Caroline Belle Stewart

I was looking for a purposeful experience; am.

I was lonely, then and now.

The cruelest winter.

And the endless snow. Falling through the rock-strewn uplands, emptying the roads except for trucks and passing skiers.

The coldest ever.

And the harshest winds. Fast across the mountain, bared, long ago, by fires set to keep the wolves from denning in the blowdowns.

And the owls. In the boughs of the hemlock trees. Listening all night to the tunneling mice.

And the deer. Few and fewer still when the bobcat came around.

I lived alone with a single cat, gray as a lake of ice.

You appeared.

At the solstice party, among lanterns and lights, everyone talking of worse cold to come, I watched you smoke alone.

Tall and rough, wool and boots, you looked as though you had been lost for years in the forest.

I did not know the partygoers well, was not friendly with the people of my town, the bartenders and innkeepers and snowplow drivers.

I went outside, brushed the snow from a chair and introduced myself.

You were an artist, had moved to town to take a job at the alternative school in the woods. Piano, painting, carving—they liked their teachers handy.

I described the work I did for the forest heritage museum, building replicas of trees, labeling bones, arranging the rock display.

You looked away when I spoke, blinked, blew smoke, as though thinking carefully. Like the hardest women of the forest, you seemed chapped by wind and on the verge of tears.

Your eyes were blue; are. 

You invited me to the attic you rented in an old farmhouse. I came the next day. A pale horse greeted me. Stone walls circled the house and barn, crossed the fields, and disappeared up the hill.

You asked me to remove my boots before entering. The room was hot like a temple, spare and bright. You had no couch or chair. Only a bed and an old piano. An easel stood beside a window. Your paintings, sweeps of white and gray, hung on the wall. Your small kitchen flickered with the only kind of moth that lives through winter.

I sat on the piano bench. You poured two whiskeys the color of your hair, spilled on my hand.

“I’m sorry,” you said. “I’m not a human in the winter.”

“I’m not a human ever,” I said.

You drank a glass, then another, and lay down on your bed. I saw your elbow poke through a hole in your sleeve. I saw long johns through the rips in your jeans. On your middle finger, I saw the small tattoo.

Beyond two ridges, framed by trees, the mountain rose, crowned by winter sun. The owl sounded. The sun hit the silver flower of your belt, and your lap gleamed with solstice light.

Something older than me drove me.

They say these rocks, carried by glaciers from far away, are where spirits come from. Rocks surface from the ground every thaw, where there were no rocks before, as though birthed by the soil.

In your bathroom, the body of a moth swirled in the sink. My world was cold and small, enclosed by streams and forests, roads and graveyards, kept company by field guides, hills and weather. I had a friend now.

You were the kind of friend whose clothes I would have liked to sew.

The sun fell behind the mountain and the woods turned blue. The room grew dim. I took your sweater in my fingers.

“Take this off,” I said. You sipped your drink.

“I mean the holes,” I said. “Do you have thread?”

You pointed to a drawer.

Then you stood up, took your sweater off and gave it to me.

“Thanks,” you said. “I usually take care of this. But in the winter—”

I found your thread and needle, closed the holes. I can’t be blamed for the things I thought; the things I think.

“It’s not perfect,” I said, handing you the sweater. “I’m better at other things.”

You took the sweater. Stumbling with whiskey, you dropped it on the floor. You laughed and laughed, then drew me into a swaying hug.

“It’s perfect,” you said.

“I’m glad we met,” I said.

I smelled your breath and hair, and the clothes you never washed. I smelled the history of women.

You let go.

“I guess it’s time for me to drink a glass of water and paint a little now,” you said.

I hung the sweater on your bedpost as I left.

Home, in my narrow building that leaned into the only street we called downtown, I lit two candles, took the cat’s face in my hands and made a wish. It wasn’t every day, in this town, a woman like you stepped out of the trees.

You asked me over again one afternoon. Then again.

We both finished work early most days, had nothing to do. It became routine to drink and watch the light slip down the piano keys.

