genre 2
An essay by Chelsea Dingman

Undressing the Trees

It’s funny, the secrets the snow can keep.

He stood in the foyer with my mother, whispering in her ear. She clung to him longer each time he left, lingering in his shoulder, smelling the cigarette he was smoking before putting on his work boots. I watched them from around the corner, a nine-year-old child kneeling in the kitchen, beside the cupboards. The last time I saw my father was a Sunday in the beginning of December, 1985.

The lights were off in the kitchen, the overhead panel in our small coatroom lighting her blonde hair, his olive skin. I crept back to the living room where my little brothers were watching the Wonderful World of Disney, laid down on my belly in front of the TV, the two boys on the rug beside me grinning as Donald Duck blustered away at his nephews. I heard the door thud. My skin grew cold. Through the window, my father’s shoulders were lightly dusted with white as he was swallowed up by the winter’s night.

Daddy, c’mon! I said, bounding out the front door ahead of him. He was laid off for a whole year, beginning in the fall of 1984. I got to follow him around, make use of my new fishing rod, ride shotgun in the cab of his brown Ford pickup. I hopped up onto the seat, stained and smelling of grease, tomboy with a blonde ponytail wagging up and down. I itched at the mosquito bites I’d gotten the night before in the forest across from our house, trying to find wood to build a doghouse. The bites bled as I dug my nails in.

Let’s go! I said. I glanced at the front door to catch a glimpse of my mother and bounced nervously in the seat.

Hold your horses, punkin, he said, the fish aren’t goin’ anywhere. I laughed at that, at his sidelong grin, looking over my shoulder out the back window at the equipment in the flatbed, the house disappearing from view. Up the bending highway we climbed, one lane clinging to the side of the mountains. I tried to see how low the snow was on the ridges, watched the emptied forests pass, mined by loggers through the summer.

How long will it take the trees to grow back if they have to plant new ones every time they cut one down? I asked.

It’ll be years until we see it covered up again, he said, window rolled down and smoke filtering back in.

My stomach rolled a little bit as the truck crested the Rockies and I breathed in the sweet smell of his cigarette. My eyes unfocused and then focused on the cracked road ahead.

That’s a long time, I said. We might not be here by then.

He pointed through the windshield at the glaciers. You won’t even notice it come winter. The snow gets so high you can barely see the tips of the trees peeking out way up there. I turned my eyes away, went back to bouncing my legs impatiently, the warm sun through the window browning my arms.

Jan, where is my brown bag? my father asked, his clothes laid out on the bed. It was September, 1985, and he had gotten a job working on the Coquihalla highway being built between Kamloops and Vancouver, eight hours south. He had to live in a camp in Hope, BC, with the other men working on the road. I need to get going.

My mother grabbed his ratty suitcase out of the back of the closet behind her shoes, the cream velvet wedge slippers I often clomped around the house in, pretending I was her. She was stoic, silent. I sat on the cedar chest at the end of their bed, where she kept all of the things she was saving for me when I was older: blankets, baby clothes, books, photo albums. She was the keeper of our histories, marking every event for later. They were all tinged with the same sweet scent of the trees that bore them.

Let me do it, she said and quickly threw everything into the bag. I was playing with their stereo, large headphones over my ears, blotting out their words. REO Speedwagon was crooning “Take It On the Run.” I turned the music down.

I’ll be back every other weekend. It won’t be that long. While I’m down there, I’ll look for something. Maybe we can move everyone by the end of the school year if this job is gonna be a few years. She covered his hands with her own, her back to his chest, squeezing her eyes shut. Mascara ran black down her face. I rubbed my arms, shivering. My mother let go of my father’s hands and zipped the bag closed.

After loading his truck, he drove Laine and me to swimming lessons at the Queen Victoria outdoor pool across from the skating rink on his way out of town. Laine hopped out of the cab and ran inside. He was the swimmer. I was not.

My father turned to me. I love you, punkin. I’ll be back as soon as I can, he said. He swiped at his eyes with the sleeves of his jacket. I crawled over the seat and hugged him.

