Winter Into Summer
Our children were missing. James was missing and Tilden was missing and Everett was miss-ing, but June was not. Our own little piece of summer, curled up by the fire under his thin, flame-singed blanket.
June's skin was sallow. You could see through it in places. He had these gears running around his body that were al-ways turning. You could see them through his skin. We weren't sure that June was real.
Well, I thought he was real. December didn't, and she was my wife. Maybe she did. She didn't like him, anyway. December of-ten looked at me like I was crazy, the way I doted on June. But still, he was realer to me than James or Tilden or Everett.
They'd gone missing long ago, but we'd still catch sight of them from time to time.
June stirred under his blanket. I could see the tiny gears in his head turning under the glass bell of his skull.
I loved June like no one, except the children. Maybe. I loved December a lot. She and June had the same kind of warmth.
No. December was not warm. But she wanted love for eve-ryone, and that was important to me.
I went and placed my hand on June's head and he looked up at me. His eyes were the color of fires on wild hillsides. They shone.
December was over in the kitchen, looking for Tilden out of the window. I knew she'd never find Tilden, but she loved her like I loved June, so I didn't say anything.
June huddled up and closed his eyes. He brought his hands up over his face, so I'd know to leave him alone. I left him alone.
I went into the kitchen to hold December because I was cold, and felt like I needed to hold someone.
"Tilden's not out there," she said as I wrapped my arms around her.
"No," I said.
I looked out of the window. It was very dark. If it was-n't for the firelight, you wouldn't have even been able to see the snow. The snow was thick. It covered everything except the win-dow. It was coming down fast, but it would get stronger still before it let up.
December said, "I can barely remember what they look like anymore."
I pulled her in close. She pulled away and went to the picture frame.
We hadn't seen the children for longer than a moment in five years. They'd wandered out into snow just like this and they'd never wandered back. James had been very sick. We should never have let them go.
I should never have let them go.
Everett had been leading, because Everett was the leader. But Everett had only been five and Tilden had only been four and James…James.
The picture showed all of them. They were scattered around it because they were young and they wouldn't stay still. All of their faces were blurred. It was the last we had of them. December picked it up from the table.
The wind blew through the trees and rustled their leaf-less branches and even in our house with our thick walls made of thick lumber, we could hear it. The wind hummed like some of the singers who came through in the spring would hum before they started singing. As though it were preparing for something.
I lay my hand on December's shoulder to listen to it. She shrugged away and went to stand by the kitchen light.
"They were so beautiful," she said. "Look at little Tilden, hanging from that tree branch."
She held a hand to her throat. Her eyes glistened.
June came into the room with his blanket draped over his shoulders. He turned his big, lamplight eyes on me and said, "I'm hungry."
June was often saying this to me. I didn't know what he ate.
The first time he'd come to me saying this, I'd pulled out every scrap of food I could find for him. He'd turned them down one by one, and in the end he went to bed hugging his empty stomach. When he'd woken the next day, I'd smiled and asked him how he was. He'd said he felt much better. He must have eaten. He never said what.
I asked, "What do you want to eat?"
June shrugged. He went to December.
"Can I see the picture?" he asked her.
He'd never asked December for anything before. Not even a crumb.
She looked at him. She raised her eyebrows, and I could tell what she was thinking. She was thinking, 'How dare you come into our house? How dare you ask me for anything? Get out, you evil sprite.'
I said, "It'll only be for a little bit, December."
She looked at me, and I knew what she was thinking. I won't say it here though. It hurt.
She hugged the picture to herself, and she turned away from us.
She really was loving. Please, you have to trust me. Please.
June went back to the fire, and didn't say anything else.
There was a blizzard that night. It brought strong winds and the air became very cold. The snow was immense.
I woke, and went to the kitchen window to watch it. June was curled by the fire. Sparks leapt out of the grate onto his blanket. When would he ever learn?
I closed the screen on the fireplace, bent down and kissed his warm head. His cloth eyelids fluttered, and for a mo-ment I thought I'd woken him. He shifted and was still.
I went to the window, but could barely see out of it. The snow was so thick. The glass was woven with frost. I could hear the wind howl, like a dog, bereft.
The children, out there. Cold and fearful and lost.
In the light of the moon, I saw them, for a breath only, trudging their way through the snow. Everett led them. Tilden came next. I couldn't see James. But he had to be there. Didn't he?
