Friday, February 21, 2014

Soft Thorns

Chandler Hamby

The snow is soft and beautiful where the little boy plays. His tarnished blue sled lies close by, frosted with ice crystals and dirt. He looks up, his little cheeks ride-apple red and giggles as he ascends the slope again, remembering the thrill. The sheer, pure beauty of throwing oneself onto a board of metal and wood and feeling yourself sail gracefully to the bottom…to him, there is nothing better.

His sister waits inside, her eyes half envious, half wondering. Her brother frolics in the snow, but she may not. Her health does not permit it, for she was sick last winter with coughing disease and though she has recovered her mother remains tentative. It is not so bad all in all, she considers; she is warm and safe inside with all the things she loves as equally as her brother and his sled. Her books await in different rooms glowing with firelight or pale winter glow, beckoning with fingers outstretched, offering her a journey. She has read all of the books, gone through every tale, lived and died every adventure. The brother has read perhaps two; she considers reading aloud to him when he comes in dripping and wet and trying to make him understand.

In her room, there are three other little children, but not of the kind one normally expects. Their skin is wax, their eyes glass and their hair made from that of horses rather than being formed on any human head. They sit quietly in their chairs; Arabella, Christina and Marie, all named with great care and decision based off of their temperaments, dress and preferences in drinking tea. She gave them breakfast earlier which they were not in the mood for, as the clay biscuits remain untouched alongside glass fruit. She therefore left them for a while to talk quietly among themselves as to why they seemed to reject the girl’s perfectly able means of feeding.

The girl thinks of this as she stares out the window, her hands pressed against the cold glass and leaving indentations in the frost outside, warmed by her skin. She cracks the window open a little, testing the air with one little nose and one less-small hand. Catching a tiny flake on her hand, she stares at them as if to find what they mean just by watching the ice melt into her palm. It’s sad, she thinks, that something so beautiful must be so short. Her poetic soul likes the metaphor, however, better than the actual vision. She must think more on this, perhaps holding a perfunctory discussion with the dolls on it later in the afternoon.

She’s sticking an arm out now, as if to plunge it into the cold air as one would into clear water. There’s an embankment of snow just below the window going down like a little hill to meet its neighboring members and smooth out onto the yard. She manages to poke in one finger and giggles, then reaches farther to follow it up with a hand. The snow is cold, she remembers suddenly as the warmth of her skin morphs into frozen mist. But it’s beautiful, and perfect, dangerous, of course, as Máma had told them.

Pápa is in the mountains right now, with his fellow soldiers. Máma said that he was alright; that he had written to her and he was coming home in two months for a short break. 

Her little heart quickens thinking about it…he has been gone for months and Robért had been getting angry sometimes. The little girl thinks of this many times, wondering why Máma had been crying last night, curled up by the fire as if to shut the world and cold out alike. The girl wasn’t even supposed to be watching, (this made her guilty) but she heard noises in the night and crawled behind the couch, sitting with her back to it as she listened to her mother refresh herself with tears. And why had her brother been so angry the other day? He was not that much older than she; anything he knew she should be able to know too, but Máma had told him something that the girl did not seem part of. She tried not to feel hurt by it and told the dolls everything in a confidential talk that they had been kind enough not to disclose.

“Therese!” A sharp voice makes her start, losing her balance and tumbling towards the open window. Cold whiteness surrounds her vision as she plunged into the snow drift, its soft arms taking her quietly. She heard a cry and an arm reached out after her.

“Robért!” Her mother shouted. “Aider votre sœur !” (Help your sister!)

Therese looked around under the snow, some of it falling into her eyes and coating her lashes, melting against her face. It felt cold and prickly, and not nearly as pretty as when she had been simply looking at it.

Strong, young hands gripped her around the waist and she was pulled from the snow bank roughly, falling onto the slabs of the garden path that her brother had swept clean that morning. Her mother was running outside, her face a mixture of anger and relief.

“C'était une chose stupide, stupide à faire!” (That was a stupid, stupid thing to do!) Her mother picked her up and shook her whilst simultaneously brushing her off in the way only mothers can.

“Pourquoi n'avez-vous pas plus prudent? Vous savez que vous avez été malade… vous devriez avoir rappel!” (Why were you not more careful? You know you have been sick…you should have remembered!)

And then her mother is holding her tightly and there are tears running down her face and Therese is utterly confused. But Robért had let go and was standing a few feet away. And as the girl looks up at him as if to ask Why is she like this? What’s happened? He merely shakes his head, as if he would and could not answer her.

She rises slowly, standing straighter and looked at her mother. “Je suis désolé,” (I’m sorry) is all she says, but it has its effect. Her mother relapses into a quieter temperament, then sighes.

“S'allume; Nous allons vous réchauffer”. (Come on; let’s get you warmed up.)

Therese nods and allows her mother to lead her away, her brother watching her go quietly.

A much older boy’s eyes have replaced his own.

Far away, on the slopes of the Alps and straggling with the few remaining ounces of his strength, the source of Robért’s silence lay. The wind sliced heartlessly through clothing and skin alike, his silent pleading for relief unheeded.

