Woods in Winter

By Yelizaveta P. Renfro

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

  — from “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost

Between classes you get an email—an official university communication—informing you that a student has died. A sophomore, 19. Your eyes stick on his name. You recognize it. He was your student. A year ago, spring semester. You try to think of his face but you can’t. You draw a blank. Maybe you’re mistaken. But you know the name, you’re sure of it. As the next group of students files into the classroom, you log in to your rosters for that semester to make sure you’re not mistaken. You’re not. You find his name, and beside it, the words in red: “Confidential: Deceased.” The administration has wasted no time in updating records. He’s been dead for just a day. You reread the email. Now your eyes stick on the words no evidence of foul play.

It’s time to teach again, so you teach. You talk about in-text citations and Works Cited pages, about quoting and paraphrasing. You had thought this was what your students needed to know today, but now you’re not so sure. After class you google the dead student’s name and find that local news agencies have picked up the story. His body was found in the park across the street from campus. It’s more than a typical park, 300 acres with a wildlife sanctuary. A body found deep in the woods, you read. It was found by a hiker, says one source. Another says it was a cross-country skier. Your eyes go back to those words: deep in the woods. The woods you’ve walked in with your kids. The woods you’ve walked in alone. But it’s winter now, the woods snowy. You’ve been in the throes of the Polar Vortex for weeks. It’s all the meteorologists can talk about. You think of him, that boy, lying in the snowy woods. You cannot think of his face.

But you remember now what happened, when he was in your class. You remember the story associated with his name. He had been doing well enough, and then he vanished. It was what—halfway through the semester? More than halfway? For a week he was gone, and then he officially withdrew from your class without ever coming to talk to you. And you never saw him again. That was early April of last year, and now it’s late February. You have attendance records, grade records. His attendance was good—not perfect—and his work was acceptable, average. No indication of distress. And then he vanished.

Apparent suicide. These words are in the news articles too. He went into those cold New England woods and took his own life. You picture him, but in your mind he is walking away from you. You still cannot think of his face.

That evening, you tell your husband about him.

“Do you remember him?” your husband asks.

You take a breath. “I remember that he existed,” you finally reply. “I don’t remember him.” You wonder, is it possible to not remember and yet to care? But what is it you actually care about? The boy you don’t remember? Or the fact of your not remembering him?

Later, you say, “He was typical. Not atypical.” Of course. Because if he was atypical, you would remember him.

Typical: quiet, athletic, clean cut, white, average in every way—average height, average build, average intelligence. You have this problem with boys—boys of all ages. Preschool boys, college boys. They’re so similar. It always takes you longer to learn the boys’ names. They’re so hard to tell apart.

You had 76 students that semester. You do remember some. The vegan. The female boxer. The one whose hands shook when she didn’t take her ADHD medication. The one who had a baby. The one who was transferring to a different school. The one who was training to be an EMT. The one whose dream was to become an orthodontist. The one who came out as gay in an essay. But not the one who died. You draw a blank.

This semester, nature is the theme of your composition classes, and so you’ve given your students a new assignment: they are to keep a field notebook. Once a week, for the whole semester, they are to go to the same outdoor spot and record their observations. When you began this project in January, you had no idea the winter would stretch on, endless. That there would be so little change, for so many weeks. Of the 41 students who will turn in their completed notebooks at the end of the semester in May, 13 of them will have chosen to conduct their observations at the park. So while one boy goes into the park to end his life, another 13 will be teeming all over those wooded acres writing in notebooks. The day before the suicide, one of them writes:

No wildlife is present and the weather is extremely cold. No leaves on the trees and there is snow on the ground. Overall this place looks pretty miserable.

You read the funeral home’s obituary and are not surprised to learn that the dead boy was a dear and loving son and brother and nephew and grandson. There is no photo with the obituary. You still do not remember his face.

You talk with a colleague about him. You tell her he was your student.

“What was he like?” she asks.

You hesitate. I don’t know. You almost say this. “He was quiet,” you finally say. It is not a lie. You tell her about how he disappeared from your class. “He just dropped out,” you say. “And you know, when you have so many students, you don’t follow up. You don’t know what’s going on.”

She says something reassuring. And now, you think, he’s dropped out again. Dropped out of life.

The day before the suicide, in different part of the park, another of your students writes in his notebook:

This entry is hard to write due to the biting cold. The trail and trees remain the same, bare and lifeless. It is silent here except for the wind that continuously sweeps through the dead trees.

