'A Cold Season' by student Matthew Hooper was published in Towards Publication in 2021.
When I come in, Mama, who is not my real mama, is preparing kindling for the fire, squatting by the hearth with her back to me. All I can see are her curved brown hands cracking small bits of wood.
‘You back already, Beth?’ she says. Then, in the pale light, Mama turns. I hear her flat shoes slide on the wooden floor. ‘Here child,’ she says, and she looks across, one eye darker than the other. Then, as if it’s something new—me learning to break up sticks—she says, ‘Hold your hands together.’ She holds her hands forward with the fists clamped around a bundle of small sticks. She looks at me. Turns her hands. I hear the wood creak. Then it snaps.
‘Beth! Are you listening?’ She glares, sucking breath between her teeth. ‘You try.’
‘Most of them snap pretty easy,’ I say, cracking my second one, pulling it up against itself, tearing the bark away from its side.
‘Is that right?’ Mama says. We put the ones we’ve done in a pile, and soon we are not talking at all, but squatting side by side in the cold morning room, cracking small sticks, Mama and me, making a pile as big as a dog.
‘Mama,’ I say without thinking, ‘when you think Owens is coming back?’ She stands up and walks out into the hallway. I straightaway wish I had kept to just breaking sticks, cause my question makes Mama’s face turn cruel. I move across to where she was, and I feel the weak sun on my back and watch my shadow moving on the dusty floor. Then Mama, who must have guessed how alone I was feeling, comes back and settles herself nice and close.
‘Your father, Owens, is dead, Beth,’ she says. ‘I should have never let him go up that mountain after Samuel. We lost both of them. Now, please …’ and I turn towards her and see her eyes for just a moment while she breathes out a sigh. ‘Just stack that basket,’ she says standing up again with her knees creaking, ‘then you can come and help me with the chickens.’
With the shock of Mama’s words going into my body I continue to break sticks. I hear her outside now, at the chicken house. She is raking out the dirty straw. The scritch of the rake makes me shudder because I know she is going to choose that young rust-coloured one for dinner and take its head off in the yard and serve it up to Wallace. My plan is to stay inside until it’s done.
The pale sunlight livens up a bit, still coming through the window, and I break up more sticks and lay them on top of the pile in the basket. When the sticks are done I stand, and through the window I can see them chickens—in the yard now—and there’s the sound of a shovel scraping on the ground. The room is so cold my ears hurt and I’m thinking I’ll light the fire, even though Mama says I’m too young. I turn to the fireplace again, still with the weak sun on my back, and I set the sticks in the hearth. I squat again and take some leaves by the pile and I scrunch them and roll them into balls. They spike my palms but I keep rolling until I see the little leaf-skeletons they have inside themselves, all twisted and dry. I try not to think about what Mama is doing outside. I try not to think about what Mama said about Owens. I don’t agree with her. I know he’s alive. I can feel it. But I can’t tell Mama that. It makes her angry. So, I just feel the rough leaves against my hands.
Crush and roll. Crush and roll. I put the skeleton balls on a curved piece of bark in the hearth: fill it up like a boat. I find some unbroken leaves and lay them on standing up. I think of Owens: that last time I saw him, standing at the tree line with the first rays of sun on his face. I think of his breath coming out in the cold grey air like wool. How it floated off and came apart. I think of my cousin, Samuel, too. His quiet voice reading to me at night-time. But that’s all I can think about: just those two things, while I set the fire.
I lay some small sticks and light a match and push it right under the little gauze leaf-skeletons and they catch and turn in the tiny flame. I push the pile up on itself, and a wisp of smoke rises up—grey and pretty and like something all its own. And then the thin flame comes, crackling and spitting. I pick up some more sticks and put them on and soon the heat of the flame bulges against my hands and I know it’s alive and I slide back on my haunches and feel the corrugated boards under my soft inside shoes.
Listening to the fire burn and being sucked up by the chimney, I hold my hands to it, warming them against the morning cold. I don’t care what Mama’s gonna say. Aching for Owens and Samuel has made me immune to Mama’s little cruelties. I sit on my haunches and watch the yellow and orange flames and think about my father up the mountain looking for Samuel. I think about how every fire’s got its own way of coming alive and making its shapes and sounds and progress. Mostly I think of the big ones with sticks lined high before they start and how Mama covers those ones in kerosene before she lights them, and they pounce up the chimney toward the night sky like a big orange cat.
