Fires smoke the air, the scent a soft comfort from an iron wood stove that calls across the snowy hillside, blazing inside with logs you and Dad needed a whole day to split and stack. You exhale visible breath, hoping for it to turn to icicles and plink to the ground, like in Saturday morning cartoons watched from a chilly hardwood floor. Mom, one foot up on the ash catch of the wood stove, watches the TV over you. You wonder how she can stay so close to the heat, until, one day, you realize she’ll stand there forever.
The best sledding hills are as far from the house as you can get and be still inside the tilting fieldstone walls of the farm. The snow crunches, the belly of your sled presses deep as you throw yourself onto the plastic sled, but the course can’t hold you and drifts swallow you headfirst. Lips stinging, you tumble to the bottom, only stopping on level ground where you dig melting ice from of your gloves.
You savor the gray and lonely feeling that comes from being on top a hill as winter winds drive a ceiling of gray clouds above your head. Atop the next hill over a circle of evergreens stands tall and protective of the drafty farmhouse. Next to it the big red barn is disappearing, roof sinking, glass broken, a distant memory of a cupola. Everyone is waiting for the heavy snowfall that will topple the old shipwreck. Inside rickety stairs lead up, slanting to the left, to an attic full of kindling-dry apple boxes and an ancient waterwheel but how it was lifted up there or where it came from, no one knows. The rotting beams and slatted floorboards have repairs here and there, but watch your step because people have fallen right though to the packed dirt floor ten feet below. Not that you’re supposed to be up here at all. Later in life it might occur to you, one day when you come home to find the bulldozer’s blade has done its work, that there was some form in this patchwork of red painted splinters worth saving.
Down you go and the trail is packed better now, but the powdery snow is too cold to stick together properly. Your turn and trudge back to the top to try again, carving stairs through snow that comes up to your knees. Eventually the cold and wind and snow take their toll on you, leaving just enough energy to drag the sled and your sweating self the quarter mile home.
The old farmhouse changes every few years: wallpaper stripped, couches delivered, a second bathroom carved out of a larger room, above-ground pools, flower and vegetable gardens, new wives, step-children, grandchildren, relatives, dogs, cats, all happening without anyone much noticing, sliding into a place just a little different with each full moon. You bring home a girlfriend to impress upon her this sense of place and though she will not understand, she will smile and kiss your happiness, your warmth, to be close to you, rest in the easy fit of love. And when you bring home the next lover it stings to know home has been re-shaped, this time by you and by the memory of the old love that once nestled with you near the heat of the wood stove.
So you force yourself back, years back and leave the house, out the back door, push aside tired pine needles, wander across a thin field of new apple trees, frozen to the earth, past waves of rows rolling away and up a distant hillside. The land expands around you. There’s always somewhere that’s new, always a place you haven’t seen, some boulder or tree you haven’t yet climbed and you’ll go, the second you can get away. Across the hillside, back up through rows of grapes that once were woods, then weeds, then apples, back to the oldest place you’ve ever seen.
Two gray rows of wrinkled, leafless apple trees loom, an island of cultivation on the edge of an ocean of winter-dark pines and deep unknown. These stubborn, leathery fruit trees have held their own all this time, older than you are, older than memory, now too unproductive for anyone to trim, to mow, to weed, too isolated to replace. The neglected trees huddle together between arching snowy pines that will one day swallow them whole. Their potential children, frozen on the ground and sterile, are no consolation. A hundred years of attrition from now the forest will win a victory of reclamation, stealing the last light from the tough old trees. The final survivors will draw closer and closer, nowhere to hide from the ancient force, vines and creepers and poison ivy choking, slowly choking.
You return when Spring thaws up from the ground, hatching downy leaf buds, questing bees, muddy ruts, warm, dewy mornings. The old apple trees remain, stronger than the forced grafts on weak rootstocks. They do not bleed tears, they do not worry for their small, hard fruit or the loss of their straight rows. Maybe it is not how you thought. Not conquest or defeat, maybe below the earth the tips of their deep roots touch the acidic pines. Maybe there is reconciliation. The trees will give way to what is more like life, to the freedom of unregulated death and growth. Perhaps it will be a comfort to rot, to fall to the earth and become part of it again.
You touch the crumbling flakes of gray bark, lie down in the new grasses, cold and wet underneath bare canopy. The unfreezing earth holds you still as you try to imagine how it can be that you will someday come down to rest with them.