Dead of Winter
His silhouette was sometimes still, sometimes flailing in the late day light that struggled on. But the ground was winning. It was beating John Aaron, with all its damned icy clay, rock-lined and red, as if spread unmoving beneath his feet by the devil himself. The work was what important tasks should be – meaningful, necessary, demanding – but he was frustrated to the point of giving up. The wind ripped him clean of his will, numbing and draining his limbs, stealing the good, warm air from his chest. For all the day’s miserable labor there was only the beginnings of a sorry hole, as long as he was tall, not quite forearm deep in spots, stone heads rooted and locked to unknown depths.
Burying winter’s dead was a grim chore. Getting a body in the ground was tricky, difficult enough in Tennessee’s rocky soil in good weather, let alone when the dirt and stone slowed and turned stubborn, pressed heavy in winter’s long-sleepy grip. With a mind of its own, careless and blunted, winter only begrudgingly released any hallowed places for the recently stilled.
But the winter of 1861 was more than just cold. It was bitter in a horrifying way, seizing the upper east of the state in a paralysis only the luckiest thought they might outlast and the most calloused could stomach. No old ones recollected a crueler freeze in their time, and they waited for the worst. The young cursed sundown and sunup, mistrustful, as if the first winter to ever sweep the land had arrived. And they waited, too. Each new day’s cold brought the unexpected, the vicious, and they scrambled in their confusion from this new thing threatening from the sky, from under their feet, from behind freezing doors in the lightless night.
He questioned the sense of the chore with every unsatisfying shovel of dirt he plied and chipped out, with every stab of the pick in the stubborn freeze of muck he’d created around his boots, the red-brown clumps lining the edges of the cavity’s shallow walls. He wanted it deeper. A body ought to have proper covering, deep enough to prevent the unspeakable things that come from shallow carelessness. Carelessness, like the event of death itself in this case. Preventable, already guilt-ridden, the crime not a day old. It was too cold to cry any more with fretting.
The ground at Springdale, a small speck of a farm village some half-day’s ride north of Clinch Mountain, offered up a particularly bitter fight that year. It craved its share of tears, sweat, and grief. Families fought the ground, struggling to do right by the dead as the bodies mounted. Routine death chores threatened to obliterate normal ritual. Cholera. Influenza. Freezing. The lost. Accidents. Even a murder, still unsolved, took a man in the night. All of this and it was only late January. The sun barely visited anymore, the gathered hills hemming in their morning and late afternoon light. The ground was devil’s heart hard. Ice, unclear and heavy, the mud, thick and packed, the snow, once white too long ago, burdened all things. Hearts were stressed and breaking under the load of it all like the snapping branches heard exploding in the night. It all gathered up like a wet and frozen quilt on everyone’s shoulders, burdening daydreams and night thoughts alike. If this wasn’t the apocalypse then there never would be one.
John Aaron’s older sister, Emma, was only dead since that morning. They’d gotten up expecting a normal day of hard work. They’d used up all the cuttings and would scavenge for dry wood. Ice had pulled chinking out of the cabin walls. They’d work on that off and on all day. They’d tote and boil water. The well was frozen.
But then she was dead, before even finishing breakfast, her incomplete labors remaining on the stove, undisturbed, still hot but not to be eaten. It was a sudden thing, a blur of motion and panic. Another tragedy in their speck of a valley, this one his to carry quietly.
Despite the cold, her remains were not stiffened by much. He prayed her form would relax into what rough grooves of the earth he could expose. Not a grave fit for a dog even, but grave-like none-the-less. He’d never done this, been spared the toils of bidding bodies goodnight after making the bed and tucking them into the earth. The dead and their funerals were common things, but the lesson of preparing ground was a damnable thing he had determined.
He couldn’t imagine what it was like for those fighting and freezing up at the Gap. What they were forced to do with the dead. Theirs must be an impossible life, he figured. The war was coming, held off at first, now finally making its pounding sounds audible in the distance, from the north and the south. Confederates had marched through, many of their uniforms turning to rags already, boots falling shredded. They’d taken what they wanted, which was more than they needed. Unionist Bushwhackers raided through. Thinning thieves bent on survival. The wandering hungry. Why was anyone bothering to fight a war when the world felt like it was ending?