This fire is full and round and slow. It is like a ball. I put on bigger sticks and one split log and then I get all the shoes from yesterday—what are wet and muddy—and put them up close and bring over Mama’s washing and spread the cool wet things out over the two sticks what are resting on the back of chairs. Normally we swap them sticks over all morning so each one gets its turn looking at the fire and the steam lifts off and the curve in the sticks lifts as the weight of water leaves them clothes and they fill instead with the smell of wood-smoke.
After the clothes is up near the fire, I sit by the flames and put up a stick bridge for some fidgety ants. They is running up and down as if they all lost their eyes. But they don’t like my bridge. So I go to flicking some off, the ones I can, and warming my hands and flicking some more off like that while I am still waiting for Mama to come back in with the dead chicken. But she doesn’t.
I put the firescreen up and I stand looking out the window. All I see is the sand, the dust blowing against the dark cracked wood of the barn and I see the grey sky curling like a bad omen. I turn and move them wet shoes around and the room is full with heat and damp and my face is red and warm.
* * *
This year winter came late, and all at once, like it had been bunching up behind the hills before it arrived. That’s what tricked Samuel. He wasn’t ready for it. He got lost up the mountain and Owens went up after him. It’s a long time to be up there. Almost two weeks. And the snow’s deep now. We can see it from here and Mama says they is dead. But I know Mama is wrong. Mama is negative. The snow is not down here yet and I can feel Owens up there looking around. Staying in one of the little huts. He is not cold and still. Maybe Samuel is, but not Owens.
Where we are the valley swoops right up the mountain, and the winter brings mists what roll down: cold and thick and they turn and hover like clouds, and the trees and everything change colour to dark and glistening from them mists. What follows are colder nights and snow. Little Sasha—Samuel’s twin brother, and ten years older than me, and is called little because he’s so tall, like Samuel—he promised he would take me up there so we could look, too. Every day Little Sasha goes up to the edge of the trees to look at the weather. But each time he comes back saying it’s closed out past the escarpment. I pestered him so much he took me up with him last week when Mama was in town. He knows she wouldn’t allow it. Too dangerous, she says. No use losing good people after dead, she says. But we went up, slipping on leaves what’s almost mud, past the tree line and into the damp shadows as far as the gravestones. We went up ‘til we thought we could hear the river. But both times it started raining and Little Sasha made us turn back.
So I keep my hope by thinking of Owens, of him cooking fried eggs with dark beans at the table. I think of Owens showing me a blister on his heal the size of coin, the sun in his eyes and his squint, him sitting waiting on the bench outside the back door, him standing and shielding his eyes and scuffing the dirt on the path with his boot and smoking one of the small cigars he keeps loose in his top pocket. Walking back to the blossom grove he would pull ahead and I’d watch his limping gait and think of the war and how Samuel had told me that Owens had been a soldier. But I never believed that, cause Owens never told me about it, neither did my real mama.
The fire is bright now and the condensation on the windows—what’s always there in the mornings—has almost gone. The pale sun lifts itself right out from behind the curtain of trees on the other side of the valley and I adjust the firescreen, shifting it gently on the hearthstones. Then I think I can hear Mama calling out and I turn with a jittery feeling in my stomach, hoping she’s done with that chicken, but it’s Little Sasha leaning on the doorway with a smile on his face.
‘You lit the fire, Beth.’
‘Mama lit it,’ I say.
‘Really?’ says Little Sasha. ‘She must’ve run pretty fast. Cause I can see her with the big rifle aiming at rabbits.’ And he points with his finger, his thumb up to the ceiling. ‘She’s fast,’ he says with a smile what lets me know he knows I’m lying and I move close to the window, away from the heat of the flames to see Mama way off in the distance lifting the rifle. The sound of it makes me jump. ‘There,’ says Little Sasha pointing again, ‘that’s half a rabbit.’ He’s talking soft but laughing at the same time. ‘I don’t know why she uses that big gun. It just blows everything to pieces.’
‘She asked me to come help with a chicken,’ I say.
‘I guess she changed her mind,’ says Little Sasha, and he’s looking across the valley and up toward the mountain. And he’s still. And I hear his breathing and he goes to say something and I know it’s about his brother, Samuel. But he stops, because we don’t talk about that. I see his hands are fists in his pockets. He’s warming them from his outside work, and it’s like he’s holding his worries, curled up and kept as small as he can make them.
Matthew Hooper is a novel assessor and a creative writer. He worked as a novel assessor at Writers Victoria for ten years. He has degrees in Fine Art, Art History and Cinema Studies, and a Masters Degree in Creative Writing. He taught creative writing at the CAE and runs workshops in schools for teachers and students.
Image description: A field of slim, bare trees covered in snow.