We sat on the floor playing checkers and cards. You showed me crystals and rocks. We often sat in silence but we also talked. You told me about your childhood, how you hunted. I told you how as a girl I believed plants could speak. We did not argue or debate, we were glad to have a friend. We drank and stared into your wood-burning stove and saw the embers of time.

Once in a while I invited you to my house, but you said you felt uncomfortable at other houses. I suggested the bar but you said you did not like bars.

I would have made you dinner.

But at night you made your art, you said, and I couldn’t stay.

When the sun went down, I went alone to the bar and sat in the back where I couldn’t feel the cold. Sometimes a passing skier bought me a drink, and we had a sad, brief conversation. Then I went home, fed my cat and lit my candles.

What I would have given to feel your fingers in my hair.

What I would have done to have my clothes off, yours.

I would have liked to taste your cold-flaked cheeks.

I was not raised with any kind of faith, but I use candles purposefully. And I know that wishes are a kind of prayer and prayer starts with a longing of some kind. If longing is a spiritual state, then the closest I have come to god is longing for you.

Sometimes, in the afternoon, you passed out drunk. While you slept I washed your dishes. I wiped your sink and switched your laundry. You were the kind of friend whose floors I would have liked to mop.

Sometimes I slipped the hairs from your counter into my purse.

I liked to walk around the room and dip my fingers in the dust.

I didn’t want to leave. I sat quietly at the piano and when the time felt right, smashed my hands onto the keys.

You’d startle awake, say you were sorry, how could this happen? It must be that you were tired, sleeping poorly at night. It was loud up here, you’d say, with the clattering heater, the plowing at all hours, the ice that thundered from the roof.

And there were dreams keeping you up. Terrible scenarios. Burial, paralysis, invasions. You turned into a statue made of stone and snakes crawled from your mouth.

Sometimes you seemed as empty as a larch, the only pine whose needles die in winter. To fill you up I baked you bread, the tiniest of my hairs baked inside.

I noticed that it went uneaten and that, as winter carried on, you’d gotten thinner. Sometimes you seemed confused. Bottles mounted in the recycling bin. Gray roots in your hair grew out. I saw new holes in the wall, a broken mirror. It was the attic, you said, the sloping ceilings. Didn’t I know that the shape of a room can cause crisis?

The sun hung low and the sky turned the color of smoke. The weather came, again and again.

One night, long after dark, you asked me to come over.

“I can’t go another night without sleep,” you said. “Is there something you can do?”

It was late and snow slicked the winding road that led from town.

Your room was hot like a sickroom, thick with breathing and beating moths. Snow in my hair turned to water.

You lay in bed, sweating, a dirty rag wrapped around your hand. You weren’t sure what happened. You might have left a pan on the burner and grabbed the handle.

“This won’t work,” I said, starting to unwrap the rag. “Is there a bandage somewhere?”

You swatted me with your good hand.

“What I need,” you said, “is for you to tell me a story to put me to sleep.”

I thought of a story I knew, very old and very long.

They say this land was covered by a glacier once. It melted, leaving rocks and tundra. When it grew warm, the land filled with giant trees. We turned the trees to farms and the rocks to walls and the years went by. We killed people; we killed wolves. We abandoned our farms, turned the tillage to pasture and the pasture back to forest. Now old stone walls traverse these hills, and the trees are small.

You nodded and your breathing steadied.

What I would have given to feel the scales and feathers of your moths up and down my skin.

I would have liked to swallow the moonlight that broke through the snow clouds and came down your skylight.

I would have made a baby with you, would have born a rock, sent it into a world of rocks, who, like the dead, claw their way from graves to breathe the air.

I sat down on your bed. I leaned very close, put my lips to your ear. I wanted to be of help to my friend.

I said that heartwood is the hardest part of a hemlock, and its bark never rots. You will not find a worm in a hemlock stump for a hundred years.

When it thaws the worms will move again, I said, among new rocks. They will work the soil into lace until the rains lift them to the grass, where the birds will part their beaks and bow down to them.

I moved the hair from your face. I did not mean to invade. But I thought it was time that you knew.

It was lower than a whisper. I used barely any breath.