I love you too, I whispered.

Go on now, you’re gonna be late. He pushed me toward the door and I climbed down onto the road. There were no sidewalks in this part of town. I stood on the gravel watching his truck pull away, find the end of the road, and turn right at the fork, disappearing. Like a trick. Like he’d never been there at all.

The snow came, whispering of the corpses of old trees.

I got up in the dark. Morning wouldn’t crown over the peaks of the Rockies until almost 8 a.m. on December 4, 1985. I pulled thick, white woolen tights on underneath one of the skirts that my mother had made me, yellow and pink plaid, topped by a white turtleneck. She made everything I wore: barrettes in my long hair, white plastic with lace and hearts sewn onto them. I clipped them in on the sides, pulling long blonde hair off my face so my mother could see my blue-green eyes. She got upset when my hair hung in my eyes. You’re too pretty to cover your face all the time, she said. I saw her face in the mirror when I looked and dreamed of wearing her clothes. With a dab of her Chanel No. 5 out of the medicine cabinet in the upstairs bathroom, I went down to the kitchen to get breakfast.

The snow fell silently, large pieces of cotton drifting horizontally toward the banks above the windowsills. I watched as flakes passed under the streetlights and disappeared for a second. I wasn’t hungry, but tiptoed around my mother at the counter making lunches and grabbed a muffin from the tin beside her. My brothers were eating Cheerios. Shelby’s eyes were swollen from sleep, head resting on one of his hands, still in pajamas. He got to stay home until the afternoon session of kindergarten started. Laine and I had to leave to make the long walk to school. We brushed our teeth and bundled up: scarves, mittens, ski suits, toques, and backpacks.

We trudged through the thick snow on the sidewalk, our boots sinking up to our thighs. Getting down on the road and walking on the tracks left by passing cars, we slipped around in the quiet, not speaking. I didn’t want to take the shortcut through the woods that day. The snow was so heavy, we might get stuck up to our necks and no one would be able to hear us screaming.

I was the leader. We marched down the long winding road that led through our neighborhood of tract homes, built when the town temporarily expanded while they were building the Hydro Dam. It’s why we were there. After it was completed the year before, the town shrunk down to five thousand leftover people: loggers, hunters, shakeblockers, living on deer and elk in our deep freezes during the long winters. I kept looking back to make sure that Laine was behind me, safely to the side in case a car came. He looked so small. He was seven. His eighth birthday was a week away.

During homeroom, it got light. I watched the snow on the trees through the window. A branch would give, followed by a puff of white cloud and a thump. The angel I made after school the day before was half-covered next to the frozen swings. There were things kept beneath the snow that we wouldn’t recover until spring, if ever. Angels that wouldn’t last the winter.

At lunch break, my best friend, Colleen, was waiting by the curb outside. Her mom, who I called Auntie Patti, pulled up in front of Laine and me. Your mother sent me to grab you guys, she said. C’mon, I’ll take you home. I buckled my seatbelt around her youngest son, Craig, and myself. There were six kids in the car. Auntie Patti looked nervous and fidgety, breathing heavily next to me. She never wore a seatbelt. She cranked the wheel to the left and stabbed at the gas pedal, and we lurched forward. It was like flying, to ride with her in a car. She hit the gas and the brakes equally hard. I hung onto the center console.

As we drove down the street away from Columbia Park Elementary, Craig leaned into me, all of four years old, his big, round blue eyes staring at me.

Your dad’s dead, he said.

I got out of the car. The snow packed around my ankles. I couldn’t move. The driveway had two cars in it. I recognized them as my parents’ friends. There was no one outside. The other kids scrambled to get out behind me. Craig had been first. He’d already disappeared through the carport. The snow banks eyed the edges of the gravelly rooftop. It was overcast. We were socked in, as my mother put it when the BC interior was gray for days on end, the sky hidden behind stone cathedrals weeping glacier water. Rivers, streams, creeks. We were entirely surrounded by water. When it rose to the sky, it took away our daylight.

