The snow holds off ‘til I reached my parents’ place. I’m rumbling up the long driveway in my overladen car when the first little flakes drift down from the gray evening sky, as though Michigan had just been waiting for the perfect timing to welcome me back.
Stepping out of the car into the sharp January air, I am immediately reminded of the fact that I’ve spent the last five years in Florida where there aren’t really any seasons to speak of – though it does get slightly less humid around this time of year. My blood has been thoroughly thinned and my tolerance for real winters absolutely ruined.
“It’s cold!” I squeal as the door to the house opens, revealing the grinning face of my mom.
“Welcome home!” she calls, then back into the house, “May’s here!”
I hurry across the yard and up the porch steps, cringing in on myself under the assault of the cold air that is apparently trying to cuddle me in welcome. I duck inside the warm house to give my mom a huge hug, then one for my dad. Then one for the dog, and one for the cat, and one for the other cat. Dad offers to help me unload the car, but I say to leave it for the morning. I’ve been driving for two days. I need to collapse for the night.
And so I do, in my old room in the old farmhouse my great-grandfather built way back when. Bundled up in layers of pajamas under layers of blankets. Tomorrow I’ll deal with my carload of stuff and my lack of employment and my utter absence of knowing what to do with my life.
I fall asleep. Outside, it snows.
I wake up to the hush of gray pre-dawn, the world muffled by its fresh new blanket of pristine whiteness. I had been hoping to sleep ‘til noon, but my body is too used to getting up first thing. Alas, no sleeping in for me. I un-cocoon myself from my bed and shuffle to the window in my thick socks on the cold floor. I push aside the curtain, looking out at the peaceful morning, and I sigh. I’ve missed laying eyes on this scene, the fields and trees and hints of neighbors’ houses beyond. It snowed at least six inches overnight. It’s not snowing now, but the clouds above look ready to let loose with more drifts and flurries at any time. As cold as my southernized system is, and as cold as I know I’m going to continue to be for a while, I do not regret this move at all. Florida is not my place, as much as I wanted to make it work there. I need seasons. I need snow in my life.
I need to be out in it right now.
Ten minutes later I’m bundled up in more clothes, old boots and scarf and hat and mittens and winter coat I haven’t touched in almost half a decade pulled from the stash in the hall closet, and I step outside. I pause there on the doorstep, watching my breath rise up cloudy before me. The air sears into my lungs, not quite painfully. It’s invigorating, enlivening. My toes are going to go numb so fast, I know, but for the moment, everything feels perfect.
Forward I trudge through the half a foot of snow, past my still-to-be-unloaded car – I’ll deal with that later – out past the old barn that once housed milk cows and now houses odds and ends of old furniture and tools and things. Out around the edge of the old hay field, the stubble of old grasses poking up in patches through the snow. By the time I reach the trees on the far end my toes are definitely starting to feel the cold and I’m starting to wish I had worn another pair of socks. And a second scarf. And a second pair of mittens. And a second pair of pants. It is definitely going to take me a while to readjust to this.
It’s quiet under the trees, quieter the farther I walk. Even the birds are subdued. I’ve always loved walking through these trees. They were my hideout when I was a kid, my quiet place to dream of magical possibilities, my fairy wood. My place to forget the complexities of the real world.
Boy, but I could use just a moment of magic now. Two weeks ago I gave notice at my job, the job I had placed so much hope in, the one I just knew was my dream job when I was hired almost five years ago. Well, it turned out to be somewhat less than a dream. I tried to make it work, forced myself to not give up on it, sure that if I just tried harder, just cared more, everything would click into place and I would love it, that it would stop feeling like I was beating my head against a wall to make any sort of impression on the place. Then my manager told me I cared too much. I was making everyone else look bad. She told me to care less about my job. It broke my heart, and it made me realize that it was long past time for me to move on.
Deep breath in. Cold air stinging my windpipe. A cleansing sort of burn, ridding me of impurities. I feel it beginning to dry out the places in me that have been so thoroughly soaked in humidity for the last few years. It feels really good.
The crunch of the snow beneath my boots feels good, too. There’s no other sound quite like it. It’s not cold enough yet to squeak underfoot, but when it does get that cold I’m sure I’ll be doing some squeaking, too. I can see myself turning into that obnoxious person who whines about the cold all the time.