It was not me who spoke through my mouth; it is not me.

“I want my worms to crawl through you.”

You put your good hand on my hand.

“I’m falling asleep now,” you said. “You can go.”

I stood, walked to the door, and saw the spirit of myself, faint and silver, drift across your skylight.

You slept within minutes. The equinox loomed. The next day you said you needed the afternoon to yourself.

The weeks went by. I did not hear from you.

And then I saw the woman.

In furs and heels sharp enough to stab ice, she followed you into the bar. I did not announce my presence.

She talked and laughed loudly, drew glances from the bargoers. She ordered several plates of food and you ate all of it, as though you had never been sad in your life.

You only ordered one drink. She ordered no drinks. You stayed very late, the bar grew quiet. I sipped my whiskey in my shadowed booth. She paid for the meal and you stood, looked towards the back of the bar, blinking—I could have sworn you saw me—and then you put your hand on her hip, and you whispered in her ear, and I did not hear the words, no, but I felt them, cruel as a stream slowly carving a rock.

I went home and saw things in the flames.

I saw myself walk along a ridge of young red pines that turned the light to blood at sundown. Someplace wild and lonely. In the deadly cold. I chanced to meet this woman, standing on the ridge. Far below her, pointed rocks, an ice-choked stream. She did not notice me walk near her. I saw the wind blow strongly and suddenly. I saw her little heel land wrong upon the frozen snow.

Then I snuffed my candles out and sat there, nostalgic for the light.

In the afternoons, I wandered alone along the stone walls near your house. Tracks led to holes between the stones where animals had slept through winter. I slipped my hand inside, looking for an answer, and came out with only webs and twigs.

I strummed an old guitar and whistled. I burned the last of your hairs in the flames.

When the owls in my trees woke me in the night, I knew the owls in your trees woke you in the night.

I waited until the snow melted, uncovered moss on rocks. Stems and blades sprung. Flowers pushed from the trees and the birds returned.

I waited for any word or sign from you. Golden dust streamed through the windows, and all but the bald mountain peak greened with leaves.

In a parking lot one day, I heard you call my name. It was sunny and town was crowded. Lilies had risen.

Your hair was dyed again and spikey and your shirt looked clean.

You hugged me, took my grocery bags and walked me to my car.

“Did you disappear?” you said.

“Did you?” I said.

You were busy now, teaching mornings and afternoons. Seeing her at night. Drinking less, sleeping well. You had meant to be in touch.

“I’m sorry for the winter,” you said. “You’re a good friend.”

“You were my only friend,” I said.

“Am,” you said. “I am your friend.”

You placed my bags very carefully in the backseat and closed the door.

“I turn into something else in the winter,” you said.

But I am always something else.

The year carried on. Then the years. You married.

We did what normal friends do, cooked dinner and hiked. I had two friends now: you and your wife.

You moved into a larger apartment, then a farmhouse of your own. The rooms grew colorful and cluttered. Your piano filled with photos, plants, and glassware, and went out of tune. Your wife loved your paintings, but made you keep them in the barn. Your torn clothes vanished, coarse sweaters smoothed into soft cashmere, faded jeans turned slim and blue.

I followed your wife’s instructions in the kitchen, cut dutifully with her fancy knives, and never said a word about our winter. She opened a store in town, gave me dresses, and I wore them only for her. I excused myself from our dinners and peered into your bedroom, perfumed and full of her clothes.

I continued on at the forest heritage museum, did not care to advance or make money, moved from apartment to trailer, from trailer to cabin, and wandered the ice. I stayed warm by fireplace and propane, absolved myself of possessions, and shared space with mice.

I waited for things to go wrong between you and your wife.

I played my guitar. In the cat’s eyes, I saw a cold woman in a palace sitting on an egg that never hatches. I saw a motionless trout carried down a polar stream guided by a barren larch. I gathered stones from your driveway and placed them in a bag beneath my mattress. I took junk mail from your mailbox and fed my fire with it. By stones, song, and fire I wished for you, and what I finally received was not you, but a baby born to your wife one night, just as the snow began to melt.

