Now they were home—a nearly twelve-hour drive—and were ill-tempered from being cooped up so long. They had been reluctant to stop, since the maskless surely lurked at rest stops and restaurants. For her, there was an added discombobulation: as they’d driven north, she expected the season to become more fully itself—that they would leave behind ceaselessly mild Virginia to return to a frigid Vermont. But scarcely more than a dusting covered the ground.
Karl got out of the car and grabbed luggage from the backseat. “I’m too tired to cook. Do you want to just order Chinese?”
She didn’t. Her knees were stiff, her neck tense. She wanted, even though it was nine o’clock, to go for a walk. But he’d find that reckless. She couldn’t just go wandering the fields at night. And probably she agreed. She inhaled the clean evening air, and they settled on chow fun and shrimp with garlic sauce as they went inside.
In the morning, Karl was putting dishes in the dishwasher. He looked out to the rust-shaded fields, then smiled at her, still at the table with her coffee. “I’m off to make the world safe for democracy,” he said. An echo of his father (echoing Woodrow Wilson), who said that when leaving to teach; Karl said it when leaving for his practice. In either instance, a wry acknowledgement of small worldly contributions, although she thought Karl did make the world safer for those he counseled.
“I’ll be here when you return,” she said, she hoped, lightly.
The quiet after he left became more expansive and more hollow. She went to get her pastels and drawing pad, feeling ashamed that while visiting Karl’s parents she’d been glad not to have to face her art each day. Today, she’d begin fresh, a new composition based on a photo she’d taken of a local barn in a sun-dappled field. She blocked out the barn and started shading in the tall grass, but soon she’d overworked everything into a green-yellow muddle. No shape, no dimension, no force. She ripped the drawing from the pad and tore the thick, expensive paper into jagged strips, feeling wasteful, ashamed, glad, horrified—so angry at herself for failing. Her palms had started to sweat. Heat had risen to her cheeks. She was tired. They’d driven all day yesterday.
She needed some exercise. She changed into sneakers—no need for boots—and some winter gear, then went outside to turn on her car. She considered the milky air. If anything, it would rain. On her phone, she checked the weather: 37 degrees, which was 20 degrees warmer than it should’ve been this time of year. The shapeless pandemic days giving way to shapeless seasons felt a doubling of purgatory.
As a kid cross-country skiing during the purest winter months, she’d found in the drifts of white a hard solace. Her lungs would ache to inhale the freezing air, blood would whoosh in her ears. She’d had the sense of being small in open land but moving forward forcefully. Back home, her skin glazed with sweat, she’d peel off her outerwear, then brew tea and sit beside the woodstove. Out the window, the land looked tranquil but it was more electric than that, requiring rough motion to withstand its elements. You could not be soft out in it. You had, in some sense, to battle.
Along Quarry Road, she passed old homes in unbecoming pastels, light-blue and beige, then the general store, with its ice machine out front, a Coca-Cola sign above its front porch, before turning onto Barclay Road, likely named for some farmer three generations back, or maybe even a family who’d first quarried here in the 1790s. The road narrowed and turned to dirt. Houses fell away and there were only trees, their branches a high tangle. Where the road ended, she parked: a small semi-circle beside a pile of enormous rocks. The granite came from the old quarries, even though the last quarry, at least where the woods stood, had ceased operations over a hundred years before. Now it was so many old-growth maples, spruce, fir, and birch. Brush and bramble that, if you got far enough in, could let you forget civilization was nearby.
Her heart thrummed a little faster. She’d grown up in a different part of the state—in a valley, beside a large lake. And she’d gone away for college, for grad school, to Boston and then Chicago, because the good art programs were there and because she’d wanted to prove to herself she wasn’t a bumpkin, that she could exist within clamor and densely arranged space. But her core, her temperament, was rural. Some part of her—likely the best part—mapped an inner landscape of constant fields, of trees in rolling slope down to the expanse of lake, the mountains blue in the distance.
She decided on a five-mile loop, walking a corridor of ashen and gray-brown tree trunks. Thistle sprouted spiky at the path’s edge, as did milkweed, their pods gray husks bent at the stems. Something in her quieted. When she got back, she’d try again with the pastels. She’d take a more delicate approach, not let herself overwork anything nor destroy her efforts even if bad.
