"...the dead-of-winter lies like a heavy blanket over the fields, severed from the sparkling artifice in the surrounding Parks..."
STORY BY Ian Roseen PHOTOGRAPHY BY Aeran Squires
There is a unity among winter folk acquired over a lifetime of walking through steady blistering winds. They recognize the frigid splitting quiet as the sky falls in pure silence. They are well versed in a trek of a different sort through mounds of frozen crystals and can truly appreciate the warmth that company and wool can bring as a house sways and breathes around them.
A photographer walks through fields in Vermont capturing the ebb and flow of the winters grip. A writer in Philadelphia recognizes these images, as those same ice formations have touched the midwestern forest floors he remembers fondly. Through they have never met, there is an assumed understanding of what January brings. This work of fiction and it’s accompanying imagery is the result of that collaborative reflection of the coldest time of year.
The primary appeal of the Cook County Forest Preserve on December 27 is how the dead-of-winter lies like a heavy blanket over the fields, severed from the sparkling artifice in the surrounding Parks where people live: Palos, Orland, Tinley. Of course, that suburban festivity is precisely why Jasper Lydecker flew home from Providence last week. He just hadn’t expected, at age twenty-four, to find the landscape so uninviting already.
Oh, all the usual ornaments were there, but with a gloomy shading to them. The tree, decorated by Jasper’s mother, revealed itself to be a mere hunk of synthetic material; the plastic nativity scene set aglow by his father in the front lawn looked positively morbid under the drooping strand of white lights, less family around to care what the Lydeckers wanted to put back into Christmas. There was an awful lot of smiling into coffee mugs over the last few days.
“Is that all?” Olivia Abernathy asks him now, hair flying out like straw from beneath her cap, a new one, with a red-and-black lumberjack print. “And here I thought you asked me here to catch up. Your house looked nice to me, anyway.”
Well, she would be hard up for friends these days, spending all her time shuffling papers in a dentist’s office, never having left La Grange. Jasper feels badly. But who else would be such a good sport, he thinks, meeting him here to crunch around upon silver puddles and dead grass?
The space around them looks like a sixties schlock film depiction of a Pleistocene landscape, all miniature craters of former volcanoes, reduced to barren, frozen puddles stretching onward across the field. It makes him think of that song—oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on—and how as a teenager he would imagine sliding away down a frozen, warmly lit version of Kensington Avenue, around the bend and out of sight.
“Do your parents ever listen to the song ‘River’ during the holidays?” Jasper asks, jamming his hands into his jean pockets. “Puttin’ up reindeer, singin’ songs of joy and peace, and all that?”
“Joni Mitchell was in the hospital for the better part of this year,” is all Olivia says. “Brain aneurysm.”
“Also I heard she has this unshakeable delusion of little parasites pushing their way, painfully, out through her skin. People say she’s crazy.”
“Olivia, I know.”
Good lord. They dated briefly in high school and at the time knew not a thing about the day-to-days of seventies folk singers. Now they spent each of their respective lives bored stiff in front of computer screens—she at Dr. McNichol’s office in Brookfield, he at Brown—and minutiae was all they discussed. This exact topic, he recalled, was one she’d forwarded him in a Huffington Post article back in October, not offering her opinion, other than the subject heading: “Weird.”
She takes out her iPhone now and snaps a picture of a leaf on the puddle in front of them, lying curled like a corn flake in a bowl of breakfast milk. There was a time when she fancied herself a photographer, taking pictures of him with 35mm film, his hair standing on end. Now she keeps up, here and there, with her Instagram and very little else, as far as he can tell.
“I always assumed,” Jasper says, “my parents listened to Joni Mitchell and got nostalgic for that kind of pure, dreamy music simply because it came out when they were kids. Remember how you and I used to say we were born in the wrong era, music-wise?”
“You used to say that.” She takes another picture, another puddle, no leaf.
“Well, anyway. I happened to have that song, ‘River,’ playing on Christmas Eve. It just came up on a mix of things. For a moment, I was afraid my mom would fall apart, thinking about Grandma and about Ted being away with his wife. But nothing! She goes right along rolling out cookie dough. I say, ‘Ma? What gives? Do you remember this song?’ And she goes, ‘Oh, sure. Who is this? Carly Simon?’”
He expects this to be hilarious to Olivia, but she stares at him blankly. “So you were disappointed that the song didn’t make her cry?”
“What? No! And anyway, she did cry, but it was over the strangest thing: we had Home Alone on the TV—just as background noise while my aunt and my dad’s parents were leaving— and Mom collapses on the hallway bench, crying and laughing all at the same time. ‘Jane?’ Aunt Cindy says. ‘What is it?’ Turns out she was thinking of Ted at age six, jumping around over a set of Hot Wheels they gave him that Christmas. Here I’ve been feeling moody all week over something so abstract and Mom’s sobbing over a time we’ve already had, when Ted was a little boy running around in flannel pajamas like Macaulay Culkin, and Grandpa still had Grandma. No wonder the lights look so dismal. Am I crazy?”
Strange, the unexpected adornment of this vast open space. All those puddles running together, forming a river, snaking through stalks of brown grass, blank trees like paper cutouts.
“You might be,” Olivia tells him, sighing and tracing the toe of her boot along the rim of a nearby puddle. “I don’t think Joni Mitchell’s crazy, though. Whether her delusions are real or not, in my opinion it doesn’t matter what’s there or what isn’t. She knows she used to feel one way and wonders now why things aren’t the same anymore.”
She pulls out her iPhone again and this time aims it at Jasper’s face. Blinded by the sun, he can feel it like a warm palm as she takes his picture.
“I’ll send that to you,” she says, and taps his name into a text message, the photo gliding so very far away—who knows where—until it comes boomeranging back to him.
Ian Roseen is a writer living with his wife in an attic apartment (Mount Airy, Philadelphia); working at The University of the Arts (Center City, Philly); and thinking daily of the family and Portillo's hot dogs he left back home (Oak Lawn, IL). His fiction has appeared in The Lighter (Valparaiso University), Glass Mountain (University of Houston), and Apiary (of Philadelphia).
Aeran Squires grew up in the green mountains of southern Vermont, currently living in the Rockies of Boulder, Colorado. Taking photos is her way of capturing the beauty that she sees, from the vast mountains to the tiny ice crystals. Exploring the world gives her the true feeling of mystery and magic. For more from Aeran, visit www.cargocollective.com/wildacorn