Barren trees, pines, and a blanket of snow surrounded me. Underneath my feet, the dark ice of a small pond. The chill of the air pierced through my snow clothes. Laughter bounced off of the trees that bordered our hide a way, tucked a short distance my aunt’s house. I pushed off a thin birch tree, letting my boots skate across the ice and looking up at my cousin who was also gliding across the pond looking almost like an apparition. Small saplings stuck up through the ice and Kathleen’s fiery red hair flickered against the white as she wove around the thin trees. I flew on the ice; unrestrained, I reached out from tree to tree, weaving as I gripped the rough bark.
A sharp crack sounded over the laughter echoing through the nearly empty woods. Black water spilled out over the white of the ice in a gush, a pool of darkness around Kathleen. My heart sped up, beating erratically and I felt my heart constrict. Breath returned to my lungs when my mind finally took in the fact that Kathleen had not disappeared completely beneath the water. In my mind it was summer, I was walking behind Kathleen trying to keep pace. We wandered along the creek that winded through the woods to the shallow pond a short distance away. Our eyes focused on the rocks in the soft water bed on the look-out for any amphibious creatures, just like the many days that had passed before. Panic had pushed those memories out of my mind, but now, the fact that the pond water reached roughly knee height, allowed for amusement to take over. Kathleen lay in the water, her limbs splashing which more waves of black water gushing over the jagged edges of the ice. She turned her gaze to me in a glare as laughter once again rang out against the bare frost-crusted trees. Her glare morphed into a smirk as another crack rang out and I felt my boot sink into the cold water straight into the soft mud below, and saw another smaller black pool bloom underneath me. I managed to swallow down my laughter and asked Kathleen if she was alright as I tugged my boot free of the mud hidden below the water.
“Yeah I’m fine, but just remember Karma always finds you” Kathleen smirked and grabbed my proffered hand as she climbed out of the water.
“Maybe this was your karma for trying to get me to ride my bike here all the way from New Jersey” Kathleen shrugged my retort off with a smile and we took turns making jokes as we headed back to the house. Despite the cold wetness seeping into my boot my happiness found no end, jokes and laughter filling the sprawling empty yard.
Later we sat in front of the fire and dry off reliving the story to our family who were all o familiar with our antics. It would be yet another chapter in our endless book of adventures. I accepted the hot cocoa from my Aunt Anne turned to Kathleen with a smile and saw a glint in her eyes, the spark of satisfaction, one I knew was mirrored in my own eyes. It was the same glint that would light our eyes through the years to come, through every crazy adventure, that would accompany every laugh, and even every argument.
A thick silence filled the air as Kathleen and I sat in our teepee built a short distance away from the creek that was the site of our ice skating adventure. I looked out to the flickering flames of our fire and within the rich oranges and reds saw the years pass by. I saw homemade rope swings, long days in the woods, exploration of the unknown, and crazy stunts. I saw freedom. I closed my eyes and breathed in the scent of the woods around me; pine, smoke, and that indiscernible scent I could only classify as winter. Opening my eyes, I glanced up at the yellowing pine needles of our teepee roof the only sign of its decay from winter and remembered its construction.
The frozen ground was cold beneath my knees as I kneeled next to the fallen pine tree cutting off branches to create the outer shell of out teepee. The winter sun shone brightly off the snow and the glistening river and I could see the faint trail of smoke rise above the trees from the campfire I knew my cousin was starting just out of my sight. I dragged the many branches over to the small clearing we had designated feeling an ache building in my arms. The air had a bitter bite but the heat of exertion was a shield to the cold. An already intricate web of pine and broken branches wove around the wooden feature as I brought the final branches over to Kathleen. After we had finished weaving the new pine branches and hung our homemade sign on the front we ducked in the entrance to appreciate our efforts. We had once again found ourselves separated from the rest of the world, tasting the sweetness of life unfettered by the chains of responsibility. Laying back on the hard snow we filled the silence with stories of our adventures from college. The six-hour distance had done nothing to diminish our bond. We laughed and ranted, finally able to vent to someone who despite arguments over poorly tied rope swings, repeated jump scares, and jokes meant specifically to get under the skin, was always there for support.
Now there was no arguments, no rants, and definitely no laughter, only a thick blanket of grief and silence. I struggled to find words to pierce the tension that pressed in on me from all sides. I felt a sharp sting behind my eyelids but closed my eyes tight to stop the tears from falling. The creek that we frequented during many of our childhood adventures was just out of sight, but this time when we returned to Kathleen’s house there would be no hot coco waiting in Aunt Anne’s hands. All that would be there would be the eight different trays of baked ziti that had been delivered throughout the day by caring neighbors. We had slipped out of the busy house that was filled with tears and the absence that seemed to be felt throughout the house. I struggled to offer words of comfort but everything felt disingenuous. “How are you doing”, “I’m so sorry for your loss”, and “she was such a great woman” had been virtually all we had heard over the past few days. Before I could force words to pass the block in my throat my cousin’s voice ripped through the silence.
“Do you remember when used to hide in these woods going frog and snake hunting”, She looked over at me and despite the grief in her eyes there was also a spark of amusement that made her small smile look genuine.
“Of course, we always jumped at the chance to escape Mikayla” I laughed and could almost see us hiding behind the trees, my sister’s voice echoing through the woods as we stifled our giggles.
“God she was always trying to get use in trouble and they always believed her.”
“Yeah well we weren’t always the nicest to her either, I mean we did convince her she’d hatched from an egg and was going to turn into a bird, for an entire summer” We both burst out laughing remembering my first summer after moving to New York.
“I thought our moms were going to kick our asses for that one, she totally believed it” my words faded out and the silence took over once again. The implication of losing Aunt Anne once again crashed over me, memories flickering through my minds, one thought persisting, not anymore. There would be no new memories of scolding and slaps upside the head, no more cups of hot chocolate to ward of the cold of winter.
“That probably wasn’t the only thing she wanted to kick our ass over” Kathleen’s soft voice eased the silence that followed, removing the tension. Nearly our entire childhood was filled with noise; laughter, rants, bickering, even whispered plans during manhunt. Now I realized though that sometimes silence wasn’t so bad. I wrapped my hand around Kathleen’s shoulders and she leaned into my side. I felt more than heard her sigh looking out once more at the river, this time drinking in the calm silence that wrapped around us, comforting now rather than suffocating.
Later as we walked through the trees back stepping over the tangle of bushes that scattered the ground, Kathleen came to a stop looking back at me. “Thank you know, you’re the only one acting normal around me” The words are soft and make me think back to a time nearly ten years ago when she had offered me the same thing, comforting normalcy in the face of the loss of a parent.
I smirked and slung my arm around her shoulders, stepping out onto the worn grass path, “Come on, I’m always awesome you know that”
Kathleen shook her head smiling before replying, “yeah too bad you’ll never to as awesome as me” Kathleen’s house came into sight through the trees. A mass of cars were parked all over the large driveway alerting us that the house would still be full of guests. This time though I knew that the grief, the absent presence, though it would still ache, would carry just slightly duller sting. I could still feel the whole in my heart left behind by my aunt and I knew it would never go away, I would miss her for everyday that passed, but knew that the laughter, the rants, the bickering, and now the silence, shared between us would help heal the ache we carried.
Erin Anderson is an English Literature major at SUNY Geneseo. She gains much of her inspiration for writing from her hometown, nature, and childhood. The inspiration for this piece came while Erin was taking a walk through the Geneseo townhouses during the first snowfall of the year.