Darkness. I’m not so much worried as sick. My stomach is boiling into a storm of helplessness and my heart is pounding harder and faster than I should let it. I try to stay focused, but as I turn back to the woods, the hospital room where my wife died floods into my mind. It wasn’t cold there. It was hot and stale and the lights flickered sometimes when one of the machines keeping her conscious clicked on every few minutes. It wasn’t cold, but her face turned a dull blue at the end and the smile that wasn’t hers anymore froze me to my core.
“Paul!” Lucy shouts through my daze of sickening nostalgia. I want to remember the good times, but all I can do is picture that room, white and sterile and empty but for me, the machines, and what was left of her. We’re already out of sight of the cabin again and I don’t even know which direction I walked to get here. Lucy points toward another set of tracks—no luck. A stump, days old dust scattered across the snow.
What can we do now? The search seems futile. The grove is huge and dark—how many trees has Sarah cut? How many sets of tracks curving between trunks black and still in the night? I zigzag past trees, Lucy on my heels, screaming Sarah’s name into bitter darkness. Step after step, stump after stump. My sense of direction must be tired after years of wandering. Suddenly we’re in the far corner of the tract and I can see my house out across the lea. The lights are still on at home.
Off to the left I see piles of fresh sawdust and a newly falled tree. Sarah couldn’t have been cutting here today; I would have heard the whine of the saw from my desk. But the sap is raw and running still in this deep cold and I plunge through an icy drift to get to the stump. It’s a jagged mess—the notch is obvious, but where it should have hinged gently, it cracked violently. In the dark, with my weak light, the snow is deep red. Where the tree kicked back and drove itself into the snow, I can see Sarah’s leg, buried by wood. Pinned down, blue in cheek and lips, Sarah is still. The saw is in the snow beside her. I can see the spot where the exhaust spit fumes and melted ice until the fuel tank ran dry. Without gas, I can’t cut the log away and free her—the log is too big to roll. Besides, it’s too cold and I’m already sobbing into the red snow and Lucy is standing stock still beside, her face empty and bone white. All around us the trees creak and crack in the cold and the wind whips. The snow is too icy to blow around, but a cloud of sawdust spins through the night air.
Two days later Lucy leaves. She takes everything from the cabin and stuffs it into that little car. The next night a new storm comes in cold and fierce and I burn the cabin to the ground. The smoke and heat pouring forth melt and blast the white flakes heavenward. I can see the glow on the snow as I slip back into the grove, my pockets stuffed with the little items Lucy forgot—a tin of tea, an old paperback, a bastard file that brings out a fine edge on any axe. The snow covers my tracks.
In the morning I return on my snowshoes, plodding through the fresh, light snow in the grove. When the limbs above me shake, little puffs of white drift lazily down and wedge themselves between my coat collar and my neck, chilling me steadily. There is little left to see, but thirty or so people stand around the black crater in the snow. In the middle, among piles of still smoldering scraps of wood and melted tin pots, are the woodstove and half its stovepipe. The chimney is pointing straight up at the now sunny sky.
No one ever knew who set the fire—how could they. An old tinderbox like that could go anytime, especially with a woodstove inside. All I did was walk through the open front door and pile some newspaper in front of the woodstove. One swing of the iron door, a quick raking of the ever-present coals, a puff of breath, and the house is warm. Warmer than it should be, but still not as warm as it felt during those few nights I spent there, sipping tea and speaking of the wood and the world.