The scent was fresh and beautiful but unexpected—cut pine, a waft of Christmas. Swipes of blue appeared across trees—neon paint, slapdash—and then she could see a weird emptiness ahead. She stopped: a tree had fallen across the path—been sawed, actually; the sawdust was everywhere. As she climbed over it, her breath caught in her chest. Acres of tree stumps, branches everywhere. Tree limbs were heaped like bonfires. Across this expanse sat large-scale machines, a phalanx of tractors with large pincers—what they must use to drag felled trees. She started toward the machines, stumbling over the uneven dirt and small branches.
“Lady!” Some guy was climbing down from a tractor, holding a thermos, wearing a hardhat. “We can’t have you here.”
“What is this?” She felt foolish, her voice high and anxious.
“A town project.” He wore a work vest orange with reflective trim, especially garish in the drab landscape. “Once we’re done we’ll clean up. We’ve got signs at the Church Hill Road entrance telling people to walk the trails on the western side of the forest.”
“I came in off of Quarry Road.”
“You’ve been walking a while,” he said, not unkindly. “I’ll tell the boss we need signs at that entrance too.”
“I still don’t understand. Why are you destroying the woods?”
“We’re not.” Color rose on his cheeks, and she realized he was young. He began tossing his thermos lightly from one hand to the other. “This is sanctioned logging. We’re harvesting timber in accordance with the town’s forest management plan. We’re making way for new-growth trees.”
“You’re clear cutting.” She gestured to the alien terrain.
He laughed. “You know the forest is over 380 acres? We’re not clear cutting. We’re providing canopy openings.”
She didn’t know what to say. Her heart skittered. The town couldn’t have possibly sanctioned this.
He looked back to the ugly tractors. “Our lunch break is about to finish. We can’t have you here while we work.”
“How long will you be logging?” She’d last walked here before they’d left for Charlottesville. In under two weeks they’d done all this.
“Through the spring. While the ground is frozen.”
“The ground isn’t frozen. It’s 37 degrees right now.”
He smiled blankly. His hardhat read “Sheffield Pulpwood.” And if she laughed at the name’s silliness? Or wept. She turned back to the trail. Behind her, the motors started up, a clunking and whining that created vibrations traveling her feet and spine. Those machines dragging their bellies across the earth, those rough beasts slouching toward Bethlehem. Once in her car, she stared ahead, not seeing anything, just thinking about that expanse.
Feeling a pressing need to be productive, she drove to the grocery store, then stayed in her car to search her phone for articles about the logging. There were none. Next, she looked up Sheffield Pulpwood, which had no website, although Google showed her a picture of a gray building beside a storage facility. The address was a town east of here. And if she’d found a website? She’d have emailed them a stern note? She put her phone away.
The day’s dim light turned the cars in the parking lot dull. Longing stirred in her to be in the museum, in her office, cool and neutrally lit, creating the graphics for a new exhibit. Then she’d visit the installations still up from last March to study how she’d arranged the art, constructed the viewing spaces for visitors. She’d remember she once accomplished things.
Inside, she drifted down the aisles, one among the masked. So many here on a Monday afternoon reassured her. Their jobs had also been put on pause, or they were escaping the tedium of remote work.
She was choosing a chicken to roast for dinner when she saw Marjorie clutching a package of steaks. Above her mask, Marjorie brightened about her eyes and wheeled her cart over, asking Carey how the holidays had been. Carey wished she could hug her.
They chatted about their respective Christmases. Marjorie liked staying home with her husband and kids—no pressure to travel since they certainly weren’t getting on a plane to visit her or her husband’s parent. “My in-laws live in Florida. I can’t imagine how they feel safe ever stepping outside. We’re lucky we’re here.” She lowered her voice. “People are more civil.”
