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Cold. A crunchy, nearly sticky feeling. A taste like iron. Like blood.
The taste of snow is mostly the food residue, slime and bacteria and dead cells on your tongue.
I can still see every moment of that day. Play. Rewind. Slow motion. It’s all there, a movie, locked in my head for the rest of my life.
It snowed today. When I saw the first snowflakes, this morning, sitting in my car, I felt a shiver. Since then the tape keeps playing. Keeps rewinding. Keeps playing.
I was eight.
Dad threw the snow boots on my bed.
“But it’s freezing.”
He laughed with that deep, growling laugh that I miss.
“There’s no reason to be scared.”
“I’m not scared.”
“It’s just a forest. Look at all the snow, it will be awesome! We can take the sled!”
“I’m not a baby.”
He smiled and left.
While putting my boots on I called down the hall.
“But not to the graveyard.”
A forest of broadleaves. In winter each becomes its own wooden cross.
Down the corridor; down the stairs. Dad threw my gloves at me.
“Then the conifer one.”
Snow deeper than my ankles. We crunched our way forward on the sidewalk; onwards on the small dent in the snow that usually is a path.
A few steps before we reached the trees dad stopped. He closed his eyes, stretched his arms to the side and breathed the cold air deep into his lungs. He smiled.
I brushed my hat back and looked up to the sky.
“It’s not even three.”
He opened his eyes, looked up and shrugged.
Between the evergreens the sky was barely visible. Dark green was dark gray. In the distance gray turned into black.
“Dad, is it darker over there?”
“You scare easy, don’t you?”
He reached for a handful of snow and I quickly turned around.
“Hey, I’m not going to throw it.”
I waited but nothing hit me. I turned slowly to look at him. His right glove was stretched towards me, palm up, with a small heap of white snow.
He was chewing something.
He taught me about the bacteria and the dead cells on your tongue.
What you taste, when you eat snow, is yourself. Your own, dying cells. Of course he didn’t say it like that.
Dad had always liked winter. When I was too small to walk he had pulled my sled. Later he had carried me on his shoulders. Then, someday, I had to walk beside him. It was weird for me to walk through a frozen landscape with no goal or purpose. Just to walk into the forest and back.
“This is nature.”
“This is real life, not like your TV.”
“No, really, this is the world we live in. This is what you need to realize. This is what you need to experience. You can’t become a real man unless you have felt and smelled and tasted the world around you.”
Dark gray on lighter gray.
“Dad, is something over there?”
“It’s just the wind and your mind.”
The dark gray disappeared in the other grays.
“But there are deer and stuff, right? Are you sure there aren’t any wolves?”
Dad laughed. That laugh again. My stomach tingles just thinking about his deep, full, growling and roaring laughter.
He grabbed a handful of snow. I was not prepared for the cold white being crunched all over my face.
The cold white. In that light it was just the cold gray.
He threw, I threw, he threw more, I ran, he chased me. Throw, chase, throw, chase, until my breath ran out.
I hid behind a tree, he threw snowball after snowball against it and a fine dust of snow rained on me. Fast, one-handed snowballs, like a human machine gun. Finally he paused and I rushed around the tree to throw a big, icy-hard ball at him.
I hit his chest.
Only one of his snowballs missed my face.
We both laughed.
This happiness, he only had it in winter, out there.
He closed his eyes and breathed deeply again.
“This is life!”
I grabbed snow with both my hands.
“I’m not a fool!”
His weight fell on me, pressed my face in the snow. I screamed and he laughed more.
“Let me go!”
“Not until you become a man.”
“You’re killing me!”
“Become a man then!”
“I am a man! I am a man! Let me go!”
“No, eat it!”
His hand held a snowball towards my face, gray as the world around us.
“Someday you’ll thank me.”
I wrestled one of my hands free. Took the snowball.
“You’re crazy dad.”
I took a bite.
He rolled off me.
“Now, that’s a man.”
“This is disgusting.”
He got up.
“It’s just snow.”
“It tastes different from the one before.”