I forced my legs to walk to the front door. I stopped still on the cement floor, before the raised lip of the threshold. Some sort of purgatory held me in sway, where I didn’t yet have to know the unknowable truth that room held. My mother stood with the door open in the coatroom. I was the last to enter.

Snapshots. My mother crying. Shelby playing with his trucks on the kitchen floor. Daddy’s not coming back, he said. Apparently I screamed and fell to the floor. I might’ve fainted. There is a whole section of the day that I don’t remember. I whited it out as the snow did to my father. Erased. The world emptied of the things we couldn’t hold onto. I don’t know how much time passed. Casserole dishes had begun to arrive. Adults stood around the kitchen. Shelby moved to the living room. The Brady Bunch was on. His day was unchanged.

I don’t remember seeing Laine for the rest of that day. I don’t remember his voice. I don’t remember his tiny blonde head. I don’t remember his pain. The quiet way he took in bad news and went off to his room would never change. He would struggle where no one could see. I looked around the room and saw how fractured we’d already become, each of us in our own spaces. The other people were peripheral. We wouldn’t know all of them our whole lives. Auntie Patti left after a little while with her four kids. It wasn’t a place for children.

They didn’t say it in front of me, but I heard my mother and the others talking about the RCMP officer who’d come by the house in the morning to tell her about the ravine near Hope, his truck, the condition of the body.

It made me wonder if my father screamed as his truck left the road, tires failing to grip anything. Maybe he called my mother’s name while we ate cereal, brushed our teeth in the mirror. The RCMP police report said he’d been sleeping in the middle seat, one of three men, the cab of a semi. No seatbelts. The driver leapt out when they started to fishtail. The third man landed next to my father in the creek bed. They’d been on their way out to the work site in a blizzard. One of the officers also lost control and went off the road, but he lived to tell my mother the details, as did the driver, who testified at the hearing into the road conditions.

Perhaps my father’s heart stopped midway down the 100-foot drop. Maybe he’d been dreaming about us. Maybe he never had to know his last moment was the last. Maybe the ravine, the frozen creek, the mountains he loved, were as good a place as any.

The corners of his nose were sewn to his face with black thread and I almost didn’t recognize him with all of the heavy pancake makeup they’d used. Shelby was the first to the casket, Laine and I at his back. He stood on his tiptoes, only five years old, and peered in at my father, lying there, black hair parted in the middle and feathered. His skin, which had always been so tan, was the shade of grey putty we used for art projects at school. Shelby was there only a few seconds when he pitched forward, eyes rolled back, and sliced his head open on the corner of the wooden box. My aunts and uncles gathered as they saw his face gushing and rushed him above the crowd of people out to the car. I watched from the doorway as they drove away in the dim light to get him stitches, glancing back into that room with all of the burgundy velvet and wood paneling, the smell of cedar rising from the furniture, the pews.

I turned and considered the road. It was finally done snowing.

When my mother wanted us to visit my grandparents in Edmonton that Christmas, I refused to get in the car with her, drive all of those frozen miles east.

You can’t make me, I screamed, my back against my bedroom door.

The week before Christmas, I relented. I don’t want to be here anymore, I said. My mother called her father to drive nine hours to our house from Edmonton and pick us up. I didn’t trust her to keep the truck on the road.

We waited for summer to scatter the ashes, standing in the hot sun, waves gently lapping at the rocky shoreline at the Shuswaps. The island in the middle of the lake seemed to list from side to side in the wake.

My grandmother put her soft, sandpaper arm on my shoulder, pulling my head to her chest, and whispered, God had a plan for him. He called him home because he was needed more somewhere else.

And my god mixed with the ashes that poured through my fingers so quickly that it didn’t seem we had a whole human in our hands, maybe just an elbow or the wrist with the dark scar running lengthwise that he’d gotten in his first car accident.

After his father died in 1981, mine said, Don’t ever put me in a cemetery. I don’t want you guys to visit a hole in the ground. We left him to the water instead, floating in its depths, the remains of teeth and fingernails commingling with the trout and fallen trees that lined the muddy bottom.

