Excerpt from Touching Storm's Fog
Chapter 1 - Snowmelt
Storm survived the winter. And she did not burn the furniture.
Quietly she stood at the window and watched as drops of water fell from the tip of a clear-as-glass icicle suspended from the edge of the roof. One after another the drops splattered below on the first tread of the porch steps as temperatures climbed alongside the rising sun. Tapping one fingertip on the thick pane of glass, she managed a thin smile.
Spring had arrived this morning. Awakening an hour before dawn, she drowsed beneath a thick layer of patchwork quilts and heard the soft change in the wind, smelled the earthiness of a warming dawn. When she pushed back the blankets, she did not shake with cold. There were no chattering teeth or numbing hands as she dressed in the grey morning light.
Drip. Drip. The icicle would disappear before darkness returned.
Winter was passing.
Spring was here.
The rough, wooden table remained in front of the window, two chairs placed across from one another. She only needed one chair, of course, but kept the second all the same. It would have been the first for chopping into firewood if need be, but there was no need.
Her rocking chair, carved by Beau their first winter on the homestead, rested in front of the stone fireplace, quilt thrown across the back. Was that only a year ago, she wondered? A lifetime ago? The armrests glistened in the firelight, polished smooth by hours of rocking, waiting, considering.
The double bed was pushed against the far wall, headboard and footboard intact. She would have laid the straw-tick mattress on the cold plank floor if necessary. This was a lonely bed, but still it remained.
Wooden shelves lining the back wall continued to hold her short array of books, a few baskets filled with odds and ends and her sewing supplies.
She survived the winter. And she did not burn the furniture.
Closing her eyes, Storm inhaled a deep, calming breath, filling her lungs to capacity, holding it for a second, then slowly exhaling. She opened her eyes and swiped away the foggy moisture covering the window pane.
The sun was shining.
Last spring, when the muddy trail finally hardened enough for her and Beau to make a day’s trek into Colorado Springs, Storm heard tales of those who burned their furniture to survive the winter. As they meandered through the general store, choosing supplies most needed after a long winter of isolation, the clerk spoke of a homesteading family just outside of town who discovered sometime around late February their wood supply was dwindling. Between storms, the husband harvested and split as much firewood as possible, but the amount proved insufficient. By the time the icicles melted, the family resided within a mostly empty cabin, save for clothes and quilts and metal utensils. Everything made of wood was burned for heat.
Or so the story was told.
Later that afternoon, driving home in the wagon behind Sam the workhorse, she and Beau agreed. How does one define a successful winter as a Colorado homesteader? We did not burn the furniture.
Storm remembered. And the memories did not hurt as much as they once did.
But the winter was long.
How many hours had she spent these past months standing here, in front of the window beside her kitchen table, coldly staring into dreary dawn mornings, blowing whiteouts of snow, icy fog, or the blackness of long winter nights.
At moments Storm sensed the tightrope upon which she balanced. She would close her eyes, cocking her head to one side, and imagine the slow, deliberate slide into madness awaiting her, alone in this cabin. Maybe it was a choice. If she just let go. Insanity. Prairie madness, some called it. Though she did not live on the prairie. Escape. So very close.
Slowly inhale. Slowly exhale. Don’t succumb to the siren song of madness.
Did someone losing touch with reality understand they were losing touch with reality? Was the first step taken down the twisting pathway of irrationality marked with a sign stating this way lies madness?
The winter had progressed with agonizing slowness, days of howling blizzards and nights of freezing cold temperatures. Alone. Days stretched into weeks and weeks into months as monotony and loneliness nearly drove her insane. Snow and ice, darkness and cold.
The worst were the long snowstorms, brutal and devastating. Scouring winds blasted the sides of the cabin, the power of the storm filling her ears with a constant, deafening roar even sleep could not escape. It seemed a living thing, intent on destroying her homestead and her fragile life carved out of this wilderness at the base of the Colorado mountains.
Deep breath in. Deep breath out.
A frisson of satisfaction swept through Storm, knowing she had outlasted the western winter, a victory of sorts for her and Sam, the cow and yearling calf, and a handful of chickens.
This was only her second winter season spent along the edge of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Growing up in coastal Georgia with mild winters and sweltering summers, she knew little of mountain winters until she and Beau arrived two springs prior to lay claim to a Colorado homestead. Nestled in a high valley between the flat central plains to the east and towering mountains to the west, this property would become theirs if they could build a home, improve the land, and remain for five years. Two years were past. A tumultuous two years. But she survived. Her husband did not.
Memories of his death burned like a smoldering coal within her chest, an angry heat rising into her throat. A heat she could taste, whenever she thought of him. Like now.
Slowly inhale. Slowly exhale. Laying the palm of her hand against the window pane, Storm willed the coolness emanating from the glass to pour into her soul. She bent her head until her lips almost touched the pane and inhaled slowly once again. Chilled air slid past her teeth and down the back of her throat, dampening the rising heat. She held her breath for a moment, then relaxed and exhaled.
This was her first winter alone. And if she tipped her head just so and relinquished her tight grip of self-control, she could easily step onto the path toward insanity. Prairie madness. Though she did not live on the prairie.
Two years prior, as she and Beau spent the spring slowly crossing the miles from coastal Georgia to their Colorado homestead plot, they followed well-traveled paths across the Great Plains. Day after day, endless vistas of treeless grassy plains had at first sparked her curiosity. How could anyone possibly live in such a place? Occasionally their wagon wheels rolled past a claimed homestead, inhabitants studying her passing as intently as she studied their homes. Sod houses and barns dotted the landscape as homesteaders cut thick squares of grama grass from the surface of their property, stacked the squares like rocks, fashioned a roof, and called it home.
“Will I have to live in a house like that?” Storm asked sharply one day, wrinkling her nose at the thought of sleeping inside what would amount to a dirt cave. “What about the bugs?”
“What about the bugs?” her husband Beau replied with a chuckle. “How could these insects possibly be worse than the swarming sand gnats and bothersome mosquitoes you’ve lived with your entire life?”
“Crawling on me in my sleep?”
“You would be asleep,” he countered. “What would it matter?”
“It would matter,” Storm said as she studied the lonely soddy. A mother and two young daughters stood stiffly just outside the hanging blanket of a door, bright colors of wefted material coated with dusty grime. “It would matter.”
Prairie madness. The wide-open vistas of the vast plains, the crushing loneliness and isolation, the scorching heat and relentless winds, brutal winters, living in a sod house. Madness.
She did not live on the prairie, but she understood isolation and devastation and relentless exhaustion. And a crushed heart. I miss you, Beau, she whispered. Still.
But I survived the winter. And I did not burn the furniture.