Warm White

The snow pack was 30 feet high that winter. My cabin was built on “stilts” yet still I had to dig steps into the snow to climb up over the bank and once on top slide down into the door. I was 19 years old. He was 26, and had killed before. Not because he wanted to, but because he had to. It was his job. He had been a soldier. He described his experience to me in great detail every night, until I saw it through his eyes; the sound of the footsteps of the person fleeing in front of him; his back as he came upon him. I felt the horror he felt as this man turned to face him in his final moments.

He was too much for me. I didn’t know it at the time. But he had seen everything. I had seen too little.  Everything I absorbed from his telling reverberated in me and stuck forever as there was so much room. My inner world was still mine alone.

On sunny days we put on snow shoes and hiked across the surface of the snow, skimming past the tops of trees. We would sing songs, making up words. He knew very few songs. I knew many. It was the only thing I could teach him.

One night I drove him to a river after midnight. It was up a service road, miles into the mountain pass where we lived. The only light was the trace of moonlight that fell through shifting clouds. We climbed up the rocky slope on our hands and knees and came to the river’s edge. The warm winter had caused the turbulence of the river to run so violently we could not hear each other speak—yet we never spoke. Sitting on a large flat rock we listened; completely dwarfed by the sound and the disorientation of place which came from the darkness. We formed a compass with the smell of the cedar bark that lined the ground beneath our feet and the mist that fell on our face from the direction of the river.

At one point, he looked at me. I felt his eyes and so turned towards him just as the moonlight fell across the side of his face. I saw the fear in his eyes. And then we were running, falling, lungs-burning our way back to the car. Inside we locked the doors and instinctively knew we both sensed danger. It was a feeling you never ignored in the Cascade mountains. They were too accessible from the highway. We never feared animals—his lesson to me.

It was this evening that bonded us.

A few weeks later on a dark night, he didn’t show up when he said he would. I stood out on my porch and saw lights on in the cabin down the road where he stayed once in a while. When I arrived the door was open. He had been drinking. His arms and legs were flailing, his voice was careening and in his hand was something shiny that caught the light. It was his knife. The one he slept with under his pillow. He was afraid of his dreams, (I told myself). But now, he took the knife and raised it and just before he brought it down into his chest, without thinking I jumped and wrapped my hand around it. I had it by the blade. His shock of my movement slowed time and the three steps I took to the door were enough. I opened it and threw the knife into the snow. It fell down through the 30 feet of whiteness, warmly, hidden until next spring. And as I let it go there was a moment when I felt something hit the side of my head. He had tried to slam the door to stop me from throwing the knife but instead caught my head. It was all I remembered that night.

I left the next morning, heading out across the country to grassy lands and apple trees. But for months I imagined him sitting above the snow each moonless night, wondering where the knife had fallen. I wondered if he drew a map, cordoning off sections to isolate it. Or if he dove down quietly and desperately to retrieve it. I imagined him swimming bravely under the white, towards its lonely resting place.

The moment that bonded us was the moment we escaped danger together. The moment that broke our bond was when our fates became singular—when we imposed our self on each others individual destiny.

Originally posted October 19, 2014

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