Memories Belie the Footprints in the Snow

A Short Stroy

By Nicholas Bruce

In my old home which I forsook; the cherries are in bloom.”

         – Kobayashi Issa

Peeling away the layers of reality, here I stand in awe of the snow in all its purity, cold though it is. As the sun thaws the ice, saplings push up through the ground, breathing their first breaths, having their chance at it.

I shoulder my pack and move into the tree line, boots crunching over ice and birch twigs. The hawk, startled by my presence, gives a piercing cry and spreads its wings, rising into a sky of grey and disappearing.

Grinning, I continue deeper into the forest along a frozen stream, looking at the snow for tracks and occasionally glancing into the sky for signs of more companions.

Reaching the heart of the forest, I choose a dying tree and thanking it for its life, take the axe from my pack and begin chopping off branches. A prickling sensation on the back of my neck: that feeling of being watched.

I stop, scanning the area, and my heart jumps at the sight of the amber eyes watching me. The wolf is sorting the scents, watching me but not intently or in any way threateningly. It has white and grey fur and a black patch between its ears. I feel warmth in my chest: I know this wolf!

Grazing her beautiful eyes respectfully, and fighting a broad smile that looks like bared teeth to wolves, I wait. The sigma lowers its head, and then trots up to me, ears sleeked back. She body slams my legs playfully with her flanks, her tail wagging. Now I am laughing and greeting my friend.

I met her last winter. She was still nearing adulthood judging by her size and curious disposition, and we became friends right here in this forest clearing. Since I last saw her, she had received a new set of scars, probably from antlers or a rival wolf. I am pleased to see that her coat is thick, and I imagine that a few days before, her belly had been sagging from a kill she’d made. Good. It is a cold winter and food is scarce.

Feeling the wind slice my face through the clearing, I shiver and pick up my axe again, turning my attention back to the branches.

After making a decent pile of wood, I allow my calloused hands to rest, laying down my axe, and I turn to look at her.

She is on her side a few paces from me, breath steaming in the crisp air. I wonder if she will find a mate and have cubs one day, and selfishly consider whether that would mean I would never see her again. She and I have met in this clearing a few times, mainly why I choose to come to this part of the forest to collect firewood. I admire her resilience. She was cautious the first time we met; she’d grown used to surviving on her own and had become wary of humans, even if the majority only hunted deer. That caution hadn’t lasted long; sensing I meant her no harm, she’d allowed her adolescent playfulness to overcome, probably for never having heard a human bark at her before.

Grinning even at the memory of her tilting her head in bewilderment fades, I notice her suddenly prick her ears at something imperceptible to me, and her tail wags. She whines and I drop to a knee. She licks my face and I nuzzle her scruff, and then with one last glance at me, she races off into the trees.

Smiling wistfully, I stow my axe in the pack along with as much wood as it will contain, and carry the rest in my arms.

Nothing is ever lost, I remind myself.

Turning back, I make the return journey through the deep forest, along with the frozen stream, and out beyond the tree line. Arms aching, I set the wood in the snow. Breathing heavily, I look up, taking in the orange glow of the window up on the mountain. Nearly there. I momentarily feel her fingers, and her voice fills my mind, a beautiful quality unlike any I’ve heard before. And her stomach is getting big!

Grinning and picking up the firewood, I make my way home, oblivious to the wind, feeling a howl building in my chest.

I love this trail. Hidden from view of the roads, and not obvious even to the unconventional paths. Yet here it is, and what miracles to be found on it.