You go for a walk in fresh snow. Suddenly you realize you're not leaving any footprints.
To borrow a phrase from a famous carol, the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even. It was a clear day with blue skies and the occasional grey cloud still loaded with snow, ready, as if it may be required to act at a moment’s notice, to drop its burden. I was walking from the cottage towards the woodshed, carrying my log basket. The winter air was cleansing and the chill of the day caused my fingers and toes to tingle. The harsh crunch of the fresh snow offered a gratifying sound reminiscent of childhood play, as I stepped towards my destination.
The woodshed was a place of intrigue for me as a child, a place I was not allowed to enter alone in case of mishaps… falling wood, splinters, perhaps sight of the mice who resided in there during the winter months or the temptation to attempt to wield the axe. Like all children, the forbidden took on a mystical air attracting profuse attention which in later life seems foolish. Now, as an elderly woman, I was able to come and go as I pleased, as long as my aging body would support me to do so. So, despite the presence of more modern methods of heating to my little, remote cottage, the open fire was, for me, the heart of my home. My little piece of paradise was constructed from a small wooden rocking chair, with a shawl draped over the backrest, the open fire and an ever changing pile of favourite novels. Carefully selecting some logs and filling my basket, I turned to leave the woodshed, closing the latch on the door and looking towards the cottage across the snowy garden.
I admired the snow covering the garden and the footpath. I had always loved snow and never lost that feeling of childish delight when the first brave flakes began to fall. It was now a few weeks since the snow had first invaded my little part of the world and I relished the whole experience. Then I realised the snow was still virgin in its appearance. I glanced around me and scrutinised the path my footsteps had followed to the shed. It was not possible; the snow must have been indented as I walked and as I listened to the crunching sound of my progress along the path. I closed my eyes for a moment and looked again. Still no footsteps. It was not snowing and even so, I had been in the shed for such a short time that my steps would not have been covered.
Gathering my basket I stepped out onto the path. One step, two steps, three steps. Then with not inconsiderable courage I turned, eyes closed, to gaze behind me. A deep breath and I opened my eyes. No footsteps were to be seen. I pushed my foot down into the snow, reliving childhood joys at the familiar sound and remembering the excitement of being the first to step onto fresh snow. I lifted my foot… no indentation. Fear and confusion began to claw at my chest and my breathing quickened. I froze to the spot, struggling to understand this strange phenomenon. I was oblivious to cold and time. I do not know how long I stood, waiting for clarity to dawn. Eventually, I decided I was tired, not focussed and simply letting my imagination run wild. I could not walk on snow without leaving any impression. It defied the laws of nature. Feeling suddenly grounded in ordinariness, I returned to the cottage.
As I entered the back door, I paused. Drawing a deep breath I looked back towards the woodshed. The distance to the shed was short and the late afternoon light was beginning to fade as the orange sun coloured the white snow with an amber glow. Nonetheless, it was unmistakably smooth snow, unsullied by my footprints. Placing the wood basket on the floor, I rubbed my eyes and then peered again. Nothing had changed and it was as though I had not stepped in to the garden. I began to feel unsure of myself. I was not imagining things. There were now logs in the basket. There were a few small marks where snow had fallen into the woodshed as the door had been pushed open and then closed. There was a small pile of wood shavings which had had flown out of the door as it had been moved to and fro. But there were still no footprints.
Gradually, log basket in my hands, I moved towards the little sitting room and the fire place. I planned to have a hot coffee, replenish the hungry fire with more logs and take a nap. All this folly would then surely dissipate when I awoke. However, as I approached the fireside, I saw sitting in the rocking chair a strangely familiar figure. The figure was a little portly and looked elderly, with one gnarled, long fingered hand resting on her knee. Her spectacles were pushed upon her head and pinned back the once dark but now grey hair. Her face was pale but was speckled with a light covering of smudges of soot and her eyes were closed. Her immobility was absolute and she appeared to sleep, settled in the motionless rocking chair. An overwhelming sound of silence dominated the room, punctuated only by the occasional crackle of the dying fire. I paused, completely unable to comprehend the scene before me.
I recognized the figure was me.
Confused I stood and stared. Slowly I become conscious I was not as I should have been, settled in my rocking chair. Something was wrong with the image before me. No breath enlivened this figure; it seemed I was not breathing. It appeared that this figure was dead, that I was dead. I could not be standing in my little room, looking at what I had long considered to be my piece of paradise, and be able to see myself in my rocking chair. I felt I must be dreaming or be unwell or my eyes were deceiving my mind, or perhaps the other way around.
Unsettled and disturbed I moved a little closer, driven my curiosity and bewilderment. The pile of books flickered and danced by the light of the fire’s tiny flames, their edges tinged with scarlet as they glowed in the light of the dying embers. The right hand of the figure was hanging down towards the fire, as if the figure was simply sleeping. Below the hand was the book which I had been reading, fallen on to the floor, still open. The side of the face closest to the fire was coloured by the now faint rosy glow of the fire. By the light of a small table lamp and the now low flames of the fire I could now see with clarity that I was sitting by the fire, apparently dead.
Panic grew within me. I did not know what to do. The absent footprints were those of a ghost? But what would happen next? What should I do? There were no answers. I stood staring at the scene before me and waited, but what I was waiting for I did not know. Recognition of my own mortality sat before me, yet my continued consciousness suggested a future, an alternative existence. A voice behind me startled me from my pondering and I spun around,
“Welcome. I suppose you have some questions? Most people do.” The figure now facing me seemed to be solid and, apart from looking rather cold, did not appear extraordinary in any particular way but, that being said, I wasn’t sure what a ghost was supposed to look like. Perhaps death really was just the beginning of something new. The speaker turned and I followed, glancing back only once at the elderly figure in the rocking chair. Feeling something like peace I turned away for the final time, not knowing what was ahead of me, only knowing what I was leaving behind.