by Sneha Parthasarathy
Washington International School
The snowflakes flutter through the air before landing on the frosted window, painting swirls of color against the grey sky outside. As the wind howls outside the train car, I press my forehead to the glass, feeling the cold wash over my skin. I take a deep breath in with my eyes closed, ignoring the blurred headlights flashing outside. I can smell the crispness of winter in the air. I can taste the sweet sweetness of each passing snowflake. And, when I my open my eyes and see the vast fields fading into the gray mountains of the horizon, I can finally breathe.
“Hello, mister,” says a voice from behind, and I jump back in my seat. I turn around to see a portly man in gleaming epaulets smiling down at me. “Where are you headed on this December day?”
As his words float through my head, time comes to an stop. The gusts outside quiet and the whistles of the engine falls silent. In the silence of the blizzard raging outside, I hear a faint song calling to me. I strain to listen to the quiet tune, unsure if anyone else hears it too. I look at the conductor, who is still beaming at me.
“Do you hear that? That tune from outside...” I ask, trailing off when he tilts his head at me, confused.
I can still hear it though, echoing in my ears. And as I glance out into the rolling fields, the swirling winter, I know what the sound is. It’s the bittersweet tune of the past, calling from outside. Forgotten memories beckon to me from the storm, begging me to rush outside and embrace the past. Once upon a time, I would heed that call and jump off the train. Once upon a time, when I was just a kid, growing up in the nature’s unexplored realm with nothing to lose and nowhere to fall. A memory gusts through an open window in the carriage, flying into my brain. I close my eyes, listening, thinking, remembering.
I remember a dreary mid December, 15 years ago, wind howling against wooden shutters and the cold seeping under ancient doors. A small farm tucked away in a wild nowhere stood against the battering gales of the storm. The old, now forgotten, farm had endured the seasons’ fury for years, passed down from son to son until it came to my very own father.
“This land is ours,” my father told me when I was 7. “This land is us, and our family. And we must treasure it, honor it, care for it with everything we have.”
I knew the farm would come to me someday. But it would never be mine in the way it was my father’s. He could speak to the farm in a bond between man and nature. When he walked into the stables, the horses fell silent and the breeze died. When he stepped onto the fields, the crops parted at his feet. When, at the end of the day, he dragged himself back to me and my mother, the warmth welcomed him home. He was never happier than the days he tended to the crops under the summer sun, or harvested the grains in the autumn wind, or ran out to milk the cows in a blustery blizzard, or stopped to smell the springtime flowers before working on in the fields.
“Breathe,” he would whisper to me in the silence of the fields. And I would stand next to him, take a deep breath in, and feel something calm me. The peace of the fields, the peace radiating from my father, made my heart would swell with simple joy and love.
For as long as I can remember, my father had watched over our little farm with care and love, under the experienced gazes of our ancestors from the clear sky above.
But the winters had grown colder over the years, and the summers shorter. That December brought a new struggle to our lands, though, one that I would never forget. With winds sweeping in snow and freezing hunger, that December was one of misery.
The darkness blew in to our farm one morning when I was still tucked into the sheets of my wooden bed. Underneath the cold blanket of that night, the wind had blown a chill into our crops, sucking the life out of them and leaving them brittle and dry, painted with frost. We had all worked hard to sow them in the fields, spending day after day under the autumn sun. Digging, then planting, then again, just my father and me, for hours in the fresh mountain air. Through the silence of focus and the song of joy, we had worked unwaveringly in silence, planting the fragile seeds that would bloom into prosperity and wealth. Me and my father, just two workers underneath the falling leaves of autumn.
My mother had stayed inside the house as we worked, with my baby sister wrapped in her arms, warm and cozy in a woolen blanket. I remember her stepping out, shivering, onto the porch to watch my father and me with frank amazement as we plowed on.
“Kee..ee..ep going,” she yelled, her teeth clattering, “I’ll warm the chocolate.”
I felt the warmth of cocoa and love rushing through my soul, even in the cold outdoors. Though sometimes I wished I was young enough to laze around in front of the warm fireplace like my little sister, I was proud to be a farmer like my father. He was my hero, my best friend. My father was the one who taught me how to read the sun with the breeze, to never fear the shadows but use them to tell time, to survive in the cold outside world.
“You and me,” he used to say, “We’ll work together, and we’ll keep working together, until we rest together.”
