was wet and cool.  We searched for starfish and conch and new tracks along the shore from circling plovers and terns.  We took swims in the ocean; the tide’s breathing tow gently pulled our bodies as we drifted on orange, air filled rafts, the two of us often holding hands to keep connected while wide waves undulated beneath us.  At night, we made love with this new found rhythm of the ocean, the pull of moon and water, our bodies lurching like waves, my fingers pressed into your soft shoulder blades and lighting across your white and tan skin, salty and moist, along the curves of your knees, elbows and hips, the two of us lost in a wet separation from grace like foam along a shoreline.  We walked arm in arm in moonlight and stars, giggling like children, the wind tugging the fronds of palms and crashing waves along the shore in a distant, spiraling thunder as we walked closer to the tide and inevitably got soaked from far reaching waves and sprinted back toward the refuge of dry sand.  We talked about how much we had ahead of us to explore and how hungry we were to share it, to learn the new patterns of care that came with parenthood and watch them unfold and temper who we were.  You kept clasping your hands gently over your belly as we walked along the tide.  Your head was lost in the stars and moonlight and water.  Your steps were simple and meandering, your bare feet pressed against the soft, white sand, gorgeous half moon prints, oval heal and curving toes, disappearing in the long, stretching waves behind us.

We were both so excited for our new lives yet to find shape, our imaginations swallowing whole the ocean, moon, stars and the space beyond them.

Months later, I remember the late spring afternoon you ran in from the rain.  Your hair was wet and tangled and you looked as though you had just been washed up along the shore, your green and red flowered sundress soaked, your lips open, and at first I didn’t notice the tears within the rain and soon we were curled up on the floor, your sad news pouring from your lips and the wave of heartfelt sobs which followed, your head resting on my lap as I smoothed your hair into the corona of stars, wishing I knew words that would bring resonance or peace, wishing I knew the way past the present.

I made you a cup of tea with swirling steam and sliced lemon along the side, and you kept blotting your neck and mouth with a towel while staring through the window at the dark lawn outside at the juniper, dripping rain.

I realized then, what would come next would change us, like the cold center of a storm changes the places it pours dense, matted clouds, but how sometimes change, even storm-derived change, knits allegiance, centers love more firmly than before.  I tried to tell you this but my words stumbled like children climbing longer and longer stairs.

“I wished it hurt more,” you said.  “I wish I could just get lost a while in a fierce push of physical hurt because this sitting on a sofa with a teacup on my lap, watching the rain, is more simple and still and stupid than my heart can possibly bear.”

“Hurting more isn’t the answer, Nat,” I said.  “I think we just need to stay with this, nurture it as if it were a child, see how it changes, how it grows and where it leads us, its small hand pressed into ours.”

That’s when you said you knew that was true; you knew it was true this tiny soul that had opened into our lives, her gentle reach, still continued.  It was true that even separated from the warmth of our blood, she still needed our watch over what comes next.  She still had a story to tell and a forever place within us.

“But this is also true,” you said.  “This wishing I could go back and take this away, this feeling of falling into an endless well, this sorry and anger and sadness and knotted heart and wondering how I could have prevented this.”

“Oh, Nat, Nat, Nat…You know that isn’t true.  You know it’s nothing you’ve done and please just empty those thoughts from your head so we can focus on letting go and starting again.”

You were silent a while.  And then you told me:  “I know that’s what’s supposed to follow – the starting again.  But part of me thinks I can’t keep breaking our hearts.  Part of me – most of me thinks I can’t walk us in that direction again.”

For a while, we put our sadness away like dishes just washed, still dripping water and stored in darkness.  For me, exercise became the key to my refuge; I ran daily, extended my runs from four miles to six to twelve to twenty, each day wanting to push my body, burn tendons and pressure joints, extract all the breath buried within my chest.  Running became a quest of getting lost in the whispering white brilliance that followed the physical exertion – for a brief moment, it was like landing on the moon without oxygen – everything looked strange and backlit, the street signs, trees, passing cars, and I reached to catch the rhythm of my breathing, like chasing flower petals in the wind.

For you, it was silence.  You fell into it like breathing, negotiating more and more time to be alone, canceling lunches and dinner gatherings, wandering by yourself into the woods, burrowing into a dark corner of the den with a book, but often just sitting.  It was like a long sleep, one I didn’t know how to wake you from, or even if I should.

Sometimes I hated the fact we had let our loss, a simple flaw in timing, unfortunate but not uncommon, weigh our hearts so.  Pretty soon, it seemed as though our skin, our bodies, our words, our breath, were purple and lost and swimming in the moon’s cold shadow.

