Fire in the Time of Solitude
The red fox outside my window is fire against the snow. Unnoticed, I watch, imagining the pull of fur through my hands. I press my palms to the cold window and in the silence, I exhale against the glass, and through my cloud I still see the fox wandering about the cluster of beech shoots, snuffling into the ground, ears alert and twitching, and, for all the fox’s movement, I am still.
I am all alone out here.
Not a human-made sound aside from my own breathing and the creaking of my house, but yet the fox hears something—head springs up, eyes scanning, seeking across the fields and into the woods for a predator. I am the only predator here. Claws clicking against the glass, tap tap tap. Now the ears point at me, nose sniffing in my direction, and our eyes find each other’s and in the moment that we stare at one another, I swear there is a transmission, mind to mind, of the fox’s estimation of beauty, or desire.
Like a coal bursting into flame, the fox is gone into the woods, red tail raised high, and I say a silent farewell, and then I say out loud, farewell, because I need to hear my own voice and, after a brief croak, it comes out strong through my lungs so when I end on the well it is almost a shout and the glass clouds up again and I punch my finger into the middle of the cloud and leave a slightly greasy fingerprint that is all my own, stamping my mark on this window, this house. I live here.
Moving from the window, the wild creature gone from my neighborhood of trees, I sit on the couch and light a joint to enjoy the last of the day, because this day is mine alone.
I remember when we lived here together. I never saw foxes then.
I fill the holes left empty by your absence with piles of books, spread out the potted geraniums and jades.
There is more room now, more emptiness. I feel the space between my cells expanding, my body spreading outwards, allowing more sunlight to filter through me.
I practice being alone without being lonely. It is a new sensation. I learn to tend to myself, like a garden, feeding and watering regularly.
I am mostly not lonely and am surprised by this.
When one person is absent from a house, the other person must act bigger than usual, take up more room, breathe double the air, so the house doesn’t feel empty.
I spread eagle on the queen-sized bed just to feel my fingers hanging over either side. All of it is mine now, every square on the faded patchwork quilt.
A fisher cat screeches outside. My heart pounds in the darkness and a cloud passes through the night revealing the moon whose glow illuminates the snow. I breathe double-time, alarmed by the interruption in the silence.
I go outside to hear the screeching without walls getting in the way. When the call comes again, I’m not startled so much as penetrated. I feel the wailing in my bones, twitching through my muscles.
Above me, I see Mars, the Pleiades, the North Star. The silhouette of trees is blacker than the sky. If I watch long enough, my breath puffing clouds into the air around my face, I will see a shooting star, but the cold snares into me, and I retreat back inside to stand by the woodstove. All I can hear is wood burning, my own breathing. And the drip of the sink I still haven’t fixed.
I breathe and breathe and breathe until I am lightheaded, dizzy, spacious.
My body feels foreign without you around, like my edges are more defined. Sharp. Sometimes so sharp I worry that I might cut myself.
It is four degrees out and the wind flicks snow like tiny swords into my face. The snow blows sideways. But I don’t move. I am standing about a hundred feet from a deer, her ears rising above her head like satellites perched atop the desert floor, tilting this way and that to get a clear reading. She stares directly back at me. Neither of us moves. She is still as a stone standing with her back to the wind.
She stares so intently for so long that I turn to look behind me, to make sure I am not between her and her young. I have seen the family wading through snow, nibbling on sparse bits of dead leaves or perhaps a hawthorn berry that never fell from the tree. There are no fawns behind me and when I turn back, I see the deer’s white tail flickering across the white landscape, and then she is gone. My movement drove her away.
I snowshoe toward where she stood. When I get to the spot where she watched me from, I see her deep cloven prints in the snow. I can see that she shifted her stance, and, probably before I even saw her, she was already there watching me approach. I almost feel the residue of her warmth. I circle my arms around where she stood as if to embrace the memory of her body. I feel her heartbeat. I sense the tension of her muscles, the tautness of her long neck.
