He felt the weight of the snow in the sky, it was as heavy as his heart. The snow pulled at his boots like wet cement as he made his way out of the sugar maple grove. The moon bounced off the mirror of the frozen pond and was like a beacon as he made his way to the hill overlooking their home.
“C’mon, boy. We’re almost there.” Jackson bounded ahead like a jackrabbit. His old bones were always more playful in the snow. He stopped at the fork in the path and turned his head. The old man pointed to the right, and Jackson knew in that moment where they were going.
His blood felt a little thicker in his legs. His heart thumped loudly in his chest, seemingly in his ears too. There was a hush on this first day of the year, a silence that made him want to talk aloud. His dog had heard it all before, and he spoke to Ellie like she were still alive. Because she was to him. His son said it was wrong and that ten years was enough time to realize that Ellie was no longer part of this world. He liked talking to her though, and the slivers of peace he found in his day were in those conversations with Ellie.
Every year they had made their way to the willow that leaned into Thompson creek. It was here that they had carved their initials into the warm bark of the tree, declaring their boundless love for each other. It was here that they kissed on that golden summer day with sticky peach juice on their lips and chin. It was under the willow that he asked for Ellie’s hand, where he promised her a love that would conquer all.
It almost conquered all, for fifty-one years. Everything but her cancer that swept through her fragile body with a relentless, unstoppable force. Thinking of this, and those punishing years made the old man ache. Like his heart was bleeding inside his chest for her.
His breathing became laboured, and sensing this, Jackson looped back around to poke his nose into his gloved hand for encouragement. “I’m okay, Jackson. Just a little slower than usual. Just being careful.” The forest thinned as he approached the hill. The oaks were skeletal and naked, the branches of the tamaracks and pines seemed to be weeping with the snow in their arms.
The willow tree seemed even bigger this year. The trunk wider than his arms could reach around. The last wind storm had broken many of the branches and split the largest branch on the left. He used to boost Ellie up to that branch and hoist himself up beside her. Here they would dream of far off places while he ate the date squares that Ellie baked just for him. She didn’t even like them. On their second date she wrapped two in a handkerchief that she had embroidered with his initials. She’d make hot tea with honey, or lemonade in the summer months and they would talk until the sun dropped behind the barns of the Macauley’s farm off Gilson road.
They promised to see every sunset together.
They promised to kiss every single day.
They promised to never love another, to make their love the greatest yet. The most enviable love of all.
He pulled off his glove and ran his palm over their initials like a scar in the bark. He traced over the rough lines of the letters and spoke to Ellie in a whisper.
He told her that there was only one thing he ever wanted. The one thing that they couldn’t have. They were buoyed by hope for years, and lived long days stretched out by dreams and love. But he wanted more time.
A love like theirs needed more time. More sunsets. More moments to hold each other tight under the mighty arms of the willow as they traced through their lives like a well-read book.
He leaned against the tree for support as he pulled the thermos from the inside of his coat. He tried to steady his shaky hand, but still spilled tea on to his bare skin. Jackson circled the willow and eventually sat at his feet with a sigh. He poked at the snow with his snout and finally curled up his body and exhaled. The old man stamped out a spot in the snow with his boots and lowered himself to sit. He ran his hand through Jackson’s fur; it always reminded him of corn silk.
The tea warmed him instantly. He unwrapped some oatmeal cookies his daughter-in-law had baked. They were dry, and gluten-free apparently. Nothing like Ellie’s. He broke a generous piece off for Jackson. His son would disagree with that too. Dogs weren’t supposed to have human food. He wasn’t supposed to be eating cookies at this time of night either with his blood sugar.
The clouds that had hung low on the horizon moved across the moon and began to spit out soft flakes. They came gentle at first and then fell like wet rain. Jackson shook his fur out within a few minutes and nudged the old man to head back.
He wasn’t ready though. This is where he felt closest to Ellie. She loved the first day of the new year. She felt magic in the first snowfall and could stay out in the biting cold much longer than he ever could. This time he would stay with her.
“My Ellie.” He felt her hand gingerly take his. He could feel her silky skin against his cheek. He looked down at his house, their house. It seemed so much emptier now. He looked over at the barns, barely visible in the snow now. It all seemed so empty.
A runner found his body in the morning. She knew that he lived in the stone house beside the couple that sold Christmas trees and maple syrup. She recognized him as the man who bought date squares at the bakery every Monday where she worked. When the police spoke with her, she said there were a lot of dog footprints around the man’s body. She was worried the dog might be missing in the woods.
A neighbour who brought coffee to the officers on the scene said the old man’s dog had died years ago. She knew this for certain, there was a small cross with the name “Jackson” on it, just underneath a willow tree by the creek a few minutes past the sugar bush.
In his hand, the old man was found clutching a handkerchief embroidered with his initials.
In his heart, he was clutching Ellie and Jackson.
And under that sky heavy with snow, there was a lightness on that first day of the year.