for the thousand year winter
On the floor, in front of the fire, Paxton and his mother sat with the red book in between them. The mother turned the pages—the boy pointed at each one with a reflection of that excitement he’d had the first time he’d caught them. “This one is especially beautiful,” his mother would say, or “look at that red! Why, I don’t think there was anything quite that red in the city, do you?”
Of course, Lucy did not find much interest in this. She preferred other books, and she preferred to read them in more comfortable places than the floor. But Paxton smiled on and on. Every color to him was different, in the firelight, and he felt as though he could rediscover every single one. Sometimes they would come across a shape, on the skin of the leaf, like they might have done once when looking at clouds.
Every now and then, if she happened to encounter some truly exceptional shape, some color, she’d turn to her husband, in his chair, and point it out to him with a childish tone and he’d lend a very small portion of his smile. To him, they were really just leaves, just as they had been to his sister, Edith. But they were more to her—and he reflected some small part of her joy, if only at her enjoyment.
Doctor Melving was a quiet man. And nobody knew if he’d always been that way, or if he’d learned it somewhere. He didn't laugh much. If anything, this was his greatest fault—in the eyes of his son, he was carved from stone. Of course, he hadn’t always been nearly so stoic. His smile had once been nearly as quick as his little wife’s knitting fingers.
If Paxton had paid more attention, he might have noticed the commonality. But it’s hard to be observant of the things that are important when you don’t know, until later, just how important they’ll be—Nobody knows why. But that’s the way that it is sometimes. He saw the big things, and even some of the little things. He saw the trees and the way that the leaves fell. And as he watched them, the grass was wilting and the frost was crunching under his boots and his father smiled less often, and he never did notice until later.
And really, why would he have? Why should he ever think to put those two and two together? Perhaps it is a point in favor of his young innocence that he never did.
To be painfully honest—and really, honesty is quite often painful—Paxton did not know his father all that well. And really, this wasn’t is fault. Some men really don’t seem knowable.
He knew, of course, that he was a doctor, and that he’d been a doctor in the army. He knew that, while in the army, his father had been shot. But he knew this in the same way that a person can know what mountains look like from books, having never actually seen them. (And if you’ve ever seen mountains, you understand that those really aren’t the same at all.)
What Paxton did know was that his father and his father’s mustache had something in common; they were both very serious, and that it took a great deal to stir either one into movement. They were not cruel or angry—they were simply sober. His countenance and spirit had been tempered by reason and science—and worse things, too.
Those very different eyes saw very different things, when together father and son sat in the silent living room, staring into the fire. To the boy, all was trees and falling leaves and gold, a screeching and fluttering of color, launching up the chimney like bats made of sparks.
The father saw cannons, in the distance. He heard them, drumming behind him, roaring over his head. As the dark drew in around them and spun cobwebs in the corners, he saw the spine of the sky breaking and the rain pounding down, ringing against his helmet and echoing in his ears like iron drums.
When the nights went cold and the sky turned black, Paxton saw the frost lean in on the windows and stare between its fingers in at the fire and the books. When his father looked, he saw pale and dirty faces, between the trees.
Those eyes saw such different things. And of course, one of them had seen death. And as Paxton would learn, the problem with death is that it’s just so damn contagious.
Like a yawn, inspiring those deep, tired tremors, where there had been none before, and so that cruel, mortal awareness stirs. A tremble, suddenly afraid of drifting off—and at once, welcoming the thought.
Of course, Paxton had some understanding of how a creature like Rosa had found him—and where, even. He had a picture in his head of that field hospital, and of that even smaller, younger Rosa with an apron on. He knew, to some degree, how the love of that tiny creature had done something transforming to that terribly serious one. But he understood this to the same degree that he understood war. (And his picture of it was as incomplete as his picture of field hospitals.)
It was her joy that spilled into the doctor, and that tempted him, even, to smile through the deep evening shadows. But it was hard to smile then, even as he watched that laugh climb through her, kicking to escape like a child under too many blankets, and finding its way out her mouth, eyes and curls.