Somewhere, you still have the first assignment the dead boy wrote for your class—a letter introducing himself to you. You keep these all semester. Somewhere, you have his words. You think about digging the letter out. You think about looking in it for some shadow, some darkness.

Based on his attendance record, he spent about 15 hours sitting in your class before he disappeared. Or, you spent 15 hours in his presence. Teaching him to write. He even attended a one-on-one conference with you. For 15 minutes, he sat across your desk, and you talked to him about his writing. Just you and him in a room. And you don’t remember him.

It is February, endless February. You work with a student on an essay about a deer. This is the story you piece together, between the words he has put on the page and the words he speaks in your office: It is night in deep winter, in a heavily wooded area of Connecticut, on a remote road, and a teenaged boy and his mother are traveling home in a car. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a buck leaps onto the car’s hood, shattering the tranquility, bringing the car to a screeching halt. Unhurt, the boy and his mother get out of the car, which is badly damaged, and the boy sees that the deer is now lying in the road, holding itself up with its two front legs while its two rear legs are dragging behind, broken. The boy’s mother cannot watch the suffering, so she walks a ways down the road to call the police on her cell phone, but the boy stays with the deer and even inches toward it. He comes within touching distance of the animal and then talks to it, trying to soothe it. The buck looks into the boy’s eyes and for a moment stops making its yelping noises, and the boy sees how much pain the animal is in, and so he sits with it, for close to 15 minutes, on that deserted road, waiting for the police. Occasionally the deer raises itself onto its front legs and makes an effort to move, only to collapse again. The boy observes the buck’s light brown coat, and its eyes, and at its white tail, and its heavy ivory antlers, and he talks to the animal, telling it everything will be alright. And when the police come, they say there’s no way the deer will recover from such an injury. They say they will do the humane thing. So the boy and his mother walk down the road away from the deer, and they turn their backs to it while the officer fires his gun and the deer falls down dead.

And as your student tells this story to you, you can see in his eyes what an impact it had, that it changed his life, touched his core, yet his words on the page are trite, expressing only a shadow of that—and in your conference with him you talk to him about how to put that thing burning inside him, the eyes of that dying deer, into words on the page. You talk to him about how to bridge that chasm between experience and expression. You do this because it is what you know how to do. You keep drawing the words out from him, from the well of his experience. And the antlers? And the breathing? And the eyes? And he writes the words down, as if there is salvation in this act. As if the mere act of putting down words on a piece of paper can save you both. And maybe it can. You look at him, at his eyes and face. He is one you will remember. His face, his dying deer, the winter woods around him.

You’ve walked in the woods alone. When you were in the seventh grade you wrote a treatise on the reasons to end your life. Thoughts of death consumed you. Your classmates finally reported you and you were taken to a counselor for a suicide intervention. The counselor asked you questions and noted answers with a pen on a clipboard. “If you could use this pen to end your life right now,” he said, holding up the ballpoint, “would you?” He offered the pen because it was the object he had at hand, but to you it didn’t feel random; it felt pointed—a question more about the pen and its capabilities than about you. You looked at it, a cheap yellow Bic, thinking, but what if it does have that power? “No,” you finally said, too afraid to answer any other way. And you weren’t even sure what the true answer was.

You, too, are keeping a field notebook, along with your students, but you make your observations in a different place, near your home. On the day of the suicide, before you know of it, you go with your children to the place where you write, and with cold fingers you jot down the following:

Geese crying today—and the old dirty snow of late February—dirt and salt and melting everywhere with goose poop, dog poop and piss, pools of melting water. The snow has an unpleasant crust—you don’t know if it’ll hold you or not. Half the time it does, the other half you fall through.

“Suicide,” your husband said, apropos of something else, in a different place, years before any of this happened, “is an act of anger.” It is not just injury to yourself, but injury to the world, to those who didn’t help you. You wonder now if this is true. Did your student do this to himself or to everyone else? To you? Is this why it feels personal, a failing in your character, in your ability to teach writing?

Winter woods. Photo by Yelizaveta P. Renfro.

Eleven days after he died, you go into the woods. The snow is still there, but it’s not the same snow. And it’s not the same woods. You think of his profound aloneness in this stillness, in this cold, in those final moments. What were his thoughts going in? Was his mind set, or was there still the possibility of turning back? And then there are the logistics, the physical realities. Did he carry the rope coiled in his hands? In a pack on his back?