As I grew older, we grew closer. Though his heart may have belonged to the fields, I knew that his soul was mine. He was quieter than me, and didn’t often say “I love you,” but I could feel his pride radiating towards me whenever he halted in his work and offered me a smile as warm as the summer. To me, our labors in the fall had symbolized our growing relationship. I was becoming a man, strong and free, just like him. Now, the crops were gone, whisked away by the cruelty of one night. Would our relationship still bloom despite the cold?
That morning, my mother began to cry as soon as her frost-crusted lashes fluttered open and saw the crackling, beautiful, and deadly frost adorning the corn stalks.
“Wake up,” she pleaded, shaking me awake urgently, rocking the baby anxiously on her hip.
When I opened my eyes, and saw my own fear reflected back at me in her gaze, I knew exactly what had happened. I sprinted outside and saw my father bending over a little sapling, forever frozen in time. With a frighteningly impassive, pale face, his fingertips gently brushed the stalk.When the entire plant crumbled into a pile of sparkling dust, he shook his head, his hands shaking. A single tear leaked out of my eye, freezing into pure ice on my cheek. We had spent so long planting those crops with so much labor and love, and now, they were all gone.
“Are... are they gone?” I asked my mother with a tremor in my voice. She didn’t reply.
My father laboriously straightened his back before turning slowly towards the house. I flinched with apprehension as his heavy footsteps approached, ready for him to explode with anger at the sky, at the winter, and at life. Instead, he looked at me, right in the eye, and asked me, “How would you like to go ice fishing, the two of us? Together?”
Bewildered, I nodded, slowly at first and then faster until my head bobbed like a fish. Without looking back at the fields, we quickly packed up our gear and left the house on the creaky old tractor. Over the rugged and bumpy paths, he drove us down the frozen fields and into the dark woods. At the edge of the trees, my father yanked the key from the tractor and we jumped into the dirt, hefting the gear on our shoulders. Navigating around the leafless trees in the twilight, we made our way to an isolated little pond, tucked away from civilization in a grove in the trees. Ice had settled over the water like a cold blanket of clear glass. I stepped gingerly onto the frozen lake, watching for any cracks in the ice. When I grew confident that the seemingly fragile ice was strong, I took baby steps forward, watching my shoes engrave lines into the frozen water. Growing more confident, I began to glide along the surface, twirling freely before slipping to the ground. As I had steadied myself, my father called out to me, holding the ice saw.
“Come here, son,” he said with a laugh in his voice. Abashed, I skated towards him, hovering over him, unsure of what he wanted me to do.
“Can I help...” I trailed off, afraid to disturb him as he lifted the equipment. He ignored me, and I could feel my uncertain smile slip off my face a little bit.
My father hefted the saw up, and plunged it down, stabbing the ice with all his might. I watched in awe as his strong hands heave the saw up and down in a neverending rhythm. With each laborious stroke, he cut further into the ice, until the frigid water rose from its frozen shackles and bubbled to the surface.
I skipped back to the land and retrieved our fishing poles from the edge of the pond. His was black, long and heavy, while mine was a babyish blue, small and light. Longingly, I looked as he gripped the handle of his pole, flinging the line into the air so strong that it made a cutting noise against the wind. I glanced back down at my childish fishing pole, biting my lip in shame over my weak, flimsy tool. When would I be as strong as him, when would I get to wield that mighty fishing pole? Even though I didn’t say anything, my father noticed my peevish mood. He looked at my blue pole, ridiculously small in my hands. With sympathy in his eyes, he wordlessly handed me his fishing pole. I accepted it with a smile that began from the corner of my mouth and lifted up to stretch into the chilly air.
“Are you sure?” I asked eagerly, “Like, sure sure?” He nodded back at me.
I lifted the pole up, and even though my hands shook with strain, I felt freer than ever before.
As we sat in companionable silence by the edge of the frozen water, time seemed to fly by. Neither one of us said a word, waiting in the comfortable, peaceful quiet, our poles held patiently under the murky waters. Every now and again, I would lift my gaze from the ice to glance at my father from the corner of my eyes. I watched with fascination as his expression, previously impassive, changed. Though his mouth remained a line as straight as the fishing rod, his eyes shone with a gleam that I had never seen before. It took me a while to place his strange expression. Suddenly, it came to me. Here, by the frozen water in the winter wind, he looked at peace, more at peace than ever before. The worry lines of his forehead had smoothed, and his muscles had relaxed from the hours of labor in the field. Confused, I continued to stare at him. How could he have forgotten everything that had happened this morning? Lost in my own thoughts, I didn’t feel my grip loosen on the heavy fishing pole. Suddenly, the pole slipped from my limp hands and plopped down into the water. I screamed with sudden shock, pulled out of my reverie.