Pines used to grow over the whole mountainside.

In March, 1987, I was eleven. Cool air slithered up my skirt in the mornings on the way to school. That spring, she started up with Randy. A slim, diminutive man, he wore the same worn Levi’s everyday, nubby patches of white showing at the pockets and knees. His teeth were streaked brown and he parted his strawberry blonde hair in the middle, feathering it back on both sides. His hands shook constantly. I thought when I was younger it was because he was angry, but I later learned there were other things that could make an adult’s hands unsteady.

You’re acting about as smart as you look, he said to me when I giggled too long at the dinner table one night. I quieted and took a lusty bite of burger, two patties sweating fatty blood from their pink depths.

If you keep eating like that, your ass will look just like your mother’s. She ducked her head, a flush slowly flooding her cheeks. I looked down at my thin thighs spread across the maple wood chair, barely touching each other. I looked back at him. He snickered.

Why don’t you do some work around here? That would help. I dropped my food, wiped my hands carefully, one finger at a time.

Excuse me from the table, please. Thank you for dinner, I said. I went to my room and laid my body down on my single bed, red roses raised from my crocheted coverlet, rough against my cheek. I rubbed my protruding hipbones, making sure they were still there. My father had called me Skinny Minnie, tickling me under my arms while I half-screamed, half-laughed. When I looked down at my knobby knees, tiny hips, and long-limbed bones, they looked different even to me.

What I didn’t say to anyone at school or to my grandparents or even to my mother when we were arguing about him was that Randy had been in our kitchen the day my father died. He had come by with his wife and a casserole to pay his condolences as a friend and former hunting partner of my father’s.

Lying there, I wondered how long it took him to decide my mother was fair game. How long after my father was reduced to ash. How long after he helped carry the casket into the icy street. How long we would suffer the repercussions of that day.

My mother, my brothers, and I moved to Edmonton that July. Randy followed us east in a red Chevy pickup, unloading his sparse belongings in her room.

We drove through what would turn out to be an F5 tornado as we moved from mountains to plains. When we pulled into the new driveway of a duplex in Edmonton, my brothers and I hopped out and grabbed a pot from one of the boxes, putting huge hunks of baseball-sized hail in the freezer. The sky flew past us overhead faster than any current in the Columbia River. The churning clouds reminded me of standing ankle-deep in the frigid water as it pulled and pushed at our bodies, at the rocks, at the pine-rimmed shore.

Randy slung his arm around my mother’s shoulder, smoke dangling from his other hand as we sat in the doorway with tornado sirens going off on our radios. The sky, cracked and falling.

I enter this place for the last time. An idea of home. My body, the snow.

Don’t fucking touch me, Shelby shouted as I opened the steel front door, Randy’s hand dragging him by the back of his neck across the living room, up the stairs. Shelby thrashed around throwing elbows on the landing and spun to face Randy. Bent his knees, fists up. Ready position for what was coming. He choked, swiped at his eyes. I ran interference.

Mind your business, Randy hissed at me, shoving Shelby through the doorway into his room and quickly slamming the door. He sat outside Shelby’s door holding the knob until he heard my mother’s key in the back door, as Shelby screamed and pounded on the hollow wood, kicking the drywall, a bird breaking its wings against the bars, not understanding it had never been free.

I told you this kid has problems. Look at what he did! Randy demanded when my mother came in. He gestured at the trashed room. He deserves a good whipping and you don’t do anything.

That’s not what happened, I insisted. We were both grounded to our rooms.

I grew patches of white hair on the right side of my head. The pediatrician said it was stress. I started drinking. As I stumbled in at eleven o’clock at night, my mother took to holding her finger up in front of my face.

Where’ve you been? she asked, holding a flashlight to my pupils.

Wouldn’t you like to know, I said. I went to my room and cried as I sat on the blue carpet next to my bed. I could see the nearly full moon out the window, the naked oak branches on the tree in the front yard, swaying.