Carey said she agreed. For the last half year, she’d had this conversation often with acquaintances. Though their numbers had started to creep up around Thanksgiving, overall they’d stayed lower than anywhere else in the country. Had few gotten sick because they’d been taking precautionary measures? Or was this just rural luck and soon their numbers would be bad too? In Charlottesville, more restaurants and stores had been open, more had roamed maskless in the grocery store. In the Harris Teeter near campus, she’d felt ostracized and ostracizing, as if she were overly prim and deserved snide glances. But also: so many selfish and reckless! She’d given them wide berth. In the parking lot, still wearing their masks, they’d been putting groceries in the trunk when a woman in a floral dress had laughed as she’d passed by. “Yankees,” she’d said. She must’ve seen the Vermont plates.
“There’s this air of refusal,” Carey had said on the drive back. “This need to insist nothing bad is happening. And we’re the problem for suggesting otherwise.”
He’d glanced over. “To believe nothing is wrong is easier than feeling hopeless or afraid.” Her psychologist husband: this would be how he’d consider it.
At dinner, they’d brought up their experience at the grocery store and Karl’s father, a history professor at the university, had suggested people up north being active in protecting themselves was an instance of the Protestant work ethic: New Englanders thought they needed to work for what they had, to earn things—including their health. Maybe Karl’s father’s theory made sense, she’d thought. Maybe Karl’s did too. Also Vermont was comprised of so many small towns: people were more likely to be concerned about their neighbors. But no explanation seemed sufficient to explain people’s divergent responses to this diffuse, enormous problem. She pushed her cart aside so a man could get by. “I was just in the town woods this morning,” she said.
“Did you see what’s happening?”
“Yes! But what is happening? It’s like a bomb went off. A logger I talked to said they have a contract with the town.”
“That’s what I’ve heard too. This is a timber harvest for the greater good, but Jess Sutton told me she literally got lost. She was walking and then, just, poof! No woods.”
“It’s so ugly,” Carey said. “Just pointlessly awful. There must be a way to stop it, or at least curtail it.”
“I think that ship has sailed—if the town has a contract, they can’t back out.” Marjorie gazed at her shopping car. “How’s drawing going? You mentioned pastels last time we talked.”
Terribly, Carey wanted to say. “I’m picking it up again. I’m out of practice.”
“I envy you your focus.” Marjorie ran operations and finance for the art museum and claimed she was the boring numbers cruncher among the creatives, but Carey was sure she had a good eye. “All I do is bake so much fucking bread.”
They settled on going for a walk next week—out on a dirt road south of campus that wound past a horse farm, the walk they’d taken at lunch before they’d been furloughed and everything had been put on pause.
“There’s an article here about the woods.” Karl tapped his laptop. He rose to pour himself more coffee and she came around to look: the local paper said many residents were unhappy by what they’d come upon during their walks. The town was timber harvesting, and would receive $27,000 for the wood. The consulting forester who’d put together this plan said there was small economic incentive—they could plant trees that would be more valuable in the future. But mainly they were logging for the forest’s health. The forest, almost all old-growth trees, would benefit from having more young forest.
Karl was hovering, reading over her shoulder. He wanted his seat back. “Those pictures don’t do it justice,” she said, returning to her chair. Two close-up photos showed the fresh stumps but didn’t suggest the destruction’s scope.
“This could be the difference between theory and practice. I can see the argument that this is being done for the forest’s health. The article says they’re keeping eighty percent old growth and want twenty percent to be new growth. The money can’t be the thing—$27,000 is nothing in a town budget, even one as small as ours.” He watched her with his professional gaze, which told her she was revealing how distasteful she found his reasonableness. “Which doesn’t discount how terrible it might look in the moment.” He glanced at his laptop. “Maybe the logging company is cutting more than it should. Or the forester who drafted this plan hasn’t been supervising the project closely enough. But he will now that it’s come to light people are upset”
“I want it to stop.” She spooned yogurt into her mouth, embarrassed by how plaintive she sounded.
He laughed. “The pith of it. I applaud your emotional honesty.” He came to kiss her cheek. “There’s so much we’d like to have stop right now.”
Before he left, he told her he was off to make the world safe for democracy. Before she’d never minded this silly farewell.
