The dead

It’s that desperate time of year when most of the leaves are down and my morning walks are dark and windy. The time of year I took my last solo backpacking trip, last October. I’d quit drinking and the trip was meant as a kind of soul-searching thing, but those don’t often turn up as much as you’d think. What I remember was the feeling at the parking lot when I first arrived at that stark mountain pass, with me the only soul around. They close down most of the passes for the season starting on Halloween; it had snowed the night before and was still going, with a big storm forecast by the end of the week.

And the rational part of me fought against it as I hurried to pack my things and the wind shook my car, and I bent under the lift gate to keep out of the snow. And soon I was up the trail looking back at my car, reduced to the size of a matchbox and fading beneath the snow and clouds. I had my gear and my wits about me and my map, two bagels.

I hiked all day through mountain valleys and hillsides, pausing to take in the Narnia-like aspect of things. That fresh snow look over an Alpine setting with no one anywhere, so quiet. I hiked all day until the light started to fail and I picked a spot by an unnamed lake to pitch my tent. Then I got inside my sleeping bag to warm up, and drifted off to the sound of the snow on the tent fabric, the soft sound it made as it settled.

The sound took me back to a night in high school, walking home after a dance in late December, me trudging through the snow in my rented shoes, how I paused to listen to the sound of the falling snow on the trees above me, settling on every surface, the look of it falling through the street lamps, sparkling in the faint glow. I wanted to save that time forever.

And a year later I was off to college studying James Joyce, reading The Dead, his description at the end of the story of a snow storm at night on the Irish countryside. The story is about a married couple throwing a dinner party at Christmastime, the wife remembers a childhood lover who’d died young, he comes to her as a kind of ghost triggered by a memory from her past, and the husband realizes the boy was her one and only true love, and feels removed from her and his own life through this revelation. The snow falling over the cemeteries becomes a metaphor for something bigger, for his past or for all of the Irish people even, removed from their histories and their culture, their consciousness. Makes you think the same could be said about us today, “the dead.”

These passages are some of my favorite writing in all of literature, it leaves you with a feeling he’s tried to convey throughout the story that keeps layering with meaning like his description of the snow. And funny, as we were studying the story in college our professor said he’d been to a video rental store and noticed they’d mis-filed the film adaptation of The Dead under the horror section, with the slasher films. My professor, Archie Loss, is dead now too.

So we go off to our private spaces to find ourselves, thinking the alone time will help us grapple with the meaning of life for both the living and the dead. And how little we turn up, when we go looking. I go to the far reaches to be reminded of how much I have when I flirt with the idea of loss and absence. And how full I am despite this feeling of emptiness.

Categories: prose, writing

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16 replies

  1. I suspect my thoughts through the day will return to this piece and follow novel spurs off the trail of snow that you’ve laid.

    Thank you.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. This was very thoughtful and thought-provoking, taking me from Narnia to Dublin where “snow was very general all over Ireland”, a line I’ve never forgotten, and the deceptive tabula rasa created by a snowfall. It’s not really blank if there’s something under the blanket. And your final thoughts reminded me of another Irish writer, Patrick Kavanaugh, who wrote,
    “On Pembroke Road look out for my ghost,
    Dishevelled with shoes untied,
    Playing through the railings with little children
    Whose children have long since died.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey Christopher! Yeah that phrase about being “very general” (the snow) is one that will always stick with me, so to speak. That’s cool you knew it too, us English majors right?! I don’t know that Patrick Kavanaugh, thanks for the tip and taking the time to share that. I love that…so, so dark! Hope your days in TN have some light in them still 😊 cheers to you and yours, Bill

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Well, this makes me wish we had a bit more snow down here in Texas. I have vivid recall of walking solo on a snowy street back when I was single mom with 2 teenagers (who considered snow day a time for loud cheering) – felt so good to be alone for an hour or so, in such quiet!
    And this stirs up a growing realization (for me) about the role of past loves in “now” relationships. I changed with each relationship over the years – if not for all those guys, I would not be the me that my husband was attracted to. Likewise for all his exes contributing to my happiness with him now.
    Truly lured by the description of being snug in sleeping bag as snow comes down all around – a dream world. Thanks for making that feel real, a possibility still ahead of me perhaps?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, snow longing. We don’t get it so much here either in the PNW but we do of course in the mountains, if you can safely get there of course (I don’t trust our SUV in the snow so much and they stop plowing Oct. 31 at some of these passes, so that was my concern…getting my car out when I returned from my hike). The former loves thing is a good theme, that story is one of my favorites of his but mostly for the ending and the sensory vibe of the snow he captures. Being in a sleeping bag is da bomb. Now getting out of it for an “alpine start” in the middle of the night…not da bomb.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You’ve beautifully captured a sensory experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is lovely, Bill. As long as we’ve got memories like this warm in our heads, and enough brains to ponder poetry, literature, the big thoughts, we’re not empty at all, right? It’s when you shake your head and it’s just a swirl of randomness, like a snow globe, that’s when you gotta worry.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And that’s such a lovely comment Robert (as always), complete with the snow tie-in. I like it! No shortage of material when it comes to contemplating the meaning of existence, eh? Glad you enjoyed and thanks for letting me know. Enjoy your weekend!


  6. I loved what you wrote. In the last line when you said ‘And how full I am despite this emptiness’ I couldn’t help but think about God because we aren’t as empty as we all seem when we have Jesus in our lives. Instead of feeling empty we fill full and that we have a purpose no matter how small it may seem.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey Sarah! Thanks for this, and I love that you saw that…one of the things I enjoy most about writing is how people respond in different ways, often beyond what I thought or intended. So thanks for sharing that, and I’m happy for your faith and love in God and Jesus. Happy Sunday to you!


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