The newspapers had quit trickling in, the telegraph wires frozen and snapped. Tazewell was the closest thing to a town nearby, but it took too long to get there, do business, and return, and that in the best of weather. No one appeared to be going that way anymore really, no one passed through in either direction, the road in and out of the village turning rutless, lacking the marks of travel, its slush frozen flat and hard and covered in snow.
The promises of better weather faded as depression’s iced fog shadowed the land’s shape, mindlessly ignoring those it tormented. The scared, fearing the days of layering pains. The sick, instinctively feeling they were too ill to outlast this. The well, the nearly healthy, standing by to lend a sorry hand when the time came. No plans were made. No looking toward setting the crops, no dreams of spring’s birth and warmer days and welcome work in the true light of day, of being without worry again outside. They’d forgotten how to plan for tomorrow when today and tonight threatened. It was a grim lethargy seeping in, invading and icing the lungs, poisoning the mind’s brightest memories of Autumn’s forgotten colors. Folks respected winter, but that respect transformed to a new fear, a loathable belief in the real absence of tomorrow. There was a comfort in expecting less from the days. Less from each other.
Winter is death’s good friend, cooperating to fill the ground with recently warm things. Perhaps this is the deal they’ve struck. In Springdale, the indifferent fatigue of winter was winning and death was the benefactor.
Preacher Routh was gone. He might have helped some, but he’d taken off after they’d all woken up to find him in the cold, staring with a grin at his smoking cabin. It burnt all day and they’d been blessed with the surprise of an evening’s warmth from ten paces, several families gathered around, the sun setting. It was pretty for a while, the surging embers, like foxfire, glowing into the darkness of early morning.
He ended up not being as missed as he might have been, but his prayers, as useless as they’d become, had been at least a temporary comfort to some. The expectancy of mass memorial services come spring, when circuit riders appeared to formally bless the losses, after the shock passed and people weren’t quite as mad at God, was quietly replaced with the angry brooding of the living, quick permanent services happening most days, or nothing at all. The guilt of this loss of formality quickly faded.
But suffering, as God promised, is a common thing. Death in the mountains is the ever-present neighbor, always on watch, a misstep away, sliding nearer than anyone wants to know. Winter is death’s good friend, cooperating to fill the ground with recently warm things. Perhaps this is the deal they’ve struck. In Springdale, the indifferent fatigue of winter was winning and death was the benefactor.
The pain firing through him after exiting the cabin and making his way up the hill had soon turned to an unfamiliar numbness. Limbs stiffening, head pounding, skin tightening under layers of worthless clothing. Unstoppable shakes – those were the worst. Whatever result of this wrestling with the dirt would have to do. He imagined she would forgive him. Warmer weather would have brought some delight in the exertion, the pleasure of doing this thing for kin. But here on the hill he was exposed to the wind’s bite, a heavy and straight breeze made visible by the slanting sting of sleet and the streaking from his lips of foggy white breath, like his fleeing ghost. He swore it was freezing and mixing with the sleet, swirling off the hilltop and into the trees below.
Anything was better than leaving her in the cabin until it warmed up, or in the state she was now, just laid out and waiting. Turning and squinting as he tried to rest, he could just make out her form. He’d wrapped her tightly in her bed quilt on the front porch of the cabin, looking more like she was taking a nap with her eyes shaded from the sun. But there was none of that. He could have done any number of other things, laid her up in the barn loft to wait for the thaw. He could have burned the body, walked away from what would have been a guilty temporary warmth. Quite a few had resorted to such an unthinkable act. There was no community crypt to store all the dead. It would have been filled already. The thing was to just take care of such grim matters himself, with no fuss for anyone else.
Others offered a hand but they hadn’t meant it. The truth was in their diverted eyes, the flat toned, exhausted voices, their heavy limbs and shuffled walks. They were conserving strength. Helping would only remind them of what they might be doing any day now or had just been doing last week. Alone and burdened, that seemed how it should be for him.
Family ought to bury family. Plain and simple.