I stop walking and lean back against a tree, a tree I’ve leaned back against all my life. It’s a comforting old presence. I look back through the trees I’ve passed already, just able to see the big red barn through the bare brown branches, a tiny glimpse of the white farmhouse past it. I appreciate being able to come back here. I appreciate the kindness of my mom and dad, their willingness to not make a big deal out of their adult daughter needing to come back for a while. I need to find my own place, though. My own corner of the world. Someday I’ll find it. Maybe soon. Maybe whatever my next move is…wherever that will be.
My gaze dips, idly landing on the snow I’ve just walked through. It takes me a long few moments to realize what I’m seeing. Or rather, what I’m not seeing.
Where are my footprints?
I straighten away from the tree, my eyes searching the ground that I know for a fact I just walked through, the snow that should be clearly marked by my passing. And yet…there are no prints. Not one. My brain can’t process it. There is no reason, no fathomable notion, to explain to me why the snow I just walked through still looks as unspoiled as, well, as freshly fallen snow. It’s not hard-packed or iced over enough to have formed a crust strong enough to hold me up. I would have noticed that. My nostrils would be freezing closed if it were that cold. I would have taken one step outside and gone right back in if it were that cold.
I look down at my feet as I take a step, and another, and more, marveling as each one fails to leave any sort of trace. It’s impossible. Literally impossible. I pride myself on believing that nothing is impossible, but this…it’s just magical. I give a little laugh, my breath rising in a pale puff into my eyes.
I hear a faint crunch behind me, the distinctive sound of a boot on snow. I turn, surprised, wondering if my dad has come out so far so early, but my eyes find the figure of a man I don’t know, bundled up against the weather like I am. A moment later he looks up at me and I realize that I do know him.
“Mike,” I say.
He looks surprised, then he smiles. “Hi, May.”
“What are you…?”
“When did you...?”
We stammer to a halt, each giving an awkward little laugh. Mike is the “neighbor boy”, the kid who was friends with my older brother growing up, who teased me unmercifully in middle school and then managed to turn into a genuinely nice guy in high school. He moved to California before I moved to Florida. I remember now my mom saying something last night about him visiting his parents, but I hadn’t realized she’d meant right now.
I glance past him and see more impossibilities: there are no footprints in the snow behind him.
“Are you seeing this?” I demand, stepping toward him, looking down and around at the unmarked ground.
“I thought I was going crazy,” he says, as avidly amazed as I am as he takes a step closer to me.
“How is it possible?” I ask, another step closer.
“It’s not!” he laughs, close enough now that our fogged breath is mixing as it rises and disperses into the cold air between us. We stand still for a few long moments, looking at each other.
“How was Florida?” he asks.
He smiles a little. “My mom told me that your mom told her that you quit your job down there.”
“I did,” I say, the admission feeling good. I nod. “It was time.” I raise my eyebrows at him. “And how’s California?”
His smile hitches. “Past tense. I quit my job, too.”
We look at each other for another long moment.
“What are you going to do next?” he asks.
I shrug, my lungs filling with the cold air, and admit, “No idea.”
He gives a small laugh. “Me, too.”
I smile. There’s something immensely relieving about being in the same boat as someone. I look around at the unmarked snow surrounding us, and ask, my voice hushed, “What do you think is happening right now?”
He shakes his head. “I haven’t got a clue,” he says. We’re silent for a long time, breathing the cold air, and finally he says, quietly, “Maybe it’s magic.”
I smile at him. I did ask for magic, didn’t I?
“It must be,” I agree.
“You look cold,” he says.
I give a little puff of a laugh. “I’ve been in Florida for five years. I’m not as hardy as I used to be. Anyway, you’re one to talk. Your nose is bright red.”
“Yeah, well, southern California doesn’t have much in the way of winters, either.” He rubs at his nose with his gloved hand, then sighs and smiles at me. “Have you had breakfast yet?”
I shake my head. “Not yet.”
“My mom has been threatening to fatten me up since the second I stepped foot in the house. She was pulling out the waffle iron when I left. Would you have any interest in coming over and maybe deflecting some of her doting attention from me?”
My eyebrows lift and I say thoughtfully, “I do love waffles.”
He smiles. “Is that a yes?”
I smile back. “Sure.”
We turn to walk back through the trees in the direction of his parents’ place. He offers me his arm, which I take gladly, only partially because I’m cold.
Neither of us looks back as we walk. We decide we don’t want to see whether or not we’re leaving tracks in the snow, don’t want to know if the magic has stopped. We decide we’re not going to mention it to anyone else. No one would ever believe us, and anyway, it’s a moment that belongs only to the two of us.
We keep it our secret, then, and never tell anyone about the moment of magic that we’ll later realize was the moment we began to be us. And, maybe, becoming us was the real magic all along.