$1,100 Grand Prize Winner 2012 E. M. Koeppel Short Fiction Award:
First Full Night of Winter by David Brendan Hopes
David Brendan Hopes was born in Akron, Ohio, and attended Hiram College, Johns Hopkins, and Syracuse University. He is currently Professor of Literature at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, where he has lived since 1983. He is a poet and a playwright as well as a fiction writer, and his play Conversation Involving Doppler the Cat appears in production at the Durango Arts Center in September, 2012, and his play-with-music, The Loves of Mr. Lincoln, is by the usual slow degrees making its way to the New York stage.
First Full Night of Winter
David Brendan Hopes
Frost had blasted the big leaves. Most of the flowers had already folded up into their roots. Streamers of their rotting leaves arrayed themselves around their stems in black, broken spirals. The ferns were indecisive. The sensitive ferns, true to their name, had vanished before the frost, when the air had merely taken the color of frost. One maidenhair still stood, curved like a splash from a stone thrown into a green pond. The other maidenhairs were black threads, or gone altogether. The Christmas ferns were either evergreen or waiting until they could slip away undetected, with dignity intact.
The woman stood at the edge of the shade garden looking at the ferns. She did this a long time. The man, her husband, had arrayed stumps around the garden so you could sit and look a long time and not see everything. Tentative, tossing snowflakes ventured and retreated between the branches of the sweet gum. The sweet gum tree was immense. The woman forgot sometimes how huge it was. Its top sang in the wind with a sound which, if you did not trace its source with your eyes, you might think originated in another world. But you couldn't look up long into the sweet gum while snow was falling, for the vertigo would make you think you were falling up into the dome of the world, and nothing would stop you.
She noticed herself noticing everything in the moments before the real storm hit, not just the big things like the sweet gum and the snow-carrying wind, but the various colors of the leaves caught in the dead grass, how some of them were whole and others were skeletons or thin filigrees. Where did the insects go? Did they die? Did they bury themselves like the sensitive ferns to rise again when the snow turned to rain? Only a few days ago there was a mantis as long as her hand on the wall of the garage. Was it dead now? Sleeping? Could you grow to that tigerish size and just be swept away by the first freeze? All the details were useless unless she understood them, and how could she understand them unless she asked, and who was there now to ask?
Her husband had known these things. He probably still did, but she no longer knew how to ask.
There was practically nothing green but the ferns. The big spruce was green, of course, but the wrong green, heavy and suffocating. She couldn't stand anything aromatic just now. She was hungry for the right green. Could she pick the fern fronds for a bouquet? She didn't know. She hadn't planted them; he had. He knew, as she did not, whether they would stand up to the heat of a room, if they would wither like lettuce kept in a too-cold refrigerator. If you plucked a frond, would the whole plant die? Some plants are like that. He would know what things could be plucked and brought inside and what could not. He could have left signs, written instructions. He could have pulled her from in front of the TV and made her dig with him. She would have fought, but he should have stood firm.
Perhaps he had planted delicate, perishable things on purpose, foreseeing what would happen, making sure punishment would follow.
Now it was snowing steadily. She looked up to watch the branches of the sweet gum filter the snow like someone passing shining cloth through her fingers. She couldn't look too long, though, for she began to fall up, up, up, and then had to squat down and touch the ground with her hands to stop the whirling ascent. The ground was warm. Snow still melted when it hit the ground, though it began to gather on the fern fronds and bend them a little over. The fronds must be designed to hold up under a certain accumulation of snow. The ferns must hold as much snow as they needed to back where they originated, in Ohio or China or any of the places she thought he heard him name when he was planting them.
One afternoon he had come and banked fallen leaves up around the stems of the delicate ones, so they would have little brown coats through the winter. Some had the coats and some did not, and over the remnants of some of the vanished ones the leaf hill rose like tels over fallen cities. How did he know which ones to give the coats to, which ones to leave alone? There must be a book somewhere which told one this. She would have to look on the shelves. Some of his books he left behind. Maybe the ones she needed to keep things going. He would have thought of that, but if, after everything, he would have done it was another matter.
In those few hours when she hated him, she had imagined herself going out into the garden and destroying the plants, because she knew he loved them. This she did not do. She shuddered now when she remembered having even been tempted.
It was winter for her too; she was cold, too, but he had not come to slip her into a scratchy brown coat, or find her and raise a mound over her where she had already disappeared. She contemplated the evident truth that the plants meant more to him than she did. Perhaps they were just less trouble. Perhaps they were more trouble, and that was the unexpected secret. Perhaps he felt there was still something there on which to build. Perhaps he heard their voices and had stopped hearing hers. What she whispered to him with her secret voice, the one like the voice the plants might use, was different from what she did. He should have understood that.