But placing Emma on this knoll bothered him, mostly for selfish reasons. It was the worst place in the world for a burial this time of year, wind exposed, hard ground, inches of snow and ice, the valley wind-sweeping it angrily. He might break a tool, hurt himself, or freeze in his stubbornness to finish. The cold makes normally safe things dangerous – especially for hardheaded people. What broke his heart most was her not being alongside the rest of the family – mother and father – down closer to the Big Stream plots. But this hill was hers. She spent her spring and summer days up here on the knoll, under the one willow now stripped of green, its wispy limbs frozen stiff in icy rebellion against the wind.
A summer memory warmed for an instant, if only in his thoughts. Out in the thickness of the sun, John would notice her resting, cross-legged form in silhouette, dwelling on something that would only confuse him. She’d sit, statue-like, framed in the sky’s blue distance unbroken by clouds, until someone hollered across the little valley and plied her from her thoughts that no one understood. She’d snap from her distraction, slowly rising to her feet, stealing a final glimpse out across the layered colors drifting over the valley and mountains to the south. She’d eventually wander back down the cooler side of the hill and join in on whatever work she was neglecting.
What do you think about up there all the time?
It was his half interest, half obligation. A brother’s chore.
Emma would pause, huffing her frustration in trying to answer about what she saw in her head but could not make into words.
I’m thinking on some other place. Other than here, that’s for sure. Don’t you ever do such a thing?
His older sister by five years, surrogate mother and father wrapped into one since he was twelve. The only blood he knew.
And now he was alone. Alone. And free. Guilty for feeling free. Guilty for wanting to finish her damn grave. Wishing an evening conversation with her waited after his hard work.
Well, now she can sit up here and think all she wants.
In love, frustration, sadness, and no little bitterness, he continued on that frozen hill desperately trying to get his kin in the ground. He’d started digging at noon, figuring it the warmest part of a day that wouldn’t get over 20 degrees. Sparing a few logs of his own measly supply and walking the tree line in search of some half rotten kindling, John had hauled it all up to that grim hill at mid-morning, laid it out along the ground in a rectangle about Emma’s height, cradled a stick of fire from the cabin, and lit it hoping to thaw a little of the ground he’d dig. Kneeling there, stilled by a partial warmth as the heart of the fire swelled and licked sideways in the wind, hissing and smoking black from the rot and dampness, he became keenly aware of already being cold and wet. He was unmotivated for the essential task ahead.
But begun he had, scraping and chipping the newly born blackened ice and slush, an ugly soup of snow, ash, and clay. No more than a few inches were loosened by the meager heat. As he worked in it the heap of mess persisted its greasy smolder, taking his breath, sticking to skin and soaking into cloth. The burden of losing Emma had hesitated in striking his mind until his muscles cried out with the sudden rush of work in the cold. His stabs into the ground quickly weakened as his mind caught up with his body. And then tears formed, trailing down cheeks he knew were there but couldn’t feel, the salty water threatening to freeze, cleaning streaks down the clingy soot. It cleared the dirt and smoke from his eyes.
He cursed, under his breath at first, conscious of respecting the task, but it was soon out loud, body bent and shaky, braced into the wind, voice raised directly into the gusts of stinging sleet. His pulse pounded in his temples following each swing of dull metal, shots of pain traveled around his eyes in rhythm with his heart. His throat dried. The snow forming on his chapped lips did his thirst no good. He warmed once he started breaking ground past the slush, but the sweat soon soaked his linen shirt and turned everything scratchy in his wool britches and around the neck and wrist of his coat. His boots were soaked through to his threadbare socks, his toes stung and numbed. His hands were wet in their gloves from flying slush. Blood fled the end of his limbs and gathered toward his middle. The harder he worked, the more he sweated, the more he shook. His teeth chattered behind cracked lips.
But after a while, the pain didn’t hurt longer, taken over by a strange, painless numb. That dull thud in the limbs that didn’t feel like his anymore. This was a dangerous time he knew, but he wouldn’t stop. Getting Emma in the ground, out of sight, had to happen before nightfall.