In the pandemic’s first six months, Karl had done his client sessions over Zoom, upstairs in the study. She’d stayed downstairs, trying not to make sense of his murmurings, as she was supposed to be focusing on her art, not being a small-town snoop. Then one afternoon he’d come down to tell her he wanted to meet a client in his office. If they stayed masked it could work, but he wanted to run it past her. She’d been surprised—he’d been so adamant about staying home, being distanced. This client had started to weep, he’d explained. He couldn’t bear any more Zoom and was going to cancel his sessions until the pandemic ended. This way the man wouldn’t have to shuttle his mental-health work just when he needed it the most.
She understood that and suggested he try it out.
It had gone well, and Karl had thought to offer this option to the rest of his clients. Out of twenty, nineteen had said yes—immediately yes. Everyone dying for the chance to get out of the house. She shouldn’t begrudge Karl. And yet he got to feel more normal—maybe even more virtuous—while she remained at home without any sense of when she’d return to the museum.
But even worse: this fresh humiliation of discovering her sense of self—artist first, museum preparator second—was false. A decade had slipped by since she’d done her MFA. And she’d been happy. Her job was tactile and active and dealt with situational thinking, creating environments to highlight works. But she hadn’t been prioritizing her drawing, always telling herself eventually there’d be more time.
Now her days stretched out in slow, uneasy hours. And everything she drew was terrible. But if she could just submerge herself in the daily practice, the payoff would be immense: the truest part of herself would emerge.
If it existed. So far all she’d found within herself was this horrifying absence.
She rose to wash dishes and let weak sunlight through the kitchen window warm her cheeks. The citrus-scented suds frothed beneath the hot water, and the refrigerator’s hum was its own quiet.
Once done cleaning, she sat again with her pastels. She flipped through print photos she kept on hand, settling on one of the lake near where she’d grown up—early sunset, pale tangerine sky fading into slate, the water a liquid reflection, a small peninsula shadowed into blackness.
Her proportions were wrong. And the delicate shades had to be saturated yet faded, but she bungled even the basic hues. A vomitous salmon, the stuff of a nursing home’s walls, and this cloying, sentimental blue. She ripped out the sheet, bringing it to the sink, running the water and watching the colors melt, this ugly blurring. She balled up the sodden mush and threw it in the trash, her hands slimy with navy and orange.
She wanted to read more about the logging anyway. She sat with her laptop: the reporter had linked to the town’s forest management report. One-hundred-and-seventy-seven pages, a shocking length, with ten appendices and six maps. She’d read it straight through. She’d sit here all day until she understood what had gone wrong.
The writing was circuitous, repetitive. It stressed how good the forest was—its walking paths, its natural beauty, its habitat for bobcats and bears, for barred owls and otters—while discussing the town’s partnership with the Vermont Land Trust to preserve the woods in perpetuity. Conservation was a key talking point. As was “selective timber harvests under a forester’s supervision.” The harvests would create that 80/20 balance Karl had pointed out, a mix of “mid-late successional forest” and “regenerating forest.” The harvesting would maintain a continuous canopy. It would not disturb the trails. It would minimize the use of harvesting machinery near the trails. It would minimize woody debris and slash in these areas.
She took notes on the passages where the rules set out were not being adhered to, thinking she could bring this to the selectboard’s attention. Then she read a “mixed forest habitat” would be good for songbirds: the hermit thrush, the wood thrush, the black-throated blue warbler, the yellow-bellied sapsucker, the winter wren. This beautiful list, so unrelated to the ruined land.
She rose to make tea, watching the kettle warm until steam poured from its spout and a warning cry rose from its belly. The tea was floral and too hot. She sipped it anyway, trying to collect her thoughts. The forester seemed well intended but overzealous, too focused on the abstract balance needed to create an ideal forest without considering the literal effects of achieving it. The selectboard, faced with reading this long, dense report, probably had only skimmed it and then deferred to the forester’s expertise. The logging company, she suspected, was taking advantage of the geeky forester, the naïve selectboard, and taking more trees than it had agreed to. And using sloppy, cheap methods to harvest them, as those at Sheffield Pulpwood were betting, at least in the short term, they could get away with it
Guesses, hazy theories. But trying to understand why things were happening—wherefore people’s actions and motivations—felt beside the point. Reasons didn’t matter when the events themselves were so consistently unreasonable.