I started skipping school at sixteen, until I eventually got kicked out for the fall semester of 11th grade. Though I would later register for 12th grade classes like I hadn’t missed a day, those days at home revealed new truths: fragments of frozen ice drawn together by daylight, drifting water. When the pieces were connected, the shiny surface reflected who we really were.

Most days, Randy puttered around the house changing light bulbs in between cigarettes, or fixing something that was broken as I watched TV in the basement. He didn’t work when he was with us. My mother worked. My mother covered the bills and the mortgage. When I asked why, she said, Just in case. That way, no one will ever be able to take my house away from me. Besides, Randy has to go away to work. There aren’t electrician jobs around here that pay very much. He goes where the union sends him. I don’t want him to be gone all year long.

He also had four kids with two ex-wives. I often wondered while I listened to the ice clink as the glass emptied, how my mother could ignore the fact that he hadn’t raised any of those children. That he had left them all, over and over again. The years they were young, spent like pennies down a well.

I also wondered how she could ignore the patterns. We were still at the mercy of a man who came and went with the seasons, the snowfall, the level of alcohol in his blood.

You can have a beer if you don’t tell your mother, he said, when I came upstairs for food, eyeing the glass on the bar in the kitchen, the bottle of Rye on the counter, the case of Labatt Blue tucked by our boots at the back door.

No thanks. I went back downstairs until the shouting started, usually around four o’clock. When I went into the kitchen, my mother was in a chair in the corner, sobbing, as Randy screamed at Shelby, a fresh beer in hand. Shelby’s blue eyes were electric when he was scared. I moved into the room, stepping in front of him, my mother’s petite blonde head bobbing between us. Laine was hiding in his room.

What do you want me to do? she asked. Why can’t you kids just listen?

In the end, a child was easier to break than a man.

One Sunday afternoon, my throat pinned to a wall, Randy’s breath was ripe against my face. Separate veins in his neck and forehead throbbed as he barked at me through gritted teeth, his skin mottled red by the effort to hold my body in one place, using the same stubby, yellowed fingers that he ran along my back under my shirt when he woke me for school in the morning as I pretended to be asleep. When I broke loose, I shoved him as hard as I could.

Get the fuck off me! I was taller than he was at almost six feet. My mother stood in the doorway watching, not crying, a somewhat defiant look on her face. It should’ve been you, I spit, as I pushed past her and ran up the stairs out into the sunlight, gasping. I walked down the street to my best friend’s house, breathing in and out, summoning a ghost, a god, an old brown pickup.

When I returned a few hours later, the doors were locked and the locks had been changed, so my keys didn’t work. I heard Randy at the door as I pulled my key back and darted into the street a safe distance away. He came out onto the stoop and told me to get lost.

Nothing is yours, he said, after I asked, What about my clothes? I don’t even have clean underwear? Where do I go now?

He sneered and shrugged, spitting into the bushes. He lit a smoke.

That’s your problem, he said. Leave your mother alone, or we’ll call the police. He puffed as I stood there. Breathing in and out. He took one last, long drag off his smoke and flicked it toward me, then turned and went inside. I heard the click of the deadbolt behind him.

The year after they changed the locks was the year I thought that death was coming for me. I might’ve wished for it. My best friend Lisa and her mom took me in. They took me shopping for underwear and bras. I called Social Services. What can I do if my mom changed the locks and won’t let me back in for my stuff? I asked the woman on the phone.

We can file a formal complaint and start an investigation. Is that what you want? she asked.

Yes, I said, her boyfriend controls her. I have his handprints around my throat still. She told me to document everything with pictures, so Lisa’s brother, Jeff, got out their polaroid camera. He also kept a machete by his bed in case Randy decided to come over after they were contacted.

The woman called me back two days later. She says you ran away. If you left of your own free will, we can’t help you, she said.

But I didn’t! I insisted.

I’m sorry. There’s nothing we can do. It’s her word against yours and she’s the adult here. I hung up and cried.