The day crept on and he worked, judging the day by the sun’s meager glow behind blackish clouds that threatened more snow by evening. A man came out of his cabin on the other side of the hill and looked up to him for a moment, shook his head, and went back inside.
Occasionally he let himself collapse on one knee in the hole to rest, but never both. It kept the wind off his feet. He did this once and stayed down too long, suddenly not feeling much like himself. It was a lightheaded and lost feeling. He noticed the shaking was gone, but now his eyes wouldn’t open all the way and he couldn’t tell if rubbing his aching lids with a numb, gloved finger did much good.
He studied the hole, the little stones at his feet, the color of the dirt mixed with ice crystals, the changing shades of earth up the trench wall. Still not deep enough. He thought about covering her with rocks, but he would have to tote them up the hill from the creek. He hadn’t dug up enough to cover her.
He leaned and rested on his hands, a single knee yet pulled to the ground, fingers sinking in, jets of white breath slowing from his mouth, mixing with shots of snow around his head and into the hole.
I could just lie down in this hole, couldn’t I? I’d be out of the wind. I could rest a spell.
It was a morbid thought, to stretch out and try out the hole, test it for comfort. Get down a few more inches away from the wind’s bite. But would he be able to get up? And it was bad luck to get down in a grave that wasn’t your own. But it was just a hole in the ground. He didn’t hold much with superstition but even that was beyond what he’d let himself do. He wasn’t thinking straight, just an animal crawling in the dirt, too stupid to get out of the elements that would gladly sweep him away.
He no longer felt like crying. Had the day warmed up suddenly? Yes, something was different. A panic was welling up inside him, from the strange calm that was creeping in. He was just aware enough to catch it. This was that certain line never to be crossed in the cold, when the will flees and everything suddenly feels calm and fine.
The chills left, the pain in his fingers and toes and joints, gone. All of that had worked its way into an impossible weight bearing down on his body’s length. He leaned and rested on his hands, a single knee yet pulled to the ground, fingers sinking in, jets of white breath slowing from his mouth, mixing with shots of snow around his head and into the hole.
Snow continued falling in lacing sheets above and around the knoll, masking the scenery around him, his full numbness accomplishing that dangerous disconnection, making it too subtle to notice. It was one of those strange moments when helpless difficulty opens the gate of clarity.
He looked up from his stooping, barely able to make out the village through the curtains of weather between it and him. It was evening now and snow was falling in heavier walls. He closed his eyes, warming them the best he could, trying to remember what the valley looked like last spring.
He felt it. He had to leave the place. It was finally clear. He had to leave this hole of grief and fear, a place he loved and hated in the same breath. The wind seared through his eye lids as he strained to squint them open again, through cold tears, making out the buildings, stripped trees, and fields below. The weather faded the images between him and there, faded them away like an anticipated making of a memory.
Kneeling there, pulling for breath, too close to dying to rest, he felt like one of them, one of the doomed huddled down in their freezing cabins making up this lifeless winter scene. This dead village. Never had his thoughts been clearer, a veiled knowing driven by the icy cleanliness owning his bones and mind. He lifted his head, no longer staring at the filthy mess under him, forced a glance to his front. At that moment, in all his confusion and grief and emptiness, he was nearly one of them. A doomed animal.
He had to move now. He was freezing to death, by now almost comfortable with the vague idea. Tackling the task of burying Emma today, counter to the better advice of others, soaked in his own anger and stubbornness, he was doing this as a last rebellion he realized. Rebellion against everyone left that he knew, everyone he didn’t care to know, everything he had forgotten in the winter. No family. Emma, mother, father. Gone.
This did not depress him. He loved these deaths. Because they freed him from this place. It was a sudden and complete freedom, a guilty gift he knew he would wrap tightly in his own skin and never let go. He would never speak such words, but he knew them as surely as he knew his own name.
A grin emerged across John Aaron’s frost-covered face. He’d started shaking again.
He was warming up.
Larry Thacker is the author of Mountain Mysteries: The Mystic Traditions of Appalachia and the poetry chapbooks, Voice Hunting and Memory Train. A student services higher education professional of 15 years, he is now engaged full-time in his poetry MFA from West Virginia Wesleyan College.