WOOD SMOKE AND FROST • by Maggie M. Walcott

She looked up from the warm cup of coffee held between both hands, her gaze following the steam wisps snaking upward, both involuntarily drawn toward and out the parted window. The window itself was old and should have been replaced years ago, but the glazed panes were foggy and impossible to see through; the one redeeming feature of an aging casement that let in more chill than it kept out.

He had left it open again. He was obsessed with fresh air, said it was “good for the humors” and would walk through the house on fine spring days, humming Vivaldi and lifting panes with obsessive fervor. Mostly, she did not mind. The air left additional deposits of pollen on the sills for her to later wipe clean, but it also carried the smell of growing things pushing through earth; smells she inhaled greedily through a winter nose unaccustomed to anything but the sharp tangs of wood smoke and frost.

The kitchen window, with its view, was the exception. She had asked him many times to keep the window closed, her tremulous voice explaining, whining almost, that her humors were only good when that particular window was closed. Sometimes her pleas moved him, or at least chased him off with the nervous gestures her hands made as one anxiously rubbed against the other. But she would later return to the kitchen with a basket of laundry from the line to find that he had snuck back into the kitchen during her absence and opened it anyway.

Once the window was opened, it was impossible to look away. She had tried before, had resolutely walked up to the window many times, gaze averted, intending to slam home the opaque glass. She longed for the return to serenity heralded by the discordant sound of rattled glass and wood kissing wood. It was never any good. Once the window was open, she had to see.

Today was no different, with one small exception: today she had no desire to look away. She was tired of trying. Today she would not pretend that she was stronger, or more capable than she was. Allowing her gaze to land on the house on the hill was release.

It was a nice house and well kept. The cheery yellow paint was painstakingly refreshed by a hired team of hands each spring while her husband leaned watchfully on their own poorly kept fence, grumbling sotto voce that “some people have more money than sense.” The house’s yard contained deep-rooted trees that had been there long before they had purchased the house below the hill. They bloomed early in the spring, apple blossoms and cherry leaves sprouting in a riot of cheerful eagerness. This was okay. These things were not the things that made her stomach clench with acid or her teeth grit so hard that she would wonder why her jaw ached the next day.

It was the tire. It hung from an ancient beech by a length of weathered rope, sometimes casting side to side with the wind, but more often it simply hung there, waiting. Her husband never believed her when she spoke about the children. How their translucent slight frames would cavort in the grass below the swing. How sometimes they would take advantage of a breeze to catch a ride, their insubstantial bodies made more ethereal with movement. She didn’t know whose children they were, or whose children they had been. She only knew that they were not hers; a sadness so pervasive that it had become the marrow in her bones.

After a time, she was able to pry her eyes from the house on the hill and return the opaque panel to its channel below. The sounds of his favorite game show blared from the living room as she strode out the back door and into his workshop to grab a rusty coffee can filled with various nails, stopping by the catch-all drawer in the utility room on her way back through to grab the hammer she knew he kept there. He always played the TV loudly, said it made him forget where he was at for a moment and couldn’t she understand that? She thought the sound of the hammer striking metal was perhaps the most exquisite sound she had ever heard for exactly the opposite reason. Each strike contained its own melody as the nails bit into the ancient wood of the window, forever anchoring it to the casement below. The last blow struck, she was surprised to find her cheeks wet with tears, the taste of brine a sweet release upon her tongue. Let him try to open it now.

Maggie M. Walcott lives with her family in Northern Michigan, tucked away in a house they built themselves. Armed with a B.S. in Physical Anthropology from Michigan State, she spent her career in law and higher education before discovering she probably should have been an English major. Her first non-fiction piece, “An Open Vessel” was published in Mothers Always Write in 2019 and republished by Uncomfortable Revolution in 2020. Her poetry has been featured in the Dunes Review and Last Leaves Magazine.

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