I had another friend then.

I watched my new friend while you went out to fancy dinners in bigger towns. I carried her from room to room. I cradled her in one arm as I sifted through your wife’s many boxes of jewelry. I opened your desk drawers, empty except for books and nips of whiskey.

I took my new friend for walks sometimes, into trees so thick a baby could disappear. I rocked her in the empty, echoing woods, for as long as she could stand it. We were very careful. Bobcats lived nearby and she was the size of a baby deer.

When you returned home in your suit, your wife in velvet, you went straight upstairs to kiss the baby even though it made her cry.

The earth heated up. The earth cooled. The baby grew.

The baby became fussy and mysterious, not easily calmed. You turned tense, drank more whiskey, no longer wanted to paint. Your wife rounded out in the face, whispered angrily at you, stopped wearing fancy fabrics, cared only about the baby. She took me aside in the kitchen sometimes and asked me what might make her happy.

“More time to yourself,” I said.

“With this baby?” she said. “With this wife?”

One night, very late, you wrote, “Remind me what it feels like to be alone.”

I washed my face and changed into my only sweater untouched by moths. I brushed my hair and watched your headlights travel up my long, unplowed dirt road.

You came in and kicked the snow off, took your coat and hat off, slurring words. You set a bottle on the table. In your dirty ski cap and misbuttoned sweater, you looked handsomer than ever.

“Do you have time for a drink?” you said.

“Yes,” I said, and set out two jam jars. You filled them to the brim.

“This,” you said, gesturing drunkenly at the shelves of rough wood, my few books, my aging cat. “I bet you’re very happy here.”

“I have time and space to talk to rocks,” I said.

“I wish,” you said. “I wish.”

You said sometimes you thought of leaving altogether, moving south, away from snow, to unglaciated land, to soft and easy floodplains, where you could be alone.

“I love my family, of course,” you said.

“Of course,” I said.

My candles were burning. The snow was falling. The cat turned her ears towards you suddenly, but you hadn’t made a sound.

You looked at me, or you looked beyond me, it was hard to say. Then you touched my face with the backs of your hands, as though checking to see if I had a fever. But you were the one sweating.

You leaned in, and your face neared my face, and your mouth neared my mouth. It was a gesture I wish I didn’t understand.

I parted my lips.

Then I blew into your face.

Startled, you stepped back and knocked a candle over.

I picked the candle up, lit it in the fireplace, and returned it to its holder.

You blinked and blinked, as though you had seen a spirit and were trying to wash it away.

“I’m sorry,” you said, wiping your face with your sleeve. “I don’t know what got into me.”

“Forget it,” I said. “We’re good friends.”

“It’s okay, then?” you said.

“Nothing isn’t okay,” I said.

Outside, a clump of snow fell from one bough to another.

“Your family probably wonders where you are,” I said.

Without another word, you put your hat and boots on, went out to the dark and cold, and left me to my privacy.

Now I live within your heart as if inside a hollow tree.

And your child walks and talks and goes to school.

Now my little cat has passed away.

And in the absence of anyone at all to love me, I face invisibility.

The animals make tracks all through these hills. I do not make tracks.

I leave impressions on no one wherever I go.

In temperatures so low I do not age.

And every now and then, like the god of passing time who eats her children, you visit me in secret, late at night, and we drink away your regrets. You do not touch me, for there is nothing left to touch.

And on clear, cold nights, unknown to all, I visit you.

I climb a boulder, where the view is better.

Look towards me.

I am outside your house.

The dishwasher loads and unloads. You iron your clothes. Your wife tucks your daughter into bed. She gets into bed.

You get into bed.

All the lights go off.

And sometime later in the night, a light comes on.

You pace the house, pour a drink, lean beside a lunchbox drying on the dish rack, and you stare into the sink.

Now turn your ears towards me.

Go back to bed.

Sleep deep beside your wife until the lichen covers you.

I will see to it that you sleep this way, safe and warm, each night for the rest of your life.

Inside you lie snakes and beneath you lie worms.

When you feel them, look this way.

I move them.