No Less than 5 Pounds

Image of Long Story Short Award - Fall 2020
Image of Short Fiction
In early October, in the forests of West Virginia, where the light of dusk fall is suffused with the red and green landscape of evergreen and oak, he carved a path along the mountain side too narrow for anyone to follow. Knee over knee he climbed, rarely ever dreaming he would feel so inorganic as he lunged. Like the remaining breath that escapes the lungs long after a sigh of relief, the wind calmy perturbed his left side in smooth and steady complexes. The air was growing thin, and the longer he held his pace, the more tired he became. Now he felt swallowed by the deepness of the woods. Not often had he felt so exposed, so unended. Something tore at him behind his eyes. But the warmth of his pack rubbing gently against his spine disturbed the memory of some far off feeling he had forgotten existed a long time ago.
An effervescent night sky, illuminated by the stillness of the stars, became the backdrop of a winter New England night. He was young again, surrounded by the slopes of snowbanks and greeted by the warm touch of his friend’s laughter. Nothing escaped their lips without a shiver. Making cigarette smoke out of warm breath, they followed each other’s fingers as they painted across the constellations.
“And they called it a cosmos” his friend said, “and swore that it was swarming with all sorts of things. Would you ever believe the person that first thought that was true?”
The melted snow escaped through the double layer of his cargo jeans. Like the broad side of a cold butter knife, it pressed against his skin. Something about tilting his head to the right made the sky seem clearer.
He looked to his friend and saw the line of his jaw quiver in hesitation. The soft sparkle of his eyes darted left to right, seemingly lost in a wave of desperate thought.
“I mean, if you ever had to guess what was up there without anyone telling you, would it really be something so unthinkable? Who could have guessed something like that, something that’s all around us all the time, could be so vast?”
As he breached the canopy of gently swaying tree branches, the far spanning meadow revealed itself. It was long and unyielding, and stretched into the west horizon. Beyond this were fields of wet farmlands lined with white picket fences that stood like plastic figurines. He stood tall, reconfiguring the weight of his pack along the broadness of his shoulders. He watched as the cool air battered the stems of the tall grass. Near the toes of his boots were the slithering roots of a dying stump, where he sat and caught his breath.
He rocked in place, perchance to mend the numbness of his legs; his posture became limp like molten tar drooping from the underbelly of an old pickup. His lips puckered, holding back any bit of expression, as if dueling the banal wasteland’s silent utterance. He closed his eyes and took in the pale acoustics of the air. Before long, he rose and continued towards the precipice of the meadow.
The ground like glass shattered beneath him. The sun had touched so little it seemed. He could see this now, pacing atop the frozen earth. He feigned a limp to keep things slow, as to not pursue what was to come. For in his heart he felt a frozen push and pull. An unequal measure of faith beneath his skin. Perhaps he could not continue on, with what memories came flooding back all around him, and with what weight he felt in his heart. Each step was like falling, his heart keeping to the beat of his stumble, like a stone kicked into an open manhole. The cold stung his eyes to tears, and the winnowed sky blurred above.
Before long, the edge of the forest disappeared behind him. Within minutes, he reached the topmost portion of the meadow. Here he could see now that the oak had not yet lost its leaves. In fact, it was nearly alone in its beauty. Its characteristic liveliness seemed so odd. Each leaf seemed singular in its function, like an amalgamation of organisms separated by long branching stocks of wood. And as if to guide him there, the sun touched down upon its leaves like a beam of light, so that each and every one glowed hot with whites and apricots.
It took no less than thirty paces to approach the base of the tree; he counted them aloud. There he sat, the imprint of his thighs still tangible in the mud from years before. As he freed himself from the weight of his pack, the blood returned to the base of his neck, and a peculiar warmth overtook him in a wave. When he moved his body, a part of the ground beneath him began to crack – the air around him wasn’t so cold anymore, and you could hear the echo of songbirds and smell the fuming chestnut trees moving gently in the wind – and in the same way, he besought to return to the memory of his friend as he rested his head against the oak; he was holding something in his hand the last time he saw him. He couldn’t remember what, but it reminded him of home.
With nightfall now shifting into view, the world rested on the border of light and dark. To the right, the burning yellow of the day sank quickly behind the earth. To the left, the great pervasion of the charcoal cosmos painted across the sky. Stuck between these two, it was hard for him to decide which he preferred more.
As he unbuttoned his pack and placed the wooden box upon his lap, the ice beneath had all but melted and was now stinging the underside of his thighs. He placed his hand upon the hard surface of its exterior and painted a finger across the wooden embroidery. In this moment or time at the precipice of light and dark, he felt strongly that he could take this all in whole. How every ridge on its cedar surface was distinct. It was okay, really it was. That he would carry this, and have it, and love it. And there it was, the sparkle of the universe clawing its way into existence. The bloom of the stars opening themselves. With one hand still on the wooden box, he turned himself to look far out across the sky. It was full and beautiful. His voice was still so clear to him. Even now, he remembered the way it touched his heart. To see through it all would be a miracle. But even still, to touch it with his gaze felt good. To know that somewhere off in the vastness of the universe, his best friend was swimming in an ocean of mystery. He sees all of this, and is moved with envy, and also with something more, something without any name. Why was he so sure he was all alone? He was looking far past the darkness of the sky. There, he thought he saw something flicker. And against his better judgement, he rose to his feet. He was tall now, and it felt good to be higher up against the sky. Because maybe he was up there. And if so, he’d like it that he was that much closer. Closer than he had been before. And with his right hand he removed his boots and placed them by the tree. He imagined being gone from this world, and missing all the little things that he took for granted. How his toes felt against the cold hard surface of the world. How the long-lasting sensation of pain invited him to remember all that was good, and that he too was good.
For a long time, he stood there, holding the box in both hands, and noticing its weightlessness atop his fingers. A voice spoke inside his head. How arduous it must be, to feel so in control. To be burdened by the weight of your arms. To be so dutiful to the flesh of your own body. And it invited him to think, how little could somebody become before they were nothing at all?