Tracings in Snow
“When Matthew was sixteen years old, he ran away from home. He did not return until Christmas Eve fourteen years later. He showed up on the lawn late at night, while the family was gathered around the tree…”
Happy Monday! I hope you enjoy the final installment of Tracings in Snow. As always, I value your feedback very much. Have a wonderful week,
◊ Installment 9 ◊
Matthew stood in the snow by the apple tree. It was taller than it had been when he left home, but so was he, with the ironic effect that his shoulders still came up to exactly level with the bottom branch, just as they had in high school. It was the only thing about being home that had not changed.
He ran a hand over the bark. It had a familiar, incongruous texture: silky smooth, with unexpected rough patches, like a woman’s soft skin flecked with callouses. If he closed his eyes and let his hand glide over the trunk, the years melted away and he could imagine that he was ten years old again, examining the apple tree with an eye to possibilities. There were still bare spots on the branches where the boards had rubbed the bark away. Here and there a few bent nails, furred with rust, poked out of the scarred wood. The sap that had leaked out around them had long since hardened into mounds of yellow resin, preserved evidence of old, forgotten wounds of yesterday.
He looked up into the branches, but the tree house was gone. The space it had occupied was still hollow and empty, the smaller branches broken off around it, making a gaping hole in the center of the tree.
“Dad tore it down,” said a voice behind him, “after you left.” He turned and saw his sister, standing behind him in the frozen yard.
“Walter had started sleeping in it,” Kalli explained. “He stayed up there all the time, and he wouldn’t come down. Dad took him to a psychiatrist, but it didn’t help. Finally, Dad tore the tree house down.”
Matthew shifted uneasily. He began to trace a pattern with his boot in the half-frozen snow. It took him a moment to realize it was the same pattern he used to trace when he and Walter played in the yard as kids: a series of figure eights that gradually grew smaller and smaller, until they disappeared. He stopped abruptly, leaving a figure eight half finished. What was it about being home, he wondered, that made people snap into position like magnets, acting out the same roles they had performed over and over again, long after they had grown up and changed, and the parts had become wildly inappropriate?
Kalli sank down on an old, wooden bench where their mother used to store the gardening tools. After a moment, Matthew sat beside her.
“Do you ever wonder,” Kalli said thoughtfully, “if the birds who are born in this tree come back and make nests in it when they’re old?”
“Yes,” said Matthew.
They sat together, gazing up at the tree. Not everything about her had changed, Matthew realized. Though he would never have recognized her without the familiar, worn out backdrop of the house, her eyes were still the same, curious copper color they had been as a little girl, fringed with reddish eyelashes in which the snowflakes stuck, and her nose was still powdered with tiny freckles, finer and more delicate than the snow. It was not that everything at home had changed, he realized, but that his relationship to it had altered beyond recognition. Aside from the apple tree, nothing had evolved at precisely the same pace as Matthew.
On Christmas morning they had gone to church. Matthew had been aware of the old, smothered feeling of rebellion he always felt when he walked through the doors, mingled with relief that he was no longer expected to don the red and white robes of the acolytes and shuffle, abashed, up the aisle. Sitting in the back of the church, watching colored light falling from the stained glass windows, staining the faces of the parishioners with red and green and gold, he felt a dull ache in his heart fill with a quiet sensation of peace. He watched the choir’s slow progress up the aisle. It was led by the same bent, grey pastor who had been there when Matthew was a child; slightly more bent and more grey, and Matthew waited for the old, trapped feeling of resentment to wash over him, but it never did. He could no longer quite recall what he used to resent about going to church. It had something to do with contrasts, he felt: the contrast between the profound reverence inspired by the candles and the choir, and the rustle of a hundred people’s jackets as they rose together in prayer, clashing with the jarring note of discord when he disagreed with the pastor’s message. But he realized now that you could disagree with a part of something without giving up the whole; that you could enjoy an old, worn out puzzle even if the pieces did not fit together perfectly; that the imperfect thing you held onto was better than the empty nothing that filled its place if you chucked the whole of it out the window.
Now, looking up at the apple tree, he remembered how its leaves used to turn bright gold in the fall. He remembered the cupcakes his mother used to bake for his birthday. She would melt little bits of candy into the frosting, flecking the white surface with pink and yellow and blue. When he was sixteen, he thought the big things about family were what mattered, but now he realized it was the small things. It was the rumble of an old radiator, switching on early on a frosty morning; the smell of bacon frying in a pan downstairs. It was the shared memories no one else knew the meaning of, and how the maple trees lining their street turned red for Thanksgiving: not just plain red, but deep, glittering crimson, like a hundred red firecrackers, exploding all at once. ♦