A week later, I went home while my mother was at work, noticing that Randy’s red truck wasn’t in the street after school. I wasn’t sure when he’d be back, so I had to hustle. There were screws drilled in the sills around the sliding windows in the basement. They no longer opened. Rage took over.

I went under the deck, damp snow licking at its light grey paint. It was flaking under the moisture. I grabbed Shelby’s hockey stick, drove it through the tiny window next to my old room, and climbed inside, glass shards scraping my back.

I looked around my room. I didn’t have time to collect my clothes and I didn’t know what she’d do if I took them. Could she really have me arrested? Breaking and entering and stealing? In my backpack, I threw my journals, a few CDs, and the music box my father gave me—the last gift I received from him. Things she wouldn’t notice were gone, if she went looking.

I went running outside every day that winter, deadened ground under my feet, no trees to be found for miles. Just ashen pavement. I lost thirty pounds. I was six feet tall and model thin, hipbones poking through my skirts in photos. Skinny Minnie. A ghost. A gray wisp of a person.

My brothers weren’t supposed to contact me. Even so, Shelby would appear outside the smoking doors at my high school at lunch sometimes, though his middle school was a few kilometres away.

Chels, what’s up?

I’d shake my head, seeing him there in the snow, sliding in his skater shoes across the frozen ground.

Nothing, school. Y’know. Same old shit. How’re things with Mom and Randy?

His eyes dilated. You know how it is, he said after a pause, hanging his head. I can’t believe you left me there alone with them.

And my heart broke all over the ice-covered pavement, snow hanging in my hair as it did on the bare trees, clinging to anything it could before it met the ground and was trampled.

I was drinking at a party at my high school boyfriend’s house the summer before twelfth grade. He was 19, I was 17. He said something like, I think I still love Darla. I stared at him drunkenly, my chest vibrating so hard I could see it hammering away below my chin.

What do you mean? I demanded. I was sitting next to him on a ratty gray couch in his living room. Through the glass sliders, our friends were smoking and laughing on the deck. A breeze wafted inside, slithering around my shaking frame.

He got up from the couch as I sat there paralyzed. I need a smoke, he said and grabbed his guitar neck with the thick fingers on his right hand. He turned back to me. I love you, too, I think he said. The music blared, but my life was suddenly muted again.

We’ve been together for two years, I said, tugging at the damp strands underneath my forest of unruly blonde curls. My fingers caught in knots at the ends as I tried to run them through the tight fist of a ringlet. I ripped the knotty bulbs out with my nails. All this shit with my mom, I said. How can you say that?

I don’t know what I want. He rubbed his high forehead, widow’s peak shining under the skylight. The sun rarely went down for five hours in the summer in Alberta. We were always waiting for night, unwilling to go to sleep while the day haunted us. He turned and went outside. I watched his slim back, a closed door.

I walked slowly up the stairs into his father’s bathroom. I opened the medicine cabinet and pulled each bottle out, lining them up along the counter. I took the rotary phone from the nightstand into the bathroom with me, pulled the cord under the door, and closed it. I uncapped the first bottle and called my friend, Jenn.

I wanted to say goodbye, I said. I don’t think I hung up the phone.

The next time I was lucid was in my boyfriend’s car, speeding down 114th Street toward the University of Alberta Hospital. I giggled as we drove.

It’s not funny! he shouted. I couldn’t stop laughing. We got to the emergency room doors, and he hopped out and dragged me stumbling behind him. I blacked out. Lisa told me later that the nurses wouldn’t let anyone back behind the reception area. She hadn’t been at the party with me, so there was a game of telephone going on: one person informing the next person from a payphone in the lobby.

The emergency room staff checked me in and gave me charcoal, which I threw up all over my gown, my hair, my arms, my face. I was a gray goddess.

Lisa, her big hazel eyes solemn in her narrow face, told me that it took four guards to hold me down and strap me to the gurney so that they could get the charcoal down my throat. I guess I kicked and thrashed and struggled and swore. I was determined to shed my skin, one way or another. The skin so like my mother’s.