Snow fell early that year.  Early November it pooled in thick, knotted clouds, blue as stones, and swept across our lawn and through the woods in deep, wet storms that wrapped their white fingers around trees and weighed whole branches and pulled them toward earth.  Sometimes we would put our boots and coats on just to wander into our front lawn and stand amidst the pooling white blur and listen to the snow fall gently through the trees, the hushing sound that fell in blankets.

Our communication that winter became more and more non-verbal.  It was as if our interior thoughts were lying under the same thick snow and hoarfrost, emerging in sporadic moments of melt.  Mail and magazines piled up – unread and unopened.  The cold wash of the low, early dusk poured in through our windows like seawater, submerging movement.

In spite of the long stretching snows, I continued to run, slower in places where sidewalks and streets had iced, but still through the wooded trails and greenway smoothed over from the sojourn of cross country skiers.  I would emerge from my runs with red cheeks and a frosted beard and sometimes hesitated about returning home only to watch you submerged beneath the heavy, saturated blanket of silence turning inward.

You were like a hibernating bear or an opossum’s offspring, hidden in the soft folds of warmth and darkness, emerging only in half slumber.  You began to move in calculated patterns, steeping black tea while staring through the window, surrounding your side of the bed with a circle of books, books read only a page or two at a time, retreating to the den, dousing the lights, and staring up into the trees as you listened to old jazz – Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Stan Getz.

I’d return from my run, stoke the fire, and wonder how long this endless pull of  muted winter would run and how long we could stand to wait patiently in the ceaseless, silent flow.

The night we crossed the river, a fierce winter storm had bloomed, swollen clouds, thick wet snows, inch over inch, snow falling so fast you could no longer separate land from sky.  That’s what brought us out into our river crossing – I had urged us both to lace our boots, button our coats and emerge into the world to see.

You were silent at first when we wandered into the falling snow, your arms crossed, hands resting in the crooks of your arms and your eyes focused more on the immediate path, the saturated bruises rising through snow rather than the dark, flocked trees and muted sky.

But when we inched our way onto the moaning, icy river and the clouds thinned to red and green and gold piercing stars, you began to open.  You were still lost in your worn silence.  But for the first time in months, I remember you becoming aware, drawn and anchored by horizons; your pace slowed, your head tilted up, and across your face was an expression of cautious wonder.  I remember being taken by that, taken by the way you stood with your head tilted towards stars, the frozen, invisible river current beneath you – you looked as though you had returned from a place far away.

And when I walked towards you and dusted the snow from your shoulders and hair, I felt a softening between us, as though your eyes had become open and moist and steady once more, as though the pooled shadow above us had begun to dissolve into the trees, as though fever was breaking into the softest fragments.

When we trekked back into the woods, we were silent but our movement more sure, more determined and curious about what lay ahead, hidden from view.  For the first time in a while, I felt as though we were together in something.  I remember holding your hand as we stepped through the balsam and willow.

That’s when we spotted the red fox slipping through the trees like a soldier hiding from enemy fire, darting from tree to tree.  With the wind in front of us, we were able to follow his trek, transfixed by each serpentine curve he made and each pause and each sentinel search through the dark woods, the fox’s bushy white tipped tail and dark cross across its shoulders muted in the soft, snowy moonlight.

We followed the fox as it ran along the river and slipped through willow and thistle as though searching for open water and then back again and fast along the winding river trail.  We kept our distance behind, and eventually the fox’s speed was too great for us; the fox disappeared over a bluff and was nowhere to be seen.  But the moon pressed firmly enough through the clouds, a beacon light burning past winter fog, and we could follow the fox’s fresh tracks in the snow, the sloped linear markings set in the snow like upside down question marks.

Our trek behind the fox gave us momentary purpose, and we were drawn to the single cause of discovery and the exhilaration that came from observing a life at full speed amidst the frozen winter world, a flash of red through gray.  We were suddenly aware of our given place, like a compass point resounding, geographic coordinates charted with silver headed pins; we could hear nothing but our steps through cold snow, our breathing and the snow sifting through the trees.

When we got to the top of the bluff, we became lost in the moon breaking through ghost-like clouds, its yellow and orange hues swelling and burning the edges of sky.  Through the haze, the moon was huge.

That’s when we spotted the fox again – along an open field not far below us.  The fox was crouching, its entire body tense, elongated, hind legs moving a cautious inch at a time, its snout pointed at something neither of us could see, one forepaw bent in the air.  And then it leapt, a foot and a half from the ground, pounced on the snow, its back arched and feet together.  The fox leapt and pounced over and over again, a strange dance we silently observed from above, both of us bowing toward the earth, wanting to keep far from sight, wanting this odd occurrence to last.  We saw a brown dot race across the snow and the fox in fast pursuit, snapping at the speeding mouse’s tail, flipping its muddy body into the air and pouncing on it, holding still, and then loping back into the trees.