New snow has fallen. When he walked here it was late February, the bleak lingering of a long winter, and now it is March, the snow still dingy, the piles shrinking away to reveal dead leaves. The sun is too bright, the sky too blue. The snow is tamped, glistening. Ice in refrozen puddles is thick, murky, old, like eyes with cataracts. The winter feels endless. And the woods you walk in today are not the woods he entered. You cannot walk in his woods.

You attend the memorial service students organize for him at the university, and you see his face, finally, Xeroxed on the cover of the program. And you recognize him now, yes. Barely. But yes, you could pick him out from a lineup; you could say: he was my student. And probably briefly, for the span of a couple of months, you could match up his name and his face. Barely. Enough to take roll, to return essays. He is young and shorthaired, smiling, handsome enough. Unremarkable. Unmemorable.

Relics are on display at the rear of the auditorium: photos, his sneakers, his Frisbees. Looking at these artifacts, the difference between being dead and playing Ultimate Frisbee in orange shoes seems so slight—a mere matter of walking too far into the woods. Of not turning back in time. You know it isn’t this simple.

During the service the students use words like friendship and love. They sing “525,600 Minutes,” a song about how many minutes are in a year. How do you measure a year in the life? their soaring voices ask. In their tributes they say selfless and friendly and big heart. They speak of staying positive. He was a great kid. A goofy kid. They tell anecdotes, small glints in the mosaic of a life. They describe his orange shoes, the time he got a friend to balance cups of water on the backs of her hands, the time he got three other friends to lie down with him in the middle of the street, the time he tucked a flower behind a friend’s ear, the time he helped a friend search for her lost ID in the dark park (yes, the same park). He’s happy now and he’s at peace. Instead of questioning, they seem acquiescing. Sleep with the angels. Some of your students, former and current, speak. He was one of those good people. He got me through some tough times. They talk of how they cannot comprehend that he is gone, of verb tenses, of how hard it is to say that their friend was rather than he is. I always knew you were just a text or a snapchat away. We all love you far more than you ever realized. Rest easy. Testimonials are read from his people back home, his best friend, a family member. His smile lit up the room. He was the glue that kept our tight circle of friends together.

The person you learn of here is not the person you have in your mind. This is a social, positive, goofy, Frisbee-playing, hockey-loving person. This is a boy who wears orange shoes. This is not the solitary brooder you had imagined. This is not a boy who drops out. This is not a boy who heads alone into darkness, someone who walks by himself into the woods. The pieces don’t fit. The glints are too few and far between; you don’t know him still. No one in this room, it seems, knows him. Knew him. Someone says suicide prevention. Someone says, If you have a sadness that does not go away, please tell someone.

You listen, and you write all of this down, on the margins of the program, encircling the image of his face with these words.

Another of your students goes to the park several days after his death. She writes:

I feel so uneasy being here. . . . Suicide is such a tragedy. I can’t imagine being at such a low point. It makes me think of how fortunate I am to be as healthy and loved as I am. He must have walked the same way I did, maybe even in the same steps. Did he see the same things I am [seeing]? Or did he have the horrible plan too consumed through his mind to notice? I didn’t know him, but being here makes me feel like I do a little. It’s a very weird feeling.

You’ve walked in the woods. You’ve had that sadness that won’t go away. In ninth grade you stole a double-edged razor blade from your dad and cut gashes into your arms, but your cuts were not deep enough. The blood coagulated, crusted. The gashes healed over. And then you cut again, and again. Often you drank until you passed out, not knowing if you’d ever wake up. Sometimes you drank and you cut your arms and you hoped one or the other would kill you. You hoped never to wake up. But you did. Always, you did. You were not very good at suicide. You failed every time. Maybe you didn’t want it badly enough. Maybe you didn’t want it at all. The body you were given proved too tenacious, or you lacked determination, or the grisliness of actually taking your own life was too terrible to bear. And looking back now, you’re not sure what the driving force was—anger, the need for self-annihilation, the need to make the world stop. You don’t know because you hardly remember the person you were then. You are someone else now. Maybe that is what you would tell him, if you could: You will be many different people. Wait. Wait a day. Wait for March. For spring. Wait for the snow to melt. Don’t walk into the woods alone.

Maybe you would say: Look around you. This is all there is. Make it enough. Learn how to walk through the darkness and out the other side. Maybe you would show him the scars still visible on your arms, nearly a quarter of a century later. Maybe none of it would help.

