I took my inspiration for this piece from a photo writing prompt on 1000 Words’ Pinterest board.
We build statues out of snow, and weep to see them melt.
Can I tell you how it was? The earth like a saucer under that wide, grey-gold sky, the sun never rising more than a stretched hand above the horizon. Something swept over the ice that summer – over us – leaving behind it a mark that would never wash away.
I don’t know what brought us up here. I was too young to remember anything from before, and it was understood that you didn’t ask. There were only three of us: Mother with her careful grey eyes, me and Johannes. Our little house, with its tin roof and slanted walls, stood in the middle of the icy flats that, even now, seem to stretch on forever. Once a month, there was Wilhelm, who came with groceries and admiring eyes, and took some of the money mother kept in a tin box behind the hearth.
In winter, Mother warned us to stay close, and so we did – tethered by some invisible cord that we knew not to stretch. Summer days brought more freedom: Johannes and I would creak out on to the porch that ran around the house, spreading our fingers in front of our faces, peering through their shadows to see how much time was left before dark. Johannes couldn’t keep his fingers the same distance apart, and generally left them tucked in his mittens, but I got to be quite good at it. More than three fingers of sun meant several hours free of the warm, wood-smoke dark.
Those precious days, I’d stride away from the house toward the horizon, the safe, resented gravity of home tugging at my back. When we were younger, I let Johannes tag along with me but, as I grew, I shook him off. Wounded but uncomplaining, he stayed by the porch, watched by empty windows as he scraped snow into cluster of short, fleeting friends – a stalk of grass for a mouth, sticks for the arms and holes gouged by pointed fingers for their eyes. Mother unleashed cold fury on him once for pilfering some beans from the pot, so he stuck to what he could find on the ground after that.
That summer was a fractious one, and tempers flared like sun on ice. Mother spent more time than ever folded into the dusty corners of the house while I, fevered with my teenage years, loved and hated everything with all passion and no reason. Johannes padded quietly between the pair of us, bewildered by the looks and long silences, wide-eyed and needy in his worry. His fingers, when not tucked in their woollen mittens, found their way frequently to his mouth.
I ask myself now whether we really had three fingers of sun left that day. Memory is a fickle thing: sometimes I see my fingers spread wide, fat wedges of pale gold light between them. But sometimes, when I wake in the dark quiet, I see only slashes of vivid red between fingers that were barely apart.
I walked away from him that day, away from the house, as I’d done so many times before. I left him there in the sparse, sharp grass, and I walked out toward the darkening horizon, wishing with everything in me that I could run to meet it, and half convinced I was going to try. I turned only once, and the last view I had of the house was of the windows reflecting the flat, endless plains like a mirror, and of Johannnes, stout in his blue coat, scraping together another friend.
* * *
There is nowhere Johannes could have gone. I don’t tell you that in exasperation, or to prove some kind of point; it’s simply the truth. The land out here is as flat as gets – there are no cracks or crevices he could fall into, no hidden rivers under the ice. No visitors came and went, and there were no tyre marks or foot prints, as though anyone could approach without us knowing, anyway.
In those endless days of afterwards, nobody came about Johannes. There was no one to come, and it was for the best. What could we have told them?
Mother retreated further into herself, knowing as well as I did that there was nowhere he could have gone. In the winter that followed, I caught her watching me sometimes, pale eyes glinting in the lamp light. She never said it, and neither did I. When the cancer took her two years later, she went quietly and I sat downstairs by the fire as her breathing rattled then failed. Wilhelm took her away when he came two weeks later, and that was that.
* * *
Now, when I stand on that rickety porch, I move outside myself somehow. I see Johannes and me, dark brush strokes on a canvas that would’ve been better without such bold marks made on it. We stretch down and away, shadows against the lilac snow, staring out to where we’ll never go, where the frozen Earth touches sky. I’m in front of him, longer, thinner than he is; his bundled shape pauses in the short grass, wondering whether to follow or let me go.
And when I lie in bed at night, feeling the weight of the heavens pressing down on the roof, I know that this life, this world, is just too big to hide anything forever. I wait for the crunch of footsteps on the icy snow – for another dark stroke to be made on this pale canvas. Maybe the snow isn’t as white as it looks. Who knows? I’m just telling you how it was. How it is.