She'd stayed outside worrying about the ferns too long, so when she came in she had to stand in the kitchen for a while getting used to the moist, scented heat which seemed to come from everywhere at once. The cold wind was cold from one overwhelming direction, but in her own kitchen, the heat seemed to come from everywhere. What did she smell? Food, cooking. Food already cooked and eaten and forgotten. Cleaning fluids. Heat. And she smelled him. She smelled him even though he had been gone seven weeks. Even though.
She blew heat onto the tips of her fingers. She had been nameless Woman out under the sweet gum tree, at the edge of the shade garden, but in her own kitchen she was a particularity, a specific woman whose name was Peggy. And this was her house, her heat. Peggy's house, Peggy's heat. The smell of Peggy's food. Out there were his ferns, his blue cold blowing from the north in a straight line now, with darkness and flecks of snow upon it.
If she took two steps she would see the other man in the living room. His name was Ron. He would never be the Man, but always specifically, merely, Ron. Never a force of nature. Never a fearful power to bolt that temperamental window against. He had not planted the ferns. He had not dug hours under the hemlocks to find the right shade of shade for the lettucy hart's-tongue. He did not go out in the first snow, but sat in the light of the window folding the big pages of the paper in half to read easier, making the same folding/rustling sound each time. One of the smells was his coffee, the remaining bitter inch at the bottom of the pot.
"Ron?" she said.
"Nothing. Nothing. Just checking."
She had said to him once, her husband, the one who was Him whenever the word came to her tongue, "I'm afraid. I'm afraid of loving you too much. It will lead me. . . somewhere. Somewhere I don't want to go."
She was being theatrical. She wanted him to say something back to her, to repeat what she had said. Call and response. But he said, "Why don't you pray about it?" He was not being theatrical. She had not expected that response. She turned it over in her mind, still did-- without praying, without letting it go.
She tried the same line on Ron. He took a different meaning. He smiled and said, "You bad girl," swatting at her thigh playfully with a magazine. She played along. She wore black lace that night.
When her husband had come home that fateful evening-- seven weeks ago, when it was middle summer-- he stopped to mess with his flowers for a moment as he always did between the car and the house. That moment should have been enough time. She had heard the car stop, the door slam. Those sounds should have been safety and warning. There should have been enough time to get Ron out the front door, which he never used, or into his clothes so some excuse could be made. But she had not been quick. Maybe she had not wanted to be. Maybe she was sick of him and his garden. Maybe she wanted to be caught with Ron, to close the covers of a book which was proving too hard for her, and start anew with an easier task. He had stood at the bedroom door with the two of them looking at him. She was afraid of them then, as she had not expected to be. Spades, wind, rakes, saws, the thickening frost, these were his things, and if he had brought some with him down the echoing hallway, he life and Ron's would be over. Had he not, finally, spoken, they could all be there still, skeletons of hesitancy, frozen forever in an inarticulate instant, but he had spoken. He said, "But I thought."
Ron had laughed. Ron said, "You're not going to shoot me, are you?" and then he laughed. She wished he had shot Ron, just to have the moment take a different route. There was no gun, but she had no doubt he could have shot him anyway, with . . . something.
"But I thought.”
But he thought what? Why did he say that, out of all the things which could be said? That she was his love forever? That her eye could not in probability stray from his big shoulders and the ropes of veins at his wrists. Probably that, but maybe not that. Maybe something subtler, harder. But he was always too hard. That was the problem.
She was glad Ron laughed, but she wished someone had killed someone, so it could all be different now. She wished she knew what to do about the garden. Maybe he should have shot her. Maybe she was the one who had it coming. He had never said that, so she had never thought it, but there was something about the cold and the snow and the sudden house heat and the drama of the bewintered ferns that made her think it now. He would have killed her if he could, if he had brought one of his sharp, cold weapons in from under the boiling sky.
He left with his things, most of them, but he came back to tend the garden. He brought new tools in the back of his car, and never touched the ones gathering dust in the garage. She almost never saw him, and often when she did she didn't call to him, or even tap on the window and wave. He was friendly. He could have been a neighbor or a man she hired to take care of the garden. He visited it and not her. It had not betrayed him. He and Ron chatted on the stone walk sometimes, and this amazed her. She assumed she would stand between them all their lives, in every second of their lives, but sometimes they chatted as if that evening had not happened, and there was no Peggy to make them enemies. She knew his eyes, though. She knew when he choked back rage and pain. She did not know Ron's eyes yet, but she didn't think he choked back anything. Maybe he'd forgotten that evening, and assumed the man with the hoe was indeed the man she'd hired to tend a garden she didn't understand.