You want to say: We all have things we tell no one. We all have darkness. You are not special in your aloneness. You are not crippled, unloved, starving, old, stupid, poor, sick, disenfranchised. You are not disadvantaged in any of these ways. You are spectacularly lucky. You do not get to head into the woods. You are not as special as that. You do not get to escape, to leave the rest of us behind. Grasping at these broken pieces. These are probably not the things you say to someone contemplating suicide. You don’t know the right words.

A week after the suicide, another student writes in his notebook:

Here is a hill I found inside the woods. It’s hard to get here with all the snow. The top of the hill is quite beautiful. But quite dead. It’s so cold, so quiet. It feels like I’m the only life form on the planet. I feel bittersweet. The past week has been filled with sorrow. I’m a little frightened but I don’t want to leave. If this week was described in a picture, it would be what I see now.

Early March. Driving to the university you hear on the radio that 54 percent of the nation is covered in snow, the third highest snow cover for early March in 40 years. You learn that you’ve endured one of the snowiest Februaries on record. You hold onto these facts as if they explain something. You imagine being a bird and looking down at the snowy woods where he died. You imagine flying up until you can see the 300 acres, your 13 students sprinkled throughout with their notebooks, looking and writing. You imagine flying so high you can see all of New England, then the entire nation, and you imagine just over half of it being dingy old-winter white. The winter is so long in the tooth.

You spent 15 hours in a classroom with him. There are 8,760 hours in a year. 166,440 hours in nineteen years. He spent less than .01% percent of his life in a room with you. Since you’re twice his age, that’s an even smaller percentage of your life. You don’t remember him. And yet, you spent 15 minutes in a room with him alone. Just you and him. There are 9,986,400 minutes in 19 years. Fifteen minutes is .00015% of that life. What could you have possibly said to him in that fraction of his life that would have made any difference?

Since that semester, you’ve had over a hundred students. This semester alone you have 86. Sixty-eight faces, names, stories. Already this semester, not even halfway through, three have vanished. You always lose students. Some will come back, some won’t. Some you will never see again.

A week after the suicide, you write in your notebook:

Have been thinking all week of my student, the boy who took his own life, on the day we were here last. I think of the snow and the trees we saw, and I think of how we wanted to live and he wanted to die that day.

All around the snow is aged—pocked with dirt and branches, sagging. Every week the snow is different—this week the piles are shrunken but still we have cover and it’s slick and hard—you don’t fall through.

The very dregs of winter.

You find that first assignment he turned in, his introductory letter, and you learn only the predictable things: his hometown, his siblings’ names and ages, his major, the sports he played, the hobbies he enjoyed, the things he wrote in his last writing class, the things he still needs to work on in your class. He tells you he does not excel at writing. He tells you he is interested in health and nutrition. His writing is stilted, wooden, but correct. You learn only the kinds of things you would tell your English teacher. Safe things. Facts. Not the kinds of things you think about when you’re looking into the eyes of a dying deer. Not the kinds of things you think about when you walk into the winter woods alone.

You talk to a current student who knew him, who attended his wake in his hometown. He tells you there were girl troubles and school troubles, depression. He tells you someone at the wake said, if he could see us right now, he would probably be kicking himself for what he did. And then you talk about what would have happened if he waited a day, a week, a month. Why do some live and some die? Maybe there is not such a difference between those who succeed and those who fail at suicide—only that, somehow, inexplicably, some live, some don’t. After all, you yourself had your share of school problems, relationship problems. You failed classes and broke up with boys. And yet you are still here.

You were lucky.

Was it luck, or were the statistics in your favor? You read about suicide and learn the following: Males are four times more likely than females to die by suicide, but females attempt suicide three times as often as males. White males are more likely to commit suicide than males of other races. For every successful suicide, there are somewhere around a dozen unsuccessful attempts. Maybe it’s more like eight or 20. Nobody knows for sure, because many attempts are unreported. So the numbers were in your favor all along. Statistically, he was more likely to die by his own hand than you. Statistically, you were more likely to try and fail.