Their coats were so thin. Their faces were so tired.
They were gone.
If I went to look for them out there, I'd never find them. I'd tried so many times. Why couldn't they just leave us be?
June said, "You look sad."
I turned to him, or tried to. There was no one there. I blinked. Ah. There he was. This happened, sometimes. His voice would be there, but he wouldn't.
"Smile, please," he said.
His patched and ragged blanket hung from his shoulders like a king's robe.
I smiled, but my mouth was so heavy.
June said, "Thanks."
I laid a hand on his head, and we stayed like that for a while. Then, I turned, and went back to bed.
I woke again at dawn, with the silence.
December was already awake. Her footsteps were quiet, but they were there. She came into the room with a mug in her hands. She sat next to me on the bed.
"I heard you get up in the night," she said.
"The wind woke me."
She nodded, slowly.
"December? What's the matter?"
She sipped from the mug.
"Are you all right?"
She nodded. "I thought I saw James at the table this morning, but it was only June."
I laid my hand on hers. I squeezed, as if pressure would assure her of something.
She took another sip. "There was a storm last night."
"Yes. A blizzard."
"It was the same storm."
"The same as what."
"The one that took them. I could feel it."
I took my hand from hers. "I saw them walking last night."
She bent down and kissed me. Then she held me.
"We'll find them."
December stood. I stood. My body felt heavy.
June was downstairs, at the table, staring at the snow. He turned and looked at us. He looked tired. We all looked tired.
How do you tell a child who might not be real that you love him? What is the precedent?
December went to make breakfast. I sat at the table with June. He laid his head on his arms. He made snoring noises. I rubbed his shoulder. He felt cold. Everything felt cold.
I went in to check on the fire. The fire was out. I built it up again. June hadn't let it go out for so long.
What did this mean? Did this mean anything?
I went outside that afternoon. The sun was high. The wind was still. The air was very, very cold. I left June by the fire.
December came with me. I liked this. In times of such unknowns, it is important to have each other.
We held hands, through our mittens. I could barely feel hers through all the insulation, but it was enough.
"Where did you see them?" she asked me.
I pointed to a hill, treeless, with the blue sky pasted above it like paper. We went up there.
"Do you see anything," I asked her.
"Snow. No footprints."
A light wind kicked up and blew the loose snow around the hill like it were fog. There were small divots, such as a child's feet might leave.
"I think I see something," I said.
December came over to me and I pointed to the divots, hopeful. She shook her head.
"Maybe," I said.
She looked up at me with her glassy eyes.
"What could it hurt to try?" I said.
She turned away from me.
We followed the footprints as best we could. They were very dim. They led nowhere. We went back to the house.
June was asleep by the fire. It was down to embers.
He opened his eyes. He pulled the blanket closer to him-self. I could see the gears moving beneath his skin. They creaked dully. He shivered. I pulled a thicker blanket from the couch, and draped it over him. He looked thankful for a moment, and then shrugged it off.
The evening was calm. Everything stopped moving. I stood alone and I looked on June and December and I thought about our lives. Where they came from. Where they were going. I listened to the clock in the hall beat the seconds out into the winter silence.
The snow lay a long time. Four months, it covered our hills and our valleys. Four months, it froze our creek. Four months, it hung long icicles from our eaves, our trees. Then, it melted.
Birdsong thronged the air. Creeks swelled like a corpse and drew down. The first buds of spring appeared on the tree branches. The singers came through.
I'd seen the children again fifty times by then. Our beautiful children. Always, out of the corner of my eye. In the dark or the fog or the blowing snow. There, and then gone. Brushing into and out of existence so fast.
December said she'd hardly seen the children in all that time. Weeks went by with nothing.
She was getting thin; December was. Her eyes were becom-ing hollows.
June was getting stronger. He helped me split firewood and went and stacked it himself.
December grew weaker, and June grew firmer, and the children grew scarcer.
Actually, June grew scarcer too. I would come downstairs in the night, after December woke, maybe, or just because I was up, and he wouldn't be there. He wouldn't be in the kitchen, or by the fire. He wouldn't be outside. I'd grow worried.
I'd go outside and call for him. The night would carry my voice away.