"Ron, I don=t know what to do about the ferns."
"Michael's ferns. I don't know what to do."
"They're fine. He comes here almost every day, doesn't he? They're fine."
"In the snow?"
"I'm sure they're fine."
Ron had not laid down the paper, and his voice had the bright, indirect timbre voices have when you haven't bothered to put down the paper to answer someone. Peggy bent over in her own kitchen with one hand on the counter to hold herself up, and thought she was going to cry. But she did not. You could not cry with all those food smells around you. She would have to open the window. She would have to pull the oily branches of the spruce in and make their fragrance cover everything.
Michael was his name. Michael. She seldom thought of his name. He was always he. Him. The one who was not herself. The male. He who knelt in the dirt with his mouth against the green spring fronds, whispering.
"I'm going to make some."
She didn't say what she was going to make, but still he said, "That sounds nice." She didn't say because she didn't know. She could smell old cooking. Whatever she could smell she was not going to make, not this time. She could smell him. Not Ron. When Ron came from the shower you could smell soap and talc, but not him. Michael's scent was still a whisper in the rooms. The other. Him. It was. . . she could not describe it. Like a plant. Like an animal. . .She could not describe it. Like the scent above the ground when it had just started to snow.
"You all right? You sounded a little?"
"No. No. I was worried about the ferns. You're right, though, whatever's out on a night like this will have to take care of itself."
Ron rattled the paper very hard. It was his sign that he was about to rise out of the chair and come to her. She wished he wouldn't. She wished he would stay hidden for one more moment, so she could run to the window and take a last look, out over the lawn, past the fallen branches of the wind-torn sweet gum, to where Michael=s ferns were gathering their pearls of snow, making their decisions, hunkering down, or easing into darkness, on the first full night of winter.
2012 Editors' Choice:
Injured Life by Adelay Elizabeth Witherite
Adelay Elizabeth Witherite's lifelong quest is to discover virtues and live accordingly. She pursues philosophical understanding and moral consideration of complex dynamics in our world. In her free time, she enjoys carpentry and painting houses. She often finds overwhelming beauty in the simplest expressions of existence. Adelay Elizabeth's work experience includes a stint as an elementary school teacher in South Korea.
Adelay Elizabeth Witherite
“How do you cook a carp?” The trickster of the group turned to face me in the back seat with a sly smile. “First you have to gut the fish. Then you find some woodchips to put under it while it cooks. Wrap the whole thing in aluminum foil. When the fish is done,” his grin was widening, “throw it away and eat the woodchips.”
They said the fish would have died anyway. The stream was retreating; its volume receded in the arid summer heat. Two or three miles from our university, three boys and I arrived at a river which was fed by the overflow of a dam. Once there, we set up base on a large rock above the surface and whittled fallen branches into harpoons. “Carpoons,” we called them. We were after the two-foot-long bottom dwellers who had escaped the lake into the shrinking runoff. I wasn’t trying to strike a fish, but I didn’t object to those who were.
The water ranged from three feet to three inches. It was a maze where the huge fish swam for their lives. They were constantly corralled in pools: relying solely on their speed to avoid the pikes and discover a way out. I walked toward the end of the partially submerged rock, where I was up to my ankles in flowing water. I watched the hunters make their way downstream. The carp had found the only passageways through the obstructions.
The aqueous beasts had a succession of luck as the guys moved farther and farther from me. A glare across the water’s surface forced me to squint as I looked down the river. They were at least a football field away. I could not make out any details to distinguish one boy from the other. They were hidden in their anonymity. They had become so utterly small.
I assumed that in the distance, I was similarly imperceptible. I untied the back and halter straps of my bikini top. The sun feels sacred when it strikes rarely bare skin. I stepped out of my bottoms and laid the small pile of fabric on a dry corner of the rock. The sun and its shimmering reflection splashed across all of the flesh I could offer.
On either side of the river was a wall of forest in the height of green summer swell. Voices of birds hidden among its canopy and the constant gurgle of moving water were the only sounds I heard. I stepped off of my rocky shelf and into the waist-high depth beside the boulder. Facing the others and not able to detect if they were facing me, I gripped my nose and sunk down until the coolness stopped creeping up my head. I was under, completely under, when I threw my eyes open.