I came to, lying in the dark glow of machines. Red and green lights on a monitor. Omniscient light from the corridor. There was no one around. I let tears leak silently from the corner of each eye, sluicing into my ears. I couldn’t move my arms to wipe them away because of the white straps across my chest and legs. My mouth was sandy inside. I wanted someone to come as I glanced at the door. How much trouble would I be in this time?

Daddy, help me, I whispered to myself. I closed my eyes, mascara spidering the lashes. It was all I could see. I hadn’t prayed in years, but when I did, it was to my father. This great man who I’d built up in my mind, looming larger than any god.

In the end, it was Lisa’s mom who came. My Uncle Jeremy came. My friends came. My mother was in BC with Randy. They sent an RCMP officer to their remote campsite to tell her. She didn’t come.

Do you know what you told my mom that night in the hospital? Lisa asked me the day I was released after talking to the in-house psychiatrist. We were in her room in our beds. I turned red, buried my head in my pillow.

What? I asked.

You said you wanted to go be with your dad.

I squeezed my eyes shut. I want to sleep, I said. I’m just tired.

My mother came by the house three days afterwards. She sat in the living room between Lisa’s mom and me. Lisa sat on the stairs listening. Randy sat in the car.

Do you want her to come home, Jan? Lisa’s mom asked.

She can’t do that right now, Nancy. She hasn’t shown me that she’s changed.

I sat between them, too empty to speak. She left that night and went home with Randy.

In August, Laine called me. Randy chased me around the yard last night, swinging at me. Mom jumped on his back and tried to pull him off. I climbed the fence and ran to Uncle Jer’s, he said, his voice shivering over the phone.

Why did he do that? I thought you were the one who got along with him?

He made a noise in his throat.

I wouldn’t put out the garbage the minute he told me to.

I’m sorry, I whispered. I couldn’t breathe. When I left, I left Laine and Shelby alone. The weight of his words pushed me onto my bed on Lisa’s floor. I turned the lights off and went to sleep again, radio playing softly in the background, Janet Jackson’s “That’s the Way Love Goes.”

My mother asked Randy to leave that day. She asked me to come home a week later. I said no. I wasn’t going to be that easy. I was the discarded thing in the snow. When it melts, the things that have been under the snow are moldy and ruined.

I visited the Shuswap for the first time in years, that summer. When I left Calgary and the mountains came into view in the distance, I saw the person I used to be, back when I thought I was worth something. I saw the pigtails. His truck. The pines. The water, suffering the shore. It was everything I’d been missing.

I escaped the snow, not its secrets. The trees, naked and shivering.

In a dream I have less now, I see my father get out of his truck in a creek. He stumbles around, trying to survey the damage. Stuck in a ravine, he hikes into the forest to get toward an open highway, passing cars. Instead, he spends years lost in those dense pines, patches of the mountainsides still bare.

I look for him with Shelby in some versions of the dream, wander around in a blizzard and try to keep my brother safe as we conduct our search. It usually becomes apparent to me at some point that we will not make it if I continue, and I have to call off the search.

But every once in awhile, we’re living back in Revelstoke at the end of the dream, and I am in my old house when my father emerges from the wilderness with a great, grizzly beard and says, I’m sorry it took me so long. I was lost. When I wake, I remember that my father couldn’t grow a beard, patchy stubble being all that he could manage on his smooth olive face. But it feels like we’ve just spoken, and that’s enough.

Chelsea Dingman’s first book, Thaw, was chosen by Allison Joseph to win the National Poetry Series (University of Georgia Press, 2017). She is also the author of a chapbook, What Bodies Have I Moved (Madhouse Press, 2018). She has won prizes such as The Southeast Review’s Gearhart Poetry Prize, Sycamore Review’s Wabash Prize, Water-Stone Review’s Jane Kenyon Poetry Prize, and the South Atlantic Modern Language Association’s Creative Writing Award for Poetry. Her work is forthcoming in Poetry Northwest, Redivider, and The Southern Review, among others. Visit her website:
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