1st Place Prose: Brighter Days are Nigh

Mercedes Barriga, Author

The light of the winter sun wanes past the horizon. It paints streaks across my skin as I stand with feet sinking into the powdery snow. I can feel its familiar burn beyond my closed eyelids and in my chest. If I focus enough, all I can feel is both the heat and the cold trickle through my body. The shift between hot and cold, and cold and hot–it feels dizzying yet relieving. It’s as if I exist at both ends of two extremes at once. 

I should have worn warmer boots, pulled on thicker tights, or even grabbed a hat on my way out. My only good choice was a scarf, thick and red. The braided texture is rough against my neck, but it does its job finely at keeping me warm. My aunt knitted it for me last winter, apologizing for her sloppy work. I wish I could tell her that it was beautiful. 

I can’t imagine how I must look: a lunatic standing in midwinter, with a big jacket, thin sneakers, denim jeans, who’s bleeding at the neck. And yet, I trudge deeper into the snowy field.

My torment greets me in the form of a barren tree. Once full of blooming leaves, of apples, of warmer days and memories, it now stands solitary among a graveyard of stripped trees. It’s almost pitiful to see something once so full of life be worn away by nature’s touch. My eyes wander to the words I know so well etched deep into its trunk: brighter days are nigh

I don’t know who wrote it, but as a child, my aunt’s wild imagination tried to fill in the gaps for me. It was a snow elf. A fox. A bird with silver wings. A forest spirit. We’d spend evenings under the tree, sharing silly stories under the glow of the sun. There’s a pain in my chest, this time not from the cold, but from the ghost of that memory. It hurts to remember what can longer be. I have nothing left of my aunt but this red scarf and the warmth of the memories of those days.

Death, when it hits you, when it hurts the most, does not hit like a moving train. Maybe if it did, the pain would only be momentary, like a snowflake falling only to dissolve into the snow. It hits you softly, like the caress of a pair of fingertips. It hits you slowly, then all at once. Like snow from a branch, piling and piling on your shoulders until the bitter cold seeps into your jacket, leaving you a frostbitten blue. 

I want to curse at the winter sun, so bleak, so maddening. In the pale light beneath the tree, it is no longer the warm pearl that I long to hold in my fist and store away in my heart. It is a lemon gone sour on my tongue, for how could it shine on a world like this? 

In my stupor of grief, my eyes almost fail to catch the budding bloom near my feet. My heart stops. If anything were to be a sign, I would think it was definitely this. Kneeling down, my fingers brush the waxy petals of the snowdrop lodged in the snow, and I think of those dark winter days, of the warm days in the past, of me in my aunt’s arms. 

Hope, if nothing else, is the snowdrops stretching their limbs towards the sun, yearning and pushing through the frost. If such a small flower can bloom in the midst of such cold, such desolation, then I too can learn to face the sun again.