“There were trees that uncle showed me on the other side of the ridge,” Paxton said excitedly, “like pine trees but gold. And he said that they’d drop their needles, just like the trees here drop their leaves. He said they only last a week or so like that, and then they’re all gone. I’d have brought back a branch, but it wouldn’t fit in our book.”
The mother laughed. “No, I imagine it wouldn’t have. I suppose that only leaves us with one option, doesn’t it? We’ll have to come back and see them again next year.”
Paxton’s whole being seemed to light up. “Can we?”
His mother pointed and whispered, “you’ll have to ask your father.”
Paxton turned excitedly to his father. “Can we, dad?” He asked.
There was a long, quiet moment—the father stared not at Paxton, but at his wife, half-glowing in the firelight. The words came out of him almost pained. “Every year,” he said, and he made his mouth perform something very much like a smile. But colder.
Paxton was ecstatic. He turned to his mother beaming, the words tumbling out of him in a flurry. “Then we can go and see them together,” he said. “Uncle said that they don't ever die—that they only fall asleep.”
“He’s right of course,” said the mother, smiling. “Nothing really dies. Not ever. And that sleep never lasts forever.” She reached out gently and pulled him into a hug, the fire dancing over the leaves between them. “No matter how dark,” she said, “and no matter how cold, just remember—the night ends.”
In the joining kitchen, the door swung open and a flurry of cold air rushed in, skittering across the wood floor as uncle entered, his beard parted by the same smile that creased his eyes in so many places.
“Pax, lad,” he said happily, “I've a bit to show you, here. Come.”
Paxton jumped up and ran to the door, his uncle's hand on his shoulder. And there, in the rectangle of orange, with the only blue spilling in around his little frame, he watched the snowflakes, tumbling down through the branches.
The wind tiptoed across the grass; it rustled the leaves and kicked them up, stuck to the bottoms of its feet. Fat, white flakes, the size of dimes, performed a very clumsy newborn ballet against the indigo epilogue of the autumn.
“Snow!” He shouted. “Snow!” And just like that, in his bare feet, he leapt out into the leaves. He ran around the yard, feeling the sting on his toes, knowing that they were turning as red as his cheeks.
At the door, his little mother and her beaming face appeared. And even when she needed her brother's help to get down the step, she ran feebly out into the swirling whiteness. Her laugh escaped her in heaps and drifts as her son took her hand and, for a brief moment, regardless of cold, they danced in the building frost, and hardly even felt it on their toes.
When they went back in, shivering and glowing, Lucy and Edith had appeared as well. They were wrapped in blankets as a household of eyes gathered to doors and windows and watched.
“Right on time,” said Hollis. “It always storms like this at the end of October.”
They stood until Paxton's little eyes started to droop, when those hands of his father, which one day would be his own, fell on his shoulder, and the eyes of his mother, already so much like his, settled smiling onto his face.
She took him to the living room, to the red book, and they closed it together before the mother put a final kiss on his forehead. “This book,” she said, “will help you through the winter. Even if it feels a thousand years long. And even when all the leaves fade. You'll have that hope inside you. Everything wakes up.”
And so he was taken off to bed. And when the door to his little bedroom closed, he had no way of knowing that his mother nearly fell over, outside it—or that the strong arms that had carried him to bed so many times instead picked up his mother and took her to hers. And he had no way of knowing that that bristling, serious mustache, so hesitant to smile, was kissing her very pale forehead as gently as a falling snowflake, and that those stone-carved cheeks would soon be wet. He didn't know. He didn't hear the goodbyes that were said.
But of course, he saw that very obvious one, scrawled across the sky outside, as he sat with his face against the glass. He watched the snow, toppling down to join the leaves, so mesmerized by the way things fall. He watched October slip away on a carpet of yesterday’s gold—and he waited for morning to nudge him awake.
Not everybody runs out of time, you see. Sometimes time runs out on us. Abandons us. Leaves us to ourselves and the winter. Why? I don’t know. But sooner or later, I suppose that everybody has to learn that the world hasn't ended—it’s only night time. And morning will coming.