I was the last to see him. I was only nine, but I remember the snow fell early that year. The storms came eastward across Lake Erie and over the foothills where pines shaved flakes over low-hanging clouds, leaving solemn gray piles higher than my chest. Before and long after Mr. Ehrlich disappeared, I would stand at the edge of where the lowest boughs in the forest reached, thrashing, supplicant to the harsh and windy sky.
A low chickenwire fence ran down our property line and into the forest, squaring off the few acres my father and I lived on. I would stand against that fence and when Mr. Ehrlich came outside to split wood I could safely turn and toe the property line to watch. He worked easily, letting the weight of the axe head carry it down. He worked close to the forest’s edge, where he didn’t have to drag limbs through the yard, and would always throw the chopped logs toward his house. If I waited, blinking with every echoing thunk, when he finished chopping he would call Girl and then turn to lean against a stump and smoke. I would climb over the fence—careful of the wild trees—and stack the firewood in cords near his house. He would smoke and watch me from within the forest, where thick trunks protected the ember in his pipe. When there were only a few split logs remaining he would come out from the forest, silently, with his head bowed such that his body followed not shortly after. I waited by the finished cords while he threw the remainder over the chickenwire fence and trudged after them when the last log landed, falling through the snow and out of sight like a match.
During the last storm of the winter I stood waiting for Mr. Ehrlich so long that snow began to bury my feet before he appeared at the back door. He saw me standing by the fence and turned back into the deep void of his house. Later, I was building a snowman by the drive and I saw him walk out of the house and into the forest. He was hatless, his hair whipping around him in silent fury and cheeks red beneath dirty skin. Snow fell heavily and a trick of my eyes made it seem as if there were many lights suspended among the trees, winking with bright, far-away eyes of their own.
The next day, Mr. Ehrlich’s and his wife’s seats at church were empty. On the drive home we passed the little pawnshop he owned and it was also empty. We didn’t worry because it was Sunday and his shop was sometimes closed on Sundays.
On Monday my father drove me home from school.
We’ve got no more wood, he said.
The thought seemed to rise like a huge bear waking after winter and feeling the pangs of a deep-set hunger. He turned his truck into the parking lot of Mr. Ehrlich’s pawnshop and told me to wait. He ran to the door and pounded on it, calling out, Tom, yeh in there? Tom Ehrlich, he called, I know yer there.
He pounded and called for the door to open, but it didn’t. The little shop stood dark and empty. The blinds were drawn and again I saw a light out among the trees, blinking slowly. The sun peeked briefly through the clouds. I climbed out of the car and walked to the edge of the forest for a closer look. My father called, Hey. The sun was covered again and the light faded deep among the trees.
I told yeh to wait in the goddamn car, girl. My father took a step toward me, Get back to the goddamn car.
During the drive home it began to snow again and my father wept.
I’m sorry I yelled at yeh baby, he said. I’m sorry I yelled at yeh. Baby girl, I’m so sorry. So sorry, sorry, sorry.
Long after my father went to sleep that cold night I sat up and watched out the window, hoping to see Mr. Ehrlich come up the empty yard and back into his warm home. There were two police cars in his drive and wide beams of light played out in the woods.
When I woke in the morning, my father hadn’t showered yet, so I sat in the bathtub stealing the hot water. It ran over my face and head like a veil. As the water grew cold a small rainbow danced between the curves of my hands. I watched the cold light until my spell was broken by my father’s soft knock on the door. When I was dry and dressed, I worried he would be mad, but he only helped me zip my too-small snowsuit and asked me to play outside while he showered in water now cold.
The cuffs of my snowpants left an inch of my ankles bare above the boot and my oversized gloves let in cold air. No less than a foot of snow had fallen overnight and I paraded around the uppermost part of the yard, far from the wind-tilted forest. I was listening to my own footfalls when I heard a shrill voice calling me to Mr. Ehrlich’s door.
Mr. Ehrlich’s wife asked me if I had seen her husband and I told her Saturday was the last I’d seen him. Her eyes were hooded under a German brow. She wore an eclectic hoard of jewelry and muttered something harsh in German, some unknowable utterance of despair.
Have you seen ’em, she said.
I told yeh not since Saturday, ma’am.
No, girl, the wisps. Have you seen ’em, she said again.
