Where the White Moss Grows

by Seudonimo Voldeminty

The city is a poor sight in winter.

White clouds with tinges of grey in them brood over the drab, high-rise buildings. People walk hunching their coats against the wind, anxious to hurry out of the cold. Papers blow aimlessly in the gutters.

The festive season is marked with a last-minute rush for the gaudy baubles in the windows, where store doors are opened wide, welcoming the chaotic flood. Every other door is shut tight against the frost.

I take a detour through the park after work, feeling in need of a change after the hectic madness of my workplace—a fast food restaurant. It had been packed with people all day, most of them pent up with post-purchase frustration. I should have been glad to leave it.

But as I walk between the evenly-spaced, no-name trees, the sound of the city at the edge of my consciousness, I just feel miserable.

I shiver the feeling away and wonder whether, back home, the snow has arrived yet. I shake my head.

"A hot drink," I mutter. "That's what I need."

Children's voices stir me. Ahead, some young girls cartwheel and laugh on the cropped, cold grass. They are not dressed for winter. They do not seem to feel the chill.

I press my lips together and hurry on through the park, back to the monotonous safety of the sidewalk.

The apartment door clicks shut behind me and mechanically, I make a cup of tea in the cramped kitchen.

My reflection stares back at me in the darkening window over the sink and I pause. Those eyes … when did they get so shadowed, spiritless? The tree across the road rocks in a sudden gust of wind, and a bird flutters with a slight thump onto the windowsill.

Its feathers are ruffled and it is struggling not to blow away. We stare at each other—the human in her metaphorical cage and the bird in the biting wind. And then it spreads its wings and flies away.

I pensively sit down and drink, my hands gripping the warm cup, the tea scalding my throat. The hot liquid seems to infuse me with hope, and I make my decision: I'm going home.

The excitement buzzing in me makes me hum and tap time on the steering wheel. But as the hours tick by and the city gives way to the forest, my excitement creeps away. The long road to home stretches before me: time to think, time to remember.

That wintery day materialises before me once again.

The fields were a white blanket where I and my brother ran and laughed. Before we knew it, we were in the woods.

School had stolen us away from these places for a little while, but the wind had called us back, and we chased after it as if we had never left.

"There." I laughed breathlessly and flipped strands of my honey-brown hair out of my eyes as we paused for a moment by a tall pine tree. "That's the tree we never could climb."

Carl grinned, his blue eyes flashing. "Is that a challenge?" He laid his fingers on the bark crumbling with moss and stared up into the branches. "I'd like to try again."

I surveyed it doubtfully. "I don't think—"

"Oh Maggie, you're such a worrier." He walked around the tree, looking for a foothold.

He began to climb, hugging the trunk like a little blonde spider monkey.

Waiting for him, I twirled in the snow and brushed my fingers on the white moss. It was turning brown, clinging to the trees. This moss always grew on the west side of the trees; we had often been thankful for it when we had lost our way in the woods.

The only sound was my brother's hard breaths and the rattle of leaves. The slight pitter-patter of rain slewing through the trees. The minty smell of wet bark.

Carl's voice cracked in the cold air. "Maggie, I can see the fields!"

I turned—the tree seemed to be swaying dangerously. "Careful!" I shouted.

A great CRACK rang through the forest. Carl fell amid a tumble of branches and the screeches of birds.

I froze, gripped by an unfamiliar coldness. I was at my brother's side in a second, my heart thudding terribly, an undertone to the sombre silence that seemed to hang in the air.

He wasn't breathing, and his stick-like arms were at an odd angle. I could not breathe, I could not think—the booming silence fell heavily on me again like a crushing weight of snow. The deeply sleeping trees stood by helplessly as I cried.

As soon as I could, I left the place I had always known. The clear innocent blue of the sky, so like my brother's eyes; the birdsong—everything around echoed with memories of my brother. I took my first steps into the rest of the world.

And I hadn't looked back. Until now.

Fields stretch on either side of the lonely road, receiving a covering of white as the snow begins. My fingers grip the steering wheel as I drive on and on, until finally, I am there.

I brush down my purple, sophisticated-looking jacket. My heels sink into the snow as I step out of the car in front of the old house. I am conscious of how much of an outsider I must look in this winter-clad place.

But it is home.

With a cry, my mother rushes out and fusses over me; my father's arms are a warm welcome. They treat me just as if I have never left, yet things have changed.

"It's been so long," I whisper. But the empty bed in the corner of our old room makes me feel as if no time has passed at all.

Stepping outside in the bright morning, more hidden memories find the light. They clamour as loud as the wind that howls at me, demanding my attention.

Slowly, I am drawn back to the woods, among the whispering, friendly evergreens.

I hear laughter. Carl darts behind the shadow of a tree as I try to tag him. His voice echoes in the whispers of the breeze.

"Catch me! Catch me, Maggie!"

"Carl, slow down!" The sound of unharnessed laughter rings through the woods of long ago.

The trees seem to grow younger and greener, the snow melts away before my eyes. My brother smiles, downy-haired in the glaring sunshine.

We are following the white moss again, all the way home, and everything is new, alive and bright.

The wind dies down, and I feel the difference in the calm. I do not think I truly forgive myself until this moment.

Since my brother died, I have been moving in the world like a dead thing, punishing myself for something that was not my fault. But now it's time to move on.

I finger the friable brown moss on the west side of the tree bark. It looks dead and dangerously fragile—but inside … I know that it's only waiting for spring.

The long-winded winter is over. The spring sky shines a brilliant blue over fields dancing with colour and birds sing again.

I follow the white moss through the woods. The ground slopes upward; I am climbing. I laugh at my uncanny situation, this spontaneous pursuit of a child's stumbling memory.

But it's all still here. I come out on a high place, a cliff overlooking the woods and the fields, and a love not different from what I used to feel springs up in my heart.

I'm alive again.

Note: Written for English. Inspired by Shel Silverstein's "Where the Sidewalk Ends". It's strange, but awesome.

Apologies for the italics. I hate trying to read whole blocks of it, but I couldn't dream up another way of conveying the flashback.