After a few weeks of delightful guest posts by Kimberly Margaret Miller, Loren Warnemuende, Reagan Dregge and Kristen Kopp, and Bethany J. Melton, here is my late winter story. I wrote it for the weather I dread the most – cold rain falling on melting snow, leafless trees, gray skies, and slushy streets – not knowing how golden and warm this March would be.
I rewrote the story to match this year’s milder weather. I post this in the middle of a pandemic that is shuttering gatherings and separating communities, scaring parents and (I hope) thrilling at least a few kids who suddenly have two free weeks to hunt purple crocuses and golden daffodils in the woods.
I post this now knowing that in fear or gloominess, boredom or grief, gray winter days or slushy spring mornings, the same God who spoke light out of darkness can speak joy and courage into us.
On the quiet street, cold rain speckled the pale lawns and ran down the gutters of the shingled houses. Mist hung between the bare gray branches of oaks and thick robes of evergreens.
Inside a white house with black shutters in the middle of the street, Mae sat in the family room downstairs, leaning over her laptop. She wore a dark blue sorority sweatshirt. Her curly blond hair was tied up in a messy bun, and she wore a gold necklace hung with small pink beads.
On her laptop screen, Mae clicked on the field next to YEARS OF RELATED WORK EXPERIENCE and entered a “0.”
Her email inbox lit up. She opened the email from a company she’d applied to three weeks ago:
Dear Ms. Newman,
Thank you for your interest in the Project Manager position. We have decided to pursue a candidate whose qualifications are more suited to our requirements.
New England Design Co.
Mae stared at the email for a moment, and then opened an Excel spreadsheet labeled “Jobs” and colored row #19 in gray.
Upstairs, a baby wailed. A door opened, and Mae heard her sister’s low, soothing tones. A moment later, a light set of footsteps pattered down the stairs, and her niece, Rachel, came in. She wore a red sweater with a picture of a brown bear, and her ash-blond hair was half-braided.
“Sammy’s crying,” she announced. “Mommy said to come ask you to watch me.”
Mae put down her laptop. “Poor little guy,” she said. She looked down at her laptop, and then outside. “Wanna come on a walk with me?”
Rachel looked out the window and wrinkled her nose. “It’s gross out,” she said.
“Nah, this is one of the best times of the year,” said Mae, getting up and setting her laptop on the coffee table. “I’ll show you.”
After bundling up, they left the garage and squelched through the backyard, through the back gate and into the woods.
Mae let her big hood slip off so the rain fell freely on her hair and face. “Your mom and I used to pretend we were mermaids when we got our hair wet,” she told Rachel, who giggled.
The woods had barely changed since Mae left for college: the ashes of autumnal bonfires in center of the clearing, the stump full of woodpecker holes, and the leaning fir they called Old Giant. Sticks and golden-brown pine needles littered the ground.
Mae took Rachel on the old path through the thicket of leafless thorn and blueberry bushes, green and gray, spreading like waves across the peaks and gullies of the forest floor. She pointed out memory-haunts: “We used to hunt for letter boxes with the Flame-wings under those logs. We built a fort around that tree. Here’s where we played bows and arrows with the Green Singers…”
Rachel asked a few questions, but mostly chattered as they neared the pond. They turned right into the opening in the trees and braced their feet against tree roots to get safely down the hill.
The spruces and oak trees were shades of brown, light green, and gray around the still surface of the pond. The water was dark, half-covered with a thin layer of ice melted into slush.
“Come see,” Mae said, gesturing to Rachel. She led her niece to the pond’s edge, where tree roots stuck out from the eroded earth and disappeared into the water.
From this angle, they could see a misty shape above the ice: a castle with spiked towers like the tops of pine trees.
“Oh,” said Rachel.
“It’s a reverse reflection,” said Mae. “The real castle is underneath. The Lily Queen let us swim down there sometimes to see it.”
“Can we…?” Rachel asked, looking from Mae to the pond.
“No, sweetheart, it’s too cold to swim,” said Mae. “But if we’re quiet, the Mist Maker will put on a show for us.”
Rachel took in a low, excited breath and held it. Mae squeezed her hand as new shapes formed above the pond: two girls chasing creatures like winged foxes, a fir tree transforming into a tower, a boy riding a sea serpent.
They watched things remembered or longed for rising from the warming air, the melting ice, the thawing soil, the waking earth.