Thomas’s muscles ached as he dug out another shelter for the night. He thought he could see, just on the horizon, the lights of a small, distant city glowing beneath the atmosphere. Tomorrow, he thought. He vomited several times and voided his bowels in the most ruthless and graphic way. After rinsing his mouth out and chewing on some young pine needles, the taste of rice still hung on his palate as he lie in his coffin of snow, shivering violently.
He pulled the top of his sleeping bag over his head and breathed into it, shivering and sweating in the freezing night. He opened his sleeping bag to dry and cool himself, but the cold was instantly intolerable. He covered himself back up and shivered uncontrollably as he got wetter and wetter. His fists shook as if they were beating against a door that wasn’t there.
Thomas woke up to the sound of birds again. The pain in his stomach was mostly gone. Weakness still clung to him but he had enough energy to rouse himself and get his boots on. He packed up his gear and drank as much water as he could before beginning the day’s trek. His head swam with great, blurring distortions of color, his eyes unable to focus on anything but the general greyness of the ground. His knees buckled several times, but he got up and pressed forward. He needed no encouragement. He had the spirit.
Not long after he left his last shelter, Thomas was struck with an odd sense of relief. It was like a runner’s high, but much better. Much clearer. All of his pain became transient, and his stomach was tight but not seizing.
“Thomas!” He looked up and saw his father standing in the snow in his fine black clothes. His slacks were pressed, his shoes shined, his hair combed back behind his ears, and in the buttonhole of his breast pocket was a small, white rose. “I’ve been out here every day for a week waiting for you. I knew you would come!”
“And here I am!” Thomas was elated. He dropped his poles. He reached his father, unfastened his snowshoes, and stood there proudly.
“And here you are.”
“Charlie didn’t get me, Dad!”
“No, son. He didn’t.”
“The winter either.”
“No, it didn’t.”
“The lake didn’t get me.”
“Nope. You cracked it wide open.”
“Not the cold, nor the moose, nor the loneliness.”
“No, son.” His father put a warm hand on Thomas’s shoulder, squeezed it, and let go. “But I did. You did really good in spite of me, son.”
“Yeah. I talk about it all the time. My son, out there facing the elements by himself. Balls like this I tell them.”
“Oh, I don’t care what you tell them. As long as I’m with you.” Thomas stopped for a second and noticed that his father’s hands were empty. “Ain’t you got a smoke? Where’s the whiskey?” His father tilted his head forward and blinked slowly.
“Those days are over.”
Thomas looked around and saw that the snow had all melted and in its place was a great green and golden meadow of tall healthy grass studded with wisps of white. The sun shined gloriously on them both and they walked slowly through the sweet smelling breeze. Thomas took off his gloves and hat and coat and let them fall on the ground as they walked. The warm breeze ran through his hair for the first time in what felt like centuries.
“Let’s go home,” said Thomas, bending down to untie his boots.
“Don’t worry, it’s not far from here. Just over that hill.”
His father looked young, unscarred by battle or age. He put his arm around Thomas’s shoulder and pulled him close as they walked. The old man smelled like he did before Ten High was the only thing flowing within him.
“You know why I named you Thomas?”
“No miracles.” Thomas hung his head. “You told me.”
“Oh, there’s a miracle, Man.” He squeezed his son tight until Thomas looked up. “It’s you, Thomas. The best thing that ever happened in my life.”
Thomas stepped out of his boots and socks and the grass soothed his feet. The air was clean and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
“Let’s get you fed.” His father put his hand on Thomas’s back and rubbed it.
“Oh, that’s okay. I’m not hungry anymore.”
His father pat him on the back and they walked together.
“Why don’t you tell me some more of your poetry? Got a good one for me?”
They walked up a hill of lush, fertile, glowing grass. They walked up into the sunlight and cast shadows that seemed to cover the entire landscape. They got up so high that their figures blurred and their shadows disappeared into the dazzling, blinding light of the great morning star.
Thomas’s voice was soft and pleasing, the humming in his throat totally untouched by tragedy—from a completely different world:
“We trust, in plumed procession
For such, the Angels go –
Rank after Rank, with even feet –
And Uniforms of Snow.”
About the author:
Karsten is a world traveler, veteran, and outdoor enthusiast who has traversed the mountains of Japan, the Ozarks, and the Colorado Rockies.