He was rushing to heat his blood before the cold dark winter was upon him. Every autumn chilled his bones. Once the clocks turned, he grew his winter coat, took it out from the closet, mended all the stitches he’d torn the year before. He did all his work with a long bone needle and thread from the fabric store across the street. When he felt the draft through the floorboards and saw the first frost clinging to the grass, he would roam the woods in agony, eating the last of the ripe berries and spitting out the seeds, pocketing the ones that still showed green. Then, when he came home and sat down on the futon, he’d eat the berries from his pocket, the warmth of his body having ripened them, the skin of the fruit soft and molded.
When the light left the evenings and made the mornings bright, he grew anxious at the thought of the waning days, the hours closing in around him. In his fright, he tore apart the underbrush and uprooted the browned flowers in the valley. The groundhogs dug deeper when they heard his coming footsteps.
“Hide,” the groundhogs would say, “hide down in the canals.” And he knew all too well that the creatures hid from him, that even the insects, with their shrunken brains, avoided the stink of his breath, the thunder of his legs through the thicket of trees. And some days he did rule the forest like a king, dotting the land with his footprints, a scepter of thistle and blueberry clusters resting in his hand. And then, some days, when the autumn mist simmered like steam, he’d hide in his house and count jars of jam and pickled things. Sometimes, on days like that, he’d fear the groundhogs teased him in their burrows, wondering why such a beast was scared of a little cold. But then, if the sun came out, he’d resume his great destruction, while a voice laughed at him in his head: “Scared of a little cold, scared of the smallest breeze…"
At night, when he came home drenched from his daily terrors, he returned alone, always alone, as the walls of the house caved in on him. Sometimes he came home so lonely he turned on the television just so he could hear voices in the house. Sometimes he tried to speak to them. Sometimes he pressed his face to the screen and tried to feel the static waves making ripples on his cheek. But usually he couldn’t feel a thing, and then he’d wander through the night aimlessly, his big clumsy body lumbering over forest floors. And he would stand in a meadow and watch the moon fade to morning in the sky, would wait to feel a gentle wind, to feel early dew upon his toes. Yet sometimes, his patience thinned and he would stumble drunkenly back to the house, his body thick not from liquor, but from the eerie spell of the night. And he would curse the coming winter when he awoke in the morning, for his feet had grown numb with cold, and he could never feel a thing when he was frozen.
In those times before the winter settled down, the days were rich with feeling. In the afternoons as the rocks grew hot, the stench of dead deer purified the forest’s remaining adolescence. In the mornings he tore the fawns apart and gutted the salmon. Sometimes he did it because he could; sometimes the hunger in his stomach drove him to it. But every time, every time he stood in the yellowed clearing, dead things all around him, he always did this: laid down, pressed his cheek against the cooling bodies, and listened hard and good, hoping to hear a breath like his own. In the end, he never could. He knew it would never happen. Still, he longed for it, and stretching his back on the hot rocks, he would let out a roar, in the hopes it would someday echo back to him. And though at times he was restless, sitting there under the warm sun, or even saddened when the echo did not return to him, at least he wasn’t plagued by the numbness of winter. No, he did not yet desire the comfort often found in such a black, buttery sleep. He was sure that day was bound to come; perhaps he would one day submit to the clutches of slumber. Still, the thought of such a rest seemed far too sweet—he would first have to cease his dreaming of its comfort.
Joyce Ker is a freshman at Johns Hopkins University whose poetry has appeared in TAB Journal of Poetry & Poetics, Tule Review, Louisville Review, and Boxcar Poetry Review. She is a California Arts Scholar and alumna of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio. Ker has been nominated for the Best New Poets anthology and the Pushcart Prize.