One night when you have stayed late on campus and the moon is full and ripe like a honeydew on the horizon, you walk back into the winter woods where he died. From a distance the land is bleached bone-white, but when you get closer, you find the snow is dirty like soiled diapers, and the brittle, ossified snowcrust cracks underfoot. The earlier thaw has left an unpleasant odor, the old vegetation of fall wafting like rotted vegetables from under the snow cover. Induced by the moonlight, you want to do something mad, maybe lick a tree, to feel its corrugations with a part of you more sensitive, more intimate than hands. You want to hug language, the words that make you here—you want to anchor them in the bedrock below the frozen ground below the snow as if words were steel cables; you don’t want to feel rootless, as if you might fly off the globe at any moment. You don’t want to hear in the gently rustling trees the susurrus of death. The moon sails like a shiny pie tin above you, grazing the tips of the trees, the oaks still greedily clinging to their aged, leathery leaves. These metaphors of melons and pie tins, you hope, will save you. These metaphors, you despair, can never reach the thing at which you aim, the bull’s-eye, and your words are but arrows that never reach their mark, never sailing true, always veering off.

You wonder if the moon was full and bright the night he died. Maybe when he walked into the woods the moon was absent, the sky black with just a smattering of stars like bone shards. You have gone too deep into the woods. You shiver, suddenly afraid of glimpsing a body swinging gently from a bridge illuminated by the moon. Why have you come to this nighttime place? You head out of the woods and drive the dark road home.

Later, you check the phases of the moon and learn that the night he walked into the woods, there was a third quarter moon, half-lit on its way to waning crescent. But then again, it was somewhat overcast that night, and maybe he saw no moon at all. You will never know.

Talking about depression, a friend asks you, “So how did you get over all that? How did you get better and have a normal life with a husband and kids?” As if there’s such a clear demarcation: sick/well, unhappy/happy. As if marriage and kids are an antidote to black thoughts. As if kids will keep you out of the woods. As if. You can’t help but think of Sylvia Plath, putting her children to bed, carefully setting out the plate of cookies and glasses of milk for them to find when they awoke, and then ending her life while they slept. “How did I know that someday—at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere—the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?” Plath wrote years before in The Bell Jar, a book that you discovered as a teenager and that seemed, at the time, to literally save your life.

Of course, when you first read Plath’s book, you didn’t even know what a bell jar was; it seemed like some antiquated tchotchke that a stuffy great aunt would keep in her parlor. Your own metaphors are less domestic, tending more to the outdoors. There is no shortage of metaphors for depression, which only underlines the fact that it’s not a singular, definable experience—it is only like other things. Language doesn’t reach it. But if this is true, can language ever truly save you? It didn’t save Plath.

“How do you know it won’t happen again?” your friend asks. Indeed, how? You are here, and your children are here, and you have few complaints. Today. There are no guarantees. This is all you can say. All is well now. There are no guarantees. The bell jar may descend. You may go back into the woods. And you can only hope the words will you bring back out again.

With every word my writing tries to convince me living is worthwhile. Because it can do nothing else. Because to write means it’s worthwhile to live. Because the words come from living. Because when it isn’t worth living—truly—there will be no words. Because giving up is lapsing into silence. Because the writing brings me back, again and again, to living, to now.

You wrote these words just two years ago, while your children slept in the next room.

But it is nearly spring now, and one of your missing students resurfaces to talk to you. He is atypical—older, nontraditional—and so you know his name. His eyes are sad, and his words come slowly. He has been having personal problems. You see that he is mature, intelligent. He has been trying to catch up on the work for your class, but he has come to the realization that he cannot. A computer science major, he is getting caught up in his other classes. “It’s just writing code,” he says. “I can do that without thinking. But your class requires too much thinking.” You don’t deny this is true. “I can’t do that kind of thinking right now,” he tells you. “Writing is too hard.” You don’t deny this either. That’s precisely what makes it worthwhile, you want to tell him. And the labor of writing can get you through, you want to tell him. Hard work for hard times. Writing makes sense of sadness. But the truth is, he needs to earn a passing grade, and he’s not going to pass your class. So instead of all the other things you could say, you tell him that dropping your class is his best course of action. You come to this meeting of the minds. He leaves, and you know you will probably never see him again.

In the end you will lose seven students this semester—during weeks two, six, ten, 12, and then three more will vanish at the very end.

A couple of days before official spring, one of your students writes:

I drop everything and head here. There is less snow but everything is wet. I long for my grey, quiet, dead thinking spot. When I am sad I want to be somewhere sad. I sit on the wet log and think about the niche of humans. . . . Were humans meant to rule the planet? Why us? Why are we in the position that we are in?

Spring woods. Photo by Yelizaveta P. Renfro.

