Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Lights in the Trees

Today I got up at 5 and went for a run. It was 17 degrees: cold enough for pants; not cold enough to freeze my nose hairs. Freezing my nose hairs is the second-best part of a very cold run. The best part is that it usually gets that cold only when the air is very clear and dry, and the stars glitter like nail points caught in the trees.

It was very cold, and very dark. Even the deer that usually clattered, panicked, across the road in front of me were still. All I could hear was my own breathing and the crisp scrape of nylon on nylon. I ran by the dim blue light of stars and a slender, hooked moon just setting in the south.

The stars seemed very bright, but still the woods along the road were dark and full of mottled indistinct shapes: trees, stumps, bushes.

I padded up a hill, adjusted my jacket zipper to cool down a little, rounded the turn at the top of the hill, and started down the other side when I saw a shape in the woods. It was so dark that I could only see if it I looked next to it, but my breath caught and I slowed to a walk.

It looked like a person. Leaning against a tree about six feet in from the edge of the woods.

These sorts of things -- Balrogs, velociraptors, wolves, Nazguls -- often appear during my runs and turn into natural features -- trash bags, mailboxes, fallen trees -- as I approach.

But this, God help me, was a man wearing some sort of robe (a pervert! freezing! psycho freezing fiend! my mind helpfully stuttered) and just watching me as I walked closer.

"Hey," I said. "Are you okay? It's cold out."

He nodded at me and I smelled the sweet burning of a pipe. My steps crackled the ice at the road's edge, brushed last year's leaves as I walked closer. He had to be in trouble, or homeless, or something.

"It's cold out," I said again.

"I am ... accustomed to the cold." His voice sent puffs of white into the darkness. "I seem to have lost my way."

I didn't want to get any closer, though he seemed anything but dangerous. Feeble, in fact. Lost. "Where are you going?"

He looked up at the tree branches. Was he looking at the sky?

"It's almost time. Help me, son. Help me from these woods."

And I saw for the first time a rope tangled around his leg and foot. No, it was a vine or something. I bent closer. It was a tree root that looked like it had grown there.

I was getting cold now, and felt how wet my shirt and fleece hat were. But he must have been hypothermic: he wasn't even shivering. I knelt down and pried the root open. He lifted his boot up with a soft gasp and stepped out of the woods, rubbing his shin.

"Obliged," he said, and again I smelled the pipesmoke. He raised his arms as if he were a priest giving a benediction and not some creepy old man standing in the woods for no reason, and a icy wind rustled the leaves and bit at my exposed skin like a knife.

The stars grew brighter and it sounded like they were ringing, almost: a thin, high, unimaginably distant chiming, more like the idea of bells than the actual sound.

The sky was filled with distant airplanes then, the lights tracking across the darkness. So many of them. And I realized they weren't airplanes but the hard little stars themselves, rotating and then moving slowly in great curves.

I put my hand out to steady myself, but it was the middle of the road, and with nothing to hold onto I swayed like a drunk, blinking fast to clear my watering eyes.

"Much obliged," he said again, and the stars were no longer caught in the nets of dark branches, they alighted like blue sparks on his head and arms and -- I saw it for the first time -- his white beard.

"You," I breathed. It was very cold. "Are you...?"

"You know who I am," he said. "This is my season. Cold is my country."

"I thought, I thought--"

He looked very stern then, almost grave. "Believe," he said, and he was lit with the cold white fire of the stars. "Believe."

The word hung in the air even after he had gone, and I looked at the dark trees and the stars and felt younger than I ever had before.

I turned and continued down the cold road, breathing steadily, warming up again, nylon brushing on nylon. Seven miles under the stars, until sunrise paled the east and I returned home, shaking and wet with sweat.

Happy holidays, everyone. Believe.


linda may said...

Santy, I dunno!

gautami tripathy said...

Maybe yes, maybe no...

guts wrenching out....

Devil Mood said...

Wow, what an encounter!

Granny Smith said...

You are a superb writer! Every image is vivid, embracing all the senses, tying the story to a sense of reality. Crowned with stars! A wonderful image after the imprisonment by the tree root.

I loved the story.

BJ Roan said...

Very well written encounter. I think I'll believe!

floreta said...

what an enigma. love your writing!

Tumblewords: said...

I believe, again! Lovely story!

Babs said...

I believe! I always have. Terrific story--but stay warm!

S R Wood said...

Thanks, everyone! It's a magical time of year....

Melody said...

How can you not believe? Every word had hold of me, carrying me along on your run without disappointment. You have a gift, thank you for sharing it with us. Happy New Year!