“Maybe there’s some wolf pee in there?”
“I’m serious. And look, there are some darker spots.”
“My god, you shouldn’t listen so much to your mother.”
He took the remainder of the snowball from my hand and threw it through the trees.
I didn’t see where it landed. The world was so dark that I didn’t see much at all.
“Dad, it’s really dark now.”
“It’s not even four.”
“Let’s go home, please?”
He brushed the snow off his clothes.
We followed our footprints back. The trees stood closer than before. The sky was more gray than black. Somewhere, to the right, again and again a gray moved on top of all the other grays.
“Dad, there really is something.”
You can feel when others are nervous. You can see it from the way their eyes narrow slightly. Dad’s eyes narrowed.
“Are you sure this is the way we came?”
He pointed towards the footprints in the snow.
“Those are yours.”
“Are you sure we’re alone?”
He looked around, quickly. I too looked, but the gray was thick, suffocating, impenetrable. Shades of gray, in all directions. A line of footprints our only guide.
His pace quickened.
“Yes. I’m really sure.”
I didn’t mention that there was a moving gray on gray, to our right. I saw his eyes move there. I saw his eyes scan the ground.
He took a step to the left, closer to me, then stopped and let me pass. Behind me he broke a stick off a fallen branch that was sticking through the snow.
With two big steps he caught up. He was to my left. The stick was in his right hand.
“Let’s hurry. I’m really cold.”
I nodded with my head straight but with my eyes to the right.
The dark gray, moving. A shape larger than dad.
He let me pass again and switched to my right side.
“There’s nothing to be scared of.”
His steps got bigger, so big I had trouble keeping up.
His breathing, my breathing and our feet crunching through the thick snow. And the wind, whispering, brushing through trees and branches. Snow falling.
We were walking fast.
The snowflakes were gray.
His head was turned slightly to the right. The dark gray was still there, behind the trees, keeping pace, getting bigger. For a moment his head turned to me.
“Let’s have some fun.”
His voice was flat.
I walked faster.
“I just want to go home.”
“You really don’t need to be scared.”
The world was so dark that the tips of the trees fused with the sky.
“I hate this forest.”
“Okay, you want to get home. Let’s have a race!”
I didn’t answer.
The gray ran.
I heard it running.
Dad pulled past me.
“Come on, you can beat me!”
Even while running he held the stick high.
“I can’t go faster!”
“Yes you can!”
My legs were hurting. My feet slipping in the snow.
“You’re a man! You can!”
A light peeked through the trees.
A loud crack of breaking wood from our right.
I could run faster, faster even than I could think where to run. Just straight. Just after Dad. Just towards the light.
My feet flying through the snow.
The air more and more thick with gray snowflakes.
Him ahead of me, shouting.
My legs, flying.
There was a stick. Or a stone.
My left leg didn’t land where it should have landed.
A scream, mine.
Pain in my head. Cold everywhere.
The taste of cold snow and warm blood in my mouth.
“Get up! Get up!”
Hands pulling me up.
A scream, his.
The hands let go. His feet ran past me.
There was a bang, cracking wood.
A moan that wasn’t his.
My hands pressed on the cold ground.
Then he screamed.
Again the sound of cracking wood. Heavy thuds on the ground.
I pushed myself up on shaking legs, my head towards the light.
A loud thud behind me. The popping sound of many small, breaking branches.
My legs running. My mind pure panic.
His moan behind me.
I passed the last tree.
White snowflakes flew by my face.
Behind me just gray. Gray sky, fusing with gray trees, fusing with gray nothing.
No sound but the wind.
A path, light gray fusing into the dark gray of the distance.
There the movie ends. Then it rewinds. Then it plays again.
The police were called at 5:22 p.m.
When they arrived, not even twenty minutes later, there were no footprints to be seen.
When the storm was over, a search party found his right glove.
Every year, when the first white falls from the sky, I put on his glove. My hand, his hand reaches down, grabs a handful and throws it into my open mouth.
Cold. A crunchy, nearly sticky feeling. A taste like iron. Like blood.