In the study, in a storage chest, she kept a pair of birding binoculars. Another of Karl’s parents’ gifts. She packed them in a backpack along with a hat, mittens, water bottle. And she set out for the woods.
Signs were now nailed to trees telling people the trails from this entrance were closed until April. She started out on her normal route but then veered west toward Millstone Hill. The elevation climbed as the path skirted a quarry lake—the striated cliffs of gray and black granite tiering down to bottle-green water. It was stark, surreal, even a little lurid. Past the abandoned quarry, the path wound around an immense pile of old mined granite. It was a hill of rocks, many mossed over, surrounded by birch. Putting on gloves with good grip, she began to climb. The hill was at least twice as tall as a house, and steep. Sweat dampened her neck, and she focused on finding stable footholds. The moss suggested long stillness but was also soft and slippery.
At the top, she faced southeast into a light wind. Just as she’d thought: in the distance, she could see the loggers in the denuded space they’d created. She watched with the binoculars. The graveyard of branches, the wide rutted tracks in the dirt. Tractors with pincers hauled tree trunks into a loose pyramid. Other machines pushed the left-behind branches into piles. Men in hard hats used chainsaws to strip branches from the freshly fallen trees. They piled those discarded branches onto a trailer attached to a tractor. In one area they were cutting. Those monster pincers would grip a trunk, then a saw would slice through at the bottom. The tractor would lift the tree and drive it to be shorn of its branches. The tops of pines shook.
As the afternoon waned, she climbed down, stiff and bruised and cold from hours sitting still. The light would fall fast and she didn’t want to be on the trails in the dark.
She returned the next day and the next to watch the clearing grow wider. Her back grew sore, her skin clammy and cool as she kept her vigil. A new machine had a dangling claw attachment that wavered in the air, the trunk it held rocking like a rough pendulum. The men climbed in and out of machines; with zeal, they waved their arms in large arcs to other men, who’d then clamber down for some huddled discussion, their arms folded. She’d waste her mornings, pretending she was going to draw and then spending less than a half an hour on it before giving up, anger darkening her heart at her limitations. Then she’d pack herself a lunch, a thermos of tea, a heated seat cushion and hot-water bottle, and set out. The walk took an hour. She’d be at the top of the granite heap as the loggers were finishing their lunch break. She stayed as long as the light held, giving herself a head start to return by twilight. Coming out of the woods, she felt she might be some wild creature, twigs in her matted fur, her eyes in a feral glaze. This process of returning to herself was slow. At home she’d shower, then carefully apply moisturizer, lip balm, and hand cream. She’d comb out her tangled hair, apply mascara and lipstick. She’d cook, simmering and dicing and stewing, inhabiting domesticity so when Karl came home he wouldn’t sense her new wildness.
But probably she overestimated her ability to keep herself hidden from him. “You’re looking a little pale,” he said the third night. They were on the couch watching Netflix.
“I’ve been sleeping poorly.” This was true. For the past few nights, she’d been dreaming of being pursued through the woods, chased as she flailed through dense foliage, unsure what she was running from or toward, everything tangled and immediate and dark.
He put his arm around her, and she rested her head against her chest. Calm flickered in her, and with it a whisper of perspective: she was being strange. She should stop giving in to the lure of witnessing the hole in the forest’s heart grow.
At breakfast, Karl mentioned another article about the logging. Some members of the community had started a petition. He turned his laptop to show her. “You could sign it.”
“And then what?” She was buttering her toast. “They take the petition to the selectboard? Who will do nothing except explain the town has a contract with these loggers, that both the forester and the Vermont Land Trust have already vetted this project? That they appreciate our concern but are already committed to destroying the woods for the good of the fucking woods?
He studied her, then looked away, moving his laptop back toward his coffee mug.
“I’m tired,” she said. “I’m sorry. But this is a problem without a solution.”
He started discussing a list he’d looked at online, the top twenty-five articles The New Yorker had published the last year. An interview with Fran Lebowitz, an article about some Iranian operative reshaping the Middle East. Not all about the pandemic, he said, which he found hopeful. The great world kept on spinning, etc.
