The door creaked open and clattered shut on the door of the old yellow farmhouse. For a moment, he stood under its eaves, squinting in the glittering daylight. The sun was not high; it still hovered over the eastern horizon. But the last pastel traces of dawn had faded, leaving only an empty blue sky, clear and cold. It was blue, pale blue, the same blue as ice on a lake, as frozen lips.
His breaths came out in short puffs of steam. He inhaled the frigid air sharply, shocking his lungs and freezing his insides. Rubbing his gloved hands together and then breathing into them, he warmed his nose. There was no noise, no wind, no movement at all – just stillness and silence, the whole world over. A chill ran down his spine and soaked into his bones.
When his eyes had adjusted and the world was no longer simply blinding, he took a tentative step forward. His boot crunched softly and he sank nearly to his knee. The world was not blinding, it was brilliant and pristine. Freshly fallen snow sparkled in the morning light. It covered the driveway and the walk, the place in the yard where he fell off his bike and broke his arm, the garden, the graves. The road as well was lost under the snow. But he saw tell-tale signs of civilization. The mailbox still stood proudly, half hidden but marking the edge of the road. There were no other houses in the distance, but that was to be expected.
He also saw dormant life everywhere. The trees on the other side of the farm road towered, arching their branches from the weight of the snow, bare and grey but firm and alive. Tops of grasses poked up from under the snow along the steep banks of the ditch. A flock of black birds passed noiselessly overhead. His heart ached to disturb the serenity of the snowfall, but he knew there was no other choice. Step by careful step, he moved from the eaves of the old yellow farmhouse. His tracks were wide and deep, and a part of him worried about leaving them behind. It could not be helped, though, so he shrugged and carried on.
He crossed the wide yard, walking right over his mother’s precious garden and kicking at the graveyard where his father always threw out the throw away bits of animals. He stumbled a bit when he hit the farm road, but caught himself and trudged forward. There was no real path except for the one that he knew by heart. He followed it, heard only the sound of his shuffling boots, and watched for movement in the trees.
A quarter mile later, he came to the fields. Once, they flourished with greens all summer long. Cornstalks higher than his head, until fall when they were all harvested and husks littered the ground all winter until the spring sowing. That was in the past. For too long now, the fields sat fallow and empty save for the occasional blackberry bramble or cluster of stinging nettles. Trees lined the fields and created blinds to see and not see from acre to acre. He turned and looked one last time at the old yellow farmhouse. It stood, large but dwarfed by the magnitude of emptiness around it, abandoned as the landscape around it, dark and quiet as death.
With a sigh and a quiet goodbye to hopes and dreams, he hoisted his backpack up higher on his back and stepped forward. One step, two steps, each one crackling softly. He cut diagonally across the first field, and slipped through the trees to the next. Traversing the patchwork. The sun rose higher in the sky, but the air never grew warmer. At first, it was the cold giving his cheeks a rosy glow, and then it was effort. Field by field, miles and hours.
Every now and then, he encountered an animal. A deer browsing on tree bark here. A squirrel digging there. A set of rabbit tracks, a set of fox tracks. Birds flying by. But never any signs of people. He wasn’t surprised. After the miles of fields ended, it was forest. There were no houses around, just his, and it wasn’t his house anymore. It wasn’t anyone’s house. He had no way back, only forward. He kept going, with faith that there would be something waiting for him, somewhere, eventually.
The sky was blue and the forest was black and grey. The white snow was no longer dazzling, nor beautiful. His feet were cold and wet and sore. Hunger gnawed at his insides and made him dizzy. Crossed off fields behind him, forest before him, darkness impending soon. Emptiness all around him, and inside of him, he fell to his knees, threw off his backpack, and laid on his back, staring at the sky.
He felt the earth spin and the coldness in his bones melt into the snow. He began to fly up, higher and higher, spiraling in lazy circles up into the blue sky above. Around and around. Up…and then he inhaled the piercing cold air and he smelled it again. He crashed back down to earth and found himself sinking in the snow. He sniffed. Yes, he smelled it. He was sure. Wearily, he dragged his aching wet body out of the snow and slung his backpack back on and continued.