I don’t know what those are, ma’am.
Mrs. Ehrlich and I stood silent for a long while. She was looking into the woods with her deep-set eyes, as if searching for Mr. Ehrlich or some other, unknown thing.
Saturday, was it?
Yes, ma’am, I said.
Have you had no wood since then?
No, ma’am, I said.
Will you take some?
If yeh say so, ma’am.
Your father, she said. He’s a crack-cocaine addict?
I don’t know what that is either, ma’am.
What of your mother?
I didn’t answer. At the time I didn’t know how to and my father was waiting for me across the yard.
At recess our teacher gave us snowshoes and we stomped over the buried playground. We knew from the higher mounds where the jungle gyms lay, and she warned us to stay in the safety of the valleys and walkways. Light danced on the peaks of the snow-covered mounds and the other children dug beneath them, exposing white metal bones of an apparent city.
As for myself, I was afraid of what we would find, playing Archeologist. Chimerical mummies might have satisfied the imagination of the boys, but I held no desire for proximity to death. Though lights and morbid curiosity urged me towards those towering mounds, I turned away from the call. I ran from the playground with my stomach filled with a fear much colder than the simple suspense of what I might find waiting beneath the ice. It was irresistible. As I ran, the lights multiplied over the white crystal snow, and I became snowblinded by the presence of so many ice-dancers in my vision. When the brightness at last subsided and I could see again, I found myself far away from the sprawling playground, standing at the edge of the forest, which ambled for miles to meet the open fields behind the school. There I stood, immobile.
Snow fell heavily, and without my snowshoes I would’ve been buried. Every few minutes I lifted my feet to keep them above the piling snow. A bough collapsed under the weight of it and fell on my exposed ankle, pinning me at the forest’s edge. After a time I heard the teacher calling our names, and then only mine. A gust blew like a cold belch from the trees. My name wailed behind me, again and nearer, again and nearer, and panic: the sudden thought of dead Mr. Ehrlich arisen from the playground, glowing like a wisp and howling, howling, pushed me forward under the boughs. I ran in my stolen snowshoes, tacking to avoid marionette branches guided by windy strings, which snatched at me and carried away the shouts of my name. It was loud between the trees.
The road home was built over an Indian trail, making its way through shallow valleys and the natural curves of the land. For hours I followed the road, and by scouting up short foothills I followed its course. Mr. Ehrlich would surely find me if I walked on the road, I thought. I had not yet come to see that my fear of what followed me was absurd—I only felt it, and deeply. I was comforted by moving toward the setting sun, which appeared occasionally between the trees as a beacon among the boughs. I walked easily, several feet above the dead earth. From the ridge of a certain low hill I saw Mr. Ehrlich’s pawnshop seated in a pocket just outside the forest, and realized I was headed toward home.
I could see Mr. Ehrlich’s wife inside the shop, arranging a case of rings. She moved slowly and methodically, placing one ring here, another there. The pawnshop was lit by a single bulb suspended in the middle of the room. With certain strong gusts the bulb would dim. I watched her from the tree-line until, apparently satisfied with the placement of the rings, Mrs. Ehrlich came to the window. Though the sun had gone down, the moon was full and she could probably see for some distance. She peered beyond where I stood and I followed her gaze. On the next hill over, light reflected off the snow and appeared curiously like a little flame suspended over the land, like the bulb in the shop.
Next to the flame was a hollow tree. As I watched, the valley winds began to shift and funnel along the chasms, and the flame seemed to fade back into the hollow of the tree. Mrs. Ehrlich closed her blinds. With the light went a fleeting warmth I hadn’t known I’d felt. I climbed back among the hemlocks amidst a constant circus of bluejays, warning each other of an apocryphal something.
A shallow creek wove likewise through the hills, frozen over until it deepened near the shop, almost a river. Tannin from decaying hemlocks seeped into the slow-moving water. I followed the river flowing blackly toward home.
The cold was bearable if I kept moving. When I stopped to rest I became too aware of my bare ankles and in my delirium I saw more lights. They faded when I moved, but it seems to me now—as it did less clearly then—that they might have been guiding me. I was still afraid of dead Mr. Ehrlich following me, but the lights only ever appeared before me. As I walked along the river’s bank, I did wonder if I would have been able to find it had there not been a glistening where the ice broke away with the current.