Four months later, it’s a clear day in the heart of winter. There is water everywhere, though it is pure white: in the form of fresh, deep snow on the ground surrounding my grandmother’s house. The mothers are inside, doing the work that the women have always done after a feast. The fathers are long deceased by revenge of their own vices. I am the only one of my generation with enough vivacity to gather boots, gloves, coats and hats for myself and two nephews. We tumble outside: suddenly enveloped in the deep forest under the bold blue sky. As we trudge against the wind, we try to convince one another we’re not cold.
On a hill beside my grandmother’s land, I have an acre of my own: inherited as a consolation prize from the demise of my parents’ marriage. My lot is undeveloped; a fire pit and hooks for a hammock are the only adulterations against the natural forest landscaping. I haven’t seen it for months, so I’m blazing the trail up the steep path to the next steppe. Damon keeps my speed as a seven-year-old with something to prove. Bradley, three-and-a-half with foot-long legs, scrambles to catch up while we stop periodically to wait for him. As soon as we give him a chance, he’s running in haphazardly past us on wobbly legs.
My own legs urge me to slow to a walking pace once we crest the hill. The little guys are still full-steam ahead across the open field. I stop to regard the dormancy around me. The trees have become grotesque shelves for lazy snowflakes. Only a few ancient pine trees lend the snow a tastefully colored undertone of deep, rich green.
The peaceful quiet is shattered by a squeal. “Doggie tracks!” Damon exclaims. Bradley lumbers over to him in his enormously padded blue snowsuit that has, in years past, been worn by each of their mothers. He’s wearing my old gloves, which are pink, but he’s still young and indifferent. He looks at the tracks with intense curiosity.
They turn and look up at me for answers. “Those are deer tracks, guys. Look-- there’s only two indentations per foot-- that’s a deer hoof. A dog would have four in the front of one big pad, with its claws leaving a mark, too.” They examine the tracks for another moment, and then begin to follow where they lead.
Bradley sees an anomaly in the isolated color scheme and begins to yell “red, red!” for the other two of us to come and inspect. I hurry beside him and trace his pointing finger to a spray of blood across an otherwise unmarred spread of snow. “It’s blood,” I tell them. The younger one becomes visibly scared and older cousin tries to conceal his own fear. “Why is there blood here?” Bradley asks. To him, blood is still exclusively associated with accidents and unfortunate pain.
“Someone shot the deer!” Damon concludes, as he runs ahead searching for more evidence. Bradley follows in his path, but not too closely: as though he hopes to split the difference between uniformity and distinction. I follow them easily with my larger strides. After a moment, we abruptly stop.
Among the trunks of ancient trees, there lies a hill of soft sable fur leaking red velvet on the blank snowy canvas. Our approach cautiously begins again; each half-step crunches in newfound silence. Their steps become shorter and finally stop altogether. I continue. It’s a fully grown doe, even bigger than me. Her eyes are open, frozen in terrified incomprehension. I stop again. The woods are silent and we follow suit. The three of us stand, exhaling white clouds on labored breath. She isn’t breathing, though faint white wisps rise from the heat of the fatal gunshot wound.
“I’m cold,” says the little one. “Yeah, let’s go back inside,” suggests his cousin. We return to the warm comfort of home where, to my surprise, the boys don’t utter a word about the deer. Later, just before I fall asleep, I sit in silence and ask for a reason. The answer comes as a memory: what I had seen under the water of a dying river.
They hit a fish while I was under the surface. Then, above water and clothed, I returned to my place on the dry surface of the rock. They stabbed her downstream and eventually chased her back up toward me. I looked down through the ripples and realized for the first time that fish also bleed. A red gaping wound surrounded by white flesh shone like a bullseye on its dark gray back.
“Were you naked?” one of them asked with a mischievous smile. I gave no answer; he would have stopped listening as soon as I took the bait. The truth, like nature, was neither insidious nor gracious. To scandalize it would have been to lose a forest behind the trees.
While under that murky water, my ears had told me more than my eyes. I couldn’t see more than six feet ahead which was, to my view, all rocks. Suspended in a dark green and brown haze, life and death danced simultaneously in the ever-churning solution. But only a moment of such sight was enough to know that. From every angle came deafening noise-- a testament to endless neutrality. I allowed the pressure to hold me tight, to know every curve of this earth-born body. It treated me as it would treat all else. The water holds no grudge.