She understood. He was contextualizing the logging as one issue among a whole word of news and happenings. He was also deciding how to coax her into describing her current frustrations and sorrows, to thereby help her make her feelings more manageable. He was being good to her when she really didn’t deserve it.
Maybe, she said, she’d catch up on New Yorker articles today. Also she’d been thinking of making a cassoulet. This afternoon she’d pick up a bottle of his favorite cabernet to go with it. He brightened and kissed her forehead and murmured he hoped she had a good day.
She could manage him too, she thought after he left. He meant well, but she didn’t feel like being persuaded to be rational.
She looked at the petition, seeing her thinking reaffirmed. The wide clearing, the destroyed paths, the strewn debris: the forest management report had clearly stated they shouldn’t happen. “Our town is obliterating our beautiful forest for the cost of a new car,” it said and asked the selectboard to stop clearing any more trees. The man who’d started the petition had also begun a Reddit conversation, which had immediately turned rancorous. One commented on the “short-sighted hand wringers” who understood nothing about forest conservation. Another said those signing the petition must also be in favor of declining biodiversity—because that’s what happened in late-succession forests. Those signing must hate songbirds. One said she knew responsible logging and this was not responsible logging. It was a travesty what was happening as people stood passively by. And ridiculous that during a pandemic the town had signed off on something it clearly had no bandwidth to manage.
Carey pressed her index fingers to her temples and closed her eyes.
When she left for the woods, she was glad to discover a cold snap and dense low clouds. She checked her phone. Snow was predicted this evening. The walk felt more invigorating for the chill. Above her pine boughs spread a feathery green and the mildewing leaves at her feet had turned more fragile and crisp. She was just passing the quarry lake when she came upon an older man walking with hiking sticks. He raised his hand more in acknowledgement than greeting. She said hello and then lingered by the granite, feeling silly because she didn’t want to be caught doing whatever it was she was doing.
One he’d disappeared, she climbed up and settled on a granite slab, her backpack beside her, her binoculars raised. The tremors of machines and trees: it was a constant quaking, a hum, if silent from this distance. A tractor with an attached trailer was hauling logs down a forested corridor. The land pocked with stumps and ugly with slash had to be at least ten acres. As had continued to happen, a stupor overtook her as she bore witness.
Two men were studying a map or blueprint, their hardhats tipped down. They looked east and one gestured to a tractor, which rolled slowly toward them. The man driving it stepped down and conferred with the two men, then got back in and drove to the clearing’s eastern edge. He started felling a tree, the pincers grabbing its trunk, then sawing close to its roots. After driving the tree to the felled pile, he returned and cut down another. And another. He was creating a path, she realized. Not eating outward at the edges as the rest were. They were preparing to log elsewhere. The forest management report had delineated the different areas, but at that point in her reading, she’d been skimming, overwhelmed by all the information. Wherever they were going, she’d not have the same view. She didn’t know if they’d be near any trails or if they’d be miles away, too far for her to trek in and out each day. Even with the cold, beads of sweat gathered at her upper lip.
The snow started falling early, right when she needed to think about leaving. The flakes were large and dry and crystalline, accumulating on her jacket, her mittens. They dissolved on her cheeks, a stinging cold. If she continued sitting here, the snow would bury her. She’d film over in ice and become one among these rocks. And that woke her. She stood and dusted herself off. She climbed down carefully, since snow was blanketing the granite, making it difficult to determine where the ledges were, how thick the moss. She looked up: like fireflies, white movement there and gone. Her walk back, the pine boughs hung heavy and fairy-tale iced. Once in the car, she blasted the heat. She was shaking with adrenaline, with some surge to act. In the rearview mirror, she saw her cheeks were mottled, enflamed, and her hair was in matted dark clumps. She drove back in the deepening dusk.
At home, she had to plan. Karl would be home around 5:30. She dashed him off a note. A last-minute invite to have outdoor cocktails with Marjorie in Marjorie’s backyard. There were leftovers in the fridge for dinner. She was sorry about the cassoulet and wine—they’d have it tomorrow instead.