Her prints follow mine from the day before. She winds along my track, her hooves pressed into my snowshoe prints. Without time, our bodies would be merged, her bones and blood and flesh becoming mine.
The wind feels colder when I am alone. But I also feel more awake. More alert.
I am snowshoeing home in the dark, my headlamp illuminating a half-circle that spreads five or six feet out in front of me. All I hear is snow crunching against the metal of my snowshoes. It is bitingly cold—at this temperature, the snow squeaks underfoot.
Night smothers me. A light snow falls, and the flakes that pass in front of my lamp sparkle, swimming slowly through the clouds of my breath.
Directly above me, an owl hoots a single long, deep call into the night, and I feel the call enter my body like a stormy wave. I stop abruptly. If I raise my head, my headlamp will startle the owl, so I don’t move, looking straight ahead, waiting for the next call.
Far off, in the direction I am headed in, another owl calls back. Who-cooks-for-you. A barred owl. I wait, unmoving, and then just above my head another resounding hoot. They go back and forth a few more times, then fall silent. I imagine owl eyes looking down at me. I sense a body above me, huddled and still, head tucked close to the breast for warmth.
Eventually, I walk on through the night. Perhaps they fly with me as I walk home, gliding silently just out of sight.
It takes twice as long to make a good snowshoe trail, going the mile back and forth down my road from my house to where I park my car, when only one person is making the trek. There used to be two of us. When we got over a foot of snow and making fresh tracks was a chore, we would trade back and forth who went first. Once, it was so difficult, we each counted twenty steps then stopped and let the person behind go first for the next twenty. Back and forth. We stopped often as if to take in the view, our breath coming fast, our legs rubbery and shaking with fatigue.
This year there haven’t been any of those monumental storms. Just inches here and there. I am grateful for this. I never had to count twenty steps. I just walk, and pause when I want, then walk on. The only chatter is the random thoughts in my head, stories I tell myself to feel safe.
I see ghosts of my body from yesterday and the day before, passing back and forth on this path; and ghosts of my future self, treading the same path. Sometimes the emptiness feels so busy with these ghosts pacing the landscape. Like a highway. I walk through the sadness I left behind yesterday in a long train.
Another night. The wind wraps around the ancient maple trees that separate the road from a field and create drifts higher than my waist that I wade through, each step sinking my foot down almost to my knees.
When I cross over the frozen stream and round the bend to my house, I see my dog sitting in front of the woodpile. That morning I had left her inside with the cats and the fire going, expecting to come home to a reasonably warm house. My door doesn’t always latch properly, and it is wide open, letting the fifteen-degree air pour in, swiftly replacing warmth with cold. The cats are huddled on the couch looking concerned. My dog jumps all over me, confused by the merging of the indoors with the outdoors. The lack of boundaries.
I run into the house and close the door. I leave two of my three coats on and hurriedly build a fire in the stove which has the cold metal feeling of a long-abandoned car left under a pile of snow. It is thirty-eight degrees in the house. I turn the taps on to flush water through the pipes which thankfully haven’t frozen.
I stand in the middle of the frigid house. It feels desolate.
The wood stove has its own presence in the winter. It fills with fire’s life and I welcome it in, inviting the fire to stay all night, combusting wood into flame.
Without fire, without you around, even the animals feel like hollow shadows sometimes. They watch me as I stand there, arms at my side.
I feel flushed empty, depleted, but also, I know I am supported by the life all around me. The paradox is everything and nothing.
I hear the metal of the woodstove ticking as it warms up and I watch the flames through the glass. The wind lifts snow into a frenzy outside and I hear it clicking against the windows. A cat lets out a small moan as she stretches while the dog’s nails click against the floor. The hot water heater flips on and does its noisy thing.
Solitude is nothing more than quiet, and there are sounds all around me.
Tyler Orion is a queer, trans writer and photographer living in rural northern Vermont. Orion works at a small, independent bookstore, is a reader for the Maine Review and has work published recently in The Offing, Brevity, Isele, Allegory Ridge, Mount Island, and in an anthology from Damaged Goods Press.