“No-oo!” I exclaimed, my cry echoing through the woods.
My father lunged for the fast-vanishing pole as it sank into the frigid waters, as I sat frozen in self-loathing. The pole disappeared into the ice, and he plunged his hand into the cold water, searching blindly for it. Though the air was cold, I felt my cheeks burn with the heat of mortification. After everything that had happened, it seemed like I was still a child, forever doomed to my little, baby fishing pole.
I continued looking down at my shoes, afraid of my father’s wrath and anger if I made eye contact with him. Though I already felt guilty, seeing his disappointment would tear me apart. In my shame, I heard a great bellowing sound echoing of the leafless trees. Curious, I lifted my eyes, only to find an unfamiliar and shocking sight. Instead of glaring at me with rage and disappointment flaring in his eyes, my father was rocking on the ground, helpless guffaws of laughter escaping his lips with force that seemed to crack the ice. His head was thrown back to the winter sky in carefree abandon as he chuckled. Tears streamed down his face, freezing as they cascaded down his cheeks as he lay there on the frozen lake. He laughed and laughed until his breath ran out, and then he wheezed, tears still escaping his crinkled eyes. Slowly, I started to smile as well, the shame fleeing from my eyes and giving way to warmth settling in my stomach. I giggled as he held his sides in pain, amused more by his laugh than my blunder. He couldn’t stop, and neither could I. Eventually, I was laughing, laughing, laughing until my abs hurt and my stomach clenched in beautiful pain. We lay there together, laughing in harmony until our breath ran out and we couldn’t feel the cold anymore. The cold ice on my back was unexpectedly comfortable, melted by the warmth of our happiness. I looked to the winter sky, feeling the same peace that had lit up my father’s eyes wash over me. The world seemed to stand still. In that moment, I was the perfect mix of innocent child and strong adult, blended as one. I was a kid enough to depend on my father for everything, but grown up enough to appreciate that my life would never be the same without him.
When our laughter finally rang dry, we sat on in the beautiful silence of the winter woods, feeling the calmness of the cold warm our bones. As the sun began to fade in the grey sky, and the owls began their call from the brown trees, we picked up the sole blue, small fishing pole and trudged back to the rusty tractor, empty-handed. He turned the key slowly, shivering as the chilliness of the night set on the hills. We drove back to the house in absolute silence, though I could still detect the friendly amusement lighting his eyes. The frozen fields were waiting for us as we shambled up the old farm road. Though the crops glistened with the ice, they didn’t seem dead anymore. Instead, they were beautiful, preserved in the glassy paint of the cold forever. We pulled up to the farm and hopped off, running inside as darkness claimed the fields once more. As soon as we dashed through the front door, my mother pounced on us.
“Were you too cold? Did you get hurt? How was it?” she fired off questions one after the other, before either me or my father could answer. I could see her craning her neck to see what we had caught after our day on the pond.
“We fished,” my father said, “together.”
My father, with his deep, timbre voice, told her the story of our day, chuckling when he described my folly. As my father went on, my mother began to laugh too, which set off me and my father once more. The three of us giggled, over everything and nothing, filling the cold house with the warmth of our love and happiness. The cold outside would never touch us as we sat by the fire, laughing, crying, and living with everything we had. Together.
We didn’t catch anything that day on the pond. We didn’t catch anything, and we wouldn’t catch anything the next time we journeyed to the woods. The winds would continue to blow, and the day would be spirited away. But we had caught one thing that day on the pond, caught it forever. We caught hope. Hope to love and hope to live. Hope that would warm us through every winter, every storm, and every December. Hope that would bring us together.
The train clatters along rusted tracks, bringing me back to the present. The conductor beams at me cheerfully, waiting for an answer. Outside, the fields are rolling by, the snow is dancing in winter’s fresh breath of air. The faraway song grows louder in my head. The snow, the woods, the fields, the winter called me. I had to go. I missed the farm. I missed the farm, and my family, and the fields. And, above all, I missed my father. There, on that train, I listen to the song of the storm.
“I am going home,” I say, a tear trickling down my cheek, “I am going home.”
Having loved reading and writing her whole life, Sneha Parthasarathy looks forward to her first publication. She is attending Washington International School in Washington D.C. where she enjoys partaking in the high school newspaper, the creative writing club which she started, and English tutoring programs. She hopes to continue fulfilling her avid passion for writing in the future.