But then, in the morning, it was always okay. He'd be at the table, or looking out of the window. Or, if it were cold, by the fire.
December came to me one morning with her eyes wreathed in tears and spliced with red. She said she couldn't do it. She said she barely knew what their faces looked like anymore. She said, "Enough."
She closed down on me. She stopped eating. She stopped drinking. She seemed hardly there. Insubstantial, like smoke.
She said, "I'm sick. Please, let me alone."
But I would not let her alone. I could not. I had lost so much, and gained so little. I would not go on losing.
So, I sat up with her nights, as though she were herself a babe. Glass of water on the table. Slice of toast in my hand. If I waited long enough, I could coax these things into her.
The days were lengthening and they were warming.
I made December walk with me, outside. But the world was to her like a thing separate from herself. Like a picture of it-self, that she could only watch.
When we came back, June looked at us like a dog would at a newborn. Curiously. As though acknowledging new responsibili-ties. He sniffed at the air.
He needed the fire's heat less as the days warmed. His skin grew thicker. I could barely see the gears in it anymore. As though he were moving from one world into another. Slowly.
He came to me one night, after I'd set December down to sleep. I'd come back to the kitchen to have a drink.
"She's sick," he said.
Anyone could have seen this.
"Yes," I said.
"Will she die?"
I put my hand on his shoulder and I could feel the tiny wooden gears turning still beneath his skin, fewer than I remem-bered. Why was all my love for him restricted to this gesture? This child who was surrogate to my own children.
I embraced June. I cried. I cannot remember the last time I cried.
When I stopped, June said, "I need to show you both some-thing."
I looked at December.
"Carry her," June said.
The next day, I tried to wake December, but she wouldn't wake. I lifted her out of the bed. So thin. Like she was made of twigs.
June took us out among the hills and the valleys. The grass was so green. The trees so full. The air warm and fresh. December murmured.
She hadn't seen the children for some time. I told June this. He nodded.
After a while, he said, "They were good to me." He was looking over at a far hill, and the sun burning clear and cold into the pale blue of the sky.
I looked where he was looking, and I saw the children disappear over the hill. A dot of a head over it again, as though looking for someone. There was a wavering smudge. Noth-ing. I never blinked.
Did one of them just wave at me?
I tried to wake December to show her, but she wouldn't wake.
June walked on, and I followed. We went over that same hill, and down into one of the valleys. A steep, narrow place that was really more of a ravine. I had to be careful with De-cember.
The ravine widened, opened, let into a field I'd never before seen. There was a tiny cottage some distance before us.
The cottage had two darkened windows and a stone chimney that leaned over it. June shivered, despite the warmth. Shadows moved past the windows inside, deeper dark amongst the dark of the cottage.
"Where are we, June?"
"Going to see them."
The cottage's door stood ajar. It creaked on its hinges when June drew it open. The only light inside came from the win-dows, which were sooty and old.
June led me to a cellar door that, when opened, let up the sound of a thousand ticking clocks and a warm glow of can-dlelight. We descended.
"They saved me," June said.
The cellar was made of clocks. They were stuck into every wall. Gears littered the ground. There was a door in a corner.
"Where are we, June?"
December shifted in my arms. Her eyes cracked open.
"Clocks?" she said.
"Clocks," I said.
June said, "My mother's house."
June opened the door, and we followed him.
There are things in life for which you are not prepared, for which you can never be prepared.
"Tilden," December croaked. And then, "Everett."
Everett was shoveling coal into a furnace. Tilden was bent over James's body, which lay on a table. His ribcage was cracked open, and she was poking around in it.
Tilden saw us first. She rushed over, and embraced June.
"James," she said, head in the crook of his shoulder. "Oh James. You look wonderful." She was almost crying. "So alive."
Everett turned, and was about to put the shovel down when a woman's voice said, "Don't stop, boy. She'll need that fire."
I looked for the woman. She was sitting before a thing that was like June was. She beckoned to me with a finger, and said, "Lay the woman down by me. We've got to get moving."
And what I could hear wasn't the sound of my children, or the woman, or the furnace, but only those clocks, ticking.
This is the first legitimate journal that Philip Schweitzer’s been accepted into. He doesn’t have a website yet, so clicking on his name won’t do anything; but if you Google him, he might have made something by now. Regardless, he hopes you’ve enjoyed this odd little tale.