The letter had come to his wife two days ago, stated with simply cruelty and rough English:

“Madame Roquefort,

It is with deep regret that we inform you that your husband was lost some three days ago in the snow drifts of the eastern Alps. Caught in a blizzard, he was able to rescue four of his men but did not arrive back at the camp with them. We have sent out several search parties and continue to hope for his safe return.


Johannes Rothschild,
Captain of the 5th Parisian Fusiliers
January 9th, ----

The soldier knew nothing of this letter, or the fact that he had been announced lost, but he could guess. His mind felt numb as he trudged through the hopeless drifts of snow, knowing that it was a hopeless endeavor, but it seemed a shame to give up now. His wife and children were waiting for him…it made him sad that they would not see him again. He was a practical man, a fighter as well as a lover, and he knew what his situation was even as his body gradually shut itself down.

Icy cold fingers reached into his arms to claw him back, erase the little progress he had made. The snow drifts were sharp yet soft, like soft thorns that pulled on his clothes and skin and soul.

Just let me go. His cry was desperate, helpless, trapped in his mind and unable to get to his unwilling mouth. Man against Ice, how often they strove to be one! But sometimes the elements liked to show that they still had the upper hand, at the expense of one of their admirers. His thought was rebellious as well as begging, demanding that the ice let him go.

Round and round the mulberry bush,
The monkey chased the weasel.

His heart was rapid in his chest, the beats chasing after each other much like the song that sang itself insistently in his head. Childhood flashed into youth morphing into adulthood, all to the tune of Le Bruit Va la Belette (Pop goes the Weasel).

His steps were faltering now, his body seizing up. He wasn’t going to last much longer like this and he was panicking. Was no one searching for him?

Every breath he drew in now was pain. Pain, agony, hurt, wounded, dying, fading; the words flashed through his mind briefly. He hoped his wife was alright, and Robért, and even little Therese, with her mind the size of a palace. He wondered what she had thought about today, her thoughts tumbling one over the next, and the wonderings calmed him.

Soft mounds of snow were drawing him in, enticing him not with death now but rest, that siren-call of warm, frozen sleep. Ironic, he thought, that one should start to feel so warm as one’s body turned to ice.

Icy cold fingers reached into his arms to claw him back, erase the little progress he had made. The snow drifts were sharp yet soft, like soft thorns that pulled on his clothes and skin and soul.

He struggled up the snow bank, its powdery surface oddly clingy. It held onto his boots, soaking through, and his pants, sending icy needles through his skin. Snow blew every which way, seemingly determined against all odds to make its way into his eyes and mouth and ears. He was drowning; but not in the way he might have wished. Cold water takes you swiftly, fills your lungs and brain and mouth and you die before you even realize you’ve done it.

He was drowning in frigid air.

He had hiked almost to the top of the mountain slope, where he knew that over the ridge would be a small town he had been to once before with his regiment. There, he might find food and rest…if he was going the right way. His tired mind was trying to register whether or not it was North or South, for he had been uncertain before he even set out. But trusting his instinct, he headed towards the South and prayed to the virgin that he was right.

He had lost feeling in his feet.

The top of the slope was very close now, and he was on his hands and knees by the time he reached it. His tired eyes looked out across the snow-ridden slops and dunes, willing them to find the town.

Icy cold fingers reached into his arms to claw him back, erase the little progress he had made. The snow drifts were sharp yet soft, like soft thorns that pulled on his clothes and skin and soul.

And the town was nowhere to be seen.

The man’s body gave up before his will. His legs collapsed and he went rolling just a little way down the slope, landing on his belly with the fingers of his left hand pointed toward the thing he had prayed to for his salvation.

Mother Mary, take my soul. Remember the services I have accorded you. Take care of my wife and children. Don’t let me be forgotten quickly. Take me quickly.

Six days later, two men hiking along those same alps stumbled upon a higher snow drift than the rest. One of the soldiers stuck his hand in the drift to help push himself out, then jerked back with a cry.

“Ce qui ne va pas, Jean?” (What’s wrong, Jean?) One asked in a mixture of concern and amusement. “Vous regarde comme si vous avez vu un fantôme!” (You look as though you’d seen a ghost!”

The man’s face was ashen white as he dug away the snow with his hands, his companion going silent as he realized the truth of his own words.

His fingers were still pointing towards the town he so desperately wanted to reach, frozen stiff and white.

“Pauvre diable ; Il ne saura jamais à quel point il était,” (Poor devil; he’ll never know how close he was) one soldier said regretfully.

“Son cerveau doit avoir été blessé par le froid” (His mind must have been addled by the cold) the other answered.

“Allons-nous le prendre?” (Shall we take him?)

“Il ferait la même chose pour nous,” (He would do the same for us) the other noted quietly.

With equal silence, half of respect and half of strange fear, they picked up their captain’s frozen body and carried him down the hill to the waiting platoon below.

Other works by Chandler Hamby:

Chandler Hamby Wins!
Funeral by the Sea
Screaming Fire (poem for the Fourth of July)
The Sunset Crowns the Day
The Great Saying
Sin's Solvent: A High Demand

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