A month later, he writes:

I will continue to visit these places after the assignment is over. This isn’t homework. It’s pleasure.

For his final entry in May, just before he turns in his notebook and heads home for the summer, he writes:

I will miss this place.

For the last reading assignment of the semester, you give your students “Landscape and Narrative” by Barry Lopez. You draw their attention to the distinction Lopez makes between the interior and exterior landscapes. You point out a passage that reads, in part:

I think of two landscapes—one outside the self, the other within. The external landscape is the one we see—not only the line and color of the land and its shading at different times of the day, but also its plants and animals in season, its weather, its geology, the record of its climate and evolution. . . . The second landscape I think of as an interior one, a kind of projection within a person of a part of the exterior landscape. . . . The interior landscape responds to the character and subtlety of an exterior landscape; the shape of the individual mind is affected by land as it is by genes.

You ask your students to reflect on the connections between the external landscapes that they described in their notebooks and their internal landscapes. You ask them to think about how the external can influence the internal. In my field notebook I tried to incorporate both the physical layout of nature but also the emotional perspective from which I saw things, writes one student. The interior landscape is how you respond to the exterior landscape and all of the relationships and connections in it, writes another. You think about the woods in winter; you think about slogging through all of those dark, frigid days, and you wonder what profound yet unmeasurable impact such a landscape has on the internal life. You wonder if it was one factor, among others, that pushed him over. You wonder what would have happened if he had just held on until spring.

There are other assignments to read and grade—formal research papers, portfolios with annotated bibliographies—but you are engrossed with the notebooks. You think of him, the dead boy, as you read your students’ reflections and field notebooks. Of course, there is no way to grade these. There are no metrics, no rubrics. They simply get credit for doing them. They get the points for putting in the effort, for sitting out in the cold and trying to think of words to put on a page. That is what you wanted from them—to sit still and pay attention to the world, to make a habit of putting down words, to think about how who they are is connected to everything around them.

You think of the dead boy’s face on the Xeroxed program; you think of his orange shoes. You think of the words he wrote for you, the words that were said about him. Positive. Goofy. Friendly. Selfless. You cannot make the pieces fit. Still, you cannot remember him. You have a sadness that won’t go away. You think of a boy bearing witness with a dying deer. You think of your 13 students perched on rocks and logs all over the park, shivering as they put down words in their notebooks. You think of a boy walking quietly into the trees never to walk out. All of these things happened in the woods. You are telling someone. You have a sadness. But you are telling someone. Right here, right now. Your words cleaving a path out of the woods.

Three days before the suicide, back in the tight cold clench of February, one of your students writes:

It’s a cloudy, cold and dreary day. It feels like the weather is reflecting on how I feel, but I know the season will change and so will I.

And now, in May, nearly three months after the suicide—80 days, to be precise—you go back into the woods. It is spring, your final grades submitted. Your students are gone, off to live the rest of their lives, and most of them you will never see again. And the woods are different, and so are you. The trees have leafed out, and the air is hot and heavy, as though summer is already pressing its sultry palm against your skin. No trace of snow remains, the ground between trees covered in greenery. You spy violets, trillium, jack-in-the-pulpits, May apples, bluets, asters, and swamp rose. You notice other plants whose names you don’t know. Occasionally you meet others—trail runners, women with toddlers, dog walkers—and you nod at them, and you hardly think of winter at all.

And then, unexpectedly, you meet one of your students—now a former student—walking towards you down the path with a friend, and you exchange pleasantries. How are you? Good. It’s a great day for a walk. It’s beautiful. After you pass each other, you think about her. You still know her name; you remember she wants to become a commercial airline pilot. Already she flies small planes all over New England. She told you about this in her conference with you. She told you about flying in bad weather with poor visibility and only the instruments to guide her. She told you about flying in the early spring, her favorite time of year when the earth wakes up and everything begins to bloom. You imagine her up there in the cockpit, flying over these woods, looking down at all this green.




Yelizaveta P. Renfro is the author of a collection of essays, Xylotheque, winner of the Sarton Memoir Award (University of New Mexico Press, 2014), and a collection of short stories, A Catalogue of Everything in the World, winner of the St. Lawrence Book Award (Black Lawrence Press, 2011). Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, North American Review, Orion, Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, South Dakota Review, Witness, Reader’s Digest, and elsewhere.

Header photo of woods in winter with silhouette of man courtesy Shutterstock. Other woods photos, winter and spring, by Yelizaveta P. Renfro.


Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.