She tapped the pen against the notepad. She needed to give herself more time. She and Marjorie might even have a masked movie night afterwards. He couldn’t object to that, although he’d think it strange, since she’d done nothing like this during the pandemic.
She changed out of her damp clothes and put on fresh jeans, a turtleneck, a sweater. She put on her snow pants and parka. She packed a dry hat and mittens in Karl’s backpack. In the kitchen she wrapped a fancy butcher’s knife, gleaming and sharp, in two tea towels, then poured sugar into large Tupperware bins, snapping down the lids. In the garage, she took their largest hammer and two wrenches. What else? She didn’t know. This would have to do.
The snowshoes sat on an old side table. They looked like mini maroon canoes. She’d been planning to cross-country ski, but she’d try these out and almost laughed imagining telling Karl’s parents how useful she found them. They went into the backseat, along with the backpack. The roads weren’t clear, and the snowfall was thick, the opaque glow of streetlamps illuminating the heavy flakes, but the storm brought its own hush. Her tires cut the first tracks on Barclay Road, her windshield wipers fast arcs letting her see just far enough ahead. She parked and turned off her headlights and the world leapt into blackened dimension, the forest receding into stygian gloom but the nearby branches dusted white. She put on her snow shoes and lifted her parka’s hood. She settled the backpack onto her shoulders and headed in.
The snowshoes were light and gave her balance atop the snow. Tree branches creaked as they shifted and her snow pants whispered as the synthetic material bunched and lengthened with her stride. The snow provided pearlescent light. She searched for movement—foxes or owls or voles—but only encountered stillness. She felt alone.
When she came into the clearing, she inhaled. From beneath the snow, the tree stumps jutted like gravestones. As if she were in a massive amphitheater of the dead.
As she’d assumed, the equipment remained. The tractors were parked in rows and covered in weighted tarps. The snow coming down fast on her, she crossed the clearing. She felt small and she felt mighty. She’d shed her torpor and now she’d act. This action would be clean. It’d not be muddled by hypotheticals and second-guesses and confusion and contrasting opinions and helplessness. She’d display a brutal composure in keeping with the woods itself.
Next to one tractor, she took off her snowshoes. From her backpack, she took the knife and throwing back her arm, she brought it down on a ridged tractor wheel. Her shoulder jolted, reverberated, and heat shot down her elbow. Dropping the knife, she clutched her arm, trying to will the pain to subside. Then she tried to wedge the knife into the rubber, to start a leak, but she couldn’t even create a nick. She rummaged for the wrenches and climbed onto the machine’s side, searching for bolts to loosen, but some she couldn’t reach and those she could were all too big for the wrenches she’d brought.
She retrieved the Tupperware container, circling the machine, looking for the gas tank. A story her father had told her: when he was growing up, a farmer down the road had gotten so mad at another man who’d been hunting on his property without permission, the farmer had gone to the man’s house in the night, pouring sugar into the gas tank of the man’s tractor, thereby ruining it. She struggled to push aside the tarp and finally found the tank on the back, but some mechanism needed to spring open a small door for her to get to it. She climbed onto the stepping ledge to get into the main cabin, but the cabin was locked. She went down and grabbed the hammer. Back up, she banged on the cabin’s plastic windows—too thick to warp or crack or bend even though she was wailing on them, slamming the hammer as hard as she could, when her grasp slipped and the hammer clunked down the machine’s side, sinking into the snow. She was cursing, yelling. She pummeled the cabin door with her fists until she thought her fingers might break. Her knuckles were bloodying—the seeping heat and violent throbbing. Snow had gotten beneath her parka’s hood, and the wet icy slide of it down her neck made her weep. She felt out of body. She was the snowfall and the rutted ground beneath, she was this ruin.
The snow, it was feathery on her cheeks. Her limbs returned. Her chest was in ragged rise and fall. She was crouched against the tractor wheel, huddled as if it would provide shelter.
What had she thought she’d accomplish? Why had she thought to try? Her fatigue was such bodily heaviness, and while of course she’d get back, return home, remember herself, her better self, her best—verdant and rich with light—these things all seemed so far off.