“Oh, this is lovely.” Those were the words out of Claire’s mouth as she stood at the back door of the bungalow staring into the woods. I honestly could not tell if she was being sincere or sarcastic.
I’m pretty sure she was being sincere and I just wasn’t used to it. I looked out and saw it was beginning to snow and then looked back at her and she had a hand on her cheek and a wistful look on her face.
“Let’s go for a walk,” I said.
“What, in the weather?”
“Yeah. Just a short one. Before it gets too heavy or changes to rain.” I put my hoodie on and then pulled my jacket over it. There were some gloves crammed in the pocket.
I didn’t really have the right shoes for hiking through the woods. I had the choice between my high tops, which were thin canvas with a flat rubber sole, or a short pair of black leather boots that were honestly not that much taller than the high tops and hadn’t aged well. By which I mean they looked very eighties.
But they were probably the slightly better choice for walking through snowy underbrush. I pulled them on. “Are you coming? Or am I going out by myself?”
“Oh, I suppose just for a few minutes,” she said. She had a pair of winter boots at least, and a long coat. She already had a scarf around her patchy hair and she wound a woolen one around that and her neck.
She had another one, a black and white checkered scarf with fringe on the ends, that she’d gotten as a Christmas gift. I don’t remember who gave it to her, but she wrapped it around my neck and then I pulled up my hood and out we went.
There was a sort of notch in the underbrush that I took to mean a path went through there, and we went that direction. It was early afternoon so it was still light, though a muted light through the snowy clouds. We quickly came to an area of pines or some kind of evergreens which kept the snow off and made for a very clear way underneath them but it meant we lost the path. It took a bit to find it again.
“Where do you suppose it goes?” Claire asked, once we were going through the bare trees again, and the snow was filtering down around us.
“The lake, I hope? There’s supposed to be a lake back here.”
Any animals that might have lived in that section of woods were either scared of us or hunkered down for the snow. There were no bird calls, no rustles or cries. There were places where the trail thinned down to almost nothing, but we picked our way along.
We came to the lake more suddenly than I expected. It looked like the trail curved to the right as it went up a slight rise, and it did, because if it had gone straight over the rise it would have gone directly into the lake. Down below I could see the rise was really one side of a huge rock that had grown covered with dirt and trees on the side we approached from, but which was pretty bare on the side of the water. We could make our way around it and down to where a flat stone made a kind of outcrop into the water. Ripples lapped up the slope of the rock and as we stood there I could hear the sort of white noise that was made by the snowflakes hitting the surface of the lake.
I was thinking as I looked across the water that it wasn’t a very big lake in my estimation and I would have described it as more of a large pond, but what do I know about these things?
Claire cleared her throat. “That’s it? The lake?”
“It’s really more of a large pond if you ask me,” she said with a sniff and then crossed her arms as I started to laugh. “What is so funny?”
“Nothing.” I slowed down to a chuckle. “Okay, it was that I had just thought the exact same thing. And so it struck me as funny.”
She shook her head like I was a little crazy but maybe there was a tiny smirk there.
I picked up a rock and tried to skip it, but it just plunged right into the water, and then we stood there just watching the ripples. And then we just kept standing there, so long that snow started to rest on my eyelashes and I had to blink and wipe them.
“I guess we should go back,” I said.
“Mm-hm.” She seemed to agree, but she didn’t move. We stood there a while longer again. Then she said, “It’s very peaceful, isn’t it?”
“I don’t remember the last time I walked in the woods.”
“Really? I’m trying to remember that myself.”
“Didn’t you go to a Boy Scout camp when you were in fourth or fifth grade?”
“Yeah.” I didn’t have particularly fond memories of that camping experience. “For a weekend. But Ziggy and I went for a midnight walk in the woods in California last year, I think? And ended up at the Pacific Ocean.”
“This is no ocean.”
“No, it’s a lot quieter.”
She folded her gloved hands. “I was always a city girl. But there was one time they brought us to Bear Mountain for a field trip.”
“In school, you mean?”
“It’s been that long since you went for a walk in the woods?”
“Yes, I think so.” She took a long, slow breath. “I guess what I’m asking is whether it’s always this peaceful, I mean, for everyone, or if it’s just me.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s peaceful for everyone and that’s why nature hikes are a thing.” I brushed snow off my shoulders and went back to the top of the rock. She didn’t follow. “Claire, we should get back.”
“In a minute,” she said, still staring across the water. Watching the flakes hit the lake was kind of mesmerizing, but I could hear the reluctance in her voice.
“Just one more minute,” she said a little later, before I could ask her again. “And then I’ll be ready to go.”
“Okay.” I wasn’t sure what she was negotiating. I wasn’t in a hurry, exactly. It wasn’t like I had somewhere to be. I just didn’t want us to be out too long and get too cold.
She gave a little nod toward the water, like she’d been having a little conversation with it or something. I’m probably reading too much into it. And then she turned and climbed back up to where I was and we headed back through the trees.
We lost our way in the pine grove again, though, and although I thought we were headed in the direction of our house, we ended up exiting the underbrush behind a different bungalow. There was a man and a dog sitting on the back porch and he waved to us. At first I thought maybe he was sitting on our back porch, but no, this place had no car port. It was otherwise pretty similar, though, and we approached him.
“You must be the new neighbors,” he said, beckoning us out of the snow onto the porch. Under his wool hat I could see he was a lot younger than he’d looked from a distance. “I’m Silas.”
I shook hands with him and regretted it slightly. He had a strong grip and wasn’t even trying to prove anything by it, I don’t think. But my hand didn’t feel great. “I’m Daron and this is my mother, Claire. We’re renting in the offseason.”
The dog had long jowls and somber eyes and thrust its nose into my other hand. When I scratched behind its ears, I got a tail thump, though.
“This is Matilda,” he said. “I guess she likes you. She’s a good dog.”
“Good dog,” I repeated to Matilda, since I wasn’t really sure what to say to a dog and I had his word on it. She thumped her tail harder.
“You folks might want to walk back to your place along the road,” Silas said. “There’s a ditch that runs between here and there that’s dry this time of year but it’s a bi–” He cleared his throat. “It’s a pain to cross.”
“Why thank you for the advice, Mr. Silas,” Claire said sweetly.
“You may as well come through the house,” he said, and opened the back door. Once inside he pulled off the hat and I saw he had short brown hair that was a bit plastered this way and that from having been inside the hat. The house smelled like incense which seemed a bit out of place to me until I detected a bit of a note of weed under it all.
“I’m so sorry to track snow inside,” Claire said to him as we went through the living room.
“Oh, ma’am, I have a dog. There couldn’t be anything worse on your feet than on hers.” True enough.
We went out his front door and from there I could just see the carport on our bungalow. We shook hands again and he told us to drop by if we needed anything.
Back in our house we took off our now-snowy things and hung them over the back of chairs, and Claire started heating up some milk on the stove to make into hot chocolate.
“Well, he seemed nice enough,” I said.
“Mm-hm.” She was back to being quiet. What I couldn’t tell was if she was withdrawn or just quiet, just grooving on the peace of the woods and pond?
When she had prepared two mugs of hot chocolate, she set one down in front of me at the kitchen table and took hers into her room and closed the door.
(Hey folks, how about a comment challenge? There are currently 4 posts between now and the end of the month, including this one. If we get 50 top-level comments–no, replies do not count!–by 11:59pm eastern on January 31st I’ll post a bonus chapter on Saturday, Feb 2. We’re getting pretty close to a bonus chapter in the tip jar, too, so hey, that would only be 10 comments per post, right? -ctan)