I felt I must be close to home when the creek turned down a steep valley. The shadows of trees cast black against the snow and when I paused to determine my direction I saw down the slope another hollow tree, glowing softly from within. I followed the river downhill where the black water fell into a pool; as I approached, the pulsing light ceased.
Here, where the falling snow was consumed by the rushing water, the tree ended in a sprawl of unearthed roots. Among them I saw an arm, jutting at the bicep from under a cold gray tomb. Behind me, more lights had appeared on the ridge. These were steady beams, and when one shone on me I heard it speak.
By the crick, my father said. They’s a clearin’, yeh see ’er down there?
The forms I saw had all been hollowed out. They took shapes only: a rock washed smooth in a river, shadows of trees, an arm hanging over water. Still, I could see individual patterns of ice as they fell from heaven to earth. They lay among themselves in such weight that they must surely pull the Earth from the currents of its orbit and then keep themselves from melting.
I knelt slowly and with stiffness to pick up a fallen branch, thinking I should collect enough wood to last us till morning.
In the beginning of that winter, snow fell in a perpetual blizzard. The sun broke only for mere seconds between flights so heavy I couldn’t see my feet. Still, for times in midwinter, we saw the sun for days, which, although shining brightly, rarely melted much from head-high heaps. My father continued to spend his time in the house or gone entirely. It is hard for me to think of that winter as containing many storms, rather than one lasting the whole season; but it did relent for a day or two following the recovery of Mr. Ehrlich’s body.
With my snowshoes and the clear air it was easy for me to walk out into the sparse parts of the forest and break off low-hanging branches. My father dried them over a fire made from a small can of oil, and we managed all right with that.
He was able to plow the drive, pushing the snow into a fifteen-foot pile, which toppled over the next morning and engulfed the snowman I’d made. I set out that evening with a pink plastic shovel, but couldn’t find him. As I dug my twelfth hole, several feet wide and deep, a funeral procession left the house next door, and sometime between its departure and return, the snow began again. It turned dark quickly, and without any light I couldn’t find so much as the stick I had used for his arm.
I had been digging for hours when my father pulled into the drive, back from whatever errand he’d gone on instead of attending Mr. Ehrlich’s funeral. His headlights illuminated for a brief minute, before he shut them off, a dark crooked streak at the bottom of a hole. For a moment, I thought I had found the snowman’s arm—that I wasn’t too late to save him. But it was just a shadow. Even two days after finding the body I still had difficulty seeing shadows as being caused by two things—a light and an object—and not as something else entirely.
Get out of the snow, child! I hadn’t seen Mrs. Ehrlich return, but now she screeched from her back porch. My father heard the sound and found me facedown in the mound of snow, digging frantically. He grabbed me by the ankle and pulled me from the hole.
Leave ‘er be, Frances. I can watch after my own daughter, he called back to the porch.
She’s gone missing once already.
I can watch after my own daughter, my father said again.
Can you? Have you been watching? Do you even know what to look out for?
I don’t know what yer tryin’ to say, but widow or no, yeh’d best stop tryin’ to say it. My father let go of my leg and I crawled away, deep into a pit on the back of the mound.
Mrs. Ehrlich, frantic now, said, Are you blind as well as ignorant? Is your mind so cracked that you don’t see them? Did you not watch out your window for days after your wife left, and not see them then either? Or did you see them and not know what you saw?
Yer a damn fool, woman. Tom was a good enough man, but yer a damn sad fool and now yeh’ve gone and lost yer sad fuckin’ mind.
Mrs. Ehrlich called out in German and collapsed on her porch, huddled in the unshoveled snow. My father hesitated before crossing over the buried chickenwire fence to carry her inside. I waited until Mrs. Ehrlich’s yawps subsided from within before crawling from the honeycombed tomb and into the falling snow.
My father had left his truck door open and I went to close it. On the driver’s seat was a little plastic bag, the corner filled with what seemed to be large, crystalline flakes of snow. I touched them; they had been inside so long they weren’t cold, but they hadn’t melted either. That frightened me. I poured them into one of the holes I’d made and they were soon buried by falling snow.
