The Last Winter

The key to eternal happiness was in the backyard.

When I was very young, my favorite spot in the backyard of my house was a tall, glorious tree, with deep green leaves and a thick climbable trunk.  Spring would see it call me to its higher branches and show me the world, it shaded me from the summer sun, and the autumn wind would help it shower me playfully with gold and red.  When winter would come it was my turn to help it.  I would gaze at it through the window, letting it know I missed our time together.  When the heavy snow weighed down its branches I would venture into the cold and shake the limbs I could reach, to relieve its burden if only a little.  It was the least I could do, really.

As I grew closer to being a teenager I saw more and more of the details that made the tree what it was.  The things you don’t notice when you’re too young.  I followed the sap up to the rifts in the bark where it issued from and marveled at the fact that trees wept.  Leaves would be blemished and incomplete, and I discovered that insects were feeding on my friend.  Dad told me it was the way of things, that a tree so large was glad to offer food and shelter to the bugs, the birds, and even the boys who would sit beneath it.  I even began to see the knots, the holes, the little nooks within the tree trunk.  It occurred to me that one could hide things in them.  Whatever you wanted to keep from the world around you, and have it be yours and only yours.  Put it there, in the tree, and nobody would ever find it.  I thought I could use them to hold my magic green penny, or the necklace I got from the girl in my spelling class whose name I couldn’t remember.  But it was clear to me even then; this tree was too important for those kinds of things.  When I was older, and had things truly of value, I would hide them here.  Not before.

I was 18 years old when I discovered the key to eternal happiness.  It was not the tree itself.  The tree held the key.  Like the young man I used to be, it kept its secrets inside the knots, the holes, the little nooks.  I looked inside them in the spring and saw the tiniest of glimmers.  A blue spark in one, a red glint in another.  So many colors in so many places.  I watched them grow, and in the summer they were glowing pulses of light that looked back into me as I gazed upon them in the shade.  Autumn saw them evolve into ethereal flames, as though the birds kept a spectrum of campfires within the tree.  My tree.  Every color imaginable burned brightly inside it.  Burned only for me.  Even the cold and winter snow could not douse them, and they continued to shine, with their heatless fires telling me that I would soon understand why they were here, waiting for me to divine their secrets.

To this day, I cannot explain how I came to learn the truth about the fires in the tree.  It was as though the knowledge simply grew within my mind as the flames grew in the tree.  Wandering out to my backyard in the summertime, shortly after my 22nd birthday, I went from one flame to another and, as though I had always known the truth, I recognized what each dancing light truly was.  Closest to the ground, nestled within the mossy bark, Patience glowed a soft amber.  Above it burned Motivation, the green haze looking for all the world like a ghostly emerald.  Each in turn showed me a different trait; Creativity, Passion, Empathy, Ambition, Wisdom, and even Humility.  All of them waiting patiently, so still and so close I could literally reach out and touch them.  I knew that with the slightest gesture I could pluck these fantastic gems from the trunk and branches, as if they were fruit, and take them into myself, to become the kind of man that so many people wish every day they could become.  I could be armed with all the characteristics that successful people take for granted, and use them to shape my life in any way I wished.  The key to eternal happiness was the sum of these mysterious, shimmering orbs.

And they wanted me to take them.

I will never really know why I waited.  Perhaps I didn’t want to give up my chance to live a carefree life for just a bit longer.  Perhaps I thought that with the fires waiting for me in the tree I could save them until I truly needed them.  Maybe I was scared to succeed in life, and leave the comfortable cocoon of mediocrity I had built around myself.  Regardless of the true reason, I trudged my way out to the backyard the morning after a heavy winter storm.  I was 30 years old, and still enjoyed knocking the weighty snow from the branches of my ever-present tree.  The morning was bitter, bringing that kind of cold you can never deflect.  It cuts through to your bones without caring how many layers you’ve put on.  When that monstrous wind reared up from the west, howling as though the sky itself despaired its fury, I was surprised, but still I knew what was going to happen moments before reality was shown.  It was the sheen of ice that gave it all away.  Every branch, every fencepost, house, mailbox, and car gave a mottled reflection of the streetlights and houselights around them.  The sun had not yet shone itself that day, but it was clear to see.  It had been an ice storm.  For the briefest of moments I looked down at my feet, at the holes my boots had punched in the shell that sat atop the snow.  Although the wind sounded like it was leaning in close and shouting directly into my ear alone, it could not drown out the sound of the impending disaster.  Like a gunshot, sharp and horrific, I heard the surrender of one of the largest limbs on the tallest tree in our neighborhood.  That tree was next door.

Moments expanded into years as I silently watched that massive arm, broken like the weakest of twigs, descend toward the tree, my tree, like a hammer swung by a malicious God.  It looked as though my friend were made of paper, toppling almost without resistance as the branch slammed down upon it, sending shards of their icy skins scattering to the ground.  I barely noticed the power lines pulling from their poles as the body of my tree, the oldest friend I had, crumpled to the snowy earth.  Every light on the block winked out in unison, and the true darkness of that winter morning took a vicious grip on my world.  I gazed across the yard, unable to bring myself to move, to run, to release the panic and disbelief of what I had just seen.  All I could do was stare, unblinking, at the key to eternal happiness, with all its various shades and hues, slowly growing dimmer in the dying tree.  Within what felt like a heartbeat and a lifetime at once, the flames had gone out, and I knew that I would never be able to shed the complacency that I had become so used to in my life.

I had arranged for the stump of that tree to be left untouched when the rest had been removed.  It would have felt too much like forgetting, if I had allowed it to be taken away completely.  The ice melted in time, and the snow began to retreat for another year.  Inch by inch the grass began to advance on the remnants of winter as it waged its battle for spring.  Before too long the nights became warmer, and the first buds began to appear on the surviving trees.  Darkness settled over a surprisingly mild evening when I walked to the back door and took a moment to look upon that tree stump, still unaccustomed to the look of the yard.  I could not believe it when I first saw it.  It was too early in the year for fireflies, yet there, across the yard, was the faintest of glows.  I almost feared opening the door, knowing that if I took even a step toward the tree stump I would be allowing my hopes to rise.  When I decided to go take a closer look, I realized I was already halfway across the lawn.  Kneeling down next to the stump, my eyes sparkled with the reflected light of a single, white flame.  It was not like the fires that burned before the last winter.  They had told me, somehow, that they were waiting for me, ready when I was.  But as this guttering flare sat nestled in the remains of the once magnificent tree, it told me, with utter clarity, that I was waiting for it, and that I had always been ready.  I asked myself what this flame represented, and the answer sprang forth like it had been inside me my entire life.

It was the key to never again making the mistake I had made.  To never settling for what I had.  To never allowing anyone or anything to decide the course of my life, other than myself.

It was a dream.

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