We rose from our perch above and raced down the hill, following the fox’s swath of scattered tracks through the snowy woods, following the deep prints, often marred by the brush of the fox’s tail, until we came to the riverbank, again, and spotted the excavated den opening, a three foot slice of rocky earth, the opening littered with paw prints and fragmented bones and crayfish husks.  When we realized where we were, we paused a moment and softly backed away, neither one of us wanting to cast even the slightest disturbance upon the life of this fox and its family.

“Is it a maternity den?” you asked.

“Probably,” I whispered, wishing we were closer, now, to the fir and balsam, farther from the den.  “It’s about that time of year, “ I said.  “And if there are kits in there, it makes sense the fox would race back to the den with its prey, feeding it to the young mouths instead of devouring it at the kill site or burying it into a cache for later.”

“So there are hungry mouths inside that den?” you asked, your face beaming.  And in a hushed whisper: “There are little pink, baying mouths and clenched, muddy eyes?”

“Could be,” I said.  “Probably.”  And we merged with the snow flocked balsam and knelt in the snow.

I knew right then how you would take a moment to let the round, liquid world in front of us soften your heart, well it like a gently leaning storm, cooling and then gaining strength.  For a minute you closed your eyes and I very much knew what you were thinking.  In the silence I understood what you were feeling with the stars and snow through the trees.

“Look,” I said, and I pointed toward a soft hill upwind from the fox’s den.  There on the hill, blanketed in a dusting of snow, lay a fox, probably the mate of the one we had followed, its white, bushy tail wrapped around its snout, two pencil dotted eyes peering at us in the distance, its curved back hued by moonlight and the soft layer of snow which had collected across its fur.

“Why aren’t they both in the den?” you asked.  “Why is that one on the bank?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Standing guard, maybe.  Anyway, I heard they sleep outside, even in winter, sometimes completely blanketed by snow.”

We stood for a while, just watching – the only movement from the fox those two dark eyes blinking, staring back as the snow began to fall harder through the trees, blotting the moon, whispering through the limbs, the bare branches and green needles.

That’s when I noticed the tears running the length of your face and how you let them gather and fall while simply staring straight ahead.

I wanted to hold you, lean into your breath and press my fingers into your skin.  I wanted to lift your sadness, long trailing, past stars.  I merely held your hand and rubbed my thumb in soft circles around your wrist.

“It’s missing all the things I wanted to show her,” you said.  “That’s all.  There’s just so much to show her.  This is what breaks my heart the most.”

It was the first time you talked about it, there with the curled fox in front of us and the moon and snow through the trees, the first time your words focused aloud on what it felt like to lose her, the daughter who forever would remain in our imaginations.  And I wanted to wrap my arms around you and hold you, cradle you and tell you how I believed in what would come next regardless and how these things, foxes in moonlight, scattered footprints in snow, would still be there waiting and how she’d be with us to see, a part of us, and two new eyes, too, if we were lucky, and how sometimes letting go doesn’t mean giving up but gathering, instead, the strength of release while moving forward, and how I believed and believed and believed in our journey and the love that stretched between us to find her in new places while she ever gathered in our hearts like pollen over summer fields, like clouds, like wet ferns unfolding, open palms of birth, and how there would be so much more than the cold hurt of loss and the space left open wider than all the silence pooling between us in deep, stretching awe.

“I know,” I said.  “But all the things you wanted to show her, they still matter.  They still resonate and weave a path toward her.”  And then I paused, wondering if what I felt and what I knew could be shaped into words, sifting between these two worlds like a purple martin through thermals. 

It was as though we both remained submerged beneath the surface, the world hovering above us, endless sky, but our feet, our breath weighed down beneath the pitch of gravity, unmovable.  For the longest time, we had gotten used to our place beneath cold currents, the wavering sway of brown and gray reeds, the moon a threadbare murmur through the surface of ice, impossibly distant, swimming in place, impossible miles from our simple reach.

The snow fell harder, tangled in our breath, and your tears fell faster. 

“All these things you long to show her, all these things in front of us, Nat, falling from the sky and pushing through the soil…we need to see them for her now.  We need to wander bravely and nimbly into their fold.  Because maybe if we’re not more careful than this, if we don’t participate with open eyes and beating hearts, we might lose much more in this blue cauldron of hurt and silence.  If we forever stay behind with her, none of us emerges through this snow…not even her.  I think the important thing is deciding to move forward.”

For what seemed like forever, we three remained very still – you, me and the snow-covered fox on the hillside.  As the snow fell through the trees, covering our tracks, blanketing our shoulders and leaning into tiny avalanches that fell from branch to branch, we stood as still as stars.

© Kipp Wessel, 2011.