My father was still next door. Mrs. Ehrlich had begun to cry out in German, but snow was falling again, so her cries seemed distant, muffled by the heavy air. Time passed, and I could no longer see the truck fifteen feet behind me. I stood on top of the snowman’s tomb and could barely make out the silhouette of our small house, the chimney fading into gray. Snow crept through the gaps in my clothing.
Though the sun was behind the clouds, the snow caught some equivocal light as it fell. The light was steady, as if a single ray had pierced through a frozen cloud and shone on each flake as it passed. I came out from the mound and it seemed to keep its distance, as if wary of my approach.
This time, I was not quite as afraid. Though Mrs. Ehrlich’s grief still echoed around me, my father had explained, when I told him about the lights in the forest, that she wasn’t right in the head to tell me those stories and that sometimes people see things that aren’t really there. But I found the light tauntingly beautiful. As I approached the woods it began to flicker and dance, and when I entered many more flames appeared, as if the single ray of light were reflected among the myriad of icicles into many apparitions.
My tracks quickly filled behind me. I did not know then of a lost person’s tendency to walk in circles, but even now I’m certain that I didn’t. Though I had only once before been this deep in the woods, the only familiarity I had was the feeling of tension in my stomach, the unshakeable sensation that I had to keep moving, following, that things would become clearer somehow. Though this feeling was similar to what I had felt before I found Mr. Ehrlich, it contained less of a lacking, and more concrete a comfort. I didn’t walk in circles.
Mrs. Ehrlich’s Germanic howls had stopped a long while before a beam of light appeared from behind me. It swept side to side, and when it passed over one of my guides, the flame flickered out, perhaps absorbed by the greater brightness. The lights reappeared high in the limbs of a tree. I climbed toward them.
My father came out of the fog behind me. He held a flashlight, which he couldn’t keep steady. It shook, and he pointed it before, behind, and all around him, but he never looked up towards the lights. He called out in simultaneous fondness and despair.
Baby, can yeh hear me? Yeh’ve always known better than to play out in the woods. Girl, where’d yeh put the bag? I ain’t mad atcha, I just got t’know.
Hours after my father had passed by, the lights led me in a new direction, away from his tracks. I came upon a clearing, not unlike the one in which I’d found Mr. Ehrlich. A small pool was frozen over, but it wasn’t black. Here, the lights disappeared, and I was sure I was dying of cold.
I’ve been told that every hallucination seems real at the time. I’ve also heard that hallucinating isn’t real. Either way, I know I was cold and hungry, in and out of consciousness. I also know that when Mr. Ehrlich appeared, he spoke German and I understood him.
He—a red-yellow depth—said, You should stay.
Why, I thought.
Poor girl, you don’t even know yet that you’re sad.
No, I thought, This ain’t any home, no dry wood, nothin’ to eat. And I’m cold.
I was so cold.
Mr. Ehrlich pointed to a hollow on the bank, oddly undisturbed by the snow, and I curled into it, pulling mossy bark over myself for a blanket.
I’ll keep you warm, he said.
I’ll bring you wood, he said.
No. I can do it.
You won’t need those things, he said.
Mr. Ehrlich came closer, and I found I was comfortable and no longer really cared about the cold.
Your father, he’s an addict.
I don’t know what that is, I thought.
He can’t care for you.
Yeh don’t know that.
The hollow in me that I suppose had been there my whole life, which was filled first with fear in the playground, with curiosity after, and now with a strange comfort—it didn’t know how to react to these new tenants. That hollow was filled close to bursting, and as consciousness faded I lost whatever control I’d kept them down with. They rose from my stomach and burst from my mouth, wild at first and then steady, like a match lit in the dark.
I howled until I slept.
He told me when I woke that he had found me by my screaming and a lot of luck and then carried me home. He told me when I rose from bed to rest and stay warm. When he was high, he beat me for scaring him, and when he came down he pleaded not to be left again. Though it was years before I began to stop loving my father, I did wonder then if there were ever anyone besides us who loved grief solely because it was grief, and who then longed to hold it.
One day near the end of that winter, my father was gone and I stood at the edge of the trees, hands raised to the mute and windy heavens. A great ululation opened deep inside me like a rift. I swallowed it then, but even now, whenever I feel crisper air, I also feel an incessant need to uncover anything buried.