The Thin Path
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by Roxanne Smolen
His footfalls broke the winter's silence. His breath billowed before him. Dry, frosted brush grasped at his knees as he followed the thin path to the creek. Shadowless daylight fell over snarled trees and saplings to either side. Ahead, he heard water rushing over rocks, running too fast to freeze.
She was sitting on the bank, her narrow frame wrapped in the woolen cape he bought her last Christmas. She dangled a tree branch in the water, her back to him. He shuffled his feet on the frozen rocks to let her know he was there, but she watched the water and didn't look up.
Sitting beside her, he said, "I thought I might find you here."
She caressed the water with the branch.
"Nice, brisk day for a walk," he said.
She glanced toward the brush. "It's brown. Gray and brown. Even the trees. Bare and withered."
"I used to like winter trees as a boy. Used to try to unravel their branches with my eyes. Never was able to sort it all out."
His wife said nothing.
The cold bit his ears. With blunt, weathered fingers, he dug a pebble from the bank and tossed it into the creek. Water swallowed it. He never heard it fall. "Julie and Jim must be at the hotel by now, settling into their island paradise."
"Must be," she said.
He slipped his arm about her slight shoulders. "Remember our honeymoon? Rained like mad the whole time."
She brightened. "And that awful waiter in the French restaurant."
"The man had no patience."
The water splashed an icy rhythm. The trees held perfectly still.
"I've been thinking," she said. "Maybe we should have had more than one child. Adopted one, I mean."
"So we'd always have one more when they started moving away? Wouldn't work. Besides, life has been full enough with my two girls." He hugged her and felt her shrug.
Across the creek, silent trees rose from tangled bushes. Their patterns splayed across the sky. Forgotten leaves, dark and crumpled, dotted their empty boughs.
"Look there." He motioned. "Isn't that a nest? I'm surprised its still there with the windstorms last week."
"It hangs on and on and for what?"
"Birds come back. They always do."
She shook her head, swallowing hard. "Not to that nest. The babies have grown. The wind could tear it away, and in spring, none of them would remember."
"For all the joy they've brought me, I won't fault them for growing up."
He took the branch from her hand and tossed it into the fast-running creek. It spun with the current then lodged against the rocks. Water formed a crease around it.
"I remember back before we were married," he said. "You would bring me hot coffee to stay the cold."
"You were building the cottage then."
"Weather just about like this. Of course, it didn't ache in my bones like now." With a grunt, he climbed to his feet. "I put a pot on to brew before coming out. Should be about ready."
"I'd like that." She placed her hand in his wide one.
He helped her stand on the rocky bank. "Tomorrow we can walk by that old barn you always liked. Just the two of us. We'll put the coffee in a thermos."
She smiled at him. "I'll pack a basket of sandwiches."
He led her down the thin path between the trees.