Saturday, February 23, 2019

Winter Eyes by Francesca Quarto

His  world was covered in a crisp, white blanket of snow.  There were no footprints, no animal tracks, no desecration of yellow to mar its pristine face.   
Thom was a trapper of sorts.  He never trapped to kill, or sell the pelts of the beautiful animals he saw around his cottage.  He was there to study them, using the non-lethal traps to get close enough  to sketch them in detail.  These renderings were sent off to a scientific journal that used them as illustrations.  The journal was published once a year, so Thom had plenty of time to amass quite a number of drawings for submission over the long winter.
This winter was different from the last one he'd spent in this small, farming community.  Most everyone here over the age of seven had a gun and hunted avidly for the sport, but mostly for the table.  This was a poor, rural town and a number of the men-folk were not long returned  from 'the war to end all wars. '
Thom knew mostly everyone by sight, forming casual friendships with several of the returned veterans.  As an impressionable twenty-year old, he was in awe of their wartime experiences, sitting for hours to listen to their stories of death and near death experiences.  He was most interested in their peculiar superstitions, some taken from home and transplanted in the mud of France, others, newly spoken, in hushed voices. 
While he knew the wild animals that roamed the area, Thom didn't have the same insight about the older men he sat with, over long winter afternoons.  A small shack on the edge of the town, served as the local pub for those thirsty for the taste of throat-biting whiskey and the companionship of other menfolk. 
The winds blew hard and cold down the empty dirt road in front of the local watering hole.  The sign, hanging from a single nail out front advertised itself as 'Winter Eyes' a stranger pub name, Thom had never heard.   
Inside, there was a roaring fire in a hearth that comprised most of the back wall, the tiny kitchenette tucked in close by.  There was no long bar running its length, but rather a few small round tables, scattered about the open room and two benches on either side.  The latter were donated by the young cleric  before he left town to serve his country, never to return to his country church. 
One of the superstitions carried from mouth to ear around town, was that he had a vision and saw himself in a trench filled with bodies.  His body was on top with a bullet hole through his left eye.
Thom asked if the pastor had been killed over there like he foresaw.  One of the older veterans answered after a deep silence overcame the group in the pub.
"He seen it all and faced his death with a cold stare of defiance, he did!  We all saw how we would fare before we were taken into the army.  It was no mystery to any here and a testimony to the bravery of those that went anyway."
"But how can that be, Macray?  No one can see their time of death."
"Well, Thom, boy.  There's more to what you can see with your natural eye, to be found, if you're of a mind.  We all decided to follow the young pastor and look with dead, winter eyes, to find what future we had left.  Step over to the fireplace young Thom and have a gander for yourself."
Thom hesitated, something inside of him shrinking back from the challenge.  But he was among friends, people with good hearts.  Soldiers of a poisonous war, most coughing their lungs up every few words.   he had to look, or they'd think him less a man than the young cleric.
He walked over to the great hearth, the orange and yellow flames dancing in a wild gypsy frenzy, in the gusts seeping through the boards of the walls.  His face became hot as he stood closer, staring into the crazed conflagration.  He blinked furiously as his eyeballs dried in the super-heated air.  He was about to turn away, ready to announce the sham they had all experienced and sadly so, when a log shifted in the fiery nest and suddenly, he saw. 
He jumped back from the bizarre scene playing out among the flames and smoke.  He saw himself, working on a sketch while lying on his bed, in his one room cottage. A shadow passed by his window, blotting out the moonlight. There were heavy, shuffling steps outside and suddenly, the flimsy cottage door was knocked off its hinges, crashing onto the floor near a few boxes and a suitcase.  A huge bear let out a blood thirsty roar and plowed into the room and straight to the petrified Thom.
"Well, Thom boy, you are pale as a fish's belly and your legs seem as rubbery as its tale.  Tell us what you seen, boy.  We're all anxious to know."
Thom flew out the door of the pub and didn't look back.  He reached his cabin and began packing his things into boxes and a large valise that he tied with a rope to secure.  It was too late in the day to try to get a lift into the next town over where the train station was located, so he tucked in for a long night.  
Meanwhile, the once young men, leaving their youth on the battle fields, were laughing at the naive boy, so afraid of looking death in the face.  Why, they'd done it themselves hundreds of times.  Macray took a stubby cigarette from the corner of his mouth.
"I'm guessing the young Thom is better off letting old man death sneak up on him.  A surprise he'll never see coming!"


Diane Burton said...

As usual, a unique story, Francesca.

Francesca Quarto said...

Thanks for your comment, Diane. Always appreciate you taking the time to notice my humble contributions.

Francesca Q.